In the year 1754, William Pitt (who was later to be known as “the Elder”) suffered several disappointments. His career wasn’t really going anywhere and his health, never very good, failed him, forcing him to leave London and spend the spring and summer at Bath and Astrop. He was 46 years old, very troubled by his gout and while popular on the London streets, his disinclination to compromise (and to pass over the opportunity to score a rhetorical point) meant that he had no friends at court. In fact, George II harboured what can only be called a strong dislike for him.
His friends and allies could be found among the whig group that had originally formed around Richard Temple, 1st Lord Cobham. Two of the most prominent members of that group were George Grenville (who would later become Prime Minister) and his older brother Richard Grenville-Temple, 2nd Earl Temple. Other members included the Grenville’s cousin George Lyttleton, who had been to school with Pitt, and Thomas Potter, a son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Far on the fringes, you could even find John Wilkes, who would later rise to both fame and infamy.
At the time, William Pitt lived and breathed politics. It was his all-consuming passion – his only passion, you might say. If some of his colleagues, such as Thomas Potter, might be said to occasionally walk on the wild side, William Pitt hobbled down the Avenue of Ambition, troubled by his gout and dressed as, if not a knight in shining armour, at least a man of conviction who was selflessly dedicated to the good of his country.
After his rather miserable summer of taking the waters, Pitt went to stay with the Grenvilles at Wotton in September. There was nothing unusual about it; he was an old friend of the family and had spent quite a lot of time with them. The visit, however, had unexpected consequences.
The Grenvilles had five sons, all Members of Parliament. There was also a daughter named Hester after her mother, aged 34 and a spinster. Exactly what transpired in Buckinghamshire in the autumn of 1754, I don’t know, but it must have been something remarkable because suddenly Hester Grenville and William Pitt, who had known each other for years, found themselves in love.
It appeared to be a very conventional match. Pitt wasn’t rich, but he could still hope for at least a moderate political career and frankly, 34-year-old spinsters can’t be choosers, or they’ll spend the rest of their days being obedient daughters whose only joy is the occasional purchase of a new teapot. On the other hand, while no blushing rose, she did have connections and came from a good family and was, all in all, as good a match as William Pitt could ever hope to make. This, however, wasn’t all there was to it. Judging from their correspondence, Hester and William were really in LURRRVE.
It makes me curious. Had the thought crossed their minds before? It must have; I refuse to believe they both suddenly found the light of love in their hearts at the same time. So had he had a crush on her or vice versa? Had they both felt the occasional spark? And if so, why had nothing come of it? Did he feel he’d make her a poor husband? Was the hesitation on her part? Or was she simply “good old Hester”, who was always there but never quite seen by him? To be honest, a man whose main interests are parliamentary debates and his gout may not have come across as a sex god, any more than a proper old maid may seem a very likely fuel on the fires of love, but there you are. One moment you’re discreetly yawning at a game of loo, and the next you realise that your neigbour’s lips are inhabited by “sweet and inexpressible bliss”.
Not all shared they happiness, however. George Grenville, who wasn’t currently too pleased with Pitt, vented his displeasure: “I did not imagine that my behaviour [introducing Pitt to Hester] /…/ was to bring an enemy instead of a friend into our family.” And the aforementioned Thomas Potter was furious that Pitt, his hero, could debase himself by marrying a woman like Hester Grenville. In a letter to John Wilkes he wrote “[a]ll that wit and fire and spirit is to be matrimonially soaked in the cold, slimy, acquatic cunt of Lady H. Grenville. What can such an unnatural mixture produce?” The answer would, of course, be “the youngest Prime Minister Britain ever had” as well as one First Lord of the Admiralty and several other children, but then Thomas Potter was a man who raped cows* so you shouldn’t be surprised if he was not the sharpest tool in the box. Besides, I think it can only speak well for Hester that she was so violently disliked by Potter whose letters reek of such misogyny that I almost regret the fact that he died in 1759 as it prevents me from looking him up and smacking him over the head.
Happily unaware of Mr Potter’s dire predictions on how the seed of Heaven would congeal into frogspawn (yes, I am quoting), Hester Grenville and William Pitt got married on 16 November 1754. Their honeymoon was brief and on 25 November, Hester writes to her sister-in-law that Pitt was busy with “court, committees and the business of this hurrying town.” Indeed, it seems that politics was an interest they shared, and by all accounts they had a very happy marriage with no less than five children.
I love this story. I love how it shows that love and happiness is not only for the young, or the lucky or the strong. I also love how they seem to have been friends as well as husband and wife, easily mixing accounts of political news with “my sweetest love” and “my beloved life” in their letters. In regards to his family, “the Great Commoner” William Pitt displays sides that are deeply human, such when he describes how he will devote Saturday to the children when Hester is away and when he urges her on another occasion to “kiss the loved babes for Papa”.
The Politician and the Spinster. Wouldn’t it make a great novel?
*I do Mr Potter an injustice here, using “cows” in plural. In fact, Mr Potter only ever admitted to having had intercourse with one single cow, on Wingrove Common, but he did brag about that exploit readily enough.
Correspondence of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham
Pitt the Elder, by Jeremy Black
John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Liberty, by Arthur H. Cash
George Grenville: A Political life, by Philip Lawson