VILLIERS, Hon. John Charles (1757-1838).

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



6 Jan. 1784 - 1790
1790 - 1802
1802 - May 1805
1807 - 1812
1820 - 7 Mar. 1824

Family and Education

b. 14 Nov. 1757, 2nd s. of Thomas Villiers, 1st Earl of Clarendon, and bro. of Hon. George Villiers*. educ. Eton 1766-74; St. John’s Camb. 1774; L. Inn 1774, called 1779. m. 5 Jan. 1791, his cos. Maria Eleanor, da. and coh. of Adm. Hon. John Forbes, MP [I], 1da. d.v.p. suc. bro. Thomas Villiers as 3rd Earl of Clarendon 7 Mar. 1824.

Offices Held

KC duchy of Lancaster 1782-6; surveyor of woods in northern parts of duchy 1786-1825; comptroller of Household Feb. 1787-Feb. 1790; PC 19 Feb. 1787; c.j. in eyre North of Trent 1790-d; prothonotary of common pleas, co. of Lancaster 1804-d; minister plenip. to Portugal Nov. 1808-Feb. 1810; clerk of the peace, Lancs. 1825-d.

Col. 1 fencible cav. 1794-1800, Mdx. yeomanry 1803.

Recorder, New Windsor 1789-1806.


Villiers, according to Wraxall, who placed him in the second rank of Pitt’s political intimates in 1785, ‘possessed no parliamentary ability, but his figure was tall and elegant, his features noble, and set off by a profusion of light hair’. He was described in the Rolliad as ‘the "Nereus" of Pitt's forces', remarkable only for his good looks.1 His friendship with Pitt, formed during their Cambridge days, lasted over 30 years, but it is significant that Pitt never entrusted him with efficient office. His natural milieu was that of the Court rather than the Commons, and although he exchanged his Household appointment for the sinecure chief justiceship in eyre north of Trent worth £2,250 per annum early in 1790, he remained a courtier at heart and did nothing before his brief entry into the diplomatic arena in 1808 to belie his reputation as a charming, parasitic nonentity. His investment in East India Company stock entitled him to three votes for the directorate.

Returned in 1790 and 1796 for Dartmouth on the Holdsworth interest, he was utterly loyal to Pitt in power. In April 1791 he was listed 'abroad' and hostile to the repeal of the Test Act with regard to Scotland. His only known speech in the House between 1790 and 1801 was a defence of the use of troops to quell disturbances of Northampton, 13 Dec. 1796. He voted for the assessed taxes augmentation bill, 4 Jan. 1798, and was teller for the ministerial majorities in the divisions on the motion for a call of the House, 30 Dec. 1796, and the suspension of habeas corpus, 20 Apr. 1798. In April 1793 he offered to apply the emoluments of his sinecure towards the cost of raising a corps of fencible cavalry, to mark his gratitude and loyalty to George III, 'having been an eyewitness to the treachery and supineness of those in France who had been most noticed by the King'. He subsequently served with his regiment in the provinces but by 1800 had tired of it and asked Pitt for active political employment as an alternative to returning to his regimental duties and 'perfect idleness'. His request was not met, but he seems in any case to have abandoned his 'cast-off mistress', as he called the regiment.2

Villiers deplored the peace terms of 1801 and made his views clear to Pitt, but promised to remain silent in the House. He was much in Pitt's company during the early stages of the Addington administration and Canning noted in March 1802 that Pitt's opinion on politics was likely to be 'all in all' with him. He was among those considered by Addington for the sinecure clerkship of the pells in July 1802, on the mistaken supposition that the difference in emolument between it and his current place was negligble (it was in fact one of £1,000 a year), but the idea 'was objected to by everyone to whom it was mentioned'.3 At the general election of 1802 he was returned for Tain Burghs on the interest of Lady Sutherland, wife of the Pittite Earl Gower, subsequently Marquess of Stafford. He visited France later in the year and on his return called on Pitt at Walmer, later informing Canning of Pitt's continued intention of 'holding back'. During the negotiation between Addington and Pitt in April 1803 he apprised the latter of Eldon's view that his return to power would induce Buonaparte to settle for peace, and advised him to consult the Chancellor before deciding against coming in. On 22 May he was in conclave with Pitt, Canning and others and on 3 June he followed Pitt into the lobby in support of his question for the orders of the day. He was the leading spirit behind the abortive plan to raise a royal corps of volunteer cavalry in the summer of 1803.4

