VANSITTART, Nicholas (1766-1851), of Foots Cray Place, Kent.

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



1796 - 1802
1802 - May 1812
8 June 1812 - 1812
1812 - 1 Mar. 1823

Family and Education

b. 29 Apr. 1766, 5th s. of Henry Vansittart of Foxley, Berks., gov. Bengal, by Emilia, da. of Nicholas Morse, gov. Madras. educ. Gilpin’s sch. Cheam; Christ Church, Oxf. 1784; I. Temple 1786; L. Inn 1788, called 1791. m. 22 July 1806, Hon. Catherine Isabella Eden, da. of William Eden*, 1st Baron Auckland, s.p. cr. Baron Bexley 1 Mar. 1823.

Offices Held

Envoy to Denmark Feb.-Mar. 1801; sec. to Treasury Mar. 1801-Apr. 1804; chief sec. to ld. lt. [I] Jan.-Sept. 1805; PC 14 Jan. 1805; sec. to Treasury Feb. 1806-Apr. 1807; chancellor of Exchequer May 1812-Jan. 1823; chancellor of duchy of Lancaster Feb. 1823-Jan. 1828.

Lt. Westminster vols. 1795-8, (dismounted) capt. 1798; lt.-col. St. Margaret’s and St. John’s vols. 1803.

Bencher, L. Inn 1812; commr. for building new churches 1818.


Vansittart was four when his father was lost at sea while returning to India. His education was entrusted to his uncles Arthur Vansittart and Sir Robert Palk. Called to the bar, he went the northern circuit only for a year. He first drew public attention to himself as a pamphleteer on behalf of Pitt’s administration. His Reflections on the propriety of an immediate peace (1793) justified the prosecution of war with France. In 1794 and 1795 he wrote in defence of Pitt’s financial policy and in 1796 An inquiry into the state of the finances of Great Britain, to refute the view that the country could no longer afford war. He obtained the Treasury nomination to a seat for Hastings in the Parliament of 1796. He occasionally spoke, usually in defence of Pitt’s fiscal measures, acted as a government teller and made himself useful on the copper and port of London improvement committees. He supported the assessed taxes, 4 Jan. 1798. In a letter to Pitt of 30 Mar. 1798 he implied that the scheme for the sale of the land tax Pitt was then adopting had been suggested by him two years before. He was also privy to and suggested improvements in the income tax proposals, and he and Rev. Henry Beeke, another fiscal expert, were frequently in the company of George Rose at the Treasury.1

Vansittart regretted Pitt’s departure from office—he said he would willingly have gone to Botany Bay to fetch Pitt’s ministry back; but was at once chosen by Addington to succeed Rose at the Treasury. Before he did so, he was sent on a special mission to Denmark intended to detach her from the Baltic alliance. He found that diplomacy was of no avail and recommended force. On his return he took up his duties at the Treasury as financial secretary. Addington, according to Rose, ‘consigns everything to Mr Vansittart, and he to Doctor Beeke’. Despite reports that he would return to Denmark as ambassador, December 1801, or go to Ireland as chief secretary, February 1802, Vansittart remained at the Treasury; but Addington did not necessarily swallow his financial proposals, abandoning the repeal of the salt tax and preferring to dispense with the whole of the income tax as such, rather than half of it. On 25 June 1802 Vansittart upheld in the House the thesis that peace was better for British trade than war. In July he succeeded Addington’s brother as senior secretary. He now sat for Old Sarum on the Caledon interest and was regarded as an up and coming man of statesmanlike pretensions. On the resumption of hostilities he took an interest in propaganda against France and in the South American liberation movement. He was still consulted on budgetary matters, but neither he nor Addington was a match for Pitt.2

Vansittart resigned and went into opposition with Addington, being hostile to Pitt’s additional force bill in June 1804. He had thought of returning to the bar and giving up politics. The King, hearing that Pitt was at a loss for an Irish secretary, was advised by the Duke of Cumberland to sound Vansittart, who on 2 July informed the duke’s emissary that he would not refuse, but would wish to have Addington’s approbation, which he obtained. The duke, in turn, commended him to Pitt, 9 July, as being ‘no party man’, with the ‘conciliatory manners’ necessary for Ireland. Pitt concurred and was further assured by the duke that Vansittart had not circulated a pamphlet hostile to Pitt the year before, but did not appoint him and, not long afterwards, looked elsewhere. Vansittart’s fitness was questioned by Charles Long, who complained that his knowledge was ‘of things, not of men’. It was questioned by Pitt himself in December 1804, when on his reconciliation with Addington, the latter stipulated office for Vansittart and mentioned his expectation of becoming Irish secretary. Pitt, who had Canning in mind, objected that the appointment would alarm Catholics and saddle him with an unready debater. He explained away Vansittart’s expectations since July. The office of joint paymaster was then talked of for him and he was made a privy councillor. Fresh light was thrown on his unfitness for the Irish office by Charles Philip Yorke writing to the viceroy, 6 Jan. 1805:

he is able, diligent, honourable, and extremely well informed; but he is rather a quiz; not likely to make conquests among the belles at the Castle, and I doubt his manner is hardly important enough for the beaux.

