WITHERS, Henry (c.1651-1729), of Greenwich, Kent
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Family and Education
b. c.1651. unm.
Lt. Monmouth’s Ft. 1678–9; ensign, Tangier regt. 1679 (later Queen’s Ft., Queen Dowager’s Ft. then 2 Ft.), lt. by 1683, capt.-lt. Oct. 1688, capt. (Grenadier Coy.) Oct. 1689–Aug. 1692; maj. Coldstream Gds. Aug. 1692, 1 Ft. Feb. 1695, lt.-col. Dec. 1696–?d.; brevet col. July 1689; adj.-gen. Oct. 1689–?99, brig.-gen. Mar. 1702, maj.-gen. 1704, lt.-gen. 1707–d.1
Commr. inspect garrisons, July 1699; inspect Chelsea Hosp. 1702.2
Gov. Sheerness Dec. 1706–d.
Despite the fact that Withers attained high military rank, details of his parentage have not been found. His date of birth can be approximated from his monument which states that he died aged 78. The same source recounts that he was descended from ‘military stock’ and served the crown in Britain, Dunkirk, Tangier, Ireland, the Low Countries and Germany. In fact, Withers served in the English regiment in France in the late 1670s. Commissioned in 1678 as a lieutenant in the Duke of Monmouth’s newly formed foot regiment, he presumably accepted demotion to ensign and a posting at Tangier in the following year as the better alternative to disbandment, serving in Percy Kirke’s† company. The Revolution brought rapid progress through the ranks and employment as a staff officer. He served as adjutant-general in Ireland and seems to have performed the same role in England. Although a brevet colonel, Withers was still nominally only a regimental captain until August 1692 when he attained the rank of major. In 1695 he transferred to the 1st Foot Guards, becoming in December 1696 lieutenant-colonel to its politically powerful colonel, the Earl of Romney (Henry Sidney†). In fact Withers never became a regimental colonel, and should not be confused with his contemporary, Brigadier-General Hunt Wither.3
A brigadier-general by March 1702, Withers acquired an even greater patron than Romney in April 1704 when the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) took over the colonelcy of his regiment. Originally, it seemed Marlborough’s intention to advance Withers to the colonelcy of the regiment he had just vacated, the Horse Guards, ‘unless there were some man of quality fit for it’. This would imply that Withers had somewhat lowly origins, and the regiment went instead to Lieutenant-General Tatton. Marlborough waited until the spring of 1706 before promoting the claims of this ‘very brave and good officer’ to the governorship of Sheerness, worth £300 p.a. and expected to fall vacant on the death of Robert Crawford*. The Duke was prepared to deflate the pretensions of a rival, Richard Sutton*, who was backed by the Duke of Newcastle (John Holles†), in order to make Withers ‘a little easy in his circumstances’. From this appointment Withers progressed to a parliamentary seat, for Sheerness dominated nearby Queenborough. No doubt his reputation as a soldier assisted his parliamentary pretensions. When in 1707 Withers was being considered for the command of a particular operation, Marlborough recommended him as ‘very brave and diligent and will make no other demands than what is absolutely necessary’. Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) concurred: ‘Withers is certainly in all respects the best man in the world (if you can spare him) for the descent.’ Marlborough ensured that Withers was in England for the 1708 election, although a mere four days after the date of the return, Godolphin was writing to the Duke, ‘I have done all I could to hasten away Withers to you’. A parliamentary list from early 1708, with the election returns added, classed Withers as a Whig, an assessment with which the Earl of Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) concurred when analysing the gains his party had made at the election. Withers made no significant contribution to the 1708–9 session and was back in the thick of the campaign the following summer. At Tournai in July he ‘mounted the trenches . . . got a contusion in his breast that night by a small shot, but it has not done him much hurt’. For this exploit he received a glowing tribute from Richard Steele* in the Tatler: ‘no man deserves better of his friends than that gentleman, whose distinguishing character it is, that he gives his orders with the familiarity, and enjoys his fortune with the generosity of a fellow-soldier’. Withers then played a leading role in the attack on the French positions at Malplaquet, receiving the following year a medal from Charles Booth, groom of the bedchamber to the Pretender, along with the message, ‘it was well tried 11 Sept. 1709’. In January 1710 Withers made it clear that if he had to choose between the Marlboroughs and the Queen he would side with the latter. In the 1709–10 session he voted in favour of the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell. He returned from the campaign in Flanders in September 1710, so Peter Wentworth believed, to reconnoitre the changed political scene for Marlborough. Another motive was probably to test the ground for another parliamentary bid himself at Queenborough. When he declined to stand, the Duchess of Marlborough expressed to her husband her disappointment, ‘because I thought he had been a true friend of yours. But his having such a friendship with Mr St. John [Henry II*] as to let him in his house gives people jealousy of him.’4
Although out of Parliament, Withers was able to capitalize on his links with Tory leaders such as St. John. He benefited from the dismissal of Marlborough and on 25 Jan. 1712, the day after the Duke had been humiliated in the Commons, Swift recorded a dinner attended by himself, St. John, Lord Masham (Samuel*) and Withers, ‘who is just going to look after the army in Flanders’ as commander of the Foot. Despite Jacobite hopes, there seems little reason to doubt Withers’ commitment to the Hanoverian succession. Indeed, in 1729 Viscount Perceval (John†) recorded in his diary a story told by Francis Negus† that Withers had not only sent assurances of loyalty to Hanover, but had also ‘signed the association to rise and seize upon Oxford [Robert Harley*] and Bolingbroke [St. John] on a certain day, and by a bold but necessary step preserve the Hanover succession’. Needless to say, Withers prospered under the Hanoverians, continuing as lieutenant-colonel of Marlborough’s regiment and governor of Sheerness. He died in harness as ‘lieutenant-general of his Majesty’s forces’ on 11 Nov. 1729. In his will he left £2,000 in South Sea annuities to his sister, Elizabeth, wife of Thomas Lutley of Ludlow. The remainder of his real and personal estate went to his ‘loving friend’, Colonel Henry Disney, with whom he shared a house in Greenwich. Disney arranged for a monument to Withers in Westminster Abbey, and was no doubt responsible for the epitaphs penned by their mutual friend Alexander Pope, which mixed his military exploits with praise for his sociability.5
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Stuart Handley
- 1. Westminster Abbey (Harl. Soc. Reg. x), 326; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 150, 533.
- 2. Ibid. 533; Cal. Treas. Bks. xvii. 112.
- 3. Poems of Alexander Pope ed. Ault and Butt, vi. 320–1; J. Childs, Nobles, Gent. and the Profession of Arms (Soc. for Army Hist. Res. Sp. Publn. xiii), 100; Luttrell, i. 566; ii. 544; iv. 533; CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 392.
- 4. Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 281, 548, 574, 977, 1634; Marlborough Letters and Despatches ed. Murray, ii. 648; iv. 551; Tatler ed. Bond, i. 333; G. M. Trevelyan, Eng. Under Q. Anne, iii. 34–42; Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, ii. 172, 174; Warws. RO, Mordaunt mss, [–] to Sir John Mordaunt, 5th Bt.*, 28 Jan. 1709[–10] (Speck trans.); Wentworth Pprs. 141.
- 5. Swift Stella ed. Davis, 471, 651–2; HMC Egmont Diary, iii. 334; Westminster Abbey Reg. 326; PCC 324 Abbott; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. ser. 4, vi. 255; G. Holmes, Augustan Eng. 271; Poems of Alexander Pope, 320–1.