He voted with Pitt against Addington in the divisions of 15 Mar., 23 and 25 Apr. 1804, and evidently hoped for the formation of a genuine 'broad-bottomed' administration, advising Pitt, two days before his audience on 7 May, how the King might best be reconciled to the idea. When in June 1804 he succeeded by a reversionary patent of 1775 to the sinecure of prothonotary of common pleas in the county of Lancaster (one of the fruits of his father's tenure of the chancellorship of the duchy 30 year before), he was reluctant to seek re-election, contending that duchy office did not require it, but, in Speaker Abbot's words, 'the stream of precedents was too strong to be resisted' and he had to go through the formality.5

Villiers finally succeeded in drawing political attention to himself in 1805 by breaking with Pitt. He had seen little of the minister since his return to power, resented this neglect and was appalled by the junction with Addington. How far he was influenced by Lord Stafford, who also deserted Pitt at this point, is not clear. He seems initially to have told Pitt that he felt obliged to state his views in the House on the opening day of the session, but his nerve failed him and subsequently promised to mark his dissent in a less obtrusive manner. On 20 Jan. 1805 Villiers, manitaining that his case rested both on 'personal disregard on your part, and dissent in principle from measures', responded to Pitt's invitation to renew their discussion: to his criticism of the junction with Addington and the ineffectual Additional Force Act, blunders from which he boasted he could have saved the minister had his advice been sought, he added objections to the bill to raise the price of corn, which he would 'undoubtedly' speak against, the seizure of the Spanish ships, war strategy and Pitt's failure to cultivate the King's goodwill. His plea 'to make it possible for me still to support you' was unavailing, and on 10 Feb. 1805 he formally severed their connexion, though it was with an unmistakable lack to conviction that he wrote:

I shall follow ... the line of my opinions, with the activity perhaps necessary to give them effect, but with a temper and with views very different from those of personal hostility. I anticipate with pleasure the opportunities I may have of doing justice to your motives and character on many points ... If the support which ... I may sometimes give to those who oppose you should give me any weight among them, I shall use it in endeavouring to prevent the separation being widened ... between those union in the public service is essential ...  Should I however find equal reason to be dissatisifed with the conduct on both sides of the House, and should I not be able to assert my own opinions, I shall probably take an early opportunity of retiring altogether.6

He was the object of comment and speculation, but his 'defection' ended tamely enough. He made no attempt to voice his views in the House, but Stafford still being hostile to Pitt, and, according to Lady Bessborough not disposed to fulfil Villiers's vague hope that he would be allowed to retain his seat without political conditions, his position became untenable. He surrendered his seat to Stafford, with the following explanation, 16 May 1805:

When I see attempts threatened ... to overturn Mr Pitt's administration, not showing its defective foundation, not by warning the King and country of its utter inadequacy to the difficulties of the times, nor even by any discussion of its actual errors; but by endeavouring to show that Mr Pitt from his last administration is unworthy of any degree of public trust ... every public and personal feeling leads me to do all the little I can to repel such an attempt ... my opinion is, that nothing less than a union of all the abilities the public virtue in the country has any chance of succeeding against the unparalleled difficulties of the present times; and nothing can be less consistent with that opnion, than anything which tends to discredit and absolutely to exclude the person whom I sincerely believe to possess both public virtue and abilities in the most eminent degree ... It is not because he is pressed that I wish to uphold his administration; it is not because I wish to retract opinions which every day's experience had confirmed; but it is because he is pressed upon grounds, unjust in themselves ... at variance with all my former opinions, and which go directly against all which I think essential for the public safety.

