H. H. Asquith

H. H. Asquith

honorific-prefix = The Right Honourable
name =The Earl of Oxford and Asquith
honorific-suffix =

order =Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
term_start =5 April 1908
term_end =5 December 1916
monarch =Edward VII
George V
predecessor =Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
successor =David Lloyd George
birth_date =birth date|df=yes|1852|9|12|
birth_place =Morley, Leeds, Yorkshire, England
death_date =death date and age|df=yes|1928|2|15|1852|9|12
death_place =Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, England
spouse =Helen Melland (desc.)
Margot Tennant
party =Liberal
order2 =Chancellor of the Exchequer
monarch2 =Edward VII
term_start2 =10 December 1905
term_end2 =12 April 1908
predecessor2 =Austen Chamberlain
successor2 =David Lloyd George
alma_mater =Balliol College, Oxford, England
profession =Lawyer
religion =Congregationalist

Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, KG, PC (12 September 1852 – 15 February 1928) served as the Liberal Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1908 to 1916.

His premiership is notable for major social changes, for example National Insurance and pensions. He was the Prime Minister during the first two years of World War I before he was replaced by David Lloyd George in 1916.

Before his term as Prime Minister he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1905 to 1908 and as Home Secretary from 1892 to 1895.

During his lifetime he was known as H. H. Asquith before his accession to the peerage and as Lord Oxford afterwards.


He was born in Morley, West Yorkshire, England to Joseph Dixon Asquith (10 February 1825 - 29 March 1860) and his wife Emily Willans (4 May 1828 - 12 December 1888). The Asquiths were a middle class family and members of the Congregational church. Joseph was a wool merchant and came to own his own wool mill.

Herbert was seven years old when his father died. Emily and her children moved to the house of her father William Willans, a wool-stapler of Huddersfield. Herbert received schooling there and was later sent to a Moravian Church boarding school at Fulneck, near Leeds.

In 1863, Herbert was sent to live with an uncle in London, where he entered the City of London School. He was educated there until 1870 and was mentored there by its headmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott.

In 1870, Asquith won a classical scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. In 1874, Asquith was awarded the Craven scholarship and became president of the Oxford Union. He graduated that year and soon was elected a fellow at Balliol. Meanwhile he entered Lincoln's Inn as a student barrister and for a year served a pupillage under Charles Bowen.

He was called to the bar in 1876 and became prosperous in the early 1880s from practising law. Among other cases he appeared for the defence in the famous case of Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co


In his younger days he was called Herbert within the family, but his second wife called him Henry. However, in public he was invariably referred to only as H. H. Asquith. "There have been few major national figures whose Christian names were less well known to the public," writes his biographer, Roy Jenkins. [Roy Jenkins, "Asquith" (New York: Dutton, 1966), p. 13] His opponents gave him the nickname "Squiff" or "Squiffy", a derogatory reference to his fondness for drink. [cite news
title=The politics of drinking in power
work=BBC News

When raised to the peerage in 1925, he proposed to take the title "Earl of Oxford" for the city near which he lived and the university he had attended. Objections were raised, especially by descendants of Earls of Oxford of previous creations (titles by then extinct), and his title was given in the form Earl of Oxford and Asquith. In practice, however, he was known as Lord Oxford.

During Asquith's period as deputy to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, "C. B." was known to request his presence in parliamentary debate by saying, "Send for the sledge-hammer," referring to Asquith's reliable command of facts and his ability to dominate verbal exchange.


He married Helen Kelsall Melland, daughter of a Manchester doctor, in 1877, and they had four sons and one daughter before she died from typhoid fever in 1891. These children were Raymond (1878-1916), Herbert (1881-1947), Arthur (1883–1939), Violet (1887-1969), and Cyril (1890-1954). Of these children, Violet and Cyril became life peers in their own right, Cyril becoming a law lord.

In 1894, he married Margot Tennant, a daughter of Sir Charles Tennant, 1st Bt.. They had two children, Elizabeth Charlotte Lucy (later Princess Antoine Bibesco) (1897-1945) and the film director Anthony (1902-1968). In 1912, Asquith fell in love with Venetia Stanley, and his romantic obsession with her continued into 1915.

All his children, except Anthony, married and left issue. His best-known descendant today is the actress Helena Bonham Carter, a granddaughter of Violet.

