RUSSELL, Lord George William (1790-1846).

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



1812 - 1830

Family and Education

b. 8 May 1790, 2nd s. of John Russell†, 6th duke of Bedford (d. 1839), and 1st w. Hon. Georgiana Elizabeth Byng, da. of George, 4th Visct. Torrington; bro. of Francis Russell, mq. of Tavistock* and Lord John Russell*. educ. by Dr. Moore, Sunbury 1800; Westminster 1803; by Rev. John Smith at Woodnesborough, nr. Sandwich 1805. m. 21 June 1817, Elizabeth Anne, da. of Hon. John Theophilus Rawdon† of Bolney Court, Oxon., 3s. 1da. d.v.p. GCB 19 July 1838. d. 16 July 1846.

Offices Held

Cornet 1 Drag. 1806, lt. 1806; capt. Canadian fencibles 1808, 81 Ft. 1808; capt. 23 Drag. 1808; maj. 102 Ft. 1813, lt.-col. 1814; maj. 42 Ft. (half-pay) 1815; maj. 8 Drag. 1824, lt.-col. 1824, half-pay 1828; lt.-col. 90 Ft. 1829; col. army 1830; half-pay 1831; a.d.c. to William IV 1830-7, to Victoria 1837-41; maj.-gen. 1841.

Special mission to Portugal 1832-4; minister plenip. to Wurttemberg 1834-5; envoy extraordinary and minister plenip. to Prussia 1835-41.


Although Russell was idle and diffident, he was far from untalented. He had shown himself to be a brave and resourceful soldier on active service in the Peninsula, and, like most of the Russells (of whose characteristic oddness he had his full share) he was genuinely interested in politics, though he lacked the confidence to open his mouth in Commons debate. Yet his parliamentary and military careers, and to a large extent his entire adult life, were blighted by his emotional subjugation to his ravishing, selfish, domineering wife, Bessy Rawdon. Her ascendancy over him, her preference for the social and intellectual milieu of the continental capitals to the standard domestic lifestyle of the English aristocracy, her innate Toryism and her prickly temperament spoiled Russell’s relationship with his stepmother (his own mother had died when he was 11), threatened to cut him off from his father and brothers (of whom he was essentially very fond) and encouraged him to neglect his parliamentary duties and cast away his prospects in the army.1

At the beginning of this period the Russells, whose first son was born in November 1819 (after the death of a baby girl the previous year), were probably happier together than at any other time in their ill-starred marriage. Living in London on his half-pay, but with rooms always at their disposal at Woburn Abbey and a warm welcome assured at Holland House, where Lady William’s intelligence was appreciated, they were popular in fashionable Whig society.2 At the general election of 1820 Russell was returned again for Bedford, where he had sat on the family interest since 1812, without opposition. His father heard ‘great commendations of the beauty’ of his speech, and Russell himself told Lord Holland that ‘my election went off very well’. He relished the prospect of the ‘bitter, spiteful and passionate’ contest which loomed for the county, where his elder brother, Lord Tavistock, was one of the sitting Members.3 He was present to vote with opposition on the civil list, 5, 8 May, the appointment of an additional Scottish baron of exchequer, 15 May, the secret committee on Queen Caroline’s case, 26 June, economies in revenue collection, 4 July, and the barrack agreement bill, 17 July 1820. With Bedford, Tavistock and his younger brother Lord John Russell (to whom he was always very close), Lord William (as he was always known) attended the county meeting in support of the queen, 14 Jan. 1821, but did not speak.4 He voted for the restoration of her name to the liturgy, 23, 26 Jan., 13 Feb., and for the motion of censure on ministers’ conduct towards her, 6 Feb. He presented the Bedford petition in her favour, 24 Jan.5 He voted for Catholic relief, 28 Feb. He divided against government on the state of the revenue, 6 Mar., and for repeal of the additional malt duty, 21 Mar., pairing for the division of 3 Apr. He voted for reductions in the admiralty, 4 May, and ordnance establishments, 11, 14, 31 May. Although listed as a steward of the City reform dinner in April, he did not attend it;6 but he voted for his brother’s reform motion, 9 May, when he also divided in condemnation of the delay in the commission of inquiry into the judicial system. He voted for inquiry into the Peterloo massacre, 16 May, and for mitigation of the punishment for forgery, 23 May, 4 June 1821.

By then Lady William’s relations with the duchess of Bedford had become uncomfortably strained, their frequent intercourse having served only to demonstrate their incompatibility and bring out their mutual antipathy. Lady William’s health suffered, and on this pretext, in mid-June 1821 Russell took her and their son to Europe, where he stayed for almost two years. Their principal resorts were Spa, Frankfort, Vienna (late September), Venice (late October), Florence (February 1822) and Rome (October).7 From Spa, 20 July 1821, he gave Holland the benefit of his views on the shortcomings of the high-minded Foxite Whigs, who

attach too little importance to the intrigues that are carried on against you. You take the high ground of truth and publicity and look with contempt on all beneath, yet if the enemy mines you, you should countermine ... Why did the Holy Alliance request the king not to make the Whigs his ministers? Because they believe them to be the promoters of rebellion and discord, the enemies of kings, laws and order. The mischief of all this is, that it assists in keeping the Whigs out of office and Europe from enjoying the good you might do it. You are like gallant young troops fighting against veterans, who get behind walls and ditches and shoot you at their leisure ... Grey, yourself and others, with your superior talents and straightforward, open, liberal sentiments have been kept out and are likely to remain out, whilst such pitiful fellows as Castlereagh and the Doctor [Lord Sidmouth] govern England and spread their baneful policy.8

He evidently criticized in letters home the Whigs who rallied to support Sir Robert Wilson* after his dismissal from the army, which led his father to reproach him towards the end of the year:

Tavistock and John tell me you are become quite an Ultra-Tory. You were once accused of being a radical ... I trust, however, that every son of mine will act steadily, uniformly, and invariably on the old Whig principles, and never lose sight of the solid rights of the people, the foundation on which our liberties and our government rest.

