George Canning: Britain’s Intriguing Foreign Secretary

George Canning by Richard Evans

George Canning by Richard Evans

George Canning, who appears as Britain’s foreign secretary in Napoleon in America, was a clever, ambitious and controversial politician who held important government posts during the Napoleonic Wars and aftermath. He later became the country’s shortest-serving prime minister. A skilful propagandist, Canning promoted the scathing caricatures of Napoleon that appeared in Britain at the time. In 1809 George Canning fought a duel with the war secretary, Lord Castlereagh, which severely damaged his career.

Humble origins

George Canning was born on April 11, 1770, in London. His father (also named George) was an impoverished Irish barrister who died on his son’s first birthday. To support herself and her toddler, Canning’s mother, Mary Ann Costello, became an actress. After an unsuccessful London debut, she took work in provincial theatres.

Mary Ann may or may not have married a disreputable actor and theatre manager named Samuel Reddish. In any case, she bore him five children, including two sets of twins. When Reddish became insane, Mary Ann married another actor and had five more children. By this time young George Canning had been made the ward of a wealthy uncle. He was sent to Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford. Canning was acutely aware of his modest beginnings and his mother’s lack of fitness for respectable society. Surrounded by the sons of the aristocracy, he sought to prove himself their equal or better. Canning was an exact contemporary and classmate of Robert Banks Jenkinson, who – as Lord Liverpool – in 1812 became Britain’s prime minister.

Though George Canning lacked Liverpool’s breeding, he too had political ambitions and the brains to see them fulfilled. Trained as a lawyer, he became a Member of Parliament at the age of 23, under the patronage of Tory Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. A skilled orator and writer, Canning gained influence within Pitt’s camp and rose rapidly.

Skewering Napoleon

In 1795, George Canning received his first ministerial appointment as Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs. A master of propaganda, Canning – through a friend – struck up an arrangement with the premier British political satirist of the time, James Gillray. In 1797 Canning arranged for Gillray to receive a secret government pension. In return, Gillray was asked to tone down his attacks on Pitt and King George III and concentrate instead on vilifying the radical opposition and the French. Gillray worked closely with Canning and his friends, who fed him ideas and text for his caricatures. Several of these appeared in The Anti-Jacobin, or Weekly Examiner, founded by Canning. Though the periodical lasted less than a year, the link between Gillray and Canning persisted until 1809. Gillray helped to create the popular British stereotype of “Little Boney,” a spoiled child in oversized boots and military hat, prone to frantic rages. (1)

British Tars, towing the Danish Fleet into Harbour; the Broadbottom Leviathan trying to swamp Billy’s old-Boat, & the little Corsican tottering on the Clouds of Ambition. Caricature by James Gillray, 1807. George Canning, roguish and alert, sits and tows. Napoleon dances over the flames in a thwarted rage.

British Tars, towing the Danish Fleet into Harbour; the Broadbottom Leviathan trying to swamp Billy’s old-Boat, & the little Corsican tottering on the Clouds of Ambition. Caricature by James Gillray, 1807. George Canning, roguish and alert, sits and tows. Napoleon dances over the flames in a thwarted rage.

The duel

During the Napoleonic Wars, George Canning served as Paymaster of the Forces (1800-1801), Treasurer of the Navy (1804-1806) and Foreign Secretary (1807-1809). In this last capacity he feuded with the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Lord Castlereagh, over the Walcheren expedition, which Canning saw as a hopeless diversion of troops from the Peninsular War. When Castlereagh learned that Canning was plotting to have him dismissed from the government, he challenged Canning to a duel. The two men faced each other at dawn on September 21, 1809 on Putney Heath. Canning had never before fired a pistol. Castlereagh wounded him in the thigh. King George III was furious that his ministers “still in possession of the seals of office, should have been guilty of so total a dereliction of duty as to violate the laws which they were bound to maintain.” (2)

Killing no Murder, or a New Ministerial way of settling the affairs of the Nation! Caricature by Isaac Cruikshank of the 1809 duel between Lord Castlereagh (left) and George Canning (right).

Killing no Murder, or a New Ministerial way of settling the affairs of the Nation! Caricature by Isaac Cruikshank of the 1809 duel between Lord Castlereagh (left) and George Canning (right).

Though both men had to resign, Canning was generally blamed for what had happened. He remained out of office for the next several years. When Liverpool became prime minister in 1812, he offered Canning the post of foreign secretary. Canning declined, because he also wanted the position of leader of the House of Commons. This was held by Castlereagh. Instead, Canning accepted a diplomatic appointment to Portugal. He tried to persuade the Portuguese to provide troops for the anti-Napoleonic alliance. (See the British Library’s Untold Lives blog for Canning’s letters about this, and about the death of his cousin, Charles Fox Canning, in the 1815 Battle of Waterloo.)

