KNIGHT, Richard Payne (1750-1824), of Downton Castle, Herefs. and 5 Soho Square, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1780 - 1784
1784 - 1806

Family and Education

b. 31 Oct. 1750, 1st s. of Rev. Thomas Knight of Wormsley Grange, Herefs., rector of Bewdley, Worcs., by Ursula, da. of Frederick Nash of Dinham, Salop; cos. german of Thomas Johnes*. educ. at home till 1764; by Mr Blyth, Coleshill, Warws. 1765-9; Italian tour 1772-7. unm. suc. fa. 1764; uncle Richard Knight to Downton 1765.

Offices Held


Payne Knight, ‘the arbiter of fashionable virtú’ and champion of the uncontrived landscape, was far better known as a dilettante scholar and aesthete than as a politician;1 but he retained his seat for Ludlow, less than six miles from his celebrated castellated mansion of Downton, for 22 years unopposed. After being introduced there in 1784 on the following proviso, he held the seat under the aegis of Edward Lord Clive, until Clive’s son came of age.2 In 1790 their politics were still similar, both being in opposition. Knight, who joined Brooks’s Club on 9 Mar. 1788, sponsored by Fox, was absent favourable to opposition on 12 Apr. 1791, listed as a supporter of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland the same month, and voted with them on 1 Mar. 1792 on the Russian armament. In December 1792 he was listed a Portland Whig and when invited to Windham’s house, 10 Feb. 1793, with those likely to support war with France, excused himself on account of a ‘fever’ and explained that he concurred ‘in hostility to French principles and in opinion that the war should be prosecuted with every possible exertion until their present plan of extending them beyond their own original frontiers be renounced’. He added, however, that he wished the war could have been averted and assumed that ‘the conduct of administration’ was ‘not to be a subject of approbation or disapprobation among us until the course of events have given us better information of the grounds, on which they have acted, than we can now have’.3 He attended the meeting at Windham’s on 17 Feb. but his reservations remained.

The fact was that Knight found Fox the most congenial of politicians and an independent support of opposition most appropriate to his philosophical critique of society, of which Sir James Mackintosh remarked: ‘He is a powerful and coarse rebel, who makes some formidable attacks on the laws and government ... but he will not, I think, subvert them, nor has he a mind to establish others in their stead.’ Sydney Smith found it ludicrous that a ‘ten thousand a year’ man should accept a few guineas for the occasional contribution to the Edinburgh Review.4

Knight voted with opposition against the transportation of the radicals Muir and Palmer, 10 Mar. 1794, and against the imprisonment of General Lafayette, 17 Mar. On 26 Jan. 1795 he joined their bid for peace, and on 24 Mar. and 27 May voted in the same sense. Writing to William Windham at that time, he lamented Windham’s junction with government and criticized their conduct of the war.5 He voted for peace negotiations, 15 Feb. 1796, and for Grey’s motion to the effect that the country could not afford to continue the war, 10 Mar. The Treasury regarded him as hostile. In the Parliament of 1796 he voted with the minority on supply, 8 Dec. 1796, against the imperial loan, 14 Dec., and the Bank stoppage, 28 Feb. 1797. He was described as having ‘joined opposition’ on 13 Mar. 1797, both on the question of public economy and on Fox’s being added to the public accounts committee; likewise on the state of Ireland, 23 Mar. He further voted with them on the naval mutiny, 10 May, and supported parliamentary reform, 26 May. His subsequent conduct is consistent with his having seceded with Fox—he returned only to vote against the assessed taxes, 14 Dec. 1797, 4 Jan., and for inquiry into the state of Ireland, 14 June 1798. From 3 Feb. 1800 he resumed voting with opposition and did so again in the session of 1801. He did not subsequently vote against Addington, but his attendance appears to have been curtailed. He was chairman of the Glasgow Burghs election committee which reported on 30 Mar. 1803. He was listed a Foxite in March, May and September 1804. He voted critically on war with Spain, 12 Feb. 1805, for the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 6 Mar., and on 8 Apr. for the censure of Melville. He was listed ‘Opposition’ in July. He was well disposed to the Grenville ministry and was in the majority for the repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806. At the dissolution he retired in favour of Lord Clive’s son. Fox’s death, on which he wrote a ‘Monody’, ended his interest in politics, though he frequented Holland House thereafter.

While in Parliament, Knight had reinforced his literary reputation by his Analytical Essay on the Greek Alphabet (1791) and his didactic poems, The Landscape (1794) and The Progress of Civil Society—a Lucretian poem which was parodied by Canning, who complained in the Anti-Jacobin that it was ‘full of democracy and infidelity’. His poetry displeased pundits like Horace Walpole, and his sceptical and flagitious approach to prevailing myths made him unpopular among the staid; he was blackballed by the Literary Club in 1795 and dubbed ‘the Pagan’. Yet he helped to found the British Institution in 1805; his Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1808) was influential, and his collection of ancient bronzes, gems, coins and drawings, bequeathed to the British Museum, of which he was a trustee from 1814, was unrivalled. An insatiable reader ‘for ten hours at a stretch’, Payne Knight was

reserved, and by no means conciliating in his manner, but not repulsive. He was ready to give information on all subjects of learning that were submitted to his judgment, and his observations were always marked by acuteness and intelligence. He was hospitable in his disposition, and desirous of cultivating literary connections and also with persons distinguished for knowledge and talents in the fine arts.6

Having made over Downton to his brother in 1809 and ceased to go round ‘doctoring’ parks, Knight settled in Soho Square and monopolized conversation at learned dinner parties, where, to quote Henry Fox, 29 Dec. 1819, he talked

as much as the enormous food he devoured would allow him. He entirely crushed a story that was about to be told as a recent event, by saying ‘Oh! that is very old, a thousand years and more; it is in Lucian’.

He died of an apoplectic stroke, 23 Apr. 1824; his will, designed to prevent the alienation of the Downton Castle estate, put it in Chancery for many years.7

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. J. J. Mayoux, R. P. Knight et le Pittoresque (1933); E. Inglis-Jones, ‘The Knights of Downton Castle’, JNLW (1968), 237; F. J. Messman, R. P. Knight (The Hague, 1975).
  • 2. Farington Diary (Yale ed.), xii. 4437.
  • 3. Add. 37873, f. 199.
  • 4. Mackintosh Mems. i. 371; Sydney Smith Letters ed. N. C. Smith, i. 173.
  • 5. Add. 37875, f. 179.
  • 6. Harewood mss, Canning to Rev. W. Leigh, 19 Feb. 1798; DNB; Farington, iii. 31; Gent. Mag. (1824), ii. 185.
  • 7. P. Beesley, A brief history of the Knight family, T/S in BL; Jnl. Hon. H. E. Fox, 57; Inglis-Jones, loc. cit.