A month later Bedford wrote to him:

There is one good symptom in your letter to John attacking the subscribers to indemnify ... Wilson ... that you are indignant at being called a Tory ... but your arguments to prove that you are not a Tory rather tend to show that you are one, and the violence of your abuse, and bitterness of your sarcasms against us poor Whigs, equals that of the Courier itself ... Your brothers are seriously unhappy at your change in politics, though I feel sure that you will come right again, when you once more breathe the atmosphere of your native land.

Nevertheless, the duke did not retract his earlier comment that Russell need not trouble to attend Parliament during the approaching session, ‘if your wife’s health requires a warmer and more genial climate than ours’. Indeed, he saw Lord William’s apparent reaction against Whiggism as a good reason for staying away, ‘as you are not likely to concur in the motions to reduce the public expenditure, and if you did not support Mr. Hume in his motions for retrenchment, your constituents would not receive you well if you ever asked for their votes again’.9 By 26 Mar. 1822, however, Bedford was able to write that ‘your politics are very good, and quite congenial to my own mind, so we will have no more disputes about Whig and Tory’.10 Yet on 29 May Russell, writing from Florence, told Lady Holland of his dissatisfaction with the ‘unintelligible’ tactics of the Whig leaders in the Commons, who seemed to have ‘yielded with the greatest modesty to the overpowering talents of the second bench’, and such men as Hume, Grey Bennet and Colonel Davies:

Is it not singular that the government should have brought the country to the present state, that it should be distrusted and abused by all parties, and disgraced day after day in the House of Commons, and yet that neither king nor nation should express the smallest desire to confide in the Whigs? Surely this must prove some radical error in their conduct.11

In June he addressed Lord John on his reported conversion to ‘radical’ reform:

I ought to complain, for after converting me you have left me in the lurch; however, never mind, I will follow you. Whatever you propose, I will vote for. I will be radical again too, rather than have no reform, but I don’t think you will now do any good. With the old jog trot plan you would have done a little good ... your coalition will never do. Oil and vinegar would sooner mix together than a radical and a moderate reformer.

That month his father told him that the reformers of Cambridgeshire were minded to put him up against the Tory sitting Member at the next general election..12

In May 1822 Russell informed Lady Holland that he and his wife were

rather cogitating a longer stay on the continent, at least till Parliament meets next year. It has done Bessy much good, another mild winter might finish the cure, and an English winter might undo all that we have done. That is the best and strongest reason for our remaining here. Then there are a quantity of little ancillary reasons, domestic reasons, agreeable reasons, prudent reasons, idle reasons, etc., etc. If you did but know the worries that await us in our native land, pinches from poverty and pinches from our near and dear. Here we live in clover. This is the Paradise of small incomes.

Bedford was taken ill in the summer, and Russell’s first instinct was to return home, but his father’s apparent recovery reinforced his second thoughts, as he explained to Lady Holland, in confidence, 27 June 1822:

I believe it is better to endeavour to fortify Bessy’s health by passing part of our next winter on the continent, for unhappily the duchess has taken such a hatred for Bessy and myself, and has so poisoned my father’s mind against us, that I fear our presence gives him no pleasure. This is a great source of unhappiness to me, for you know how I love my father. This is my real reason for not returning, but it is entre nous, and I beg it may go no further. However, if he should not get better, nothing shall prevent me from passing the winter with him.

In late August he received news that his father had suffered a stroke, and he immediately set off for England, reaching the duke’s sick bed on 3 Sept. after eight days’ hard travelling. Satisfied that his father was out of danger, he left London on the 19th, and was back in Florence with his grumbling wife on 2 Oct. 1822 (her 29th birthday).13

They planned to leave their winter quarters in Rome, where Russell was executing Bedford’s commissions for purchases of sculpture for the gallery at Woburn, early in the new year, but delayed their departure when he received assurances that his presence would not be required in the Commons until after Easter. According to the Hollands’ son Henry Fox*, who met them on their journey at Genoa at the end of March, Lady William was ‘quite miserable at going home, and keeps no bounds about the duchess’.14 In early April 1823, when they were expected in Paris, Bedford told Russell that Lord John was ‘eager to get you over, that your name may appear in every division, to the comfort of your constituents, after your long truancy’. As it was, he arrived in England on 23 Apr., having left his wife with her widowed mother in Paris, and, as arranged, he hastened to London to vote for his brother’s reform motion the following day.15 He remained there for a couple of weeks, attending the House with his brother, but complaining to his wife, whom he was shortly to fetch over from Paris, of the vile weather, and the awkwardness of relations with the duchess. He pleaded with Bessy to make an effort to settle in England, but at the same time betrayed the weakness which she was to have no compunction in exploiting:

You never yet saw anything like the state of the family - quarrellings, intrigues, repetitions, misrepresentings, etc. ... I trust you will be able to ... bear them all with indifference, looking upon the calumnies and intrigues of that ill conditioned madwoman, as unworthy of your anger or consideration, and the intentions of those who repeat them as either mischievous or foolish, and consequently to be despised or let pass by ... I know I am bringing you from the soft air, the sun, the charm, the indolence of Italy, to encounter the keen wind, the cold, the difficulties of England, and above all the differences, the intrigues, the wickedness that unhappily pervades my family. Nobody ... regrets ... more than I do the sacrifices I cause you to make ... for I know you to be a gentle, delicate, fine spun piece of texture whose mind is as ill calculated to encounter a difficulty or trouble, as your body is to resist the cold ... I believe as yet that it is my duty to urge you to live in your husband’s country, yet if on this coming trial you again experience the sickness and worry you did before ... I will leave Parliament and the army, and go and spend and end my days in some southern climate with you - but for God’s sake do not urge me too hastily to take this step, think what it is for a man to live out of his country, to waste his life in nothing, to sit down a nonentity for the rest of his being.16

He brought her to London in early June, her mood improved by the Hollands having placed Holland House at their disposal for a few weeks during their own absence in Paris.17 Russell resumed his sporadic attendance of the House, voting for inquiry into the expenses of the coronation, 19 June, and for the Scottish juries bill, 20 June. He paired in favour of investigation of Catholic complaints against the administration of justice in Ireland, 26 June. On 3 July 1823 he presented a petition from Leighton Buzzard for relief from distress caused by the importation of foreign straw plait.18 At this time Fox wrote of Russell and his wife:

She is totally unlike anybody else I know. Her expressions are very peculiar and well chosen; she is accused by many of coldness and want of heart, I believe unjustly. She is certainly fond of William and of her delightful child. William is in my opinion by far the most amiable of the Russells; there is a warmth of heart and tenderness of manner that is delightful, nor is he at all deficient in understanding. His admiration and love for her is as just and great as it ought to be.19

For about nine months from July 1823 the Russells had Woburn more or less to themselves. Their comparative tranquillity was marred only by Lady William’s miscarriage in August, which she soon got over, and their discovery later in the year that they had not sufficient funds to buy a London house. Lord Tavistock made part of his in Arlington Street available to them from March 1824.20 In the Commons, Russell voted for reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 26 Feb. 1824. He presented a Bedford petition for the abolition of slavery, 18 Mar.21 At that time his father wrote to Lady Holland:

I wish someone would take William in hand and thrust him forward a little. His talents are quite lost to the public. He went to our assizes, and in Tavistock’s absence, took his place as foreman of the grand jury, and gave universal satisfaction by the manner in which he conducted the business. I know Holland has a good opinion of him. Why won’t he take him in hand?22

After Easter, he voted against the aliens bill, 2, 12 Apr., and the grant for building new churches, 9 Apr. He was in the majority for repeal of the usury laws, 8 Apr. He divided for inquiries into the Irish church establishment, 6 May, and the state of Ireland, 11 May, and for a repeal of assessed taxes, 11 May, and in condemnation of the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June 1824.

That summer there occurred a serious quarrel between the duchess of Bedford and Lady William, who stood accused of incivility and was barred from Woburn. Russell, blaming the affair on ‘an act of hatred and revenge on the part of the duchess’, whom he now regarded with open hostility, refused to go there without her, though he assured Lady Holland that he remained on the ‘best of terms’ with his father, despite the reprimand which he had received from him.23 Earlier in the year he had accepted the offer of his wife’s uncle, Lord Hastings, of a place on his staff as governor of Malta, but in the event he persuaded his father, who had some difficulty in raising the money, to obtain for him a full-pay majority in the 8th Hussars. Very soon afterwards he got command of the regiment, which was stationed at Dorchester, as lieutenant-colonel. Bedford, who bent over backwards to meet his wishes, professed to have ‘no doubt of your conquering your natural indolence, and using the whole energies of your mind to get the regiment into good order’.24 Lady William disingenuously told Lord Lynedoch, Russell’s former commanding officer and a close friend, that she was ‘much pleased’ at this development:

I have for seven years been urging him to do something. I hate idleness ... and have ever discouraged the notions he had (I believe only vague ones, but still he frequently has talked of them to me) of giving up Parliament and the army ... for my own propensities nothing could have been more propitious as I confess I dislike England ... It is entirely principle ... that makes me forgo the gratification of my inclinations in living abroad ... My object and constant pursuit since I married has been to rehausser Lord William in his own opinion, for he is too diffident, and from being kept like a frightened schoolboy under the thumb of an artful and vulgar minded woman for so many years, who wished to cow him, my task was not easy. Every friend of his and people whose opinion I value ... have spoken of his judgement as you do. Lord Holland puts it above that of both his brothers. What he wants is confidence in himself and I do think that his present situation will lead to it, independent of its professional advantages ... I have been in despair at his desoeuvrement hitherto, which has been greater in England than abroad, as here he actually did nothing but hunt all winter and lounge all summer ... I have not had fair play ... I am misrepresented because I scorn malapropos displays of sentiment and ethics.25

At the turn of the year Lady William, four months pregnant, reported to Bedford’s brother, old Lord William Russell*, that her husband ‘has shook off all his Russell indolence and slaves at his regiment, which was in a wretched plight and which he will gain great credit by putting in order’. (In August 1825 Bedford congratulated him on the ‘favourable reports’ he heard of the military authorities’ ‘high opinion’ of his success in improving the regiment, and the following year the duke of Wellington warmly approved his proposals for changes in cavalry formations in the field.)26 For his own part Russell fretted that it was ‘a melancholy life for Bessy, the ornament and brightest flower of the brightest society of Europe, to be pent up in a small provincial town’, though her current good health made her ‘gay, amiable, original and amusing’. He thought that ‘there will be nothing to do in Parliament’, and that ‘Ireland is all a bugbear’.27 He was a defaulter on a call of the House, 28 Feb. 1825, but attended and was excused the next day, when he voted for Catholic relief, as he did again, 21 Apr., 10 May. He was present to vote for inquiry into chancery delays, 7 June 1825. After the birth of his second son that month he took a small cottage in Richmond Park for six months, while his regiment was quartered at Hounslow. In September 1825 he evidently made some sort of apology to his father for the incident of the previous year, which gave the duke ‘the most heartfelt satisfaction’.28 In January 1826 Russell, who shortly afterwards moved with the 8th Hussars to Brighton (which pleased his wife), appealed to his father for help with a debt of £1,000, and got a sympathetic response.29 He was in the minority of 24 on the promissory notes bill, 20 Feb. Four days later Lady William denied Lynedoch’s charge that she had bullied Russell into cutting down his hunting activities:

