Henry Legge

Another colorful subscriber to Kirby’s Historical Account was Henry Legge. Styled in the subscriber list as “Hon. Henry Legge, Esq.” he was at the time the other MP for Orford. Orford was a pocket borough in the gift of the Treasury, with few, and carefully-chosen voters. According to the Parliamentary History Online in 1764 only six out of 21 [voters] were resident in Orford, and 18 held places under Government. Its expenses were paid from secret service funds. Henry Legge (1708—1764) was the fourth son of the 1st Earl of Dartmouth. He later added the surname Bilson as the result of a bequest. Horace Walpole (a not-unbiased observer) said of him that “[his father] had early turned him into the world to make his fortune, which he pursued with an uncommon assiduity of duty. Avarice or flattery, application or ingratitude, nothing came amiss that might raise him on the ruins of either friends or enemies”. In fact, his father had early sent him to Christ Church in Oxford, from whence he disappeared to join the Navy, taking a berth as an ordinary seaman on a convoy protecting the Newfoundland fishing fleet. He repeated the voyage as a midshipman, before returning to land. He apparently never went to sea again, although this did not prevent him obtaining a later position as Lord of the Admiralty. As a young man he entered the circle around the Walpoles, becoming secretary to Sir Robert Walpole in 1736, then at the peak of his power. Legge was awarded a seat in the House of Commons first for Looe in Cornwall in 1740, and then for Orford from 1741 onwards, shortly after he was appointed Treasury Secretary. Also in 1741, he seems to have made an unfortunate attempt to woo Maria Walpole, which did not go down well with the family, but then Walpole fell spectacularly the following year. Dismissed from his post in the purge of Walpole’s followers, he promptly acquired a position as Surveyor-General of Woods and Forests in 1742, and joining the Admiralty Board in 1745. In 1748 he was sent off to Berlin as envoy to Frederick the Great, taking the blame for the failure of negotiations. Perhaps the appearance of Kirby’s book was a consolation. Returning to England, he married, and pursued his hobby of shooting, then became Chancellor of the Exchequer three times in the 1750s. He died in 1764. Portrait by William Hoare As noted above, Horace Walpole was not particularly enamored of Legge. Another choice quote is the Legge “wormed himself into every intrigue where his industry and subservience could recommend him”. The DNB article on him, written by P. J. Kulisheck (who wrote her dissertation on Legge), rehabilitates him, noting “his character and actions have in the past been judged unfavourably primarily on the basis of statements, now known to be biased, in Horace Walpole’s writings. Legge’s letters reveal a man no better or worse than other younger sons who made their fortune through holding office under the crown, but one with a better sense of humour and less vindictiveness than his contemporaries”.

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  1. Pingback: A Clique of Politicians | Kirby and his world

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