Charles James Fox

Man of the People


Charles James Fox by Charles Turner, 1808

Charles James Fox by Charles Turner, 1808

Charles James Fox was born on 24th January 1749, the 3rd son of Henry Fox, 1st Lord Holland and Lady Caroline Lennox, eldest daughter of the 2nd Duke of Richmond. As a child he was always very close to his father who over indulged him in everything. In fact the lack of discipline or moral upbringing would greatly influence the man and his politics in later life.

Much of Charles’ childhood was spent at Kingsgate, the family home in Kent, where he was looked after by his nurse, Nelly. Unusually for the era, his father took time off from his career to spend with his son, and although Charles was clearly his father’s favourite there was no sibling animosity. One family anecdote tells of a young Charles in tears having missed the demolition of a wall at the family home whilst he was away at school. To please his son, Henry had the wall rebuilt, just so that Charles could witness its destruction.

Fox was able to choose his own schooling and eventually settled at Eton before going to Hertford College, Oxford when he was 15 years old (1764). At Eton, as with the rest of his life, Fox did no more work than he deemed absolutely necessary. However, through his schooling he developed a deep love of literature and the classics. This love was further encouraged by his father who took him, at the age of 14, away from school on a tour of France. Henry introduced his son to the society of the time, including the seedier and immoral side, and gave Charles money to fund his growing gambling addiction. When he eventually returned to Eton, he was even more precocious than ever. His headmaster, Dr. Barnard, recalled in his memoirs that Fox had been the last boy he had flogged in a long distinguished career: on this occasion Fox’s misdemeanour had been to sneak out of school to attend the theatre in Windsor.

By the age of 15 Fox was living an independent existence in London, with no external constraints to his lifestyle. During a two year Grand Tour of Europe (1766-1788) Fox invented an alter-ego whom he named “Carlino” and to whom he attributed all the excesses of his lifestyle, to absolve himself of any guilt he might have felt about his gambling and womanising.  It was during this time that Fox acquired experiences, friendships and a sense of fashion that, when he returned to London, marked him out as a man of the world. By the age of 25 years Charles was one of London’s leading ‘Macaronis’ or dandies, infamous for their tight fitting and oddly-cut clothes. The Macaronis formed in London in 1764 and members were generally frowned upon by the English establishment as being overly flamboyant and incredibly vain.

Statesmen & Sweepstakes

Charles James Fox entered politics when his father bought him the seat of Midhurst, in Sussex, in 1769. Fox had initially entered politics, as was common at the time, to continue the family tradition, but Charles had the additional responsibility of restoring his family name. His father had been the paymaster general, but was forced to resign in 1765 accused of embezzlement. Henry Fox was regularly referred to as "the public defaulter of unaccounted millions" and looked to his son to defend his name. This burden of responsibility was to shape Charles’s attitude to politics up to his father’s death in 1774. Most of the causes he supported where selected because of the opportunity they gave him to attack those who called his father into question.

Being a member of parliament gave Charles access to all that London society had to offer, and by 1772 Charles asked his father to pay off £20,000 of gambling debts. It was not as if this financial embarrassment tempered his habits – in 1774, just 2 years later, Charles asked his father to pay off a further £140,000 (the equivalent today of £12.5 million). At the same time, his friend, the Earl of Carlisle stood surety for a further £16,000 which included the payment of interest of up to £2,000 per year or the equivalent of a sixth of the Earl’s annual income. By 1775 Carlisle faced financial ruin and had to mortgage his London home, but he continued to financially support his friend as promised. Such was the charisma, personality and standing of Charles James Fox. The enormity of his gambling debts did not hinder Fox’s progression in public life. Although it was an age when enormous debts were common place, Charles’s extreme financial situation did cause a stir. However, he did not consider it relevant to his life in politics, and on the whole, neither did his supporters.

Fox was only 21 when he was appointed a junior lord of the admiralty in the North administration, but resigned his position in 1772 so that he could oppose the Royal Marriage Act which George III wanted passed to prevent royals marrying without the consent of the King. This was the pivotal point in the political career of Fox. The King had never been fond of Fox’s rakish habits, especially as he seemed to be encouraging the Prince of Wales to follow his extravagant and debauched lifestyle, but this was seen as a step too far. From this point forward there would be out and out war between Fox and his King, both relishing every opportunity to undermine the other. Fox did return to his office in December 1772, but was dismissed by the King 14 months later for his sympathetic stance on the American colonies.

