PETTY, John Henry, Earl Wycombe (1765-1809).
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Family and Education
b. 6 Dec. 1765, 1st s. of William Petty†, 1st Mq. of Lansdowne, by 1st w. Lady Sophia Carteret, da. of John, 2nd Earl Granville; half-bro. of Lord Henry Petty*. educ. privately; Christ Church, Oxf. 1783; European tour 1784-90. m. 20 May 1805, Maria Arabella, da. of Rev. Hinton Maddock of Darland, Denb., wid. of Duke Gifford of Castle Jordan, co. Meath, s.p. suc. fa. as 2nd Mq. of Lansdowne 7 May 1805.
Under his father’s well intentioned but fussy supervision Wycombe was carefully groomed for a political career. He soon came to resent Lansdowne’s constant interference and apparent lack of trust, but by 1790, when he was again returned on his father’s interest for Wycombe, his reaction had gone little beyond an occasional verbal protest. Advised by Lansdowne to ‘take a manly part in politics, be it aristocrat or democrat, or else a respectable quiet part’, he initially showed willing, but he never established himself politically as more than his father’s mouthpiece. He spoke against the proposal to raise an additional naval force, 29 Mar., voted against government on the Oczakov crisis, 12 Apr., and renewed his criticism of the ‘ill conducted and madly extravagant armed negotiation’, 15 Apr. 1791. He was defeated in the ballot for the revenue committee, 11 Apr. Shortly afterwards, he was listed favourable to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland. Then, having been granted a measure of financial independence by his father, he went on a tour of America. On his return in March 1792 he called on Dr James Currie of Liverpool, who wrote of him:
He is a very correct and penetrating young man; delivers his opinion with great elegance and perspicuity, as well as great modesty; and maintains his sentiments with perfect good breeding, but great firmness ... he is not at all an enthusiast. He has a great deal of the ‘nil admirari’ and does not seem to think highly of the virtues and integrity of public men. He is not even an enthusiastic worshipper of liberty, though certainly sound in all his principles ... he is by no means confident respecting the French revolution ... and ... lamented that the friends of reform in this country should take Paine for a leader.1
Wycombe attacked the royal proclamation, 25 May 1792, and declared himself a supporter of ‘moderate reform’. On his return from a visit to Paris he spoke against the address, 13 Dec. 1792, dismissing talk of imminent insurrection as the fabrication of government and deploring the prospect of war. His speech was roughly handled by Pitt, but Fox concurred in its sentiments and praised Wycombe’s ‘good sense, truth, and solid argument’. Lord Holland, who reckoned ‘Wycombe’s reputation rises every day’, judged him ‘many shades nearer’ to Fox in his views than was Lansdowne, but later wrote that this incident and the approach of war had ‘confirmed Lord Lansdowne in opposition’. Holland also applauded Wycombe’s ‘stoutness and courage’ in the debate on the aliens bill, 4 Jan. 1793, though he found his argument, that the treaty with Holland should be disregarded and that not even a defensive armament was justified, ‘extremely absurd’.2 Wycombe spoke and voted against the war, 28 Jan., 1 and 18 Feb., and voted for Grey’s parliamentary reform motion, 7 May 1793, but he was often privately critical of Fox. On 18 June 1793 he commented to his father that ‘Pitt is daily adding to the superiority he has acquired over Fox’, and on 23 Aug. that:
Charles Fox has crippled himself by taking money from people of all complexions. What then is to become of opposition? It is extremely low in point of numbers and it appears to me that there is a dislike not merely to the individuals who compose it, but to the very principles which it becomes it to profess. Reform for instance is scarcely now more popular than in a time of peace and national prosperity.
Lansdowne flattered himself that his son ‘seems to have forgot the sea and all spirit of adventure’, but he spent the last part of 1793 on the Continent and at Brussels was ‘insulted in the street as a Jacobin’.3 When he opened the opposition to the address, criticized the management of the war and called for its termination, 21 Jan. 1794, George III recognized his position as Lansdowne’s spokesman by distinguishing between him and ‘the followers of Mr Fox’. He voted regularly with the Foxite Whigs for the rest of the session, spoke against the maintenance of a militia in Nova Scotia, 31 Jan., complained of the introduction of foreign troops into England, 14 Mar., and, although he acquiesced in the motion for inquiry into corresponding societies, 13 May, claimed to be ‘much inclined to defend those who are desirous of obtaining a parliamentary reform’. A hostile commentator considered him ‘weak and puerile’ as a speaker; but William Bagshaw Stevens described him in April 1794 as ‘an eloquent, sensible young man, listened to in the House’.4
From the summer of 1794 to early 1797 Wycombe was abroad. He lived first at Florence, where he deepened his friendship with Lord Holland, and later left for Lausanne with his mistress, Mrs Wyndham, wife of the British minister at Florence. On first acquaintance the future Lady Holland found him ‘very eccentric’ and predicted domestic problems: ‘For the welfare of himself and family it is to be hoped that his actions are directly opposite to his sentiments; if not, he must be a scourge’.5 His return to England in January 1797 was for a reckoning with his father, who had been tormented by scurrilous reports of Wycombe’s behaviour, but he made a brief sally into the House, using the debate of 28 Feb. on the finances of the Bank to arraign ministerial policy since the outbreak of war, voting for inquiry into the orders in council, 1 Mar., and Whitbread’s motion criticizing the conduct of government in the French attack on Ireland, 3 Mar., and pleading for the adoption of a conciliatory policy towards that country, 23 Mar. He was, however, weary of politics, as he explained to Lord Holland on 28 Apr.:
I have lately considered politics but little unless it be with reference to the propriety of my departure. Were they considered by others in a point of view no more selfish the interests of the nation would be less betrayed.
