WATKINS, Henry (c.1666-1727), of Christ Church, Oxford, and Duke Street, Westminster, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



20 Apr. 1714 - 1715

Family and Education

b. c.1666, 2nd s. of Rev. Richard Watkins, rector, of Whichford, Warws. by Elizabeth Hyckes.  educ. Westminster (KS) 1680; Christ Church, Oxf., matric. 16 Dec. 1684, aged 18, BA 1688, MA 1691, lecturer in Greek 1693–5, faculty student 1713–dunm.1

Offices Held

Chief clerk, sec. at war’s office c.1699–1702; judge-adv.-gen. of army 1702–Mar. 1712; sec. to embassy at The Hague Apr. 1711–Jan. 1712; extra envoy, Vienna Dec. 1711; sec. to embassy at Utrecht Jan.–Mar. 1712; inspector of extraordinaries of war in Low Countries Feb. 1712–June 1714; sec. to Duke of Ormond Mar. 1712–?June 1714; registrar to Ormond as warden of Cinque Ports July 1713; sec. to Ld. Arran [I] as chancellor of Oxf. Univ. 1722–d.2


Watkins’ brief sojourn in the Commons rounded off a busy career in army and diplomatic administration. The son of a minor Warwickshire squarson, he proceeded to Oxford, where by his later twenties he was a lecturer in Greek. The means and timing of his transition from academia to government service are obscure, but one possibility is that he was recruited in around 1695 by John Ellis*, then under-secretary of state, and himself an ex-Christ Church man whom Watkins always held in fond regard. In 1699 his duties as chief clerk in William Blathwayt’s* war office took him to Holland. When in June 1701 the King requested the Christ Church authorities to allow Watkins to retain his status as a student of the college, the reason given for Watkins’ inability to take the qualifying holy orders was ‘his constant attendance for some years past on our service at home and with us abroad’. In 1702 he was appointed judge-advocate, a capacity in which he served for the next ten years. His old school friend George Stepney, who was envoy at Vienna, hoped that Watkins would soon have ‘the share in Friar Bacon’s legacy, as you deserve most’. He may have owed this promotion also to Ellis to whom Watkins was writing on 28 Nov. 1702 with a fresh effusion of gratitude and obligation, adding in a characteristically sardonic aside: ‘I shall begin my circuit next week and hold my assizes at Breda and the Bosch which I hope will strike such a terror that I shall not frequently have occasion to remove from my residence here [The Hague]’. His combined legal, judicial and secretarial responsibilities in the military sphere required his continual presence during the campaigns in Flanders and Germany, an itinerant existence of which he rarely complained. When not based at The Hague he toured the encampments and reported military news and prospects to his many correspondents. His administrative talents were highly valued by colleagues and superiors alike, while his lively conversation and intellectual flair won him a wide acquaintance. During these years he worked closely with the secretary to the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†), Adam de Cardonnel*, with whom he had formerly served as chief clerk in the war office, one of his functions being to compose any documentation required in Latin. Watkins was a dedicated servant and admirer of Marlborough, but it was an attachment that was to complicate his later advancement. After her usual paranoid fashion, Duchess Sarah later came to regard Watkins as an instrument of her husband’s downfall: on the reverse of a draft letter Watkins had taken at Marlborough’s dictation in 1711 she scribbled many years later, ‘I imagine that Mr Watkins writ these letters who I believe betrayed the D[uke] of Marl[borough] all the time he served him.’ Watkins was also highly valued by the secretary at war, Henry St. John II*. Commending him in January 1712 to Bishop Robinson, the head of the Utrecht embassy, St. John wrote, ‘You will find his capacity and experience in business very great. I know no other who has a finer pen.’3

