George Huntingford, bishop of Hereford and tutor to Viscount Sidmouth

The Georgian Lords are delighted to welcome a guest blog from Laurence Guymer, master at Winchester College, on the influential warden of Winchester, George Huntingford, successively bishop of Gloucester and Hereford and a guiding influence on his former pupil, Prime Minister Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth.

George Huntingford was warden of Winchester College (1789-1832), bishop of Gloucester (1802-1815), and of Hereford (1815-1832). He owed the two episcopal appointments – which made him a lord of Parliament – to his close attachment to Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth. Addington is best-known today as the author of the infamous Six Acts (1819), the repressive legislation introduced after the ‘Peterloo Massacre’. He was Speaker of the House of Commons (1789-1801), Prime Minister (1801-1804), and Home Secretary (1812-1823).

• George Isaac Huntingford, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1804, Winchester College

Huntingford was Addington’s tutor at Winchester College in the 1770s. Tutor and pupil formed a close bond that lasted until Huntingford’s death in 1832. Huntingford wrote Addington over 600 letters. In 1772, he described Addington as ‘my very child’. According to one biographer, Addington ‘continued throughout his life to believe in his tutor’s wisdom and good judgement’ (Bell, p. 355). As an old man in the 1830s, Addington would take visitors into his study to show them his portrait of Huntingford. It is his connection to, and influence on, Addington that makes Huntingford a figure worthy of study.

In 1781, Huntingford counselled Addington, ‘it is in your power to do your country most essential service’. He commended to Addington a life of industry – ‘it leads to wealth, power and respect.’ In Huntingford’s view, social responsibility and communal obligation acted to constrain ambition and self-indulgence. He supported Pitt the Younger (Prime Minister, 1783-1801 and 1804-1806) because he worked in the national interest; he opposed men like Charles James Fox and George Canning because he believed they worked only for themselves. In 1784, Huntingford urged his former pupil to enter politics and to join the ‘extraordinary man [Pitt]’. In the April of that year, the electors of Devizes selected Addington as one of their MPs.

Huntingford believed in an independent legislature. He hated party, and repudiated selfish, cliquish, aristocratic Whiggism. He believed that an independent Parliament guaranteed the liberties of the people; he vested rights and responsibilities in independent men of status and property. He venerated the common good above private or party interest. In 1782, Huntingford was appalled by the behaviour of those opposed to Lord North’s administration (1770-1782), especially the marquess of Rockingham, Lord Chatham (Pitt’s older brother), Fox, and Edmund Burke; they were, he wrote, ‘the most wicked and unprincipled this or any Country has ever heard of.’ In 1810, Huntingford still argued that party was ‘the evil genius of our constitution + will I fear one day destroy it.’

Huntingford felt strongly about the monarch’s essential role in the constitution. He believed in the royal prerogative, and opposed those Foxite Whigs who sought to diminish it. In November 1788, George III suffered from a mental breakdown. It was expected that the Prince of Wales would become regent, dismiss Pitt, and call on Fox and the duke of Portland to form a ministry. Fox demanded from Parliament unfettered powers for the prince. When George III recovered in February 1789, thus ending the Regency Crisis, Huntingford celebrated with Addington the constitutional assertion of ‘the dignity, power, privilege & weight of Parliament’. He rejoiced that ‘the K[ing] is now restored to the arms of men who love & respect him.’

Huntingford feared greatly the spread into Britain of the principles behind the French Revolution. When he preached before the House of Commons on Good Friday 1793, he warned that the Revolution would lead to the ruin of France. When Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was published in February 1791, Huntingford counselled Addington that it would be ‘wise and politic not to raise such a man into consequence by persecution.’ Huntingford urged Addington to press for calm and reasoned criticism of the text; ‘the less mischief can proceed from Paine’s scurrilous, though subtle, work’, the better. He wanted Pitt’s administration to stand firm against domestic radicals, to ‘refute the wild extravagances of Republicans & Levellers.’ He was ‘amazed that there can be any either so blind or so obstinate as not to see what is to be dreaded in this country’. By the 1790s, Huntingford feared that any reform of Britain’s institutions (including Winchester College) would encourage the radicals. ‘Blinded by passion’, he warned Addington, ‘they will not discern that Revolution & Reformation are totally distinct points.’ It was ‘in vain’, Huntingford explained,

to tell these violent talkers, that the Question now is whether we will, or will not, keep the constitution of King, Lords, Commons: Reform is now but a secondary consideration.

Following Pitt’s resignation over Catholic Emancipation in 1801, George III asked Addington (albeit reluctantly) to lead his government. Addington was a lifelong defender of the Church of England and opponent of Roman Catholic emancipation. He was ‘governed by a Determination to promote to the utmost of’ his ‘Powers the Comfort & Happiness of the King’. On Addington’s prompting, George III appointed Huntingford to the see of Gloucester; the king considered him ‘a valuable acquisition to the bench’ (Later Correspondence of George III, 4.2617). Huntingford acted as an apologist for the ministry; soon after becoming a bishop, he published anonymously Brief Memoirs of the Rt Hon Henry Addington’s Administration through the First Fifteen Months since its Commencement (1802).

• Viscount Sidmouth, From a drawing by Gatterson Smith, Winchester College

The last years of Huntingford’s life were devoted to defending a religious establishment that echoed his constitutional views. He saw Dissenters as destabilizing rebels in faith and politics. This is why he insisted upon an Anglican monopoly of worship, pastoral guidance, and public office. Huntingford saw Richard Price’s 1789 sermon to the London Revolutionary Society – in which he supported reform of Church and state and congratulated the French on their revolution – as a declaration of war. The matter was simple: either the Church establishment was congenial with the political constitution, or it was not. In 1789, he busied himself with writing letters to influential figures (including, of course, Addington) defending the Test Act and decrying nonconformists. ‘I cannot but condemn them’, he declared; ‘[t]hey are moving heaven & earth to overthrow us.’ In 1790, motions for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts were withdrawn from Parliament without a discussion. Huntingford saw this as a major victory. For over 20 years, he worked to maintain Parliament’s resolve.

In 1827, just before Parliament repealed the Test and Corporation Acts and passed Catholic Emancipation, Huntingford contracted a serious illness from which he never recovered. It prevented him from attending the Lords in September 1831 to join Addington in voting against the second Reform bill – a vote that killed the bill and which unleashed riots in Derby and Nottingham and the destruction of the bishop’s palace in Bristol. He died at Winchester College on 29 April 1832, as the third Reform bill made its way to the peers in Parliament.

[Unless stated otherwise, all quotations are from the Huntingford-Addington letters, Winchester College Archive, Winchester, Huntingford MSS, C13. The Huntingford to Addington letters are copies. The originals are held in Devon Record Office.]


Further Reading:

Hilda Stowell, George Isaac Huntingford, Warden of Winchester College (1970)
Philip Ziegler, Addington: A Life of Henry Addington, First Viscount Sidmouth (1965)
Alan Bell, ‘Warden Huntingford and the Old Conservatism’, in Roger Custance (ed.), Winchester College Sixth-Centenary Essays (Oxford, 1982)
Andrew Robinson, ‘George Isaac Huntingford’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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