The Earl of Oxford and Asquith
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
5 April 1908 – 5 December 1916
MonarchsEdward VII
George V
Preceded bySir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Succeeded byDavid Lloyd George
Leader of the Opposition
In office
12 February 1920 – 21 November 1922
MonarchGeorge V
Prime MinisterDavid Lloyd George
Andrew Bonar Law
Preceded bySir Donald Maclean
Succeeded byRamsay MacDonald
In office
6 December 1916 – December 1918
MonarchGeorge V
Prime MinisterDavid Lloyd George
Preceded bySir Edward Carson
Succeeded bySir Donald Maclean
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
10 December 1905 – 12 April 1908
Prime MinisterSir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Preceded byAusten Chamberlain
Succeeded byDavid Lloyd George
Home Secretary
In office
18 August 1892 – 25 June 1895
Prime MinisterWilliam Ewart Gladstone
Preceded byHenry Matthews
Succeeded byMatthew Ridley
Secretary of State for War
In office
30 March 1914 – 5 August 1914
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded byJ. E. B. Seely
Succeeded byThe Earl Kitchener
Leader of the Liberal Party
In office
30th April 1908 – 14th October 1926
Preceded bySir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Succeeded byDavid Lloyd George
Member of Parliament
for Paisley
In office
12 February 1920 – 4 November 1924
Preceded byJohn Mills McCallum
Succeeded byEdward Rosslyn Mitchell
Member of Parliament
for East Fife
In office
27 July 1886 – 14 December 1918
Preceded byJohn Boyd Kinnear
Succeeded byAlexander Sprot
Personal details
Born(1852-09-12)12 September 1852
Morley, Leeds, Yorkshire, England UK
Died15 February 1928(1928-02-15) (aged 75)
Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, England UK
Political partyLiberal
Spouse(s)Helen Melland (desc.)
Margot Tennant
Alma materBalliol College, Oxford, England
H.H. Asquith by Spy

Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, KG, PC, KC (12 September 1852 – 15 February 1928) served as the Liberal Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1908 to 1916.[1] He was the longest continuously serving Prime Minister in the twentieth century until early 1988.[2]

As Prime Minister, he led his Liberal party to a series of domestic reforms, including social insurance and the reduction of the power of the House of Lords. He led the nation into The First World War, but a series of military and political crises led to his replacement in late 1916 by David Lloyd George. His falling out with Lloyd George played a major part in the downfall of the Liberal Party.

Before his term as Prime Minister he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1905 to 1908 and as Home Secretary from 1892 to 1895. During his lifetime he was known as H. H. Asquith before his accession to the peerage and as Lord Oxford afterwards.

Asquith's achievements in peacetime have been overshadowed by his weaknesses in wartime. Many historians portray a vacillating prime minister, unable to present the necessary image of action and dynamism to the public.[3] Others[4] stress his continued high administrative ability. The dominant historical verdict is that there were two Asquiths: the urbane and conciliatory Asquith who was a successful peacetime leader and the hesitant and increasingly exhausted Asquith who practised the politics of muddle and delay during the World War.[5]

Childhood, education and legal career

He was born in Morley, West Yorkshire, England to Joseph Dixon Asquith (10 February 1825 - 29 March 1860) and his wife Emily Willans (4 May 1828 - 12 December 1888). The Asquiths were a middle class family and members of the Congregational church. Joseph was a wool merchant and came to own his own woollen mill.

Herbert was seven years old when his father died. Emily and her children moved to the house of her father William Willans, a wool-stapler of Huddersfield. Herbert received schooling there and was later sent to a Moravian Church boarding school at Fulneck, near Leeds. In 1863, Herbert was sent to live with an uncle in London, where he entered the City of London School. He was educated there until 1870 and mentored by its headmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott.

In 1870, Asquith won a classical scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. In 1874, Asquith was awarded the Craven scholarship. Despite the unpopularity of the Liberals during the dying days of Gladstone's First Government, he became president of the Oxford Union in the Trinity (summer) term of his fourth year. He graduated that year and soon was elected a fellow at Balliol. Meanwhile he entered Lincoln's Inn as a pupil barrister and for a year served a pupillage under Charles Bowen.

