Grenville, William Wyndham (1759–1834), Baron Grenville , politician, was born 24 October 1759 at Wotton House, Buckinghamshire, England, youngest son among three surviving sons and four daughters of George Grenville, later British prime minister, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Wyndham. Educated at East Hill and Eton, he entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated BA (1780). Deciding to study at Lincoln's Inn, he gratefully accepted a seat in parliament, becoming MP for Buckingham (1782–4) and later for Buckinghamshire (1784–90). On 15 August 1782 his eldest brother, George (qv), 2nd Earl Temple, was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, and William took the post of chief secretary. The main issue that marked his time in office was the question of whether the British parliament should renounce its right to legislate for Ireland. Grenville was sent to London in November 1782 to liaise between cabinet and viceroy, and helped negotiate a compromise which became the British renuciation act of April 1783. In fact this compromise measure was more a recognition of the rights of the Irish parliament than a renunciation by the British parliament of its right to a future role in Ireland.
His brother resigned as viceroy in April 1783, and Grenville returned with him to London. When his first cousin, William Pitt the younger, became prime minister (Dec. 1783), he was appointed paymaster general. Over the next years his stature in politics grew, though not in parliament, where he was an indifferent speaker. In 1787 he was sent to the Hague, and later Paris, on diplomatic missions, and during the regency crisis was elected speaker of the British house of commons on 5 January 1789. He resigned this position on 5 June when appointed home secretary. On 24 November 1790 he was raised to the peerage, something he had desired since 1786, and in keeping with his character chose the simple title Baron Grenville of Wotton under Bernewood. The following summer he became foreign secretary, and for the remainder of the decade formed a close triumvirate with Pitt and Henry Dundas (his successor at the home office) that dominated government for the remainder of the decade. With the outbreak of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland, Grenville's response was to prepare a paper on a legislative union at Pitt's request, and over the next two years he was actively involved in negotiating that measure. The refusal of King George III to countenance catholic emancipation (something Grenville believed was essential for the union's success) led directly to the collapse of the ministry in 1801. In opposition until 1806, Grenville broke gradually with Pitt, and did not join his new ministry in 1804, entering into an alliance with the whig Charles James Fox. The death of Pitt saw both men invited to form a ministry, with Grenville as prime minister. This administration lasted just over a year, with its major achievement the passing of an act abolishing the slave trade. However, attempts to open senior commissions in the army and navy to catholics met with royal disapproval, and, after refusing to pledge the government against any future concessions to the catholics, Grenville resigned (25 Mar. 1807).
In 1809 he was elected chancellor of the university of Oxford, despite the opposition of some who held his catholic sympathies against him. He remained leader of the opposition until 1817, when he retired from public life. His health declined after a stroke in 1823. He died 12 January 1834 at Dropmore Lodge, Buckinghamshire, and was buried at Burnham. He married (18 July 1792) Anne, only daughter of Thomas Pitt, 1st Lord Camelford, who was the younger brother of William Pitt the elder; they had no children, and on his death the barony of Grenville became extinct.
A shy, reserved man, he once told Pitt: ‘I had always follow rather than lead’, and this statement is a precise assessment of his character throughout his career. Nevertheless he was not afraid to take an unpopular stand, and on more than one occasion sacrificed power for principle over the catholic question.