Henry Petty Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne (1845-1927), was a pillar of the British Empire and the quintessential aristocratic soldier, scholar and statesman who held senior positions in Liberal and Conservative cabinets from the House of Lords as well as retaining the respect of both King Edward VII and King George V. He served as a model Governor General of Canada, Viceroy of India, Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
Though the 5th Marquess never rose to the position of Prime Minister as did his Great grandfather the 1st Marquess, his contribution to British political and colonial life arguably outranked his ancestor in both longevity and legacy. Born in London, the Marquess was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford before succeeding his father as 5th Marquess of Lansdowne and 6th Earl of Kerry aged only twenty-one. The Marquess inherited a vast fortune as well as a magnificent Wiltshire estate Bowood House, the Irish estate Derreen House in County Kerry with over 121,000 acres of land and the Adam-designed London townhouse Lansdowne House that dominated Berkeley Square.
Lord Lansdowne entered the House of Lords as a Liberal peer in 1866 and served in William Gladstone’s government as a Lord of the Treasury from 1869-1872 and Under Secretary of State for War from 1872-1874. In 1883 he was appointed Governor General of Canada succeeding the popular Marquess of Lorne and his Marchioness Princess Louise, a daughter of Queen Victoria. Lansdowne’s love for outdoor sports at which he excelled – such as salmon fishing, trapping, winter sports and horse riding – endeared him to the Canadian populace. Though based at the Governor General’s residence Rideau Hall, Lansdowne and his wife the Marchioness travelled extensively in Canada and established organisations such as the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Lady Lansdowne, who the Marquess had married in 1869, was a popular consort and was decorated with the Order of Victoria & Albert and the Imperial Order of the Crown of India for her services to the nation in the colonies. Tory Prime Minister the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury offered Lord Lansdowne the Viceregency of India in 1888; a post he held with great success until 1894. His achievements in India included suppressing a revolt in the independent state of Manipur, founding an imperial library and record office, abolishing the presidential army system, closing Indian mints to the free coinage of silver, reorganising the police, reconstituting legislative councils and extending both the railways and irrigation works.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography writes that the Marquess of Salisbury was distinguished by his ‘excellent combination of intelligence and patience, joined to a knack for acting at the right time in the right way’. Indeed, history has been kinder to the Marquess than his contemporaries. As Secretary of State for War (1895-1900), he was criticised for the British Army’s unpreparedness to engage in the Second Boer War. In 1916 his memorandum to the British cabinet recommending peace with Germany during World War I earned him condemnation from his peers and the press.
As Lord Lansdowne (quite rightly) wrote to The Times in 1917, ‘we are not going to lose this war but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it. We do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a great power’. Lest we forget, it was Lansdowne under the patronage of King Edward VII who negotiated the Entente Cordiale with the French government in 1904 just as he had signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902 at his London townhouse Lansdowne House.
Lord Lansdowne retained the confidence of two monarchs; aided no doubt by Lady Lansdowne’s position at Court as Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Alexandra between 1905-1909 and Extra Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Mary from 1910-1925. At Lady Lansdowne’s suggestion, Lansdowne House was given over as HQ for the Officers’ Families Fund in World War I and the Orangery at Bowood House was converted into an auxiliary Red Cross Hospital. The Marquess of Lansdowne died of a heart attack at Lismore Castle, the Irish home of his daughter Evelyn who was married to the 9th Duke of Devonshire and is buried at Bowood House. Lansdowne House, once home to William Pitt the Younger, William Waldorf Astor, Prime Minister the 5th Earl of Rosebery, department store entrepreneur Gordon Selfridge and several generations of Lansdowne Marquesses is now a private members’ club.