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Henry Richard Vassall Fox, third Baron Holland, only son of Stephen, second lord Holland, by Lady Mary Fitzpatrick, daughter of John, earl of Upper Ossory, was born at Winterslow House, Wiltshire, on 21 November 1773. He was saved by his mother at the risk of her own life in a fire which destroyed the house on 9 January 1774. His father died on 16 December 1774, his mother in 1778, and he was brought up by his maternal grandfather and his uncle, Charles James Fox. He was educated at Eton, whence he proceeded, 19 October 1790, to Christ Church, Oxford, where he was created M.A. on 20 June 1792. Among his friends at school and college were Lord Carlisle, Canning, Hookham Frere, and Robert (‘Bobus’) Smith.
During the long vacation of 1791 he visited Paris, was introduced to Lafayette and Talleyrand, and returned to England in 1792 after visiting Denmark and Prussia. His guardians, to quench a premature interest in politics, sent him abroad in March 1793. He travelled in Spain and in Italy, where he met Nelson (at Leghorn), and settled at Florence in the autumn of 1794. Early in 1796 he returned to England, through Germany, with the wife of Sir Godfrey Webster. She continued to reside with him in England, and then gave birth to a son, whom he acknowledged for his own. Sir Godfrey Webster obtained a decree for a separation in February 1797. Lord Holland took his seat in the house of peers on 5 October 1796, where, on 9 January 1798, he made his maiden speech in the debate on the Assessed Taxes Bill. In spite of an ungraceful action and hesitating delivery he showed himself a useful recruit to the whig party. A clear and terse protest against the bill, which he entered on the journals of the house, was the first of a long series of similar documents afterwards collected and published under the title of ‘Opinions of Lord Holland.’
He at once became the recognised exponent in the House of Lords of his uncle's policy, resisting in the most determined manner suspensions of the Habeas Corpus Act, openly countenancing the United Irishmen, denouncing the union with Ireland as both unjust and impolitic, and afterwards endeavouring to insert a clause for the admission of Roman catholics to seats in parliament. In 1800 a royal license was granted to Lord and Lady Holland jointly (18 June) to take ‘the name of Vassall only after their own respective christian names'. In 1807 they adopted the signature Vassall Holland, although Vassall was no part of the title.
In the summer of 1800 Lord Holland paid a short visit to North Germany, returning to England, under a passport obtained through Talleyrand, by way of the Netherlands and France in the autumn. On the conclusion of the peace of Amiens in 1802 the Hollands went to Paris, and were presented to the first consul. From Paris they travelled to Spain, where they remained, chiefly at Madrid, until the spring of 1805. They returned to England in time to permit of Lord Holland's speaking in support of Lord Grenville's motion for a committee to consider the petition of the Irish Roman catholics for the removal of their disabilities (10 May 1805). The United States having sent commissioners to England to complain of various alleged infringements of their rights as a neutral power committed by English naval commanders, Lord Holland was appointed (20 August 1806) with Lord Auckland to negotiate with Messrs. Monroe and Pinckney, the American plenipotentiaries, an adjustment of the dispute. A treaty was concluded on 31 December, making some concessions, but as the question of impressment was left unsettled, President Jefferson refused to submit it to the senate for ratification, and it accordingly lapsed.
Though in right of his wife the owner of extensive plantations in Jamaica, Lord Holland was a consistent advocate of the emancipation of the slaves in the West Indies, and throughout life supported all measures against the slave trade. On 27 August 1806 he was sworn of the privy council, and on 15 October he entered the cabinet of All the Talents as lord privy seal, and was dismissed with his colleagues in March 1807. Lord Holland accompanied Sir David Baird to Corunna in September 1808, thence he passed into Spain, where he made a prolonged tour, returning in the autumn of 1809. On his return he moved (30 May) the second reading of the bill for the abolition of capital punishment in cases of stealing, took part in the debate on the state of the nation and the king's illness (27 December), and led the opposition to the proposal to establish the regency by legislation (4 January 1811). He moved for a return of all informations issued ex officio by the attorney-general between 1 January 1801 and 31 December 1810. The motion was negatived after a prolonged debate.
