LYTTELTON, Hon. William Henry (1782-1837), of Hagley, Worcs.

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



1806 - 1820

Family and Education

b. 3 Apr. 1782, 7th s. of William Henry Lyttelton, 1st Baron Lyttelton, being o.s. by 2nd w. Caroline, da. of John Bristowe of Quidenham, Norf.; half-bro. of Hon. George Fulke Lyttelton*. educ. Rugby 1791; Christ Church, Oxf. 1798; L. Inn 1799. m. 3 Mar. 1813, Lady Sarah Spencer, da. of George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer, 3s. 2da. suc. half-bro. as 3rd Baron Lyttelton 12 Nov. 1828.

Offices Held

High steward, Bewdley 1828-d.; ld. lt. Worcs. May 1833-d.

2nd lt. Cumb. rangers 1803; lt.-col. Worcs. yeoman cav. 1831.


Lyttelton distinguished himself as a classical scholar at Oxford, where he was a favourite of Dean Cyril Jackson of Christ Church. He showed an early interest in politics. On Pitt’s return to power in 1804, his father, describing him as ‘the only hope’ of the family, his elder half-brother being demented, asked the prime minister to employ him, preferably at home, 18 May. Lyttelton waited hopefully until 8 June, when he went off to Hagley unprovided for. He next surfaced as a surreptitious candidate (his father did not know of it) in the Worcestershire by-election of February 1806.1 He was supported by the Whig interest of the county led by Lord Foley against William Lygon, the vacating Member’s heir. He also counted on the support of Lord Grenville’s ministry, informing him, 24 Feb. 1806, that he was in general well inclined to his government, but would not be ‘bound by any engagement whatsoever which would not leave me perfectly at liberty to vote whichever way I please’. As he was ‘a younger brother of no very rich family’, a subscription was needed.2 He was defeated but did well enough to renew the challenge when Lygon canvassed again soon after his election. In alliance with the other Member, his college friend John William Ward, and again relying on ministerial support, he looked forward confidently to a contest; but Ward’s retirement let him in unopposed. Lord Glenbervie described him as ‘a sort of rival of Ward’s’:

They are contemporaries, have both represented Worcestershire, and belong to two of the best families in that county. But Ward has as much more wit and real talents than Lyttelton as Lyttelton has better looks and more good nature than Ward. Lyttelton is very handsome and has his share of wit, but he is always aiming at it and oftener misses than hits. Besides, he has a most disagreeable voice and an abrupt familiarity, often very offensive.3

Lyttelton supported the Grenville ministry in his first Parliament and was listed among the ‘staunch friends’ of the abolition of the slave trade, the subject of his second speech, 16 Mar. 1807. (His first was against the Westminster election petition, 27 Feb.) On 15 Apr. 1807, following the defeat of Brand’s motion, for which he voted, he was entrusted with the opposition resolution ‘That this House, considering a firm and efficient administration as indispensably necessary, in the present important crisis of public affairs, has seen, with the deepest regret, the late change in his Majesty’s councils’. It was defeated by 244 votes to 198.

