Spencer Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire

Spencer Compton Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire KG GCVO PC PC (Ire) FRS (23 July 1833  24 March 1908), styled Lord Cavendish of Keighley between 1834 and 1858 and Marquess of Hartington between 1858 and 1891,[1] was a British statesman. He has the distinction of having served as leader of three political parties: as Leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Commons (1875–1880), of the Liberal Unionist Party (1886–1903) and of the Unionists in the House of Lords (1902–1903). After 1886 he increasingly voted with the Conservatives. He declined to become prime minister on three occasions, because the circumstances were never right. Historian Roy Jenkins said he was "too easy-going and too little of a party man." He held some passions, but he rarely displayed them regarding the most controversial issues of the day.[2]

The Duke of Devonshire

Leader of the Liberal Party
In office
3 February 1875  23 April 1880
Preceded byWilliam Ewart Gladstone
Succeeded byWilliam Ewart Gladstone
Leader of the House of Lords
In office
12 July 1902  13 October 1903
MonarchEdward VII
Prime MinisterArthur Balfour
Preceded byThe Marquess of Salisbury
Succeeded byThe Marquess of Lansdowne
President of the Board of Education
In office
3 March 1900  8 August 1902
Edward VII
Prime MinisterThe Marquess of Salisbury
Arthur Balfour
Preceded bySir John Eldon Gorst
Succeeded byThe Marquess of Londonderry
Lord President of the Council
In office
29 June 1895  19 October 1903
Edward VII
Prime MinisterThe Marquess of Salisbury
Arthur Balfour
Preceded byThe Earl of Rosebery
Succeeded byThe Marquess of Londonderry
Secretary of State for War
In office
16 December 1882  9 June 1885
Prime MinisterWilliam Ewart Gladstone
Preceded byHugh Childers
Succeeded byW. H. Smith
In office
16 February 1866  26 June 1866
Prime MinisterThe Earl Russell
Preceded byThe Earl de Grey
Succeeded byJonathan Peel
Secretary of State for India
In office
28 April 1880  16 December 1882
Prime MinisterWilliam Ewart Gladstone
Preceded byThe Viscount Cranbrook
Succeeded byThe Earl of Kimberley
Chief Secretary for Ireland
In office
12 January 1871  17 February 1874
Prime MinisterWilliam Ewart Gladstone
Preceded byChichester Parkinson-Fortescue
Succeeded byMichael Hicks Beach
Postmaster General
In office
9 December 1868  14 January 1871
Prime MinisterWilliam Ewart Gladstone
Preceded byThe Duke of Montrose
Succeeded byWilliam Monsell
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for War
In office
2 May 1863  17 February 1866
Prime MinisterThe Viscount Palmerston
The Earl Russell
Preceded byThe Earl de Grey
Succeeded byThe Lord Dufferin and Claneboye
Civil Lord of the Admiralty
In office
23 March 1863  2 May 1863
Prime MinisterThe Viscount Palmerston
Preceded bySamuel Whitbread
Succeeded byJames Stansfeld
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
In office
21 December 1891  24 March 1908
Hereditary Peerage
Preceded byThe 7th Duke of Devonshire
Succeeded byThe 9th Duke of Devonshire
Member of Parliament
for Rossendale
In office
18 December 1885  21 December 1891
Preceded byConstituency created
Succeeded byJohn Maden
Member of Parliament
for North East Lancashire
In office
27 April 1880  18 December 1885
Preceded byJames Maden Holt
Succeeded byconstituency abolished
Member of Parliament
for Radnor
In office
25 February 1869  27 April 1880
Preceded byRichard Green-Price
Succeeded bySamuel Williams
Member of Parliament
for North Lancashire
In office
24 April 1857  7 December 1868
Preceded byJames Heywood
Succeeded byHon. Frederick Stanley
Personal details
Born(1833-07-23)23 July 1833
Died24 March 1908(1908-03-24) (aged 74)
Cannes, France
Political partyLiberal
Liberal Unionist
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge
Shield of arms of Spencer Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire

Background and education

Devonshire was the eldest son of William Cavendish, 2nd Earl of Burlington, who succeeded his cousin as Duke of Devonshire in 1858, and Lady Blanche Cavendish (née Howard). Lord Frederick Cavendish and Lord Edward Cavendish were his younger brothers. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated as MA in 1854, having taken a Second in the Mathematical Tripos. He later was made honorary LLD in 1862, and as DCL at Oxford University in 1878.[3]

