This Parliament saw three administrations and the untimely deaths of the parliamentary giants William Pitt and Charles James Fox. The administration of Henry Addington appeared to be secure after the general election, but his perceived vacillations on the resumption of war with France in the spring of 1803 prompted the Foxite Whigs and, eventually, Pitt to combine with the Grenvillite ‘new opposition’ and adherents of the prince of Wales to bring him down in April 1804. The king’s veto on Fox frustrated any hope of a broad-based government under Pitt, who ploughed on alone, but, despite a temporary junction with Addington (created Lord Sidmouth), was unable to command a reliable majority in the House. He died in January 1806, when the king reluctantly asked Lord Grenville to form a government, which, as the so-called ministry of ‘All the Talents’, took in the Foxites and Sidmouthites. Fox, foreign secretary and leader of the House, died while suing unsuccessfully for peace in September 1806. Grenville, seeking to strengthen the ministry’s position in the Commons, secured a dissolution the following month.
The elections ran from 5 July until 14 Aug. 1802. Ninety-seven of the now 380 constituencies (26 per cent) were contested. There was a significant contest in Middlesex, where the patrician radical Sir Francis Burdett beat the sitting Tory William Mainwaring into third place by 271 votes in a poll of over 6,200. Inquiry into the ensuing petitions led to Burdett’s election being declared void and Mainwaring found guilty of bribery in July 1804. At the by-election Mainwaring’s son defeated Burdett by five votes in a poll of 5,651. Burdett was seated on petition in March 1805, but this decision was reversed in February 1806. In 1802, 150 Members (23 per cent) with no previous parliamentary experience came in. Another 105 were returned during the lifetime of the Parliament. While no contemporary analysis of the results has been found, a notional one might have reckoned on 467 supporters of the Addington ministry, 124 Foxites, 25 ‘new opposition’, with 42 independent or doubtful; but an apparently impregnable government lost control of the Commons in less than two years.
When the new Parliament met the only obvious opposition groups were the 30 or so Grenvillite ‘new opposition’ Members, with William Windham prominent, and a few of Pitt’s more disgruntled adherents, notably George Canning, who made no secret of their contempt for Addington. The House contained a complex jumble of fractured parties, factions and personal groupings. Among them were some 40 Members who looked to the reversionary interest of the prince of Wales, now alienated from his father George III. A motion for inquiry into the prince’s financial plight, 4 Mar. 1803, attracted a minority of 139. By now renewed war to meet Bonaparte’s aggression was looming. Although Addington and his colleagues showed considerable ability in raising funds and creating a substantial volunteer force to meet the threat of invasion, they received little credit from their parliamentary opponents. There was a largely Foxite muster of 67 (to 398) against war, 24 May 1803, but only 34 Members, mostly ‘new opposition’ and hostile Pittites, voted for a motion of censure, alleging ministerial incompetence to conduct hostilities, 3 June 1803. On this occasion Pitt himself took a neutral course, but he was becoming increasingly envious of Addington.
By February 1804 Fox and Lord Grenville had agreed to join forces against the ministry. The ensuing sustained attack on its defence measures was backed by the prince’s friends and, after initial prevarication, by Pitt. When hostile motions in late April 1804 attracted 203 and 204 votes, Addington threw in the towel. Pitt, deprived of an alliance in government with Fox and his cousin Grenville by the king’s veto on the former, had to form a narrow-based administration, which inherited the opposition to Addington’s and was weak in the House from the outset. A series of analyses of the House by Pitt’s managers between May and September 1804 reckoned on 389 supporters of the ministry and a potential opposition of about 250, which included 60 Members attached to Addington. Pitt negotiated a reconciliation and junction with Addington, who was kicked upstairs as Lord Sidmouth, in December 1804; but the alliance was short-lived, as the Sidmouthites voted for the prosecution of Pitt’s friend and cabinet colleague Lord Melville, 12 June 1805, and left the ministry soon afterwards. A ministerial analysis of the House now gave the government some 373 supporters and about 268 opponents, should the Sidmouthites align with Fox and Grenville. Pitt’s attempt to forge a coalition with the latter came to nothing, and although the naval victory of Trafalgar, 21 Oct. 1805, which ensured British supremacy at sea, boosted him, his schemes for the European land war were wrecked by Bonaparte’s victory at Austerlitz.
Pitt died of bowel cancer, aged 46, on 23 Jan. 1806. His home secretary Lord Hawkesbury (later 2nd earl of Liverpool) declined to form a government, and the king was forced to turn to Grenville and Fox, who took in Sidmouth and company. Fox died, aged 57, in September 1806, and was replaced as foreign secretary and leader of the House by the former Friend of the People, Lord Howick (later 2nd Earl Grey). The collapse of peace negotiations and imminence of war between France and Prussia cleared Grenville’s way to secure an autumn dissolution.
The most dramatic episode of the Parliament was the attack on Pitt’s boon companion Henry Dundas (1st Viscount Melville from 1802), a senior member of his 1804 cabinet, over allegations, in the tenth naval commissioners’ report, of his malversation of public funds as treasurer of the navy (1784-1800). On 8 Apr. 1805 the Speaker’s casting vote carried a motion of censure by 217-216. Pitt managed to stall the proposed inquiry by select committee, but on 12 June the Sidmouthite Nathaniel Bond carried by 238-229 a proposal for Melville’s criminal prosecution, after Samuel Whitbread’s motion for impeachment was defeated by 272-195. Melville’s friends realised that impeachment by his peers was a safer option, and on 25 June 1805 this proposal was carried. Melville’s humiliation and consequent resignation helped to break the ailing and exhausted Pitt’s spirit. (The impeachment, the last ever of a British minister, took place in Westminster Hall, 29 Apr.-12 June 1806, and Melville, though clearly guilty, by his own admission, was acquitted on all charges.)
The committee which investigated petitions contesting the result of the 1802 election at the householder borough of Aylesbury discovered systematic bribery and recommended remedial action. A bill extending the franchise to the 40s. freeholders of the hundreds of Risborough, Stone and Aylesbury, which doubled the electorate to 1,000, became law on 29 June 1804 (44 Geo. III, c. 60). Aylesbury thus joined the ‘sluiced’ boroughs of New Shoreham (1771) and Cricklade (1782).
James J. Sack, The Grenvillites, 1801-29 (Urbana, Ohio, 1979)
Gillian Russell, The Theatres of War: Performance, Politics, and Society, 1793-1815 (Oxford, 1995)