Wednesday 2 October 2013

The Political Life of William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire

William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, KG, PC (Hardwick, Derbyshire, England, 8th May 1720 – Austrian Netherlands, 2nd October 1764)

William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire

As my grandmother Gilflurt would say, it's nice to travel but it's lovely to come home. So, after our jaunt around Europe yesterday in the company of a most colourful character, we are welcoming a slightly more staid sort to the salon today. Famed for his Chatsworth Estate as much as his politics, it is a pleasure to pour a glass of something tasty and relate the tale of William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire. 

Cavendish was born into privilege as the son of prominent Whig politician, William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire and his wife, Catherine Hoskins. He enjoyed the best of everything as a child and by the age of 21 had followed his father into politics as Member of Parliament for Derbyshire. Thanks to his father's respected position the young man was well-liked amongst Whig grandees and considered a rising star of the House of Commons. Popular with King George II, Cavendish turned down the role of governor to the Prince of Wales in favour of pursuing his political career, though he remained close to the court.

 Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Boyle, 6th Baroness Clifford
Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Boyle, 6th Baroness Clifford

On 27th March 1748 Cavendish married Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Boyle, 6th Baroness Clifford, daughter of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork. An heiress of great wealth, Charlotte brought with her a number of grand properties and the couple had four children before Charlotte's death in 1754, all of whom lived to adulthood. 

With the death of his father in 1755, Cavendish became Duke of Devonshire and initiated a programme of improvements and renovations of his family home at Chatsworth House. He adored the estate and spent a huge amount of time and money redesigning it to his very exacting specifications, working with legendary architects and landscapers including James Paine and Lancelot "Capability" Brown. 1755 was an eventful year for Cavendish as he left England to serve a short tenure as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, an office he would assume for Derbyshire the following year.

Portrait of the children of the 4th Duke of Devonshire in the gardens of Chiswick House, London by Johann Zoffany
Portrait of the children of the 4th Duke of Devonshire in the gardens of Chiswick House, London by Johann Zoffany

As Britain struggled to gain the upper hand in the Seven Years War, George II turned to the trusted Cavendish to form an administration, a request which he reluctantly agreed to with the caveat that he would serve only under the parliamentary session ended. His short time in office amounted to just seven months, every one of them dominated by William Pitt the Elder. The short Cavendish administration was beset by problems and criticism and was dissolved in favour of the return of the Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, who had preceded Cavendish in office.

Despite his less than illustrious turn at the top, Cavendish was given the office of Lord Chamberlain in Newcastle's government and the men were good friends. However, the death of George II in 1760 and the succession of George III proved a turning point for both Cavendish and Newcastle, with the latter losing his position after a series of disputes with the monarch. The king grew increasingly and wrongly convinced that the two men were plotting their political revenge and George removed Cavendish from the Privy Council as a result, a decision that gained him few friends. In fact, Cavendish was so loyal to Newcastle that, when Newcastle was dismissed from his office as Lord Lieutenant, Cavendish resigned in a show of support.

Chatsworth House

Never a man of a particularly strong constitution, Cavendish's health deteriorated as the years passed and he died during a trip to take the waters of the Austrian Netherlands. The body of the 44 year old Duke was transported home to be buried at Derby Cathedral amid much mourning. With Cavendish's death, Westminster politics lost a man of integrity, loyalty and solid reliability. His death was a blow to Whig politics and robbed the party of one of its greatest supporters; he is the shortest lived Prime Minister in English history and one of the most respected men to sit in the Georgian Houses of Parliament. It may be that he was not a great risk-taker nor a maverick, but he was no less a politician for that and his death was mourned by allies and opponents alike, truly an unusual state of political affairs!


Unknown said...

I'm doing a series of posts on Rakes and Rascals featuring Great English Country Houses and one of them will be Chatsworth. This month it is Longleat House.

Catherine Curzon said...

How wonderful; I shall gad over and have a gander!