DUFF, James, 4th Earl Fife [I] (1776-1857), of Duff House, Banff.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1818 - 2 Apr. 1827

Family and Education

b. 6 Oct. 1776, 1st s. of Alexander Duff, 3rd Earl Fife [I], and Mary, da. of George Skene of Skene, Aberdeen and Careston, Forfar; bro. of Hon. Alexander Duff*. educ. by Dr. Chapman at Inchdrewer, Banff 1783; Westminster 1789; Christ Church, Oxf. 1794; L. Inn 1794. m. 9 Sept. 1799, Maria Caroline, da. of John Manners† of Grantham Grange, Lincs., s.p. styled Visct. Macduff 1809-11; suc. fa. as 4th Earl Fife [I] 17 Apr. 1811; uncle George Skene† to Skene and Careston 1827; GCH 1823; cr. Bar. Fife [UK] 28 Apr. 1827; KT 3 Sept. 1827. d. 9 Mar. 1857.

Offices Held

Ld. of bedchamber Jan. 1819-Mar. 1821, Aug. 1827-July 1837.

Ld. lt. Banff 1813-56; grand master of freemasons [S] 1814-16; ld. rect. Marischal Coll. Aberdeen 1820-22, 1823-4.

Lt.-col. Inverness militia 1803-12.


Fife combined moral laxity and financial extravagance with seriousness of mind and concern for the welfare of the tenants and labourers on his extensive estates in north-east Scotland. His pecuniary difficulties were worsened by the extraordinary will of his uncle James Duff, 2nd Earl Fife (1729-1809), who left all his disposable property to his bastard son Sir James Duff of Kinstair (1755-1839). Fife, who succeeded his father, the 3rd earl, to the entailed estates in 1811, went to law in 1816 in a bid to recover his uncle’s property, which was reckoned to be worth over £20,000 a year, with timber valued at £100,000. The costly case dragged on in the Scottish courts and the Lords until 1826, when Fife was finally successful.1

Although Fife, an old personal friend and roistering companion of George IV, held a place in his household from January 1819, he was a law unto himself in electoral matters. At the general election of 1820, when he was again returned unopposed for Banffshire, he created great difficulties for the Liverpool ministry and their leading local supporters in Elgin Burghs, where he was seeking to re-establish his family’s interest: his younger brother Alexander Duff stood unsuccessfully against the candidate of the prevailing Kintore-Grant alliance.2 When Lord Melville, the government’s Scottish manager, was asked by a local man to ‘interfere with Lord Fife’, he ‘replied that we did not feel that we are at liberty to take such a step’, as ‘any such application to Lord F. would have been followed by one in return from him, peerage, green ribbon, etc.’3 In the House, 12 July, Fife ‘warmly supported’ a motion for the grant of £3,000 towards repairs of hurricane damage to Banff and Peterhead harbours.4 From London he wrote to his brother-in-law Richard Duff of Orton, 8 Aug. 1820:

We have had a brisk campaign, which is likely to be prolonged, but I hope from the complexion of things to be some time in the North as it is thought it will not come to our ... House to meet for the queen’s business for some time. The ferment seems to be less, although all means are tried to keep up the heat and increase the progress.5

He did not vote in the division on the opposition motion censuring ministers’ conduct towards Caroline, 6 Feb. 1821. He was absent from the division on Catholic relief, 28 Feb. It became common knowledge that when he asked the king how he wished him to vote on the relief bill he was told to do as he pleased. He apparently divided against the second reading, 16 Mar., but stayed away from the division on the first clause, 23 Mar. 1821.6

By then he had drawn attention to himself by voting in a majority against government on the 21st for repeal of the additional malt duty, on which feelings were strong in Scotland. He was immediately dismissed from the bedchamber. According to Mrs. Arbuthnot, the king’s subsequent claim that he had ‘sacrificed his own feelings’ in agreeing to Fife’s removal was deemed to be a lie by the duke of Wellington, who

happened to know that the king wanted to get rid of him, that he was delighted with the opportunity offered, and that the ministers had interposed to induce him to do it in the regular way and not to wound Lord Fife’s feelings by doing it at the drawing room as he had wished.7

