CONWAY, Hon. Henry Seymour (1719-95), of Park Place, Berks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



28 Dec. 1741 - 1747
1747 - 1754
1754 - 1761
1761 - 1774
27 Mar. 1775 - 1784

Family and Education

bap. 12 Aug. 1719, 2nd s. of Francis, 1st Lord Conway, by his 3rd w. Charlotte, da. of John Shorter of Bybrook, Kent; bro. of Francis, 1st Earl of Hertford, and cos. of Sir Edward and Horatio Walpole. educ. Eton 1732. m. 19 Dec. 1747, Caroline, da. of John Campbell (d. 1770) , 4th Duke of Argyll [S], wid. of Charles Bruce, 3rd Earl of Ailesbury, 1da. who m. 1767 Hon. John Damer.

Offices Held

Lt. 5 Drag. 1737; capt.-lt. 8 Drag. 1740; capt.-lt. 1 Ft. Gds. and lt.-col. 1741; capt. 1 Ft. Gds. 1742; col. 1746; col. 48 Ft. 1746-9, 34 Ft. 1749-51, 13 Drag. 1751-4, 4 Horse 1754-9; maj.-gen. 1756; lt.-gen. 1759; col. 1 Drag. 1759-64, 4 Drag. 1768-70, R. Horse Gds. 1770- d.; gen. 1772; gov. Jersey 1772- d.; f.m. 1793.

M.P. [I] 1741-61.

Groom of the bedchamber 1757-64; P.C. 10 July 1765; sec. of state, southern dept. July 1765-May 1766, northern dept. May 1766-Jun. 1768; lt.-gen. of Ordnance Aug. 1767-Oct. 1772; c.-in-c. army Mar. 1782-Dec. 1783.


Under George II Conway belonged to the old corps of Whigs, and in 1754 he was returned as a Government candidate on Lord Falmouth’s interest at St. Mawes. From 1754 to 1765 his most important political connexions were with the Duke of Cumberland and the 4th Duke of Devonshire. He had been appointed aide-de-camp to Cumberland in 1745 and had served under him at Fontenoy and Culloden. Cumberland wrote about him to Devonshire on 23 May 1757:1

The pleasure you express on the part Conway took in Parliament is so like the constant proofs of friendship you have always given ... Harry knows the high opinion I have always had of him, and that his only fault is hiding his talents from too much modesty and a little indolence which with his good sense I am sure he can get the better of, and I hope he has already gained greatly upon it.

When Devonshire (then Lord Hartington) was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1755 he refused to go (according to Horace Walpole)2 unless Conway, ‘with whom he was scarce acquainted’, went with him; and when he died in 1764 he left Conway a legacy of £5,000.

In 1757 Conway was made groom of the bedchamber (a post he had long desired), and appointed one of the commanders of the expedition to Rochfort. He was ambitious of military distinction, but the failure of the expedition brought him into disfavour with George II; nor was Cumberland, who had resigned his post of captain-general, in a position to help him. In 1758 he asked leave to accompany the expedition to St. Malo but was refused. It was not until 1761, when he went to serve under Granby in Germany, that he again held military command. His reputation in the army was that of a brave soldier and an efficient staff officer, but he was neither a strategist nor a leader of men.

His closest friends were Horace Walpole and the Duke of Grafton. He sat for Thetford and Bury St. Edmunds on Grafton’s interest, and was intimately associated with his private affairs: Grafton, by his will dated 12 June 1761, appointed Conway one of the guardians of his son;3 and in 1764 it was Conway who negotiated on Grafton’s behalf the terms of separation from the Duchess.4 Walpole was proud and jealous of his influence over Conway; boosted his abilities, pushed his interest, and fought his battles; yet was continually hampered by his modesty and indecision.5 The influence of Conway’s brother Lord Hertford, a courtier whose sole allegiance was to the King, tended to keep him from close party connexion.

