Keene, Benjamin (DNB00)

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KEENE, Sir BENJAMIN (1697–1757), diplomatist, born at King's Lynn, Norfolk, in 1697, was eldest son of Charles Keene, merchant (alderman, and in 1714 mayor, of King's Lynn), who married Susan Rolfe. The family had long been resident at King's Lynn, and a Benjamin Keene (1631–1709) was its first mayor under the letters patent granted by Charles II. The younger Benjamin was educated at the Lynn free grammar school and at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, where he graduated LL.B. in 1718. He is said to have been for some time at the university of Leyden, but his name does not appear in Peacock's list of its English students. His father's affairs became involved, but through the influence of Sir Robert Walpole, who controlled the borough, he was appointed agent for the South Sea Company at Madrid, and in July 1724 was promoted to be British consul at that city. In September 1727, through the same influence, Keene received the higher post of minister plenipotentiary at Madrid, but was not until the close of the year publicly received in that capacity. The treaty of Seville, whereby a defensive alliance was concluded between England, Spain, and France, was arranged in November 1729 by Keene, under the direction of William Stanhope, afterwards lord Harrington. His position at Madrid was fraught with anxiety, and his action in the double capacity of British minister and South Sea agent was loudly condemned in parliament and by the press. A convention was signed by him and the Spanish minister in January 1739, but it did not prevent the declaration of war between England and Spain on 19 Oct. 1739. Keene was thereupon recalled, and returned to England, when Horace Walpole described him as ‘one of the best kind of agreeable men, quite fat and easy, with universal knowledge.’ From January 1739–40 to 1741 he represented the borough of Maldon in Essex, and from 1741 to 1747 he sat for that of West Looe in Cornwall. Keene was a member of the board of trade from February 1742 to December 1744, when he was promoted to the post of paymaster of the pensions. In 1746 he was sent as envoy extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Portugal, to bring about a peace with Spain, and in October 1748 he quitted Lisbon to resume his abode at Madrid. He concluded on 5 Oct. 1750 a treaty of commerce with Spain, when Henry Pelham referred to the abuse that had been showered on Keene, and claimed that ‘he had acted ably, honestly, and bravely.’ The Duke of Newcastle wrote in 1754: ‘I have at last got the ribbon [of the Bath] for Sir Benjamin;’ and the compliment was heightened by the king of Spain performing the ceremony of investiture, whereupon the new knight took the motto of ‘Regibus Amicis.’ In the summer of 1757 Keene was very ill, and wished to retire from his post, but on receiving Pitt's instructions to offer the restoration of Gibraltar and the evacuation of the settlements formed in the Bay of Mexico since 1748, if Spain would join Great Britain against France, he forced himself to make the offer. When leave to retire was at last conceded, and he was on the point of returning to England to enjoy a pension and a peerage, his illness proved fatal. He died at Madrid on 15 Dec. 1757. His body was brought to Deal on 29 March 1758, and was buried near his parents in the chapel of St. Nicholas, Lynn, a sarcophagus of white marble being placed over his grave. A half-length portrait of him hangs in the King's Lynn town-hall. He left the bulk of his fortune to his brother, Edmund Keene [q. v.]

Sir Robert Walpole ‘had the highest opinion of Keene's abilities,’ and in social life his ‘indolent good humour’ was very pleasing. Numerous manuscript letters by him, many in cipher, are among the Newcastle correspondence at the British Museum and in the collections described in the Historical Manuscripts Commission's ‘Reports.’ The correspondence and other documents which he left at his death passed to the son of his brother Edmund, and were submitted to Archdeacon Coxe for his historical works. Many printed letters to and from him are in the ‘Chatham Correspondence,’ i. 209, &c., ‘Bedford Correspondence,’ i. 407, &c., ‘Atterbury Correspondence,’ v. 256–8, and in the compilations of Archdeacon Coxe. From a passage in Kennicott's ‘Dissertation on the Hebrew Text of the Old Testament’ (p. 358) it appears that Keene interested himself in Spanish manuscripts of the Bible.

[Richards's King's Lynn, ii. 1069–74; Gent. Mag. for 1738 and 1739 passim, 1758 pp. 46, 191, 210, 1762 p. 503; Walpole's Letters, i. 75, iii. 122; Coxe's Lord Walpole, ii. 371; Coxe's Bourbon Kings of Spain, iii. 90 to iv. 213; Coxe's Sir R. Walpole, ii. 606, iii. 508–94; Addit. MSS. 32722–32808.]

W. P. C.