Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham

Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham
The Most Honourable
The Marquess of Rockingham
Prime Minister of Great Britain
In office
27 March 1782 – 1 July 1782
Monarch George III
Preceded by Lord North
Succeeded by The Earl of Shelburne
In office
13 July 1765 – 30 July 1766
Monarch George III
Preceded by George Grenville
Succeeded by The Earl of Chatham
Personal details
Born 13 May 1730(1730-05-13)
South Yorkshire
Died 1 July 1782(1782-07-01) (aged 52)
Wimbledon, London
Political party Whig

Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, KG, PC (13 May 1730 – 1 July 1782), styled The Hon. Charles Watson-Wentworth before 1733, Viscount Higham between 1733 and 1746, Earl of Malton between 1746 and 1750 and The Earl Malton in 1750, was a British Whig statesman, most notable for his two terms as Prime Minister of Great Britain. He became the patron of many Whigs, known as the Rockingham Whigs, and served as a leading Whig grandee. He served in only two high offices during his lifetime (Prime Minister and Leader of the House of Lords), but was nonetheless very influential during his one and a half years of service.


Early life: 1730–1751

A descendant of the 1st Earl of Strafford, Lord Rockingham was brought up at the family home of Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham in South Yorkshire. He was educated at the Westminster School.[1] During the Jacobite rising of 1745 Rockingham's father made him a colonel and organised volunteers to defend the country against the "Young Pretender".[2] Rockingham's sister Mary wrote to him from London, saying the King "did not doubt but that you was as good a colonel as he has in his army" and his other sister Charlotte wrote that "you have gained immortal honour and I have every day the satisfaction of hearing twenty handsome things said of the Blues and their Collonel".[3] The march of the Jacobite army into northern England caused the Wentworth household to flee to Doncaster and Rockingham rode from Wentworth to Carlisle to join the Duke of Cumberland in pursuit of the "Young Pretender". Rockingham did this without parental consent and Cumberland wrote to Rockingham's father, saying that his "zeal on this occasion shows the same principles fix't that you yourself have given such strong proofs of".[3] Rockingham wrote to his father that Cumberland "blamed me for my disobedience, yet as I came with a design of saving my King and greatly palliated my offence".[3] Rockingham's mother wrote to his father: "Though I hope you won't tell it him, never any thing met with such general applause, in short he is the hero of these times, and his Majesty talks of this young Subject, in such terms, as must please you to the Drawing Room no two people talk together, but he makes part of the discourse".[4]

In April 1746 Rockingham's father was made a marquis (remaining the only marquis in the British peerage for quite some time) and Rockingham himself assumed the courtesy title of Earl of Malton. These honours came about due to the patronage of Henry Pelham.[4] At this time Rockingham was travelling across Europe under the tutorship of George Quarme, as his father had decided against sending him to Cambridge.[5] During his stay in Rome Rockingham noted that amongst Englishmen Whigs outnumbered Jacobites four-to-one and there were "no Persons of rank about the Pretender" and that "the vile spirit of Jacobitism" was greatly declining.[6] When in Herrenhausen, Hanover Rockingham met George II and made an impression: the King told Rockingham's uncle Henry Finch that he had never seen a finer or a more promising youth.[7]

Early political career: 1751–1765

A young Rockingham.

On 13 May 1751 (his twenty-first birthday) Rockingham inherited his father's estates. The rents from the land in Yorkshire, Northamptonshire and Ireland gave him an annual income of £20,000. He also controlled both of the borough parliamentary seats of Malton and one seat for the single-member borough of Higham Ferrers (Northants), along with twenty-three livings and five chaplaincies in the church.[8] In July he was appointed Lord Lieutenant and custos rotulorum of the West Riding in Yorkshire, Lord Lieutenant of York city, and custos rotulorum of York city and county. In 1751–52 Rockingham joined White's, the Jockey Club and the Royal Society.[8]

Rockingham's maiden speech was on 17 March 1752 in support of the Bill which disposed of Scottish lands confiscated in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745. He wanted the lands cultivated by people "employed in husbandry & handicrafts" who repudiated "plunder, rapine & rebellion". He said "the highlanders have remained in their ancient state, prolific, bold, idle, & consequently hives of rebellion". He compared his favoured policy with the policy which his ancestor Lord Strafford had used in Ireland. Rockingham's speech was not well received, with Horace Walpole criticising him for venturing into "a debate so much above his force".[9] Rockingham's uncle William Murray, the Solicitor-General, believed him to be poorly educated so he employed Quarme as Rockingham's tutor again. Rockingham was for four months to study Demosthenes for oratory, to learn the histories of the Assyrian, Persian, Greek and Roman empires along with modern history. Murray wanted Rockingham to take after Sir Walter Raleigh.[9]