When Conway returned to England in March 1763 he found Walpole and Grafton in opposition. On 15 and 23 Nov. he voted against Grenville’s ministry over Wilkes: the King proposed to dismiss him instantly, but was restrained by Grenville, who undertook to find out whether Conway considered himself in opposition or had voted against Government ‘merely from opinion’. Conway denied that he intended to join the Opposition but would not give a pledge to support Government. On 6 and 18 Feb. 1764 he spoke and voted against them on general warrants, and when Parliament was prorogued in April was dismissed from his regiment and his place in the bedchamber.

‘He neither complained’, wrote Walpole, ‘nor tried to instil a sense of his injuries into a single friend, though he wished they should take his part, and resent for him.’ He acquired a martyr’s reputation with the Opposition, and his dismissal was used as a stick with which to beat Grenville. In the negotiations for a new Administration in July 1765 he was considered for chancellor of the Exchequer, an office for which he knew himself to be unfit and which he was unwilling to take; but eventually, as Cumberland’s choice, became secretary of state and leader of the House of Commons. As secretary of state he was hard-working and conscientious, but inclined to think in terms of routine administration rather than of policy. He was temperamentally unsuited to lead the Commons: ‘could not be induced to traffic with Members’, ‘allowed too much to his scruples’, and ‘thought nothing a virtue but his own moderation’.6 His failure to win the confidence of the House was one of the greatest weaknesses of the Rockingham ministry.

After Cumberland’s death Conway formed with Rockingham and Grafton the junto of the Administration, in so far as any fixed lines can be discerned in it. But he did not believe that it could stand as it was, and together with Grafton wished to place Pitt at its head. In April 1766, when Rockingham made it clear that he would not stand down for Pitt, Conway considered resigning with Grafton. When Pitt came to power in July, Conway agreed to serve under him, though Pitt’s projected northern alliance reversed Conway’s pro-Austrian foreign policy. He hoped to act as mediator between Pitt and the Rockinghams, and they saw him as a guarantee of their influence in the new Administration. The dismissal of Lord Edgcumbe in December 1766 ended these hopes and occasioned the breach between Chatham and the Rockinghams: Conway tried to intervene on their behalf and talked of resignation, but, under pressure from Walpole and out of loyalty to Grafton, remained. He broke off relations with Chatham and gave the Rockinghams hope that he would soon resign.

During the session of 1767 he was in disagreement with his Cabinet colleagues on the fundamentals of their policy: he opposed Townshend’s American plan, refused to introduce it in the Commons, and twice voted against it, 13 and 15 May; and he opposed Chatham’s policy with respect to the East India Company and voted against the bill to restrain their dividends, 26 May. Yet Grafton, unable to replace him, begged him to remain in office: minister malgré lui, he was the main bulwark against an apparently united Opposition. Indeed, had he been ambitious or unscrupulous, he could have supplanted Grafton as effective minister; while the Rockinghams hoped for and expected his resignation as the prelude to Chatham’s downfall. He feared the reproaches of Grafton if he resigned, and of Rockingham if he did not; ‘dreaded its being said that he remained in place with all denominations of men’;7 yet declared himself independent of party. At last, in June 1767 he informed the King and Rockingham that he would resign at the end of the session.

Yet he delayed his resignation and persuaded the King to open negotiations with Rockingham, believing that the Rockinghams would be prepared to enter the Administration. After Rockingham had insisted that the negotiations should be extended to the Bedfords and Grenvilles, Conway, offended at the inclusion of Grenville and now conscious that his prime political allegiance was to the King, agreed to stay in office. On the failure of the negotiations for a ‘comprehensive Administration’ Conway made a last effort to satisfy Rockingham and pressed him to accept office ‘on his own bottom’; Rockingham’s refusal freed Conway from his obligations to the party, but his failure to resign estranged him from them. ‘Conway’, wrote Burke on 18 Aug. 1767, ‘is gone fairly to the Devil.’8

He remained unsettled and dissatisfied, searching for an excuse to shed his distasteful responsibilities as leader of the Commons and vaunt the purity and disinterestedness of his motives to the world. It was suggested that he might become secretary of state for America;9 instead, in August 1767 he became lieutenant-general of the Ordnance and continued to do the work of secretary of state without drawing the salary. He made no objection to Grafton’s negotiating with the Bedfords in November 1767 but saw their entry as the occasion for his own withdrawal. The Bedfords, sensing Conway’s anxiety to retire and Grafton’s weariness of his scruples, pressed for his resignation; and in January 1768 he gave up the seals to Weymouth and the lead in the Commons to North. At the King’s request he remained in the Cabinet, and in February 1768 was appointed colonel of the 4th regiment of Dragoons.

