18th century

A Revolutionary Aristocrat: Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo

On 22 February 1735 Charles Lennox, the Duke of Richmond, and his wife, Sarah Cadogan, welcomed into the world a son, whom they named Charles, after the father. The young Charles received the upbringing that was typical to many of the aristocracy’s sons at the time; educated at Westminster School—alongside Warren Hastings, William Cowper, Edward Gibbon—was then sent on a Grand Tour of the Continent, before enrolling as a student at Lieden University in the Netherlands.


Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond. Painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1758.

For most noble youths the Grand Tour was a rite of passage which, while in theory was meant to be all about education, consisted more of endless parties and womanizing. To be sure, Lennox enjoyed himself but he also applied himself to his studies in art, history, and philosophy.[1]

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It was while he was at university that news came to him, in 1750, of his father’s death. He decided therefore to return to England and take up his seat as the 3rd Duke of Richmond and Aubigny. The social structure of aristocratic domains, in one sense, was thoroughly ‘medieval’; Richmond found himself in charge of a vast estate, with tenant farmers, or peasants, who worked small holdings of land for their lord. Yet Lennox was not a tyrant; he sponsored several building works in his local area, treated his tenants well, provided them with free beer, and bailed his tenants out of debtors’ prisons on several occasions.[2]


British connoisseurs in Rome by James Russell, c. 1750.

A career in the army awaited the young man; at the time, it was fairly easy for an aristocrat to rise through the ranks because rich families often purchased military appointments for the sons. It was a means by which the sons of aristocratic families might make a name for themselves in the world. Lennox received his commission during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) and, by all accounts, distinguished himself with bravery at the Battle of Cherbourg and the Capture of Quebec.


Painting of the Capture of Quebec

By the 1765 Lennox returned home and began seeking a career in politics. Through the connection of fellow friends in the Lords, Lennox was invited to become Secretary of State in May 1766 in the Duke of Rockingham’s ministry. At the time, the electorate voted for MPs but ministries were appointed by the king, who could ‘hire or fire’ governments at will, although he did have to take account of who held the most power in the Commons. What ‘parties’ existed were often grouped around prominent individuals; Lennox was a member of the ‘Rockingham Whigs’; some attached themselves to the Duke of Newcastle; others declared loyalty to the Earl of Chatham—cabinet members like Lennox could come from either the Commons or the Lords.


The Duke of Rockingham, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1758. Rockingham was the leader of the faction of Whigs named ‘Rockingham Whigs’ and his ministry gave Richmond his first government post.

It was during this early phase of his political career that Lennox began to express reservations about the role of the king in the constitution. Lennox had witnessed the formation of three ministries in three years due to the various manoeuvrings of the king. Richmond began to wonder whether the government was merely the tool of the king who, as soon as MPs bring in legislation he did not like, merely fired them:

They [the administration] are never changed but when they are getting strong enough to do the country some real service.[3]

Lennox—who had always disliked George III on a personal level (the feeling was mutual)—began to form in his own mind even more objections to this state of constitutional affairs. How could it be right that the government, once elected, can be disposed of by the king, and the ministers be sacked when their appointments had been the will of the electors?


King George III. There was a lot of personal animosity between Lennox and the king.

In Lennox’s view, it was ministers who should dictate terms to the king, not the other way around.[4]

By the 1770s Lennox was out of government but took a keen interest in the affairs of state from the Lords. He disagreed with the Declaratory Act, passed back in 1766, which granted the UK parliament the right to legislate for the colonies and made private suggestions to Rockingham that someone in government ought to repeal it.[5] He watched with horror the government’s treatment of the American colonists whose demands for the repeal of certain taxes and the hated quartering acts (where British troops were stationed in American homes) spilled over into outright rebellion in 1775.


A print from c.1774 illustrating the Boston Tea Party, a precursor to the American Revolution

Lennox stopped short, however, of criticising the government openly. This was probably wise; public opinion in England at the time of the American war was almost wholly with the government. When news reached England of the colonists’ defeat at Long Island in 1776, people in Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, York, and Halifax celebrated in the streets and burnt effigies of George Washington, John Adams, John Hancock, and Arthur Lee. At most, as the war began to go badly for the British, Lennox simply urged the government to recognise the American colonies’ independence.[6]


Frontispiece to Major Cartwright’s Take Your Choice (1776)

Meantime, Lennox began corresponding with Major John Cartwright, the author of Take Your Choice (1776), as well as reading the works of Thomas Paine, a very influential voice in the American Revolution. He came to sympathise with the goals of many of the political reform societies, such as the Yorkshire Association, who campaigned for universal male suffrage and annual elections. Yet these groups, although they were prolific publishers, had very few friends in high places.

