Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis: A Loyal Instrument of Government

Document of the Day: Barchives exploredy Hugh Murphy, Maynooth University Library

One of the more interesting characters of influence in Ireland at the start of the nineteenth century is Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis (31 December 1738 – October 1805[1]), who served as both Lord Lieutenant and Commander in Chief from 1798-1801. Maynooth University Library has twenty-two of his letters in the Littlehales Archive and they provide a fascinating insight into a figure who played a central role in both the 1798 Rising and the Act of Union. As recently installed Commander in Chief, Cornwallis moved swiftly to suppress the Rising, but he was noted for his fairness, allowing pardons for many of the participants and censuring those groups of militia, yeomanry or regulars who were overly zealous in their reprisals.

First Marquis of Cornwallis
Portrait of Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, by John Singleton Copley, c. 1795

In conjunction with Viscount Castlereagh, it fell to Cornwallis to ensure the passage of  the Act of Union, which he delivered in January 1801 having, with Castlereagh, ensured that it was “written up, spoken up, intrigued up, drunk up, sung up and bribed up”[2]. One of the key promises made in this process was that a union would make Catholic Emancipation an inevitability and the evidence suggests that Cornwallis believed this most sincerely.  He had not however counted on the intransigence of his monarch, George III, who declared himself utterly against such a move; an action which resulted in the fall of Pitt’s government in London and which also ensured that emancipation could not be considered for a political generation.


Cornwallis felt this most bitterly and resigned his post. In a letter to his incumbent successor, the Earl of Hardwicke, he referred to his original desire to assume the post simply for the duration of the Rising. He states:

“The danger of the moment could alone have prevailed upon me to undertake the arduous task and it was always my intention to return as soon as tranquillity & order were tolerably re-established”.

However, Cornwallis subsequently notes that he felt obligated to not only deliver the Union, but to do so in a way that reinforced this model with the “admission of the Catholics to the full enjoyment of all the privileges which were possessed by their Protestant Fellow Subjects”.

Detail from letter to Earl of Hardwicke
Detail from the letter from Cornwallis to the Earl of Hardwicke

Ruefully, he admits that such a hope has either been “totally defeated” or significantly postponed and he now wishes to retire.

Cornwallis, ever the loyal instrument of government (even when disagreeing with its actions), further notes to Hardwicke that he has “taken every means and I flatter myself with considerable effect to soothe the Catholics & to impress upon their minds that it is only by a temperate and loyal conduct that they can hope for future favour”.  That he had some credibility with many sections of the Catholic community will have made sure that this advice was listened to, at least for a time.

Letter to Earl of Hardwicke
Letter from Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, outgoing Lord Lieutenant, to his incumbent successor, the Earl of Hardwicke, 28 February 1801

The letter is part of the Littlehales Archive in Maynooth Library, and offers a poignant insight into an honourable man, for whom the Union and its aftermath counted as a bitter and personal blow.

An exhibition of a selection of documents from the Littlehales Archive is running in Maynooth University Library from 20-26 November as part of the Explore Your Archive campaign for 2017. For further details please contact:


[1] see Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2011 [, accessed 25 Oct 2017]

[2] Connolly, S. J. “Reconsidering the Irish Act of Union.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 10, 2000, p. 399

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