Anthony Henley (1700-1767): “Dear Sir, Please Go Jump in the Lake”

It is a commonplace that our elected officials do not really have their constituents best interests at heart.   They neither write nor read the legislation they vote into existence, collecting money from the moneyed interests to whom they are in thrall.  Independent minds are few indeed,  court jesters at best, no threat to anyone, really.

But then we tend not to elect people like Anthony Henley.

Henley was the eldest son of his namesake, who was himself a Whig MP, a friend of Jonathan Swift, patron of the Purcells, and said to be a great wit and possessed of a £3,000 a year (on top of a marriage settlement of £30,000) , which benefice came to the son in 1711.  (That’s the father’s picture you’re looking at – I could find none of the son himself.)

The first interesting mention of Henley jr. comes from the gossipy letters of Mrs Delany  (Jan. 1827):

“Great news stirring: Lady Betty Berkeley, daughter of the Earl* of that name, being almost fifteen has thought it time to be married, and ran away last week with Mr Henley, a man noted for his impudence and immorality but a good estate and a beau – irresistible charms in these days.

Nothing more said about that impudence or immorality, which is very tiresome of Mrs. D.

Henley’s political career was marked by a good deal of non-voting,  but most notoriously for the contempt in which he was said to hold his constituents. Among his letters was a reply to a request to oppose the Excise Tax:

I have received your letter about the Excise and I am surprised at your insolence in writing to me at all.  You know  as I know that I bought  this constituency. About what you said about the excise: may God’s  curse light upon you and may it make your women as open and as free to the excise officers as your wives and daughter have always been to me while I have represented your scoundrel corporation . I have the honour to be, my dear sirs, ever your obliged humble servant….”

The story is an improvement over reality, alas.  Sober reach suggests that this letter was by way of a joke – that impudence Mrs. Delany mentions –  and a more dignified and public letter followed,  in which he recorded that he did indeed intend to vote against the tax, as well as for the repeal of the Septennial Act.

Little good it did him.  He was voted out of office the next general election and never stood again.

The marriage, sadly, did not turn out well.  Anthony expected a marriage settlement of some £10,000 pounds – lost at the gaming tables before it ever arrived.  The couple produced two children, the first of whom died young, the second of whom appears lost to history.  Lady Elizabeth finally divorced Henley on the grounds of adultery and cruelty, then died two years later.

All very Jane Austen-y, and a caution for all who would wed at haste.

*James, Third Earl of Berkeley

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