BERKELEY, William Fitzhardinge, Visct. Dursley (1786-1857).
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Family and Education
b. 26 Dec. 1786, 1st s. of Frederick Augustus, 5th Earl of Berkeley, by future w. Mary, da. of William Cole, publican and butcher, of Wotton, nr. Gloucester. unm. Styled Visct. Dursley ?1796-1810; suc. fa. to Berkeley estates 8 Aug. 1810; cr. Baron Segrave 10 Sept. 1831; Earl Fitzhardinge 17 Aug. 1841.
Ld. lt. Glos. 1836-d.
Lt. S. Glos. militia 1803, capt. 1804, maj. 1808, col. 1810-d.
The 5th Earl of Berkeley, a gambler and libertine, married his mistress Mary Cole, the daughter of a Gloucester tradesman, ‘very privately’ at Lambeth on 16 May 1796. In an attempt to establish the legitimacy of his eldest son and other children born before 1796 he submitted his pedigree to a House of Lords committee of privileges in 1799 and produced evidence of an earlier marriage to Miss Cole at Berkeley on 30 Mar. 1785; but Lord Thurlow and other peers voiced doubts about the competence of the committee to judge the issue and further proceedings were adjourned. Shortly afterwards Farington was told:
The people in Gloucestershire do not think Lord Berkeley will ever be able to prove a first marriage. His lordship proposes to bring Lady Berkeley to the Gloucester music meeting, and will also introduce his eldest son as Lord Dursley.1
In Chancery proceedings in 1801 Berkeley secured the right to have the evidence of and testimony to the marriage of 1785 recorded in perpetuam rei memoriam; but a motion to revive the committee of privileges on his pedigree was rejected by the Lords, 3 June 1802, when Thurlow argued that although the fact of the first marriage had been established in the eyes of the law, the House remained incompetent to rule on the case.2
There the matter rested until 1810 when Berkeley, a political follower of the Prince of Wales, persuaded his brother, who was absent on naval service, to vacate his seat for Gloucestershire and put up Dursley in his place. He was returned unopposed and on 25 May 1810 made his maiden speech, in favour of Catholic relief. Six days later a petition was presented in the names of certain Gloucestershire freeholders contending that Dursley’s election was void because he had not sworn to any qualification on taking his seat but merely represented himself, falsely, to be the heir apparent of a peer. The debate was adjourned until 5 June when Dursley read from a paper in which he was authorized by Berkeley ‘positively to assert that he was his eldest son and heir apparent’ and then withdrew. Canning, whose support Berkeley had lobbied beforehand, Whitbread, Tierney, Romilly ‘and the greatest part of the opposition who had come down in numbers for the occasion’ were against taking further notice of the petition. Perceval and his colleagues, along with the Whig lawyers Williams Wynn and Piggott, conceded that it did not come under the scope of the Grenville Act, but argued that the House was legally bound to refer it to a committee of privileges. As Perceval, who admitted that ‘there was a good deal to be felt at least on the part of the majority, which might in some degree excuse their vote’, told the King:
such was the assemblage of Lord Dursley’s friends and so great was the feeling excited of the hardship of trying before so incompetent a tribunal so delicate a question as that of the legitimacy of Lord Dursley that the House divided for the rejection of the petition [by 91 votes to 46].
The King deplored the incident ‘as another instance of the embarrassments arising from Lord Berkeley’s carelessness as to establishing in due time the validity of his marriage’.3
Berkeley died on 8 Aug. 1810 and Dursley, who succeeded under settlement to the family estates, vacated his seat in the Commons and petitioned for his writ of summons as a peer. On the day of Berkeley’s death the Prince of Wales assured his widow that ‘no exertions of mine shall ever be wanting ... to support in the person of dear Dursley, his and your (in my opinion) just and undeniable rights’; and Lord Holland later wrote that the Prince had promised Berkeley ‘to indemnify his son for any unfavourable decision which might occur, by conferring an earldom upon him whenever it should be in his power’. During the contested by-election for his former seat early in 1811 Dursley, who was described to Farington at this time as a hard-drinking and ‘very dissipated young man’, was at pains to assure the Prince of his continued political attachment.4 His claim to the earldom was referred to a Lords’ committee of privileges which unanimously ruled, 2 July 1811, that it was not made out, the general opinion being that the entry in the Berkeley marriage register for 1785 had been forged at a later date by Berkeley himself. Dursley thenceforward styled himself Colonel Berkeley, but his younger brother Thomas, Berkeley’s first legitimate son, never assumed the earldom, although his right to do so was established. The Prince ‘either did not venture or did not choose to renew any promise’ about a peerage and his loss of interest in the case came to be seen in retrospect as a harbinger of his abandonment of the Whigs, though Holland also conceded that he was ‘fully justified, perhaps he was really determined, by the detection of falsehoods in Lady Berkeley’s testimony and the undeniable exposure of the badness of the case’.5
Berkeley’s later claim to the barony of Berkeley as a peerage by tenure was heard by a committee of privileges in 1829 and 1830, but was prosecuted no further after his creation as Baron Segrave by the Grey ministry in 1831. As owner of the Berkeley estates he was the mainstay of the Whigs in Gloucestershire and adjoining counties, and one of the last acts of the Melbourne ministry in 1841 was to promote him to an earldom. He acquired an unsavoury reputation: in 1811 Lady Spencer reported that he had run away with the Countess of Antrim, wife of Sir Henry Vane Tempest*; Mrs Arbuthnot described him as ‘a vulgar, narrow-minded man, for his great pleasure seems to be to act the sort of King of Cheltenham, where all the vulgar misses make a great piece of work with him’; and Greville the diarist dismissed him as ‘an arrant blackguard’ who was ‘notorious for general worthlessness’.6 He died 10 Oct. 1857.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: David R. Fisher
- 1. Farington Diary (Yale ed.), iv. 1268; Debrett (ser. 3), viii. 636, 642; ix. 12, 25.
- 2. LJ, xliii. 657; Debrett (ser. 3), xviii. 603.
- 3. CJ, lxv. 435; Add. 48242, f. 90; Geo. III Corresp. v. 4198.
- 4. Prince of Wales Corresp. vii. 2742, 2820; Farington, vi. 236; Holland, Further Mems. Whig Party, 106.
- 5. LJ, xlviii. 84, 451, 458; Farington, vii. 2; Holland, 107.
- 6. Spencer mss, Lady to Ld. Spencer, 11 July 1811; Jnl. of Mrs Arbuthnot, i. 252-3.