Although an instinctive Tory, Watkins was careful to play down his political views while serving under the Godolphin administration, his obvious public attachment to Marlborough taking precedence over all else. Towards the end of August 1710, as news filtered through to him at the encampment at Villers-Brulin of the installation of a Tory ministry, he told Horace Walpole II*: ‘I assure you I am so little a Tory, that I can scarce hold up my head under the heavy burden of the news we have received this day from England.’ At first Watkins seems to have entertained little chance of retaining his post but by mid-September was cheered by reports that the ministry was intent on utilizing ‘all our present success’ for the benefit of its own glory. Even so, his continued service under the new ministers rankled with his scholarly acquaintances at Christ Church who reproached him ‘with the hard names of trimmer and infidel’, but he was determined he would ‘not change to gain their favour’. He was, however, sufficiently concerned about possible damage to his reputation at the college, where he probably hoped to retire if suddenly dismissed, to send a mollifying present of wine to one of the Christ Church canons, his friend Dr William Stratford. By January 1711 both Watkins and Cardonnel were apprehensive that Marlborough’s command of the British forces would not be acceptable to the ministry for much longer.4

Soon after becoming secretary of state, St. John began to seek promotion for Watkins. On 19 Jan. 1711 St John wrote to their mutual friend John Drummond†, a British merchant and agent for the government at Amsterdam: ‘Nobody can have a truer value for Mr Watkins than I have . . . I should do few things with greater pleasure than I should contribute to his advancement’; and a few days later Drummond himself pressed a recommendation of his ‘worthy friend’ on Lord Oxford (Robert Harley*). On 16 Mar. St. John was able to ask Drummond to ascertain if Watkins would accept the secretaryship of The Hague embassy under Lord Raby. Watkins took the offer, though not with alacrity, having first obtained Marlborough’s approval, but he remained with the army until the autumn. In the meantime St. John enthused to Raby over Watkins’ qualifications for diplomatic work, speaking on 4 Apr. of his ‘great sufficiency in all parts of foreign negotiation’, and two days later of his having ‘been in the whole secret of foreign business since the Queen’s accession to the throne’. Raby, however, was doubly annoyed with Watkins’ appointment, there having been no prior consultation with him on the subject, and having been warned by his brother, Peter Wentworth, that ‘Watkins had and will have particular attachment to the Duke of M[arlborough] and those that have joined with him to get him this employment’. In a subsequent letter Wentworth was forced to admit that Watkins was ‘a very good man, and a Tory by principle’. Watkins no doubt drew some consolation from a promise conveyed to him through Drummond that the commission would be of short duration: ‘My lord treasurer has a farther and much better view for him.’5

During his summer perambulations, and against the background of peace negotiations in France and Holland, Watkins found himself in the awkward position of having to do ‘justice’ to Oxford’s name while at the same time deploring The Examiner’s cutting diatribes against both the war and the Duke. He lamented to Drummond on 30 July N.S., that the absence of a negotiator of sufficient stature at The Hague ‘to determine and solve difficulties on the spot’ unbearably slowed the progress of the peace negotiations, and it was hardly surprising that he should cast Marlborough as ideal for such a role. Towards the end of September, however, he received a stern warning from St. John via William Harrison, Lord Strafford’s (formerly Raby) personal secretary, to refrain from acting in Marlborough’s defence. As he prepared to take up his commission under Strafford in October, Watkins told Drummond of his determination to serve the Earl to the utmost so as to ‘engage him hereafter to recommend me back to the person that sent me to him’, but in the very next sentence cast doubt on Strafford’s commitment to the peace terms currently on the negotiating table.6

Following the denunciation of the peace proposals in the British press by the Imperial ambassador, Count Gallas, late in October 1711, in which neither the court nor the Queen was spared barbed comment, St. John gave Watkins the delicate task of conveying and presenting to the new emperor, Charles VI, a personal message from the Queen expressing annoyance with Gallas’ conduct and her desire to receive a new Imperial envoy. Watkins set off from The Hague in mid-December and as he travelled through the German domains he ruminated on the impending parliamentary inquiry into the profiteering allegations recently made by the commission of accounts against Marlborough and Robert Walpole II*, the former secretary at war. He doubted whether ‘these sort of inquiries’ would be of much public benefit, and believed that Marlborough should be spared until after the war. He did, however, think it necessary to ‘expose’ Walpole: ‘I am confident he would spare none of the enquirers if they lay at his mercy’. His audience with the emperor took place at Frankfurt around 20 Dec. and on the 26th he sent an account of it to Drummond:

I have not been used to speak with crowned heads, and there is not a great mixture of brass in my constitution. However, I uttered something of at least four minutes’ length. I must confess my reception, considering the vast difference between an emperor and a secretary of an embassy, was the most gracious in the world, for besides the friendly expressions of continual affection for the Queen, I cannot resist the vanity of letting you know he added he was glad to receive her letter from a person whom her ministers gave so good a character . . . I leave you to judge whether after [?these] compliments from his i[mperial] m[ajesty] I may not be allowed to give myself ease of scorning to work journeywork under an ambassador, who will be sure never to use me so civilly.

Watkins acquitted himself successfully, and was thankful that the ‘Gallas affair’ ‘has not begot the ill blood our enemies expected’. But his sense of achievement was overshadowed by Marlborough’s dismissal and by the Commons’ inquiry into suspected peculation by the Duke and Cardonnel begun in January 1712, all of which caused him ‘the greatest sorrow’. His efforts to procure evidence to exonerate them had been in vain. In addition, Strafford’s dislike towards him was constantly apparent and he anticipated endless difficulties at the forthcoming negotiations at Utrecht to which he had been accredited as secretary to the English plenipotentiaries. In a letter of 2 Jan., St. John counselled perseverance and assured him that the imminent arrival at the negotiations of Bishop Robinson, ‘who knows your merit’, would greatly alleviate tension. St. John repeated the promise that the lord treasurer would ‘provide’ for him, and ‘that after so many years’ labour abroad, you may sit down under an English fig-tree’. Accordingly, on 27 Feb. Watkins was commissioned in the newly created post of inspector of the extraordinaries of war in the Low Countries, entailing the assessment of all the financial demands from foreign regiments for the payment of expenses for which Britain and the States General were jointly liable according to treaty. He was also required to scrutinize the accounts submitted by contractors for bread, forage and waggons which had been the subject of so much recent controversy. Before leaving Utrecht at the end of March, the new British commander, the Duke of Ormond, invited Watkins to become his secretary: ‘the advantage of this change’, Watkins wrote, ‘is by some highly magnified’.7

