Robinson, Thomas (1695-1770) (DNB00)

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ROBINSON, THOMAS, first Baron Grantham (1695–1770), diplomatist, born in 1695, was fourth son of Sir William Robinson, bart., of Newby, Yorkshire, and Mary, eldest daughter of George Aislabie of Studley Royal in the same county. The family was descended from William Robinson (1522–1616), an ‘eminent Hamburg merchant,’ who was mayor of York and its representative in parliament in the reign of Elizabeth. The mayor's grandson, of the same name, was knighted in 1633, became high sheriff of Yorkshire in 1638, and died in 1658. The latter's son by his second wife, Metcalfe Robinson (d. 1689), was created a baronet on 30 July 1660. Sir Metcalfe's nephew, William Robinson (1655–1736), succeeded to his estates. He sat for Northallerton in the Convention parliament, and from 1697 to 1722 represented York. In 1689 he was high sheriff of Yorkshire, and in 1700 lord mayor of York. The baronetcy, which had lapsed at his uncle's death, was revived in him. He died at Newby, Yorkshire, on 22 Dec. 1736, and was buried at Topcliffe. He had five sons and a daughter. The second son, Sir Tancred (d. 1754), third baronet, became rear-admiral of the white, and was lord mayor of York in 1718 and 1738.

Thomas, the youngest son, was educated at Westminster, and was admitted on 12 Jan. 1711–12 at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was elected scholar in April 1714, and minor fellow on 10 July 1719. Entering the diplomatic service, he became in 1723 secretary to the English embassy at Paris. During the absence of the ambassador, Horace Walpole the elder, in 1724 and 1727, he acted as chargé d'affaires, and acquired the confidence both of his chief and of Fleury, the French minister (Coxe, Memoirs of Sir R. Walpole, ii. 544). Robinson was always attached to the Walpoles, and on 9 March 1742, after Sir Robert's fall, he sent Horace ‘the warmest professions of friendship, service, and devotion,’ adding that his letters to him were to be looked upon as letters to Sir Robert (ib. iii. 596–7).

In 1728–9 Robinson was one of the three English representatives at the congress of Soissons. On 17 June 1730 he arrived at Vienna in order to act for the ambassador, Lord Waldegrave, while on leave. But Waldegrave did not return, and Robinson remained as English ambassador at Vienna for eighteen years. The object of English policy at the time was to re-establish friendly relations with the emperor without disturbing the existing arrangements with France and the Dutch. Robinson's task was complicated by his having to take into account the interests of George II as elector of Hanover. On 8 Feb. 1731 he was privately instructed to sign the treaty of Vienna, and to leave the German points for future consideration. The ‘thrice salutary’ treaty was accordingly completed on 16 March 1731 (ib. iii. 97; cf. Carlyle, Frederick, iii. 36–7, 168; Marchmont Papers, i. 62). The imperialists complained that he had ‘sucked them to the very blood.’ His exertions threw him into a fever (Coxe, Walpole, iii. 99, 100). On 10 April Harrington forwarded to him 1,000l. from George II, accompanied with emphatically expressed approval of his conduct. He was to have his choice of staying at Vienna with increased emoluments, or of taking any other post that should be more agreeable to him (ib. iii. 101). Robinson petitioned for recall. Nevertheless he was kept at Vienna, ‘for the most part without instructions’ (to H. Pelham, 29 July and 30 Sept. 1733). In the matter of the projected match between Don Carlos and the second daughter of the Emperor Charles VI, Robinson, acting on George II's private instructions, resisted the union. According to Sir Robert Walpole, he was the great obstacle to the match, and ‘deserved hanging for his conduct in that affair’ (Lord Hervey, Memoirs, ii. 104–6).