Nothing came of an attempt to oppose Lyttelton at the ensuing election and he acted generally with opposition in the Parliament of 1807. On 24 June 1807 he joined Brooks’s Club, sponsored by Viscount Althorp, his future brother-in-law. On 7 July he supported Cochrane’s motion for inquiry into places and pensions. He opposed the militia transfer bill, 28 July. He could not concur with his friends in condemning the Copenhagen expedition, 3 Feb. 1808, but supported Whitbread’s motion for more information on it, 8 Feb. He supported inquiry into the droits of Admiralty, 11 Feb. (and 21 Jan. 1812), and on the grant of a pension to Lord Lake’s family, 29 Feb. 1808, called on ministers to economize to an equivalent amount. The same day he voted for Whitbread’s bid to promote peace through mediation. He was in the minorities on the mutiny bill and on Indian affairs, 14 and 15 Mar., and on 11 Apr. deplored the ministerial meddling with, and the royal dukes’ hostility to, the bill to stop the grant of offices in reversion. He supported Irish Catholic relief and opposed corporal punishment in the militia, 25 and 30 May. On 3 June he withdrew an attempt to legislate on courts martial on being told he was trenching on the royal prerogative, but promised to try again. He questioned witnesses about the Duke of York’s conduct, voted with Wardle on 15 Mar., and on 17 Mar. 1809, opposing Perceval’s resolution, said that the House should be ‘no respecter of persons’ and that as the charges against the duke were ‘sufficiently proved’ he should be dismissed the army command. His indiscreet account of the duke’s mistress to the Princess of Wales, whom he then frequented, in front of her young daughter was one of the causes of the latter’s being removed from her mother.4 On 17 Apr. he voted for Folkestone’s motion for inquiry into abuses and he went on to support Madocks’s case for reform, 5 May, having attended the Crown and Anchor meeting; he voted for Madocks’s motion against ministerial corruption on 11 May. Of Curwen’s reform bill he said on 26 May that he thought little of it, but the House could scarcely reject it after their timid conduct over the Duke of York; he supported Curwen’s clause to disqualify Members unseated for bribery for a whole Parliament, 6 June, but could not stomach Perceval’s mutilation of the bill and on 12 June was in the rump minority who voted it a travesty. Although he had said that he could not go so far as Burdett on the question of reform, he paired in favour of his motion of 15 June 1809.

After assisting in Lord Grenville’s election as chancellor of Oxford university late in 1809, Lyttelton informed the veteran reformer Rev. Christopher Wyvill that for his part he put Catholic relief before reform, which was an issue likely to cost him his seat. He did not expect Perceval’s ministry to survive the Scheldt inquiry, on which he was ‘thick and thin’ in opposition. On 29 Jan. 1810 he asserted—and promised proof of—the House’s right to reverse the decisions of courts martial. He opposed the exclusion of strangers, 6 Feb. He had voted against the convention of Cintra the year before, but on 1 Feb. concurred in the thanks to Wellington, implying that government were fortunate to have his services; on 16 Feb., on the same subject, he said that although he was a party man and had no ambition for place, Wellington’s merit commanded his respect. Thereupon John Fuller*, who on 11 Apr. 1808 had called him a numbskull and been counter-attacked by Lyttelton on 3 Feb. 1809, retorted that he would never get a place as long as he spoke one way and voted another. Lyttelton, to the amusement of the House, rejoindered that he ‘would never accept of a subordinate office’. He voted against Burdett’s imprisonment in the Tower, 5 Apr., but on 10 Apr. denounced his proceedings: ‘no one acquired more credit on that occasion than Mr Lyttelton’, wrote Lord Sidmouth to Reginald Pole Carew*. He himself, having paired in favour of the discharge of the radical Gale Jones on 16 Apr., wrote to Pole Carew, 27 Apr., that he was

but a young politician, and for aught I know, my opinions ... may undergo considerable changes in the course of a few years. But at present—hating and opposing, habitually as well as by principle, every kind of arbitrary power which is not justified by the necessity of the case, I am quite ready to give my humble vote against those soi-disant patriots, who talk so much of the constitution, while their violence and rashness are going near to destroy it. A hypocrite King, with a sycophant court, and venal senates at his command are evils of no small magnitude—but a civil war, either put to a sudden close by the successful invasion of the enemy—or terminating in the destruction of all our institutions, and the election of a new dynasty (perhaps the Wardleian) on their ruins would be a state of things tant soi peu worse.5

He nevertheless voted for reform on Brand’s motion, 21 May 1810, and on 7 June after a previous unsuccessful bid, carried a motion for a royal inquiry into the grievances of an officer named Foskett against his colonel the Duke of Cumberland.