Man of the People

Fox had already made an impression on the House and his skills as an orator had distinguished him from the rest of his generation. It is his great speech on the dispute with the colonies in February 1775 that really marks the start of what is still considered a great political career. However, with the exception of a few months in 1782, 1783 and again for a few months before his death, Fox spent his political career out of office.

In 1780 Fox became an avid supporter of parliamentary reform, speaking out against the disfranchisement of pocket boroughs were aristocratic patrons nominated parliamentary representatives, and calling for the redistribution of these seats to the fast growing industrial towns. It was this stance in his election campaign of that year which earned him the title “Man of the People”.

When Lord North's government fell in March 1782, Fox took position in Rockingham's Whig government as Britain’s first Foreign Secretary, a position he held until July 1782 when, on the death of the Marquis of Rockingham he resigned from post as he was unwilling to serve under the new Prime Minister, Lord Sherburne.  Sherburne went on to appoint twenty-three year old William Pitt as his Chancellor of the Exchequer, and although Pitt had been a close political friend of Fox, after this the two men became bitter enemies. Fox was to hold office as Foreign Secretary on two other occasions, in 1783 and shortly before his death in 1806, but all three were short lived.

In 1789 the French Revolution broke out and Charles Fox was initially enthusiastic, describing it as the "greatest event that has happened in the history of the world". He expected the creation of a liberal, constitutional monarchy and was horrified when King Louis XVI was executed. When war broke out between Britain and France in February 1793, Fox criticised the government and called for a negotiated end to the dispute. Although Fox's views were supported by the Radicals, many people regarded him as defeatist and unpatriotic.

His life as a dandy, wearing outlandish clothes, dividing his time between Newmarket, the House of Commons and the gambling tables of various London clubs made many think that he was not suitable for the responsibilities of government. Fox’s support of unconditional independence for America won him the wrath of the Monarch as he became one of the leading opponents of Lord North’s colonial policy. As a result, this very public disagreement with George III turned in to a feud that would last until Fox’s death and would ultimately deny him a state funeral. His unswerving support of the French Revolution, even when it turned to violence and ultimately resulted in war with Napoleon, further damaged his political credibility.

Fox vs. Pitt

Charles James Fox cartoon

Charles James Fox and others visiting William Pitt by J.Tomlinson titled "A Great Man in Distress or Commiserating Visitors (There is nothing so Noble as a Great Man in Distress), 1801

Fox’s stance on the French Revolution formed much of the basis of his feud with William Pitt the Younger. Ironically, many had thought at the time that Fox and Pitt had much in common. Both were young, dynamic and passionate orators who were eager for reform. However, once Pitt had agreed to lead a government controlled by the King, all common ground was forgotten, and Pitt incurred the wrath of Fox.

Pitt was seen as the darling of Westminster and Fox’s attacks on the Prime Minister made him very unpopular with the electorate. Pitt was seen as clean, virtuous, and respectable whilst Fox was seen as the exact opposite - debauched, idle and wayward. At the election in 1784 the country voiced its objections by unseating 180 Fox and North followers.  Had Fox been ready to work with Pitt the two would have undoubtedly joined together and have furthered the cause of reform. Instead he seemed to have gone out of his way to annoy the Prime Minister and the King, firstly by supporting the reform movement in France, and then by supporting his friend the Prince of Wales in his claim that the regency was his by right.

The Prince of Wales, and Fox, argued that with the illness of George III the King was no longer able to act as monarch and so it should be as if he had died, with the Crown automatically passing to his son. The Monarchy was naturally against this, arguing that his bouts of illness did not prevent him from reigning.

Fox had always spoken out about the interference of the Monarchy in politics, but to many it was just a continuation of his campaign that started with the Royal Marriages Act. Many thought Fox saw conspiracies where none existed, and throughout his life steadfast Foxites were often left seeking explanations for his erratic behaviour. However, it was with the peril of revolution spreading from France and the later threat of invasion that saw Fox’s conspiracy theories become reality.