Yet he was appointed, and Pitt commended him to Hardwicke both for his fitness ‘and with a view to the political arrangements here which have been thought desirable for the general strength of government’.3

Those arrangements proved precarious: on 5 Apr. 1805 (a day after resuming his seat) Vansittart informed the viceroy that Melville’s question threatened a rupture:

the deliberate opinion of the reasonable and reflecting part of the community is inestimable in its value and irresistible in its influence. I cannot conceive any thing more dangerous to the whole fabric of our government than that the public opinion (so understood) should be turned against the conduct of Parliament, nor any thing more likely to turn it than that the House of Commons should appear disposed to connive at a breach of public trust.

On the strength of Pitt’s willingness to concede a secret inquiry into Melville’s conduct, he voted in the government minority on 8 Apr., but indicated his approval of the opposition to Pitt on this question and, like Sidmouth, offered his resignation, 25 Apr., when Pitt’s reshuffle offended them. He had ‘very little access’ to Pitt, and, of the rest of his cabinet, knew only Lord Hawkesbury, so he had little inducement to remain. The rift was temporarily healed, only for Vansittart to give dissatisfaction to the viceroy. Hardwicke regarded him as a bulwark against the encroachments of John Foster*, but he proved no match for him, notably over the Irish revenue bills, which, to placate the viceroy, had to be quashed in the Lords after Vansittart had let them through the Commons. Foster threatened resignation at a time when Vansittart thought his own resignation imminent, for Sidmouth and Pitt were again at loggerheads. On 12 June he had joined the Sidmouthites in supporting Melville’s criminal prosecution, and when in July Sidmouth left office he offered to complete his duties by visiting Ireland, but would not remain in office another session, Pitt having informed him that ‘if he meant to retain his office he must make up his mind unequivocally to renounce his present connections’. He was prevented from proceeding to Ireland, but Pitt procrastinated about his replacement until September. Thereafter Vansittart was ‘out of his cage’ and eager to rejoin opposition to Pitt.4

On Pitt’s death Vansittart was restored to office by Sidmouth’s junction with the Grenville ministry. He obtained (at his own wish) his former station at the Treasury, the King dispensing with the ‘punctilio’ which barred privy councillors from it. Lord Grenville was not over-enthusiastic about his assistance at the Treasury, but prepared to object to a bid by the Prince of Wales to substitute John Calcraft, and could not find a better. On 11 July 1806 he opposed ministers in defence of the volunteers: this was wrongly alleged to have been by mistake. A week later his marriage to Lord Auckland’s daughter brought him closer to Grenville. Thanks to this he had a choice of seats in the ensuing election, being returned also for Helston. He was employed by Grenville to work out the new plan of finance, whereby the future burden of war taxes was to be relieved by the application of the sinking fund. He was a staunch friend of the abolition of the slave trade and the Whigs could claim that he voted against their dismissal in April 1807. But his line remained Sidmouth’s and in June he could not be persuaded to defend the Grenville ministry’s record at the Treasury, though he once spoke up for Lord Henry Petty, 14 July 1807. When in October Canning offered him the bait of a mission to the United States, he declined on Sidmouth’s (and his father-in-law’s) advice. He disliked the Copenhagen expedition and joined Sidmouth in opposing it, 8 Feb. 1808; on 14 Mar. he voted against the ministry’s military plans. He was prepared to swallow the orders in council, but was critical of the ministerial rejection of the offices in reversion bill, of the claims of John Palmer*, and of their neglect of Portugal (he voted against the convention of Cintra, 21 Feb. 1809). An East India Company stockholder and member of the East India committee, he rebuffed a ministerial bid in 1808 to induce him to go to India, as one of a three-man commission headed by Lord Clancarty. In April 1809 he complained privately of ‘the want of a more judicious and efficient administration which might gratify the popular sentiments by some well judged concessions’. On 20 June he saddled the House with 38 resolutions critical of the uncontrolled accumulation of the national debt, in which Perceval, as chancellor of the Exchequer, concurred.5