He was called to the bar in 1876 and became prosperous in the early 1880s from practising at the chancery bar. Among other cases he appeared for the defence in the famous case of Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co when the case was heard at first instance in the Queen's Bench Division.[6] His services were not employed when the case was heard on appeal in the Court of Appeal. Asquith took silk (was appointed QC) in 1890. It was at Lincoln's Inn that in 1882 Asquith met Richard Haldane, whom he would appoint as Lord Chancellor in 1912.


In his younger days he was called Herbert within the family, but his second wife called him Henry; his biographer Stephen Koss entitled the first chapter of his biography "From Herbert to Henry", referring to upward social mobility and his abandonment of his Yorkshire Nonconformist roots with his second marriage. However, in public he was invariably referred to only as H. H. Asquith. "There have been few major national figures whose Christian names were less well known to the public," writes his biographer, Roy Jenkins.[7] His opponents gave him the nickname "Squiff" or "Squiffy", a derogatory reference to his fondness for drink.[8]


He married Helen Kelsall Melland, daughter of a Manchester doctor, in 1877, and they had four sons and one daughter before she died from typhoid fever in 1891. These children were Raymond (1878–1916), Herbert (1881–1947), Arthur (1883–1939), Violet (1887–1969), and Cyril (1890–1954). Of these children, Violet and Cyril became life peers in their own right, Cyril becoming a law lord.

In 1894, he married Margot Tennant, a daughter of Sir Charles Tennant, 1st Bt. They had two children, Elizabeth Charlotte Lucy (later Princess Antoine Bibesco) (1897–1945) and the film director Anthony (1902–1968).

In 1912, Asquith fell in love with Venetia Stanley, and his romantic obsession with her continued into 1915, when she married Edwin Montagu, a Liberal Cabinet Minister; a volume of Asquith's letters to Venetia, often written during Cabinet meetings and describing political business in some detail, has been published, but it is not known whether or not their relationship was sexually consummated.

All his children, except Anthony, married and left issue. His best-known descendant today is the actress Helena Bonham Carter, a granddaughter of Violet.

Early political career (1886-1908)

Asquith was elected to Parliament in 1886 as the Liberal representative for East Fife, in Scotland. He never served as a junior minister, but achieved his first significant post in 1892 when he became Home Secretary in the fourth cabinet of Gladstone. He retained his position when Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery took over in 1894. The Liberals lost power in the 1895 general election and for ten years were in opposition. In 1898 he was offered and turned down the opportunity to lead the Liberal Party, then deeply divided and unpopular, preferring to use the opportunity to earn money as a barrister.

During Asquith's period as deputy to the new leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, "C. B." was known to request his presence in parliamentary debate by saying, "Send for the sledge-hammer," referring to Asquith's reliable command of facts and his ability to dominate verbal exchange. Asquith toured the country refuting the arguments of Joseph Chamberlain, who had resigned from the Cabinet to campaign for tariffs against imported goods.

After the Conservative government of Arthur Balfour fell in December 1905 there was some speculation that Asquith and his allies Richard Haldane and Sir Edward Grey would refuse to serve unless Campbell-Bannerman accepted a peerage, which would have left Asquith as the real leader in the House of Commons. However, the plot (called the "Relugas Compact" after the Scottish lodge where the men met) collapsed when Asquith agreed to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Campbell-Bannerman (Grey became Foreign Secretary and Haldane Secretary of State for War). The party won a landslide victory in the 1906 general election.

Asquith demonstrated his staunch support of free trade at the Exchequer. He also introduced the first of the so-called Liberal reforms, including the first old age pensions, but was not as successful as his successor David Lloyd George in getting reforms through Parliament as the House of Lords still had a veto over legislation at that stage.

Campbell-Bannerman resigned due to illness on 3 April 1908, and Asquith succeeded him as Prime Minister. The King, Edward VII, was holidaying in Biarritz, and refused to return to London, citing health grounds. Asquith was forced to travel to Biarritz for the official "kissing of hands" of the Monarch, the only time a British Prime Minister has formally taken office on foreign soil.

Prime Minister (1908-1916)

In the 1906 election the Liberals won their greatest landslide in history. In 1908 Asquith became prime minister with a stellar cabinet of leaders from all factions of the Liberal party. Working with Lloyd George and Winston Churchill he passed the "New Liberalism" legislation setting up unemployment insurance and ending sweatshop conditions; he set the stage for the welfare state in Britain. In 1908 he introduced old age pensions.[9]

Liberal reforms

The Asquith government became involved in an expensive naval arms race with the German Empire and began an extensive social welfare programme (See Liberal reforms). The social welfare programme proved controversial, and Asquith's government faced severe (and sometimes barely legal) resistance from the Conservative Party. This came to a head in 1909, when David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, produced a deliberately provocative "People's Budget". Among the most controversial in British history, it systematically raised taxes on the rich, especially the landowners, to pay for the welfare programs (and for new battleships).

