YORKE, Hon. Charles (1722-70), of Tittenhanger, Herts.
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Family and Education
b. 30 Dec. 1722, 2nd s. of Philip, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, and bro. of Philip, Visct. Royston, Hon. John and Hon. Joseph Yorke. educ. Hackney; Corpus Christi, Camb. 1739; M. Temple 1735; L. Inn 1742, called 1746, K.C. and bencher 1754. m. (1) 19 May 1755, Catherine (d. 10 July 1759), da. and h. of William Freeman of Aspenden, Herts., 1s.; (2) 30 Dec. 1762, Agneta, da. and coh. of Henry Johnson of Great Berkhampsted, Herts., 2s. 1da.
Clerk of the Crown in Chancery 1747- d.; solicitor-gen. to Prince of Wales 1754-6; solicitor-gen. Nov. 1756-Dec. 1761; attorney-gen. Jan. 1762-Nov. 1763, Aug. 1765-Aug. 1766; ld. chancellor 17 Jan. 1770- d.
From his earliest days Charles Yorke was confidently expected by his family to achieve great distinction in the law. His mother’s uncle, Lord Somers, had been lord chancellor 1697-1700; his father, Lord Hardwicke, held the office for nearly twenty years, 1737-56. At the age of twelve Charles was entered at the Middle Temple; after showing great promise at the university, he was brought into Parliament at 24; by the time he was 27 he was talked of as a possible solicitor-general.1 But with remarkable talents went certain defects. Like his brothers Philip and John, Charles suffered from poor health, and in later years became very fat. So much was expected of him that he was often hesitant and uncertain: ‘his spirits are not of the best and firmest kind’, admitted his father. He shared the family weakness of ‘overthinking everything’, and as he grew older it became a torment to him to make decisions. His younger brother Joseph suggested marriage as a remedy: ‘He certainly wants a wife to govern him a little, and who, by obliging him to have some attention for her, might prevent him from having quite so much for himself.’2
His career opened auspiciously. He was returned for the family borough of Reigate, and soon made his mark in the House. In 1754 his appointment as solicitor-general to the Prince of Wales was an earnest of favours to come, and two years later, when his father retired, he was made solicitor-general. The first setback came in 1757 when, at Pitt’s insistence, Charles Pratt was appointed attorney-general over his head. Yorke’s brother Royston, looking back, blamed Hardwicke for agreeing to the arrangement: ‘My father acted rather too disinterestedly, for there was not the shadow of a pretence to put Pratt before my brother.’3 Even so, Yorke’s prospects were still good:
My second brother was high in the opinion of his profession, getting forward in it daily ... and even then destined by everybody for the Great Seal, as soon as it became decent and practicable to carry so young a man so far.4
A few years later he was earning £7,500 p.a., and admitted to a ‘very ample fortune’.5
When the new reign opened, Yorke was one of the first to be granted an audience, and was well received. In 1762, when Pratt became chief justice of the common pleas, Yorke succeeded him as attorney-general, and in August 1762 the King, talking of the probable retirement of the lord chancellor, mentioned Yorke as his successor. ‘This’, wrote Lord Hardwicke, ‘was thrown out as a lure to me, being of so great consequence to my family.’6 Certainly the possibility that the woolsack might soon be vacant influenced the Yorkes in their conduct following Newcastle’s resignation. Hardwicke was one of Newcastle’s oldest and closest friends. His first hope was that Newcastle could be persuaded to retire completely: a formed opposition, he warned him, could only serve to re-establish Pitt in power. In his account to Charles Yorke, 9 Sept. 1762, Hardwicke wrote:
To all this his Grace agreed, or seemed to agree ... From hence you may conclude that it is scarce probable that you will be put under the difficulty you apprehend about resignation.
But the disgrace of the Duke of Devonshire in October 1762 changed the whole situation. Newcastle had now an excuse for opposition, and called on his friends to resign. Yorke was very reluctant to throw away his chance of promotion for what he considered a quixotic gesture: he had no high opinion either of Newcastle or of the proposed opposition. Hardwicke explained to Newcastle, 15 Nov.:
This question concerns three of my younger sons. They are all of years of discretion ... capable of judging for themselves, and two of them have families. I shall therefore not insist on their resigning, but ... shall recommend it to them to consider seriously and determine for themselves.
