As The Actress Said to the Cabinet Minister …(3)

Part 3: The Cabinet Minister: William Windham

Portrait of William Windham at his Norfolk home, Felbrigg Hall

What of the Cabinet Minister of the title of this post: William Windham? He was a major figure in the politics, arts and society of late Georgian England. In maturity, William was handsome, serious, scholarly and principled; a man possessing close to the “ten thousand a year” sought by Jane Austen heroines. He might almost have been a model for Mr. Darcy, if you add a political career which Darcy didn’t have.

The Windham family had been squires of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk since around 1450. Never in the forefront of fashion or politics until this William, the third of that name, inherited the estate (When necessary, I’ll refer to him as William III from now on). Always wealthy though and generally cultured. Our William’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather had been highly educated, even somewhat bookish. They had improved their estates and managed their fortune with sufficient care to survive even the South Sea Bubble disaster with much of their wealth intact.

The core of their prosperity came, of course, from their lands. Rich, Norfolk farmland it was too. Good for growing wheat and especially barley, as well as raising large numbers of cattle for the London markets. They also planted many acres of oaks and chestnut trees for timber. Indeed, while ‘Turnip’ Townsend and Coke of Norfolk, both neighbours, gained the publicity for introducing high-input farming methods and proper crop rotation to the public, recent research suggests that neither was doing much more than ‘writing up’ and popularising farming methods developed on the Felbrigg and Blickling estates over the previous century.

Early Years

As a boy, William was pugnacious and athletic; a boxer, like his father had been, and nick-named “Fighting Windham” at Eton. Indeed, he was removed from Eton aged 16 to avoid expulsion, having been found taking part in some serious “commotions”. His guardians sent him to Glasgow University for a year, before going up to Oxford. While at Glasgow, he developed a lifelong interest in mathematics and the sciences.

In many ways, this close friend of the leading dramatic actress of the day revealed himself to be an odd mixture of extrovert and introvert, conservatism and liberal views. In his personal life, he was self-critical and indecisive, more a follower than a leader. He was quite old-fashioned in some ways, favouring old ‘country’ pastimes like camping (a primitive and very violent form of football). He even strenuously opposed a bill seeking to outlaw bull-baiting.

William’s father married a widow with two sons, very much against the wishes of his own father. Her background was somewhat too humble for Windham family taste. Her first husband just qualified as a gentleman, but little more. Her parentage was shrouded in mystery. The elder William had taken her as one of several mistresses he had in London, then married her when she became pregnant with his only son. There were no more children and the father died when his son was only 11. William’s mother seems to have been a trial to him throughout her life: demanding, hectoring and constantly urging him to find preferment for her children by her previous marriage.

Perhaps this was why he seems to have been absent from Felbrigg Hall a good deal, pursuing his political career in London and mixing in more congenial circles. It may also explain his difficulties with women. He thoroughly enjoyed their company and many chased him with a will, but he always managed to fall in love only with those who were unattainable. Even when he did marry in later life, happily enough, it appears, it seems to have been as much out of pity for a woman he felt his friend George Cholmondley of Houghton Hall had wronged as for real desire.

William’s father (I will call him William II for clarity, since his grandfather was William I) had, in his will, provided four guardians for his son: all friends from the days of his Grand Tour in the 1740s. One was David Garrick, the actor and theatre impressario who had “discovered” Sarah Siddons. Another was William II’s Grand Tour “bear leader”, Rev. Benjamin Stillingfleet, a noted botanist said to be the source of the term ‘bluestocking’. Richard Price, perhaps William II’s closest friend, was the third, but he died only a few days before William himself. The fourth was Dr. Thomas Dampier, the lower master at Eton College who later became Dean of Durham.

Garrick was not the only theatrical link in William III’s younger years. William’s closest friend at Oxford was the George Cholmondeley mentioned already, a member of the Walpole clan. George’s mother was the younger sister of Peg Woffington, the most famous actress of the previous generation. Peg became another bluestocking and an acquaintance of Dr. Johnson, though she had been seen as quite scandalous in her youth, like many actresses of her time, and had been Garrick’s mistress too. Other theatre lovers and important contacts for William III as he grew up included Fanny Burney, Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Mrs. Thrale and Mrs. Crewe.

All these were noted shapers of opinion and sources of status and influence. Patronage might flow from the court and the government, but it was frequently directed by recommendations and opinions from people such as these. Windham himself became an important source of patronage for his half-brothers, as well as later figures such as Humphrey Repton and Nathaniel Kent.

When Windham went to Italy for a 12-month mini-Grand Tour in 1779, Horace Walpole described him thus to Sir Horace Mann, Minister at Florence:

“He is young, but full of virtues, knowledge and good sense, and, in one word, of the old rock – of which so few gems are left in this wretched country!”

Time with Sarah

At the time when his contacts with Sarah Siddons were most frequent, William was therefore an up-and-coming backbench MP, elected in 1784, with excellent contacts amongst the leading Whigs of his day. To be seen in the company of the leading actress would be no harm to his career. However, evidence suggests he truly liked Sarah, and she him. For some years, he had been nursing a hopeless passion for yet another married woman (the sister of the woman he did marry later), so a chance of sophisticated female company without emotional complications was probably refreshing.

