In the spring of 1691, two young English aristocrats on a grand tour of the Continent met in Venice and apparently liked one another well enough to begin a correspondence after they parted.2 The older of the two was Henry de Grey, Lord Ruthyn, then not quite twenty, the younger, the nineteen-year-old William, Lord Cavendish. Forty years later, in 1731, they were to become the grandfathers of Henry Cavendish, although William did not live long enough to know of this grandson.
The eldest sons of propertied English earls, the two young men, accompanied by tutors and servants, met as seasoned travelers despite their youth. William Cavendish
What did interest them was the war threatening between England (and its allies) and France, and the dynastic quarrels that were giving rise to it. The war might affect their travel plans as it did Henry de Grey’s, but, more important, it was to be fought to secure the rights to power and property of certain European ruling families; that was the usual purpose of wars then, and understandably a matter of concern to aristocrats of high rank like young Cavendish and Grey. “The Elector of Brandenburg has declared, that he will fulfill the Promise he made to the Duke of Lorraine, at the siege of Bonn, to maintain the interests of his children and to contribute to their restoration. The Emperor and all the allys have declared the same thing,” William Cavendish reported to Henry de Grey in the summer of 1691.5 Concern for the dynastic interests of the ruling family that an aristocrat chose to ally himself with was very much a concern for the interests of his own family. That was why William Cavendish was ready to risk his life in battle in 1691 and why his father had risked his life only three years earlier to secure the interests in England of the Protestant branch of the Stuarts.
The Cavendishes rose to their title relatively quickly, in not much more than a century, and they prepared for it by a steady accumulation of landed property until they were among the richest landowners in England. Along the way, they used some of their money to buy first a baronetcy and then an earldom when the political shifts of the seventeenth century from monarchy to commonwealth and back prompted the granting of royal favors. They remained loyal to the Stuarts—being prudent enough to make their peace with the commonwealth as well—until under Charles II such loyalty was no longer in their financial and political interest.7
If the dynastic concern of the Cavendishes was to further strengthen their newly found hold on the top rung of the social ladder, that of the Greys was to reclaim their former footing. The Greys had been earls of Kent since the fifteenth century, Henry de Grey’s father the eleventh of the line. But Henry’s branch of the family had succeeded to the title and the estate only in the middle of the seventeenth century, beginning with a country rector with a very large family who was too poor and too old to take his seat in the House of Lords. His successor, Henry’s grandfather, did enter politics, but on the wrong side as it turned out, adopting the cause of parliament against the king. After the restoration of the Stuarts, the Greys prudently kept their distance from court and parliament. In any case, their most pressing need was still to secure their estate and finances; at court or in government in those troubled years, they would only have risked making enemies or spending money that they could not afford. Taking big chances, as the earl of Devonshire had on behalf of William of Orange, was acceptable to a prudent man only if he had power, and power then derived from landed property. Nor would they take chances with the life of their heir. Instructing Henry to leave Holland before the king arrived there for his campaign, Henry’s father wrote to him: “It would be expected you should go to the campaign with him, and not to do it would be took ill both from your father and you.” So Henry traveled on to Geneva, safely away from the king, and from there, against his cautious parents’ wishes, into Italy.8
For ten years after his return from the Continent in 1691, Henry de Grey lived the life of a well-to-do private gentleman, in 1695 marrying Jemima Crewe
If Henry de Grey had any brothers, they died young, for soon the love and hope of his family focused on him. He responded by developing into an affectionate young man, good-natured and easy-going. Once he had a family of his own, his concern for his wives—after his first wife died, he remarried—and his children was reflected in their letters to him, full of warmth and appreciation. He was not especially gifted in anything, but he had sufficient intelligence and curiosity to inform himself on a wide range of subjects, including science, as his substantial library attests. He had sufficient vanity to aspire to important positions at court, lacking only the drive to work for such positions by seeking political power. “A quiet mind is better than to embroil myself among the knaves and fools about either Church or State,” he wrote in a moment of disappointment.9 He sought offices in the courtier’s way, by gaining favor with influential people and then using his connections to request honors and positions. The offices he accepted were administrative rather than political, requiring abilities well within his reach, drawing on skills he already exercised in the running of his estate. He attended the House of Lords dutifully even after he came to dislike the burden in his middle years.10 He displayed the same levelheaded estimate of his abilities in his later years, when his chief occupation came to be his estate at Wrest Park
