Henley, Robert (1747–86), 2nd earl of Northington, politician and lord lieutenant of Ireland, was born 3 January 1747 at Holborn, London, the second and only surviving son of Robert Henley, 1st earl of Northington (1708–72) and his wife, Jane (née Huband, 1716–87); he was styled Lord Henley from 1764, when his father was created earl of Northington, until he succeeded to the title. Educated at Westminster School and at Christ Church, Oxford, he graduated MA in 1766. Meanwhile, he was appointed a teller of the exchequer in 1763 as a compliment to his father, the influential lord chancellor on whom George III placed great reliance. Although he did not possess the combination of ability and ambition that had allowed his father to attain the highest law office in the land, Henley's election, unopposed, to parliament for Hampshire in 1768, allied to the fact that his first (and only) recorded speech was to move the address to the king suggests that much was expected of him. This impression is reinforced by the award to him in 1769 of an LLD from the University of Cambridge, and by his appointment as clerk of the hanaper in 1771. However, the political circumstances that excluded the whigs from power combined with the death of his father in January 1772, following which Henley, now the 2nd earl of Northington, took his seat in the house of lords, meant that there were few opportunities for him to make his mark during the 1770s. This does not seem to have concerned Northington, who was, in the telling words of Lady Louisa Conolly (qv), ‘disposed to be a comfortable creature’ (NLI, Leinster papers, MS 614, f. 200). Described elsewhere by the same shrewd observer of human behaviour as ‘a sociable pleasant man’ (West Suffolk Record Office, Bunbury letterbook, xviii, ff. 10–20), Northington indulged his liking for good food and good wine to the detriment of his well-being, with the result that by the early 1780s he was not only ‘dreadfully fat’ (NLI, MS 614, f. 200), but also prone to debilitating attacks of gout.
Northington's preference for the life of a bon viveur drew him to Charles James Fox, a still more sybaritic politician, whose political talents had catapulted him to the head of the Rockingham whigs by the early 1780s. As one of the principals in the Fox–North coalition, which came to power in controversial circumstances in April 1783, he persuaded Northington to accept the office of lord lieutenant of Ireland in succession to Earl Temple (qv). Northington reluctantly agreed and, though he took his time (to the dismay of an increasingly impatient Temple) setting out for Ireland, he and his chief secretary, William Windham (qv), had taken up residence in Dublin by early June. The first, and most compelling, task facing the new administration was to deal with the implications of the fact that the kingdom did not have enough food to tide it over to the harvest. Apprehending ‘the most extreme distress . . . unless measures be speedily taken for the relief of the people by the importation of corn and grain from foreign parts’ (Yale University, Beinecke Library, Northington letterbook, ff. 1–3), Northington authorised the issuing of a proclamation to suspend the provisions of the 1782 corn law, which inhibited food importation, and a bounty to subvent the importation of 40,000 barrels of grain. It proved a telling intervention, for while ongoing economic difficulties encouraged a vocal demand for protecting duties from within the city of Dublin, conditions otherwise would have been still more challenging.
As it was, Northington had to square up to a series of major political problems that threatened the stability of his administration. The first of these was caused by the decision of William Windham, who did not possess the physical or psychological ‘strength’ (BL, Windham papers, Add. MS 37873, ff. 19–21) required of a successful chief secretary, to resign the position early in July. His successor, Thomas Pelham (qv), proved more robust and more capable, as Northington addressed what was his priority task – that of meeting parliament and ensuring the ratification of the legislation necessary to ensure the smooth administration of the kingdom.
Since the Irish parliament had not met since the concession in 1782 of legislative independence, there was a palpable degree of uncertainty in the corridors of power in London at the prospect. This was certainly not eased by calls from Ireland for further concessions on outstanding commercial points and, particularly, by the energetic efforts of the Volunteers to whip up support for their demand for an ambitious measure of parliamentary reform, which, if it proved successful, had the potential to transform the character of Irish politics. Ministers were fearful that any concession on this matter must, in the words of Charles James Fox, lead either to ‘a total separation or a civil war’ (BL, Fox papers, Add. MS 47508, ff. 205–13), and they were unflinching in their direction that Northington must use every resource at his disposal (including the military, if necessary) to frustrate the reformers. The lord lieutenant was not inclined to dispute the merits of such direction: ‘I am’, he informed Fox, ‘thoroughly disposed to meet with firmness, and oppose with resolution whenever government can properly act’, but he did not believe the moment was opportune to confront the Volunteers because of the high esteem in which they continued to be held by the public and the lack of political support for ‘the idea of government interference’ (BL, Northington letterbook, Add. MS 38716, ff. 204–16). Crucially, he discovered that the whigs and patriots, on whom he was encouraged to rely by the duke of Portland (qv), his predecessor but one as lord lieutenant and the current secretary of state, were unreliable or incompetent. Portland's priority was to establish ‘the nest-egg of a real Whig party’ in Ireland, but once parliament assembled in October 1783, Northington discovered to his dismay that he could not count on Irish whigs or patriots to resist the demands for political, economic, and commercial reforms that he was under instruction from London to oppose.
The resulting frailty of the government interest in the house of commons greatly diminished the capacity of the administration to provide stable government, and the situation would have been still more serious had it not been for ‘the weakness or ignorance of the opposition’ (BL, Pelham papers, Add. MS 33100, ff. 431–5). Persuaded both by his own observations and the sage counsel of Thomas Pelham that it was essential to establish ‘a system’, and that this depended on securing the assistance of men of business who were loyal supporters of British government in Ireland, Northington initiated the process that brought John FitzGibbon (qv) and John Foster (qv) into office, while John Beresford (qv) and John Scott (qv) were brought in from the political cold. It was a controversial policy with English as well as Irish whigs. Ironically, it was probably not required to ensure that the administration was able both to disrupt the Grand National Convention of Volunteer delegates when it met in Dublin in November, and to convince MPs decisively to reject an attempt by Henry Flood (qv) to advance a measure of parliamentary reform at the end of the month. However, it did ensure that the instability that was the most obvious feature of the Irish administration's phalanx in the house of commons at the outset of the session had largely been overcome by late December, when the Fox–North coalition collapsed. This effectively brought the curtain down on Northington's brief viceroyalty. He was encouraged by the new government, headed by William Pitt, to delay his departure from Ireland, but Northingon was eager to leave a posting that he memorably described as an ‘honourable banishment’ (NLI, Northington–Payne letters, MS 888, ff. 205–7), and he sailed out of Dublin port on 26 February 1784.
Some time after his departure from Ireland, Northington travelled to Europe for health reasons. He visited Italy, but he died in Paris, aged thirty-nine, on 5 July 1786. Frequently described unflatteringly as one of the less significant Irish viceroys, a strong case can be made that Northington's contribution has been under-estimated. His prompt action certainly assisted the kingdom to negotiate the threat of famine in the summer of 1783, while his recruitment of a number of loyal and talented administrators not only strengthened the Castle executive, it also facilitated the resumption by the representatives of the crown of the initiative in Irish politics, which they were able to maintain for most of the remainder of the 1780s and 1790s.