House of Lords

The Conservatives, representing the landed aristocracy and determined to stop passage of the budget, used their majority in the House of Lords to reject the bill. The Lords did not traditionally interfere with finance bills and their actions thus provoked a constitutional crisis, forcing the country to a general election in January 1910.

Asquith in 1908

The election resulted in a hung parliament, with the Liberals having two more seats than the Conservatives, but lacking an overall majority. The Liberals formed a minority government with the support of the Irish Nationalists.

At this point the Lords now allowed the budget — for which the Liberals had obtained an electoral mandate — to pass, but the argument had moved on. A possible radical solution in this situation was to threaten to have the king pack the House of Lords with freshly-minted Liberal peers, who would override the Lords' veto. With the Conservatives remaining recalcitrant in spring of 1910 Asquith began contemplating such an option. King Edward VII agreed to do so, after another general election, but died on 6 May 1910 (so heated had passions become that Asquith was accused of having "Killed the King" through stress). His son, King George V, was reluctant to have his first act in office be the carrying out of such a drastic attack on the aristocracy and it required all of Asquith's considerable powers to convince him to make the promise. This the king finally did before the second election of 1910, in December, although Asquith did not make this promise public at the time.

In the December 1910 election the Liberals again won, though their majority in the Commons was now dependent on MPs from Ireland, who had their own price (at the election the Liberal and Conservative parties were exactly equal in size; by 1914 the Conservative Party was actually larger owing to by-election victories). Nonetheless, Asquith was able to curb the powers of the House of Lords through the Parliament Act 1911, which essentially broke the power of the House of Lords. The Lords could now delay for two years, but with some exceptions could not defeat outright, a bill passed by the Commons. Asquith's victory marked the permanent end of the House of Lords as a major base of political power.


The price of Irish support in this effort was the Third Irish Home Rule Bill, which Asquith delivered in legislation in 1912. Asquith's efforts over Irish Home Rule nearly provoked a civil war in Ireland over Ulster, only averted by the outbreak of a European war. Ulster Protestants, who wanted no part of a semi-independent Ireland, formed armed volunteer bands. British army officers (the so-called Curragh Mutiny) threatened to resign rather than move against Ulstermen whom they saw as loyal British subjects; Asquith was forced to take on the job of Secretary of State for War himself on the resignation of the incumbent, Seeley. The legislation for Irish Home Rule was due to come into effect, allowing for the two-year delay under the Parliament Act, in 1914 - by which time the Cabinet were discussing allowing the six predominantly Protestant counties of Ulster to opt out of the arrangement, which was ultimately suspended owing to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

World War

Although the Liberals had traditionally been peace oriented, the German invasion of Belgium in violation of treaties angered the nation and raised the spectre of German control of the entire continent, which was intolerable. Asquith led the nation to war in alliance with France. The 1839 Treaty of London had committed Britain to guard Belgium's neutrality in the event of invasion, and talks with France since 1905 - kept secret even from most members of the Cabinet - had set up the mechanism for an expeditionary force to cooperate militarily with France.

Asquith and the Cabinet had the King declare war on the German Empire on 4 August 1914.


Asquith headed the Liberal government going into the war. Only two Cabinet Ministers (John Morley and John Burns) resigned. At first the dominant figures in the management of the war were Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) and Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener, who had taken over the War Office from Asquith himself.

However following a Cabinet split on 25 May 1915, caused by the Shell Crisis (or sometimes dubbed 'The Great Shell Shortage') and the failed offensive at the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli, Asquith became head of a new coalition government, bringing senior figures from the Opposition into the Cabinet. At first the Coalition was seen as a political masterstroke, as the Conservative leader Bonar Law was given a relatively minor job (Secretary for the Colonies), whilst former Conservative leader A.J.Balfour was given the Admiralty, replacing Churchill. Kitchener, popular with the public, was stripped of his powers over munitions (given to a new ministry under Lloyd George) and strategy (given to the Generals Haig and Robertson, a move which stored up trouble for the future as they were now under little political control).