Upon returning to Britain in 1816, Canning became president of the Board of Control (the India Office of the period). In 1820, he resigned, ostensibly over King George IV’s attempt to divorce Queen Caroline, to whom Canning had been a friend, advisor and possibly lover, but also because he was out of sympathy with the government’s policies regarding Europe. He also, perhaps, did not want to be associated with an unpopular government.

Foreign Secretary

George Canning was a brilliant orator in the House of Commons and Liverpool wanted him back in the Cabinet. In June 1821, Liverpool tried to offer the Admiralty or the Home Office to Canning, but King George IV refused. Instead, the king supported efforts to have Canning appointed Governor-General of India to get him out of the way. However, on August 12, 1822, Castlereagh – who was then foreign secretary – committed suicide. One month later Canning became the new foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons, despite the King’s objections. The Duke of Wellington, who disliked Canning, used his influence with the King to induce him to tolerate the appointment. A letter to Austrian Foreign Minister Clemens von Metternich from Dorothea Lieven, the wife of the Russian ambassador to Britain, gives a sense of the Machiavellian considerations that went into Canning’s appointment:

This is what Wellington thinks. The Government need Canning in the House of Commons, and their supporters have threatened to withdraw their votes if he is not appointed. The Ministers know him for an intriguer; but, if they offer him an important position, they deprive his intriguing spirit of its object. He will have reached the pinnacle of success and will be obliged to do everything in his power to remain there and, consequently, to support his colleagues. … If he makes difficulties, they will send him packing…and both the Canning faction, and the whole body of members who are now asking for his appointment, would no longer have the right to complain, since they could blame no-one for the failure but Canning himself….. The Opposition hates him, the King loathes him; the Ministers distrust him; those who want him do not like him. His personal following is a mere drop in the ocean; and, with that exception, there is not a soul in the United Kingdom who has the slightest respect for him. In spite of all these reasons for keeping him out, public opinion demands him; and he will receive the most important post in the Government. (3)

Three days later, Dorothea wrote that Canning was dissatisfied with the King’s grudging letter offering him the Foreign Office.

[Canning] declares that it is exactly the same as being given a ticket for Almack’s and finding written on the back, ‘Admit the rogue.’ … No change in the Cabinet has ever interested the public so much. (4)

Though Canning was a Tory, his foreign policy alarmed his conservative colleagues. Unlike his predecessor, Canning objected to the European congresses that had presided over Europe since the fall of Napoleon. He thought the

system of periodical meetings of the four great Powers, with a view to the general concerns of Europe, … of very questionable policy; that it will necessarily involve us deeply in all the politics of the Continent, whereas our true policy has always been not to interfere except in great emergencies and then with a commanding force; … that all other States must protest against such an attempt to place them under subjection; that the meetings may become a scene of cabal and intrigue; and that the people of this country may be taught to look with great jealousy for their liberties, if our Court is engaged in meetings with great despotic monarchs, deliberating upon what degree of revolutionary spirit may endanger the public security, and therefore require the interference of the Alliance. (5)

After the 1822 Congress of Verona, Britain declined to take part in any further European Congresses. Canning boasted that he had broken up the Congress system and thereby frustrated the ambitions of the continental powers. Wellington thought that Canning was trying to destroy the alliance on which the peace of Europe depended.

As is clear when Canning spars with Wellington at Dorothea Lieven’s dinner party in Napoleon in America, Canning opposed the 1823 French invasion of Spain. He was also determined to keep France out of Spain’s Latin American colonies, which had revolted against Spanish rule. Canning argued that the best security against France taking over Spain’s colonies was for Britain to recognize their independence. This involved him in major arguments with his colleagues, most of whom did not want to go that far. Cabinet gave in only when Canning threatened to resign if the new republics were not recognized.

George Canning in private life

On July 8, 1800, George Canning married an intelligent and spirited woman named Joan Scott. She came with aristocratic relations and a fortune of some hundred thousand pounds, which should have put to rest Canning’s fears about finances and fitness for high society. Still, he did not allow his mother to meet his wife until 1804, by which time he and Joan had three children: George (born in 1801), William (1802) and Harriet (1804). Their fourth child, Charles, was born in 1812.

