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Sir William Temple

Sir William TempleBorn: 25-Apr-1628
Birthplace: London, England
Died: 27-Jan-1699
Location of death: Moor Park, Surrey, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Westminster Abbey, London, England

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Diplomat, Author

Nationality: England
Executive summary: British Ambassador to Netherlands

English statesman, diplomat, and author, born in London, and came of an old English family, but of the younger branch of it, which had for some time been settled in Ireland. He was the eldest son of Sir John Temple, Irish master of the rolls, whose father was Sir William Temple (1555-1627), provost of Trinity College, Dublin. His mother was Mary Hammond. Temple received a liberal education, calculated to produce that moderation of judgment for which he was afterwards remarkable. He was first a pupil of his uncle Dr. Henry Hammond, the divine, after which he went to the grammar school at Bishop Stortford, and then to the Puritan college of Emmanuel at Cambridge, where he came under the influence of Ralph Cudworth. At the commencement of the civil troubles his father embraced the popular cause and was deprived of his office. Coming to England, he sat in the Long Parliament as member for Chichester, and was one of the recalcitrant members turned out by Colonel Pride. Before this event happened his son had left Cambridge, without taking a degree, and in 1647 started to travel abroad. In the Isle of Wight, while on his way to France, he fell in with Dorothy Osborne, and won her affections. Her father, Sir Peter Osborne, was governor of Guernsey and a Royalist. Her family were opposed to the match, and threw difficulties in the way, which hindered its consummation for seven years. During this period Temple travelled in France, Spain, Holland, and other countries, gaining knowledge of the world and keeping up a constant correspondence with his betrothed. At length, apparently in 1654, the difficulties were surmounted and the marriage took place. In 1655 Temple and his wife went to Ireland. The next five years were spent in the house of Sir John Temple, who had made his peace with Oliver Cromwell, and had resumed his official position. His son took no part in politics, but lived the life of a student and a country gentleman.

The accession of King Charles II rescued Temple, like many others, from obscurity. In 1660 he sat in the convention parliament at Dublin as member for Carlow, and he represented the same county along with his father in the regular parliament that followed. After a short visit to England in 1661, as commissioner from the Irish parliament, he finally removed to there in 1663. There he attached himself to Arlington, secretary of state, and two years later received his first employment abroad. It was in March 1665 that the disastrous war with the United Netherlands began. Charles II was anxious to obtain allies, especially as Louis XIV was taking up a hostile attitude. At this juncture Christoph Bernhard van Galen, bishop of Münster, sent an envoy to England, offering to attack the Dutch if the English government would supply the means. Temple was sent over to negotiate a treaty, and in this business gave evidence not only of the diplomatic skill but of the peculiar candor and frankness for which he was afterwards so distinguished. He was successful in making the treaty, but it was rendered ineffectual by the declaration of war by France, the threats of Louis, and the double-dealing of the prelate, who, after receiving a great part of the subsidy, made a separate peace with the Netherlands. As a reward for his services Temple was created a baronet, and in October 1665 became the English representative at the viceregal court at Brussels. While the war continued, Temple's duties consisted chiefly in cultivating good relations with Spain, which was a neutral in the quarrel between England and the Dutch, but was threatened by the claims of Louis XIV on the Spanish Netherlands. Louis's designs became apparent in the spring of 1667, when he marched an army into Flanders. This event was one of those which led to the peace of Breda, and to the subsequent negotiations, which are Temple's chief title to fame. The French conquests were made at the expense of Spain, but were almost equally dangerous to the United Netherlands, whose independence would have been forfeited had Louis succeeded in annexing Flanders. While the French were taking town after town, Temple made a journey into Holland and visited Johan de Witt. The friendship established and the community of views discovered during this interview facilitated the subsequent negotiations. Temple had for some time pressed on his government the necessity of stopping the French advance, and had pointed out the way to do so, but it was not until December 1667 that he received instructions to act as he had suggested. He at once set out for The Hague, and in January 1668 a treaty was made between England and the United Netherlands, which, being joined shortly afterwards by Sweden, became known as the Triple Alliance. It was a defensive treaty, made against the encroachments of France. Whether we regard the skill and celerity with which the negotiations were conducted or the results of the treaty, the transaction reflects great credit on Temple. The French king was checked in mid-career, and, without a blow being struck, was obliged to surrender almost all his conquests. Samuel Pepys records public opinion on the treaty by saying that it was "the only good public thing that hath been done since the king came into England."

