The Death of Stanhope

In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Stuart Handley reconsiders the career of Earl Stanhope, one half of the Stanhope-Sunderland duumvirate that dominated politics in the early years of George I, and who died 300 years ago.

James Stanhope, Earl Stanhope, died on 5 February 1721 – 300 years ago – aged 48, and at the height of his powers. He was a soldier, diplomat, and politician. After serving as MP for Newport (Isle of Wight), Cockermouth and Wendover, 1702-1717, he was created Viscount Stanhope of Mahon in 1717, and Earl Stanhope the following year. His military career began in the early 1690s, in Savoy, as an aide-de-camp to Charles Schomberg, 2nd duke of Schomberg, and ended on the eve of his expected appointment at the end of the parliamentary session, to succeed the ailing John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, as captain-general of the king’s forces. In between there had been glory at Almenara and defeat and capture at Brighuega. As a diplomat he had served as ambassador in Vienna, Madrid, Paris and Berlin, as well as attending several conferences or congresses. Domestically, he had served as secretary of state for both the southern and northern departments, and as first lord of the Treasury.

By 1720 Stanhope and his fellow Whig minister, Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland, were the dominant personalities in George I’s Cabinet. Stanhope had spent much of 1720 abroad, so that he was not implicated in the financial crisis which exploded in the Autumn of 1720 as the rise in stock market prices (known as the South Sea Bubble) collapsed in a frenzy of speculation, which left many members of the elite in financial difficulties, and the government under severe pressure from its critics.

Nevertheless, Stanhope had to pitch in and defend those responsible for the debacle, including Sunderland, and his own cousin, Charles Stanhope, secretary to the Treasury and M.P. for Milborne Port in Somerset. On 4 February 1721 Stanhope spent part of the morning with John Carteret, 2nd Baron Carteret (later Earl Granville), before attending the day’s proceedings in the House of Lords where the peers were due to examine the role of Sir John Blunt, 1st baronet, one of the driving forces behind the South Sea Company’s operations. Blunt refused to be sworn before the Committee of the Whole House, and the House resumed sitting to consider what action to take. During the ensuing debate, Philip Wharton, duke of Wharton, attacked the government, making an allusion to Sejanus “who made a division in the imperial family and made the reign of the Emperor Claudius odious to the Romans.” Stanhope took this allusion personally as an accusation that he had fomented the split between George I and his son, the Prince of Wales, the future George II. In a furious response he likened Wharton’s father to Brutus “who in order to assert the liberty of Rome, and to free it from tyrants, sacrificed his own degenerate son”.

The passion engendered by this exchange, caused Stanhope to be taken ill with a violent pain in the head and he was carried to his house in the Cockpit, in Whitehall. The following day, a Sunday, he received visits from Sunderland and Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle, taking tea with them. However, his apparent recovery was illusory, and he was again taken ill. He died at about 8 p.m. having told the apothecary in attendance that he would “have no occasion for your assistance”. Subsequently, an autopsy revealed that his head was full of blood, the result of a burst blood vessel.

The suddenness of his death gave rise to a rumour that it had been occasioned by a bout of debauchery hosted by Newcastle, lasting 13 hours, and fuelled by huge quantities of new tokay (Hungarian wine), champagne, and visney (a Turkish liquor, similar to cherry brandy). The source for this encounter is suspect, however, because among the alleged participants was James Craggs the younger, who rather than succumbing to this extravagant bout of drinking, more prosaically died of small pox.

Stanhope’s body was carried through London on 17 February, escorted by a large military procession, for burial at Chevening in Kent, which he had purchased in 1717. This convenient country retreat, near Sevenoaks, is now among the plum pieces of patronage under the control of the Prime Minister, and, most appropriately given Stanhope’s reputation as a diplomat, is usually allocated for the use of the foreign secretary.

George I was so afflicted by the news of Stanhope’s death, that he could not finish his supper, and retired into his closet immediately. Stanhope left a pregnant wife, a second set of twins being born posthumously, with at least four other children. George I made good a promise to ensure that his children were provided for, but his widow only survived him by two years, dying on 23 February 1723.

Politically, Stanhope’s death accelerated the appointment of Robert Walpole to the Treasury, and that of his brother-in-law, Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, to the senior secretaryship of state. The death of Sunderland in 1722, further cemented their hold on power.


Further Reading:

Basil Williams, Stanhope: A Study in Eighteenth-Century War and Diplomacy (1932)

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