There have always been close parallels between the skills of acting and oratory, and William was a noted orator at a time when the competition was severe. Of his first politican speech (in Norwich, opposing the US Revolutionary War) Parson Woodforde wrote:

“… one Mr. Windham who spoke exceedingly well with great Fluency and oratory, but on the wrong side … Most people admired the manner of Windham’s speaking, so much elegance, fluency and action in it.”

In any culture where speech and oratory are important, the stage is often the most accessible place to see and learn the skills needed to deliver words effectively. Sarah Siddons’s command of delivery and emotion even led to her inclusion in rhetorical manuals of the day. William must have been her match, though in a different sphere. Fanny Burney described him as:

” … one of the most agreeable, spirited, well-bred and brilliant conversers I have ever spoken with.”

William Wilberforce, that tireless orator and campaigner against slavery, wrote:

“Windham’s mind was in the last degree copious, the soul was so fertile, scratch where you pleased, up came white clover.”

Patronage and Contacts

Politics in eighteenth-century England was not just about parliament and politicians; it also had a major social dimension. Famous and socially well-connected women, like Sarah Siddons, played an important role in bringing key political players together; and Windham had many dinners with her where other members of the elite were also present.

This combination of enjoyable, preferably female, company, supplemented by good food and drink, was a staple of eighteenth-century politics. Male-only dinners were not popular with either sex. As a result, the social position of a great artist and actress like Sarah Siddons rose steadily. By the end of the century, actresses’ patronage by the elite, representations of them (in role) by fashionable painters, and their influence on public opinion, had been translated into a strongly favourable public image, a transition greatly assisted by Siddons’s own fame and reputation.

Close Friendship

William Windham’s admiration of Mrs. Siddons’s acting is forcibly illustrated by a simple statement in his Diary. Under ‘May 24th, 1787,’ he wrote:

“Went out, in order to learn from Miss Adair whether I was to sup with her or not – or rather to put myself in the way of being asked, having been told by Mrs. Siddons the day before that she was to sup there.”

The high point of contact between them was in in 1784-6. By 1787, he notes in his diary that he is not seeing her so often, perhaps due to the demands of his rising political status. Through 1788 and 1789, his diary reveals that he still regularly dines in company with her or she with him and his friends. He also attends many of her performances. However, by 1793, he notes he has not seen her for “more than a twelvemonth”.

Was it just the demands of his position as Secretary at War in William Pitt the Younger’s cabinet (roughly the equivalent of today’s Minister of Defence) that led to a fall in contacts with Sarah? There’s no doubt the demands of global warfare against first Revolutionary then Napoleonic France put everyone connected with it under immense strain. Both Pitt and later Canning died young, worn out by the demands made of them. Windham, a close friend of Edmund Burke, was a bitter opponent of all the French Revolution and the First Empire stood for. Together with Britain’s spymaster, William Wickham – with whom he is sometimes confused – Windham channelled resources to Royalist and counter-revolutionary forces in France and helped plan risings and measures to destabilise Napoleon’s government.

An Intimacy Suspended

Mrs.Siddons certainly regretted the loss of contact and intimacy. She sent a sad letter to William on December 7th, 1795:

“My dear sir,

Amidst the stunning tumult of Politicks I doubt not that the still small voice of modest misery will find its way to your ear and enter your heart-nor will I do myself or you the injustice to suppose that you will be the less inclined to grant a request because it is made by one who is proud to remember an intimacy which did her infinite honour and which she flatters is only suspended, not broken off and in the recollection of which she feels herself in some sort authorised to lay the enclosed Memorial at your feet. Alas alas shall we never more take sweet counsel together!!!-and when a Man becomes a Statesman must his friends forever lose the pleasure and advantage of his conversation? I suppose this is a fatal necessity. If this is so, I shall never cease to lament it in your instance, because I must always remain with the utmost esteem

y[ou]r aff[ectiona]te serv[an]t
S. Siddons”

William’s reply does not appear to survive.

An Ending

By 1805, when Windham attends a performance in which Mrs. Siddons is acting, he notes that he has not seen her for years. There is perhaps a certain pathos in this remark, made by Sir George Elliot to his wife when Windham finally married Cecilia Forrest, the woman ‘wronged’ by George Cholmondeley and whom he had known for many years, Sir George said:

“I have seen Windham and his bride, and am quite delighted with her. She is a tall, showy woman, something in the Siddons style of figure and dimensions, with a remarkably sensible as well as pleasing countenance and an engaging manner.’

Sarah Siddons outlived William by many years. He died in 1810, in large part due to an injury sustained while trying to save a friend’s books from being destroyed by fire. He had no heir and the estate passed to his the family of his half-brother, who lost it all some fifty years later. Mrs. Siddons’ fame has lasted, while today her friend William Windham is largely forgotten by all save dedicated historians of the period.

I hope I have shown that this is unjust to a complex and attractive man. A man who managed to shine in many fields, even amongst a constellation of other political and literarystars whose lustre has not faded. A man whose friendship and counsel many treasured – not least the most famous tragic actress of her time and many years after.


William Savage lives near the beautiful North Norfolk coast in Eastern England and writes historical mystery novels, set in Norfolk between 1760 and 1800. The first book in the series, “An Unlamented Death“, appeared in January 2015. A second book is now in its final stages and will be published later in Spring 2015.

Will is also a local historian. In that guise, he researches topics relevant to the general period of his historical writing, gives talks to local groups and societies and is a regular volunteer guide at a nearby National Trust property. He finally has time for doing all this now he has retired.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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