The duke of Kent’s two sons Anthony
The Greys had a similar connection with another eminent scientist. For at least ten years beginning in 1736, the Kent estate served as a lecture theater in the physical sciences and an observatory of the heavens. In those years the duke of Kent and, after his death in 1740, the duchess of Kent employed Thomas Wright
Occupying 120 acres and enclosed by a two-mile gravel walk, the elegant garden at Wrest Park contained mementos of friends and of royalty whom the duke had served or admired, which included statues of King William (because the duke was a “good Whig”) and of Queen Anne (because she was a “good Servant”). Standing in a corner of the garden was a pyramid inscribed with the years of the beginning and end of the duke’s proud improvements of the estate. The larger setting, the park, contained 800 acres, enclosed by a grass walk, with plantations of lemon and orange, irregular clusters of “venerable” oaks, canals containing fat carp and pike, an obelisk eighty-six feet high, extensive lawns, a pavilion, a greenhouse, a bowling green, statues, vases, a temple of Diana, falls, ridings, and herds of deer. In the distance, cottages and churches could be seen, including a church resembling a picturesque ruined castle. The grand house of the estate was approached by a broad, tree-flanked avenue lying in the park. This description is from a letter written at Wrest Park in 1743, three years after the duke’s
Growing up in the shadow of the “Great Duke of Devon”—his contemporaries spoke of the first duke of Devonshire as if he were already a legend—Henry Cavendish’s other grandfather, William Cavendish
Of his relationship with his family we get a glimpse only now and then. On his Continental tour, as a newly married boy, too young yet to be allowed to live with his wife, he wrote considerate letters to his mother-in-law, Lady Rachel Russell
1.3 The Kents
William’s reliance on reason and integrity, a quality apparently shared by his wife, also is reflected in their family life. “I have always taken you to have a very good understanding,” Rachel wrote to James
From the time he returned from his Continental tour until his death in 1729, William Cavendish
That year her oldest son, William, began his parliamentary career as member for Derbyshire, his home county. The Russells, like the Cavendishes, had received official recognition for their services the year before, when William’s father was raised to a duke and Rachel’s grandfather, William Russell
The Revolution of 1688–89
Although this is not the place to discuss in detail the career of the second Duke of Devonshire, we believe it is important to give the reader an idea of it, since it enters into our understanding of his son Charles and his grandson Henry Cavendish. First, his, the second duke’s, public position affected theirs; for them, and for all those with whom they came into contact, their being a Cavendish was a matter of no small significance. Second, the nature of the duke’s career reveals much about his understanding of his public role and obligations, and, as we will see, Charles brought a similar understanding to his own public service, as did his son Henry. In his scientific work, Henry would not have had in mind his family’s political principles, but his aspiration suggests a comparison; the political Cavendishes secured the rights and laws of the kingdom, and another Cavendish in another endeavor sought the ruling laws of nature.
At the time Cavendish entered science, the Whig cause was nearly spent, and in a very general sense, power in society was coming to be determined less by custom and more by rule over nature, which included the experimental manipulation of nature. As human progress was seen to depend less on traditional authority and increasingly on the “authority of experiment,” landed families such as the Cavendishes had a vested interest in the world of Henry Cavendish. As improvers of their estates, which comprised gardens, farms, mines, and investments in technical properties such as canals, they were unwitting Baconians, advocates of applied science.41 Through their work in and for science, Charles in the second half of his life and Henry throughout his life were not as removed from the practical concerns of their family as might first appear. The fifth duke of Devonshire
M.L. Bush (1984, 12).
William Cavendish to Henry de Grey, 30 May/9 June 1691 and 23 Dec. 1691, Bedfordshire Record Office, Wrest Park Collection, L 30/8/14/1–2.