‘Nothing as a speaker’, Vansittart was believed to be ‘at the desk ... an important card’, and when Perceval took office in October 1809 another bid was made for him. He was nursing his ailing wife in Devon, where Herries, Perceval’s secretary, was sent to enlist him with the offer of Treasury employment now and, in future, the chancellorship of the Exchequer. Sidmouth had confidently invited Perceval to make the offer and Vansittart once more said he must consult Sidmouth and his father-in-law, but he felt able to reject Herries’s embassy before hearing Sidmouth’s views. The temptation was great, as Perceval intended to retain the Exchequer himself if Vansittart refused, which would have spared him the duty of leading in the House: but the discovery that Sidmouth was excluded, while his friends were being wooed, alienated him. He informed Perceval, 13 Oct. 1809, that he could hardly be expected ‘to quit a connection which has lasted during the whole of my political life for the gratification of I know not what and I know not whose unexplained prejudices’. At this stage he shared Sidmouth’s view that Lords Grenville and Grey should be involved in any junction with ministers; subsequently he rejected Grenville and thought of Lord Wellesley, but on the whole believed Perceval would prove the best premier, if the influence of the Court were kept at bay. He could scarcely help being flattered by the distinction offered him by Perceval, which, when it was disclosed to other Sidmouthites, was a source of envy.6

Vansittart’s wife’s illness kept him away from the House in 1810. The Whigs, doubtless under the impression that Auckland could sway his vote, listed him one of their supporters in March, not one of Sidmouth’s: but on 16 Jan. he informed Sidmouth that he did not wish to see the ministry overthrown, though he still lacked confidence in them. On 7 Mar. he deplored their management of the Scheldt question and thought they were maintained by ‘the mere influence of the crown’; on 4 Apr. he announced to him, ‘I think I could plan an English budget’. He approved Sidmouth’s rejection of an overture from Perceval, believing a remodelling of the government was needed. His wife died on 10 Aug. 1810. Next day he informed Sidmouth that this was the end of his public career: he now sought only ‘what is beneficial to society’ in anticipating ‘that great change’ for which bereavement had prepared him. This was the birth of ‘Mouldy’, as Creevey dubbed him.7

He willingly attended the session of 1810-11, voting with ministers on the Regency, 1 Jan. He was added to the committee on public expenditure on 21 Jan. 1811 at Bankes’s request and was retained on it in 1812. On 31 May 1811 he produced 13 resolutions critical of the findings of the bullion committee which were embodied in his speech of 7 May: they were accepted by government as an answer to Francis Horner’s report. (Before the next year was out Vansittart was official sponsor of the bill making bank-notes legal tender.) He still avoided debating when he could and viewed the ministry’s problems with detachment, but on 18 Jan. 1812 he was a ministerial dinner guest. On 10 Feb. Perceval secured him a place on the civil list committee. On 13 Mar. Sidmouth agreed to a junction with Perceval, and Vansittart was awarded a place at the Treasury board. He had no wish for it, but if he had an eye to the Exchequer, Perceval no longer wished to cede it to him, and the Irish exchequer was to have been his destination. His appointment had to be suspended because his patron Lord Caledon declined to re-elect him for Old Sarum. On 1 May he wrote to Perceval waiving office because of this, though prepared to give ‘every support and assistance in my power to the government’. On 4 May he was listed in the opposition majority on the sinecure bill, though a speech by ‘Mr Vansittart’ was reported hostile to it. Ten days later, Perceval being dead and Lord Liverpool at the helm, he was expecting to be chancellor of the Exchequer. He also expected to be returned for East Looe on the interest of (Sir) Edward Buller*, but in this he was disappointed. In Caledon’s absence he begged his agent to return him, if only for a fortnight to deliver the budget, but he was resisted. Lady Hardwicke commented, ‘I really think Saints do things that Sinners durst not venture. It was a most cunning proposal of little Van.’ In the event he came in for East Grinstead, by Liverpool’s arrangement, until the dissolution, and was able after all to deliver ‘poor Perceval’s’ budget, 17 June 1812. On 22 June he became the only member of Sidmouth’s squad to consent to and vote for consideration of Catholic relief: though he was plainly averse to further concessions to the Catholics, except in the services. In the next Parliament he opposed relief, his speech of 24 May 1813, which was doubtless an apology, being ‘in so low a tone that he could not be heard in the gallery’. Had Canning come to terms with Lord Liverpool in July 1812, he would have remained in the cabinet, but as president of the Board of Trade and master of the Mint.8

