Whitworth, Charles (1752–1825), Earl Whitworth lord lieutenant of Ireland and diplomat, was born 19 May 1752 at Leybourne Grange, Kent, eldest son among three sons and four daughters of Sir Charles Whitworth (d. 1778), MP, and his wife, Martha (née Shelley; d. 1786). Whitworth was educated at Tonbridge School, Kent (1761–5), before embarking on a military career, which saw him serve in North America in 1776–7. Having attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the 104th regiment (1783), Whitworth, through the influence of his patron, the 3rd duke of Dorset, secured a diplomatic post in Poland (1786) before being sent to Russia as envoy at the court of Catherine the Great (1788). He received an Irish peerage as reward for his diplomatic service in Russia, becoming Baron Whitworth of Newport Pratt, Co. Galway (4 April 1800). A handsome and charming man, he was reputedly one of Catherine the Great's numerous lovers.
Whitworth revisited London in 1800 before he was sent as envoy to Denmark. On his return to London he married (7 April 1801) Arabella Diana Sackville (1767–1825), the dowager duchess of Dorset, widow of his former patron; they had no children. Whitworth's principal residence after his marriage was Knole in Kent, and he was made deputy lieutenant of that county in January 1802. He was appointed envoy to Paris (1802) following the treaty of Amiens and was present in the French capital as that treaty collapsed, a deterioration of relations exemplified by Whitworth's famous public dispute with Napoleon.
Whitworth left France shortly before the resumption of the war, and on his return to Knole organised local defences and became lieutenant colonel of the Holmsdale battalion of infantry volunteers. He was appointed to the Board of Trade (1807) but declined the offer to return as envoy to Denmark in the same year, refusing to work under the foreign secretary, George Canning. This comparatively dormant period in his life ended when Lord Liverpool, a relative through his wife, became prime minister in 1812. Whitworth was made lord of the bedchamber to the king (March 1813) and shortly afterwards appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland (3 June 1813). He was raised to the British peerage as Viscount Whitworth of Adbaston, Staffordshire (14 June 1813).
Whitworth took to Dublin a range of diplomatic experience but little knowledge of Irish affairs. The Irish executive faced several challenges in the period after Whitworth's inauguration ceremony (26 August 1813), particularly the agrarian unrest in the south and east and the Catholic Board's agitation for further catholic relief. These problems were met with a number of innovative law-enforcement schemes devised by Robert Peel (qv), Irish chief secretary (1812–8), with whom Whitworth developed a close personal relationship. He fully supported Peel's creation of the Peace Preservation Force (1814), sent to the most unsettled areas, and the reintroduction of the Insurrection Act (1814), which gave the lord lieutenant the power to proclaim disturbed districts. He also pushed for an increase in the military garrison in Ireland to aid the enforcement of the law. His executive dealt firmly with the movement for catholic emancipation by prosecuting (1813–14) John Magee (qv), editor of the pro-catholic Dublin Evening Post, and by dissolving the Catholic Board on 4 June 1814. A staunch supporter of the protestant constitution of the United Kingdom, Whitworth strongly opposed catholic emancipation.
The death of Whitworth's wife's only son, the 4th duke of Dorset in a hunting accident in Kilkenny in February 1815 led to Whitworth's returning to England with his wife for a short time (March–May 1815). In his absence the viceroy's formal powers were transferred to three lords justices, but in practice policy was guided by William Gregory (qv), civil under-secretary for Ireland. Whitworth was to have served as lord lieutenant for three years, but the famine of 1816–17 and its associated disturbances necessitated his remaining a further year in Ireland. He suffered from illness in his final year and his reaction to the widespread distress in the country was tired and conservative: his preferred solution to the shortage of provisions was a prohibition on grain distillation, in contrast to Peel's energetic response of organising relief and public works schemes. After Charles Talbot (qv) arrived to replace him, Whitworth left Ireland on 17 September 1817; his viceroyalty was viewed as the model for a harmonious and efficient partnership between lord lieutenant and chief secretary. While in Ireland Whitworth received a number of honours, in addition to being created Earl Whitworth (25 November 1815): he was made LLD of TCD on 23 September 1813 and GCB on 2 June 1815.
Earl Whitworth spent most of his time during his retirement at his house in Knole, and died there 13 May 1825. His papers are in the Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone, while correspondence from him is to be found in at least seventeen other collections.