In the election of 1713 Watkins stood as a Tory candidate for the Northamptonshire borough of Brackley. Unfortunately, this episode in his career is less well documented, but his preparedness to take a seat in the Commons, coinciding with the conclusion of peace, indicated that he was now contemplating retirement from full-time governmental service, perhaps to the estate he had purchased at Chetwode in Buckinghamshire. He may still have hoped, however, that his continued service to the ministry in Parliament would prompt Lord Oxford to honour his earlier promises of preferment. In his election campaign he was supported by the authorities at Magdalen College, Oxford, a major property owner in the borough, probably on the recommendation of his brother Dr Richard Watkins, a senior don at the college until 1709. At the end of August both he and his partner, John Burgh*, were defeated by their Whig opponents, but party dissension within the corporation, to which the borough’s franchise was limited, provided them with sufficient leverage to petition against the return when the Commons reassembled the following March. The elections committee favoured the sitting Members, but Watkins was assured, presumably by senior Tory politicians, that ‘ample reparation will be made me at the report’. Thus he rejected ‘with scorn’ the offer of an accommodation from Paul Methuen*, the more prominent of the two sitting Whigs. On 20 Apr., in a House overflowing with Tories, the result was easily overturned, and he and Burgh were declared elected. He took his seat within the next few days, being nominated to a committee on the 23rd, and two more committee assignments in June indicate his continued attendance during most of the remainder of the session. Ormond seems to have retained him as a personal secretary after the peace, although it is not clear for how long. On petitioning the then secretary at war, Francis Gwyn*, in July for his financial dues as inspector of extraordinaries, he stated that all his appointments, which presumably included his secretarial duties to Ormond, had since ceased. He did not stand in the 1715 election, and in the Worsley list, compiled subsequently, he was classed as a Tory. It is likely that in retirement he spent much time at his old college, Christ Church, where he continued to hold a studentship and the faculty post which he had obtained in 1713. Although he maintained friendships and associations with several Jacobite figures, it is impossible to ascertain his own attitudes towards the Hanoverian dynasty. In January 1722 the Earl of Arran, chancellor of Oxford University, appointed Watkins to serve as his secretary. It is likely that he was recommended by Arran’s brother, the Duke of Ormond. From the early 1720s, however, his health slowly declined, forcing him to seek regular cure and recuperation at Bath. He was a frequent patient of Dr John Arbuthnot and Dr John Freind†, ‘my dear friends’, the latter of whom had served with him on Ormond’s staff in Flanders in 1712. His deteriorating health was so marked by June 1726 that Dr Stratford described his appearance as ‘skin and bone, under a visible decay’. He died on 25 Mar. 1727 at his house in Duke Street, leaving the bulk of his estate, reckoned at £10,000, to his elder brother Fleetwood, a former army officer. In his will he remembered a Mrs Alice Hill ‘on account of her rare qualities and perfections’, and a Mrs Katherine Hayes ‘in consideration of her tender care for me during my illness at the Bath’.8

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Dugdale, Warws. i. 587; Westminster Abbey Reg. (Harl. Soc. x), 319; Alumni Westmonasterienses, 185, 202; E. G. W. Bill, Educ. at Christ Church 1660–1800, pp. 199, 352.
  • 2. Br. Dipl. Reps. (Cam. Soc. ser. 3, xlvi), 161; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxvi. 194, 266–7; xxvii. 303; xxviii. 355; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 718; British Mercury, 28–31 Mar. 1712; Post Boy, 23–25 July 1713; Hearne Colls. ix. 294; HMC Portland, vii. 312.
  • 3. Bill, 199n; DNB (Ellis, John); Add. 28903, ff. 413, 455; 33273, f. 11; 28912, f. 326; 61125, f. 124; CSP Dom. 1700–2, pp. 351–2; Alumni Westmonasterienses, 202; Wentworth Pprs. 190; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 825; Bolingbroke Corresp. ii. 134.
  • 4. Add. 38852, f. 79; 33273, ff. 25–29, 35, 53; 38501, ff. 6, 8, 15, 33, 50, 54, 67, 87; 42176, f. 311; HMC Portland, vii. 19; iv. 592–3.
  • 5. Bolingbroke Corresp. i. 110, 125, 140, 146, 152, 155, 163, 214–15, 250; ii. 75; G. A. Aitken, Life and Works of Arbuthnot, 99; HMC Portland, v. 111; iv. 656, 688; Wentworth Pprs. 190, 192.
  • 6. Add. 61125, ff. 92–129; 33273, f. 131; HMC Portland, v. 49, 55–57, 61, 191.
  • 7. Stanhope, Reign of Anne, 494–5; Bolingbroke Corresp. i. 473, 475; ii. 134–5; Add. 33273, ff. 153, 156, 158, 159; 38373, f. 31; 22201, f. 3; Luttrell, vi. 718; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxvi. 10, 152, 194, 206–7, 248, 394, 432; xxviii. 355–6.
  • 8. HMC Hodgkin, 205; Magdalen Coll. Reg. vi. 42–43; HMC Portland, vii. 157, 165, 312, 396, 398, 439; Luttrell, vi. 726; Add. 70280, Watkins to [Thomas] Harley*, 2 Apr. 1714; Aitken, 96–100; Hearne Colls. ix. 294; PCC 78 Farrant.