Critics increasingly complained about Asquith's lack of vigour over the conduct of the war. On Whit Monday 1916 Bonar Law travelled to Asquith's home — the Wharf, at Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire — to discuss the succession to the job of Secretary of State for War (Kitchener had just drowned on a trip to Russia — Asquith offered the job to Bonar Law, who declined as he had already agreed with Lloyd George that the latter should have the job). Women's Rights activists also turned against him when he adopted the 'Business as Usual' policy at the beginning of the war, while the introduction of conscription was unpopular with mainstream Liberals. Opponents partly blamed Asquith for a series of political and military disasters, including the 1916 Battle of the Somme, at which Asquith's son Raymond was killed, and the Easter Rising in Ireland (April 1916).

David Lloyd George, who had become Secretary of State for War but found himself frustrated by the reduced powers of that role, now campaigned with the support of the press baron Lord Northcliffe, to be made chairman of a small committee to manage the war. Asquith at first accepted, on condition that the committee reported to him daily and that he was allowed to attend if he chose, but then — furious at a "Times" editorial which made it clear that he was being sidelined — withdrew his consent unless he were allowed to chair the committee personally.

At this point Lloyd George resigned, and on 5 December 1916, no longer enjoying the support of the press or of leading Conservatives, Asquith himself resigned, declining to serve under any other Prime Minister (Balfour or Bonar Law having been mooted as potential new leaders of the coalition), possibly (although his motives are unclear) in the mistaken belief that nobody else would be able to form a government. After Bonar Law declined to form a government, citing Asquith's refusal to serve under him as a reason, Lloyd George became head of the coalition two days later — in accordance with his recent demands, heading a much smaller War Cabinet.

Later life (1916-1928)

Portrait of Asquith by Sir James Guthrie, circa 1924-1930

Asquith, along with most leading Liberals, refused to serve in the new government. He remained leader of the Liberal Party after 1916, but found it hard to conduct an official opposition in wartime. The Liberal Party finally split openly at The Maurice Debate in 1918, at which Lloyd George was accused (almost certainly correctly [citation needed] ) of hoarding manpower in the UK to prevent Haig from launching any fresh offensives (e.g. Passchendaele, 1917), thus avoiding heavy British casualties but also contributing to the general Allied weakness during the resultant successful German offensives of spring 1918. Lloyd George survived the debate.

In 1918 Asquith declined an offer of the job of Lord Chancellor as this would have meant retiring from active politics in the House of Commons. By this time Asquith had become very unpopular with the public (as Lloyd George was perceived to have "won the war" by displacing him) and, along with most leading Liberals lost his seat in the 1918 elections, at which the Liberals split into Asquith and Lloyd George factions. Asquith was not opposed by a Coalition candidate, but the local Conservative Association eventually put up a candidate against him, who despite being refused the "Coupon" - the official endorsement given by Lloyd George and Bonar Law to Coalition candidates - defeated Asquith. Asquith returned to the House of Commons in a 1920 by-election in Paisley.

After Lloyd George ceased to be Prime Minister in late 1922 the two Liberal factions enjoyed an uneasy truce, which was deepened in late 1923 when Stanley Baldwin called an election on the issue of tariffs, which had been a major cause of the Liberal landslide of 1906. The election resulted in a hung Parliament, with the Liberals in third place behind Labour. Asquith played a major role in putting the minority Labour government of January 1924 into office, elevating Ramsay MacDonald to the Prime Ministership.

Asquith again lost his seat in the 1924 election held after the fall of the Labour government — at which the Liberals were reduced to the status of a minor party with only 40 or so MPs. In 1925 he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Asquith of Morley in the West Riding of the County of York and Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Lloyd George succeeded him as chairman of the Liberal Members of Parliament, but Asquith remained head of the party until 1926, when Lloyd George, who had quarrelled with Asquith once again over whether or not to support the General Strike (Asquith supported the government), succeeded him in that position as well.

In 1894 Asquith was elected a Bencher of Lincoln's Inn, and in served as Treasurer in 1920. In 1925 Asquith was nominated for the Chancellorship of the University of Oxford, but lost to Viscount Cave in a contest dominated by party political feeling, and despite the support of his former political enemy the Earl of Birkenhead. On 6 November 1925 he was made a Freeman of Huddersfield.