In 1752 Rockingham was appointed Lord of the Bedchamber to George II and married Mary Bright. In 1753 the Rockingham Club was formed, containing the first Rockingham Whigs. Rockingham hired James Stuart[disambiguation needed ] to paint portraits of William III and George II for the club rooms. The club held monthly meetings and a list written in June 1754 showed it had 133 members.[10] In 1755 the King appointed him to the honorary office of Vice Admiral of the North.[11] During a French invasion scare in 1756 Rockingham raised a volunteer militia at his own expense and when rioting broke out against Army enlistments Rockingham restored order without the use of military force in Sheffield. The Secretary at War, Lord Barrington, wrote to him: "You are the only instance of a Lord lieutenant's exerting the civil authority upon these occasions".[11] Rockingham asked in 1760 to be made a knight of the Order of the Garter and the King consented.

In 1760 George II died and his grandson ascended the throne as George III. Rockingham was allied to the Duke of Newcastle and his supporters, whilst the new King had a favourite in Lord Bute. Rockingham believed that Bute and his supporters wanted to take "the whole Administration & Government of this country into their hands" and wanted Newcastle to resign now before he would be inevitably disposed of. Rockingham believed that the revolution in British politics since George III's accession was harmful to the country, since it removed the Whigs from their ascendancy which had settled the constitution and secured the House of Hanover on the British throne. Rockingham wrote to Newcastle:

...without flattery to your Grace, I must look and ever shall upon you and your connections as the solid foundations on which every good which has happened to this country since the [Glorious] Revolution, have been erected. ... What a medley of government is probably soon to take place & when it does what an alarm will ensue![12]

Rockingham resigned as Lord of the Bedchamber on 3 November 1762 in protest at the King's policies and other Whigs associated with the Duke of Newcastle did the same.[13] The next month the King removed Rockingham from the office of Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding, Lord Lieutenant of the city and county of York, as custos rotulorum of the North and West Riding, as custos rotulorum of the city and county of York and as Vice Admiral of York city and county.[14]

Over the next several years, Rockingham gradually became the leader of those of Newcastle's supporters who were unwilling to reconcile themselves to the premierships of Bute and his successor, George Grenville.

Prime Minister: 1765–1766

The king's dislike of Grenville, as well as his general lack of parliamentary support, led to his dismissal in 1765, and, following negotiations conducted through the medium of the king's uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, Lord Rockingham was appointed Prime Minister.[15] Rockingham recovered the honours of which he had been deprived in 1762. Rockingham appointed his allies Henry Seymour Conway and the Duke of Grafton as secretaries of state. Also at this time, Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and philosopher, became his private secretary and would remain a life-long friend, political ally and advisor until Rockingham's premature death in 1782.

Rockingham's administration was dominated by the American issue. Rockingham wished for repeal of the Stamp Act 1765 and won a Commons vote on the repeal resolution by 275 to 167 in 1766.[16] However Rockingham also passed the Declaratory Act, which asserted that the British Parliament had the right to legislate for the American colonies in all cases whatsoever.

However, internal dissent within the cabinet led to his resignation and the appointment of Lord Chatham as Prime Minister (the Duke of Grafton was appointed First Lord of the Treasury, one of the few cases in which those two offices were separate).

Opposition: 1766–1782

Rockingham spent the next sixteen years in opposition. He was a keen supporter of constitutional rights for colonists.

Rockingham wrote to Burke on 14 February 1771: "I fear indeed the future struggles of the people in defence of their Constitutional Rights will grow weaker and weaker. It is much too probable that the power and influence of the Crown will increase rapidly. We live at the period when for the first time since the Revolution, the power and influence of the Crown is held out, as the main and chief and only support of Government. If not exert now, we may accelerate the abject state to which the Constitution may be reduced".[17] Rockingham wrote to Augustus Keppel on 3 November 1779, saying that he believed the war against American could not be won, that the government was corrupt but not unpopular, and that the longer this continued the greater the danger to the liberties and the constitution of Britain: "Perhaps a total change of men and measures, & system in the Government: of this country might have effect on the councils of some foreign countries...who might think that it was no longer a Court system to combat, but that the whole nation wd; united & make the utmost efforts".[18]

Prime Minister: 1782

In 1782 he was appointed Prime Minister for a second time (with Charles James Fox and Lord Shelburne as secretaries of state) and, upon taking office, pushed for an acknowledgement of the independence of the United States, initiating an end to British involvement in the American War of Independence. However, this term was short-lived, for Lord Rockingham died fourteen weeks later at the beginning of July from an Influenza epidemic. He was replaced as Prime Minister by Lord Shelburne, who was more reluctant to accept the total independence of America and proposed a form of Dominion status.

