An intriguing fellow, was Francis Burdett. Born on 25th January 1770 in Wiltshire, he was the grandson of the Baronet of Foremark. He was educated at Westminster School and Oxford University and after completing his education, he did what was expected of him – he went off on his Grand Tour through Europe. Back he came in 1783 and soon married Sophia Coutts, the daughter of the banker, Thomas Coutts. Her dowry was a staggering £25,000, making young Francis a very rich man. In 1797 Coutts purchased the rotten borough of Boroughbridge from the Duke of Newcastle for £4,000; he gave the seat to his ambitious son-in-law and Francis became an independent MP.
He declined to join either the Whigs or the Tories and in his maiden speech on the thorny topic of Ireland he upset nearly all his parliamentary colleagues by declaring that that the government was guilty of the “oppression of an enslaved and impoverished people”.
In 1797 he became the Fifth Baron of Foremark following his grandfather’s death that year.
Burdett strongly opposed William Pitt’s suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus in 1796 and was highly critical of the government’s efforts to suppress the rights of the individual. As he himself later declared “The best part of my character is a strong feeling of indignation at injustice & oppression and a lively sympathy with the sufferings of my fellows.” A less endearing quality was his melancholia, pedantry, and quick temper. Also, despite fathering six children by his long suffering wife he appears to have had several more by his mistress Lady Oxford.
Burdett denounced Great Britain’s war with France, and was one of the few members of the House of Commons who supported the idea of parliamentary reform in the early years of the 19th Century.
In 1802 he was elected to Parliament as Member for Middlesex but later elections were rigged against him and Burdett spent a fortune (estimated at £100,000) successfully contesting the results. In 1807, following the death of Charles James Fox he stood for Westminster on a Reform ticket and was returned with a huge majority – gaining more votes than all the other candidates put together.
In 1810 he spoke in the House against the imprisonment of a radical by the name of John Gale Jones and then compounded his unpopularity with the government by “leaking” the entire speech to William Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register (a clear breach of Parliamentary privilege). The authorities were outraged. He was arrested, charged, and ordered to be imprisoned in the Tower of London. He responded by barricading himself in his home for two days. Soldiers forced their way in and carted him off to prison. Later (1820) he was charged with seditious libel, heavily fined and again imprisoned for criticising the government’s handling of the Peterloo Massacre (in which eleven people died and hundreds were injured when the army fired shots into a crowd of activists).
Burdett campaigned for parliamentary reform and in particular called for universal male suffrage. He wanted reform of the Parliament so that all constituencies had the same number of voters. He opposed corporal punishment in the army, sought strenuously to stamp out corruption and nepotism, and supported the abolition of the Slave Trade. He also supported Catholic Emancipation. But as he got older his enthusiasm for radical ideas started to fade, and he ended up representing the Tories as MP for North Wiltshire until his death.
His wife, Lady Burdett, to whom he had eventually become devoted, died on 13 January 1844. Sir Francis simply lost the will to live – gave up eating and drinking, and died ten days later just two days short of his 74th birthday. He and his wife were buried at the same time in the same vault at Ramsbury Church, Wiltshire.
The man was certainly a thorn in the side to the Government on many issues, and his opponents did all they could to smear his name and ridicule his ideas. Take this caricature from 1810:
“A Rough Sketch of the Times as Deleniated by Sir Francis Burdett” appears courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library site and invites the viewer to decide whether the true character of Frances Burdett is the fine upstanding gentleman on the left, or the duplicitous rogue on the right. The figure on the left is described as The Genius of Honour and Integrity and sports such attributes as:
A sound mind, an eye ever watchful to the welfare of his fellow citizen, a tongue that never belied a good heart. He bends a knee to religion, is a staunch supporter of the Bill of Rights, an advocate of fair representation for the people [well, the males at any rate] and is a lover of peace.
Contrast that with his alter ego wearing the collar of corruption, with hands of extortion holding a bag containing Pensions Reversions and Perquisites of Office. He carries secret service money in his back pocket and has a cringing soul, while sitting for a rotten borough. He has an eye to interest and a pampered appetite, legs of luxury and goes under the heading The Monster of Corruption.
Take your pick!