Duke, Henry Edward (1855–1939), 1st Baron Merrivale , lawyer, and chief secretary for Ireland, was born 5 November 1855 in Walkhampton, Devon, the second son of William Edward Duke, clerk at a granite works, and his wife, Elizabeth Ann (née Lord). Though he showed promise, he was educated locally, as his family lacked the means and social contacts to send him to university or to one of the public schools attended by many legal contemporaries. He then became a journalist with the Bristol Western Morning News. In 1876 he married Sarah Shorland, with whom he had a son and a daughter. In 1880 Duke went to London as parliamentary correspondent. While there he studied for the bar and was called by Gray's Inn in 1885. One of his contemporaries at Gray's Inn was John Redmond (qv), who formed a favourable impression of him. Throughout his life Duke remained a devoted member of Gray's Inn, serving as treasurer in 1908 and 1927.
Duke joined the western circuit, where he built up a strong reputation. Such was his success that he returned to London and prospered as a junior counsel, becoming QC in 1889 and a bencher in 1899. Although he possessed considerable legal knowledge, his greatest asset was his ability to anticipate the reactions of jurors to events in court; he was a skilled cross-examiner, regarded as one of the finest contemporary advocates before the court of king's bench. While some barristers and judges thrive as self-conscious humorists, Duke succeeded in both roles by conveying the impression that he took the proceedings in which he was involved with the seriousness that their human consequences required. This self-conscious dignity was particularly effective in his later years as a divorce court judge, where he actively repressed attempts to treat marital misfortunes as irresistibly humorous.
Duke was recorder of Plymouth and Devonport (1897–1900); after this post was divided into two in the latter year, he remained recorder of Devonport until 1914. In the 1900 general election he was elected Conservative MP for Plymouth. He lost his seat in 1906 but was returned for Exeter in January 1910. The following December he retained the seat by one vote after a judicially supervised scrutiny of disputed ballot papers.
Duke acquired a solid reputation in the commons. This was reinforced in 1915 when he agreed to preside over the royal commissions on the defence of the realm losses and on the liquor trade control (Asquith noted that this involved giving up £15,000 a year in legal income for a job with no financial recompense) and was generally agreed to have conducted their business with dignity and fairness. (This was not his first such experience; in 1909 he presided over the Great Western Railway conciliation board which resolved a strike by mediation.) In 1915 he was sworn of the British privy council and became attorney general to the prince of Wales, a post chiefly important for the precedence it granted at the bar; he retained it until 31 July 1916. That same year he was named chairman of the excess profits board of referees, intended to resolve disputes with companies which the government accused of wartime profiteering.
After the Easter rising and the failure of Lloyd George's attempt to push through an interim settlement based on immediate 26-county home rule, Asquith experienced considerable difficulty in finding a chief secretary for Ireland. Duke eventually accepted the position, although it was generally recognised as a poisoned chalice; he was formally appointed on 31 July 1916. Many nationalists (including John Dillon (qv)) regarded the appearance of a Conservative chief secretary as proof that the government lacked commitment to home rule; in fact, Duke had displayed federalist tendencies and was publicly praised by John Redmond as ‘not at all a bigoted unionist . . . a broadminded man’ (Boyce and Hazlehurst, 289). Duke had little previous contact with Ireland, but displayed considerable diligence in mastering his brief, paying intense attention to official correspondence and undertaking a tour of large areas of Ireland in September 1916 to see the situation for himself.
Although Walter Long (qv) had advocated Duke's appointment, he rapidly became discontented after realising that Duke's interest in a federal solution – always an ambiguous concept – had led him much further than Long was then prepared to go. (When standing for re-election to parliament – as was then required of ministerial appointees – Duke made a speech advocating an Irish settlement.) The chief secretary's prime concern was to maintain the atmosphere in which a settlement could be negotiated by keeping militants in check while avoiding the excessive use of force which might radicalise nationalists; he believed unionist concerns should be met by safeguards embedded in an all-Ireland home rule scheme rather than partition. Duke generally advocated a policy of leniency in cabinet, though he was subject to occasional moments of panic, and recognised that separatists were driven by genuine political conviction. The growth of political Sinn Féin under his chief secretaryship tends to overshadow the extent to which the security situation remained calm (Eunan O'Halpin argues, however, that this should be primarily attributed to his official subordinates, notably Sir William Byrne (qv) and Sir Joseph Byrne (qv)).