Richmond Bill

A reprint of Richmond’s Bill

It was probably his exposure to Cartwright’s and Paine’s radical ideas, and his sympathies with the Yorkshire Association, that moved him, in 1780, to present a bill to the House of Lords. The preamble declared:

  1. That the Government of this Realm, and the making of laws for the same, ought to be lodged in the hands of King, Lords of Parliament, and Representatives of the whole Body of the Freemen of this Realm.

  2. That EVERY MAN of the commonalty (excepting infants, insane persons and criminals) is of common right, and by the laws of God, a FREE MAN, and entitled to the full enjoyment of liberty.

  3. That Liberty or Freedom consists in having an actual share in the appointing those who frame the Laws, and who are to be the guardians of every man‘s life, property, and peace. For, the all of one man is as dear to him as the all of another; and the POOR man has an equal right, but more need, to have Representatives in the legislature, than the rich one.[7]

This was the draft of a constitution for the British people. Given that all men should have a right to have a say in the government, the Bill further proposed:

  1. A vote for all people over twenty-one years old

  2. Annual elections

  3. The creation of 558 constituencies containing an equal number of electors.

Lennox’s emphasis on people, rather than simply men, must give us pause for thought here. It can be inferred that he included woman in this progressive scheme. With the exception of the preamble, the terminology used throughout the bill is largely is largely gender neutral. Richmond refers to ‘The Right of Every Commoner’ or the ‘Rights of the Commons’. Indeed, when the bill simply spoke about the people who would not be able to vote, all we read is the following:

Who shall not vote,

AND be it enacted, that no person who has been or shall be duly convicted in a court of law within this realm of the crimes of high treason, treason, murder, felony, perjury, forgery, grand or petty larceny, or any of them, shall be capable of being elected, or of voting for the election of a Member of Parliament in or for any borough within this kingdom.[8]

Cartwright had in fact reviewed the bill privately and offered suggestions on several points, so this was probably his suggestion. The major was an early advocate of true universal suffrage, which included the granting of the right to vote for women as well.[9]

It was a far-reaching and progressive bill which, unfortunately, Lennox’s fellow aristocrats were not quite ready to endorse.


The Gordon Riots by Charles Green

Indeed, circumstances were conspiring against Lennox’s bill. It would never get a fair hearing.

Unfortunately for Lennox, the very day that his bill was presented to the Lords on 3 June in 1780, there was a commotion outside of parliament. The commotion was occasioned by the recent passage of the Catholic Relief Act (1778). The government in London had thought it prudent to extend to Catholics certain rights. As we have seen, Catholics had been ‘bending over backwards’ to prove their loyalty to the Hanoverian regime. The conciliatory approach seemed to be working, and by the late 1770s there seemed to be, in the words of Robert E. Burns, a good ‘rapport’ between the king and his Catholic subjects.


Lord George Gordon

The Act required Catholics to swear loyalty to George III and renounce any loyalty to the deposed Stuart dynasty.[10] If Catholics took the oath then they would be allowed to purchase freehold and leasehold land, live in London, found their own schools, and they would be permitted to join the British army—a growing empire needed soldiers after all. The act passed through all stages of parliament without a dissenting voice.[11]

The man leading the crowd of 60,000 people outside was Lord George Gordon, a bigoted anti-Catholic nobleman from Scotland who was leader of the Protestant Association. He and the crowd were there to deliver a petition calling on the government to repeal the Papists’ Act. He had been ignored by the king and the cabinet for two whole years, now he turned up to parliament in a show of strength. The crowd was getting restless; they attacked the carriages of several Lords’ members as they turned up—the very people who would be called upon to debate and vote upon Lennox’s bill. The crowd got angry and began attacking several embassies and the riots descended into a week-long period of carnage, when the protestors attacked all symbols of government authority, until the army was called in to quell the rebellion.


John Seymour Lucas’s The Gordon Riots.

No wonder, then, that on 3 June the Lords rejected Lennox’s bill!

