William Pitt, the Elder | prime minister of United Kingdom | Britannica

William Pitt, the Elder

prime minister of United Kingdom
Alternate titles: 1st Earl of Chatham, Viscount Pitt of Burton-Pynsent, The Great Commoner
print Print
Please select which sections you would like to print:
While every effort has been made to follow citation style rules, there may be some discrepancies. Please refer to the appropriate style manual or other sources if you have any questions.
Select Citation Style
Corrections? Updates? Omissions? Let us know if you have suggestions to improve this article (requires login).
Thank you for your feedback

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

Join Britannica's Publishing Partner Program and our community of experts to gain a global audience for your work!

William Pitt, the Elder
William Pitt, the Elder
November 15, 1708 London England
May 11, 1778 (aged 69) Kent
Title / Office:
House of Lords (1766-1778), Great Britain prime minister (1766-1768), Great Britain House of Commons (1735-1766), Great Britain
Role In:
Seven Years’ War

William Pitt, the Elder, also called (from 1766) 1st Earl of Chatham, Viscount Pitt of Burton-Pynsent, byname The Great Commoner, (born November 15, 1708, London—died May 11, 1778, Hayes, Kent, England), British statesman, twice virtual prime minister (1756–61, 1766–68), who secured the transformation of his country into an imperial power.

Background and education

Pitt was born in London of a distinguished family. His mother, Lady Harriet Villiers, daughter of Viscount Grandison, belonged to the Anglo-Irish nobility; his father, Robert Pitt, member of Parliament, was the son of Thomas (“Diamond”) Pitt, governor of the East India Company’s “factory” at Madras (now Chennai), India, where he made a vast fortune and secured one of the world’s largest diamonds (sold in 1717 to the regent of France). “Diamond” Pitt had returned from India with a despotic temper made devilish with spleen and gout; he quarrelled violently with his wife and declared war on “that hellish confusion that is my family,” but he treated his grandson William with affection. Father Robert was mean and cantankerous, and the Villiers blood was notoriously unstable. William inherited the gout, as well as a haughty temper and a strain of manic depression.

Close-up of terracotta Soldiers in trenches, Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China
Britannica Quiz
History: Fact or Fiction?
Get hooked on history as this quiz sorts out the past. Find out who really invented movable type, who Winston Churchill called "Mum," and when the first sonic boom was heard.

Such was the background and the smoky, explosive inheritance that was suddenly to blaze into genius. But William’s passionate temper and Pitt truculence had to be disciplined, so he was sent to Eton College, where he acquired social polish and learned to be aloof and yet agreeable, to be politely insolent. Delicate health and the early onset of gout deprived him of field sports and hunting, but he learned to ride with a good seat and take his port wine, and he enjoyed the select company of clever and well-connected friends—the two Grenvilles (one to be Earl Temple; the other, George, to be first minister to George III), George Lyttelton, Charles Pratt (to become a follower of Pitt and, as the 1st Earl Camden, a member of his 1766 ministry), and other men who would later become influential in politics, as well as Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones. But Pitt hated the brutal harshness of Eton and determined to have his own sons educated at home. He continued his education at Trinity College, Oxford, but left after a year without taking a degree. He then spent several months at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, probably studying law.

His classical education made him think, act, and speak in the grand Roman manner. His favourite poet was Virgil, and he never forgot the patriotic lessons of Roman history; he constantly read Cicero, the golden-tongued orator who could yet lash offenders with his indignation. Later, in Parliament, his organ-like voice could be distinctly heard outside the House. This voice, perfect timing, and splendid gestures were worthy of David Garrick, the greatest actor of the day and a personal friend; Pitt’s lean, tall, commanding figure, combined with a Roman beaky nose and hawklike eyes—large and gray but turning black when he was roused—overwhelmed all onlookers. To his countrymen he was to become almost a divine portent, a voice from the Delphic oracle.

For the present, possessed of a mere £100 a year, he nevertheless rejected the church, a younger son’s last resort as a career. While he was vegetating on a small family property in Cornwall, which he called a “cursed hiding-place” in one of his many letters to his adored sister and confidante, clever Nan (Ann) Pitt, help came from a politically powerful millionaire nobleman, Lord Cobham, who lived in splendour in a palatial mansion and vast park at Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, to which William and his friends paid visits. Cobham sent William abroad on “The Grand Tour” of Europe (only France and Switzerland were visited, however) and later bought him a cornetcy—a commission—in his own regiment of horse (1731).

Early political career

In 1735 Pitt was offered one of the “pocket” boroughs his brother controlled, in Wiltshire, and entered Parliament. He belonged to the small group known as “Cobham’s cubs” and the “boy patriots,” the connection of family friends and place hunters whom Cobham was mobilizing to oppose the ministry of Sir Robert Walpole (later the 1st earl of Orford). Walpole had governed England since 1720, monopolizing patronage, and had—they thought—become too ready to compromise in foreign affairs for the sake of peace. The “patriots” joined other discontented Whigs such as John Carteret (later Earl Granville) and William Pulteney (later the 1st earl of Bath) to rally opposition forces behind Frederick Louis, prince of Wales, who was vehemently estranged from his father, King George II.