Lansdowne’s attempt to make him, in Lady Holland’s words, ‘a tool for his ambition, and to live over again in his political career’ had produced only frustration and bitterness in Wycombe, who sought revenge through deliberate wilfulness and a demand for complete independence of family ties. He reached an agreement with Lansdowne to examine the family estates in Ireland with a view to reaching a suitable resettlement of property and left England at the end of April. He did not reappear in the House, but resigned his seat only at the dissolution of 1802.6
His relations with his father were worsened by their tortuous negotiations over property. To Holland he complained (30 Oct. 1797) that ‘a great part of his assiduity for the last 20 years has been directed to the curious object of preventing me from having any profession, pursuit, object, or anything resembling an existence of my own’; and again (18 Mar. 1798), ‘there is scarcely an error or misfortune in my life which I cannot trace up directly or indirectly to my father’. Lady Holland, in the impossible position of confidante to both parties, noted that ‘every moment of each of their lives is embittered by interference on one part and resistance on the other’; but later when Wycombe, having secured the sale of the family’s Buckinghamshire property and gained independent control of some Irish estates, still refused to see Lansdowne, she judged that his ‘conduct is atrocious. He is revenging upon old age and infirmity the little vexations he experienced in his youth’.7
For the bulk of his last five years as a Member, Wycombe stayed in Ireland, attending to estate matters, associating in Dublin with ‘persons who were known to be disaffected’ (thus attracting the watchful attention of government and later coming under threat of arrest) and attempting to curb the wilder indiscretions of Mrs Wyndham, whose husband brought an unsuccessful civil action, which compelled Wycombe to make an unwelcome journey to Florence to procure a witness in December 1800. His correspondence with Lord Holland and Lady Londonderry contains not only amusing accounts of his private life, many ribald anecdotes and much cynical philosophy, but intelligent and well-digested thoughts on party, the Irish problem, the Union, the war and the peace of Amiens. By 1802 he had renewed a cold correspondence with Lansdowne, but immediately after his father’s death he married his current mistress, a fat and vulgar widow, deserted his home and spent his remaining years at Southampton.8
Lord Holland had observed in 1794 that Wycombe’s ‘bad qualities exist more in his systems and his opinions than in his actions or in his heart’. Some 25 years later he recalled him as
a very accomplished man, with much general knowledge, but yet more wit and eloquence, though both were of a very laboured kind. He had more singularity of conduct than originality of thought, but he had much of the latter. He was neither ambitious nor designing, and but for suspicion might have been a good man. But he had perversely persuaded himself, and some errors in his education had taught him, to guard against every kind affection of the heart—a quarter in which he was not by nature very vulnerable.9
He died 15 Nov. 1809.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: David R. Fisher
- 1. Fitzmaurice, Shelburne, ii. 396; Lansdowne mss, Lansdowne to Wycombe, 17 Apr. 1791; Life and Corresp. of James Currie, ii. 81-83.
- 2. Add. 51731, Holland to Caroline Fox, 26 Dec. 1792, 6 Jan. 1793; Holland, Mems. Whig Party, i. 43.
- 3. Lansdowne mss; Add. 47571, f. 96; 51682, Lansdowne to Holland, 25 July, 14 Nov. 1793.
- 4. Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1004; Parl. Portraits (1795), ii. 99; Jnl. of William Bagshaw Stevens, 147.
- 5. Holland, i. 55-56; Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 126-7.
- 6. Add. 51683; Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 175-6.
- 7. Add. 51683, 51684; Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 191, 208-10, 239-40.
- 8. Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1586; HO 100/104; Add. 33105, f. 1; 35645, f. 17; 35744, ff. 110, 112; Leveson Gower, ii. 74. His correspondence with the Hollands is in Add. 51682-51685, that with Lady Londonderry in the Camden mss.
- 9. Add. 51731, Holland to Caroline Fox [Mar. 1794]; Further Mems. Whig Party, 42-43.