Between 8 June 1810 when he opposed a salary rise for the Irish viceroy, and 6 June 1811 when he opposed the reinstatement of the Duke of York and advocated inquiry into the vice-admiralty court of Malta, Lyttelton was absent from the House; most of the time in Sicily, it seems.6 He paired in favour of Catholic relief, 31 May 1811. On 12 June he called for inquiry into the payment of naval officers serving abroad. He was regular in opposition in the next session, speaking seldom, but effectively, as on 9 Apr., when he demonstrated to Perceval contraventions of trade licences whereby rice was exported to France in time of war. He presented and defended a petition from Dudley calling for an end to the East India Company’s commercial monopoly to relieve distress at home, 17 Apr. He opposed the orders in council and on 29 Apr. cross-examined a Birmingham witness on their effects. He also voted against the bank-note bill, 10 Apr. Speaking in favour of the sinecure reform bill, 4 May, he described the Regent as ‘surrounded with favourites and ... hemmed in with minions’. The Regent’s secretary McMahon wrote to him an indignant protest on the supposition that Lyttelton had styled him a ‘gamester and spendthrift’. Lyttelton put him right. What he had said was ‘I had rather vote hundreds of thousands to a Nelson or a Wellington than a single farthing to a Gaveston or a Spencer’.7 He supported Brand’s amendment to Creevey’s motion on the tellership of the Exchequer, 7 May, and next day supported his reform motion, distancing himself from Burdett. He voted for a stronger administration, 21 May 1812.

Lyttelton remained a supporter of Catholic relief, but his marriage in March 1813 affected his attendance that session. He approved the sinecure regulation bill, 29 Mar. 1813, and was present on 5 May to rebuff Burdett’s ill-informed attempt to expose a naval officer for alleged mistreatment of a master’s mate. After 25 May he did not reappear until 28 Nov. 1814 when he told the House that his travels had taken him (via Sweden, Russia and Prussia) to Saxony, and that he could testify to the wish of the Saxons to retain their own monarchy in preference to subjugation to the King of Prussia. He opposed the transfer of Genoa, the continuation of the militia in peacetime and the resumption of hostilities with Buonaparte. He interviewed the latter as a prisoner of war on the Northumberland. Subsequently he opposed continental entanglements and steadily supported retrenchment at home. He was a keen critic of the continuation of the property tax in March 1816 and emphasized that his constituents were also opposed to it. He criticized the army estimates and complained that naval officers were worse treated than army officers, 10 Apr. 1816. He opposed the aliens bill, 31 May.

Lyttelton first informed the House of his moral objection to the raising of public revenue by lotteries on 28 Mar. 1816. On 12 June he produced three resolutions against it, but was thwarted by 47 votes to 21. On 18 Mar. 1817 he tried again and was defeated by 72 votes to 26. On 4 May 1819 his four resolutions to the same effect were defeated by 133 votes to 84, but he was gaining ground. Wilberforce wrote of his bid in 1817: ‘Lyttelton argued too much like a man who is conscious that he is liable to be quizzed by his gay companions for talking of religion, morality, etc.’; but his serious streak was unappreciated by his mother-in-law, who could not ‘bear’ him.8 On 17 Feb. 1817 he defended Brougham’s moderate views on reform against Lord Cochrane’s extremism, but he voted for Burdett’s reform motion on 20 May. He opposed the suspension of habeas corpus, 28 Feb. 1817, as ‘unconstitutional and unnecessary’ and wished to see the seditious meetings prevention bill amended, 10 Mar.; his own amendment to limit the duration of a veto on public gatherings was defeated, 28 Mar. A critic of the Spanish autocracy, he objected to the compensation of £400,000 to Spain for renouncing the slave trade, 11 Feb. 1818, at a time when British traders suffered from Spanish embargoes. He deprecated the prosecution of radical booksellers, 3 Mar. 1818, and opposed the indemnity bill, 13 Mar., saying that it concluded ‘one of the most mischievous farces that had ever been played on the political stage’. He was a spokesman for the grievances of half-pay officers and officers’ widows, 1817-18, and on 5 Mar. 1819 welcomed the ministerial assurances he obtained on steps to redress them.