Vansittart staked his reputation on a ‘new plan of finance’, presented to the House on 3 Mar. 1813, of which he afterwards published the Outlines. It was designed to rationalize the sinking fund in relation to the national debt. Tierney, its chief critic, claimed that he had not met a single man who understood it, but Vansittart defended it vehemently and it passed. On 31 Mar. 1813 he presented the first of ten budgets planned by himself. Claiming that ‘as it was the landed interest that would ultimately, in case of deficiency, have to pay, it was their interest to uphold the credit of the funded or monied interest’, 25 Mar. 1813, he was prepared in turn to support the agricultural protectionists, 8 Mar. 1815, but not readily enough to satisfy them.9

As neither Castlereagh, leader of the House, nor Vansittart, who deputized for him in his absences abroad after March 1814, could command respectful attention, it was confidently predicted that the government would be ‘laughed out of office’. When present, Castlereagh provided Vansittart with moral support, but otherwise he was ‘overpowered’ and there was a growing belief that he was unfit for his situation. In 1814 he was ‘at as great a discount as the omnium’ and not expected to remain in office. His own reaction exacerbated matters: on the retention of the property tax for 1815, he was ‘quite indifferent to the storm which his own indecision has contributed to raise. He is insensible, and mistakes callousness for courage.’ In March 1816, when he was obliged to abandon the property tax and the wartime malt duties, he was severely handled by Tierney for the opposition:

When he observed Vansittart smiling with that happy complacency with which he meets every sort of calamity and threat and vituperation, Tierney said to him that he was right in smiling then for he would never smile again in the House.

But he was by then a fixture, annexing the Irish treasury as well from 1817. There was no basis for reports of his being replaced by William Huskisson, or being the ministerial candidate for the Speaker’s chair in 1817. There was no hope of his exchanging the Treasury borough of Harwich for the representation of Oxford University that year: his unpopularity there was aggravated by his presidency of the British and Foreign Bible Society. His role was a passive one: government, alleged Tierney in 1817, must issue Exchequer bills, ‘for poor Van’s talents go no farther’. A year later when Tierney thought he must resign if the Bank restriction were renewed, Vansittart amazed him by defending it ‘upon French finance’. Before the dissolution of 1818 Edward John Littleton* informed Charles Grant II*

that I spoke only the general feeling of their independent friends, when I stated my belief that government could not go through the next session without a change in that quarter ... He is a good man, and understands his business—but that is not enough in the House of Commons.

Yet Sidmouth would not hear of Vansittart’s replacement.10

Early in 1819 the clamour to throw Vansittart overboard increased when he undertook ‘to fight the whole battle’ against the resumption of cash payments by the Bank. Charles Arbuthnot assured Castlereagh, 14 Mar. 1819, that ‘poor Van’ was

abused, ridiculed, and deserted by everybody. In the City he had fallen lower than could be imagined. He is there abused for what are called his miserable expedients since the conclusion of peace. He is said to have ruined numbers by his financial plan of last year, connected as it was with a sort of assurance that there would be no loan or funding this year. The Bank are most loud against him; and it is declared of him by all parties and all descriptions of men, that although in private life a good man, there is no belief to be attached to a word he says, as he one day declares in the House that no funding will be required, and the next day it is generally known that there must be a great funding.

But Arbuthnot thought it would be too much for the prime minister to hear this indictment and Vansittart remained undaunted. Opposition admitted that it was not in their interest to lose such a source of discredit to the government and by 1822 he had become ‘the real blot and sin of the government’. On 8 Jan. 1820 Wellesley Pole suggested to Robert Ward that ‘as Vansittart had come in for £100,000 by the death of his mother, he might probably not be anxious to remain’. Ward said, ‘I did not think that would operate, for Vansittart’s heart and pleasure seemed to be in office’.11