Duke made a point of trying to balance official patronage between nationalists and unionists. He engaged in extensive conversations with T. M. Healy (qv) and William Martin Murphy (qv) – the latter being his main concern as a shaper of Irish public opinion through the Irish Independent – notably at a widely publicised dinner at Murphy's estate in Dartry, South Dublin. (Healy's view that Duke was, with George Wyndham (qv) and Gerald Balfour (qv), one of the three best chief secretaries he had known should be seen in this context; Healy had a built-in bias towards moderate Conservatives who were prepared to consult him, as Liberals tended to favour his orthodox party rivals.) Duke offered Murphy the position of director of national service for Ireland, which was declined on grounds of age. Although he praised Duke's assistance in securing generous compensation payments for businesses affected by the rising, and regarded him as responsive to plans for a decisive Irish settlement, Murphy was ultimately disappointed in him. ‘His failure is not due to want of sympathy but to want of promptness in making up his mind and acting on it’ (Murphy to Harrington, 11 Oct. 1917; Harrington Papers 4/29, NAI). While the autocratic Murphy characteristically overestimated the ability of a firm hand to control the situation and underestimated the constraints on Duke (the Treasury characteristically regarded him as excessively credulous towards Irish financial demands and kept him on a tight rein, while as a cabinet lightweight at odds with the hard-line views of many in his own party he lacked powerful allies and patrons in Westminster and Whitehall), it is clear that the chief secretary was indeed plagued by indecision. This was exacerbated by his inability to reshape the notoriously ramshackle Irish administrative machine, and possibly by the loss of emotional support after his wife's death in 1914.
Although Duke was initially sceptical of the Irish Convention and would have preferred a new initiative on the lines of Lloyd George's attempted 1916 settlement, he came to look on it with enthusiasm as the basis of a possible consensus settlement; at its opening on 25 July 1917 he exhorted the assembled delegates, with more classical learning than political sensitivity, ‘never despair of the republic’ (Boyce and Hazlehurst, 286). A strong propaganda campaign by Sinn Féin against Duke intensified after the death of Thomas Ashe (qv) from force-feeding while on hunger strike in prison on 25 September 1917, though Duke resisted hard-line pressure to intervene in Ashe's funeral, which became a massive political demonstration. Under increasing pressure from the military authorities and from the southern unionist leader Lord Midleton (qv), Duke vacillated between resisting demands in cabinet for coercion and advocating it himself in cabinet while generally doing nothing; he took to referring even the most trivial decisions to cabinet, and was described by J. H. M. Campbell (qv) in February 1918 as having ‘lost his nerve if he ever had any’ (O’Halpin, 372).
Duke consistently opposed demands to impose conscription on Ireland, and in May 1918 he finally resigned in response to the government's decision to send over Lord French (qv) as lord lieutenant in order to enforce conscription. His departure, however, owed as much to physical, emotional, and intellectual exhaustion as to policy disagreement.
On returning from Dublin, Duke was knighted and made a lord justice of appeal, an office he held until November 1919, when he was appointed president of the probate, divorce, and admiralty division of the high court. In 1925 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Merrivale, of Walkhampton, Devon. He retired in 1933 and died at his home, 4 Gray's Inn Square, London, on 20 May 1939.
Although the two major academic studies of Duke's Irish administration disagree on his effectiveness, with O'Halpin arguing convincingly that Boyce and Hazlehurst take too favourable a view of his personal impact, they agree in portraying a well-meaning and conscientious administrator whose failure to achieve an Irish settlement should be seen in the light of the situation in which he was placed. He was more judicial than political in temperament. There is a small collection of his papers in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and his correspondence with Asquith, Lloyd George, and Horace Plunkett (qv) can be found in their papers (in the Bodleian library, the House of Lords Record Office, and the Plunkett Foundation respectively).