James Harris, 1st Earl of Malmesbury

James Harris, 1st Earl of Malmesbury, GCB (21 April 1746 – 21 November 1820) was an English diplomat.

James Harris
The Earl of Malmesbury
Born(1746-04-21)21 April 1746
Salisbury, Wiltshire, England
Died21 November 1820(1820-11-21) (aged 74)
TitleEarl of Malmesbury
Other titlesViscount Fitzharris
Spouse(s)Harriot Mary Amyand[1]
IssueLady Frances Harris
Lady Catherine Harris
James Harris, 2nd Earl of Malmesbury
Rev. Hon. Thomas Alfred Harris

Early life (1746 – 1768)

Born at Salisbury, the son of James Harris, an MP and the author of Hermes, and Elizabeth Clarke of Sandford, Somerset.[2] He was educated at Winchester, Oxford and Law and History at the University of Leiden (1765-1767).[3]

Early diplomatic career: Spain (1768 – 1771)

Harris arrived in Spain in December 1768 and became secretary to the British embassy at Madrid, and was left as chargé d'affaires at that court on the departure of Sir James Grey in August 1769 until the arrival of George Pitt, afterwards Lord Rivers. This interval gave him his opportunity; he discovered the intention of Spain to attack the Falkland Islands, and was instrumental in thwarting it by putting on a bold countenance. As a reward he was appointed minister ad interim at Madrid.

Envoy-extraordinary in Berlin (1772 – 1776)

In January 1772 Harris was appointed envoy-extraordinary to Prussia in Berlin, arriving on 21 February. Within a month of his arrival he became the first diplomat to hear of Frederick the Great's partition of Poland with the cooperation of Russia.[2] His service in this office was undistinguished but he made an impression on Frederick, who requested that he be reappointed.[2]

Marriage (1777)

Harris married Harriet Maria Amyand (1761 – 20 August 1830[1]), the youngest daughter of Sir George Amyand MP (1720 – 1766) and Anna Maria Korteen. They had four children together:[1][2]

Envoy-extraordinary in St Petersburg (1777 – 1783)

In autumn of 1777, Harris travelled to Russia to be envoy-extraordinary to Russia, an office he held until September 1783. At St Petersburg he made his reputation, for he managed to get on with Catherine II, in spite of her predilections for France, and steered adroitly through the accumulated difficulties of the first Armed Neutrality. He was made a Knight of the Bath at the end of 1778; but in 1782 he returned home owing to ill-health, and was appointed by his friend, Charles James Fox, to be minister at The Hague, an appointment confirmed after some delay by William Pitt the Younger (1784).

The Hague (1784 – 1788)

He did very great service in furthering Pitt's policy of maintaining England's influence on the Continent by the arms of her allies, and held the threads of the diplomacy which ended in the king of Prussia's overthrowing the Patriot republican party in the Dutch Republic, which was inclined to France, and re-establishing the stadtholder William V, Prince of Orange in his dictatorial powers. As envoy, Harris immersed himself in Dutch politics from 1784 on and managed to become the de facto leader of the Orangist party. He and his French counterpart, Charles Olivier de Saint-Georges de Vérac, the French ambassador to the States General of the Netherlands, fought a secret war with the help of agents of influence, like the then-Grand Pensionary of the province of Zeeland, Laurens Pieter van de Spiegel, and the confidential agent Hendrik August van Kinckel, and spies like Pierre Auguste Brahain Ducange.[4] Harris returned to London in secret at the end of May 1787, where he managed to convince the Cabinet to endorse a policy of subversion in the Dutch Republic, to be funded by £70,000 from a slush fund, laundered through the king's Civil list. Harris agents used the money to bribe regiments of the Dutch States Army in the pay of the Patriot States of Holland, that had deposed the stadtholder as Captain-General of that Army, to defect. The counter-measures of the States of Holland precipitated a political crisis that prompted the States to ask for French mediation. The arrest of Princess Wilhelmina, the wife of the stadtholder, on 28 June 1782, gave Prussia and Great Britain an opening to muscle in on this diplomatic mediation, and eventually offered an excuse to intervene militarily.[5] In recognition of his services he was created Lord Malmesbury, Baron of Malmesbury, in the County of Wiltshire on 19 September 1788,[6] and permitted by the King of Prussia to bear the Prussian eagle on his arms, and by the Prince of Orange to use his motto "Je maintiendrai".