Lyttelton abetted the requisition to Tierney to lead the Whig opposition in the Parliament of 1818. In January he had been of the opinion that they were better off without a leader since Ponsonby’s death; but the poor performance of the ministry helped him to change his mind: they could not lose the general election, but they could be forced to remodel themselves. He had thoughts of giving up the county representation, which he could ill afford, but there was no ready Whig replacement for him.9 He supported Tierney’s efforts to secure the resumption of cash payments by the Bank. He opposed further agricultural protection, 25 Feb. 1819, but said that manufacturers must in that case have less protection to redress the balance. On behalf of his constituents he opposed the equalization of the coal duties, 2 Mar. He opposed the grant to the Duke of York under the royal household bill as a debtor’s expedient, 19 Mar. He did not vote for reform that session and castigated Burdett, 11 May, as a presenter of fraudulent petitions from villains who imposed on him; but he voted for Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May, and opposed the indirect taxes, 18 June, and the foreign enlistment bill.

Lyttelton was one of the Whig alarmists after Peterloo. On 24 Nov. 1819 he refused to support the amendment to the address as he wished to oppose revolutionary radicalism, though he favoured parliamentary inquiry into Peterloo and deplored the dismissal from office of Earl Fitzwilliam. He voted for his brother-in-law’s motion for inquiry, 30 Nov., but on 2 Dec. defended the seditious meetings prevention bill as necessary to the safety of the state. He pointed to rebellious meetings, training activities and the growth of blasphemy and sedition and doubted if Lord Sidmouth, at the Home Office, was the man to devise measures drastic enough to deal with the situation. This was what Henry Bankes* described as ‘an unwilling and ungracious support’. He rejoined the minority on the seizure of arms bill, 14 and 15 Dec., as he objected to the searching of houses at night. On 9 Feb. 1820 he wrote to Tierney, glossing over ‘some votes’ he had recently given and concluding ‘you have not a sincerer friend, public or private’. The letter informed Tierney that he was giving up the county owing to ‘the expense of the election itself, and the annual expenses of the seat’. Within a few days he received an offer of financial support from Lord Lansdowne, but it did not cover his ‘annual expenses’ and his replacement was already in the field.10

Lyttelton did not seek re-election; according to Thomas Creevey*, he ‘could not afford to continue in Parliament, and though he wanted little to enable him to do so, the meanness of Lord Spencer would not supply him with it, and he has been an exile almost ever since’.11 Some consolation came in 1828 when he succeeded his half-brother to the peerage and became an advocate of reform in the Lords. He died 30 Apr. 1837. Edward John Littleton thought him ‘a bad speaker’, but a ‘very honourable man ... principally remarkable for his abilities and humour in conversation’.12

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: M. J. Williams / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Gent. Mag. (1837), ii. 83; Locinch mss, Lyttelton to Dalrymple, 3 Feb. 1802; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 5/27; PRO 30/8/153, f. 312; Letter-Bag of Lady Elizabeth Spencer-Stanhope, i. 82.
  • 2. Fortescue mss; HMC Fortescue, x. 323.
  • 3. Fortescue mss, Lyttelton to Grenville, 21 Apr., 15 Aug. 1806; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 18; Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 74.
  • 4. Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 37, 75; Geo. IV Letters, i. 508.
  • 5. N. Riding RO, Wyvill mss ZFW/7/2/213/29; 7/2/214/11; Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Pole Carew, 12 Apr. 1810; Pole Carew mss CC/L/43.
  • 6. Gent. Mag. (1837), ii. 83.
  • 7. Geo. IV Letters, i. 67-69.
  • 8. Life of Wilberforce (1838), iv. 317; Spencer mss, Lady to Ld. Spencer [Jan. 1816].
  • 9. Bagot mss, Lyttelton to Bagot, 31 Jan., 31 Mar., 16 May, 4 Aug., 6 Oct. 1818.
  • 10. PRO 30/9/16, Bankes to Colchester, 3 Dec. 1819; Hants RO, Tierney mss 48; Lansdowne mss, Lyttelton to Lansdowne, 18 Feb. 1820.
  • 11. Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, ii. 255.
  • 12. Staffs. RO, Hatherton diary, 1 May 1837.