BURKE, Richard (1758-94).

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



18 July - 2 Aug. 1794

Family and Education

b. 9 Feb. 1758, 1st and o. surv. s. of Edmund Burke*. educ. by Rev. Thomas King 1769-71, in France 1773-4; Westminster 1771-2; Christ Church, Oxf. 1772; M. Temple 1775, called 1780, L. Inn 1787. unm.

Offices Held

Dep. paymaster-gen. Mar.-July 1782, Apr.-Dec. 1783; jt. receiver land revenues, Mdx. 1783-d.

Recorder, Bristol 1783-d.


Richard Burke, recalled Lord Holland, was

sincerely attached to his father. It was his only virtue. He had every quality that could render him disagreeable to other persons, and no great talents to counterbalance them. Hence he was disliked and neglected by the members of opposition. But the affection of a child naturally blinds a parent to his failings, and Burke saw none in his son.

He had scant success as a barrister on the northern circuit and his father was frustrated in a bid to make adequate permanent provision for him when his friends were in power— the reversion of the clerkship of the pells was his ambition. But he was in everything his father’s deputy and associate, his amanuensis, companion and confidant. In 1782-3 he was his deputy as paymaster, in 1788 committee clerk at Warren Hastings’s trial and, had the Whigs returned to office in 1789, the Duke of Portland was to have endowed him with the reversion of half of a pension of £2,000 p.a. for his father, for life. In March 1790 he was appointed auditor of Earl Fitzwilliam’s estates and, later that year, manager of Portland’s.1

According to Lord Holland, Burke’s father’s resentment at Whig neglect of his heir exacerbated his quarrel with the party: ‘Burke was hurt at the little value set upon his son; his son was offended at what appeared to him a relaxation of the homage due to his father. Good feeling sometimes begets bad conduct.’ Richard, who might have reconciled them, aggravated his father’s quarrel with Sheridan. As the instrument of his father’s desire to unite the royalists of Europe against the French revolutionary regime, he was sent, unofficially, to Koblenz in August 1791. Before he went he embarrassed his father by announcing, to a friend of his, his father’s conversion to Pitt, and, en route, this time with his father’s concurrence, he penned a peremptory letter of admonishment to the king of France. He found it beyond his skill to reconcile the French royalists ‘intra and extra’ and was snubbed by ministers on his return. No immediate success, either, attended his mission to Dublin as agent of the Catholic committee in January 1792. According to Chief Secretary Robert Hobart*, Burke

contrived, by his impudence, folly, and misrepresentations, to awake animosities between the Protestants and Catholics that had slept for fifty years, and that a reasonable man might have hoped would have slept on for ever.

This was scarcely just. Hobart was largely instrumental in frustrating Burke’s petition on behalf of the Catholic committee to admit them to the franchise. Snubbed by both governments, he was divested of his agency in July 1792 and was reduced to the role of an observer during a second visit to Ireland in September 1792. This provoked his critical Letter ... to a gentleman of the city of Cork, upon the utility of a Catholic committee (November 1792). He received no credit when the franchise was subsequently conceded to the Irish Catholics.2

‘My parliamentary career’, wrote Burke on 17 Aug. 1792, ‘must wait till there is some coalition of parties. I wait, sometimes with patience, sometimes not ... I have sometimes thought of Parliament in Ireland.’ In the spring of 1793 he sounded Fitzwilliam about a seat, but his employer would not commit himself and, on a vacancy caused by the death of John Lee in August, explained that the wide difference in their views precluded his nomination—since Burke stipulated freedom of action. In a lengthy remonstrance, 16 Aug., Burke pointed out that his real wish was that Fitzwilliam’s line should ‘entirely govern’ his own; that in looking to him for a seat he was merely anticipating what he understood to be Fitzwilliam’s intention for him when his father retired; and that they disagreed only in their view of Fox’s conduct, on which he took his father’s line. He particularly resented being labelled a ‘young man’. Fitzwilliam, in reply, maintained that he showed a proper allegiance to the Duke of Portland, unlike Burke’s father who had made himself Pitt’s ‘standard bearer’. (For this he was severely rebuked by Edmund Burke.) Portland, after seeing Richard’s letter, wrote to Fitzwilliam:

I regret as much as it is possible to do the disqualification which I have long, I must say, which I have always thought young Burke laboured under of being brought into Parliament—a disqualification which it appeared to me nothing but being very strongly established in power could ever enable us to cure, and the perusal of his letter to you puts even that chance out of the question. My knowledge of him will not let me be surprised at the disappointment or the effects of it, but it is impossible to receive a stronger confirmation or justification of the opinion which I had formed than what is contained in the very extraordinary performance which he composed upon the occasion.

On 18 Mar. 1794 Burke resigned his employment under Fitzwilliam and, as his father’s retirement from Parliament drew near, told French Laurence* that he would not accept the seat for Malton if Fitzwilliam offered it to him.3

On his father’s retirement, Burke nevertheless accepted Fitzwilliam’s offer of his seat because the invitation was couched so graciously. He went to Malton for his election a week after the end of the parliamentary session. He died of the effects of tuberculosis a fortnight later, 2 Aug. 1794, having received what his father called ‘a glimmering of public hope before his death’. Edmund Burke reproached himself for having made such unsparing use of his son’s services.4

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: Arthur Aspinall / R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Holland, Mems. Whig Party, 9; Burke Corresp. iv. 430; v. 10; Minto, i. 263.
  • 2. Holland, loc. cit.; Minto, i. 352; Burke Corresp. vi. 302, 316, 318, 396, 404, 429, 471; vii. passim; Colchester, i. 38; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, ii. 203.
  • 3. Burke Corresp. (1844), iii. 502; Burke Corresp. vii. 394, 396; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F31/9; NLS mss 11138, f. 79; Portland mss PwF6246.
  • 4. Burke Corresp. vii. 555, 560, 568, 592.