In 1786 he told Pitt that France was "an ambitious and restless rival power, on whose good faith we never can rely, whose friendship never can be deemed sincere, and of whose enmity we have the most to apprehend."[7] He also wrote to Robert Murray Keith: "...from everything I hear and observe, there is not the least doubt that France is working hard at the formation of a League, the object of which, is the Destruction of England."[8]

The historian Paul Langford has claimed that Harris "proved brilliantly effective as a focus for Orangist and anti-French feeling, and as the agent of Anglo-Prussian cooperation".[9]

Wilderness (1788 – 1793)

He returned to England and took an anxious interest in politics, which ended in his seceding from the Whig party with the Duke of Portland in 1793.

French Revolutionary War (1793 – 1797)

In that year he was sent by Pitt, but in vain, to try to keep Prussia true to the first coalition against France. In 1794, he was sent to Brunswick to solicit the hand of the unfortunate Princess Caroline of Brunswick for the Prince of Wales, to marry her as proxy, and conduct her to her husband in England. For once his diplomatic skills seem to have failed him: confronted with Caroline's bizarre manner and appearance, he sent no advance word to the Prince, who was so shocked by the sight of his future wife that he asked Malmesbury to bring him brandy.[10]

French peace missions

In 1796 and 1797 he was in Paris vainly negotiating with the French Directory, and then in Lille in summer 1797 for equally fruitless negotiations with the Directory's plenipotentiaries Hugues-Bernard Maret, Georges René Le Peley de Pléville and Etienne Louis François Honoré Letourner.

Due to bad roads in France, Malmesbury reached Paris on 22 October 1796, a week after leaving London. This led the foremost opponent of peace with France, Edmund Burke, to quip that his journey was slow because "he went the whole way on his knees".[11]

Later life (1798 – 1820)

After 1797, he became partially deaf, and quit diplomacy altogether; but for his long and eminent services he was on 29 December 1800 created Earl of Malmesbury and Viscount FitzHarris of Hurn Court in the County of Southampton.[12]

He now became a sort of political Nestor, consulted on foreign policy by successive foreign ministers, trusted by men of the most different ideas in political crises, and above all the confidant, and for a short time after Pitt's death almost the political director, of Canning. Younger men were also wont to go to him for advice, and Lord Palmerston particularly, who was his ward, was tenderly attached to him, and owed many of his ideas on foreign policy directly to his teaching. His later years were free from politics, and till his death on 21 November 1820 he lived very quietly and almost forgotten.


As a statesman, Malmesbury had an influence among his contemporaries which is scarcely to be understood from his writings, but which must have owed much to personal charm of manner and persuasiveness of tongue; as a diplomatist, he seems to have deserved his reputation, and shares with Macartney, Auckland and Whitworth the credit of raising diplomacy from a profession in which only great nobles won the prizes to a career opening the path of honour to ability. One historian called him "the greatest English diplomat of the eighteenth century."[13] Paul Langford has claimed "was by any standards a brilliant diplomat as well as an experienced one. Though he was not disposed to undervalue himself, neither were others; Talleyrand considered him the ablest British diplomat of the age and certainly his achievement at the Hague was to sustain such a judgement".[14]

Malmesbury remarked that it was "a truth inculcated into John Bull with his mother's milk, viz. that France is our natural enemy".[15] He said on another occasion that "The history of the present century afforded repeated proofs, that the English fought and conquered less for themselves than for the sake of their allies, and to preserve that equilibrium of power, on which the fate of all Europe depends".[16]

Malmesbury did not publish anything himself, except an account of the Dutch revolution, and an edition of his father's works, but his important Diaries (1844) and Letters (1870) were edited by his grandson.