Shortly before Pitt's death, Lady Bessborough numbered Villiers among the ingrates who, having profited from Pitt's friendship, had deserted him in his desperate last days.7

Villiers resurfaced in 1807 as Member for Queenborough, returned nominally on the Admiralty interest. He broke his long silence in the House by introducing and monitoring a copyright bill, which foundered at the report stage, in June 1808, and by approving the proposed punishment of seven years' transportation for depredation of oyster beds, 22 June. His selection by Canning for the important post of minister at Lisbon in November 1808 caused 'no small surprise and merriment' even among his friends, according to the experienced diplomat Francis James Jackson, who dismisseed him as a man 'who has all his life been doing nothing; a mere courtier, famous for telling interminably long stories'. Rose was horrified that Villiers, who apart from lacking 'one single requisite quality' for the job had 'quitted Mr Pitt in a manner altogether unaccounted for', should be preferred to his son; Lord Boringdon, whose sister was married to Villier's brother George, was another of Canning's friends who felt slighted.8 Whether Canning saw hidden talents in Villiers, was influenced by his connexion with the Wellesley brothers (he and William Wellesley Pole* had married twin sisters), or chose him in the expectation that he would prove a docile cipher, is not clear.

Although Villiers demanded his recall within seven months of his arrival (Canning reluctantly granted him permission to come home in September 1810 but his departure was delayed until February 1810 by the ensuing ministerial crisis and change of government) and came to regard his situation as one 'of very unsatisfactory functions and of very painful embarrassments', he seems to have acquitted himself well in trying circumstances. He had his differences with Wellington, particularly over the problem of raising specie to finance the war effort, but their working relationship seems on the whole to have been a good one and, when his departure was thought to be imminent in October, Wellington told Marshall Beresford that 'we shall miss Villiers often, and particularly in our moments of dificulty'. In his anxiety to secure adequate 'detail and execution' to implement plans for the defence of Portugal, Villiers occasionally strayed beyond the bounds of diplomatic convention: in May 1809 Canning rebuked him for his 'preposterous conduct' in sending his private secretary to London 'as a living dispatch' to cross-examine himself and Castlereagh, being 'satisfied that if I were to lay this communication before the King I should receive orders to recall him instantly'. In September, however, he referred to a 'very good' dispatch and private letters from Villiers. When Lord Wellesley, who had been in constant correspondence with Villiers while ambassador to Spain, arrived in London to take over the Foreign Office, he assured the King that 'the conduct of Mr Villiers had obtained general respect and good will in Portugal'.9

Before leaving Lisbon, Villiers wrote to Wellesley of his 'very sincere respect and esteem for Perceval', but contended that no administration deserved to be supported which quailed before Jacobin unrest and failed either to pursue the war with vigour and intelligence or to cut the country's losses and negotiate for peace:

I shall be able to see with my own eyes in England, what chance there is of the public being well and ably served or of its real interest being the first object and being effectually pursued by any set of men. With such, whoever they may be, I shall endeavour to connect myself.10

His practical application of these high-minded professions was to vote with government in the divisions on the Walcheren fiasco, 5 and 30 Mar., speak in defence of the Portuguese subsidy and vindicate in his own conduct, 9 Mar., and vote against parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810. His only other known speech in this period was a request, 7 June 1811, for a public memorial to General John Randoll Mackenzie*, killed at Talavera almost two years earlier, and no further votes are recorded. He paired on the ministerial side on the Regency bill in January1811 and for the important divisions of early 1812, including that on the orders in council, 3 Mar. According to his pair, Lord John Townshend, he decided not to pair on the Catholic question because 'he thought and so did a number of others who were formerly against the Catholic that the time was now come to conciliate them'.11

