Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Legge, Henry Bilson-

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

LEGGE, HENRY BILSON- (1708–1764), chancellor of the exchequer, fourth son of William, first earl of Dartmouth [q. v.], by his wife Lady Anne Finch, third daughter of Heneage, first earl of Aylesford [q. v.], was born on 29 May 1708. He appears to have matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, on 29 March 1726, and to have been created D.C.L. on 1 March 1733. Of this degree, however, there is some doubt, as the 'Hen. Leg' who graduated D.C.L. at this date is not further identified in the Register of Convocation. According to the Bisnop of Hereford, Legge entered the royal navy, but 'quitted it after one or two voyages.' and was subsequently 'received into the family and confidence' of Sir Robert Walpole, whose private secretary he became (Character, p. 4). Horace Walpole records that Legge was an 'immeasurable favourite 'of his father until he was discarded for 'endeavouring to steal his patron's daughter' (Reign of George II, i. 191). In October 1739 Legge was appointed by the Duke of Devonshire, then lord-lieutenant of Ireland, to 'the secretaryship of Ireland.' the holding of which, he tells Lord Dartmouth, 'will not interfere with his attendance on Sir Robert' (Hist. MSS. Comm. 11th Rep. pt. v. p. 328). At a by-election in November 1740 Legge was returned to the House of Commons for the borough of East Looe, Cornwall, and at the general election in the following May he was elected for the borough of Orford, Suffolk, which he continued to represent until December 1759. Upon the downfall of Walpole's administration he was removed from his post in the treasury by Pulteney, but owing to the Duke of Bedford's intercession was appointed in July 1742 surveyor-general of the woods and forests north and south of the Trent (Bedford Correspondence, i. 1-12). On 3 May 1774 he seconded the attorney-general's motion to agree to the lords' amendments to the bill making it high treason to hold correspondence with the Pretender's sons (Parl. Hist. xiii. 866-8), and resigning his surveyorship, became on 20 April 1745 a lord of the admiralty, a post which he retained until February 1747. On 17 Oct. 1745 he moved the address of thanks for the king's speech (ib. xiii. 1328-31), and on 4 June 1746 was appointed a lord of the treasury. In January 1748 he was appointed, on the recommendation of the Duke of Newcastle, envoy extraordinary to the king of Prussia, by whom he 'was duped and ill-treated' (Chatham Correspondence, i. 27; Walpole, Reign of George II, i. 191). For taking the negotiations relative to the bishopric of Osnaburg out of the hands of George's agent at Berlin, and for an indiscreet expression imputed to him that George's arrival at Hanover had defeated this design, Legge was summoned to Hanover and severely reprimanded by the king. In a letter to his brother, Henry Pelham, the Duke of Newcastle says the king calls Legge 'fool every day, and abuses us for sending a man purely because he can make a speech in the House of Commons.' Henry Pelham, however, defended Legge's conduct in the negotiations, and the king's resentment gradually subsided (Coxe, Pelham Administration, 1829, i. 440-448). Legge was appointed treasurer of the navy in April 1749, on Lyttelton's refusal of the post in his favour (Phillimore, Memoirs of Lord Lyttelton, i. 410), and was succeeded at the treasury by Henry Vane, afterwards Earl of Darlington. On 6 April 1754 Legge, haying resigned the treasurership, was appointed chancellor of the exchequer in the Duke of Newcastle's administration, the king, however, stipulating that 'Legge should never enter his closet' (Walpole, Reign of George II, i. 381). On 14 Nov. following he took part in the debate upon the address (Parl. Hist. xv. 346-50), and a few days afterwards he declared in the house that he 'had been raised solely by the whigs, and if he fell sooner or later he should pride himself on nothing but in being a whig' (Walpole, Reign of George II, i. 408-9). Not long after this speech Pitt referred to Legge as 'the child, and deservedly the favourite child, of the whigs' (ib. ii. 41). Lepge became secretly leagued with the Leicester House party, and in August 1755, smarting under the Duke of Newcastle's petulant humour, absolutely refused to sign the treasury warrants for carrying the Hessian treaty into execution (Bedford Corresp. ii. 166). With Pitt he opposed the treaties in the House of Commons on 18 Nov., when he declared that 'we ought to have done buying up every man's quarrel on the continent' (Walpole, Reign of George II, ii. 64), and on the 20th he was informed by Lord Holdernesse that the king had no further need of his services. He so distinguished himself in attacking Lyttelton's budget in February 1766, that Walpole assured Conway 'except Legge you would not have thought there was a man in the house had learned troy-weight' (Walpole, Letters, ii. 613). Upon the downfall of the Duke of Newcastle, Legge, whom Fox in his abortive attempt to form a ministry had failed to detach from Pitt, was appointed (16 Nov. 1766) chancellor of the exchequer in the Duke of Devonshire's administration. On 21 Jan. 1767 Legge opened the supplies, of which one ingredient was a Guinea lottery, the scheme of a visionary Jew who long pestered the public with his reveries' (Walpole, Reign of George II, ii. 301-2). On 18 March 1767 he opened the new taxes, and, as 'the beginning of reformation, proposed to abolish the commissioners of wine licenses.' On being taunted by Fox with receiving double salary as lord of the treasury, Legge replied that if 'others would, he himself would serve for nothing' (ib. ii. 876). With Pitt he was dismissed from office, early in April 1767, and for some weeks a rain of gold boxes and addresses descended unon them from all parts of the country, including the city (London's Roll of Fame, 1884, pp. 37-8). After the long ministerial interregnum Legge once more became chancellor of the exchequer (2 July 1767) in the Newcastle and Pitt administration, the king having objected to making Legge a peer and first lord of the admiralty, as he was 'determined not to do two great things for one man, especially him, and in this he was peremptory' (Lord Hardwicke's Letter of 18 June 1757 in Harris's Life of Hardwicke, 1847, iii. 136). In 1758 Legge levied new taxes on houses and windows and places as 'a poor tribute to popularity' (Walpole, Reign of George II, iii. 112). In the following year he was compelled by Pitt, whose favour he had previously lost (Glover, Memoirs, pp. 137-fel), to shift his proposed tax on sugar to one on dry goods in general, and in the debate on ways and means was re- proved by Pitt for being so dilatory with the taxes (Walpole, Reign of George II, iii. 176-9). On becoming surveyor of the petty customs and subsidies in the port of London, a patent place which had devolved upon him on the death of his brother, Heneage Legge [q. v.], Legge vacated his seat for Orford, and was returned for Hampshire early in December 1759. This gave great offence to Bute, who had supported the candidature of Mr. (afterwards Sir Simeon) Stuart. Legge refused to give a pledge that he would support a candidate nominated by Bute at a future election, saying that he could not abandon his own supporters, the whigs and dissenters. He afterwards refused Bute further demand that he should give up the county of Southampton at the general election, and support the Prince of Wales's nomination of two members (Character, pp. 13-18). On his refusal in March 1761 to bring forward a motion in the House of Commons for the payment of a large sum of money to the landgrave of Hesse, Legge was dismissed from his post. In his interview with George III, to whom he delivered up the seal, Legge declared that his future life should testify to his zeal. To which the king is said to have replied he was glad to hear him say so, 'as nothing but his future life could eradicate the ill impression he had received of him' (Walpole, Reign of George III, i. 48-9). At the general election in April 1761 Legge was again returned for Hampshire, this time with Sir Simeon Stuart as a colleague. In December 1762 he expressed his disapprobation of the preliminary treaty of peace (Parl. Hist. xv. 1273), and in March 1763 of the loan (ib. pp. 1306-7). He died at Tunbridge Wells after a lingering illness on 23 Aug. 1764, aged 66, and was buried at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire, where a monument was erected to his memory by his widow.

