The Art and Practice of Diplomacy

By Charles Webster | Go to book overview

11
Urquhart, Ponsonby, and Palmerston1

I

THE extraordinary career of David Urquhart has recently attracted considerable attention from historians. It is spiced with melodrama and mystery and raises important problems concerning Palmerston and his unorthodox but successful ambassador at the Porte, Lord Ponsonby. There have always been British personalities like Urquhart, intelligent, active, brave but with an itch for power and pretensions to grandeur that prevented them from making the best use of their talents. The 'thirties of the nineteenth century had a full crop of curious characters. But Urquhart went farther than anyone of his time -- except Brougham in his old age. His megalomania rose to such a pitch that it is extraordinary that he remained even so long in public service. For this there are special reasons, but neither Ponsonby nor Palmerston nor the Under-Secretaries of the Foreign Office, Backhouse and Strangways, can escape the responsibility for not repressing him sooner. Allowance must be made for the remarkable qualities he displayed as a young man which led many people to admire and trust him. It was indeed something of a tragedy -- if often a tragi-comedy -- that a man so gifted should have so wasted his life.

David Urquhart's biographer2 is sometimes as emotional and mystical as David Urquhart himself, but she enables us to realize the abnormal nature of her subject. Her account of these years adds but little to what we know from other sources. In addition to Urquhart's numerous publications there are large quantities of his letters and memoranda in the public and private archives.3 But it is impossible to believe anything that he wrote without confirmation from other sources. He was constantly twisting

____________________
1
First published in The English Historical Review, July 1947.
2
Gertrude Robinson, David Urquhart ( 1920).
3
In addition to a special file (F.O. 97/409) there are numerous reports and memoranda by Urquhart, correspondence between him and the UnderSecretaries and minutes about him scattered through the Foreign Office

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