Villiers, George William Frederick (1800–70), 4th earl of Clarendon , lord lieutenant of Ireland (1847–52), was born 26 January 1800 in London, eldest son of George Villiers and his wife Theresa, daughter of John Parker, 1st Baron Boringdon. His paternal grandfather was Thomas Villiers, 1st earl of Clarendon. He was educated at St John's College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA (1819), after which he was sent as attaché to the British embassy in St Petersburg. Thus began his long, successful political career, centred on foreign affairs. In 1823 he was appointed commissioner of customs and from 1827 to 1829 was in Ireland, arranging the union of the English and the Irish excise boards. Two years later he was in France, successfully negotiating a commercial treaty; in August 1833 he was minister plenipotentiary to Madrid, where he remained until January 1839, having succeeded to the earldom 22 December 1838. In October 1839 he entered the Melbourne administration as lord privy seal, a post he held until the government's fall in 1841. With the whigs' return in 1846, he became president of the Board of Trade, and the following year was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland (20 May 1847), a position he held until 1852.
A family man, devoted to his wife Katherine (m. 4 June 1839; daughter of the 1st earl of Verulam and widow of John Foster-Barnham) and to his seven children, he had great charm of manner, and was described by Gladstone as the most attractive man in cabinet. Ireland occupied an important position in his political portfolio. He described the lord lieutenancy as ‘plunging into the Irish bog’ (Kerr, 70) and declared he was only accepting in the belief that the post was to be imminently abolished. However, he felt a close connection to Ireland from his time in the customs union, when he had formed part of the private cabinet of the lord lieutenant, Lord Anglesey (qv), and won Daniel O'Connell's (qv) respect. He had then declared himself an ardent friend of the Irish people, and in 1844 had supported almost all of O'Connell's demands to parliament.
Confident and ambitious, he was determined to make his mark as lord lieutenant, but was immediately overcome by the security situation. Alarmed by agrarian unrest, he persuaded a reluctant prime minister, Lord John Russell, to rush through the commons (December 1847) a stringent coercion bill. Three months later the revolutions in Europe determined him to move against Young Ireland. He pursued successful diplomatic channels by urging the British ambassador in Paris to harden the French to Irish demands, and also employed coercive methods, including increasing the Dublin garrison to 10,000 men and ordering the arrest of John Mitchel (qv), William Smith O'Brien (qv), and T. F. Meagher (qv), the latter two for seditious speeches and Mitchel for his editorials in the United Irishman, addressed to ‘Butcher Clarendon’. He finally succeeded (22 July) in suspending habeas corpus, a measure he had been calling for since the previous November. Two weeks later, the abortive rising was over.
A known alarmist, Clarendon seems to have magnified the threat; recent historians have even accused him of fomenting rebellion. The Freeman's Journal found his concern with security vain and foolish when the country was starving. His sources, who included the fantasist John Blake Donnellan, were dubious and he isolated himself in the viceregal lodge, keeping unsocial hours. However, his tactical sense was good, and he was sensitive to public opinion. He identified Mitchel as the most dangerous Young Irelander and ensured his removal; he did not prosecute the Nation in order to discriminate in favour of the moderate Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), and he commuted the sentences of the rising's leaders from hanging to life transportation to avoid creating martyrs.
Clarendon was a strong supporter of the poor law commissioner Edward Twisleton (qv) in his demands for more aid to relieve famine, and the government's refusal caused him to denounce privately (1849) ‘Trevelyanism’ and Russell's weakness. Irish landlords he regarded as a principal obstacle to improvement, and he was instrumental in getting passed the encumbered estates acts (1848–9). However, his preferred famine solution was to ‘sweep Connacht clean’ (Kerr, 333) and in autumn 1848 he laid out plans for mass emigration and was only deterred when this proved too costly and divisive.
He had similarly little success with his other leitmotif – the need to endow the catholic clergy, an argument of O'Connell's which he had supported in 1844. In September 1848 he developed an endowment scheme through taxation, which was abandoned after cabinet objections. He continued to cultivate the clergy and upheld their arguments against the queen's colleges in 1849. However, due possibly to frustration with the failure of his policies, to personal dislike for Archbishop Paul Cullen (qv), and to an innate anti-catholicism, which manifested itself in letters when he referred to the ‘yoke of Rome’, he became increasingly intransigent and by 1852 was bitterly denouncing the Irish clergy. He declared that he would shed the last drop of his blood to prevent the progress of catholicism; this no doubt had prevented his objecting with sufficient strength to the ecclesiastical titles bill (1851), though he foresaw the opposition to it.
Clarendon was furthermore involved in personal scandals during his lord lieutenancy. After the Dolly's Brae atrocity of 12 July 1849, which saw about twenty catholics killed by Orangemen, he ordered an inquiry which proved inconclusive. He therefore dismissed the magistrate concerned, Lord Roden (qv). This caused outrage and Clarendon had to answer questions in cabinet, where he defended himself so well that the government brought in a party processions act (1850) making it a criminal offence to parade in certain circumstances. However, Orangemen claimed that Clarendon was double-dealing and had previously supplied arms to them; Isaac Butt (qv) upheld their claim in the Dublin University Magazine. Two years later, John Birch, proprietor of the World, a propaganda tool of the government, brought the chief secretary William Somerville (qv) to court for non-payment of his subsidy, and in the trial of December 1851 Clarendon had to take the stand and admit he had paid a total of £3,700 to Birch. Somerville won the case but Clarendon was universally denounced. The episodes revealed traits colleagues had already noted: his propensity for intrigue, his indiscretion, and his manipulative use of the press. When he returned to England on the fall of the government in January 1852, he was distrusted by all sides in Ireland.
He was three times foreign secretary: 1853–9 under Aberdeen and Palmerston, 1865–6 under Russell, and 1868–70 under Gladstone. He died in office on 27 June 1870 in London. A large collection of his papers is held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.