William Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam


William Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam : biography

30 May 1748 – 8 February 1833

The Prince of Wales and the Duke of York toured the North of England in late 1789, and on 31 August they went to the race course at York and went in Fitzwilliam’s carriage to enter the City of York, which was carried by the crowd rather than horses. On 2 September they were received by Fitzwilliam at Wentworth House for a lavish party, with 40,000 people enjoying a festival in the estate.Smith, pp. 107–108. The Oracle described it thus: "It was in the true style of ancient English hospitality. His gates…were thrown open to the loyalty and love of the surrounding country. … The diversions, consisting of all the rural sports in use in that part of the kingdom, lasted the whole day; and the prince, with the nobility and gentry, who were the noble earl’s guests, participated in the merriment". The Annual Register said the ball was "the most brilliant ever seen beyond the Humber".Smith, p. 108. In the general election of 1790 Fitzwilliam contributed £20,000 to the Whigs’ general election subscription and subsequently the Whigs in Yorkshire enjoyed a recovery.Smith, pp. 110–112.


Lord Fitzwilliam married firstly Lady Charlotte, daughter of William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough, in 1770. After her death in 1822 he married secondly the Hon. Louisa, daughter of Richard Molesworth, 3rd Viscount Molesworth and widow of William Ponsonby, 1st Baron Ponsonby, in 1823. She died already in February 1824, aged 74. Lord Fitzwilliam died in February 1833, aged 84, and was succeeded by his son from his first marriage, Charles.

Disintegration of the Whig party: 1790–1794

In the dispute within the Whig party over the French Revolution, Fitzwilliam agreed with Edmund Burke over Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan but did not wish to split the party or endanger his friendship with Fox, the party’s leader in the Commons.Smith, p. 120. Burke’s son Richard had lately been appointed Fitzwilliam’s London agent. When Richard Burke wrote to Fitzwilliam on 29 July 1790 to persuade him to turn Fox against Sheridan (who had split from Edmund Burke in February), Fitzwilliam replied on 8 August that he agreed that "the propriety of entering a caveat against the enthusiasm, or the ambition of any man whatever leading us into the trammels of Dr Price, Parson Horne, or any reverend or irreverend speculator in politics" but Fitzwilliam’s letter to Fox did not change his behaviour.Smith, pp. 119–120. Fitzwilliam did not praise Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in public when it was published on 1 November 1790, although Burke claimed on 29 November that Fitzwilliam had acclaimed it.Alfred Cobban and Robert A. Smith (eds.), The Correspondence of Edmund Burke. Volume VI (Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 178. Fitzwilliam wrote to his wife (in an undated letter) that the Reflections was "almost universally admired and approved".Cobban and Smith, Correspondence of Edmund Burke. Volume VI, p. 161, n. 2.

Fiztwilliam wrote to William Weddell 2 March 1790 that he supported Fox’s support for the repeal of the Test Act (which excluded Dissenters from power). When his friend Zouch campaigned against repeal Fitzwilliam wrote to him on 28 April 1791 that repeal could only be opposed on "an undeviating adherence to that which is—a principle to which I feel a strong attachment in most cases, because alteration and innovation is so seldom proposed to me, without a great alloy of experiment and uncertainty" but that Dissenters circumvented the Act and thus in practice the Church of England gained nothing from it but the Dissenters’ hostility. Also, the Dissenters’ leaders (Price, Priestley) would lose their influence by the removal of the Dissenters’ main grievance.Smith, pp. 121–122.

On 27 March 1791 Pitt had mobilised the navy and sent an ultimatum to Russia to evacuate the Ochakov base it had occupied in its war against the Ottoman Empire. Fitzwilliam made the opening speech in the Lords on 29 March against the government. He objected on constitutional grounds giving the government discretionary power to augment the armed forces without fully laying out the circumstances, and that war with Russia would be "unjust, impolitic and in every way detrimental to the interests of this country".Smith, pp. 122–123. The crisis nearly split up Pitt’s government and he had made plans for a coalition with moderate Whigs (with Fitzwilliam or Viscount Stormont as Lord President of the Council).Smith, p. 124 and p. 141, n. 10.