Early career (1886-1908)

Asquith was elected to Parliament in 1886 as the Liberal representative for East Fife, in Scotland. He achieved his first significant post in 1892 when he became Home Secretary in the fourth cabinet of Gladstone. He retained his position when Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery took over in 1894. The Liberals lost power in the 1895 general election and for ten years were in opposition. In 1898 he was offered and turned down the opportunity to lead the Liberal Party.

After the Conservative government of Arthur Balfour fell in December of 1905 the Liberal Party formed a new cabinet and Asquith became Chancellor of the Exchequer under Henry Campbell-Bannerman. The party won a landslide victory in the 1906 general election. He demonstrated his staunch support of free trade in this post. He also introduced the first of the so-called Liberal reforms, but was not so successful as his successor David Lloyd George in getting this reforms through Parliament.

Campbell-Bannerman resigned due to illness in April 1908 and Asquith succeeded him as Prime Minister. The King, Edward VII, was holidaying in Biarritz, and refused to return to London, citing health grounds, although it is now known that he was enjoying the company of his mistress Alice Keppel. Asquith was forced to travel to Biarritz for the official "kissing of hands" of the Monarch, the only time a British Prime Minister has formally taken office on foreign soil.

Asquith's government (1908-1916)

Liberal reforms

The Asquith government became involved in an expensive naval arms race with the German Empire and began an extensive social welfare programme (See Liberal reforms), introducing government pensions in 1908. The social welfare programme proved controversial, and Asquith's government faced severe (and sometimes barely legal) resistance from the Conservative Party. This came to a head in 1909, when David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, produced a deliberately provocative "People's Budget". The Conservatives, determined to stop passage, used their majority in the House of Lords to reject the bill. The Lords did not traditionally interfere with finance bills and their actions thus provoked a constitutional crisis, forcing the country to a general election in January 1910.The election resulted in a hung parliament, with the Liberals having two more seats than the Conservatives, but lacking an overall majority. The Liberals formed a minority government with the support of the Irish Nationalists.

The radical solution in this situation was to threaten to have King Edward VII pack the House of Lords with freshly-minted Liberal peers, who would override the Lords' veto. With the Conservatives remaining recalcitrant in spring of 1910, Asquith began contemplating such an option. King Edward VII agreed to do so, after another general election, but died on 6 May 1910. His son, King George V, was reluctant to have his first act in office be the carrying out of such a drastic attack on the aristocracy and it required all of Asquith's considerable powers to convince him to make the promise. This the King finally did before the second election of 1910, in December.

The Liberals again won, though their majority in the Commons was now dependent on MPs from Ireland, who had their own price. Nonetheless, Asquith was able to curb the powers of the House of Lords through the Parliament Act 1911, which essentially broke the power of the House of Lords. The Lords could now delay, but not defeat outright, a bill passed by the Commons.

World War I

The price of Irish support in this effort was the Third Irish Home Rule Bill, which Asquith delivered in legislation that was ultimately suspended owing to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Asquith's efforts over Irish Home Rule nearly provoked a civil war in Ireland over Ulster, only averted by the outbreak of a European war. Asquith declared war on the German Empire on 4 August 1914 in response to the German invasion of Belgium, as the 1839 Treaty of London had committed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland to guard Belgium's neutrality in the event of invasion.

Asquith headed the Liberal government into the war. However following a Cabinet split on 25 May 1915, caused by the Shell Crisis (or sometimes dubbed 'The Great Shell Shortage'), he became head of a new coalition government, bringing senior figures from the Opposition into the Cabinet. But his performance over the conduct of the war dissatisfied certain Liberals and the Conservative Party. Women's Rights activists also turned against him, when he adopted the 'Business as Usual' policy at the beginning of the war. Opponents partially blamed a series of political and military disasters (including the failed offensives at the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli and the 1916 Battle of the Somme) and the Easter Rising in Ireland (April 1916) on Asquith. Acting to displace the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George managed to split the Liberals and, on 5 December 1916, Asquith resigned. Lloyd George became head of the coalition two days later.

Later life (1916-1928)

Asquith remained leader of the Liberal Party after 1916 and even after losing his seat in the 1918 elections. He returned to the House of Commons in a 1920 by-election in Paisley. Asquith played a major role in putting the minority Labour government of 1924 into office, elevating Ramsay MacDonald to the Prime Ministership.

