Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wellesley, Henry Richard Charles

WELLESLEY, HENRY RICHARD CHARLES, first Earl Cowley (1804–1884), born in Hertford Street, Mayfair, on 17 June 1804, was eldest son of Henry Wellesley, first baron Cowley [q. v.] He was educated at Oxford, matriculating from Brasenose College on 14 Jan. 1822, and, like his father, adopted a diplomatic career. Natural abilities, combined with family and social advantages of a marked order, made easy the early stages of his progress. He first became an attaché at Vienna in October 1824, and passed through various subordinate grades at The Hague, Stuttgart, and Constantinople. On 29 Feb. 1848 he was appointed minister-plenipotentiary to the confederated Swiss cantons, and in July he was sent on a special mission to Frankfurt, in order to watch the proceeding of the German parliament, which was then sitting at the Paulskirche, and was engaged in the attempt to draw up a permanent constitution. On 1 March 1851 he was made a K.C.B. and on 7 June appointed envoy extraordinary and minister to the Germanic confederation at Frankfurt. The Earl of Normanby, who had succeeded the first Lord Cowley as ambassador in Paris, retired from the embassy in 1852. Lord Granville had just succeeded to the foreign office, on the retirement of Lord Palmerston, after his quarrel with Lord Russell in 1851 [see arts. Temple, Henry John, third Viscount Palmerston; Russell, Lord John, first Earl], and on 5 Feb. 1852 he rather unexpectedly appointed Cowley to the vacant embassy at Paris. Three days previously Cowley had been made a privy councillor.

The appointment at the time excited some astonishment, as the world had yet to discover the sterling abilities which lay concealed under the quiet manner and unostentatious character of the new ambassador. Cowley arrived in Paris just two months after the coup d'état of 2 Dec. 1851, which turned the republic into the empire, and he remained there till 1867. His term of office coincided, therefore, with the greater part of the reign of Napoleon III. He had the difficult task, immediately after his arrival, of representing Great Britain during the excitement in both countries which followed the coup d'état; and soon afterwards had to bear a prominent part in the complicated negotiations connected with the eastern question, which preceded the Crimean war. Together with the Earl of Clarendon, then minister of foreign affairs, he represented Great Britain at the Paris congress, which terminated the war in 1856. He also took the leading part in the subsequent negotiations caused by difficulties of detail in regard to the settlement of the new Bessarabian frontier, by the union of Wallachia and Moldavia into one state; the question of the navigation of the Danube; and other collateral points connected with the politics of the east of Europe which arose out of the treaty of Paris.

Cowley was one of the negotiators of the famous ‘declaration of Paris,’ signed in March 1856, by which the European powers agreed that privateering should be abolished; that the neutral flag should in future exempt goods, except contraband, from capture; and that blockades must be effectual in order to be recognised. In 1857 he was sole British plenipotentiary for the conclusion of the peace with Persia, which was signed at Paris on 4 March of that year. He was created Earl Cowley and Viscount Dangan on 4 April 1857, after declining the offer of a peerage in the previous year. It was immediately after these events, however, that his mettle as a diplomatist was put to the severest test. On 14 Jan. Orsini made his attempt to murder the emperor of the French. Cowley's conduct at the critical moment which followed in the relations of Great Britain and France afforded a conspicuous proof of the influence which he had acquired at the Tuileries.

