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Windham, William

WINDHAM, WILLIAM (1750-1810), English politician, came from an ancient family long resident at Felbrigg, near Cromer in Norfolk. His father, Colonel William Windham (1717-1761)^5 an adventurous soldier with a taste for languages, both ancient and modern; his son was born in Golden Square, London, on the 3rd of May 1750. He went to Eton, which he quitted in 1766 for the university of Glasgow, where he acquired the taste for mathematics which always distinguished him. In 1767 he matriculated as gentleman commoner at University College, Oxford, where he remained until 1771. He never took the degree of B.A., but qualified as M.A. on the 7th of October 1782, and received the degree of D.C.L. on the 3rd of July 1793. He made a tour in Norway in 1773 and visited Switzerland and Italy between 1778 and 1780. His maiden speech on the political platform was delivered at Norwich on the 28th of January 1778, when he vehemently opposed the prosecution of the American war. His entrance into public life took place in April 1783, when he went to Ireland as chief secretary to Lord Northington, the lord-lieutenant in the coalition ministry of Fox and Lord North. Windham was his own keenest critic, his distrust in his own powers and his disappointment at his own achievements being conspicuous on every page of his Diary. Sickness compelled his return to England early in July 1783, and he resigned his position in August; but change of scene and constant exercise restored him to health before the end of that year. In April 1784 he was returned to parliament as member for Norwich by a majority of 64 votes, thus scoring one of the few triumphs attained by the adherents of the coalition cabinet. This seat he retained until 1802, when he was beaten on account of his hostility to the peace of that year.

Though he strenuously opposed all proposals for parliamentary reform, to which most of the Whigs were deeply committed, Windham remained in alliance with that party until after the outbreak of the French Revolution, when he and several of his chief allies joined Pitt. The place of secretary-at-war was conferred upon him in July 1794, and he was at the same time created a privy councillor and admitted to a seat in the cabinet. Windham discharged the duties of his office with unflagging zeal, his efforts being particularly directed towards ameliorating the condition of the inferior grades of the army. In the autumn of 1zz 794 he was despatched to the duke of York's camp in Flanders with the views of his ministerial colleagues, but their advice could not counteract the military incapacity of the royal duke. When Pitt was frustrated in his intention of freeing the Roman Catholics from their political disabilities, Windham, who in religious matters always inclined to liberal opinions, was one of the ministers who retired from office in February 1801. He \\.is a constant opponent of all negotiations for peace with France, preferring to prosecute the campaign at whatever cost until some decisive victory had been gained, and the temporary peace of Amiens, which was carried through under Addington's administration, did not meet with his approval. When he was ousted from the representation of Norwich in June 1802, a seat for the pocket borough of St Mawes in Cornwall was found for him. He declined a place in Pitt's new cabinet (May 1804) on the ground that the exclusion of Fox prevented the formation of an administration sufficiently strong in parliament and the country to cope with the dangers which threatened the safety of the nation, and he offered a general opposition to the measures which the prime minister proposed. On Pitt's death in January 1806 the ministry of " All the Talents " was formed under the leadership of Lord Grenville, and Windham accepted the seals as secretary of state for war and the colonies. Fox's death necessitated several official changes; and a peerage was proposed for Windham, but he declined the proffered honour, and remained in office as long as the ministry existed. A general election took place in November 1806 and Windham was elected for the county of Norfolk; but the election was declared void on petition, and he was compelled to sit for the borough of New Romney, for which he had also been elected. In 1807, when parliament was dissolved under the influence of the " No Popery " cry of Spencer Perceval, a seat was found for Windham at Higham Ferrers. Liberty of religious opinion he uniformly supported at all periods of his life, and with equal consistency he opposed all outbreaks of religious fanaticism; hence with these convictions in his mind few of the domestic measures of the new ministers met with his approbation. Moreover, he disapproved of the expedition to the Scheldt, and thought the charges brought against the Duke of York, as commander-in-chief, required his retirement from office. At the same time he actively opposed the bill of Sir Samuel Romilly, his colleague on most political questions, for reducing the number of offences visited with the punishment of death. In July 1809 he .received a blow on the hip whilst rendering assistance at a fire, which he thought little of at the time; but a tumour subsequently formed on the spot and an operation became necessary. This brought on a fever, and Windham rapidly sank. He died on the 4th of June 1810, and was buried in the family vault at Felbrigg.

His speeches were published in three volumes in 1806, with a memoir by Thomas Amyot, his private secretary while he was in office in 1806, and his Diary was edited by Mrs Henry Baring in 1866. The passages in the latter work relative to Dr Johnson's declining days have been of considerable use to the later editors of Boswell.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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