Raised to the peerage as Viscount Asquith of Morley in the West Riding of the County of York and Earl of Oxford and Asquith in 1925, Asquith retired to the House of Lords after losing his seat again in the 1924 election held after the fall of the Labour government. Lloyd George succeeded him as chairman of the Liberal Members of Parliament, but Asquith remained head of the party until 1926, when Lloyd George succeeded him in that position as well, healing the split in the Liberal Party.

In 1925 Asquith was nominated for the Chancellorship of the University of Oxford, but lost to Viscount Cave. On 6 November 1925 he was made a of Huddersfield

Asquith's death and descendants

Asquith died at his country home The Wharf, Sutton Courteney, Berkshire [ [http://www.thepeerage.com/e188.htm A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain as well as the royal families of Europe] ] in 1928. Margot died in 1945. They are both buried at All Saints' Church, Sutton Courtenay, (now in Oxfordshire); Asquith having requested that there should be no public funeral.

Asquith's estate was probated at £9,345 on 9 June 1928 (about £Formatprice|Inflation|UK|9345|1928|r=-4 today),Inflation-fn|UK a modest amount for so prominent a man.

Asquith had five children by his first wife Helen, and five by his second wife Margot, but only his elder five children and two of his five younger children survived birth and infancy.

His eldest son Raymond Asquith was killed at the Somme in 1916, and thus the peerage passed to Raymond's only son Julian, now 2nd Earl of Oxford and Asquith (born in 1916, only a few months before his grandfather's resignation as Prime Minister).

His only daughter by his first wife, Violet (later Violet Bonham-Carter), became a well-regarded writer and a life peeress (as Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury in her own right). His fourth son Sir Cyril, Baron Asquith of Bishopstone (1890-1954) became a Law Lord. His second and third sons married well, the poet Herbert Asquith (1881-1947) (who is often confused with his father) married the daughter of an Earl and Brigadier-General Arthur Asquith (1883-1939) married the daughter of a baron.

His two children by Margot were Elizabeth (later Princess Antoine Bibesco), a writer, and Anthony Asquith, a film-maker whose productions included "The Browning Version" and "The Winslow Boy".

Among his living descendants are his great-granddaughter, the actress Helena Bonham Carter (b. 1966); and his great-grandson, Dominic Asquith, British Ambassador to Egypt since December 2007. Another leading British actress, Anna Chancellor (b. 1965), is also a descendant, being Herbert Asquith's great-great-granddaughter on her mother's side.

Asquith's Governments

*First Asquith ministry (1908–1915)
*Second Asquith ministry (1915–1916)
*Liberal Government 1905-1915
*Coalition Government 1915-1916


Further reading

*H.H. Asquith, "H.H.A.: Letters of the Earl of Oxford and Asquith to a Friend (2 vols)" (Geoffrey Bles, 1933-4)
*H.H. Asquith, ed. Michael and Eleanor Brock, "Letters to Venetia Stanley" (Oxford University Press, 1982)
*Margot Asquith, "Autobiography (2 vols)" (Thornton Butterworth, 1920-2)
*Colin Clifford, "The Asquiths" (John Murray, 2002)
*Roy Jenkins, "Asquith" (Collins, 1964, revised edition 1978)
*Lord Oxford and Asquith, "Fifty Years in Parliament (2 vols)" (Cassell, 1926)
*Lord Oxford and Asquith, "Memories and Recollections (2 vols)" (Cassell, 1928)
*J.A. Spender and Cyril Asquith, "Life of Lord Oxford and Asquith (2 vols)" (Hutchinson, 1932)

ee also

*Asquith family for a partial list of his descendants

External links

* [http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/modern/asquith-hh/asquith-hh.html Bodleian Library catalogue of H.H.Asquith's private papers]
* [http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/modern/asquith-margot/asquith-margot.html Bodleian Library catalogue of Margot Asquith's private papers]
* [http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/modern/bonham-carter/bonham-carter.html Bodleian Library catalogue of Lady Violet Bonham Carter's private papers]
* [http://www.thepeerage.com/e188.htm Extended entry] in the 1937 Dictionary of National Biography
* [http://pm.gov.uk/output/Page140.asp More about Herbert Henry Asquith] on the Downing Street (official site of the British PM) website.
* [http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/asquith_herbert.shtml Asquith biography] from BBC History
* [http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9009911/HH-Asquith-1st-earl-of-Oxford-and-Asquith Asquith entry] in Encyclopedia Britannica
* [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=11437 Herbert Asquith] at Find-A-Grave

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