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Duke Of Grafton

First Lord of the Treasury 1766 - 1770

In the history of Parliament there is an assumption that prime ministerial power replaced royal power. Ironically the office of prime minister often mimicked that of the increasingly constitutional monarchy it was supposed to be replacing. Often prime ministers have acted as figureheads, as symbolic centres of unity while the bruising business of government was conducted by others. This was certainly so in the case of the Duke of Grafton, who was only made prime minister to serve the greater power of William Pitt.


Augustus Henry Fitzroy was born 28th September 1735, son of the second Duke of Grafton. He was educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge and entered Parliament in 1756. After posts as lord of the bedchamber to the Prince of Wales 1756 - 57, and secretary of state for the Northern Department 1765 - 66, Grafton was summoned in 1766 as prime minister, then known as first lord of the Treasury. Following a period of political instability, with three prime ministers following each other in quick succession, George III had initially asked William Pitt to form a government. The abrasive Pitt was not popular with the king, but he was a hero of the Seven Years War which had seen great victories for Britain up until 1760. It was hoped Pitt would bring renewal and energy to a government which seemed to have lost its way. But Pitt, formidable as he was, remained a complicated character. Inspite of his personal authority, he had never been prime minister in a formal sense. Perhaps it was his habit of blunt honesty and principle which kept him from the highest office. And perhaps he understood the reality of being prime minsiter, which was to be a mollifying source of unity, a role the abrasive Pitt was not suited to playing. Pitt refused to become first lord, claiming that the day to day business of the Commons would bore him. Instead he accepted the title of lord privy seal, whatever that meant, and went to the House of Lords as Lord Chatham. It was left to the Duke of Grafton to become a figurehead prime minister while Pitt held real power.

But Pitt was in poor health. He had worked himself to exhaustion during the Seven Years War, and now had little more to give. For Grafton's first year in office, Pitt the old war horse remained in control, even if he kept disappearing off to Bath to nurse his ailments. Grafton would do nothing without consulting Pitt. But as Pitt's condition worsened, Grafton had to face the frightening reality of taking responsibility himself. By March 1767, Grafton, aged only 31, was reluctantly in control. This was not what he had signed up for. Seeking a way to control Parliament, beyond that of Pitt's personality, Grafton toyed with the idea of stronger political groupings which could impose an internal discipline on Parliament. But Grafton himself was a solitary man who did not feel naturally at ease in groups. He had been selected by Pitt to enter a government consciously designed to ignore party demarcations. He was not the man to introduce party government, which was still a long way off.

Grafton struggled on. He faced problems with a radical parliamentary reformer named John Wilkes. This man, expelled from Parliament in 1764 for his reforming views, was in 1768 maddeningly elected as MP for Middlesex. After much debate about potential implications, Wilkes was expelled again. Unrest in America was also a cause of concern, with the cabinet deeply divided about its response. Grafton favoured moderation but faced hard liners. Finally worn down by his worries, in a job that did not suit him, Grafton resigned in 1770, and went on to a long career as an elder statesman. Interestingly the sort of figure we describe as an "elder statesman" is involved in politics, while somehow existing above the hurly burly, accepted as a reassuring personality rather than a working politician. This was what Grafton was really suited to. He was more of a parliamentary king than a prime minister, and in the history of Parliament he is yet another example of the continued need for this kind of monarchical role.