Henry Elliot

Henry Elliot

Sir Henry George Elliot(-Murray-Kynynmound), GCB, PC (30 June 1817 – 30 March 1907) was a British diplomat.

Early life

Elliot was the second surviving son of Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, 2nd Earl of Minto and his wife, Mary. Educated at Eton College and at Trinity College, Cambridge, Elliot served as aide-de-camp and private secretary to Sir John Franklin in Tasmania from 1836 to 1839, and as précis writer to Lord Palmerston at the Foreign Office in 1840. He entered the diplomatic service in 1841 as attaché at Saint Petersburg, was promoted to secretary of legation at The Hague in 1848, transferred to Vienna in 1853, and in 1858 was appointed British Minister at Copenhagen.

Two Sicilies

On the accession of Francis II of the Two Sicilies on 22 May 1859, the British government decided to resume diplomatic relations with Naples, which had been broken off in 1856 when Ferdinand II ignored British and French protests at his repressive rule. Elliot was in England on a short leave of absence early in 1859, and Lord Malmesbury, then Foreign Secretary, sent him on a special mission to congratulate Francis on his accession, with instructions to negotiate the reinstation of a permanent legation, if a more liberal and humane policy were pursued in the new reign, and also to dissuade the king from allying himself with Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia in the Second Italian War of Independence. Elliot's brother-in-law, Lord John Russell, who succeeded Lord Malmesbury in June, instructed Elliot to remain at Naples, and eventually on 9 July, appointed him permanent minister. He was instructed not to press for neutrality if the public opinion of Naples so strongly favoured alliance with Piedmont as to render that course dangerous to the dynasty. Elliot's efforts to obtain constitutional reform were approved and supported, but had no substantial result.

Early in 1860, Garibaldi, with a force of a thousand volunteers, seized Sicily in the name of Victor Emmanuel II. In August, he advanced on Naples and handed over the fleet, which surrendered to him, to the Piedmontese admiral. The British government decided not to intervene, despite the appeals of France to oppose Garibaldi. On 10 September, Elliot, with instructions from Russell, had an interview with Garibaldi in the cabin of Admiral Munday on board HMS "Hannibal", which was then stationed in the Bay of Naples. Elliot stated that he was instructed to remain at Naples for the present, and tried to dissuade Garibaldi from any intention of attacking Venice. Garibaldi was not impressed by Elliot's arguments. Following the plebiscite of 21 October, the formal ceremony of annexation took place at Naples on 8 November. Thenceforward, the British legation had no raison d'être, and Elliot left for England a few days later.


On the death of Sir Thomas Wyse, British Minister at Athens, in April 1862, Elliot was sent on a special mission to Greece, where discontent against the rule of King Otto was assuming dangerous proportions. Here again, his instructions were to urge a more liberal system of administration and of the observance of the rules of constitutional government. He was also to make it clear that the British government would not countenance aggressive designs against Turkey. He returned in July. In October, a provisional government deposed the king. The British government declined the offer of the crown to Prince Alfred, but promised, if a suitable candidate were chosen, and if the constitutional form of government were preserved and all attempt at aggression against Turkey were abandoned, to cede the Ionian Islands. Elliot was sent back to Athens on a special mission to arrange matters with the provisional government on this basis. Prince William, second son of Christian IX of Denmark, was on 30 March 1863, elected as King George I. Elliot returned to England in the following month.


In September 1863, Elliot succeeded Sir James Hudson as British Minister to Italy, taking up his residence at Turin. Russell was accused of unjustly superseding Hudson to make a place for Elliot, his own brother-in-law. However, Hudson's retirement was voluntary, and he approved the choice of his successor. In May 1865, Elliot moved from Turin to Florence, now Italy's capital, and his sister and Russell visited him there in November 1866.


In July 1867, he was appointed Ambassador at Constantinople and sworn a Privy Councillor. At his new post, he was engaged in the discussion over the troubles in Crete in 1868–9 and the consequent breakdown of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Greece. In the winter of 1869, he was British representative at the opening of the Suez Canal, and was appointed a GCB.

On 6 June 1870, a fire broke out in Pera, in which the British embassy house was almost completely destroyed. Lady Elliot and her children narrowly escaped and all the ambassador's private property was destroyed, though he and the staff succeeded in saving the government archives and much of the furniture of the state rooms. Elliot was often in conflict with the Russian ambassador at Constantinople, General Ignatiev, and was held by Russophobes in England to be no match for Russian ambition, but in the view of Lord Granville, then Foreign Secretary, Elliot by his 'quiet firmness', held his own against Russian intrigue in the sultan's court.

When in 1875 insurrections broke out in the Balkans, leading eventually to the April Uprising of 1876, Elliot took a strong Turkophile line, his dispatch of 4 September 1876 arguing that British interests in preventing change in the Ottoman Empire were 'not affected by the question whether it was 10,000 or 20,000 persons who perished in the suppression'. This dispatch made Elliot notorious, and he became a central target of the campaign against the atrocities. However, he was not recalled and assisted Lord Salisbury at the conference at Constantinople at the end of 1876.

Later life

After the conference, Elliot, who had been ill throughout 1876, was replaced by Sir Henry Layard, and at the end of 1877, he was appointed Ambassador at Vienna. In 1880, he reported the Austrians' protests against Gladstone's comments on them in his first Midlothian campaign, and this led to their partial retraction. Elliot retired on a pension in January 1884. In February 1888, his article in the "Fortnightly Review" on the Eastern Question crisis of 1876–8 incensed the sultan.

On 9 December 1847, Elliot married Anne (died 1899), second daughter of Sir Edmund Antrobus, 2nd Baronet; they had a daughter, Gertrude (1855-1947) and a son, Francis Edmund Hugh Elliot (1851-1940), also a diplomat. Elliot died at his home, Ardington House, Wantage, on 30 March 1907.


*H. C. G. Matthew, 'Elliot, Sir Henry George (1817–1907)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edition, Jan 2008, [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/33002, accessed 22 June 2008]

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