Pax Brittania: The Earl de Grey as First Lord of the Admiralty

Photo by Brandon Wilgus, August 2014

Wrest Park, designed by the Earl de Grey, viewed from the formal gardens, looking at the Boudoir of the Countess de Grey ©, 2014


Photo by Brandon Wilgus, August 2014

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, home of Thomas Philip de Grey, called The Lord Grantham from 1786-1833, 1st Lord of the Admiralty from 1834-1835, the Earl de Grey © cambridgemilitaryhistory, 2014

Traveling west across the shire’s border are the rolling hills and farmlands of Bedfordshire, where Thomas Philip de Grey (1781-1859) designed and built his beautiful french-inspired rococo country home at Wrest Park.  The interiors spill onto sunny terraces which open to the formal gardens and riding lanes that fan away from the stately home.  As a Tory politician and peer, Thomas de Grey was involved in the post-Napoleonic era of British naval mastery, and the ordering of Great Power politics in the wake of the Concert of Europe.  Called The Lord Grantham in his youth (one of his many courtesy titles), he studied at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and at the death of his father, became the Second Earl de Grey in 1833.  King William IV made him first Lord of the Admiralty in 1834 and a Privy Counsellor.  In an age dominated by the reformer Lord Melbourne, he served in the Tory Caretaker government of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and hero of Waterloo, and then in the Conservative government of Sir Robert Peel before the return of Lord Melbourne in 1835. He was made a Knight of the Garter a decade later, and would remain an influential Tory politician and country gentleman until his death well into Queen Victoria’s reign.  De Grey was man of numerous talents and accomplishments. While running the Admiralty, he remained busy as an amateur architect, drawing the plans for Wrest Park and directly supervising its construction.  He served as the first President of the institute of British Architects in London from 1834 until his death.

Royal Navy in the First Opium War

A Royal Navy paddle-wheel steamer in the First Opium War. Thanks to Alina Parazyan, who does not endorse my work, and for the use of the image.

During his time as First Lord of the Admiralty, de Grey presided over the most powerful navy in the world, at a time of uncontested British hegemony on the high seas.  Although there were no major naval engagements from the War of Greek Independence from the Ottomans in 1827 until the first engagements of the Great War in 1914, the Royal Navy formed a vital part of the British power structure in the 19th Century. The Royal Navy was actively engaged bolstering trade, defending the growing empire, clearing the seas of pirates, hunting down slave ships and slave forts, and serving as a vital part of Britain’s strength – the diplomatic power of a mighty Navy ready to respond across the globe.  It was a time of transition, as square-rigged sailing ships were being replaced by iron and steel, and steam propulsion was replacing the reliance on wind. The Opium Wars, demonstrating the global reach and determination of Britain to expand the Empire in the name of trade, however cynically, resulted in the securing of Hong Kong in 1839.  De Grey presided over a fascinating time in the history of the Royal Navy, and one can easily imagine him entertaining over a shooting weekend at Wrest Park, or at his townhouse in London (which is now the Naval and Military Club on St. James’s Square), discussing the move from sail to steam and hammering home the need to innovate and expand the Royal Navy during a time of peace.  His innovations and shepherding the Royal Navy through a time of dramatic change would ensure the Royal Navy’s uncontested supremacy for a Century, only threatened later by the naval race with the German Empire, leading to the Great War.

Wrest Park is managed for the Nation by English Heritage.  The website for Wrest Park is: Directions to Wrest Park, which is in the village of Silsoe, Bedfordshire: take the A6 towards Luton, signposted from Silsoe, or SATNAV postcode: MK45 4HR.

A beginning…

Wimpole Hall Monday 20 January 020

The fields of Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire, on a frosty morning, January 2013 ©


Welcome to the Cambridge Military History blog, where we will discover and explore together the rich history of an ancient and beautiful part of England – Cambridgeshire.  From the earliest settlements, through the arrival of the Romans and, as the legions departed, to the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, we will delve together into the past.  From the early political stirrings of a land which would become England, this area has played a key part in this Nation’s history.  With the Viking raids and the Norman conquest, to the heady times of kingship, the rise of parliamentary power and the Civil War, Cambridgeshire has been at the fore.  As we moved into modernity, once more Cambridgeshire loomed over the fortunes of this land as fighters and bombers soared over the flat countryside, defending England, launching contentious and destructive raids on the continent in the Second World War that are still debated to this day.  The study of Cambridgeshire is often an exploration into the wars and battles which have been fought on, and above, this land.  What is waiting to be discovered, researched and brought back to life for you the reader to share with me?  A lifetime could be spent exploring the thousands of years of human struggle: man fighting against nature, famine, and disease, through religious and world wars, against political and military adversaries.  Where will this adventure take us? I am not certain, but surely the journey will be as powerful as the conclusions.

I’m an American, an expat, who has settled here in England after years lived abroad and at sea after a career as a Naval Officer.  Although I have been in Cambridgeshire for many years, my perspective and background may just vary enough to allow a different view on this fascinating part of England.  As the Bard let John of Gaunt eloquently say:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Shakespeare, Richard II, Act II

– Brandon