Charles Grey, future Prime Minister and progressive hero, was born on 13 March 1764 to General Charles Grey, who was created Earl Grey and Viscount Howick in 1806.
A genius, Charles Grey wowed his way through Trinity College, Cambridge and:
was elected to Parliament for the Northumberland constituency on 14 September 1786, aged just 22. He became a part of the Whig circle of Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the Prince of Wales, and soon became one of the major leaders of the Whig party. He was the youngest manager on the committee for prosecuting Warren Hastings.
Hastings was the godfather, benefactor, and perhaps biological progenitor of Jane Austen’s cousin/sister-in-law Eliza Hancock, Comtesse de Feuillide. Doubtlessly, the ardent and bold reformist Whig Charles Grey was no great favorite to the Austen family. Nevertheless, he is a great favorite of mine … if for no other reason than his drive to abolish slavery.
There are many other reasons, however, that I am charmed by Grey. He was a paragon of Enlightenment in many ways, and as such he became a die-hard supporter of Parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation, as well as the end of slavery. When he was still a young firebrand in parliament he fell in love with fellow Whig campaigner, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.
She became pregnant in 1791, and Grey wanted her to leave her husband and marry him instead – scandal be damned. Her husband had the whip hand, however; if she left she’s never see her children by their marriage again. Georgiana had no real choice but to obey her husband and relinquish her daughter, Eliza Courtney, to Grey.
Thankfully, Grey’s parents stepped in to adopt the child for their unmarried son. Apparently Georgiana saw Eliza as often as possible, and wrote heartbreaking poetry for her relinquished child, and Grey doted on the little girl.
Grey married Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby, the only daughter of William Ponsonby, 1st Baron Ponsonby and his wife the Hon. Louisa Molesworth, on 18 November 1794 and again proved he was beyond contestation fertile. He and his wife had 16 children, 15 of whom survived infancy and 14 of whom survived to adulthood.
He was as active in politics as he was in his wife’s bedchamber, and in 1806 he became “a part of the Ministry of All the Talents (a coalition of Foxite Whigs, Grenvillites, and Addingtonites) as First Lord of the Admiralty … [and later that year] took over both as Foreign Secretary and as leader of the Whigs.” This ministry became defunct “when George III blocked Catholic Emancipation legislation and required that all ministers individually sign a pledge … that they would not, “propose any further concessions to the Catholics.” Grey absolutely refused to promise any such thing.
After his father’s death in 1807, Grey joined the House of Lords as 2nd Earl Grey, and from there he lead the opposition to the Tories for the next 23 years.
In 1830, following the death of George IV and when the Duke of Wellington resigned on the question of Parliamentary reform, the Whigs finally returned to power, with Grey as Prime Minister. In 1831, he was made a member of the Order of the Garter. His term was a notable one, seeing passage of the Reform Act 1832, which finally saw the reform of the House of Commons, and the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. As the years had passed, however, Grey had become more conservative, and he was cautious about initiating more far-reaching reforms, particularly since he knew that [King William IV] was at best only a reluctant supporter of reform.
Grey retired in 1834, handing over the leadership of the Whigs and the position of prime minister to Lord Melbourne and going to live at the family estate, Howick Hall. Grey lived another eleven years before dying quietly in his bed on 17 July 1845. He was buried in Howick church nine days later in a private ceremony, with no fanfare. During the Victorian era, Earl Grey tea, or tea flavoured with bergamot oil, was named for him. What better way to honor a British citizen than through tea?