The Dukes of Buckingham and their Finmere Estates: Part 2
Newsletter 14: December 1998
The Ascent to the Dukedom
In Newsletter 13, we followed the rise of the Temples, their marriage into the Grenville family and their steady elevation through the nobility. By the end of the eighteenth century, the family owned most of Finmere and Viscount Cobham had transformed Stowe into one of the most impressive houses and gardens of the age. Now the family needed to capture the Dukedom.
At the death of Viscount Cobham in 1749, his nephew, Richard Grenville-Temple, took charge of Stowe. Just sixteen years earlier he had found himself in debt as a result of his inheritance of the Wotton estate near Aylesbury. His salvation came through marriage. Encouraged by Cobham, he fell in love and married the wealthy Anna Chamber in 1737. Her wealth, and a series of deft financial transactions, transformed his finances. He bought a house on The Mall and by the time he succeeded Cobham he was free of debt.
Grenville-Temple desired status more than wealth. Just days after Cobham’s death he was insensitively lobbying for elevation in the peerage. He craved for the lapsed title of Duke of Buckingham but this was refused. Instead, his mother was awarded the title Countess Temple in September 1749 and he became Earl Temple on her death in 1752.
This was not enough for Temple. By 1758 he was craving for the oldest and most prestigious honour: the Order of the Garter. King George II, however, intensely disliked the ambitious Temple and repeatedly refused to honour him. To force the issue, Temple resigned from his post as Lord Privy Seal (at that period akin to a minister without portfolio). The King might have welcomed this, if it were not for William Pitt.
Having rebuilt his family’s finances twenty years earlier, Temple had wisely been supporting his brother-in-law, William Pitt the Elder, with £1,000 a year. In 1758 Pitt was masterminding Britain’s war efforts and colonial expansion. He regarded the King’s reluctance to honour his sponsor as a potential resignation issue. The King had no choice but to capitulate.
Temple received his Garter in 1760 and remained in post until 1761. It is said that the King was so angry with Temple that he threw the Garter at him when he was installed.
Temple’s main interest was in Stowe, where he set about creating a house and garden worthy of a Duke. Nevertheless, he paid careful attention to his estates, encouraging improvement, inclosure and conversion to grazing as grain prices fell. We know little of his involvement in Finmere, except that he purchased two small properties in 1763. Stowe estate records, now in the Huntington Library, California, reveal the poverty of the parish. In 1764, Temple granted 21 destitute Finmere families (about half the parishioners) faggots for firewood and poles of land for cultivation.
In 1779, still denied the coveted Dukedom, Temple died after being thrown from a pony carriage and fracturing his skull. Heirless, his estate passed to his nephew, George Grenville, who inherited his family’s desire for wealth and status along with Stowe, Wotton and lands in Northamptonshire, Dorset, and Somerset. Grenville was equally fortunate in love and marriage. On marrying sixteen-year-old Mary Nugent in 1775, he acquired estates in Essex, Cornwall and Ireland, her fortune of £200,000 and the cumbersome surname, Nugent-Temple-Grenville. We shall call him Grenville.
George and Mary Nugent-Temple-Grenville
with son, Richard
The family’s improved status was recognised by promotion to the Marquessate of Buckingham in 1784. But the title was insufficient for Grenville who still craved for a Dukedom. The death of the Duke of Chandos without male heirs only intensified his desires. In 1789, Pitt again petitioned the King. Again the request was rejected. Grenville was bitterly disappointed and moaned: “every hour convinces me that I am a most disgraced public man if no mark or favour of approbation is given to me.”
The Death of Grenville
Grenville became a wealthy man with an enlarged estate and an income of £70,000 a year. He entertained lavishly, controlled six parliamentary seats, and commanded the Royal Buckinghamshire King’s Own Militia and the Buckinghamshire Yeomanry. At this death in 1813, the only thing missing was the Dukedom.