Henceforth he adopted a detached attitude towards Government measures, and tried to avoid giving his opinion or accepting responsibility. Although not present at the Cabinet meeting which decided to expel Wilkes, 20 Apr. 1768, he did not contest their decision in principle, but held that expulsion should be deferred till next session. When the matter was reconsidered in January 1769, Conway was against expulsion, but went down to Parliament, wrote Hertford to the King on 27 Jan.,10

without any prejudice upon his mind favourable to Mr. Wilkes and desirous of being convinced that the measure is right and that he may be able to support it with his opinion.

However he did not vote on the expulsion motion of 3 Feb., but said, 17 Mar., on the motion to declare Wilkes’ third election void:11

Originally, while it was a question of Mr. Wilkes’s expulsion alone, I was one of those who took no part in it. I was not a friend of Mr. Wilkes: I considered his expulsion a very undesirable thing; but I did not care to be an advocate for him. As long as it was a question of Mr. Wilkes, I did not concern myself in it; but now it is become the case of the people at large ... I say, that those who think to set up the liberty of the people against the liberty of Parliament, will find themselves mistaken.

He voted for the seating of Luttrell on 15 Apr. and 8 May 1769.

At the Cabinet meeting of 1 May 1769 Conway was in the minority who advocated the repeal of all the Townshend duties. When it was proposed in the Commons, 5 Mar. 1770, to repeal the duty on tea, he said: ‘I did not know, till the day before yesterday, what determination the Administration had come to with regard to this matter.’12 He then argued that it was impolitic to try to raise a revenue from America, and condemned the tea duty as ‘an uncommercial measure’. In January 1770 he refused the post of master-general of the Ordnance but undertook to do the work of the office. In November he became colonel of the Royal Regt. of Horse Guards (‘the most agreeable post in the Army’, wrote Walpole),13 withdrew from the Cabinet, but remained lieutenant-general of the Ordnance and its effective head. ‘He had conceived a passion for his office’, wrote Walpole ‘and ... was indefatigable in all the minute though necessary drudgery relating to the service of the artillery and all its branches.’14

From 1770 to 1775 he gave Government critical and unreliable support. He had objected to details in the royal marriage bill before its introduction, on second reading declared that he was ‘a friend to the principle of the bill and to the minutest wish of the Crown’,15 and yet criticized it strongly in committee. In October 1772, piqued at the appointment of Lord Townshend, an officer junior to himself, to be master-general of the Ordnance, an office he could have had for the asking any time during the last two years, he resigned; but ‘at the earnest solicitation’ of Lord North16the King appointed him governor of Jersey. Early in 1774 he was still counted as a Government supporter, and voted on 25 Feb. against making Grenville’s Election Act permanent. But on American affairs he wavered: spoke for the Boston port bill 23 Mar., but 19 Apr. voted for the repeal of the tea duty and 2 May spoke against the third reading of the Massachusetts Bay bill.

Conway was on the continent when Parliament was dissolved in September 1774. ‘I had imagined’, he wrote to Robert Murray Keith on 19 Nov., ‘the Duke of Grafton, as he had said nothing to the contrary, purposed bringing me in as before.’17 But Grafton, who had a contest at Bury St. Edmunds, could not propose a stranger who was out of the country. Conway would not ask a seat from Government, and was out of Parliament until returned by Grafton on the first vacancy in his boroughs.

