Herbert, Henry Howard Molyneux (1831–90), 4th earl of Carnarvon , lord lieutenant of Ireland (1885–6), was born 24 June 1831 in London, eldest son of Henry John George Herbert (1800–49), 3rd earl and writer on Iberian history, and his wife Henrietta Anne, daughter of Lord Henry Molyneux Howard. Educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated (BA 1852) with first-class honours, Carnarvon was intent on a political career, which was conducted entirely from the house of lords, as he had succeeded to the earldom in 1849 at the age of 17. His first government position was as under-secretary to the colonies (February 1858–June 1859) in Lord Derby's administration. He continued to support the conservatives throughout his career, though he was too independent-minded to be a good party man. As colonial secretary (1866–7) he resigned in March 1867 over the government's proposal to extend the franchise. While his party was in opposition (1868–74) he voted against it on the Irish church disestablishment bill (1869) and on the Irish land bill (1870) and called for more concessions to Ireland. Returning to his former post of colonial secretary (1874–8), he again resigned over the decision to resist the Russian advance on Constantinople.
His experience as colonial secretary strengthened his belief in self-government and imperial federalism. In 1867 he brought forward a successful bill confederating the British North American provinces, and he tried to do the same for South Africa during the 1870s. From 1883 he corresponded with Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) and expressed support for the idea of an Irish parliament within the union. In February 1885 he brought Duffy's article in the National Review to the attention of the conservative leader, Lord Salisbury, who responded to it evasively. However, four months later Salisbury found himself prime minister of a caretaker government and in need of a conciliatory Irish lord lieutenant to follow the coercive regime of Lord Spencer (qv). Carnarvon was sworn in as Irish viceroy on 30 June 1885 after reserving the right to retire in December; he apparently feared the effects of the Irish climate on his health. His speech in the lords on 6 July, repudiating coercion and referring to Ireland as a separate nation, caused consternation in his party and led to liberal mutterings of an alliance between the government and Parnell (qv). These rumours were intensified ten days later, through no fault of Carnarvon's, when during a debate on the celebrated Maamtrasna case (concerning convictions for the massacre of a family in 1882), two conservative ministers, Sir Michael Hicks Beach (qv) and Lord Randolph Churchill, made violent attacks on Lord Spencer's administration in Ireland. This embarrassed Carnarvon and helped persuade the cabinet to reject a few days later his proposal for an immediate grant of £6,000 to the Catholic University. However, he pressed on with reform and was successful in pushing through two significant acts over the next month: the land purchase act (14 August) of the Irish lord chancellor, Lord Ashbourne (qv), which provided a treasury grant to enable tenants to buy land; and an educational endowments act (14 August), which provided for a commission of five to regulate grants to educational institutions.
Carnarvon held on 1 August 1885 a secret meeting with Parnell at an empty house – 15 Hill St., Mayfair – at which it was agreed that some sort of Irish legislative body was desirable and that protection be given to Irish industries. The meeting had the approval of Salisbury, and was intended on Carnarvon's side as an exchange of views only. However, one year later news of it surfaced to embarrass the tories when Parnell claimed in the commons (7 June 1886) that had the tories won the November 1885 election they would have granted a parliament to Ireland. Carnarvon and Parnell then made separate public statements, in the lords and in the press, of what had taken place in the meeting. His biographers generally agree that Parnell was being tactical in mentioning the meeting, but also that he was probably unaware of the extent to which the viceroy's views were ahead of the government's, as Carnarvon had omitted to tell him that he was acting without cabinet approval.
From October 1885 Carnarvon began agitating for a specific Irish policy to be built into the election aims, based on conciliating Parnell and on drafting an Irish constitution, but he found that the cabinet was entirely out of sympathy with him. In late November he delivered an ultimatum that the government could choose between home rule and his resignation, but he was reluctantly persuaded to remain. When the liberals won a majority of eighty-six (December), leaving the Irish party controlling the balance of power, Carnarvon unsuccessfully advised the government to resign immediately; and then (equally unsuccessfully) to appoint a joint committee of both houses to consider Ireland. Over Christmas he drafted an Irish university bill and a technical education bill, but both died in cabinet; nor was he given permission to visit the pope to alert him of the dangerous alliance between the clergy and nationalists in Ireland. Though he was persuaded to delay the announcement of his resignation till the end of January, the news was leaked to the press on 13 January so that Carnarvon's isolation from his party was known even before the government finally resigned on 26 January 1886.
He was not invited to take office in the conservative ministry formed in July 1886 after Gladstone's defeat over the first home rule bill, but remained an active political commentator. In 1887, when The Times published the series ‘Parnellism and crime’, he was the first to propose (Times, 9 May 1887) a special parliamentary commission to investigate the allegations. The government adopted this proposal a year later. He died at home in Portman Square, London on 28 June 1890. He married first (5 September 1861) Lady Evelyn Stanhope (d. 1875), daughter of the 6th earl of Chesterfield, and secondly (26 December 1878) Elizabeth Catharine, daughter of Henry Howard. He had a son and three daughters by his first wife, and two sons by his second.
Carnarvon had more decisive views on Ireland than was general in lords lieutenant; his tenure has been referred to by historians as the ‘Carnarvon experiment’ or ‘adventure’. However, his experiment was a failure, both personally, since he never again held office, and for his party, which was damaged by having a viceroy so out of sympathy with the bulk of it. Salisbury accused him of ‘getting so very “green” ’ (Curtis, 94). However, as J. L. Hammond points out, Carnarvon did not ‘go green’ but became viceroy with a fully fledged Irish policy, and Salisbury must carry some of the blame for appointing a man with such definite views whom he had no intention of supporting. On the other hand, Carnarvon, though always characterised as chivalrous and sensitive, lacked political acumen and ignored contradictory evidence in the pursuit of his high-minded ideals.