On 3 Apr., when ministers mustered their forces to reverse the vote, Fife, responding to an allusion to his dismissal for showing ‘independence’ by the Whig Lord Archibald Hamilton, stated that he had ‘a considerable time ago’ informed the king of his wish to retire, ‘from his inability to attend regularly to the duties, and to ... prevent disagreement - owing much to being obliged to watch over the interests of a vast number of people, under circumstances cruel and vexatious’. He claimed that it was ‘a satisfaction to be released ... for various reasons’, but revealed that he ‘had it from authority’ that ‘the resolution communicated so abruptly was considered as a reprimand’ for his vote, though no notice had been taken of his minority vote on the same issue on 5 July 1820. He ‘did not repent’, believing the tax to be ‘impolitic and unjust in principle, baneful in the effects, dangerous in the result’, and he again divided against government. The radical Whig Hobhouse later claimed that when Fife ‘begged’ him not to make capital of his statement of the official reason for his removal he complied. On 6 Apr., however, he, Creevey and Grey Bennet pressed for inquiry, but they failed to secure the support of the Whig leadership.8 Commenting on this episode, 9 Apr. 1821, The Times pointed out that Fife ‘did not generally or universally vote with ministers, even when holding his situation at Court; nor do we believe that he will now universally vote against them’. So it proved, for his only known votes in the remainder of the 1820 Parliament were with government, against the omission of arrears from the duke of Clarence’s grant, 18 June 1821, and inquiry into chancery delays, 5 June 1823. A radical publication of 1823 attributed this to his probable fear of the loss of his lord lieutenancy and lieutenant-colonelcy of militia ‘had he persisted in his contumacy’.9 He presented petitions from Banffshire fish curers against the salt tax, 17 June 1822, and from Banffshire herring fishermen for the free import of European oak staves, 24 June 1823.10 He was granted leaves of absence to attend to urgent private business, 17 Feb., 15 Apr. 1825; and nothing has been found to support the claim that in that session he ‘latterly voted with the opposition’.11

In April 1821 it was reported that Fife, a widower since 1805, was ‘going to console himself for the loss of entrée to the king’s bedchamber by taking Lady Georgina Bathurst into his own’. Lady Bathurst was supposedly distraught at the prospect, but her daughter never married.12 In fact, Fife’s affections lay elsewhere. As a devotee of the opera, with a particular penchant for young female dancers, he had lavished much money and attention on Mademoiselle Noblet, who ‘gave so much satisfaction to the habitués of the pit’, and whom he had taken under his wing in Paris after the war. According to Captain Gronow’s doubtless embroidered account, he

spent a fortune upon her; his presents in jewels, furniture, articles of dress, and money, exceeded £40,000. In return for all this generosity, Lord Fife asked nothing more than the lady’s flattery and professions of affection ... On his return to London, the old roué would amuse George IV with a minute description of the lady’s legs, and her skill in using them. Horses’ legs are frequently the cause of the ruin of members of our aristocracy, but in the case of Lord Fife, the beautiful shape of the supporters of Mlle Noblet had such an effect upon the perfervidum ingenium Scoti, that he from first to last spent nearly £80,000 on this fair daughter of Terpsichore.13

In 1822 Fife introduced to the London stage the ‘very pretty’ sixteen-year-old opera dancer Maria Mercandotti, who was believed by some to be his daughter. She was pursued by many men, but in 1823 ran off with the wealthy wastrel Edward ‘Golden’ Ball Hughes, whom she married at Duff House, with Fife and her mother in attendance, on 22 Mar.14 Fife was not long out of favour with the king, and, ‘wearing a scarlet (and apparently) a foreign general’s uniform, with Portuguese orders’, he was one of the official reception party when George disembarked at Leith at the start of his Scottish jaunt in August 1822.15 His refusal to make any further contribution to the subscription for Spanish refugees in November 1823 was thought by one Whig to be ‘consonant ... with the feelings of the great man at Windsor’.16

In April 1826 he was in line for a British peerage, on the king’s insistence to Lord Liverpool:

I am quite aware of some of the trifling objections to some of the fooleries of his past life, but who is exempt from some nonsense or other? I dismissed him from my household, and used him apparently ill to please my government and poor Lord Londonderry; but, notwithstanding this, my friend Fife never gave a vote against the government afterwards, and by his loyal example when I was in Scotland did the greatest good.17