Unfortunately the policy thus indicated was but short-lived. In taking up a hostile attitude towards France Charles's object had apparently been only to raise his price. Louis took the hint, increased his offers, and two years later the secret treaty of Dover reversed the policy of the Triple Alliance. Meanwhile Temple had developed the good understanding with the Dutch by contracting a commercial treaty with them (February 1668), and had acted as English plenipotentiary at Aix-la-Chapelle, where peace between France and Spain was made in May 1668. Shortly afterwards he was appointed ambassador at The Hague. Here he lived for two years on good terms both with De Witt and with the young prince of Orange, afterwards William III. The treaty of Dover led to Temple's recall; but the plot was not yet ripe, and Temple nominally held his post for another year. He perceived, however, that his day was over and retired to his house at Sheen. In June 1671 he received his formal dismissal. The war with the Netherlands broke out next year, and was almost as discreditable to England as that of 1665. Want of success and the growing strength of the opposition in parliament forced Charles to make peace, and Temple was brought out of his retirement to carry through the change of front. After a negotiation of three days, carried on through the medium of the Spanish ambassador, the treaty of Westminster was made (February 1674). As a recognition of his services Temple was now offered the embassy to Spain. This he declined, as well as the offer of a far more important post, that of secretary of state, but accepted instead a renewal of his embassy to The Hague, to where he went in July 1674. In the March following he was nominated ambassador to the congress at Nijmwegen; but, owing to the tortuousness of Charles's dealings, it was not until July 1676 that he entered that town. The negotiations dragged on for two years longer, for Charles was still receiving money from France, and English mediation was no more than a ruse. In the summer of 1677 Temple was summoned to England and received a second offer to become secretary of state, which he again declined. In the autumn of the same year he had the satisfaction of removing the last difficulties which hindered the marriage of William and Mary, an event which seemed to complete the work of 1668 and 1674. Louis still remaining obstinate in his demands, Temple was commissioned in July 1678 to make an alliance with the states, with the object of compelling France to come to terms. This treaty was instrumental in bringing about the general pacification which was concluded in January 1679.

This was Temple's last appearance in the field of diplomacy; but his public life was not yet over. A third offer of the secretary of state was made to him; but, unwilling as ever to mix himself up with faction and intrigue, he again declined. He did not, however, withdraw from politics; on the contrary, he was for a short time more prominent than ever. The state was passing through a grave crisis. Political passion was embittered by religious fanaticism. Parliament was agitated by the popish plot, and was pressing on the Exclusion Bill. The root of all the mischief lay in the irresponsibility of the cabinet to parliament and its complete subservience to the crown. To remedy this, Temple brought forward his plan for a reform of the privy council. This body was to consist of thirty members, half of whom were to be the chief officers of the crown, the other half being persons of importance, lords and commoners, chosen without reference to party. Special care was taken to select men of wealth, which Temple considered as the chief source of political influence. By the advice of this council the king promised to act. The parliament, it was supposed, would trust such a body, and would cease to dictate to the crown. The scheme was accepted by the king, but was a failure from the outset. Intended to combine the advantages of a parliament and a council, it created a board which was neither the one nor the other. The conduct of affairs fell at once into the hands of a junta of four, of whom Temple was at first one, and the king violated his promise by dissolving parliament without asking the advice of the council. Temple retired in disgust to his villa at Sheen, and appeared only occasionally at the council, where he soon ceased to exercise any influence. In 1680 he was nominated ambassador to Spain, but stayed in England in order to take his seat in parliament as member for the university of Cambridge. He took no part in the debates on the great question of the day, and acting on the king's advice declined to sit in the parliament of 1681. Early in that year his name was struck off the list of the council, and from that point onward he disappeared from public life. He continued to live at Sheen until 1686, when he handed over his estate there to his son, the only survivor of seven children, and retired to Moor Park in Surrey. When William III came to the throne Temple was pressed to take office, but refused. His son became secretary at war, but committed suicide immediately afterwards. Sir William, though occasionally consulted by the king, took no further part in public affairs, but occupied himself in literature, gardening and other pursuits. It should not be omitted that Jonathan Swift lived with him as secretary during the last ten years (with one short interval) of his life. Temple died at Moor Park on the 27th of January 1699.

Temples literary works are mostly political, and are of considerable importance. Among them may be mentioned An Essay on the Present State and Settlement of Ireland (1668); The Empire, Sweden, etc., a survey of the different Governments of Europe and their relations to England (1671); Observations upon the United Provinces (1672); Essay upon the Original and Nature of Government (1672); Essay upon the Advancement of Trade in Ireland (1673). Some of these were published in the first part of his Miscellanea (1679). In the same year apparently his Poems were privately printed. In 1683 he began to write his Memoirs. The first part, extending from 1665 to 1671, he destroyed unpublished; the second, from 1672 to 1679, was published without his authority in 1691; the third, from 1679 to 1681, was published by Swift in 1709. In 1692 he published the second part of his Miscellanea, containing among other subjects the essay Upon the Ancient and Modern Learning, which is remarkable only as having given rise to the famous controversy on the "Letters of Phalaris." His Introduction to the History of England, a short sketch of English history to 1087, was published in 1695. Several collections of his letters were published by Swift and others after his death.

His fame rests, however, far more on his diplomatic triumphs than on his literary work. His connection with domestic affairs was slight and unsuccessful. He was debarred both by his virtues and his defects -- by his impartiality, his honesty, and his want of ambition -- from taking an active part in the disgraceful politics of his time. But in the foreign relations of his country he was intimately concerned for a period of fourteen years, and in all that is praiseworthy in them he had a principal hand. He cannot be called great, but he will be remembered as one of the ablest negotiators that England has produced, and as a public servant who, in an unprincipled age and in circumstances peculiarly open to corruption, preserved a blameless record.

Father: Sir John Temple (b. 1600, d. 1677)
Mother: Mary Hammond
Wife: Dorothy Osborne (m. 1654)

    UK Member of Parliament
    UK Ambassador to the Netherlands


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