Despite Canning’s stellar reputation as a public speaker, he did not always come off well in private company. In January 1820, Countess Granville wrote:

Mr. Canning comes Wednesday and I hope he will be a degree less flat than he usually is, for, agreeable as he can be, he is much the most difficult person to get on with when he is not at his very best. (6)

Dorothea Lieven told Metternich that Canning “is one of those men who always kill any conversation. You have continually to begin again; and I get bored.” (7)

Dorothea changed her tune in 1825, when Russia shifted away from Austria over the Greek question. She dropped her alliances with Metternich and Wellington, and began entertaining Canning every Sunday afternoon. She then found Canning to be

an extraordinary character. One might suppose, from the vivacity of his impressions and the rapidity of his mind, that he would take things up and then drop them, that his opinions would be changeable; but this is not so. He proceeds by leaps and bounds, but always along the same road. He will do foolish things, but they will never make him turn aside from the path he has marked out for himself. (8)

The American writer James Fenimore Cooper wrote that Canning

walked into the room with the quiet aplomb of a man accustomed to being lionized…. His face was agreeable and his eye steady and searching. … I may have imagined that I detected some of his wit, from a knowledge of the character of his mind. He left the impression, however, of a man whose natural powers were checked by a trained and factitious deference to the rank of those with whom he associated. (9)

For a snapshot of Canning at a dinner party, see my post about how he introduced the 20 Questions game to America.

Final year

When Lord Liverpool suffered a stroke in February 1827 and had to resign, Canning was the most senior minister in the House of Commons. He was also popular with the public. A number of his colleagues, however, saw Canning as an opportunistic parvenu. One who was more sympathetic to him remarked:

It is Canning’s misfortune that nobody will believe that he can take the most indifferent step without an ulterior object, nor take his tea without a stratagem. (10)

On April 10, 1827, George IV asked Canning to form a government. The Duke of Wellington, as well as Sir Robert Peel and five other members of Liverpool’s cabinet, declined to serve under Canning. Many other Tories joined them in opposition. Canning was obliged to form a coalition of liberal Tories and conservative Whigs. He initiated a program of progressive reforms, but was not able to see them through. Already ill when he took office, George Canning died at Chiswick House in London on August 8, 1827, of inflammation of the liver. He was 57 years old. Huge crowds attended his funeral at Westminster Abbey, where he was buried. To read George Canning’s last words, click here.

You might also enjoy:

Lord Liverpool was Not a Ninny

The Duke of Wellington: Napoleon’s Nemesis

How the 20 Questions Game Came to America

The Duke of Wellington’s Shooting Adventures

Dorothea Lieven, a Diplomat in Skirts

Caricatures of Napoleon on Elba

Caricatures of Napoleon on St. Helena

  1. See M.D. George, “Pictorial Propaganda, 1793-1815: Gillray and Canning,” History, Vol. 31, No. 113 (March 1946), pp. 9-25.
  2. Charles Duke Yonge, The Life and Administration of Robert Banks, Second Earl of Liverpool, (London, 1868), p. 295.
  3. Peter Quennell, ed., The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, 1820-1826 (New York, 1938), p. 206.
  4. Ibid., pp. 206-207.
  5. Charles William Vane, Correspondence, Despatches, and Other Papers of Viscount Castlereagh, Third Series, Vol. 4 (London, 1853), pp. 56-57.
  6. Leveson Gower, Letters of Harriet Countess Granville, 1810-1845, Vol. I (London, 1894), p. 151.
  7. The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, 1820-1826, p. 320.
  8. Ibid., p. 370.
  9. James Fenimore Cooper, Recollections of Europe, Vol. 1 (London, 1847), pp. 209-210.
  10. Louis J. Jennings, ed., The Correspondence and Diaries of the Late Right Honourable John Wilson Croker, Vol. I (London, 1885), p. 268.

8 commments on “George Canning: Britain’s Intriguing Foreign Secretary”

  • Alfonso A Alejo says:

    Superb work Shannon. Keep it up.

  • Jacqueline Reiter says:

    Excellent piece! I must say Canning is a fascinating figure. My main caveat is that he didn’t intrigue against Castlereagh because of Walcheren — the plotting began in February or March, and was the culmination of a variety of issues Canning had with Castlereagh, mostly springing from his handling of the Convention of Cintra of 1808 and his refusal to recall or censure Arthur Wellesley. Of course it was the Walcheren failure that caused all Canning ‘ s plotting to come out into the open.

  • Stephen Barker says:

    I wonder what Canning would think of Brexit. But these are different times.

  • kathryn leatherland says:

    to shannon = thanks for the article for the best george canning = the nasty tories are not his equal = i have a 1827 book of the life of george canning = yours cat from leicestershire 2021 = hope to hear from you soon = did you know that george at one time lived for awhile on and of in my home town of hinckley = boris does not have the human qualities foranyone = unlike = the great george canning =thank you once again = yours cat leicestershire 2021

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The Opposition hates him, the King loathes him; the Ministers distrust him; those who want him do not like him. His personal following is a mere drop in the ocean; and, with that exception, there is not a soul in the United Kingdom who has the slightest respect for him.

Dorothea Lieven