Monday, 20 January 2014

A Politician with a Conscience: Charles Yorke

Charles Yorke (London, England, 30th December 1722 – London, England, 20th January 1770)

Charles Yorke by William Ridley, 1803
Charles Yorke by William Ridley, 1803

A sad tale today and one of a politician with no small amount of moral fibre; indeed, he was so distressed at a broken promise that it was eventually the death of him!

Charles Yorke spent his lifetime moving in high Whg circles. Born the son of Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke and Lord Chancellor, he took the parliamentary seat for Reigate and made an immediate splash in the House Commons, marking himself out as one to watch. As his illustrious  career progressed, Yorke rose through the offices of state and served under multiple Prime Ministers, though found his natural home as Attorney-General in the administration of Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, to whom he was fiercely loyal.

When Rockingham was dismissed and Pitt and Grafton came to power, Yorke resigned his office in solidarity with his old colleague, swearing that he would never take office under Grafton. His enthusiasm for the business of parliament appeared somewhat dimmed by his recent experiences and when he was offered the coveted role of Lord Chancellor in 1770, he immediately declined, remembering his pledge to Rockingham. However, George III himself intervened, telling Yorke that he would never be offered the office again should he decline it now. Under pressure from the highest in the land, Yorke reversed his decision and agreed under duress to take his seat on the iconic woolsack.

That evening Yorke visited his brother, his host's coolness doing nothing to assuage the sense of guilt that had already begun to gnaw at him, and went from there to a meeting with his new Opposition partners. By now overwhelmed with shame he returned home, haunted by the knowledge that he had abandoned the pledge made to Rockingham. After three miserable days he could stand it no longer and cut his own throat, meaning to end his life once and for all. Although the wound was treated, when Yorke's wife, Agneta Johnson, showed him the newly-arrived patent of his peerage, he was overwhelmed with despair and tore away his bandages, dying just a few hours later.

For all the guilt and misery he suffered, at the last Yorke never sanctioned the sealing of his peerage, meaning that the newly-created title of Baron Morden died with the man who would have been the first to hold it.


  1. How sad!.He sounds an honest man-for a politician?

  2. Goodness! You don't half pick them! Such a sense of honour would be hard to find today.

  3. A man of honor and loyalty....something our politicians these days should learn lessons from !

    1. Indeed; a politician with a sense of honour!

  4. A very interesting article; am posting it to my Google+ page: Historical Travels with Tom.

  5. 'Everything I value I carry inside me.' - Seneca