In the latter years of his political life Fox once again came to the fore in English politics. When George III suspended Habeus Corpus, suspended Opposition in parliament and had Pitt pass far reaching treason and sedition Bills, the proof of monarchical meddling was finally clear for all to see. Working with Grenville to form an effective alternative to a government firmly under the control of the King, it was the death of his rival and sworn enemy William Pitt, in 1806, that saw Fox once again back in office. Even this at times seemed unlikely with George III taking many months to be persuaded to lift his veto on Charles serving in government. Unfortunately, by this time Fox was already seriously ill, and his return to glory would prove short lived.

Mrs. Armistead

Mrs. Fox from an engraving after the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Mrs. Fox from an engraving after the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Charles James Fox never gave his life to politics, it was always an aside that prevented him from spending more time gambling, womanising, socialising, and in latter years, kept him from being at St. Ann’s Hill, Chertsey, the home of his beloved Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, or Mrs Armistead, was one of a number of 18th century women selling their favours to high society, including at one time, the Prince of Wales. It was he who first introduced Fox to Mrs Armistead in 1782, and a year later they began their relationship which would last 24 years until the death of Fox.

Elizabeth Bridget Cane was born on 11th July 1750, but little else is known about her parentage or where she grew up.  In fact, there is practically no information about her until she reached her mid-thirties. Neither are there any clues as to why she chose to be called Mrs. Armistead. Some historians suggest that she chose the name because she liked the sound of it, others suggest it is because she made her first entry into her profession by being kept by a man called Armistead. “Keeping” was common practice in the 18th century when a young man was unable or unwilling to marry as it was less frowned upon than frequenting brothels.

It is not known which London brothel she originally worked in, but she came in to contact with some very high powered clients, and it was Lord Bollingbroke who released her from this tie and set her on her new and very lucrative career path as a Courtesan. He set her up in lodgings, introduced her to his influential friends, and even encouraged her to appear on stage at Covent Garden, financing a new play so that she could take the lead role. Her success in this, and her later appearance as Perdita in “The Winter’s Tale” resulted in her rising in status until by the end of 1775 she had become the most courted harlot in London.

Fox called Elizabeth “the Lady of the Hill”, and it was she who would console him when political life became difficult, and would become his steadfast companion until his death. In a letter Elizabeth of 1784 Fox writes, “you are all to me... indeed my dearest Angel the whole happiness of my life depends upon you.” Charles and Elizabeth had no children together, although Fox did have an illegitimate daughter, Harriet, and a son, Henry. Instead, it was Fox’s nephew, Lord Holland who inherited St. Ann’s Hill when Elizabeth Fox died in July 1842.

St. Ann’s Hill

St Ann's Hill by J. Hassell, 1822

St Ann's Hill by J. Hassell, 1822

It was Mrs. Armistead that introduced Fox to the joys of Surrey life when she invited Fox and Lord Holland to join her at St. Ann’s Hill, Chertsey, for the spring of 1783. She leased the house from the Duke of Marlborough from 1781 until 1785 when she bought the property for £2,000 – mortgaging it back to the Duke for £2,000 at £100 a year interest, but at this time she still maintained a house in London. The house itself was considered quite modest for the times, and the layout has been described as dark and poky, but it benefited from the charming location. The house sat in c. 90 acres of land of which 2/3 of the pasture and arable slopes were sub-let to a local farmer. The area around the house was maintained as a garden and woodland, although much of the planting was done when the house was inherited by the Hollands.

By 1784 St. Ann’s Hill had become Mrs. Armistead’s primary residence, and she loved to spend the spring and summer months in Chertsey studying the bird life and flowers that grew on the Hill. In time, Charles too came to love these pursuits, and was increasingly annoyed if politics interfered with his time there. He became more and more interested in caring for the land, learning about planting requirements, soil types and even taking on the responsibility of sheep rearing on the Hill. He began to settle into country life, and soon made St. Ann’s Hill his home.

Domestic life turned Fox from the gambling, womanising dandy that had been seen lurching out of many a London club in the early hours of the morning, to a man who spent his time reading ancient Greek and Latin, writing history, and entertaining shooting parties. Life for Charles and Elizabeth on the Hill is documented in a book of memoirs by John Bernard Trotter, Fox’s Secretary from 1798 until his death: -

“When I first had the happiness of knowing Mr. Fox, he had retired, in a great measure, from public life, and was inclining towards the evening of his days… His habits were very domestic, and his taste for literature peculiarly strong, as well as peculiarly elegant. His love for a country life, and all its simple and never-fatiguing charms, was great.”