Legge had the reputation of being the first financier of an age when financiers were scarce. He was an able and shrewd man of business, 'with very little rubbish in his head' (as his old master, Sir Robert Walpole, said), and had a considerable knowledge of commercial affairs. He was 'never tardy at abandoning his friends for a richer prospect' (Walpole, Reign of George II, iii. 1-2), and even 'aspired to the lion's place by the manoeuvre of the mole' (Walpole, Reign of George III, i. 301). His death, however, in Horace Walpole's opinion, was 'a blow considerable to our party, as he was the only man in it, proper on a change, to have been placed at the head of the House of Commons' (ib. ii. 17). His appearance was somewhat mean, and his dialect quaint, but though an indifferent speaker, his speeches were always concise and to the point. In social intercourse he was good-natured and easy, and not without a certain kind of dry humour. Legge took the additional surname of Bilson in 1754, pursuant to the will of his father's first cousin, 'Leonard Bilson of Mapledurham in the county of Southampton, esq., by which the inheritance of that ancient family, on the decease of Thomas Bettersworth Bilson, esq., descended to him' (inscription on his monument in Hinton Ampner Church). He became the grantee of the forests of Alice Holt and Woolmer by the purchase of the term which expired in the lifetime of his son. Legge married, on 29 Aug. 1750, the Hon. Mary Stawel, the only daughter and heiress of Edward, fourth and last baron Stawel (created 1683), who by letters patent, dated 30 May 1760, was created Baroness Stawel of Somerton in the county of Somerset. By her Legge had an only child, Henry Stawel Bilson-Legge (1757–1820), who succeeded his mother in the new barony of Stawel, which became extinct upon his death without male issue on 25 Aug. 1820. Legge's widow married secondly, on 11 Oct. 1768, Wills Hill, first earl of Hillsborough, afterwards created Marquis of Downshire [q. v.], and died in Hanover Square, London, on 29 July 1780. Legge's grand-child, Mary Stawel Bilson-Legge married, onn 11 Aug. 1808, the Hon. John Dutton, afterwards second Baron Sherborne, and died leaving issue on 31 0ct. 1864. A portrait of Legge in his robes as chancellor of the exchequer, by W. Hoare, is in the possession of the present Lord Sherborne. It has been engraved by R. Houston. Several of Legge's letters are printed in the Chatham and the Bedford correspondence respectively. His correspondence with the Duke of Newcastle, formerly in the possession of the Earl of Chichester (Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep., pp. 222, 223). and a number of other letters written by him and his wife are preserved at the British Museum (see Indices to Catalogues of Additions to the Manuscripts, 1836–53, 1854–76, 1882–1887).

