Following Liz Truss’s record-breaking short tenure as Prime Minister, recently much attention has turned towards some of the historical figures who held the post of Premier for only a short period of time. William Cavendish, 4th duke of Devonshire, is amongst this list, serving only 255 days in office. But as Charles Littleton from our Lords 1715-1790 project explores, it was never Devonshire’s intention to be in the position for long…
William Cavendish, 4th duke of Devonshire, served as prime minister for only 225 days, making his the fifth shortest tenure of the office. As heir to one of the greatest Whig dynasties in the realm, Cavendish, known as marquess of Hartington from 1729, seemed destined for high government office. His great-grandfather had been one of the ‘Immortal Seven’ who invited William of Orange to invade England in 1688 and since then the family had dedicated themselves to preserving the Revolution political settlement.
In 1741 Hartington was returned to the Commons as a Member for Derbyshire, and worked strenuously on behalf of Sir Robert Walpole during his last days as premier in 1741-2. Hartington likewise supported the successive Whig ministries of the Pelham brothers, Henry and Thomas, duke of Newcastle. Already immensely wealthy through the Cavendish estates in Derbyshire, centred on Chatsworth, Hartington in 1748 married Charlotte, the only daughter and sole heir of Richard Boyle, 3rd earl of Burlington, who brought with her Boyle properties in Yorkshire (Bolton Abbey), Ireland (Lismore Castle) and London (Burlington House and Chiswick House).
Alongside his great wealth, Hartington was admired for his probity and manners. James Waldegrave, 2nd Earl Waldegrave, felt that Hartington ‘had all the good qualities of his father, and seemed less averse to business’ [Waldegrave Memoirs and Speeches, 186]. Even the cynical Horace Walpole quipped that Cavendish father and son were ‘the fashionable models of goodness’. In June 1751 Hartington sat in the House of Lords under a writ of acceleration as Lord Cavendish of Hardwicke, before eventually succeeding to his father’s dukedom on 5 Dec. 1755. In April of that year he had also followed his father as lord lieutenant of Ireland, where his tactful diplomacy helped to conciliate the competing factions in Irish politics.
Devonshire’s services as the ‘crown prince of the Whigs’, as one contemporary dubbed him, were called on at a time of crisis. In May 1756 Britain declared war against France in what became the Seven Years’ War. The first months went disastrously for Britain, and the most damaging blow was the French conquest of Minorca in June. Newcastle, the prime minister, was pilloried for his incompetence, most particularly by the fiery Commons orator William Pitt the elder, who promised a torrid time for the ministry when parliament was set to resume in the autumn. Unwilling to face a hostile parliament and feeling unsupported by Newcastle, the ministry’s leader in the Commons Henry Fox resigned as secretary of state in October. His obvious replacement was Pitt, but he refused to work with Newcastle, who in turn resigned in November over the impasse. The government had collapsed and was leaderless just at the lowest point in a major global war.
George II turned to Devonshire after Pitt made it clear that the duke was one of the few people he felt he could work with. Reluctantly Devonshire, called back from Ireland, formed a government, which was ready by mid-November 1756. He saw it merely as a stopgap government, and insisted to the king that his tenure was only to last until the end of the parliamentary session. He became prime minister out of a sense of duty, not ambition. George II readily acknowledged that ‘The Duke of Devonshire has acted by me in the handsomest manner, and is in a very disagreeable situation entirely on my account’. [Waldegrave Memoirs and Speeches, 193]. Pitt was made secretary of state for the southern department, which gave him a place in the cabinet and a forum to make policy. Devonshire thus served as a unifying noble figurehead in a wartime government whose main driver was Pitt.
Pitt, however, still had to deal with the animosity of the royal family, which had never appreciated his anti-Hanoverian diatribes. In April 1757 the king’s son the duke of Cumberland insisted on Pitt’s removal before he would take command of the British forces in Germany. The king was only too happy to comply, and the government collapsed again, for the second time in five months. Over the following fraught weeks Fox, Devonshire, Newcastle, and Earl Waldegrave were all called on to form a workable government. None succeeded. Eventually, in June Philip Yorke, earl of Hardwicke, brought Pitt and Newcastle together and somehow forged an agreement whereby they could work together in government. In early July Newcastle returned to office, replacing Devonshire as first lord of the Treasury, with Pitt retaining his place as secretary of state. Devonshire did not vanish from politics after stepping aside. He was made lord chamberlain and continued to sit in cabinet, even though he did not hold a cabinet-level office. He continued in post until November 1762 when the new king George III dismissed him after Devonshire refused to attend a privy council meeting in protest against the king’s proposed peace terms with France.
As short as it may have been, Devonshire’s term in office was not a failure and he achieved everything which he felt he had been asked to do. He had stabilized a leaderless government, and was conciliatory enough that even the demanding Pitt could work with him. Devonshire’s premiership provided a platform to bring Pitt off the backbenches, where he was used to sniping at the government, and into cabinet so that he could direct the war he felt he alone could win. Then, after having helped to bring the bitter rivals Pitt and Newcastle together, Devonshire was happy to step aside. Despite such painful beginnings, the Pitt-Newcastle administration that emerged from these negotiations has become renowned in British history, as it led the country to victory and unprecedented territorial expansion in the Seven Years’ War. Devonshire was, in effect, the ideal caretaker prime minister, as he kept the government intact and functioning until this more effective, and bellicose, ministry could be formed.
William Cavendish, fourth duke of Devonshire, Memoranda on State of Affairs, 1759-1762, ed. Peter d. Brown and Karl W. Schweizer (Camden Society 4th Series, vol. 27, 1982).
The memoirs and speeches of James, 2nd Earl Waldegrave 1742-1763, ed. J. C. D. Clark (1988), pp. 146-211.
John Pearson, Stags and Serpents: A History of the Cavendish family and the Dukes of Devonshire (2002), pp. 109-20.
Stanley Ayling, The Elder Pitt, earl of Chatham (1976).
Read about another Prime Minister to serve for only a short period of time, the 2nd earl of Shelburne, in this blog.