Windham, William (1750–1810), chief secretary for Ireland, was born 3 May 1750 in London, the only son of William Windham, landowner, and Sarah Windham (née Hicks). Educated at Eton, he entered Glasgow University (1766) and University College, Oxford (1767). A brilliant and charming student, he was regarded as one of the most talented young men of his day, but indecision and lack of confidence seem to have hampered his rise. Attaching himself to the whigs, he became the devoted friend and follower of Edmund Burke (qv), and attempted to secure a seat in parliament; he stood for Norwich in the 1780 general election but came bottom of the poll. Diffident and cautious, he was ineffective as a speaker largely because of his own insecurity; he regarded himself, unfairly, as ‘a politician among scholars and a scholar among politicians’ and ‘good in neither’ (Windham papers, i, 96). In April 1783, with the formation of the Fox-North coalition, Robert Henley (qv), 2nd earl of Northington, was sent to Ireland as lord lieutenant. Great things were expected of Windham and he was offered the position of chief secretary for Ireland to help establish his reputation. He accepted reluctantly and was formally appointed to the office on 3 May 1783. Confiding in his close friend Samuel Johnson about his misgivings, he was reassured that he would ‘soon make a very pretty rascal’ (ibid., i, 31).
Arriving in Dublin, he immediately won the respect of the Irish politicians, who were impressed by his intellectual ability; Francis Hardy (qv) wrote that he ‘had the fire and dignity of genius’ (ibid., i, 32). The demands for patronage were intense, much to Windham's discomfort, as he had no desire to dirty his hands. In July, while visiting London, he decided to resign; he was replaced by Thomas Pelham (qv) in August. As he had only been in office for four months his departure prompted much discussion; according to one newspaper account he had clashed with Northington, while others speculated that he had wanted to appoint Irishmen to key positions in the administration. His resignation letter to Northington on 16 July explained his real reasons, and revealed that he used the excuse of an attack of fever to make his withdrawal. It seems he was struck by a crisis of confidence and decided to resign rather than risk failing. He admitted that he suffered from ‘fits of languor and debility’, which ‘have at various times rendered me incapable of the business’. Nor was he prepared for the difficult responsibility of managing the house of commons and he shuddered at the thought of ‘a life of close confinement, constant application, anxious thought, and late hours in hot rooms’ (ibid., i, 36).
Entering the British house of commons as MP for Norwich (1784), he served in parliament till his death. A disciple of Burke, he opposed the French revolution and broke with Charles James Fox on the question. With the formation of the Pitt–Portland coalition in 1794 he was appointed secretary at war, sitting in cabinet. When a legislative union with Ireland was proposed in 1798 he was sceptical of its merits, but was persuaded to support it after becoming convinced it would pave the way for catholic emancipation. In 1801 he resigned with Pitt and the other ministers after the king refused to consider any discussion of the catholic question. Breaking with Pitt in 1804, he joined the ministry of Lord Grenville (qv) in 1806, but later railed against him too. He died 4 June 1810.
He married (10 July 1798) Cecilia Forrest; they had no children.