There were no formal political parties in the 18th century, and political power, together with the financial opportunities it brought, was a gift of patronage from a handful of landowning family oligarchies and from the monarch himself; nor was there a formal opposition in Parliament, and opposition to the king’s ministry was regarded as factious and even traitorous. Pitt’s maiden speech in Parliament was so critical of the ministry that it provoked Walpole to deprive him of his military commission, to “muzzle this terrible young cornet of horse.”

In 1737 the Prince of Wales made Pitt one of his court officials with a salary of £400 a year. He was still a relatively poor dependent of a powerful Whig clan but already showed an independence of mind and a readiness to appeal to public opinion outside Parliament that were new in English political life: when Walpole dismissed him from his cornetcy, he ostentatiously drove about London in a one-horse chaise to underline his poverty. His talents as an orator had already become clear. He repeatedly referred to the “voice of England,” which had to be sought outside Parliament because Parliament was so packed with placemen and sinecurists. He claimed to speak for the commercial interests and even for the colonies overseas, the latter scarcely represented in the Commons. He was using arguments that carried far beyond the close interests of the Whig families; but he made lasting and valuable friendship with the rich sugar planter-aldermen of the City of London in his opposition to Walpole’s cautious handling of the disputes with Spain over West Indian trade.

Walpole at last fell from power in 1742 and was replaced by a ministry that included his old colleagues Thomas Pelham-Holles, the 1st duke of Newcastle, and Philip Yorke, the 1st earl of Hardwicke, with Carteret as secretary of state. Pulteney was silenced by the grant of a peerage. The “boy patriots,” of whom Pitt was the acknowledged leader, were still excluded. They opposed Carteret even more vigorously than they had Walpole. In the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48), Pitt, a former warmonger, now vigorously opposed the sending of men and subsidies to check the French by protecting Hanover (the king’s territory in Germany) and condemned Carteret as a “Hanover troop minister”: for this he was never forgiven by his sovereign.

Pitt insisted that French power should be opposed at sea and in its colonial possessions, not on the Continent. When Carteret was forced to resign in 1744, Newcastle and his brother Henry Pelham took office and wanted to include Pitt in their ministry, but George II refused to accept him, though he did accept Cobham, Lyttelton, and Grenville. It was at this time that Pitt first appeared in Parliament swathed in bandages, on crutches, and with a huge gout boot on his foot, parading his illness. But, in the Jacobite rising of 1745 (the Forty-five Rebellion), Pitt gained new stature as the one effective statesman.

In February 1746 the king agreed to appoint Pitt joint vice treasurer of Ireland at £3,000 a year, and two months later he became paymaster general of the forces; he bowed very low as he kissed the king’s hands, but George wept with rage. The post of paymaster was one of the most sought after in government, with ample opportunity for corruption. There was an outcry from Pitt’s friends, who suspected he had been bought, but he proceeded to show both his contempt for moneymaking and his integrity as an honest but comparatively poor man by ostentatiously refusing to take for himself any more than the official salary of more than £4,000 a year: he put the interest that paymasters before had appropriated to themselves, together with the accounts of the paymaster’s funds, into the Bank of England and won the people’s hearts again. He introduced many reforms into the administration, and, though he supported the Pelhams’ alliance with Hanover (which was a change of tack), he tried also to strengthen British naval power.

A legacy of £10,000 from the old duchess of Marlborough at this time, left to Pitt “for the noble defence he has made for the support of the laws of England, and to prevent the ruin of his country,” enabled him to indulge in more lavish expenditure and generosity. He spent a good deal on landscape gardening and bought a new property near London. After a furious quarrel, he became estranged from his sister Nan, who had been his hostess for years.

When Henry Pelham died in office in 1754, Pitt hoped for advancement, but, after much reshuffling and intrigue, Newcastle and Henry Fox (later 1st Baron Holland) abandoned him for the sake of expediency. He then became ill and retired to a new house at Bath, groaning “I wish for nothing but a decent and innocent retreat, not to afford the world the ridiculous spectacle of being passed by every boat that navigates the river.” An invalid and an aging bachelor, he suddenly fell in love with Lady Hester Grenville, became engaged at once, and was married by November 1754. She was 33 and he 46, and she adored him, possibly from the times in her childhood when he had visited Stowe with her brothers. She was attractive, clever, patient, and eminently practical—particularly about money, arranging mortgages, satisfying creditors, and pouring away her own fortune, in his last years of grandiose extravagance, to protect him.

It proved to be an ideally happy marriage with a well-ordered, loving home and family (“the infantry” Pitt called them); later he was to be found making hay with them at Hayes Place, his house in Kent, going for picnics, and chasing butterflies. He magically became healthy and happy, ready for his last big parliamentary fight for high office. But first, because of his attacks on Newcastle’s ministry, he was dismissed, penniless, from the pay office in 1755. His brother-in-law Earl Temple helped with an annuity of £1,000.