The daily routine of life at St. Ann’s Hill is also documented by Trotter. In summer, the Foxes would rise in the morning between six and seven, and in winter they were always up by 8 am. At breakfast, Fox would read the newspaper aloud, and when finished he would spend the rest of the morning studying literature, reading Italian authors and Greek poetry in particular.

At 2.30 pm or 3 pm (or 4 pm in winter) Charles and Elizabeth would have a “frugal but plentiful dinner” with a few glasses of wine followed by coffee and a long walk if weather permitted. Then at tea time Fox would read aloud, in history, continuing until nearly 10pm when they would dine on a supper of fruit, pastry or something similarly light before retiring to bed at 10.30pm.Fox turned his attention to writing an historical work and used the history reading sessions to work on this. He had planned to write a political history of England from James II to George III, detailing how hard-fought constitutional rights were threatened by the monarchy, but the work remained unfinished on his death. It was eventually published, in its unfinished state, by his nephew in 1808.

In 1802 Fox shocked his family, friends and London society by announcing that he and Mrs. Armistead had married in September 1795, and no explanation was ever given as to why they waited so long before telling people.  It may seem strange to us today, living with post-Victorian morals, but in Georgian times it was embarrassing enough to live with your mistress, but to then marry her was even more scandalous to London Society! In reality they probably made their marriage public because of growing fears over Charles’s health. From 1802 onwards Fox suffered intermittently with serious illness, and from late 1805 it made participation in politics difficult, right at the time when he was preparing to return to office.

After making a passionate speech in favour of the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill in the House of Commons  on 10th June 1806, Fox was taken ill. Initially there was some confusion over what was ailing him. He complained of violent pains in the thighs accompanied by a loss of appetite. In July 1806 it was described as being caused by non life threatening bile, but by the end of the month friends were increasingly worried for his health.

On 7th August Fox underwent a “tapping” operation where “about 5 gallons were taken from him. The water followed the stab with great violence; it was very fetid and discoloured, and as it were a mass of blood.” Three weeks later he underwent a repeat operation.

The Test of Time

Fox died shortly after 5 pm on 13th September, 1806, at the Duke of Devonshire’s house in Chiswick were he had been staying for a few days. The post mortem showed that his heart and lungs were perfectly sound, although the rest of him was showing the strains of his early life. His liver was preternaturally hard, and was showing signs of cirrhosis. His gall bladder was unusually small, and contained 25 stones each the size of a large pea.

His funeral, unlike his political rival Pitt who had died earlier the same year, was not a state occasion, but it was never-the-less attended by all the great and good of the day. The cortege started at St. James’s at 2pm and the entire Cabinet turned out to witness the procession. The coffin was carried by Devonshire, Norfolk, Carlisle, Albemarle, Fitzwilliam, Holland, Thanet and the Lord Chancellor, with over 100 MPs walking behind, and the Prince of Wales Volunteer Regiment, on the Prince’s orders, lining the streets. The cost of this funeral was £2,840 7s 21d, or over £160,000 by today’s prices, all of which was paid for by his friends. Three years later his friends also paid out a further £6,000 for the statue to him that marks his grave in Westminster Abbey.

Many of the causes that Fox spoke out so vociferously about were not great political successes. On his death peace with France was no nearer, and his campaigning for Catholic Emancipation and the Irish question had come to nothing. His involvement in the anti-slavery movement had been quite considerable, but it wasn’t until 1807 that British ships were prohibited from being involved with the slave trade and not until 1833 that slavery in Britain was abolished.

His only real success was the passing of his Libel Act Bill in 1792 which restored the rights of jurors to decide what was libel and what the punishment should be, rather than the decision being made by a judge. However, the cult of Fox spread rapidly on his death and much of his political life became blurred in myth. The myth of the man, in death as in life, was much larger than the sum of his achievements. The Fox Club, established in his honour and still at premises in Mayfair near to Green Park tube station, held for many years a dinner to mark the anniversary of his death. And when the Prince of Wales took the oath of office as Regent, in 1811, it was the Nollekens’ bust of Charles James Fox that stood at his side to oversee proceedings.