On 20 Jan. 1858 Count Walewski wrote a despatch to M. de Persigny, the French ambassador in London, reflecting upon the conduct of England in affording deliberate countenance and shelter to men by whose writings ‘“assassination was elevated into a doctrine openly preached and carried into practice by reiterated attacks” upon the person of the French sovereign’ (Martin, iv. 186). Palmerston and Clarendon thought it wise to make no written reply to this communication; and contented themselves with instructing the ambassador in the first instance to make a verbal reply. Unfortunately, Walewski's despatch had been accompanied by the publication in the ‘Moniteur’ of addresses to the emperor from officers of the French army, calling for the invasion of England as a nest of brigands and assassins. The irritation thereby produced in England, followed by the acknowledgment that the despatch of Count Walewski had perhaps been accepted in a too quiet manner, led to the fall of Lord Palmerston's government on the second reading of a bill intended to strengthen the law of conspiracy, which on the first reading had been carried by a very large majority. That the dangerous condition of affairs produced by these events did not develop into something graver, was mainly owing to the tact and judgment of Cowley. Walewski was induced by him to explain away the unfortunate expressions of his despatch, and to state that the addresses of the army had been published in the ‘Moniteur’ in ignorance of some of the expressions which they contained. British opinion, already partly satisfied by the fall of Lord Palmerston, had meanwhile had time to realise that the law of conspiracy did require strengthening; and the excitement in both countries gradually cooled down, after a ministerial explanation on 12 March 1858 in parliament and the presentation of a despatch from Cowley to Clarendon by Lord Malmesbury, who was now secretary of state. In this despatch he explained that, though he had not been charged to make any official communication to the French government, he had been enabled by Lord Clarendon's private instructions ‘to place before the French government the views of her majesty's government far more fully, and I cannot but believe far more satisfactorily, than would have been the case had my language been clothed in far more official garb’ (Martin, Life of the Prince Consort, iv. 196–8; Memoirs of an Ex-Minister, pp. 418–30; Hansard, Parl. Debates, new ser. vol. clix.)

In February 1859 Cowley was charged with a highly confidential mission to Vienna, in the hope of being able to arrange a mediation in regard to the differences between France and Austria (cf. Parl. Papers, 1859, Lord Cowley to Lord Malmesbury, 1 Jan. 1859; Memoirs of an Ex-Minister, pp. 457–62, 469–473). The mission was, however, foredoomed to failure, as the war party had got the upper hand in Paris (Martin, iv. 391, 404; Greville, 2nd ser. ii. 223). Immediately after the signature of the preliminaries of peace between the two belligerents at Villafranca, the mysterious negotiations which followed placed a severe strain on the abilities and tact of the British ambassador in Paris. Public opinion on the British side of the Channel complained of the enormous naval and military preparations which continued on the French side, and asked against whom they were now intended; while on the French side complaint was made of the constantly increasing mistrust displayed by their old Crimean ally. The volunteer movement, initiated in 1859, was the outward manifestation of British anxiety at the continental situation. The peace of Villafranca had practically left the questions which had caused the war between France and Austria unsettled and open. The wishes of Italy herself as to her future had not been consulted, and the whole peninsula was rapidly sinking into a state of anarchy. The emperor grasped at the idea of a congress to settle the situation which he had created but was unable to terminate, and thereby hoped to be able to free himself from the almost hopeless imbroglio into which his policy had drifted. But it soon appeared that, among other pledges, he had given an undertaking at Villafranca to the emperor of Austria not to press such a proposal. He suggested, however, that a proposal to the same effect should come from London, in which case he promised to support it. It was Cowley's painful duty to suggest in diplomatic language that such a course was one which ‘honour forbade Great Britain to undertake’ (Martin, v. 475). In language of mingled firmness and courtesy he proceeded to point out how impossible the constant shiftings of the imperial policy made it for his government to establish any permanent hold on the good will of the English people. He dwelt more particularly on ‘his majesty's sudden intimacy with Russia after the Crimean war; his sudden quarrel with Austria; the equally sudden termination of the war, which made people suppose he might wish to carry it elsewhere; the extraordinary rapidity with which the late armaments had been made; the attention which had been devoted to the imperial navy, its increase, and the report of the naval commission, which showed plainly that the augmentation was directed against England;’ but England, he insisted, could never allow her naval supremacy to be weakened or doubted. ‘Let the emperor appeal,’ he said, ‘to the common-sense of the English people by facts rather than by words, and he would soon see common-sense get the better of suspicion’ (Lord Cowley to Lord J. Russell, 7 Aug. 1859).