It is a subject on which Lord William is sore as he dreads henpecking amazingly from its being in the family ... We all have our weaknesses, and I should say Lord William’s peculiar one was that of such a dread of being led that he will not be advised ... Pray open your eyes and see whether I prevent him from hunting. He is constantly absent when there is anything of moment in the House of Commons and always because he is hunting. His elder brother writes volumes to him on the abuse of his constituents ... [He] is now at Woburn hunting and there is much going on in the House and many enquiries made after him ... he goes at least every ten days and I never really urge his return ... I think his friends and well wishers ought to be satisfied with his free agency; he has given up none of his former friends, he has not given up his profession, he is not gone out of Parliament and he does keep hunters ... He does not control me ... in anything for I am as free an agent as he is, and I do not see that there is any violent coercion on either side.30

Possibly with an eye to the approaching general election, Russell showed his face in the House for the divisions on the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar., the promissory notes bill, 7 Mar., the ministerial salary of the president of the board of trade, 10 Apr., reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 13 Apr., and Lord John’s reform motion, 27 Apr. 1826. His father exhorted him to ‘take at least an useful, if not efficient part’ when the Fen drainage bill came before Parliament: ‘if you are not yet acquainted with the common routine business of the House of Commons, after so many years service, it is high time you should learn it’.31

Russell was returned unopposed for Bedford at the 1826 general election, when, observing that it was ‘difficult to define the actual state of parties’, he praised the recent liberalization of government foreign and domestic policies, though he called for further tax reductions and blamed ministers for the overspeculation and consequent commercial crash of the previous winter. He said that he was ‘a friend to reform in Parliament’ and would welcome ‘every prudent measure for obtaining an effectual one’, promised to resign his seat if a majority of the electors found his pro-Catholic views unacceptable, and declared his support for fair protection for British farmers against imports of foreign corn.32 He did himself much good in Bedford, as well as raising his stock with his immediate family, by making a vigorous and lucid defence of the purity of election principles on which the temporarily indisposed Tavistock was contesting the county, 17 June 1826.33 The following month, however, he received a lecture from his father, who was unable to meet his request for an additional £500 of ready money, having had to raise a similar amount for Lord John, and was shocked by his ‘talk of quitting active service from inability to go on with it’:

I think after the credit you have gained in forming an excellent regiment out of a very bad one, you ought not, in justice to yourself, to think of going again on half-pay, nor ought you, in fairness to me, after the large sum of money I have paid to obtain for you the command of the 8th. You ought now to be in possession of a very fair and reasonable income ... and you should consider how many officers there are in command of regiments, with scarcely any private fortune, and little to live upon besides their pay and appointments.

Russell told Lady Holland in August that while ‘we enjoy ourselves in Brighton, as indeed we do at most places, having light hearts, nice children and few cares’, he was worried again about Lady William’s health, and afraid that ‘we shall be obliged to escape to the continent to avoid the butcher and baker’: ‘Indeed I believe Bessy never sees the steamboat leave the chain pier without longing to get into it and leave her clothes and servants to themselves’.34 His reluctance to carry out the routine constituency duties expected of a Member for Bedford, such as attending the local races in late August (he eventually appeared for one day, under sufferance) also distressed his father, who complained to Lady Holland that ‘he seldom writes, except to scold me for something I have done or left undone, so I am glad when I do not perceive his hand amongst my post letters’: Bedford subsequently moaned about his maintaining his ‘imperturbable silence’. Russell for once attended the annual Bedford mayor’s feast, 29 Sept., to the pleasure of his father, who did not, however, fail to tell him that his unexcused absence the previous year had caused offence. He had evidently offered to make way for Lord John, who had been defeated in Huntingdonshire at the general election, but the duke would not hear of it.35

Russell, who was reported by Tavistock to their father in October 1826 as having ‘taken a very erroneous view of the corn question’ by favouring a more open trade, joined in urging Lord John not to stay on the continent, as he threatened to do, but to return to Parliament to ‘look after the rotten boroughs’ and turn his attention to the desperate state of affairs in Ireland.36 Russell voted for Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and for the opposition motion to delay voting the supplies until the ministerial uncertainty was resolved, 30 Mar. 1827. Bedford concurred in his view that Canning was ‘forming a ministry of odds and ends, all he can catch or purchase’; but he deplored the Lansdowne Whigs’ union with him, of which his sons took a more relaxed view. In mid-May he acknowledged Russell’s ‘very amiable and sensible letter’, which gave ‘the only clear exposé, and well argued apology for the late transactions I have yet seen’, but warned him that his belief that the ministry would do good in Ireland would be ‘disappointed, for there is no doubt that it is an understood thing between the king and Canning that the Catholic question is not to be carried’.37 Russell, who attended the county meeting to petition the Lords for enhanced agricultural protection, 23 May,38 voted for the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May 1827. In June he went with his regiment to Ireland, having evidently incurred his wife’s very severe displeasure by some unknown transgression, for which she punished him by refusing to go with him immediately. At the end of July he begged her forgiveness:

I feel so wretched ... My thoughts are incessantly with you and my boys ... I love you with all my heart and soul. I hope that when we meet again we shall part no more ... I ... am tormented by dreary, disagreeable thoughts. Dearest Bessy, pardon me. I am not as bad as you believe me to be, and with the help of God I will be better. How I wish we could live in peace and harmony together.

