CORNWALLIS, Hon. William (1744-1819), of Newlands, Hants.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1768 - Mar. 1774
3 Apr. 1782 - 1784
1784 - 1790
1790 - Jan. 1807

Family and Education

b. 20 Feb. 1744, 4th s. of Charles, 1st Earl Cornwallis, by Hon. Elizabeth Townshend, da. of Charles, 2nd Visct. Townshend. educ. Eton 1753. unm. GCB 1815.

Offices Held

Entered RN 1755, lt. 1761, cdr. 1762, capt. 1765; served in W.I. and N. America 1776-82; col. marines 1787-93; c.-in-c. E.I. 1788-94; r.-adm. 1793, v.-adm. 1794; c.-in-c. W. I. 1796; adm. 1799; r.-adm. of Gt. Britain 1796-1814, v.-adm. UK 1814-d.


Although Cornwallis held a parliamentary seat for most of his active life, he had little interest in politics and apparently never spoke; in any case, his naval career rendered his attendance irregular. In the Parliament of 1784 he was persuaded to sit as a supporter of Pitt’s administration for Portsmouth, but at the next general election he expressed doubts about his suitability as a candidate there and was relieved when his brother offered him the family borough of Eye, which ‘need be no restraint upon you on point of attendance or any other consideration’. Cornwallis was in the East Indies at the time of the election.

There is no evidence that he spent any time at Westminster in the 1790 Parliament. He was listed ‘abroad’ and hostile to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in 1791. In 1796 his naval career was interrupted by a court martial for disobedience. Contemporary naval opinion regarded his behaviour as largely justifiable and Cornwallis was acquitted and seriously considered bringing the matter before Parliament, if he could obtain Pitt’s support. There is no evidence that he did so. He voted for Pitt’s assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798. Meanwhile he withdrew from active service until St. Vincent came to the Admiralty when he was given command of the Channel fleet. He had been asked to second the address, 2 Feb. 1801, through confusion with his nephew James Cornwallis*. The peace of Amiens enabled him to be present at the 1802 election, whereupon his brother wrote to a friend:

The admiral got very drunk ... and the next day insisted upon my steward’s taking £500 towards defraying the expenses. Without having given a vote in the House of Commons for many years past, and perhaps never intending to give one again, no youth of one and twenty was ever more pleased at coming into Parliament. What unaccountable creatures we are.

On 25 Mar. 1803 he took a month’s leave of absence from the House for ill health.

Cornwallis resumed his command at the outbreak of war but he was growing infirm and imagined that officials at the Admiralty were intriguing against him. In 1806 St. Vincent took over the command and Cornwallis retired, not without some questions being asked in Parliament. Early in 1807 he decided to withdraw from the family borough in favour of his nephew and never re-entered Parliament. The rest of his life was passed in complete retirement. He died 5 July 1819.

G. Cornwallis West, Life and Letters of Adm. Cornwallis, 144, 312 seq., 386, 492, 506; PRO 30/8/125, ff. 294, 296; Kent AO, Cornwallis mss C3, Mq. Cornwallis to bp. of Lichfield, 7 Feb. 1801; Cornwallis Corresp. iii. 492.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: Winifred Stokes