He was a Member of Parliament (MP) for Christchurch from 1770 to 1774 and from 1780 to 1788.[17]


  1. "Person Page 47537". Thepeerage.com. Retrieved 29 June 2013.
  2. H. M. Scott, ‘Harris, James, first earl of Malmesbury (1746–1820)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009, accessed 7 Aug 2011.
  3. Kees van Strien, James Harris and Zélide in Lettre de Zuylen et du Pontet 28, (2003), p. 13-16
  4. Cobban, pp. 77-90, 105-120
  5. Cobban, pp.128-184
  6. "No. 13024". The London Gazette. 13 September 1788. p. 437.
  7. Jeremy Black, Natural and Necessary Enemies. Anglo-French relations in the Eighteenth Century (Duckworth, 1986), p. 70.
  8. Black, p. 70.
  9. Paul Langford, The Eighteenth Century 1688-1815 (Adam and Charles Black, 1976), p. 195.
  10. Plumb, J.H. The First Four Georges Batsford Ltd. 1956
  11. John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt. The Reluctant Transition (Constable, 1983), p. 645.
  12. "No. 15317". The London Gazette. 6 December 1800. p. 1375.
  13. Fulford, Roger Royal Dukes William Collins and Son 1933
  14. Langford, p. 190.
  15. Alfred Cobban, Ambassadors and Secret Agents: The Diplomacy of the First Earl of Malmesbury at The Hague (London, 1954), p. 89.
  16. Isabel de Madariaga, Britain, Russia and the armed neutrality of 1780: Sir James Harris's mission to St Petersburg during the American Revolution (Yale University Press, 1962), p. 204.
  17. Leigh Rayment's Historical List of MPs – Constituencies beginning with "C" (part 4)


  • Jeremy Black, Natural and Necessary Enemies. Anglo-French relations in the Eighteenth Century (Duckworth, 1986)
  • Alfred Cobban, Ambassadors and Secret Agents: The Diplomacy of the First Earl of Malmesbury at The Hague (Jonathan Cape, 1954).
  • John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt, 3 vols. (1969–96).
  • Paul Langford, The Eighteenth Century 1688-1815 (Adam and Charles Black, 1976).
  • Isabel de Madariaga, Britain, Russia and the armed neutrality of 1780: Sir James Harris's mission to St Petersburg during the American Revolution (Yale University Press, 1962).
  • H. M. Scott, ‘Harris, James, first earl of Malmesbury (1746–1820)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009, accessed 7 Aug 2011.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Malmesbury, James Harris, 1st Earl of". Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 493.

Further reading

  • The Third Earl of Malmesbury (ed.), Diaries and Correspondence of James Harris, First Earl of Malmesbury 4 vols. (1844).
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Hon. Thomas Robinson
James Harris
Member of Parliament for Christchurch
1770 – 1774
With: James Harris
Succeeded by
Thomas Villiers Hyde
James Harris
Preceded by
Thomas Villiers Hyde
James Harris
Member of Parliament for Christchurch
1780 – 1788
With: James Harris
Sir John Frederick, Bt
Succeeded by
Hans Sloane
Sir John Frederick, Bt
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Robert Gunning
British Minister to Prussia
Succeeded by
Hugh Elliot
Preceded by
Robert Gunning
British Ambassador to Russia
Succeeded by
Alleyne Fitzherbert
Preceded by
Sir Joseph Yorke
British Ambassador to the Netherlands
(Minister until 1788)

Succeeded by
Alleyne Fitzherbert
Preceded by
Sir Morton Eden
British Minister to Prussia
Succeeded by
Lord Henry Spencer
Honorary titles
Preceded by
The Lord Bolton
Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire
Succeeded by
The Duke of Wellington
Peerage of Great Britain
New creation Baron Malmesbury
Succeeded by
James Harris
Earl of Malmesbury

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