Lord Liverpool was not a Ninny

Lord Liverpool by Sir Thomas Lawrence, exhibited 1827

Lord Liverpool by Sir Thomas Lawrence, exhibited 1827

In Napoleon in America, the first head of government to learn of Napoleon’s escape from St. Helena is the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lord Liverpool.

A rapid rise

Lord Liverpool was born Robert Banks Jenkinson on June 7, 1770. His father, Charles Jenkinson, was an advisor to King George III. His mother, Amelia Watts, was the part-Indian daughter of an East India Company official. She died one month after Robert was born.

After receiving a good education, Liverpool (who was known as Lord Hawkesbury from 1796 until his father’s death in 1808) became a politician. Helped by his father’s influence, he rose quickly through the Tory ranks and held a number of Cabinet posts before becoming Prime Minister in 1812.

More work than play

The impression one gets of Lord Liverpool from accounts written by his contemporaries is of an honest, hard-working, conscientious man and a skilled Parliamentary speaker, though not exactly a social success.

Writing from King George IV’s pavilion at Brighton on March 11, 1822, Dorothea von Lieven (wife of the Russian ambassador to England) called him “the oddest figure imaginable. He has been making the most amusing blunders.” (1) On another occasion she recounted:

Today, I had a long and solemn dinner at Lord Liverpool’s. He amused us by the odd fancy of jumping over the back of a big sofa, on which I was seated, and establishing himself on a little footstool in front of me. The great Liverpool hovered and then settled on the ground, looking very comic. (2)

Another visitor said of Coombe Wood, Liverpool’s country home near Kingston upon Thames:

This is unquestionably the dullest house in which I ever passed a day, yet one is obliged perpetually to begin fresh subjects, which usually drop to the ground without effect. (3)

Earlier the same correspondent had found Liverpool

chatty, full of anecdote, and evidently anxious to please. (4)

George Canning, who served under Liverpool as Foreign Secretary and succeeded him as Prime Minister, said:

He speaks as much above his talents, as he talks (in common conversation) below them. But he is not either a Ninny – or a great and able man. He has useful powers of mind, great industry, and much information. (5)

Charles Greville wrote:

Lord Liverpool is a model of fairness, impartiality and candour. (6)

Lord Liverpool and Napoleon

Even before becoming Prime Minister, Liverpool was well-acquainted with Napoleon. He served as Foreign Secretary from 1801 to 1804, and as War Secretary from 1809 to 1812. In the latter position he was responsible for the Duke of Wellington’s forces in Spain. As Prime Minister, Liverpool oversaw the final battles of the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon’s first abdication and escape from Elba, and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

Liverpool wished to hand Napoleon over to France to be tried as a rebel. When the Bourbon government refused, Liverpool accepted responsibility for Napoleon’s fate on behalf of the allies. This led to a complicated legal debate over Britain’s right to send Napoleon into permanent exile, which is well outlined in “Napoleon: An Extraordinary Rendition,” by Norman Mackenzie in History Today. Liverpool wanted to avoid stirring up the Whig pot of sympathy for Napoleon. Ultimately an Act of Indemnity was drawn up and Napoleon was sent to St. Helena, the place recommended by John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty. (7)

Alhough there were some shaky post-war years, Liverpool eventually succeeded in guiding Britain back to prosperity. His interest in painting and sculpture led to the foundation of the National Gallery in 1824. Liverpool suffered a stroke in February 1827, which forced him to resign as Prime Minister. He died of another stroke on December 4, 1828, at the age of 58. Liverpool Street in London is named after him.

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  1. Peter Quennell, ed., The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, 1820-1826 (New York, 1938), p. 160.
  2. Dorothea von Lieven to Prince Metternich, June 2, 1820, Ibid., p. 37.
  3. Charles W. Wynn to the Duke of Buckingham, January 14, 1824, in Richard P. Grenville, Memoirs of the Court of George IV. 1820-1830, Volume 2 (London, 1859), p. 33.
  4. Charles W. Wynn to the Duke of Buckingham, Dec. 13, 1823. Ibid., p. 19.
  5. Dorothy Marshall, The Rise of George Canning (London, 1938), p. 290.
  6. Charles Greville, The Greville Memoirs: A Journal of the Reigns of King George IV and King William IV, Volume 1 (London, 1875), p. 38.
  7. Norman Gash, Lord Liverpool (London, 1984), p. 121.

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The effects of government on the people do not so much depend on general principles and general theories as on little accidental circumstances which are frequently not even perceptible.

Lord Liverpool (Robert Banks Jenkinson)