He remained somewhat at odds with his father over politics, though Bedford assured him that he had ‘never heard your political conduct maligned or calumniated by anyone’. The duke reproached him for the ‘splenetic bitterness’ with which he attacked Lord Grey and wished him joy of his declared preference for Holland, who would ‘swim you into foul waters’.39 Russell sent Lord John his observations on the state of Ireland, ‘a most curious country’; they were well received, though his brother quibbled with his assessment of Canning’s successor, Lord Goderich, as ‘a Tory’. Bedford accused him of being ‘singular’ in his admiration of Lord Lansdowne for joining the new ministry, and suggested that only he and old Lord William were now out of step with the rest of the family. Russell confided to Lady Holland that he could see no reason to condemn Lansdowne as ‘weak’, and that his own object, which would determine his conduct when the government met Parliament, was to ‘exclude those horrid old Tories’.40

After two wretched months in barracks in Dundalk, Lady William became determined to visit her mother in Berne, and Russell, who was upset to see ‘the most brilliant, the sweetest flower of Europe on such a dung-hill’, gave in. Making what was probably the crucial mistake of his life, he used the state of her health to obtain three months’ leave of absence from his regiment to accompany her. Exhorted by his father, anxious to secure family unity, to talk with Tavistock before deciding what political line to take on his return, and if possible to look to Lord Althorp* for a lead, he told Lord John, 24 Dec. 1827, that he might be home in time for the opening of Parliament, and hoped he might be able to go with the ‘upright, well-intentioned’ Althorp. In the event, he arrived in London on 12 Feb. 1828, ‘looking well, and very "dapper"’ as Lord John reported.41 He attended the House to vote for his brother’s motion for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., but his only other known vote that session was against extending the franchise at East Retford to the freeholders of Bassetlaw, 21 Mar. Five days earlier the arrival of a ‘dreadful letter from Bessy’ had, as he noted in his diary, ‘overwhelmed my spirits’. He took to reading the Bible, ‘with an intention of reading it through, two or three chapters a day’, and reflected, 6 Apr., after a family gathering at Woburn, that ‘politics is the only subject on which Englishmen talk with pleasure and eagerness, and it is the most important affair of life except for religion’. The following day, when he went to Laleham to meet Wellington, whose gossiping conversation disappointed him, he told his wife, in a letter chiefly about the problem of their sons’ education, that ‘I pass my time here much in reading and reflecting, I hope beneficially ... and indeed I feel my mind is adopting different views and sentiments’. He presented petitions against the friendly societies regulation bill, 1, 5 May. Three days later, on his 38th birthday, he wrote to Lady William:

I pray to God that those years which He is graciously pleased to allot me in this world, may be spent in sincere repentance for the past and such an anxious desire to lead a life of goodness, as may induce Almighty God to pardon my past transgressions, and assist me to atone for my sins by upholding me in my intentions. But you, dearest Bessy, what am I to say to you? Alas, this is a black page without hope. Nothing, no nothing can restore your confidence, your love - God have mercy on me.

Clearly a deeply troubled man, he had hoped to vote on the Catholic question before returning to Switzerland, but its repeated postponement and adjournment meant that he sailed for the continent on 10 May, two days before the division.42

Settling his pregnant wife at Lausanne, Russell returned to rejoin his regiment in Ireland in mid-July 1828. On arrival in London he discovered that he could not afford to have a house built at Wimbledon, as he had been planning to do. After consulting Wellington and Lord Fitzroy Somerset* about his professional prospects, he indicated to his father, who was not a little irritated, that he was inclined to go back on half-pay. From barracks in Ireland, reflecting on his ‘fatal sin’ and admitting that ‘had it not been for my own brutality you and my boys would have been with me’, he informed his wife that he had decided to join a French expedition to fight the Turks in the Morea, and that he hoped to collect her in Switzerland and take her south with him. As he told Lady Holland (whose husband he now referred to as ‘my political leader, the only statesman left who has the great noble manly views of Mr. Fox’): ‘Lady William will probably be confined abroad. We cannot afford to live in England; besides, her health is better abroad and we have no house and little to do in England’. At Cheltenham, on his way to London, he met Wellington, who strongly advised him to forget the French project. He concurred and, after selling his commission for £5,000, settling his debts, and depositing surplus money with his father, he left for Lausanne on 28 Sept. 1828. He eventually found his wife at Berne, and at the beginning of the winter they migrated to Florence, where she was to be confined.43 Russell’s absence from the Bedford mayor’s feast at the end of September ‘excited much discontent’, as it was reported to his father, who initially admonished him, though he took part of the blame on himself for having forgotten to urge him to delay his departure to attend. After Russell’s explanation, however, he deemed his ‘justification ample’, and criticized Tavistock and the mayor for not having transmitted the apologies which Russell claimed to have sent to the latter. The duke went on:

With regard to your going out of Parliament I can see no necessity for it whatever. If any unforeseen event should occur so as to prevent your future attendance, it will then be time enough to think of it, but I suppose there will be nothing to prevent your coming over after Lady William est relevee de ses couches, and there is seldom business of much importance till after Easter.44

Lord John, anticipating an important session, with the Catholic question coming to a crisis, was anxious that Russell should

be here, for it will be a time to assert great and immortal principles ... I am quite uneasy to think you should be so far away. It exposes you either to a long journey, and a long separation from your family, or to your discontenting my father, Tavistock, your friends, and yourself by not doing your duty.

