Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Pitt the Younger Has Fun Times in France

History can be fascinating for a variety of reasons. This Amateur Historian must admit to her Gentle Readers that part of her fascination with the 18th century is thanks to her fascination with Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Why yes, Gentle Reader, you have found the only Pitt the Younger fangirl this Amateur Historian knows about, though she would be glad to start a club.

To the below right you have Gainsborough's stately portrait of a Prime Minister in perfect control of both himself and his elegant setting (note the neatness of Pitt's attire and how the line of the pen matches the line of his right arm- very orderly is the young Mr. Pitt) and to the upper left you have Gillray's less than flattering print of Pitt the Younger as a "An Excrescence; – a Fungus; – alias – a Toadstool upon a Dung-hill", as Gillray believed Pitt's power to stem solely from rotten Royal Favor. Note the rosy nose, which is a pot-shot at Pitt's habit of drinking three bottles of port a day.

William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister of Great Britain at 24, a position he held (except for two years) until his death, which not only makes him the youngest Prime Minister in history, but also one with the second longest term in office. Many people, including Pitt himself, who was and MP at 21 and Chancellor of the Exchequer at 23, were quite surprised when George III tried to bully Pitt into taking office in 1782, just as Pitt was about to complete his gentlemanly education by taking a Grand Tour of the Continent with two of his friends, William Wilberforce (who spearheaded the British Abolition movement) and Edward Eliot (who later married one of Pitt’s sisters).

Being bullied by a monarch is enough to put anyone into a tizzy, which is probably why none of these gentlemen thought to get a letter of introduction. In the 1780s, letters of introduction served not only as a passport into a country, but a passport into society. The three gentlemen managed to secure a letter to a certain Monsieur Coustier in Rheims, just before they had to leave England.

In the words of Mr. William Wilberforce: “From Calais we made directly for Rheims, and the day after our arrival dressed ourselves unusually well, and proceeded to the house of Mons. Coustier to present, with not a little awe, our only letters of recommendation. It was with some surprise that we found Mons. Coustier behind a counter distributing figs and raisins. I had heard that it was very usual for gentlemen on the continent to practice some handicraft trade or other for their amusement [Marie Antoinette liked pretending to be a milkmaid, herself], and therefore for my own part I concluded that his taste was in the fig way, and that he was only playing at grocer for his diversion; and, viewing the matter in this light, I could not help admiring the excellence of his imitation; but we soon found that Mons. Coustier was a ‘véritable epicier,’ and that not a very eminent one.”

They thus spent what one can assume was an extremely boring week at Rheims, since their friend the grocer did not even sell figs to the local aristocracy and could not introduce them to anyone. Since they spoke no French (Wilberforce had slacked off at Cambridge, Eliot had studied law, not languages, and Pitt had studied classical languages like Greek and Latin which, though helpful for becoming a famous Parliamentary orator, was of no practical value in Rheims) and kept to themselves, they were almost arrested as spies.

Fortunately for them, the bishop of Rheims know Pitt the Elder, the late Earl of Chatham/Pitt’s now-dead father, and took them in as guests, causing Mr. Wilberforce to note: “N.B. Archbishops in England are not like Archeveques in France; these last are jolly fellows of about forty years of age, who play at billiards, &c. like other people”.

Sage words, Mr. Wilberforce, sage words.

Thus concludes the first part of what will be an admittedly long series on Funny Things That Happened to Pitt the Younger.


  1. Hullo, this is _stormcrow_ from livejournal, posting with my blogspot ID.

    I'm definitively going to be a big fan of "Funny Things That Happened to Pitt the Younger" and probably also of Pitt :D

  2. Yay! Pitt's quite awesome and I'm glad someone else is now reading this besides me. :D

  3. I am a fan of Pitt and am looking forward to more "Funny Things That Happened to Pitt the Younger".

  4. Hello! As a fellow Pitt fangirl I just wanted to say how glad I am that I stumbled across your blog. It's wonderful to meet another fan of such an interesting man and I'm enjoying reading your many entries.

  5. i have painted a portrait of william pitt the younger if anyone is intrested in buying it? if you live in the uk feel free to email me at spockisajock@hotmail.com and i will show it =)