Richard “Dick” Grenville was born in 1776 and entered Brasenose College, Oxford in 1794. (For convenience we will call him Buckingham.) Following in the footsteps of his family, Buckingham was elected MP for Buckingham in 1797 but he failed to gain major office. He was an arrogant, conceited and widely disliked man. He was grossly fat and was once described as a “huge hill of flesh.” Above all, he was extravagant and was a poor manager of the considerable wealth he had inherited.
Buckingham married Anna Eliza, heiress of the Duke of Chandos, in 1796. Her mother had suggested the marriage when Anna was just six years old and Buckingham ten. The children met regularly and a romance began to develop. But tragedy threatened to mar their relationship. Anna’s father the Duke of Chandos died in unusual circumstances. He tumbled to the ground after his wife pulled away the chair he was about to sit on and died of complications. The tragedy deepened when remorse drove her mother to insanity. Anna was placed in the care of guardians who forbade contact with Buckingham.
That might have been the end of the romance but Anna and Dick were determined. They smuggled notes to each other and defeated the guardians’ attempts to intercept and open them. They used window shutters to signal clandestine meetings in Hyde Park or at the theatre. Eventually the guardians had to give in. The couple were married in 1799; Anna was just sixteen. To ensure that there was no doubt about their status, they took the cumbersome surname Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville.
Their romance did not have a happy ending. Anna was a devoted, pious Anglican. Buckingham was a frequent adulterer, and spent his own and borrowed money uncontrollably. But as his marriage and finances collapsed, he achieved the family’s long held ambition. George IV granted the title Duke of Buckingham and Chandos on 31 March 1822. This was a distinctly unpopular move and was described as “prostituting the honours of the peerage most shamefully” by the social commentator, Mrs Arbuthnot. Strapped for cash as usual, part of Buckingham’s fees and expenses for the ceremony were paid by his mistress.
The family remained involved in Finmere, though it was a small part of their massive estates. Buckingham’s father had instituted Robert Holt as Rector of Finmere in 1790. Buckingham and Holt came from very different backgrounds. Holt was from a poor family in the north-west and relied on scholarships to support his studies. But they were close friends as Holt’s memorial in St Michael’s church bears testimony (Buckingham at this point used the name Richard Temple):
In Sacred Memory of ROBERT HOLT Master of Arts
and kindly, diligent and faithful Rector of this Church
Who, in the course of his labours in these holy offices
— for all too few years, alas —
Died aged 41 on 19 January A.D. 1802
What kindliness there was in him, according to the poor
What friendship there was, according to friends
May you readily recognise, therefore, that this was placed
in grief and with affection by his companion
Holt took after Buckingham in other ways. At this death, Holt was destitute and had also spent funds owing to the village apprentices charity. By Buckingham’s death in 1837, his estates had already been placed in trust; in other words, Buckingham was close to bankruptcy.
Buckingham had built up crippling debts through excessive borrowing, extensive land purchases and energetic collection of rare artefacts and books. He had never known poverty and did not know it even when his debts threatened to overwhelm him. True, he had to temporarily close Stowe to cut costs but he was still able to commission a lavish yacht, with the help of yet another loan. He toured the Mediterranean, still spending, still enjoying his social life even though he had left his wife in England. But in one sense he was poor — he owed his creditors in excess of a quarter of a million pounds.
In Finmere, life was somewhat harder. In the years after Waterloo (1813), England was in recession with rising prices and unemployment. Wages in Finmere fell from 17 shillings a week in 1817 to 8 shillings in 1826, though the Duke did pay his labourers one shilling more. The price of bread rocketed and in 1821 21 families applied for relief to buy loaves. The Duke and Rector (William Jocelyn Palmer) instituted a roundsman system where the unemployed were set to work on the highways and in the woods. By 1826, as the Duke was preparing to sail the Mediterranean, only 19 men worked in Finmere; 90 were unemployed. Both Finmere and the Duke were in severe financial straits.
Our story draws on The rise and fall of the Grenvilles, John Beckett, 1994. We will complete our tale of the Dukes in a later newsletter.