Thursday, 9 April 2015

Henry Bathurst: Who was he?

The Third Earl Bathurst (1762-1834), President of the Board of Trade & Secretary of State for War and the Colonies

Along with the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, and Castlereagh at the Foreign Office, Earl Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, was a key figure in shaping Britain's foreign, military and imperial policy for over a decade.

To say that Bathurst has been forgotten would perhaps give a false impression: a poor public speaker, always a somewhat shadowy figure in the Liverpool Government, he made little impression on contemporaries outside ruling circles.(1)

Almost a century later, Earl Rosebery delivered the most damning of verdicts:

Who was Bathurst?

It is difficult to say. He was we know, grandson of that secular Lord Bathurst who, sixty years after his first elevation to the peerage was created an Earl, and who, in the last months of his life, in his ninety-first year, was the subject of a famous apostrophe by Burke. He was, we know, son of that second Lord Bathurst, who was the least capable of Chancellors. He himself was one of those strange children of our political system who fill the most dazzling offices with the most complete obscurity. He had presided over the Foreign Office. He was now, and was for a term of fifteen years, a Secretary of State. Yet even our most microscopic Biographical Dictionary may be searched in vain for more than dry recital of the offices that he filled, the date of his birth, and the date of his death. (2)

Bathurst's biographer in my view fails to bring this obscure figure to life, but from the biography we can glean a little of the man. His family were recipients of royal patronage and he was a staunch friend of the monarchy and highly regarded by all the Kings he served; a sincere believer in the aristocratic order and an opponent of parliamentary reform, in his dying days he remained an uncompromising opponent of the 1832 Reform Bill.

In 1808 he was relieved to be able to sell the family's London home, Apsley House, to a fellow aristocrat, Lord Wellesley, and said he would have been unwilling to sell it to a financier or merchant. (3) This from a man who then held office as President of the Board of Trade!

His was a fairly typical aristocratic background: educated at Eton, not bothering to complete his degree at Oxford, venturing outside the country in his youth, he visited France, Germany and Austria but somewhat untypically, missed out Italy. Thereafter apart from a brief single trip to Scotland, he stayed in England for the rest of his life. (4)

In foreign affairs a staunch and consistent opponent of France, he believed that Britain's interests required France to be reduced to its pre-1792 borders. In 1801 he even disagreed with his hero William Pitt over the latter's approval of the peace negotiated with Napoleon. (5)

In early 1814 amidst a flurry of diplomatic activity interspersed with battles as Napoleon fought a rearguard action against the continental alliance, Bathurst was among those members of the Cabinet strongly opposed to conceding better terms in order to bring about an end to war. (6)

For Bathurst it was an ideological struggle which went beyond the long-standing Anglo-French competition for hegemony. Bathurst told Wellington in March 1814 that he preferred Britain to fight alone for the Bourbon cause if Spain and Holland were safe rather than accept Napoleon in concert with the other allies. (7) In another despatch to Wellington he described the battle of Toulouse on 10th April 1814 between Wellington and Soult as the last effort in an expiring cause, consistent in evil, to protract the miseries which its supporters had occasioned, and to postpone as long as possible the return of that harmony and peace which they had for upward of twenty years too successfully laboured to disturb. (8)

As surprised as anyone by Napoleon's return from Elba, and informed by Wellington that the King would destroy him without difficulty, Bathurst was far from convinced that Napoleon would re-establish control in Paris.(9) In the event Bathurst was with Wellington at the centre of the hectic planning for the renewal of war: having sent an army to fight in America, Britain was short of troops, and efforts to recruit more proved disappointing. It was also difficult to call out the militia, since Britain was not legally at war. Napoleon again surprised the allies by crossing over into Belgium in mid June, rather than waiting for the inevitable attack on Paris. Among those who fought at Waterloo was Bathurst's own son, Seymour who had been appointed as one of Wellington's aides-de-campe. Hearing of the news of Napoleon's surrender, Seymour Bathurst wrote to his mother

I cannot conceive the state you must all be in with Bonaparte in England. What are you going to do with him &c. Pray go and see him and be civil to him. I am all for his being treated well.(10)

By the time that Seymour Bathurst had written the letter the British Cabinet, minus Castlereagh who was in France, had pretty well decided that Napoleon would be sent to St. Helena, and Bathurst who was to superintend Napoleon's exile until the latter's death, informed Wellington that he had appointed Sir Hudson Lowe as the new Governor,

I do not believe we could have found a fitter person of his rank in the army willing to accept a situation of so much confinement, responsibility, and exclusion from society." (11)

Napoleon was given the official decision by Admiral Lord Keith, accompanied by Colonel Bunbury. Accompanying them, although to his annoyance not allowed on board to meet Napoleon, was none other than William Lennox Bathurst, a 24 year old MP for a rotten borough who just happened to be another son of Lord Bathurst!

This web of aristocratic privilege and connection seems to epitomise the eighteenth century world, that rarefied world of order, harmony and peace from which Bathurst had emerged, and which he and the Liverpool Government fought to preserve against foes at home and abroad. At the same time Bathurst and his colleagues laid the foundations of British hegemony, the domination of its manufactures and its manufacturers, and of a triumphant liberal ideology for which they had little sympathy.
1. Neville Thompson, Earl Bathurst and the British Empire, 1762-1834 (Leo Cooper, Great Britain, 1999), Introduction vii-x.
2.Lord Rosebery, Napoleon The Last Phase London 1900, pp 117-118. Bathurst's biographer, Neville Thompson pours scorn on this judgement, coming from a man who had himself only very briefly been Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Party!
3. Thompson p. 30
4.Thompson p. 11
5. Thompson p. 21-22
6. Thompson p. 72.
7. Bathurst to Wellington, 29 March, 1814, quoted in Thompson p. 73
8. quoted in Thompson p. 74
9. Thompson p. 89
10 quoted in Thompson p. 100
11. quoted in Thompson p. 101
12. ibid