Russell, John (1710–71), 4th duke of Bedford , politician and lord lieutenant of Ireland, was born 30 September 1710 at the family seat at Streatham, Surrey, England, second son of Wriothesley Russell (d. 1711), 2nd duke of Bedford, and Elizabeth Russell (née Howland). In October 1731 he married Lady Diana Spencer (d. 1735), youngest daughter of Charles, 3rd earl of Sunderland, and granddaughter of the 1st duke of Marlborough (qv). He succeeded to the family title and estates (1732) on the death of his elder brother. Entering the lords as an anti-Walpole whig, he soon established himself as an influential figure, controlling a faction known as the ‘Bedfordites’ or the ‘Bloomsbury gang’. After his first wife's death, he married (April 1737) Gertrude Leveson-Gower, eldest daughter of John, 1st Earl Gower. She was a woman of vast political ambition and became a major influence on his career. Bedford's early appointments included terms as first lord of the admiralty (1744–8), lord justice of Great Britain (1745, 1748), and lord lieutenant of Bedfordshire (1745–51). He was also commissioned as a colonel after the outbreak of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 and promoted to major-general (1755) and lieutenant-general (1759), but never saw active service. In February 1748 he was appointed secretary of state for the southern department, and was made a KG in 1749. During Henry Pelham's ministry, Bedford was constantly at odds with the duke of Newcastle's faction and resigned from the administration in 1751.
In 1756 he was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland and, despite initial reluctance on his part, remained in the position during the Cavendish and Newcastle administrations. Initially he spoke in favour of granting greater freedom to catholics, but soon backed off when faced with local opposition. During the crop failure of 1756–7 he gained some popularity by spending £12,000 on famine relief, including £5,000 of his own money, but was faced with an Irish parliament that was becoming increasingly critical of government, opposing the money bill and querying the pensions list. In 1757 there was an unsuccessful attack on Poynings’ law, led by Edmond Sexten Pery (qv), which was defeated by 127 to 38 votes.
In 1759 fears of a French invasion during the Seven Years War (1756–63) led Bedford's chief secretary, Richard Rigby (qv) to introduce legislation allowing parliament to reassemble quickly during a period of adjournment. This sparked rumours in the press that the government was planning to pass an act of union, and popular discontent erupted in an anti-union riot on 3 December 1759, during which a mob laid siege to the commons and assaulted MPs, forcing many to take an anti-union oath. While much of the mob's anger was directed towards Rigby, Bedford was also burned in effigy. Bedford only finally quelled the riot by using troops to clear the streets. He wrote to William Pitt that the majority of the rioters had been protestant artisans from the liberties of Dublin. Pitt, however, informed him that the government was convinced that the riot was the work of catholics and that it had been started by French agents provocateurs. Despite knowing that this was not the case, Bedford slowly shifted to the government position. In February 1760 the arrival of a French invasion fleet at Carrickfergus occasioned serious alarm, but it was quickly driven off.
The death of George II, however, led to another storm of criticism in Dublin when Bedford dissolved parliament in November 1760. The lords justices of Ireland (Primate Stone (qv), the earl of Shannon (qv), and Speaker Ponsonby (qv)) lodged a formal protest in December 1760. In March 1761 Bedford's term as lord lieutenant of Ireland ended, much to his relief and to the satisfaction of the Irish undertakers. His viceroyalty was not a success, partly because of his inability to reach an understanding with the Irish undertakers, but also because of his bad relationship with the English ministers, especially Pitt, who repeatedly failed to back Bedford in his struggles with the Irish magnates. These failures owed much to his personality – he enjoyed a reputation for arrogance – but also to external circumstances such as the peculiar tensions created by the Seven Years War. It would be wrong to describe his term of office as a complete failure – his belief in toleration for catholics, including his initial resistance to the anti-catholic line emanating from London after the 1759 riots and the aborted French invasion, combined with his generosity during the food shortages in 1757, suggest otherwise, as does the positive public reaction he received when he returned to Ireland in 1768 to be invested as chancellor of Dublin University.
In November 1761 he was appointed lord privy seal. As the war drew to a close, he was made ambassador to France in September 1762, and was largely responsible for the treaty of Paris (1763) which ended the war and destroyed France's position in North America. Bedford subsequently served as lord president of the council (1763–5). After George III's second bout of illness in January 1765, he joined with Grenville to oppose the king's plans to appoint a regency committee. A fierce opponent of Lord Rockingham's first administration (1765–6), he never held a high office again, but remained a powerful figure in British politics, and successive administrations under the duke of Grafton and Lord North vied for his support. After the death of his son and heir, Francis Russell, marquis of Tavistock, in a fall from a horse (1767), the duke's health declined, and he died on 15 January 1771 at Bedford House, Bloomsbury, and was buried at Chenies, Buckinghamshire. With his first wife he had a son who died at birth. With his second wife he had a daughter and two sons, both of whom predeceased him. He was succeeded by his grandson, Francis Russell, 5th duke of Bedford.
Bedford was generally an unpopular figure, and many contemporaries noted that his arrogance far outweighed his abilities. The Royal Register later described him as ‘haughty, imperious and insolent in his general demeanour, hasty in forming his resolutions and generally injudicious in the execution of them. He possessed very exalted ideas of his rank and no very humble ones of his abilities. The great object of his life was popularity; and he never obtained it for an hour.’ Despite these personal failings, his political connection, which he did much to build up and sustain, outlasted him for ten years, suggesting that he was a figure of greater consequence than has sometimes been suggested. There are two contemporary portraits of him, painted by Jervas and Gainsborough; the latter was copied by Sir Joshua Reynolds and used as an illustration in Lord John Russell's Correspondence of John, fourth duke of Bedford (2 vols, 1842–3). The main collection of Bedford's papers is held at the family seat of Woburn Abbey; there are copies relating to his Irish viceroyalty in PRONI.