Bedford endorsed these sentiments, though he felt that he could not press Russell ‘to stir till your wife is safe in her bed’. Yet at the end of 1828 Lord John informed his brother that in view of the prevailing uncertainty, ‘you may as well wait at least for the report of the first day’s debate’.45 In January 1829 Lord John, who assured Russell that ‘your perpetual complaints of the injustice with which your wife is treated in this country are totally unfounded’, and Tavistock brought increasing pressure to bear on him in an attempt to prevent him from being permanently seduced from England. They pointed out the desirability of having his sons educated there, and reminded him of his political obligations and the threat which his absence was posing to the family interest at Bedford. In early February, when the Wellington ministry’s concession of Catholic emancipation was confirmed, they, Bedford and Holland, who was ‘asked to press you’, insisted that he should go to England as soon as Lady William was safe. She gave birth to their third son on 20 Feb. Four days later Russell, whose diary indicates that he was finding her increasingly hard to live with, though he laid some of the blame on himself, wrote to Holland:

You are right in thinking you have great influence over me, politically, no one except my good brother has more. When Aeolus let loose the Luctantis ventos tempestatesque sonoras which scattered and shipwrecked the Whigs, you were the plank to which I stuck - in the first place there is magic in the name of Fox, in the next place I like your views on our foreign policy. England should be the terror of the ambitious and the scheming, and the asylum of the oppressed ... in civil and religious freedom and all that concerns our domestic policy, we go hand in hand together. I liked Canning because he lifted us out of that foreign mud in which we had been grovelling ever since the peace, and because he was a friend to Ireland. In these two great virtues were swallowed up all his little vices. It does not do to look at a minister with a microscope.

He eventually left for England after christening his son, but arrived too late to vote on the Catholic relief bill.46 He attended the House to divide for the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 May 1829, the last known vote of his parliamentary career.

Russell paid £1,314 for the lieutenant-colonelcy of the 90th Foot, then stationed in the Ionian Islands. Just before returning to the continent in early June 1829, he was persuaded by Tavistock, against his own better judgement, to write to the alderman who had proposed him at the last election offering to resign his seat. Tavistock later claimed that the offer was declined, but that the leading supporters of the Russells suggested that he might make way for Lord John at the next general election. This notion evidently had little appeal for Russell, who was lectured sternly on the subject of Bedford later in the year by a worried Tavistock.47 Russell rejoined his family in Florence in mid-June, before moving with them to Switzerland for the summer. In the autumn they returned to Italy, where Lady William took up residence in Rome, while Russell went to inspect his regiment. He remained there for four weeks, was offered by Adam, the high commissioner, the post of resident at Cephalonia and got two months’ leave to return to Rome. Lord John, who had been with the Russells at Florence earlier in the year, gathered that his brother’s professional prospects would be best served by his remaining with his regiment until it came back to England, and, taking a quite different line from Tavistock, advised him that he could probably stay away for all or most of the next session, provided he returned to England in the summer to safeguard his seat. Trying to persuade Lady William of the wisdom of this course, whether or not she decided to go to Corfu, he wrote:

Never allow William to quit Parliament, army, etc., which in his last letter to me he talks of. Bedford will be quiet this year ... Give up all thoughts of Parliament this year - settle between Corfu and Rome as best you can with credit, for William must not lose his military reputation; come to England in August next year, and contrive to have the regiment here for the next winter so that William may vote in every important question that comes on.

As Russell had feared, his wife would have nothing to do with Corfu, and at the end of the year he turned down the offer of Cephalonia.48

Russell, who in January 1830 deplored to Lady Holland ‘our pitiful foreign policy’ and expressed the hope that her husband and Grey would form ‘a cordial alliance’, went back to Corfu in March. To Lord John he wrote, 1 Apr.:

I like your line in politics, it is straightforward, principled and devoid of factious opposition. This great reduction of taxes puts me in good humour with the ministry, it is beyond our most sanguine hopes and will relieve the poor suffering peasantry, but I should not yet be satisfied, much more yet can still be reduced without hurting our respectability or efficient force ... I am for urging on the ministry, without turning them out. We shall not get so good a one to replace them.

His brother now urged him to resign his commission in June and come home, and pressed Lady William to accompany him and settle in England.49 Russell returned to Italy on leave in June, missed his wife at Rome, and eventually ran her to earth at Genoa on 6 July. It was not a happy reunion, and their increasingly tempestuous relationship tortured Russell. He was furious when he was peremptorily notified by his father that at the general election occasioned by the death of George IV, Lord John was to stand in his place for Bedford, where the family interest was under serious attack, largely as a result of Russell’s absenteeism: ‘Your coming into the new Parliament is quite out of the question. You must stick to your profession where you are doing so well’. Lord John told him that all concerned were ‘agreed that it would be folly for you to stand for Bedford again’, for his defeat was certain; and the duke, who, without consulting him, secured him an appointment as one of the new king’s aides-de-camp, assured him that when he left the army, but not before, ‘I have no doubt that we shall be able to find you a seat in Parliament if such should be your wish’. Russell, who moved with his family to Geneva in early August 1830, remained sore for months over his summary ejection from Parliament; and his brother’s defeat by one vote at Bedford only reinforced his astoundingly purblind argument, of which family and friends tried to show him the folly, that he himself would have won the seat.50

Lady William decided to accept the offer of a place in the queen’s bedchamber, and Russell got another six months leave from his regiment in September 1830, but they remained in Switzerland all winter. Russell had plenty of advice, on both domestic and foreign politics, for his brother, appointed paymaster in the Grey ministry, and for Holland, the lord privy seal: he was particularly anxious that

the Whigs should not fall into that error of which they are so commonly accused, of holding one language out of office and another in office ... You have promised us reform, economy and non-interference, and that is all we ask for; act up to your own motto, and the country will support you.

