Stone, George (1708–64), Church of Ireland archbishop of Armagh and politician, was born 7 January 1708 at his father's London home, 68 Lombard Street, the third and youngest son of Andrew Stone (d. 1711), goldsmith and banker, and Anne Stone (née Holbrooke; d. 1725). Educated at Westminster School (1720–25), where he was elected a king's scholar in 1721, and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was awarded a Westminster studentship, he graduated BA in 1729, MA in 1732, and DD in 1740.
Route to the primacy In common with his ‘charming’ and industrious older brother, Andrew (1703–73), who departed Oxford in 1732 to become secretary and confidant of the whig grandee the duke of Newcastle and sub-governor (or tutor) to the prince of Wales (1751–6), George Stone could, in the words of his biographer, be ‘admirably persuasive and adroit’ (Falkiner, ‘Archbishop Stone’, 95). He was more politically ambitious than his brother, however, and, having taken orders, he secured the patron he needed to advance in the church when he accompanied the duke of Dorset (qv), who was appointed to the lord lieutenancy of Ireland in 1730, as his chaplain. A viceregal chaplaincy was a recognised stepping stone to advancement in the church, and Stone gained his first important appointment, as dean of the diocese of Ferns, in August 1733. He was promoted in April 1734 to the more lucrative deanery of Derry, and his inevitable elevation to the bench of bishops followed when he was appointed bishop of Ferns in 1740. This also entitled him to a seat in the house of lords, which he assumed in October 1741.
Stone's rise to clerical eminence was unusually swift, but as Hugh Boulter (qv) (1672–1742), the archbishop of Armagh, who had been a powerful presence in the corridors of power since the mid-1720s was nearing the end of his life, and Archbishop John Hoadly (qv), who succeeded him as primate, possessed little of Boulter's political or administrative acumen, the timing was propitious for an able and ambitious cleric. Stone was certainly afforded every encouragement, as the strong recommendations forthcoming from Dorset and the duke of Newcastle facilitated his promotion, first, to the diocese of Kildare in 1743 and, secondly, to the much sought-after diocese of Derry in 1745. As Derry was the most lucrative diocese in the country after Armagh, Stone was then ideally situated to succeed the ineffectual Hoadley as the acknowledged leader of the Church of Ireland when the latter died in July 1746, and it was no surprise that he was made archbishop of Armagh in the spring of 1747.
Ally of the Ponsonbys While Stone's appointment, aged thirty-eight, to the primacy of the Church of Ireland was due in no small part to the support of the duke of Newcastle, who observed warmly to the then lord lieutenant in 1746 that his ‘friend the Bishop of Kildare will not discredit any station you may do the honour to place him in’ (Corr. Chesterfield and Newcastle, 4), it is improbable that his advancement would have been so rapid but for the talent for politics he had already demonstrated. The expectation was that he would extend the tradition established by archbishops William King (qv) and Boulter and become a dominant presence in Irish politics. Stone clearly aspired to this role, and his decision, following the announcement of his elevation to the primacy, to prepare a detailed and insightful account of Irish politics for communication to Earl Harrington (qv), the lord lieutenant, was well calculated to earn the latter's confidence. It was a practice he continued, for though the information he conveyed was not always accurate, Harrington demonstrated the trust he placed in Stone for the remainder of his viceroyalty by nominating him in March 1747 to serve as one of the three lords justices to run the country in the lord lieutenant's absence. Stone also contrived to assist Harrington by cooperating with his fellow lords justices and the powerful speaker of the house of commons, Henry Boyle (qv) – who, as the chief ‘undertaker’, was the dominant force in domestic politics – even though his own inclinations were to favour the Ponsonby interest, which emerged in the 1740s as Boyle's major rival.