A serious feature of the situation was the distrust which the conduct of the emperor inspired in the two leading statesmen of England, Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell. The suggestion that Savoy and Nice should be surrendered to France, and that the surrender should be recognised as the price of French consent to the annexation of the Italian duchies to the kingdom of Italy, was generally felt not only to be inconsistent with the declaration made by the emperor when commencing the late war, but as probably only a preliminary to further attempts on the part of France to extend her frontiers, and thereby endanger the peace of Europe. These views were forcibly placed by Cowley before the emperor in an interview on 9 Feb. 1860 (Lord Cowley to Lord Russell, 10 Feb. 1860, Martin, v. 31). In the course of this conversation he succeeded in extracting from the emperor an acknowledgment that he considered he had obtained from Count Cavour before the war a consent to the surrender of Savoy and Nice, if the result of the war should be to create an Italian state of ten or twelve millions of inhabitants. But this admission did not tend to conciliate those who criticised the imperial policy for want of straightforwardness. Cowley at this time was also occupied as joint-plenipotentiary in assisting Cobden in the negotiations for the treaty of commerce between Great Britain and France (Martin, v. 34, 350), the success of which, as likely to cement a good understanding between the two countries on the solid basis of material interest, was an object he had greatly at heart. The treaty was signed on 23 Jan. 1860. A letter which the emperor wrote conveying his congratulations on the success of these negotiations well illustrates the difficulties with which at this period the British ambassador in Paris had to contend. ‘It is my profound conviction,’ the emperor wrote to Cowley, ‘that the harmonious action of the two nations is indispensable for the good of civilisation, and that their antagonism would be a calamity to all. While saying this, I would ask you, my dear Lord Cowley, to forgive me if occasionally I give too warm an expression to the pain I feel at seeing the animosities and prejudices of another age spring up afresh in England.’ The allusion was to some observations which a few days before had been addressed by him to the British ambassador at a concert at the Tuileries. These observations were not only unusual in their vivacity, but still more unusual from being made in the presence of the Russian ambassador, General Kisseleff. ‘Lord Cowley had at once to check the further progress of remarks in a direction already sufficiently dangerous, by saying that he considered himself justified in calling the emperor's attention to the unusual course he had adopted in indulging, in the presence of the Russian ambassador, in animadversion on the conduct of England;’ and ‘he appealed to him to consider whether he had been properly dealt with, remembering the personal regard and the anxiety to smooth over difficulties between the two governments which in his official capacity he had always shown, even at the risk of exposing himself to be suspected of being more French than he ought to be.’ Cowley then proceeded to justify the distrust occasioned in England by the contradictory language of the emperor in having stated that he meditated no special advantages for France, and in afterwards having to acknowledge that overtures had positively been made by him to Sardinia before the war for the eventual cession of Savoy; and he dwelt on the anxiety occasioned by his having reopened the question of what were the ‘natural frontiers’ of France.

The emperor was not able to question the wisdom or deny the good will of the speaker; neither, as the biographer of the prince consort observes, ‘was it in the emperor's character, in which candour to an adversary formed a large element, to resent them.’ And thus this strange incident terminated, which at one moment, as Lord Russell wrote to the queen, threatened to bear ‘a disagreeable resemblance to other scenes already famous in the history of Napoleon I and Napoleon III’ (the Queen to Lord Russell, 10 March 1860). Cowley received a special despatch approving his conduct in the difficult circumstances in which he had been placed (Martin, Life of the Prince Consort, v. 37–43).