Richmond remained quiet about his radical politics after 1780. He took various roles in the government until the end of his life. He was Master of the Ordnance in William Pitt the Younger’s first ministry, and remained closely allied with the ‘Pittite’ Tories until the 1790s. Events such as the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror had cooled his appetite even further. He certainly offered no opposition to the Pitt government’s suspension of habeas corpus and their implementation of measures designed to suppress freedom of speech and assembly in 1794. Fearing that the Reign of Terror would spread over to England, the government passed the above measures to curb the activities of British radical campaign groups, whose aims were the same as those presented in Lennox’s proposed bill.

Affrighted Nobles

A broadside entitled To the Affrighted Nobles (1792) excoriated the Duke of Richmond for his ‘apostasy’:

You have fled to the standard of corruption, for fear of losing your titles and estates, by which you have exposed the former to general contempt, and the latter to danger. You have, all on a sudden, deserted the cause of the people; and, instead of becoming their leaders on the day of trial, have, as it were, declared against the Liberties of Mankind.[12]

Harsh words indeed. Yet the government pressed on with trying to suppress the activities of groups promoting political reform.


Three men bore the brunt of this crackdown on radical political clubs: John Thelwall, John Horne Took, and Thomas Hardy. These three men, of the London Corresponding Society, were arrested for sedition in 1794. Their crime: campaigning for the very same things which Lennox had included in his bill in the summer of 1780!

Richmond’s bill was alluded to several times during the men’s trials, as their counsel stated to the jury:

When the Corresponding Society first instituted its proceedings their objects were avowed and expressed to be those of Richmond … there is no statute of limitation upon treason, this might equally be brought forward many years hence as now, this that was published by the Duke of Richmond … was not considered by the officers of the crown as a libel, for if it is, it is not too late, if the Attorney General thinks such a proceeding would be decent, to call to account [Richmond] who published it.[13]

A clever argument indeed: if you were going to prosecute Horne Took and his comrades, then you must prosecute Lennox as well.

NPG D12634; 'London Corresponding Society, alarm'd' by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey

A political cartoon mocking members of the London Corresponding Society

The case against Horne Tooke and his fellow radicals was dismissed. The jurors could see plainly that the charges were trumped up, and no one would want to indict a lord who had advocated the same things a decade and a half ago.

Lennox died in 1806 at home on his Goodwood estate. He does not currently occupy a major place in the history of English radicalism. No doubt his ‘conversion’ to Pittite Toryism is a factor in this. Yet early in the nineteenth century, radical publishers began reprinting his bill and used it as a basis for their own cause.


[1] M.M. Reese, Goodwood’s Oak: The Life and Times of the Third Duke of Richmond, Lennox, and Aubigny (London: Threshold Books, 1987), p. 51.

[2] Alison Olson, The Radical Duke: The Career and Correspondence of Charles Lennox, Third Duke of Richmond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 10.

[3] Richmond to Newcastle, 20 July 1766, Add. MS. 32,990, f.322.

[4] Richmond to Rockingham, 12 February 1771, Fitzwilliam MS R158–44.

[5] Richmond to Rockingham, 2 November 1777, Fitzwilliam MS RI-968-1.

[6] Richmond to Rockingham, 15 March 1778, Fitzwilliam MS RI-983.

[7] Charles Lennox, The Bill of the Late Duke of Richmond for Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments (London: William Hone, 1817), p. 1.

[8] Ibid., p. 15.

[9] Rachael Eckersley, ‘Of Radical Design: John Cartwright and the Redesign of the Reform Campaign, c.1800–1811’, History, 89: 296 (2004), 560–80 (p. 561)

[10] Stephen Basdeo, Discovering Robin Hood: The Life of Joseph Ritson—Gentleman, Scholar, Revolutionary (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2021) [Forthcoming].

[11] Robert E. Burns, ‘The Catholic Relief Act in Ireland, 1778’, Church History, 32: 2 (1963), 181-206 (p. 183).

[12] To the Affrighted Nobles of the Land (London: [n.pub.], 1792). MS Home Office Papers and Records: Part One: HO 42, Boxes 1-23, 1782-1792 Box 21. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom).

[13] Proceedings at Large on the Trial of John Horne Tooke for High Treason, 2 vols (London: J.S. Jordan, 1795), I, p. 391.

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