Burgh, William (1741–1808), politician and religious polemicist, was the eldest son among eight children of Thomas Burgh (1696–1758) of Bert, Co. Kildare, landowner and MP for Lanesborough, Co. Longford (1727–58), and his wife Anne, daughter of Dives Downes, bishop of Cork and Ross (1699–1709). He entered Middle Temple 13 October 1761 and graduated BA from TCD in 1763. The owner of considerable estates in Ireland, he became high sheriff of Co. Kildare in 1767 and was elected MP for Athy, Co. Kildare (1768–76) through the influence of his distant relation, James Fitzgerald (qv), first duke of Leinster. He shared the borough representation with his brother-in-law Walter Hussey Burgh (qv) and supported the Patriot party. His opposition irritated the government to such an extent that a government observer in 1773 described him as ‘a man of flippant pertness and dissolute insolence [who] delights in saying an ill-natured thing’ (Bodkin, 195), and another in 1775 as ‘a mere Spit Fire. A pert peevish boy’ (Hunt, 8).
From the early 1770s he began to reside at York. Interested in theological matters, he published anonymously A scriptural confutation of the arguments against the one Godhead of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost produced by the Rev. Mr Lindsay [sic] (1774) to refute the unitarian arguments of Theophilus Lindsey (1723–1808). It was highly regarded by orthodox anglicans: Edmund Burke (qv), for example, praised it and expressed a wish to meet the author. In 1775 Burgh brought out a new edition under his own name and dedicated it to Burke. In 1778 he wrote a sequel, An inquiry into the belief of the Christians of the first three centuries respecting the one Godhead. Oxford University granted him a DCL (1788) for his defence of anglican orthodoxy. In 1783 he edited and annotated a new edition of a poem by his friend William Mason, the ‘English garden’. Mason described him as ‘a young man of the quickest parts and most general knowledge I ever met with’ (Burke corr., 110).
He sympathised with the American struggle for independence and in 1779 became a patron of the York Association for economical and parliamentary reform. A friend of Horace Walpole and William Wilberforce, he advocated the abolition of the slave trade. After the outbreak of the French revolution, however, his reforming zeal cooled and he supported the tories. He was a firm opponent of the union of Great Britain and Ireland. Burgh died at York 20 December 1808. In his will he bequeathed several hundred of his books to York Minster Library, and was buried in York Minster, where he is commemorated by an elaborate monument by Sir Richard Westmacott. His portrait, by J. R. Smith, is held in the NGI.
He married (1768) Mary (d. 1819), daughter of George Warbuton of Firmont, Co. Kildare; they had no children, and his brother Thomas Burgh (qv) (d. 1810) succeeded to his estates. In 1764 his sister Margaret Amelia married John Foster (qv), and in 1767 his sister Anne married Walter Hussey Burgh.