Villiers did make his presence felt behind the scenes by bombarding Wellesley with advice on the course to be followed in the Peninsula. He had earlier argued that Portugal would 'neither be saved or be worth the expense and hazard of seeing, if the general policy which I have recommended is not immediately put in train' and, seeing little prospect of this, had recommended Wellesley seriously to consider negotiating for peace while Britain could still bargain from a position of comparative strength. He repeated the suggestionon his return, 4 Mar. 1810, adding that if, as Lord Bathurst had told him, a commercial treaty with Portugal was thought desirable, he 'could bring the thing to a point in a few days'. He went too far shortly afterwards by offering, with a view to saving ministers the trouble of combing through his dispatches for the right answers, to submit himself 'to be questioned by the different departments' concerned. Upset by Wellesley's remonstrate, he disclaimed any intention of obtruding his personal views on the cabinet, but agreed not to bother Perceval with his proposal. Wellington blamed Villiers's interference for the government's decision to send a financial expert to Lisbon in August 1810 to investigate the problem of raising specie, though in fairness it must be said that the move had beneficial effects. Villiers subsequently wrote to Wellesley with a scheme to encourage wholesale desertion of foreigners from the French army in the Peninsula, using the Duke of Brunswick's force as a rallying point, and a proposal to establsih a bank of deposit, secured by British credit, to faciliatate the release of specie.12

In the absence of Huskisson he was called on by Arbuthnot to act as intermediary in the late bid to renew government's attempt to recruit Canning in July 1812. It was a hopeless mission and he managed only to annoy Canning, who deemed him guilty of irresponsible and unathorized gossiping and confided to a friend that in future Lord Binning would 'never have to accuse me again of being improperly tolerant of J.V'. It was with 'infinite pains and difficulty' that Canning persuaded him to leave town without carrying out his threats to see the Regent of the Duke of Cumberland in an attempt to keep negotiations alive.13 On 20 Sept. 1812 Lord Mulgrave, master general of the Ordnance, told Lord Liverpool that Villiers, who ten days earlier had written to Wellesley from Bath reviving his cherished notion of a confederacy of allied powers under British auspices in the Peninsual, would 'not do again' at Queenborough at the approaching general election.14 No alternative provision was made for him, but the House had not seen the last of him. As a peer, he sided with the Whigs in politics and became noted for his generous support of religious charities. He died 22 Dec. 1838.


Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Wraxall Mems. ed Wheatley, iv. 103; v. 112.
  • 2. PRO 30/8/185, ff. 247, 249, 253, 255; PRO Dacres Adams mss 3/19.
  • 3. Dacres Adams mss 4/51; Prince of Wales Corresp. iv. 1674; E. Suff. RO, Tomline mss, Rose to bp. of London, 22, 27 Nov. 1801; PRO 30/29/8/2, f. 216; Sidmouth mss, Henry to J. H. Addington, 27 July 1802.
  • 4. Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 172, 255; PRO 30/8/185, f. 265; Prince of Wales Corresp. iv. 1722.
  • 5. PRO 30/8/185, f. 267; Parl. Deb. ii. 610, 856, 876; CJ, lix. 332; PRO 30/9/33, Abbot diary, 28 June [1804].
  • 6. PRO 30/70/4, ff. 231, 246; Dacres Adams mss 6/18.
  • 7. Harrowby mss, Eliot to Harrowby, 4 Feb., Bathurst to same [12] Feb; Lonsdale mss, Essex to Lowther, 18 Feb. 1805; PRO 30/29/6/5, f. 913; Paget Pprs. ii. 181; Staffs. RO, Sutherland mss D868/11/18; Leveson Gower, ii. 86, 157.
  • 8. Jackson Diaries, ii. 302; Rose Diaries, ii. 362, 391; Add. 48220, f. 66.
  • 9. George III Corresp. v. 3951, 4039, 4058; Wellington Dispatches, iii. 288, 473, 502, 535, 538, 624, 727; Canning and his Friends, i. 291-4, 298, 306, 319; Add. 37286, ff. 80, 249; 37287, f. 68; 37288, ff. 97-105, 358, 390, 394, 396, 409, 414; Wellesley Pprs. i. 266.
  • 10. Add. 37288 f. 422-3.
  • 11. Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 136, 140; Grey mss, Townshend to Grey, 3 Mar. 1812.
  • 12. Add. 37288, ff. 358, 420, 433; 37292, ff. 9, 214; Wellesley Pprs. i. 308, 312, 317-21.
  • 13. Leveson Gower, ii. 440-1; Add. 38738, ff. 291, 295, 312.
  • 14. Add. 37293, f. 250; 38249, f. 190.