Paul Langford has claimed that the Rockingham administration "represented a landmark in constitutional history. The ministerial changes of 1782 involved a more extensive upheaval among office-holders than any since 1714, virtually replacing one administration with another drawn from opposition".[19]


Rockingham's estates, but not his marquisate, passed to his nephew William Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam. Burke wrote to him on 3 July 1782: "You are Lord Rockingham in every thing. ... I have no doubt that you will take it in good part, that his old friends, who were attached to him by every tie of affection, and of principle, and among others myself, should look to you, and should not think it an act of forwardness and intrusion to offer you their services".[20] On 7 July 150 supporters of Rockingham met at Fitzwilliam's house and decided to withdraw support for Lord Shelburne's administration. The old Rockingham party fragmented, with Fox and the Duke of Portland leading a coalition of Whigs. The Whig party further split over the French Revolution, with Burke writing to Fitzwilliam on 4 January 1797: "As to our old friends, they are so many individuals, not a jot more separated from your Lordship, than they are from one another. There is no mutual affection, communication, or concert between them".[21]

The Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay was an admirer of Rockingham and his Whig faction:

They were men worthy to have charged by the side of Hampden at Chalgrove, or to have exchanged the last embrace with Russell on the scaffold in Lincoln's Inn Fields. They carried into politics the same high principles of virtue which regulated their private dealings, nor would they stoop to promote even the noblest and most salutary ends by means which honour and probity condemn. Such men were Lord John Cavendish, Sir George Savile, and others whom we hold in honour as the second founders of the Whig party, as the restorers of its pristine health and energy after half a century of degeneracy. The chief of this respectable band was the Marquess of Rockingham, a man of splendid fortune, excellent sense, and stainless character. He was indeed nervous to such a degree that, to the very close of his life, he never rose without great reluctance and embarrassment to address the House of Lords. But, though not a great orator, he had in a high degree some of the qualities of a statesman. He chose his friends well; and he had, in an extraordinary degree, the art of attaching them to him by ties of the most honourable kind. The cheerful fidelity with which they adhered to him through many years of almost hopeless opposition was less admirable than the disinterestedness and delicacy which they showed when he rose to power.[22]

Rockingham County, New Hampshire, Rockingham County, North Carolina, and Rockingham County, Virginia in the United States are named in his honour, as is the town of Rockingham, Vermont. Additionally, the city of Rockingham, North Carolina, which is not in Rockingham County but is rather the seat of Richmond County, was named in his honour.

Rockingham's First Government, July 1765 – July 1766


  • October 1765 — The Duke of Cumberland dies.
  • May 1766 — The Duke of Grafton resigns from the cabinet. Henry Seymour Conway succeeds him as Northern Secretary, and the Duke of Richmond succeeds Conway as Southern Secretary.

Rockingham's Second Government, March – July 1782


  • The Hon. Charles Watson-Wentworth (1730–1733)
  • Viscount Higham (1733–1746)
  • Earl of Malton (1746–1750)
  • The Rt. Hon. The Earl Malton (1750–1750)
  • The Most Hon. The Marquess of Rockingham (1750–1761)
  • The Most Hon. The Marquess of Rockingham, KG (1761–1765)
  • The Most Hon. The Marquess of Rockingham, KG, PC (1765–1782)