Vansittart’s record as chancellor of the Exchequer even affected his reputation as a philanthropist. He was a supporter of Christian missions to India in 1813 and an advocate of the abolition of the slave trade by the European powers, 2 May 1814. He recruited his colleagues to the Bible Society. The only minister present at a meeting in the City to raise a subscription for poor relief in 1816, he slunk out when Lord Cochrane* attended it. He took charge of the bill to raise a million pounds to build new churches in populous parishes, 16 Mar. 1818, but he opposed inquiry into the education of the poor, 3 June 1818, and his defence of public lotteries offended the ‘Saints’ in the House.12 He steadily supported measures against radicalism. He died 8 Feb. 1851.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. DNB; Kent AO, Stanhope mss 751/8; PRO 30/8/271, f. 8; Pellew, Sidmouth, i. 198; Rose Diaries, i. 212.
  • 2. Rose Diaries, i. 296, 298, 512; ii. 23; Colchester, i. 230; Pellew, i. 367; E. Suff. RO, Tomline mss, Rose to bp. of Lincoln, 12 Nov. 1801; The Times, 14 Dec. 1801, 9 Feb. 1802; PRO 30/29/8/2, f. 181; Dublin SPO 520/129/40, Rickman to Marsden, 10 Aug. 1802; Canning and his Friends, i. 264; Sidmouth mss, Vansittart to Addington, 22 Sept. 1803; Add. 51736, Caroline Fox to Holland, 31 May 1803; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 259.
  • 3. Colchester, i. 504, 534, 536; Add. 31229, ff. 84, 86; 35706, f. 130; 35710, f. 40; 35716, f. 15; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 5/63; Rose Diaries, i. 159, 160, 172; Glos. RO, Redesdale mss C9, Long to Redesdale, 4 Nov. [1804]; PRO 30/9/15, Vansittart to Abbot, 1 Jan.; Sidmouth mss, Addington to Bragge Bathurst, 3 Jan., to J. H. Addington, 5 Jan. 1805; Pellew, i. 343, 348.
  • 4. Add. 31229, f. 138; 31230, ff. 49, 57, 65; 35706, f. 253, 272; 35716, ff. 15, 23, 25, 39, 41, 43, 115, 121, 123; 38833, f. 183; 49188, ff. 9, 200; Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to J. H. Addington, 21 July, to Buckinghamshire, 19 Sept.; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Addington to Bond, 28 Nov. 1805.
  • 5. Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Bragge Bathurst, 31 Jan. 1806, Vansittart to Sidmouth, 1, 4, 6 Oct., 13 Nov. 1807; HMC Fortescue, vii. 305; vii. 350; viii. 13, 14, 458, 462-3, 469, 474; ix. 140-1, 207, 212; Buckingham, Courts and Cabinets, iv. 16-17, 164, 185; Colchester, ii. 34, 35; Creevey mss, Creevey to Currie, 12 July 1806; Morning Chron. 22 June 1807; Add. 34457, ff. 329, 363, 373; 41852, f. 232; NLS mss 11147, f. 153; 11149, f. 10; Perceval (Holland) mss C9.
  • 6. Lonsdale mss, Mulgrave to Lonsdale, 5 Oct.; Sidmouth mss, Perceval to Sidmouth, 7 Oct., Vansittart to same, 9, 11 Oct., 4 Nov., Bragge Bathurst to same, 6 Dec. 1809; Perceval (Holland) mss 5, f. 2; 23, ff. 92, 93, 94; Add. 34457, f. 561; 34458, f. 1; Colchester, ii. 218-20.
  • 7. Sidmouth mss, Vansittart to Sidmouth, 16 Jan., 7 Mar., 4 Apr., 16 May, 11 Aug. 1810.
  • 8. PRO 30/9/15, Vansittart to Abbot, 13 Nov. 1810; Add. 34458, ff. 248, 335, 357, 364; 35395, f. 61; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 24 Jan., 29 Feb. 1812; Bath Archives ed. Lady Jackson, i. 316; Buckingham, Regency, i. 182; Sidmouth mss, Perceval to Sidmouth, 15 Mar. 1812; PRO NI, Caledon mss D2433/C/11/7, 8, 10, 12-14, 16-18, 20-22; NLI, Richmond mss 67/1038, 1039, 70/1308, 74/1909; Colchester, ii. 371, 374, 399, 419; Perceval (Holland) mss 10, f. 12; Broughton, Recollections, i. 39; Saunders’s News Letter, 7 Jan. 1813.
  • 9. Add. 34458, f. 434; Colchester, ii. 498.
  • 10. HMC Fortescue, x. 335, 336, 418, 436; Heron, Notes (1851), 40; Merthyr Mawr mss L/194/9; Regency, ii. 66, 264; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 26 Sept., 1 Nov. 1814, 23 Jan., 3 Feb. 1818, Grenville to Grey, 12 Dec. 1814, Lambton to same, 3 Feb. 1819; Add. 40209, f. 78; 40290, f. 183; Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 216; NLW, Coedymaen mss 8, f. 542; Canning and his Friends, ii. 50; Staffs. RO, Hatherton diary, 6 June 1818.
  • 11. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 3, 18, 28 Feb. 1819; Arbuthnot Corresp. (Cam. Soc. ser. 3, lxv), 16; Brougham mss, Brougham to Grey, Sat. [6 Feb. 1819]; Croker Pprs. ed. Jennings, i. 229; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. ii. 47.
  • 12. Add. 40254, f. 226; 51658, Whishaw to Lady Holland, 3 Aug. 1816; Life of Wilberforce (1838), v. 20.