One of William Cavendish’s first stops on the Continent was Brussels. From there he wrote to his mother-in-law, Lady Russell, that he was about to continue on his tour, and she approved, “for to live well in the world; ’tis for certain most necessary to know the world well.” Rachel Russell (1793, 415–416). Henry de Grey, as “Lord Ruthven,” had been issued a pass on 16 April 1690 “to travel abroad for purposes of study.” George Edward Cokayne (1982, 3:176–178).
William Cavendish to Henry de Grey, 7/19 May 1691, Bedfordshire Record Office, Wrest Park Collection, L 30/8/21/1.
Cavendish to de Grey, 30 May/9 June 1691. Italics added.
John Pearson (1983, 68–71), Francis Bickley (1911, 170–174).
Pearson (1983, 61).
Joyce Godber (1982, 2–3).
Henry de Grey, duke of Kent to Prior, 26 July 1710, quoted in Ragnhild Hatton (1978, 121).
“Memoir of the Family of De Grey,” Bedfordshire Record Office, Wrest Park Collection, L 31/114/22, 23, vol. 2, 99.
The earl of Godolphin to the duchess of Marlborough, [24 April 1704]. John Churchill, duke of Marlborough (1975, 1:284).
“Cotes, Roger,” DNB 1st ed. 4:1207–9. There was a further connection between the Greys and Roger Cotes. Roger Smith, Cotes’s cousin and future successor to the Plumian Professorship, wrote to Thomas Birch, “As his [Cotes’s] father was rector of Burbage formally held by the Earl [later Duke] of Kent, so by his Mother (a daughter of Major Farmer [?] In Leicestershire) he was pretty nearly related to the present Duke.” Letter of 6 Jan. 1735/36, BL Add Mss 4318, f. 215.
Thomas Wright (1971).
David Jacques (1983, 70).
Entries from Thomas Wright’s diary, in Edward Hughes (1951, 13–22). His observations at Wrest Park are reported in 28 Oct. 1736, Journal Book of the Royal Society, 15:371. Hereafter JB, Royal Society
Bedfordshire Record Office, Wrest Park Collection, L 31/184.
Draft of a letter by Thomas Birch from Wrest Park, 28 Sep. 1743, British Library Add Mss 4326B, ff. 180–182. Hereafter BL.
Great Britain, Historical Manuscript Commission (1924, 60, 240, 268–269, 271–272, 276).
Lois G. Schwoerer (1988, 161–63).
Hiram Bingham (1939, 308).
Duke of Marlborough to earl of Godolphin, 14/25 June 1708, in Churchill (1975, 2:1011).
George I quoted by Lady Cowper, 10 July 1760, in Mary, Countess Cowper (1864, 115).
Lady Rachel Russell to William Cavendish, 5 Oct. 1688 (1793, 410).
Lady Rachel Russell to Dr. Fitzwilliam, 29 June 1688 (1793, 399).
Rachel, duchess of Devonshire, to James Cavendish, [late 1722 or early 1723], Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth.
Pearson (1983, 87–88).
Rachel, duchess of Devonshire, to James Cavendish, [late 1722 or early 1723].
Rachel, duchess of Devonshire, to James Cavendish, 20 Mar. 1723, Devon. Coll.
Rachel, duchess of Devonshire, to James Cavendish, 13 Feb. 1724, ibid.
Rachel, duchess of Devonshire, to James Cavendish, [late 1722 or early 1723].
Mary Berry (1819, 36).
Lady Rachel Russell to her daughter Rachel Russell, , Berry (1819, 81).
Rachel, duchess of Devonshire, to a friend, Feb. 1689, Berry (1819, 93–96, on 95).
Lady Rachel Russell to Mr. Owen, 23 Oct. 1691 (1793, 533).
W.L. Sachse (1975, 107).
Lois G. Schwoerer (1996, 47–57).
Henry Horwitz (1977, 250).
Schwoerer (1996, 49–57).
Horwitz (1977, 302–303). William Cobbett (1810, 5: cols. 256–57, 301).
Larry Stewart (1992, 253, 384–385, 391–393).
Table of Contents
Part I: Lord Charles Cavendish
1 The Dukes
Part II: The Honorable Henry Cavendish
17 Last Years
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