In later life he continued his interests in education as Chancellor of his old university from 1892, and of Manchester University from 1907 until his death. He was Lord Rector of Edinburgh University from 1877 to 1880.[3]

Liberal, 1857–86

After joining the special mission to Russia for Alexander II's accession,[4] Lord Cavendish of Keighley (as he was styled at the time) entered Parliament in the 1857 general election, when he was returned for North Lancashire as a Liberal (his title "Lord Hartington", by which he became known in 1858, was a courtesy title; as he was not a peer in his own right he was eligible to sit in the Commons until he succeeded his father as Duke of Devonshire in 1891). Between 1863 and 1874, Lord Hartington held various Government posts, including Civil Lord of the Admiralty and Under-Secretary of State for War under Palmerston and Earl Russell. In the 1868 general election he lost his seat; having refused the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland, he was made Postmaster-General, without a seat in the Cabinet. The next year he re-entered the Commons, having been returned for Radnor. In 1870 Hartington reluctantly accepted the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland in Gladstone's first government.

In 1875 – the year following Liberal defeat at a general election — he succeeded William Ewart Gladstone as Leader of the Liberal opposition in the House of Commons, after the other serious contender, W. E. Forster, had indicated that he was not interested in the post. The following year, however, Gladstone returned to active political life in the campaign against Turkey's Bulgarian Atrocities. The relative political fortunes of Gladstone and Hartington fluctuated – Gladstone was not popular at the time of Benjamin Disraeli's triumph at the Congress of Berlin, but the Midlothian Campaigns of 1879–80 marked him out as the Liberals' foremost public campaigner.

In 1880, after Disraeli's government lost the general election, Hartington was invited by the Queen to form a government, but declined – as did the Earl Granville, Liberal Leader in the House of Lords – after Gladstone made it clear that he would not serve under anybody else. Hartington chose instead to serve in Gladstone's second government as Secretary of State for India (1880–1882) and Secretary of State for War (1882–1885).

In 1884 he was instrumental in persuading Gladstone to send a mission to Khartoum for the relief of General Gordon, which arrived two days too late to save him.[5] A considerable number of the Conservative party long held him chiefly responsible for the "betrayal of Gordon". His lethargic manner, apart from his position as war minister, helped to associate him in their minds with a disaster which emphasized the fact that the government acted "too late"; but Gladstone and Lord Granville were no less responsible than he.[6]

Liberal Unionist, 1886–1908

The Duke of Devonshire by Sir Hubert von Herkomer

Hartington became increasingly uneasy with Gladstone's Irish policies, especially after the murder of his younger brother Lord Frederick Cavendish in Phoenix Park. After being elected in December 1885 for the newly created Rossendale Division of Lancashire, he broke with Gladstone altogether. He declined to serve in Gladstone's third government, formed after Gladstone came out in favour of Irish Home Rule (unlike Joseph Chamberlain, who accepted the Local Government Board but then resigned), and after opposing the First Home Rule Bill became the leader of the Liberal Unionists. After the general election of 1886 Hartington declined to become Prime Minister, preferring instead to hold the balance of power in the House of Commons and give support from the back benches to the second Conservative government of Lord Salisbury. Early in 1887, after the resignation of Lord Randolph Churchill, Salisbury offered to step down and serve in a government under Hartington, who now declined the premiership for the third time. Instead the Liberal Unionist George Goschen accepted the Exchequer in Churchill's place.

Having succeeded as Duke of Devonshire in 1891 and entered the House of Lords where, in 1893, he formally moved for the rejection of the Second Home Rule Bill. Devonshire eventually joined Salisbury's third government in 1895 as Lord President of the Council. Devonshire was not asked to become Prime Minister when Lord Salisbury retired in favour of his nephew Arthur Balfour in 1902. He resigned from the government in 1903, and from the Liberal Unionist Association the following spring, in protest at Joseph Chamberlain's Tariff Reform scheme. Devonshire said of Chamberlain's proposals:

I venture to express the opinion that [Chamberlain] will find among the projects and plans which he will be called upon to discuss none containing a more Socialistic principle than that which is embodied in his own scheme, which, whether it can properly be described as a scheme of protection or not, is certainly a scheme under which the State is to undertake to regulate the course of commerce and of industry, and tell us where we are to buy, where we are to sell, what commodities we are to manufacture at home, and what we may continue, if we think right, to import from other countries.[7]