Yorke decided to remain in office. When the peace preliminaries were debated, he commended some points, hoped that others would be amended, and withdrew without voting. He remained in office another year, despite the reproaches of Newcastle and his associates, and when called upon for an opinion in the Wilkes case, maintained that parliamentary privilege did not extend to seditious libel. His position was very difficult. Newcastle wrote, 16 Oct. 1763:
The attorney-general may think that if he stands out and does not offend the court, whenever a change shall happen, he shall have a preference with the King for the Great Seal; and Mr. Pitt may hope that if the attorney quits his office ... then my Lord Chief Justice Pratt will have the advantage over him.
Nevertheless a week later Yorke determined to resign, miserably certain that it would mean ‘everything was over with him, and that he must have done with his public expectations’. Newcastle tried to comfort him with assurances that he would be remembered when the Opposition achieved power, and congratulated him on his ‘great sacrifice’. He resigned on 3 Nov.; Grenville had his account of Yorke’s audience straight from the King:
He expressed himself with the greatest duty and affection to the King, put the step he had taken entirely upon his father, under the Duke of Newcastle’s influence ... showed great reluctance in the doing it, and burst out into tears.7
For a brief moment Yorke found himself the hero of the Opposition. He received a warm ovation when he appeared in Westminster Hall, and Newcastle was in rapture: to Hardwicke he wrote, 9 Nov., that he would ‘never forget ... all your dear children’s right and affectionate way of thinking and acting. How can any children do wrong that come from such a father?’ But Yorke soon began to repent his decision. He could not recant the opinion he had given on the Wilkes issue, and when the debate on the question of privilege took place, 24 Nov., he spoke strongly in support of Administration. ‘A most able and learned performance ... the masterpiece of the day’, was Walpole’s comment (to Hertford, 25 Nov. 1763) but it could not have helped his relations with Opposition. By December he was putting out feelers to Grenville: ‘spoke rather discontentedly of the exigency of the time which has (as he called it) whirled him out of so eminent and advantageous a post in the law’. But in February 1764 he supported Opposition on the issue of general warrants: George Onslow described his speech to Newcastle, 17 Feb., as ‘the noblest performance that ever was heard ... nothing ever met with such applause as Charles Yorke’.8
Events now appeared to be bearing Yorke into the ranks of Opposition, but he found it hard to reconcile himself to loss of office. On 29 May 1764 he visited James Harris: ‘spoke of a conciliating scheme—that otherwise he himself was isolated’.9 In November, on the death of Sir Thomas Clarke, the master of the rolls, he made fresh overtures to the ministry. Grenville met him the evening after Clarke’s death to discuss terms, offering him either the rolls or his old post of attorney-general. Yorke was in his usual agony of indecision, pitched his demands high, but would give no definite assurances:
He seemed very desirous [wrote Grenville] to have it understood that the King had called him to his service ... that he might have that ground to stand upon to his friends, by whom he should be arraigned as having deserted them, though at the same time he said he knew what his friends were, and how very unmeritorious they had been to him ... his declarations never seemed to be such as not to leave Mr. Grenville room to doubt how far his support would be strong and uniform ... he seemed to wish much for the promise of being chancellor in case the seals became vacant.10
Next, quite unable to make up his mind, he asked Newcastle to do it for him—the blind leading the blind:11
Towards the conclusion [wrote Newcastle] he pressed me very hard to give him my opinion, what he should do ... what was it I would have him do, tell him, advise him ... Mr. Yorke seemed so embarrassed and so doubtful about his own proceeding, I am not sure that if I had advised him strongly not to accept either of these employments, he might possibly have complied.