The records of ‘la diplomatie intime’ are always among the most laborious for the biographer to investigate, especially in regard to the history of comparatively recent events, and the materials are as yet not fully accessible for ascertaining ‘the extent of Lord Cowley's direct and personal influence in shaping the history of his time’ (Times, July 1884) after 1861, when he was occupied even more constantly than before in smoothing down the international dangers caused by the hesitating temperament of the French emperor, anxious at one moment to justify the phrase, ‘l'Empire c'est la paix,’ and at another to vindicate the Napoleonic traditions as to the natural frontiers of France; and wishing to satisfy at one and the same time both his own genuine goodwill for the cause of Italian unity and also the clerical passions of the influential section at his court, which was determined to maintain the temporal sovereignty of the pope over what remained of the states of the church. The abortive proposals for a European congress which the emperor renewed in 1863, the desire of Italy to annex Venice and to obtain Rome as a capital, the fall of the kingdom of Naples, the expedition of Garibaldi which ended at Aspromonte, the Schleswig-Holstein war, the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, the invasion of Mexico, and the constant attempts of the emperor to obtain some rectification of the eastern frontier of France, kept the hands of the British ambassador at Paris constantly full during the remainder of his active career. If the ship of the French empire did not sooner strike the rocks on which it ultimately foundered, it was in no small degree owing to the wise counsels of the British ambassador and of his old chief, Lord Clarendon, who had again joined the cabinet in 1864, and at the end of 1865 returned to the foreign office, when Lord Russell had become prime minister on the death of Lord Palmerston. In the opinion of competent persons, Cowley's retirement from the embassy in 1867, followed by the death of Lord Clarendon in 1870, were potent causes in hastening the probably inevitable conflict between France and Germany by depriving the emperor of two advisers who, owing to long acquaintance, were able to put before him with a certain familiarity what others had either an interest in concealing or were afraid to speak. When in 1867 Cowley retired from the French embassy, a diplomatic banquet was given in his honour by the Marquis de Moustier, minister of foreign affairs. In replying to the toast of his health the ambassador paid a tribute to the unceasing efforts which had been made by Napoleon III to promote good relations between France and England (Times, 16 July 1884); and that this was true of the emperor personally will not now be doubted. It was noticed as ominous that the news of the tragic death of the Emperor Maximilian reached Paris on the very day on which Cowley took leave of his colleagues at this banquet.

In 1863 Cowley unexpectedly inherited the estate of Draycot, near Chippenham in Wiltshire, by bequest from his cousin, the Earl of Mornington, who had died childless. The diplomatic tact of the ambassador was perhaps never more needed than when, almost simultaneously with the announcement of the bequest, he is said to have received an invitation to Draycot from the sister of the late earl, who not at all unnaturally had assumed herself to be Lord Mornington's successor in the property. Cowley was nominated G.C.B. on 21 Feb. 1853, and K.G. on 3 Feb. 1866, and on 22 June 1870 he received the honorary degree of D.C.L. from the university of Oxford. He died at Draycot on 15 July 1884. ‘I never knew a man of business so naturally gifted for his profession,’ said Lord Malmesbury, who had twice occupied the foreign office in the period covered by Cowley's embassy. ‘Straightforward himself, he easily discovered guile in others who sought to deceive him, and this was well known to such’ (Memoirs of an Ex-Minister, p. 418).

On 23 Oct. 1833 Cowley married Olivia Cecilia, second daughter of Charlotte, baroness de Ros, and Lord Henry Fitzgerald. ‘Her knowledge of the world, of society, and of courts’ not a little assisted him (ib.), especially as these gifts neutralised the effects of the diffidence in general society which occasionally hampered Cowley's diplomatic abilities. She died on 21 April 1885. Cowley was succeeded in his title by his son, Lieutenant-colonel William Henry, viscount Dangan, who had served with distinction in the Crimean war and the Indian mutiny.

[Martin's Life of the Prince Consort; Malmesbury's Memoirs of an Ex-Minister, which contain many letters and despatches from Lord Cowley; Ashley's Life of Lord Palmerston; Walpole's Life of Lord Russell; Greville Memoirs, 2nd ser. vol. ii. The Parliamentary Debates in both Houses, especially during 1858–9, contain numerous references to Lord Cowley.]

E. F.