Balfour, trying to juggle different factions, had allowed both Chamberlain and Free Trade supporters to resign from the government, hoping that Devonshire would remain for the sake of balance, but the latter eventually resigned under pressure from Charles Thomson Ritchie and from his wife, who still hoped that he might lead a government including leading Liberals. But in the autumn of 1907 his health gave way, and grave symptoms of cardiac weakness necessitated his abstaining from public effort and spending the winter abroad. He died, rather suddenly, at Cannes on 24 March 1908.[6]

Military service

The Duke of Devonshire's grave in St Peter's Churchyard, Edensor
Statue of the Duke of Devonshire by Herbert Hampton in Whitehall, London

He served part-time as captain in the Duke of Lancaster's Own Yeomanry from 1855 to 1873, and was honorary colonel of the 3rd (Militia) Battalion of the Derbyshire Regiment from 1871 and of the 2nd Sussex Artillery Volunteers from 1887.[8]

Personal life

Hartington took great pains to parade his interest in horseracing, so as to cultivate an image of not being entirely obsessed by politics. For many years the courtesan Catherine Walters ("Skittles") was his mistress. He was married at Christ Church, Mayfair, on 16 August 1892, at the age of 59, to Louisa Frederica Augusta von Alten, widow of the late William Drogo Montagu, 7th Duke of Manchester. Upon his death, he was succeeded by his nephew Victor Cavendish. He died of pneumonia at the Hotel Metropol in Cannes and was interred on 28 March 1908 at St Peter's Churchyard, Edensor, Derbyshire. A statue of the Duke can be found at the junction of Whitehall and Horse Guards Avenue in London, and also on the Western Lawns at Eastbourne.


Upon receiving news of the Duke's death, the House of Lords took the unprecedented step of adjourning in his honour.[9] Margot Asquith said the Duke of Devonshire "was a man whose like we shall never see again; he stood by himself and could have come from no country in the world but England. He had the figure and appearance of an artisan, with the brevity of a peasant, the courtesy of a king and the noisy sense of humour of a Falstaff. He gave a great, wheezy guffaw at all the right things and was possessed of endless wisdom. He was perfectly disengaged from himself, fearlessly truthful and without pettiness of any kind".[10]

Historian Jonathan Parry claimed that "He inherited the whig belief in the duty of political leadership, afforced by the intellectual notions characteristic of well-educated, propertied early to mid-Victorian Liberals: a confidence that the application of free trade, rational public administration, scientific enquiry, and a patriotic defence policy would promote Britain's international greatness—in which he strongly believed—and her economic and social progress...he became a model of the dutiful aristocrat".[11] It has been said[according to whom?] that he was "the best excuse that the last half-century has produced for the continuance of the peerages".

With 24 years of government service, Devonshire's is the fourth longest ministerial career in modern British politics.[12]

Caricature of Spencer Compton Cavendish by Carlo Pellegrini


  1. His title "Lord Hartington", by which he became known in 1858, was a courtesy title; as he was not a peer in his own right he was eligible to sit in the Commons until he succeeded his father as Duke of Devonshire in 1891
  2. Roy Jenkins, "From Gladstone To Asquith: The Late Victorian Pattern of Liberal Leadership," History Today (July 1964) 14#7 pp 445-452 at page 445.
  3. "Cavendish, Spencer Compton, Lord Cavendish (CVNS850SC)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  4. Chisholm 1911, pp. 131–132.
  5. Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians, Chato & Windus, 1918; p. 289
  6. Chisholm 1911, p. 131.
  7. The Fiscal Question, HL Deb 22 February 1906 vol 152 cc456-86.
  8. Kelly's Handbook of the Titled, Landed and Official Classes, 1895. Kelly's. p. 368.
  9. Hansard, THE LATE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE HL Deb 24 March 1908 vol 186 cc1178-83 .
  10. Margot Asquith, The Autobiography of Margot Asquith. Volume One (London: Penguin, 1936), p. 123.
  11. Parry.
  12. Parkinson, Justin (13 June 2013). "Chasing Churchill: Ken Clarke climbs ministerial long-service chart". BBC News.

Further reading