It was expected that his promotion would make it unnecessary for him to stand for Banffshire, where he faced an opposition, at the general election in June; but in the event it was delayed, and he was returned after a contest. At a celebration dinner he alleged that the ‘clannish’ spirit which had been raised against him had been provoked by his vote on the malt duty and his restoration of his interest in Elgin burghs (where his brother now came in), but that ‘both these acts ... had increased the confidence which His Majesty and government reposed in him’.18 He was conspicuous in the disorderly election proceedings in Caithness, where he supported the unsuccessful George Sinclair* and reportedly stirred up the mob.19 In late February 1827 a ministerial opponent of Catholic claims encouraged the king’s private secretary to get George to urge Fife to join his brother in openly opposing it; but he was absent from the division of 6 Mar.20 He was unseated on his opponent’s petition a month later.21 Soon afterwards Canning, the new premier, ‘persuaded him to take his [British] peerage at once’; and the ‘disputed point’ of his status at Court was resolved by his reappointment to the bedchamber in August 1827.22 He voted for Catholic emancipation in 1829 and, having gravitated to the Whigs, supported reform in 1831 and 1832.

Fife, who did not take up permanent residence at Duff House until 1833, but rarely left it after 1838, was a benefactor of the poor, a keen promoter of local public works and an enlightened, improving landlord. He created new settlements at Aberchirder and Dufftown. In 1847 he escaped injury in a knife attack by a drunken servant with a grievance.23 Known in his neighbourhood as ‘the good Yearl James’, he died at Duff House in March 1857.24 The British peerage became extinct, but the Irish title passed to his nephew James Duff (1814-79), Liberal Member for Banffshire, 1837-57, who was created Baron Skene in the United Kingdom peerage later in 1857. His son Alexander William George Duff (1849-1912), Liberal Member for Elgin and Nairn, 1874-9, was created earl of Fife [UK] in 1885 and duke of Fife in 1889, on the occasion of his marriage to Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Louise.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. A. and H. Tayler, Bk. of the Duffs, i. 207; The Times, 28 Oct., 6 Nov., 31 Dec. 1816, 15, 19 July 1823; LJ, lii. 966; lv. 90, 572, 682, 687, 695, 699, 702, 710-11, 719, 855, 867, 872, 883; lviii. 25, 175, 189, 308, 316, 342, 354; Add. 38300, f. 15.
  • 2. Caledonian Mercury, 1 Apr.; NAS GD23/6/745, C. to J. Grant, 5 Mar. 1820; GD51/1/198/17/14, 15; GD248/824/2/15, 25. See ELGIN BURGHS.
  • 3. NLS mss 11, f. 50.
  • 4. The Times, 13 July 1820.
  • 5. Aberdeen Univ. Lib. Duff of Braco mss 2727/2/82.
  • 6. Broughton, Recollections, ii. 142; Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, i. 127; HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 39, 44.
  • 7. Grey Bennet diary, 44; Greville Mems. i. 116; Lady Holland to Son, 5; Buckingham, i. 143; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 98.
  • 8. Broughton, ii. 144-5; Colchester Diary, iii. 216-17.
  • 9. Black Bk. (1823), 155.
  • 10. The Times, 18 June 1822, 25 June 1823.
  • 11. Session of Parl. 1825, p. 463.
  • 12. Williams Wynn Corresp. 270-1; Fox Jnl. 65.
  • 13. Gronow Reminiscences, i. 121, 303.
  • 14. Fox Jnl. 100; M.D. George, Cat. of Personal and Pol. Satires, x. 14275, 14276, 14579, 14861; Gronow Reminiscences, ii. 91-92; Wellington and Friends, 37; Gent. Mag. (1823), i. 368.
  • 15. Buckingham, i. 354; Gent. Mag. (1822), ii. 173; The Times, 11, 19 Aug. 1822.
  • 16. Add. 51832, L.G. Jones to Holland, 26 Nov. 1823.
  • 17. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1237; Add. 38371, f. 165; 38576, f. 99.
  • 18. Caledonian Mercury, 8, 10, 17, 22 June, 3, 6 July 1826.
  • 19. Inverness Courier, 12 July 1826; NAS GD51/1/198/6/26.
  • 20. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1289.
  • 21. CJ, lxxxii. 70, 361, 378; Caledonian Mercury, 5 Apr. 1827.
  • 22. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1320.
  • 23. Tayler, i. 208-9; The Times, 15, 19 May 1847.
  • 24. Tayler, i. 210; Gent. Mag. (1857), i. 502.