He had decided by February 1831 to go back on the half-pay list, a decision of which his father ‘entirely’ disapproved: ‘You are a good soldier, and no great politician, no farmer, no scientific pursuits’.51 Russell, leaving his wife and children in Paris, arrived in England at the beginning of May, in time to assist with the Bedfordshire election, in which Tavistock and another reformer were successful. He told Lord John:

You have raised a noble spirit in the country ... It is like a burst of spring after a severe winter. A few months ago we were all discontented, and none more discontented than myself, now we are all contented, and none more contented than myself ... There is a most extraordinary spirit abroad, not only in England but all over the world, and I don’t think your colleagues are aware of it. The art is to lead this spirit and not let it lead you.

He confirmed his decision to revert to half-pay later in the month, and his father made him the offer of a return for Tavistock, where Lord John was about to vacate, having been returned for Huntingdonshire: ‘it must be on one condition, viz. that you are not running over to Paris or elsewhere, while this great question is pending, but you must be at your post day and night, till the reform bill is safely through the Commons’. Russell ‘hesitated’, and before he came to a decision Bedford was pressed by the leading electors of Tavistock to accommodate John Hawkins, a young man who had made a splash with a speech in support of the reform bill and been turned out of his seat for Mitchell. When his father informed him of this Russell took the hint and ‘desired to waive all claim’.52 A few days later he told Holland:

Madame de Flahaut wrote in a good natured wish to be of use to me, to suggest I should be employed in diplomacy. I have no desire whatever to be so employed. It is too intricate and unintelligible a science for my poor understanding. I might be proclaimed a liar and hypocrite all over Europe, like Lord Ponsonby, or duped like poor Lieven, and I have no wish to expose myself to be despised or laughed at without deserving either. If ever diplomacy is put upon a footing of straightforward open dealing upon principle, I shall be very glad to serve in it, but at present I feel no disposition to lose myself in its dark and tortuous ways.53

Less than two months after this outburst he went as private secretary to Sir Robert Adair† on his special mission to Brussels, thus embarking on the diplomatic career which occupied him for the next ten years and restored some point and self-respect to his life. His marriage, however, went from bad to worse, and was effectively destroyed by his embarrassingly blatant infidelity with a Jewish widow at Baden Baden in 1835, which shocked many who witnessed it.54 Thereafter he and Lady William lived essentially separate lives, though there was no formal split. Russell, who turned down the offer of the government of Bombay in July 1841, was outraged to be recalled from Berlin soon afterwards by the new Conservative government, though he could not reasonably have expected to be left in place. The public quarrel which he picked with Lord Aberdeen, the foreign secretary, required the intervention of Charles Greville to settle it and restore their mutual good humour.55

Russell cut a sad figure in his last years. On 8 May 1845 he wrote: ‘55 alas, alas. Hair grey, teeth decaying, strength diminishing, memory failing and all the symptoms of old age; time to die’.56 He left England for the last time that month to join his wife at Carlsbad, but was soon made miserable by her temper. He moved to Italy, while Lady William and their two youngest sons wintered in Vienna. He was taken seriously ill at Genoa in March 1846, and again in June, when his eldest son went to attend him. When Lady William, responding to an urgent summons, reached Genoa on 19 June 1846, she found Russell ‘unconscious and speechless’, but five days later he had made something of a recovery. It was only temporary, for he died at Genoa, 16 July 1846, the very day on which his younger brother, just installed as prime minister after Peel’s fall from power, explained and defended his conduct in the Commons.57 By his will, dated 2 Mar. 1844, he confirmed the trust fund provisions made a year earlier for his younger sons. He left his leasehold London house in Grosvenor Place to his eldest son, with permission for his wife to occupy it if she wished.58 The weak health of Tavistock and his only son, Lord Russell*, had often seemed to put the dukedom tantalisingly within Russell’s reach, but they both comfortably outlived him. However, his eldest son, Francis Charles Hastings Russell (1819-91), a suicide, succeeded his cousin as 9th duke of Bedford in 1872. The second son, Arthur John Edward (1825-92), was Liberal Member for Tavistock, 1857-85; and the third, Odo William Leopold (1829-84), had a distinguished diplomatic career and was created Baron Ampthill in 1881. Lady William, who became a Catholic in 1860, was a celebrated London hostess from 1850 until her death in 1874.59

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


See G. Blakiston, Lord William Russell and his Wife, 1815-1846 (1972), which draws in part on the privately printed Letters to Lord G. William Russell (1915-20).