Stone was drawn to the Ponsonbys because they shared his ambition to oust Henry Boyle. Stone justified this position on the grounds that Boyle's responsiveness to Irish opinion meant that he not only prioritised Irish over British interests, but also contributed to the weakening of the Irish executive as the source of political authority in Ireland. The Ponsonbys, led by the ambitious 1st earl of Bessborough (qv), were motivated by a more elemental disposition to take command of the levers of power, and as Stone was prepared in the winter of 1747–8 to support the Ponsonby-sponsored Newtown act, which permitted non-resident burgesses and office-holders in corporations, it is apparent that they had established an effective working arrangement by that point. So long as the lord lieutenant and his ministerial colleagues prioritised the maintenance of political harmony in Ireland, there was little prospect of either Stone or the Ponsonbys being in a position to challenge Boyle successfully. However, Stone contrived in the late 1740s to strengthen his personal political power base and that of the expanding anti-Boyle coalition by drawing unattached and disaffected members into his sphere of influence.
The struggle with Speaker Boyle Stone's manoeuvrings led inevitably to increased tension in his relationship with Boyle which he contrived, largely successfully, to conceal so long as Harrington was lord lieutenant. However, Harrington, who was perceived by ministers as weak, was replaced late in 1750 by the duke of Dorset, whose return to Ireland meant that Stone was assured of the ear of the lord lieutenant. Stone and the earl of Bessborough inevitably looked upon this as an opportunity to advance their own aspirations, but they were comprehensively out-manoeuvred by Boyle in a number of trials of strength in 1751. Stone merely concluded that this made it still more necessary to curb the influence of Boyle and his allies, and while he was afforded a receptive hearing by Dorset and his chief secretary, Lord George Sackville (qv), as well as by those MPs who shared their commitment ‘to bring government back to the Castle’, he simply did not have the numbers to challenge Boyle in the house of commons in the 1751–2 session. Boyle, for his part, chose prudently to refrain from engaging in a formal trial of strength on the controversial issue of securing the king's previous consent for the allocation by the Irish parliament of the revenue surplus in the Irish exchequer, which was the material constitutional point on which the respective sides had taken up positions. Nonetheless, the fact that Stone believed the speaker aspired to secure his dismissal, and that some of Boyle's more passionate supporters (who had embraced the rhetoric of patriotism in opposition to Stone's acceptance of the subordination of the Irish legislature to the claim of the British privy council to modify money bills received from Ireland) resorted to bilious public abuse of Stone's character, indicated that this power struggle was far from finished but was in reality becoming increasingly acrimonious.
Persuaded by ‘the unprovoked violence’ of his opponents that the matter at issue was no longer who was the dominant force in Irish politics, but ‘the very being of an English government in Ireland’ (Irish official papers, i, 78), Stone redoubled his efforts in the interval between the 1751–2 and 1753–4 sessions. His object was to win over wavering MPs, to strengthen the resolve of the Ponsonby interest, and to maintain the support of ‘the best, the gravest and most creditable men’ (Irish official papers, i, 79), who, he claimed, aligned themselves with the Castle administration. His goal, he explained to the duke of Newcastle, was to ensure that the ‘authority, which his Majesty . . . thought proper to put into my lord lieutenant's hands’ was ‘recovered’ (‘Corr. Stone and Newcastle’, 514). His attempt to increase the resolve of the Irish administration was not without impact, but it also served to intensify the abuse directed at him, since his opponents were visibly disturbed by what they perceived ‘as a design of removing the great support of . . . the Irish interest’ (ibid., 511).
Stone did not assist his cause by his neglect of his episcopal duties or by his princely lifestyle; his residence on Henrietta Street, Dublin, colloquially known as ‘Primate's Hill’, was a byword for sumptuous living that drew many detractors. But it was his political conduct that was the main source of difficulty, as Irish politics polarised between the supporters of Boyle and Stone in the summer of 1753. Stone maintained a working relationship with Speaker Boyle, which was important since both were lords justices in the absence of Dorset in England, but his alienation of the prim earl of Kildare gave the patriots, led by Boyle, Thomas Carter (qv), and Anthony Malone (qv), an advantage over the Castle interest that Stone commanded with Sackville and John Ponsonby (qv) when parliament assembled in the autumn of 1753.