Conway took a leading part against the American war, condemning it as ‘cruel, unnecessary, and unnatural’,18 but without identifying himself with the Opposition parties or policies. Nor was he averse from speaking for Government when he considered they were unjustly attacked: thus he defended the Ordnance Board against Barré, 17 Dec. 1779, and spoke against postponing the grant of supplies, 27 Apr. 1780—though ‘no great favourer of the measures of Administration’ he was ‘certainly no enemy to Government’.19 His wish was ‘that the offensive war with America should immediately cease’:20 on 22 Feb. 1782 he moved for an address against the war, which was defeated by 194 votes to 193; and on 27 Feb. moved a similar motion which was carried by 234 to 215.

Conway became commander-in-chief in the Rockingham Administration with a seat in the Cabinet. Grafton, Camden, and Conway, survivors from the Chatham Administration who had not resigned with Chatham, formed a group committed to neither Rockingham nor Shelburne. With them Conway remained in office under Shelburne, and defended his conduct against Fox in the Commons on 9 July 1782, using the clichés of twenty years earlier:21 ‘he looked to measures only, and not to men’, and declared he would support Shelburne so long as he maintained the principles he had professed in opposition. He remained in office under the Coalition but at his own desire left the Cabinet. He resigned on the Coalition’s fall in December 1783. On 19 Dec. he reported to Grafton that a dissolution of Parliament was looked upon as certain, and added: ‘In regard to myself I have only to say that ... I hope you will consider your own convenience and inclination in your future disposal of [the seat at Bury].’22 He had no confidence in Pitt. ‘A system of Administration ... forced upon his Majesty’, he wrote to Grafton on 4 Jan. 1784, ‘I much dislike; but a system against the bent of the House of Commons, and supported only by the Crown, I take to be impracticable.’23 On 23 Jan. he made a violent attack in the Commons on Pitt’s Administration: they ‘had endeavoured by every mean, sinister, and unworthy act to keep their places ... their conduct was dark and intricate ... they existed by corruption ...’ . Pitt’s conduct with respect to the threatened dissolution was ‘not only an insult, but an indecency’; Conway could not have imagined it possible ‘that any man who stood upon his character could have treated the House of Commons in that manner’.24 He had not spoken thus of the authors of the Coalition—the Administration ‘forced upon his Majesty’; but then they had possessed a majority in the Commons and did not need a dissolution.

On 28 Mar. 1784 the King wrote to Pitt:25

Having heard this day that the Duke of Grafton has met with the repulse of his candidate General Conway at St. Edmundsbury and that the Duke to prevent the introduction of a stranger has been obliged to put up in his stead Captain George Fitzroy, I think it may be agreeable to Mr. Pitt to know of a certain friend instead of a determined enemy.

Conway had sat in Parliament for over forty years; had worked at different times with different parties; yet at no time had he been a party man.

He died 9 July 1795.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Devonshire mss.
  • 2. Mems. Geo. II, ii. 3.
  • 3. Grafton mss.
  • 4. Walpole to Hertford, 3 Dec. 1764.
  • 5. Mems. Geo. III, i. 322.
  • 6. Ibid. ii. 297-8, 321; iii. 91.
  • 7. Ibid. iii. 29.
  • 8. Corresp. (ed. Copeland), i. 321.
  • 9. Mems. Geo. III, iii. 71.
  • 10. Fortescue, ii. 73.
  • 11. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, i. 351-2.
  • 12. Ibid. 497.
  • 13. To Mann, 12 Nov. 1770.
  • 14. Last Jnls, i. 146.
  • 15. Ibid, 43.
  • 16. Thos. Bradshaw to R. M. Keith, 20 Oct. 1772, Add. 35504, f. 106.
  • 17. Mems. Corresp. Sir R. M. Keith, ed. Gillespie Smith, ii. 29.
  • 18. Almon, iii. 34.
  • 19. Ibid. xvii. 584.
  • 20. Debrett, vi. 349.
  • 21. Ibid. vii. 300.
  • 22. Grafton, Autobiog. 386.
  • 23. Ibid. 388.
  • 24. Debrett, xii. 640-2.
  • 25. Chatham mss.