  • 1. Blakiston, 1-17.
  • 2. Ibid. 46-47.
  • 3. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 11 Mar.; Add. 51662, Bedford to Holland, 10 Mar.; 51676, Russell to same, 13 Mar. 1820.
  • 4. Northampton Mercury, 20 Jan. 1821.
  • 5. The Times, 25 Jan. 1821.
  • 6. Ibid. 4 Apr. 1821.
  • 7. Blakiston, 48-81; Add. 51676, Russell to Holland, 20 June, to Lady Holland, 18 Aug., 6 Oct. 1821, 29 May, 27 June 1822.
  • 8. Add. 51676.
  • 9. Blakiston, 59-60; Russell Letters, i. 4-5; ii. 1-3.
  • 10. Russell Letters, ii. 6.
  • 11. Add. 51676.
  • 12. Russell Early Corresp. i. 225-6; Russell Letters, ii. 12.
  • 13. Blakiston, 64-72; Add. 51676.
  • 14. Fox Jnl. 159.
  • 15. Blakiston, 72-82; Russell Letters, i. 10, 13, 15, 17; ii. 19; Add. 51667, Bedford to Lady Holland [13 Apr. 1823].
  • 16. Blakiston, 82-94.
  • 17. Ibid. 94-102; Add. 51676, Russell to Holland [c.10 June 1823].
  • 18. The Times, 4 July 1823.
  • 19. Fox Jnl. 168.
  • 20. Blakiston, 103-14; Add. 51676, Russell to Holland [c.10 June], Thursday [Nov.], to Lady Holland, 9, 23 Nov. 1823.
  • 21. The Times, 19 Mar. 1824.
  • 22. Add. 51667, Bedford to Lady Holland, Tuesday [16 Mar. 1824].
  • 23. Blakiston, 113, 117-34; Add. 51668, Bedford to Lady Holland, 22 Aug. [1824]; 51679, Lord J. Russell to same, 12 Aug. [1824].
  • 24. Blakiston, 113, 116-17; Russell Letters, i. 30-40; ii. 42-43; Add. 51668, Bedford to Lady Holland, Wed. [27 Oct. 1824].
  • 25. Blakiston, 125-6.
  • 26. Ibid. 128-9; Russell Letters, ii. 53; Wellington Despatches, iii. 353-4.
  • 27. Blakiston, 131.
  • 28. Ibid. 114, 131-4.
  • 29. Ibid. 136; Russell Letters, i. 42-43.
  • 30. Blakiston, 136-7.
  • 31. Russell Letters, ii. 57.
  • 32. Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press, 17 June 1826.
  • 33. Ibid. 1, 8 July 1826; Russell Letters, ii. 59-60.
  • 34. Blakiston, 138-40.
  • 35. Add. 51669, Bedford to Lady Holland, 1, 5, 7, 21 Sept.; 51676, Russell to same, 20 Aug. [1827]; Russell Letters, i. 130-2.
  • 36. Russell Letters, i. 51-52; Russell Early Corresp., i. 252-3.
  • 37. Russell Letters, i. 62-63; ii. 83-85.
  • 38. Herts Mercury, 26 May 1827.
  • 39. Blakiston, 144-6.
  • 40. Russell Early Corresp. i. 260-1; Russell Letters, i. 73-74; ii. 99-100; Blakiston, 147; Add. 51676, Russell to Lady Holland, 19 Sept. [1827].
  • 41. Blakiston, 147-8, 151-3; Russell Letters, i. 81-84; Russell Early Corresp. i. 269-70; Add. 51679, Lord J. Russell to Lady Holland, Sat. [5 Jan. 1828].
  • 42. Blakiston,157-66.
  • 43. Ibid. 167-73; Russell Letters, i. 94; ii. 130-2; Add. 51676, Russell to Lady Holland, 20 Aug.; 51679, Lord J. Russell to same, Sat. [27 Sept.] 1828.
  • 44. Russell Letters, ii. 154; Blakiston, 173.
  • 45. Russell Letters, i. 104-5; ii. 156; Blakiston, 173-7.
  • 46. Blakiston, 174-8; Russell Letters, i. 109, 112, 116; ii. 178-9, 181-2, 184; Add. 51676, Russell to Lady Holland, 24 Feb. [1829].
  • 47. Blakiston, 194, 198; Russell Letters, i. 153-4.
  • 48. Blakiston, 189-204, 207-8; Russell Letters, i. 132-3; ii. 235; Add. 51676, Russell to Lady Holland, 4 Oct. [1829].
  • 49. Blakiston, 204-11; Add. 51676, Russell to Lady Holland, 9 Jan., 26 Feb. [1830]; Russell Early Corresp. i. 318; Russell Letters, ii. 239.
  • 50. Blakiston, 209-21, 223; Russell Letters, i. 143, 145-7, 152-5, 158-9; ii. 251, 256-7, 260-8; Add. 51670, Bedford to Lady Holland [22 Aug.]; 51676, Russell to same, 30 July [1830].
  • 51. Blakiston, 221-31; Russell Letters, ii. 320-1, 325, 329, 334; Russell Early Corresp. i. 318; ii. 15-17; Add. 51676, Russell to Holland, 9 Jan., to Lady Holland [Mar.], 22 Apr. 1831.
  • 52. Russell Early Corresp. ii. 19-20; Russell Letters, ii. 340-2; Add. 51663, Bedford to Holland, Tues. [31 May 1831]; Blakiston, 231-2.
  • 53. Add. 51676, Russell to Holland, 7 June 1831.
  • 54. Blakiston, 235-363; G. Huxley, Lady Elizabeth and the Grosvenors, 150-1; Lieven-Palmerston Corresp. 111.
  • 55. Blakiston, 363-459; Add. 43238, ff. 66, 240, 242, 273, 281; 43239, ff. 17, 19; Greville Mems. iv. 434; v. ii, 41.
  • 56. Blakiston, 507.
  • 57. Ibid. 507-37; Add. 52010, Lady W. Russell to 4th Lord Holland, 24 June [1846]; Walpole, Russell, i. 432.
  • 58. PROB 11/2047/923; IR26/1751/784.
  • 59. Blakiston, 544.