  1. ^ J. M. Rigg, 'Watson-Wentworth, Charles, second Marquis of Rockingham (1730–1782)', Dictionary of National Biography, 1899, has him attending St John's College, Cambridge. However, there is no mention of him in Alumni Cantabrigienses, and the DNB is not followed in this detail by the Oxford DNB.
  2. ^ Ross J. S. Hoffman, The Marquis. A Study of Lord Rockingham, 1730–1782 (New York: Fordham University Press, 1973), p. 3.
  3. ^ a b c Hoffman, p. 3.
  4. ^ a b Hoffman, p. 4.
  5. ^ Hoffman, pp. 5–9.
  6. ^ Hoffman, p. 8.
  7. ^ Hoffman, p. 9.
  8. ^ a b Hoffman, p. 10.
  9. ^ a b Hoffman, p. 11.
  10. ^ Hoffman, p. 20.
  11. ^ a b Hoffman, p. 21.
  12. ^ Hoffman, p. 37.
  13. ^ Hoffman, pp. 43–44.
  14. ^ Hoffman, p. 45.
  15. ^ Paul Langford, The First Rockingham Administration. 1765–1766 (Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 8–11.
  16. ^ Hoffman, p. 113.
  17. ^ W. M. Elofson, The Rockingham Connection and the Second Founding of the Whig Party, 1768–1773 (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996), pp. 119–120.
  18. ^ Frank O'Gorman, The Rise of Party in England. The Rockingham Whigs. 1760–1782 (George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1975), p. 401.
  19. ^ Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People. England. 1727–1783 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 557–558.
  20. ^ Hoffman, p. 383.
  21. ^ Hoffman, p. 385.
  22. ^ T. B. Macaulay, ‘The Earl of Chatham’, Edinburgh Review (October, 1844).


  • W. M. Elofson, The Rockingham Connection and the Second Founding of the Whig Party, 1768–1773 (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996).
  • S. M. Farrell, ‘Wentworth, Charles Watson-, second marquess of Rockingham (1730–1782)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008, accessed 17 Oct 2009.
  • Ross J. S. Hoffman, The Marquis. A Study of Lord Rockingham, 1730–1782 (New York: Fordham University Press, 1973).
  • Paul Langford, The First Rockingham Administration. 1765–1766 (Oxford University Press, 1973).
  • Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People. England. 1727–1783 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
  • Frank O'Gorman, The Rise of Party in England. The Rockingham Whigs. 1760–1782 (George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1975).

Further reading

  • C. Collyer, ‘The Rockinghams and Yorkshire politics, 1742–61’, The Thoresby Miscellany, 12, Thoresby Society, 41 (1954), pp. 352–82.
  • A. Cox and A. Cox, Rockingham Pottery and Porcelain, 1745–1842 (1983).
  • G. H. Guttridge, The Early Career of Lord Rockingham, 1730–1765 (University of California, 1952).
  • R. J. Hopper, ‘The second marquis of Rockingham, coin collector’, Antiquaries Journal, 62 (1982), pp. 316–46.
  • G. Thomas, earl of Albemarle [G. T. Keppel], Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham and His Contemporaries, 2 vols. (1852).
  • R. B. Wragg, ‘The Rockingham mausoleum (1784–1793)’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 52 (1980), pp. 157–66.

External links

Court offices
Preceded by
New government
Lord of the Bedchamber
1760 – 1762
Succeeded by
The Duke of Manchester
Political offices
Preceded by
George Grenville
Prime Minister of Great Britain
13 July 1765 – 30 July 1766
Succeeded by
The Earl of Chatham
Preceded by
Leader of the House of Lords
1765 – 1766
Succeeded by
The Duke of Grafton
Preceded by
Lord North
Prime Minister of Great Britain
27 March 1782 – 1 July 1782
Succeeded by
The Earl of Shelburne
Preceded by
Leader of the House of Lords
Honorary titles
Preceded by
The Marquess of Rockingham
Custos Rotulorum of the North Riding of Yorkshire
1751 – 1762
Succeeded by
The Earl of Holderness
Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire
1751 – 1763
Succeeded by
The Earl of Huntingdon
Preceded by
Sir Conyers Darcy
as Vice-Admiral of the North Riding
Vice-Admiral of Yorkshire
1755 – 1763
Succeeded by
The Earl of Holderness
Preceded by
The Viscount of Irvine
as Vice-Admiral of the East Riding
Preceded by
The Earl of Huntingdon
Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire
1765 – 1782
Succeeded by
Earl of Surrey
Preceded by
The Earl of Holderness
Custos Rotulorum of the North Riding of Yorkshire
1765 – 1782
Succeeded by
The Earl Fauconberg
Vice-Admiral of Yorkshire
1776 – 1782
Title next held by
The Duke of Leeds
Peerage of Great Britain
Preceded by
Thomas Watson-Wentworth
Marquess of Rockingham
1750 – 1782
Peerage of Ireland
Preceded by
Thomas Watson-Wentworth
Earl Malton
1750 – 1782

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