Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon
Shelfmark: MS. Eng. d. 3851, fol. 74r
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- Lord North in the Suds
- The State Test or the Subversion of Parties
- Sale catalogue of household goods and furnishings at Rycote Park
- Catalogue of the library at Rycote House of Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon
- Lease of Rycote Park from Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon, to Thomas Cussans
- Letter from the 4th Earl of Abingdon declining to support an Oxford parliamentary candidate
- Thoughts on the Letter of Edmund Burke
- Agreement between the 4th Earl of Abingdon and Richard Way for the sale of the Earl's goods
Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon
A maverick politician, the 4th Earl of Abingdon's speeches in the House of Lords were noted for being “peculiarly eccentric.” An outspoken critic of Lord North and his administration, he rigorously defended the liberties of the American colonies, yet denounced the French Revolution as a threat to “the Happiness of the whole habitable Globe.” Abingdon was a keen musician from an early age. A gifted composer in his own right, he was a noted patron in the London music scene. He was plagued by financial problems from the moment he inherited the earldom and his own extravagant lifestyle did little to alleviate his problems. He died insolvent in 1799.
Willoughby Bertie was born 16 January 1740, the second son of Willoughby Bertie, 3rd Earl of Abingdon, and his wife Anna Maria Collins (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 1, p. 48). He became his father’s heir, styled Lord Norris, when his elder brother James was killed in a fire at Rycote in 1745 (MS. Gough Oxon. 31, fol. 215). He succeeded his father as 4th Earl of Abingdon on 10 June 1760 (House of Commons 1715-54, vol. 1, p. 460).
Upon the completion of his education, Abingdon made an extensive tour of the continent. In February 1763 he is documented as being in Rome. He is then recorded as visiting Naples in March and Geneva in September. In February 1764 he is again recorded as being back in Rome and in September visited Florence. He returned to Geneva around July 1765 (Ingamells, Travellers in Italy, p. 2). During his time in Switzerland, Abingdon visited Voltaire at Ferney (McCulloch, 'Musical Oeuvre', p. 1). Abingdon married, on 7 July 1768, Charlotte, daughter of Sir Peter Warren (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 1, p. 48). The marriage produced ten children.
Abingdon earned himself the reputation of a political maverick. His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine remarked that “his frequent speeches in the House of Peers were peculiarly eccentric” (Gent. Magazine, (Oct. 1799): p. 903). He was particularly hostile to the administration led by Lord North. He vehemently opposed the war against the rebelling American colonies which he condemned as “cruel and unjust” (Bertie, Affairs of America, p. 1). In July 1782 Abingdon provoked outrage in Ireland when he introduced a bill in the House of Lords to assert Parliament’s right to legislate over Ireland’s foreign affairs (Bertie, Affairs of Ireland, pp. 11-17). Not a single peer supported it (Lowe, 'Willoughby Bertie', ODNB). He was opposed to the abolition of the slave trade. He argued that the movement for abolition was simply the result of a “new philosophy” inspired by the new French republic. He denounced revolutionary France as a “Savage Nation” that espoused “principles by which all of Europe is already convulsed, and with the direful influence of which, the Peace, the Order, the Subordination, the Happiness of the whole habitable Globe is threatened” (Bertie, Abolition of the Slave Trade, p. 6).
The Earl was a keen musician from an early age. His father’s estate accounts for 1755 record a music master being employed for the young Lord Norris (MS. Top. Oxon. b. 179, fol. 17). The accounts for the following year reveal that he was receiving instruction from a flute master (MS. Top. Oxon. b. 180, fol. 16v). Abingdon’s passion for music was retained throughout his adult life. He is credited with the composition of one hundred and twenty musical works (McCulloch, 'Musical Oeuvre', pp. 9-27). He was also a musical patron, most notably of Joseph Haydn during his time in England, 1791-1795 (Landon, Haydn, p. 231). He was also joint organiser, with his brother-in-law Sir John Gallini, of the Bach-Abel concerts in London (McCulloch, 'Musical Oeuvre', p. 2). Haydn, Carl Friedrich Abel and Johan Christian Bach are among the composers who dedicated works to the Earl (McCulloch, 'Musical Oeuvre', pp. 4-5).
Abingdon was plagued with financial difficulties from the moment he inherited the earldom in 1760. His father bequeathed him colossal debts amounting to £129,000 (MS. D.D. Bertie c. 2, item 1). Over the course of the next eight years he was forced to liquidate assets totalling just over £186,000 in an attempt to ease his situation. Despite these efforts, his finances declined into chaos. His own spending habits must have done little to alleviate his plight. He invested considerable sums restyling both the mansion and grounds at Rycote (MS. Top. Oxon. b. 177, fol. 51; Stroud, Capability Brown, p. 142). An alleged fondness for the turf can only have exacerbated the problem (Bertie, Adieu to the Turf).
The Earl died 26 September 1799 and was buried at Rycote Chapel. A legal opinion, drawn up in 1799, declared that he had died insolvent (MS. D.D. Bertie c. 2, item 17, p. 11). His wife predeceased him on 28 January 1794 (Cokayne, Complete Peerage, vol. 1, p. 48).