Stepney, George (DNB00)

STEPNEY, GEORGE (1663–1707), poet and envoy, descended from the Stepneys of Prendergast in Pembrokeshire, was the son of George Stepney, groom of the chamber to Charles II, and grandson of Sir Thomas Stepney, knt., cupbearer to Charles I, by his wife, Mary, eldest daughter and coheiress of Sir Bernard Whetstone, knt., of Woodford, Essex. He was born at Westminster in 1663, and was educated at Westminster School, where he was admitted on the foundation at Whitsuntide 1676, and formed his lifelong friendship with Charles Montagu (afterwards Earl of Halifax) [q. v.] After passing the unusual time of six years as a king's scholar at Westminster, he was elected a scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, at Whitsuntide 1682. At Cambridge Stepney appears to have acquired a great reputation as a writer of Latin verse, and his ode on the marriage of the Princess Anne to Prince George of Denmark was published in the ‘Hymenæus Cantabrigiensis’ (Cambridge, 1683, 4to). He graduated B.A. in 1685, M.A. in 1689, and on 12 Sept. 1687 was elected a major fellow of his college without passing through the intermediate step of a minor fellowship. Though Stepney wrote some fulsome lines on the death of Charles II, in which he compared James II to Hercules, he joined the winning side at the Revolution, and, with the aid of his friend Montagu, entered upon a successful diplomatic career. He became secretary to Sir Peter Wych at Hamburg, and subsequently to James Johnson at Berlin (Addit. MS. 5881, f. 24). In 1695 he was sent as envoy to the electors of Saxony and Brandenburg, and in 1696–7 to the electors of Mayence, Treves, and Cologne, the elector palatine, the landgrave of Hesse, and the congress at Frankfort. In June 1697 he was appointed a commissioner of trade and plantations, a post which, in spite of his diplomatic work, he retained until his death. In 1698 he was again sent to Brandenburg, and subsequently to Warsaw. In March 1702 he went a second time as envoy to Vienna. In 1705 a misunderstanding arose between him and Count Wratislaw, the imperial minister, which became so serious that Prince Eugène insisted upon Stepney's recall, and presented a formal complaint from the emperor against Stepney's supposed partiality to the cause of the Hungarian insurgents. The Duke of Marlborough, who placed the fullest confidence in Stepney, succeeded in persuading Eugène to withdraw the demand, though he afterwards ‘privately engaged to remove Mr. Stepney from the embassy’ (Coxe, Memoirs of John, Duke of Marlborough, 1818–19, i. 382–3, 498). In May 1706 Stepney was sent to take possession of the lordship of Mindelheim, which had been conferred on Marlborough by the emperor (ib. pp. 529–42). In October following he was transferred from Vienna to The Hague, where he succeeded Stanhope as envoy. He was taken seriously ill ‘of the bloody flux’ in August 1707, and returned to England in the vain hope that the change might benefit him (Luttrell, A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs, 1857, vi. 206). He died unmarried in Paradise Row, Chelsea, on 15 Sept. 1707, and was buried in great state on the 22nd in Westminster Abbey, the pall being carried by two dukes, two earls, and two barons (ib. vi. 215). An elaborate monument, with a long and complimentary epitaph, surmounted by his bust, was subsequently erected to his memory in the south aisle of the Abbey.

Stepney was more successful as a diplomatist than as a poet. Though his juvenile compositions are said to have made ‘grey authors blush’ (Works of Samuel Johnson, 1810–11, ix. 293), his poems are few and of little merit. He was ‘a very licentious translator,’ and did not, as Johnson remarks, ‘recompense his neglect of the author by beauties of his own’ (ib.) Macky declares that ‘no Englishman ever understood the affairs of Germany so well, and few Germans better.’ According to the same authority, Stepney spoke ‘all the modern languages, as well as antient, perfectly well,’ was ‘a thorough statesman,’ and ‘of very good, diverting conversation’ (Secret Services of John Macky, 1733, p. 142). Stepney was also a bright and perspicuous letter-writer. Extensive collections of his correspondence are preserved in the British Museum and in the Public Record Office (see ‘Stepney Collection’ in 42 vols. P.R.O. Archives 48–89). Another large and important collection is in the possession of the Earl of Macclesfield (Hist. MSS. Comm. 1st Rep. p. ix, app. pp. 34–40).

Stepney was a member of the Kit-Cat Club. His portrait, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, was engraved in mezzotint by Faber.

Stepney contributed a translation of Ovid's elegy on the death of Tibullus to Dryden's ‘Miscellany Poems’ (1684), and of the eighth satire of Juvenal to ‘The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis translated into English verse by Mr. Dryden and several other eminent hands’ (1693). His poems have been reprinted in Chalmers's ‘English Poets’ and similar collections. He published:

  1. ‘An Epistle to Charles Montagu, esq., on his Majesty's Voyage to Holland,’ London, 1691, fol.
  2. ‘A Poem dedicated to the Blessed Memory of her late Gracious Majesty Queen Mary,’ London, 1695, fol.
  3. ‘An Essay upon the Present Interest of England. To which are added the Proceedings of the House of Commons in 1677 upon the French King's Progress in Flanders’ (anon.), London, 1701, 4to; reprinted in the ‘Somers Collection of Tracts,’ 2nd edit. xi. 195–227.
[Authorities quoted in text; Harrison's Notices of the Stepney Family, 1870, pp. 9, 22–8; Memoir of the Celebrated Persons comprising the Kit-Cat Club, 1821, pp. 205–6 (with portrait); Alumni Westmon. 1852; Chester's Westminster Abbey Registers (Harl. Soc.), 1875, x. 259–60, 299 n., 311 n., 385 n.; Addit. MSS. (Brit. Mus.) 5881 f. 24, 5846 ff. 123, 167, 9387; Dart's Westmonasterium, 1742, ii. 82, 83–4; Cantabr. Grad. 1800, p. 400; Cibber's Lives of the Poets, 1753, iv. 72–6; Nichols's Select Collection of Poems, 1780–2, iv. 133; Burnet's History of his Own Time, 1833, iv. 501, v. 239, vi. 293; Swift's Works, 1814, x. 313; Granger's Biogr. Hist. of England, 1804, ii. 396 n.; Noble's Continuation of Granger, 1806, ii. 174–5; Faulkner's Chelsea, 1829, ii. 201–2, 321; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. xi. 225; Brit. Mus. Cat. Some of his correspondence has been printed in Abraham Hill's Familiar Letters (1767), Lord Hardwicke's Miscellaneous State Papers (1778), Rebecca Ward's Epistolary Curiosities, 2nd ser. (1818), Coxe's Memoirs of the Duke of Marlborough (1818–19), Gentleman's Magazine for 1837 (ii. 362–5), James's Letters illustrative of the Reign of William III (1841), The Lexington Papers (1851), Kemble's State Papers (1851), and Angol Diplomatiai Iratok II. Rákóczi Ferencz Korára: Angol Levéltárakból Közli Simonyi Ernö in the Archivum Rákócziánum published by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.]

G. F. R. B.