Defeat The opening weeks of the 1753–4 session proved tense, but the crucial moment was not reached until December 1753 when, on the return of an amended surplus money bill from the British privy council, Boyle and his allies ensured its rejection by 122 votes to 117. They justified their decision on the grounds that it was ‘a direct attack on the right of the Commons to raise and dispose of their own money’ (Irish official papers, ii, 36), but it was no less apparent to the Irish administration that Boyle had orchestrated a direct challenge to the authority of the lord lieutenant and, by extension, to British government in Ireland. Stone described the outcome as ‘an affront to the King’, and he endorsed Dorset's request to be permitted to prorogue the session in order that the Irish administration should be afforded the opportunity to restore ‘peace, order and good government’ (‘Corr. Stone and Newcastle’, 538). He also deemed it ‘absolutely necessary for his majesty's service, for the vindication of the honour of the crown, and for the support of government in this country that . . . some employments both great and small should be vacated’ (ibid., 539). Newcastle concurred that firm measures were necessary, and Boyle, Anthony Malone, and a number of others were dismissed from office.
However, instead of bringing Boyle and his allies to heel, this served only to deepen the crisis, and while Stone and the Ponsonbys were confident that they would prevail in the spring of 1754 as they filled the spaces made vacant by dismissals with members who shared their outlook, the intensity of the resistance of patriot MPs and the hostility of the public ensured that their hold on power remained fragile. Worse for Stone, as the person primarily identified with what was commonly portrayed (and perceived) as an assault on the liberties of the kingdom of Ireland, he was now subject to the most personalised pillorying experienced by any high-ranking politician in the eighteenth century, as he was caricatured as a man ‘of the most debauched and retrograde passions and appetites’ (Patriot Queries, 7).
Stone bore such manifestations of what he euphemistically termed ‘unjust prejudice’ (‘Corr. Stone and Newcastle’, 739) stoically. He might have been secure in his position of influence had ministers demonstrated equivalent resolve, but the determination of the patriots, which meant that their support was stronger in the spring of 1755 than a year earlier, combined with the eagerness of ministers to bring the dispute to a close, ensured that he was to be sacrificed to the expediency of a settlement. The replacement in February of Dorset by Lord Hartington (qv), who was sent to Ireland to broker a resolution, left Stone without a protector and he was dispensed with as soon as Hartington recognised that there was no possibility of an agreement with Boyle and his allies that included the primate.
Restoration and final years By the settlement reached in 1756, which brought the ‘money bill dispute’ finally to a close, Henry Boyle resigned the speakership in favour of John Ponsonby in return for a peerage, while other members of the opposition received places or pensions. This was a humiliating outcome for Stone, and an individual with a less secure sense of self would have withdrawn from public life. Stone did not do so. He was certainly encouraged to continue by the crucial part he played in London in the negotiations in the spring of 1757 that led to the formation of the Newcastle–Pitt government, which brought political stability to Britain. Stone was back in Ireland in time for the opening of the 1757–8 parliamentary session, and his penchant for what his many detractors termed ‘meddling’ and his admirers applauded ensured not only that he was able to forge an effective working arrangement with John Ponsonby, but also that he was indispensable to the duke of Bedford (qv), who headed the Irish administration for four years from 1757, though Bedford would gladly have left Stone out in the cold.
Appointed a lord justice once more in 1758, Stone was the most effective undertaker available to Dublin Castle during the remainder of the reign of George II and the two opening sessions of his successor. Significantly, he was able to function to such effect because he had jettisoned his commitment to the affirmation of the authority of the lord lieutenant in the name of ‘the king's just prerogative’ (‘Corr. Stone and Newcastle’, 540), with which he was identified in the early 1750s. This is best illustrated by the stand he took in the winter of 1760–61 in support of the Irish privy council's objections to making the transmission of a major money bill to the British privy council, according to the provisions of Poynings' law, a cause for calling a new parliament in 1761. In addition, his fair and efficient dealing with a variety of Irish political interests, including that of the earl of Kildare, earned him a reputation for reliability that enabled him to work closely both with the major interests in parliament and with Dublin Castle, and contributed to his effectiveness.
Stone's death, aged fifty-six, in London on 19 December 1764 deprived Irish politics of one of its most able and controversial figures, and the last of the major political prelates of the eighteenth century. Since his death was followed a week later by that of Henry Boyle, it also represented the end of an era, which, with slight exaggeration, has been called ‘the golden age of the undertakers’.