On 21 May he energetically opposed Sidmouth's measure for licensing dissenting ministers. In the debate on the orders in council (28 February 1812) he urged the expediency of an immediate rescission of the order of November 1807 prohibiting the trade with France to all the world; later on he supported the catholic claims, proposed to regulate the law of ex-officio information, and was in favour of treating with Napoleon as emperor. He vehemently attacked the treaty with Sweden (2 April 1813), by which England agreed, in consideration of some commercial concessions, to abet the Swedish designs on Norway. He visited Murat at Naples in 1814. On 8 April 1816 he vigorously opposed the bill for the detention of Napoleon as a prisoner of war, arguing that the detention must be justified by the law of nations or not at all. In 1817 he moved for papers relating to Napoleon's treatment at St. Helena. After the insurrection in Barbadoes, he moved (28 June 1816) for an inquiry into the condition of the negroes. He energetically opposed the various repressive measures which were carried out by Lord Sidmouth in 1817 and 1818.
He also opposed the Foreign Enlistment Bill, introduced in order to prevent persons being enlisted on British soil for the service of the insurgent Spanish colonies. Lord Holland took comparatively little public action in the case of Queen Caroline beyond expressing emphatically (7 June 1820) his disapproval of the ministerial plan of investigation by a secret committee, and supporting a regular legal procedure. During the following period he consistently supported the whig policy in regard to domestic and foreign affairs. He supported the cause of the Greeks, proposed forcible intervention in favour of Donna Maria on the usurpation of the Portuguese throne by Dom Miguel in 1828, and strongly condemned ministers in 1830 for preventing her adherents who had sailed from Plymouth from landing at Terceira. When at last the whigs were restored to power by the reform agitation, Lord Holland became chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster (25 November) in Lord Grey's administration. He held the place, with the exception of the brief interregnum in 1832 between Lord Grey's resignation (10 May) and his recall (18 May), until the dismissal of Lord Melbourne's administration (14 November 1834). He accepted the same place on Lord Melbourne's second administration (23 April 1835), and held it until he died, after a short illness at Holland House, on 22 October 1840. He was buried on 28 October in Millbrook Church, near Ampthill, Bedfordshire (the family seat). The following lines were found in his handwriting on his dressing-table after his death:—
Nephew of Fox, and friend of Grey,
Enough my meed of fame
If those who deigned to observe me say
I injured neither name.
A portrait of him (half-length) by Leslie is at Holland House, and another, by the same artist (full-length, with Lady Holland and John Allen), is in the possession of Earl Grey. At Holland House also are his portrait by Fabre and his bust by Nollekens; his statue by Watts is in the grounds. Greville, who knew him well, speaks of his ‘imperturbable temper, unflagging vivacity and spirit, his inexhaustible fund of anecdote, extensive information, sprightly wit,’ and ‘universal toleration and urbanity’ (Memoirs. 1837-52, i. 341). Brougham is equally complimentary to his engaging social qualities as well as to his high statesmanship and political magnanimity. Sydney Smith declares that ‘there never existed in any human being a better heart, or one more purified from all the bad passions, more abounding in charity and compassion, and which seemed to be so created as a refuge to the helpless and the oppressed.’ In his premeditated speeches, though closely reasoned and occasionally witty, he never escaped from his early defects; he was, however, more effective in his replies.
Lord Holland had lawful issue by Lady Holland, two sons, viz. Stephen, who died in 1800, and Henry Edward, who succeeded to the title and estate; and two daughters, viz. Mary Elizabeth, who married in 1830 Thomas Atherton, third baron Lilford, and Georgiana Anne, who died in her tenth year.
Lord Holland appears to have had rather more than the ordinary dilettante's appreciation of art, but no ear whatever for music. He was an accomplished scholar not only in the classical but in the modern languages, and made some trifling contributions to literature.
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