A'Court, William (1779–1860), 1st Baron Heytesbury, diplomat, politician, and lord lieutenant of Ireland, was born 11 July 1779, eldest son of Sir William Pierce Ashe A'Court, 1st baronet, and his second wife, Letitia, daughter of Henry Wyndham of Salisbury. He was educated at Eton but did not attend university. In 1801 he embarked on a long and distinguished diplomatic career as secretary to the legation at Palermo and Naples (to 1807) and later served in Vienna, Malta, the Barbary States, Spain, Portugal, and Russia, in the last of which he was ambassador from 1828 to 1830. In 1817 he succeeded as 2nd baronet and was appointed to the privy council. Two years later he was made GCB and in 1828 created Baron Heytesbury. His diplomatic career shows him a man of competence and independent mind. Although a conservative politically and expected, when again sent to Naples in 1814, to redress the liberal actions of his predecessor, William Bentinck, he none the less signed passports to aid the escape of leading rebels from the oncoming vengeance of the Austrian authorities. In Russia too he showed both insight and independence in his analysis of the tsar's attitude to the Ottoman empire, to the extent of incurring the wrath of the prime minister, the duke of Wellington (qv); he was convinced of Russia's aggressive intentions.
In 1835 Peel (qv) invited him to become governor general of India (a post of great and growing importance), but a change of ministry caused the offer to lapse. Nine years later Peel was successful in having Heytesbury appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland (July 1844–July 1846) as a replacement for the abrasive Earl de Grey (qv), whose extreme toryism had begun to rub against the prime minister's increasingly ‘moderate’ view of Irish affairs. In Ireland Heytesbury (a more ‘administrative’ character than the grandees who normally held the post of viceroy) exhibited exactly those talents which Peel admired: technical competence, cool judgment, and, on occasion, hardness of resolve. Overall Heytesbury took his master's instructions to heart when Peel wrote to him (1 August 1844, Peel papers, BL, Add. MS 40479) that ‘Ireland is in that state that a great source of moral strength and influence to the chief governor would be the conviction that he is not a partizan, that he is determined to see with his own eyes, and to keep free from the influence of busy local politicians.’ And Heytesbury had no hesitation in telling Peel of his complete agreement with the view that ‘the instruments for the administration of the law are the same in Ireland as in England’ and that specially Hibernian coercive legislation should be avoided at all costs (Heytesbury to Peel, 11 August 1844; Peel to Heytesbury, 8 August 1844, Peel papers, BL, Add. MS 40479). Indeed, Heytesbury went to pains to distinguish himself entirely from the views of de Grey to the extent of undertaking an extensive and, it would seem, remarkably jolly visit to St Patrick's College, Maynooth (Heytesbury to Graham, 30 July 1845, Graham papers, 22/IR, on microfilm NLI).
Heytesbury's handling of the great famine was moderately competent in its execution of Peel's relatively innovative approach, though it was seen as cold and abstracted by those petitioning him for relief. He worked closely with Sir James Graham, the home secretary, and was prepared to ignore board of works rules, to avoid official delays, and to exercise his superior authority on the spot. He did, however, show a lack of imagination in a seemingly temperamental inability to spend to the full such sums as the central government put at his disposal. His appointment terminated with the fall of Peel's administration over the corn law issue and it was left to his successor, the whig earl of Bessborough (qv), to face the horrors that lay ahead.
From 1841 to 1857 Heytesbury – who had married (1808) Maria Rebecca, second daughter of the Hon. William Henry Bouverie, second son of the earl of Radnor – held the honorific post of governor of the Isle of Wight. He died 31 May 1860 and was succeeded by the elder of his two sons (he also had a daughter), William Henry Ashe A'Court. In 1840 Heytesbury published Montalto: a tragedy in five acts with other poems.