Charles Watson-Wentworth, who twice served as Prime Minister — from 13 July 1765 to 30 July 1766 and from 27 March to 1 July 1782 — was born on 13 May 1730 (Old Style), the fifth son and eighth child in a family of ten. He was the only son to survive childhood. He was brought up at the family home of Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham, Yorkshire. By 1739 he was heir to the vast estates when the second of his older brothers died . Another surviving brother had died in 1734. Charles was given the courtesy title of Lord Higham. He was educated briefly (1738) at Westminster School but was withdrawn because of illness. Later he attended Cambridge University.
In 1745 he became a colonel in a regiment of volunteers formed by his father to fight off the threat of an invasion by Bonnie Prince Charlie. He was stationed at Pontefract but decided to join the Duke of Cumberland in Carlisle, riding alone in winter across the moors to the duke's camp. This marked the start of a lifelong friendship between the two men. In 1746 the 15-year old, now Lord Malton since his father's elevation to the marquisate, was sent off on a short tour of Europe in an attempt to distract him from joining the army as a career. From 1748-50 he undertook the Grand Tour proper, returning to England on the death of his father.
The new Marquis of Rockingham celebrated his coming of age in great style on 13 May 1751 and took his seat in the House of Lords. He also became a Lord of the Bedchamber to George II. Rockingham married the 16-year old Mary Bright on 26 February 1752. The couple were extremely close: it seems to have been a love-match rather than an arranged marriage. They had no children and on Rockingham's death in 1782 the estates went to his nephew, the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam.
Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham. It has the longest frontage of any stately home in the country
In 1753 the Whig Club in York renamed itself the "Rockingham Club": from then on the marquis virtually controlled political life in Yorkshire. In 1760 he was made a Knight of the Garter; in 1762 he became a victim of the Massacre of the Pelhamite Innocents, losing all his county appointments. The following year he became a Governor of Charterhouse, winning more votes than George Grenville.
After the resignation of Grenville, the Duke of Cumberland accepted the king's commission to head a new ministry and appointed Rockingham as First Lord of the Treasury in July 1765. Rockingham was honest, able and a good man with many years of political experience in Yorkshire and House of Lords, but he had never held high office. He encountered problems in putting together a Cabinet because (1) Pitt refused to join him, and so Pitt's followers (the Pittites) refused to join the ministry, too; and (2) Rockingham refused to consider Bute and Grenville and/or their followers as members of his ministry. Consequently, he had fewer men from whom to choose.
Rockingham, who took on the job of PM from a sense of duty, was not really interested in holding power. He was far more contented at his family home of Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, or at horse-races where he conducted much of his political business. He suspected Bute's influence on George III and felt he did not really have royal support. This worsened in October 1765 when Cumberland died at the age of 44. George III looked on Rockingham as a 'caretaker' PM thereafter. The High Tory groups saw Rockingham's ministry potentially as the start of another Whig oligarchy. In this period, party identity seems to have been re-introduced. Whereas Tories, who supported the principles of "Crown, Church and Constitution", believed that the monarch should be able to exercise the royal prerogative freely, the Whigs supported parliamentary supremacy, the Bill of Rights and religious toleration. They wanted to limit royal power and introduce economy in government. There was a great deal of factional opposition to Rockingham's ministry, although he had some successes and has been much under-rated.
So far as the problems in the American colonies were concerned, Rockingham inherited the Stamp Act crisis caused by the taxation policies of Grenville's ministry. There had been riots in many colonies, starting in August 1765 although the Act was not due to become law until November. In October 1765 the Stamp Act Congress enforced a non-importation policy and stopped the colonists from buying British goods. It soon became clear that English merchants, bankers, business men and manufacturers were losing money. Rockingham repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766 but was forced to pass the Declaratory Act at the same time, to ensure repeal. The Act said: 'The British parliament had, hath and of right ought to have full power and authority to make laws to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever'.
Rockinghamites differentiated between having and exercising a right. Because of his conciliatory approach, the riots stopped in America, but many politicians-particularly Grenville, Bute, and Bedford-opposed Rockingham making concessions to the 'rebellious' colonies. American affairs occupied most of Rockingham's first ministry, particularly by attempts to create a new system of legislation for America that ultimately failed to go through the Commons.
Rockingham spent most of the rest of his life in parliamentary opposition. He supported the colonies against parliament, maintaining that the colonists were demanding their constitutional rights against a 'revolutionary' parliament. In 1769 it was the Rockinghamites and Yorkshire that led the Petitioning Movement demanding the dissolution of parliament after the Middlesex election fiasco. The Rockinghamites also formed the core of the Yorkshire Association established by Christopher Wyvill in 1779 to demand a reform of parliament and were at the forefront of demands for religious toleration and increased civil liberties for Catholics.
As the owner of vast estates in Ireland, Rockingham showed himself to be exemplary. He granted long leases to Catholics and kept a watchful eye on his estate steward. In times of hardship he remitted and/or reduced rents and was always accessible to his tenants. He ordered improvements to be made to his tenants' houses and to the infrastructure there. He made substantial payments to the Wicklow Volunteers, a militia that was established to defend that part of Ireland against any French attack during the American War of Independence.
As Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire he was responsible for the maintenance of law and order and played a direct part in the defence of Hull and the east coast against American privateers, particularly John Paul Jones. He made large charitable payments for the relief of poverty in times of distress and successfully terminated the activities of a coining and clipping gang in Halifax.
Rockingham enjoyed being at home at Wentworth Woodhouse. He was a caring employer who took an interest in the affairs of his tenants, servants and estates. His presence helped the local economy greatly: for example, he spent over £85,000 on building the stables at Wentworth which kept substantial numbers of men employed for many years. There were almost a hundred house servants at Wentworth besides all those who worked on the farmland. The village of Wentworth owed its existence to the 'great house'.
In March 1782, on the resignation of Lord North, the king had no choice but to appoint Rockingham as Prime Minister for the second time. Rockingham still led the largest group in parliament and had a policy of conciliation prepared. He had stated as early as 1779 that the colonists should be given their independence, and his first act as PM was to acknowledge the existence of a new country. The ministry lasted only fourteen weeks: the marquis died on 1 July 1782 and was buried in his parents' tomb in the north chancel of York Minster.
Albemarle, GT. Memoirs of the Marquess of Rockingham and His Contemporaries. 2 vols. London, 1852.
Hoffman, R.J.S. The Marquis. A study of Lord Rockingham, 1730-1782. New York: Fordham University Press, 1973.
Last modified 6 August 2003