[Some Account of the Character of the late Right Honourable Henry Bilson-Legge, by John Butler, Bishop of Hereford, 1765; Horace Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George II, 1847; Horace Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George III, 1845; Horace Walpole's Letters, 1861, vols. i–iv.; Coxe's Memoirs of Horatio, Lord Walpole, 1802; Chatham Correspondence, 1838, vols. i. and ii.; Correspondence of the Duke of Bedford, 1842, vols. i. and ii.; Grenville Papers, 1852, vols. i. and ii.; Lord Waldegrave's Memoirs, 1821; Phillimore's Memoirs and Correspondence of George, Lord Lyttelton, 1845; Richard Glover's Memoirs, 1814; Lord Mahon's Hist. of England, 1858, vols. iv. and v.; Harrison's Hist. of London and Westminster, 1775, pp. 407–9; Hasted's Hist. of Kent, ‘Hundred of Blackheath,’ 1886, pp. 244–5; Collins's Peerage, 1812, iv. 121, vii. 280–1; Burke's Extinct Peerage, 1883, pp. 318, 505; Foster's Peerage, 1883, p. 206; Gent. Mag. 1750 xx. 380, 1764 xxiv. 212, 398–9, 551–5; Haydn's Book of Dignities, 1851; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii. pp. 73, 91–2, 104, 115, 117, 130.]

G. F. R. B.