“Ah, Lord Grenville,” said Lady Portarles, as following a discreet knock, the clever, interesting head of the Secretary of State appeared in the doorway of the box, “you could not arrive more a propos. Here is Madame la Comtesse de Tournay positively dying to hear the latest news from France.”
The distinguished diplomat had come forward and was shaking hands with the ladies.
“Alas!” he said sadly, “it is of the very worst. The massacres continue; Paris literally reeks with blood; and the guillotine claims a hundred victims a day.”
The year was 1792 and Lord William Wyndham Grenville (1759 – 1834), First Baron Grenville, was Foreign Secretary. He was a member of the Tory cabinet formed by Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and was tasked with managing the blood bath and upheaval that was occurring on the Continent. To complicate matters, there was conflict among the ministers. Lord Grenville was positive that greater success against the French in the War of the First Coalition could be had with military action on the continent, as opposed to skirmishes at sea and jousting with the colonies as proxies.
He was up against Pitt’s great friend, Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville and the kingdom’s Secretary of War: “a man so profoundly ignorant of war that he was not even conscious of his own ignorance.” Dundas was a wealthy man, purely by virtue of his first wife. He divorced her over adultery, and ensured she would never see her children again. This was a sentence imposed for the rest of her life. She lived another sixty-nine years.
Pitt could not be persuaded to abandon Dundas, even when the man became instrumental in stopping all efforts to abolish the slave trade. It is almost certain that at this time Grenville began to rethink his Tory connections. Then came the King’s refusal to consider the question of Catholic emancipation and the Pitt government resigned.
A quiet interlude followed while Grenville was out of office. A time for reflection and for preparation of his greatest life’s work that still lay ahead. He had heard of the ideas being discussed in a Palladian home in Berkeley Square. He did not have to visit there for long before he found himself surrounded by a circle of Whig supporters.
Grenville’s chance came in 1806 when Pitt died, leaving a vacuum of power. Enter his lordship with the backing of Lansdowne House and he was elevated to the position of Prime Minister. It was an extraordinary moment as he became head of a coalition government known as the “Ministry of All Talents.” And none too soon. War with France had reached a fever pitch and national unity was vital. Grenville’s charm united politicians from almost every persuasion. He even managed to placate His Majesty to accept such persons to whom he had been previously hostile.
It was then one of the most important goals cherished in Lansdowne House was achieved–the abolition of the slave trade.
In 1823 Grenville retired. He and his wife withdrew, childless, to a country home he had built, Dropmore House, near Windsor Castle. He established one of the largest stands of conifer trees in Britain at his pineturn there.
Sadly, Dropmore was badly damaged by a fire that took four days to put out in 1990. Another in 1997 left the house uninhabitable. The property has since been restored by a developer interested in turning the mansion into luxury apartments. It is a pity the firm in charge of this endeavor has gone into liquidation.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4y5fybV7vW4 at 52.51 is a lovely clip from the 1934 movie production of the Scarlet Pimpernel. It is the ballroom scene in which his lordship plays a slight role.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvctyYcUIaE at 6:03 is also a clip from the Dr. Who series showing the exterior of Dropmore before it was destroyed by fire.