The accessions of Maria Theresa and Frederick the Great in 1740 completed the change in the European system which the conclusion of the family compact had begun. Robinson had now to remind Maria Theresa of the services received by her father from England in the Spanish succession war, with a view to an alliance against France, while he had also the unpleasant task of urging upon her the necessity of making concessions to Prussia (cf. Coxe, House of Austria, ii. 238–240). Under stress of the recently formed coalition of France and Bavaria with Prussia, Robinson at length induced Maria Theresa to consent to an accommodation with Frederick, who had invaded Silesia. On 7 Aug. 1741 he had an interview with Frederick at Strehlen. Frederick, according to Carlyle, complained that Robinson ‘negotiated in a wordy, high droning way, as if he were speaking in parliament.’ Frederick demanded the cession of Breslau and Lower Silesia, and the negotiation was consequently futile. Robinson left Strehlen on the 9th. Carlyle, who founds his account of the negotiation on Robinson's despatch to Harrington of 9 Aug., dubs the document the ‘Robinsoniad’ (see Frederick the Great, v. 42–8).

On 29 Aug. Robinson reappeared at Breslau with new concessions wrung from the reluctant Maria Theresa; but Frederick refused to negotiate. When, a week later, Lower Silesia was offered, Frederick found the new propositions of ‘l'infatigable Robinson’ as chimerical as the old (Carlyle, v. 70). Subsequently Robinson urgently appealed to Maria Theresa, whom, according to Sir Luke Schaub, he sometimes moved to tears, to give Frederick better terms. Although he promised her subsidies, he informed her on 2 Aug. 1745, ‘in a copious, sonorous speech,’ that in view of the ineffective assistance she had rendered to England against France, the former power must make peace with Prussia (ib. vi. 112–14; cf. Marchmont Papers, i. 217). On 18 July 1748 Robinson received a peremptory despatch from Newcastle, now secretary of state, demanding the concurrence of Maria Theresa in a general pacification. In case of refusal or delay, Robinson was to leave Vienna within forty-eight hours. Robinson believed Maria Theresa ready to negotiate in due course, but she made no sign within the stipulated period, and on 26 July Robinson left Vienna for Hanover. He was now appointed joint plenipotentiary of England with Sandwich in the peace negotiations of Aix-la-Chapelle (Coxe, Pelham Administration, i. 451–2). He left Hanover for the scene of negotiations on 13 Aug., being secretly entrusted by both the king and Newcastle with the principal direction of affairs (ib. i. 465, 466, ii. 7, 8). Sandwich had tried to conclude the negotiations before Robinson's arrival (Newcastle to H. Pelham, 25 Aug.; Coxe, ii. 10); but the two plenipotentiaries subsequently worked in harmony (Bedford Corresp. i. 502). Kaunitz, the Austrian representative, at first ‘went with them in nothing;’ but the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was finally signed on 18 Oct. 1748.

Soon after Robinson's return to England he was made one of the lords commissioners of trade—‘a scurvy reward after making the peace,’ wrote Walpole to Mann on 26 Dec. 1748. Robinson, who had held a seat in parliament for Thirsk from 1727 to 1734, was on 30 Dec. 1748 elected for Christchurch. He continued to represent that borough till 1761. In 1749 he was appointed master of the great wardrobe, and was next year sworn of the privy council. On the death of Henry Pelham in 1754, Newcastle, at the king's suggestion, appointed Robinson, who was a favourite at court, secretary of state for the southern department, with the leadership of the House of Commons (cf. Bubb Doddington, Diary, 2 Sept. 1755). He accepted the seals with great reluctance, and stipulated for a brief tenure of them (Chesterfield Corresp. ed. Mahon, iv. 119). Newcastle tried to persuade Pitt, then a member of the ministry as paymaster-general, that the appointment was favourable to his interests, for Robinson had no parliamentary talents which could give rise to jealousy (Chatham Corresp. i. 96). Pitt's own view of Robinson's qualifications was expressed in his remark to Fox, ‘The duke might as well have sent us his jackboot to lead us’ (Stanhope, Hist. of England, 1846, iv. 60, from Lord Orford's Memoirs, ii. 101). To Temple, however, he described Robinson as ‘a very worthy gentleman’ (Grenville Papers, i. 120). Robinson's colleagues combined against him, and rendered his position impossible; Pitt openly attacked him, and the war secretary (Henry Fox) ironically defended him. On 1 Dec. Walpole wrote that ‘Pitt and Fox have already mumbled Sir T. Robinson cruelly.’ Murray, the attorney-general, was Robinson's only faithful ally in the House of Commons. The government majority was, says Waldegrave, largely composed of ‘laughers.’ While in office Robinson, according to Bancroft, told the American agents ‘they must fight for their own altars and firesides’ (Hist. United States, iii. 117). From April to September 1755 he acted as a lord justice during George II's absence from England. In November 1755 Robinson ‘cheerfully gave up the seals’ to Fox, and was reappointed master of the wardrobe. That office he reformed and retained during the rest of the reign. He also received a pension on the Irish establishment. The king would have preferred to retain Robinson as secretary of state; for besides sympathising with the king's German interests, his experience gave him a wide knowledge of foreign affairs, and he was a capable man of business. Robinson, however, well knew his own deficiencies; and when in the spring of 1757 George II, through Waldegrave, again offered him the secretaryship of state, he ‘with a most submissive preamble sent an absolute refusal’ (Dodington, Diary, 23 March 1757).