Not surprisingly, Yorke returned from Claremont ‘more inexplicit than ever’: his next meeting with Grenville went on until two in the morning, and ended with Yorke asking for more time to consider. Even the indefatigable Grenville was by now ‘tired to death with the state of indecision of the whole of this business’.12 The outcome was that Yorke declined office, but asked for a patent of precedence in his profession as a mark of royal favour, and declared his readiness to support Government: ‘it was bad enough to be a deputy minister, but to be a deputy in opposition was what he could not submit to’.13 He thus contrived to get the worst of both worlds. ‘We have lost a man of character, but they have not gained one’, summed up the Duke of Cumberland.14
Throughout the early part of 1765 Yorke gave general support to the ministry, speaking in favour of the Stamp Act and the Regency bill. But Lord Rockingham when he took office was anxious to have the support of the Yorke family. Hardwicke, Yorke’s elder brother, was offered the Board of Trade, while to Yorke himself the old bait was held out: ‘If I chose to go back to the office of attorney, the King would make it easy ... the ne plus ultra of the profession could not be far off.’ Yorke was doubtful whether the ministry would be strong enough to be worth embarking in: on 2 July 1765 Rockingham told Newcastle that he had found him ‘not unwilling—but timid’. In an audience two days later, the King promised that he should be lord chancellor ‘in less than a twelvemonth’. But the more Yorke was pressed to accept, the more arguments he found for declining. All his diffidence returned: ‘feared too much would be expected of me in Parliament, I would not undertake as a sub-minister in the House of Commons’. Charles Townshend told Dowdeswell, 6 Aug.: ‘We hear that Mr. Yorke will not accept. Every passion of this man intermits, and no one is a regular part of his actual constitution.’ On 8 Aug. Thomas Whately wrote to Grenville: ‘Mr. Yorke still hesitates: I believe that will be a paragraph in every letter I shall write this summer.’ At length, after five weeks of tortuous negotiation, he accepted the attorney-generalship again.15
The decision once taken, Yorke soon began to retreat from it. He had little faith in his colleagues’ abilities, and misgivings about the repeal of the Stamp Act. He insisted that a declaratory act should accompany repeal: ‘it was principally owing to my brother’, wrote Lord Hardwicke, ‘that the dignity and authority of the legislature were kept up by the bill for asserting the dependency of the colonies’. Meanwhile Yorke was anxious that the promise of an early transfer to the woolsack should be honoured. When Grafton resigned in May 1766, there was some discussion whether Yorke should succeed him as secretary of state: ‘I am not fond of the labour of the bar’, he admitted, but declined. Two months later, when Pitt took office, he suggested that Yorke should continue as attorney-general, with Pratt as lord chancellor. This Yorke could never accept, though he would have been willing to take the common pleas, provided that it had been accompanied by a peerage. In August he resigned, complaining that he was ‘a man sacrificed to the times’. When he attended the procession of the new lord chancellor in November 1766, George Onslow reported to Newcastle: ‘his countenance did indeed show to the observation of everybody the feelings of his mind’.16
Yorke’s first reaction was to resolve to quit his profession; his second not to. He would not adopt any definite attitude towards the new Administration: ‘he is a very ticklish man’, Newcastle wrote to Rockingham, 13 Nov. 1766, ‘and seems to be much embarrassed what part to take’. A year later, after the Bedfords had joined Administration, he was still embarrassed, and could see no future in an Opposition ‘so narrowed ... as it has been by late events; such a scene extinguishes both one’s vanity and one’s ambition’. His brother, Hardwicke, tried without success to persuade him to take a more active part in the House. Possibly his health was already in decline: he ate and drank too much in later years, and complained often of fatigue. Hardwicke would have liked him to contest Cambridgeshire at the election of 1768, but Yorke refused, preferring a ‘quiet election’ for the University. When Hardwicke told him that it was his duty to give his opinion in the House on the Middlesex election, Yorke replied: ‘I cannot do it, because if I go with the court they will betray me, or give me up as they did before, and if with the Opposition, it will be against my convictions.’17