On the accession of George III, Walpole relates that ‘What is Sir Thomas Robinson to have?’ was a question in every mouth. On 7 April 1761 he received a peerage, with the title of Baron Grantham. In 1764 he signed a protest in the House of Lords against the resolution that privilege of parliament does not cover the publication of seditious libels (Ann. Reg. 1764, p. 178). In July 1765 he was named joint postmaster-general, and held the office till December 1766.

Grantham died at Whitehall on 30 Sept. 1770, and was buried at Chiswick on 6 Oct. Walpole declares that at his death he was a ‘miserable object,’ owing to scurvy. He was a fairly able diplomatist, painstaking, and not without persuasive power. Horace Walpole the younger, who always refers to him as ‘Vienna Robinson,’ exaggerated his German proclivities (see Coxe, Sir R. Walpole, iii. 114). The best estimate of him is probably that given by Lord Waldegrave, who says that Robinson was a good secretary of state, as far as business capacity went, but was quite ignorant of the ways of the House of Commons. When he played the orator (which was too often) even his friends could hardly keep their countenances. It is significant that no speech by Robinson appears in the ‘Parliamentary History.’ Carlyle found his despatches rather heavy, ‘but full of inextinguishable zeal withal.’ His descriptions of the imperial ministers, and especially his appreciation of Prince Eugène, show insight into character.

Robinson married, on 13 July 1737, Frances, third daughter by his first wife of Thomas Worsley, esq. of Hovingham, Yorkshire. She died in 1750, leaving issue two sons and six daughters, and was buried at Chiswick on 6 Nov. of that year. The elder son, Thomas, second baron Grantham, is separately noticed.

[The Robinson Papers, or Grantham MSS. (Add. MSS. 23780–877, and 22529) were largely utilised by Coxe in the various works quoted above, and by Carlyle in his History of Frederick the Great. See also Coxe's Life of Horatio, Lord Walpole, i. 198, 199, 208–10, 276 et seq. 310, 311, ii. 254; Walpole's Letters, ii. 140, 218, 232, 284, 376, 408, 484, iii. 78, 80, 362, iv. 384, v. 260, and Memoirs of George II, i. 388, ii. 44–5, 93–4; Lord Waldegrave's Memoirs, pp. 19, 31–2, 46, 52, 81, 108; Bedford Corresp. i. 450–1, 476–9, 480–1, 502; Bubb Dodington's Diary, passim; Ret. Memb. Parl.; Thackeray's Life of Chatham, i. 208–9, 225; Gent. Mag. 1770, p. 487; Lord Stanhope's Hist. of England, 1846, chap. xxxii.; Collins's Peerage, 5th edit. vol. viii.; G. E. C.'s Peerage; Foster's Yorkshire Pedigrees, vol. i.; admission book of Trinity College, Cambridge; authorities cited.]

G. Le G. N.