But his ambition was not totally extinguished. Late in 1769 there were rumours that Lord Chancellor Camden would resign and that an approach would be made to Yorke. He and his brother ‘talked the matter over backwards and forwards’. Hardwicke urged him to take his chance: ‘he must not expect it could come to him in any agreeable mode’. In the debate of 9 Jan. 1770, Camden dissociated himself completely from the other ministers, and it was resolved to dismiss him as soon as a successor could be found. The Opposition confidently expected the Administration to collapse: ‘The seals are to go a-begging’, said Shelburne in the Lords, ‘but I hope there will not be found in the kingdom a wretch so base and mean-spirited as to accept of them on the conditions on which they must be offered.’ On 12 Jan. Grafton asked Yorke to take them. Yorke begged for time to consult his friends. Hardwicke, Rockingham and John Yorke advised him to refuse: it would be dishonourable to abandon his allies, nor was it likely that the ministry would last. Lord Chief Justice Wilmot and Lord Mansfield pressed him to accept. Yorke, as always, veered wildly: ‘he lamented the malignity of the times and his own ill fortune that the ne plus ultra of his profession should only be within his reach when various reasons made it almost impossible for him to accept with honour’; but a little later he had convinced himself that ‘in that great office he could be of more real service to his country than by plodding at the bar’.18 In the afternoon of the 14th he saw Grafton and declined, and repeated his decision two days later in an audience with the King. On the 17th he attended the royal levee, looking very ill, ‘his countenance suffused with bile’. Once more the King insisted that he should accept: if he did not, he might be sure that he would never again have the opportunity. In the face of this threat, Yorke wavered, and by the time the audience was over had kissed hands for the Great Seal and a peerage. He went home ‘in the most violent agitation of spirits’, quarrelled bitterly with Hardwicke, and spent a sleepless night wondering whether he ought not to decline after all. On the 18th he was ‘in a fixed state of melancholy’, the following day began to vomit blood, and died on the 20th. He had been lord chancellor for three days.
The extraordinary circumstances of his death made it inevitable that there should be rumours of suicide. Indeed, in his Memoirs of the reign of George III Walpole states as a fact that Yorke died ‘by his own hand’, though when he wrote to Mann, 22 Jan. 1770, he had attributed the death to natural causes. It is perhaps suspicious that the letters from Joseph Yorke to Hardwicke which must have referred to these events should have disappeared. But the case for a natural death is strong. Yorke had been in poor health for some time. On 8 Jan. 1770 he had written to Hardwicke that a ‘severe cold’ and ‘feverish heat ... disables me from coming to town: I shall hardly be fit to stir before the end of the week’.19 On the 11th he had received Grafton’s letter asking to meet him. The succeeding days had been extremely taxing. Levett Blackborne passed on to a friend the account he had received from ‘a young lady—a relative of Mrs. Yorke’:20
He ate voraciously and beyond his usual manner—which latterly was generally too much. Before the taking away of the cloth he complained of sickness and indigestion ... growing worse, he retired into a back dressing room, where he was heard retching with vehemence. After some time the family in the parlour was alarmed, and he was carried to bed having, as supposed, broke a blood vessel in vomiting.
This agrees in the main with Agneta Yorke’s account of her husband’s last days.21
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: J. A. Cannon
- 1. Walpole to Mann, 19 Nov. 1750.
- 2. P. C. Yorke, Hardwicke, ii. 174, 179.
- 3. Ibid. iii. 366.
- 4. Add. 35428, f. 1.
- 5. 19 Oct. 1763, Malmesbury mss.
- 6. Yorke, iii. 408.
- 7. Add. 35353, ff. 293-4; 32945, f. 16; 32952, ff. 1, 51; Grenville Pprs. ii. 218.
- 8. Add. 32952, f. 310; 32956, f. 21; Grenville Pprs. ii. 239.
- 9. Malmesbury mss.
- 10. Grenville Pprs ii. 525-7.
- 11. Add. 32964, ff. 68-70.
- 12. Sandwich to Bedford, 24 Nov. 1764, Bedford mss.
- 13. Grenville Pprs. ii. 531.
- 14. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, ii. 26.
- 15. Add. 32967, f. 210; 35428, ff. 77, 96, 103-4; Cavendish, Debates, i. 576; Grenville Pprs. iii. 78.
- 16. Add. 35428, f. 74; 35631, f. 279; 32976, f. 324; Rockingham mss.
- 17. Add. 32977, f. 383; 35362, f. 175; 35428, f. 18.
- 18. Add. 35428, ff. 132-3.
- 19. Add. 35362, f. 268.
- 20. HMC Rutland, ii. 313.
- 21. Add. 35428, f. 132.