Asquith's death and descendants

Asquith's Grave at All Saints' Church, Sutton Courtenay

Towards the end of his life Asquith was confined to a wheelchair by a stroke. He died at his country home The Wharf, Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire[10] in 1928. Margot died in 1945. They are both buried at All Saints' Church, Sutton Courtenay (now in Oxfordshire); Asquith requested that there should be no public funeral.

Asquith's estate was probated at £9,345 on 9 June 1928 (about £710,000 today),[11] a modest amount for so prominent a man. In the 1880s and 1890s he had earned a handsome income as a barrister, but in later years had found it increasingly difficult to sustain his lavish lifestyle, and his mansion at Cavendish Square had had to be sold in the 1920s.

Asquith had five children by his first wife Helen, and five by his second wife Margot, but only his elder five children and two of his five younger children survived birth and infancy.

His eldest son Raymond Asquith was killed at the Somme in 1916, and thus the peerage passed to Raymond's only son Julian, now 2nd Earl of Oxford and Asquith (born in 1916, only a few months before his grandfather's resignation as Prime Minister).

His only daughter by his first wife, Violet (later Violet Bonham-Carter), became a well-regarded writer and a life peeress (as Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury in her own right). His fourth son Sir Cyril, Baron Asquith of Bishopstone (1890–1954) became a Law Lord. His second and third sons married well, the poet Herbert Asquith (1881–1947) (who is often confused with his father) married the daughter of an Earl and Brigadier-General Arthur Asquith (1883–1939) married the daughter of a baron.

His two children by Margot were Elizabeth (later Princess Antoine Bibesco), a writer, and Anthony Asquith, a film-maker whose productions included The Browning Version and The Winslow Boy.

Among his living descendants are his great-granddaughter, the actress Helena Bonham Carter (b. 1966); and his great-grandson, Dominic Asquith, British Ambassador to Egypt since December 2007. Another leading British actress, Anna Chancellor (b. 1965), is also a descendant, being Herbert Asquith's great-great-granddaughter on her mother's side.

Asquith's Governments

See also


  1. ^ "HH Asquith (1852 - 1928)". BBC. Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  2. ^ In 1988 his record was surpassed by Margaret Thatcher. Winston Churchill served longer as Prime Minister, but served two non-consecutive terms in office
  3. ^ Hazlehurst (1970); Koss (1976); Taylor (1965)
  4. ^ Cassar (1994)
  5. ^ Woodward notes that Cassar agrees with most of Asquith's contemporaries that Asquith was an exhausted leader who had lost his grip during the last half of 1916. David R. Woodward, review of Cassar, Albion Vol. 27, No. 3 (Autumn, 1995), p. 529
  6. ^ Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company [1892] 2 Q.B. 484
  7. ^ Roy Jenkins, Asquith (1966), p. 13
  8. ^ "The politics of drinking in power". BBC News. 2006-01-06. Retrieved 2008-08-09.
  9. ^ The pensions were small sums given to some people over age 70 who passed a means (poverty) test. The goal was to reduce poverty among the elderly.
  10. ^ A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain as well as the royal families of Europe
  11. ^ UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved May 7, 2024.


Primary sources

Political offices Preceded byHenry Matthews Home Secretary 1892–1895 Succeeded bySir Matthew Ridley Preceded byAusten Chamberlain Chancellor of the Exchequer 1905–1908 Succeeded byDavid Lloyd George Preceded bySir Henry Campbell-Bannerman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 5 April 1908 – 5 December 1916 Leader of the House of Commons 1908–1916 Succeeded byAndrew Bonar Law Preceded byJohn Edward Seely Secretary of State for War 1914 Succeeded byThe Earl Kitchener of Khartoum Preceded bySir Edward Carson Leader of the Opposition 1916–1918 Succeeded bySir Donald Maclean Preceded bySir Donald Maclean Leader of the Opposition 1920–1922 Succeeded byRamsay MacDonald Parliament of the United Kingdom Preceded byJohn Boyd Kinnear Member of Parliament for East Fife 18861918 Succeeded byAlexander Sprot Preceded byJohn Mills McCallum Member of Parliament for Paisley 19201924 Succeeded byEdward Rosslyn Mitchell Party political offices Preceded bySir Henry Campbell-Bannerman Leader of the British Liberal Party 1908–1926 Succeeded byDavid Lloyd George Preceded by? President of the Scottish Liberal Federation c.1924–1928 Succeeded byMarquess of Aberdeen Preceded by? President of the Liberal Party c.1924–1928 Succeeded byPost vacant Academic offices Preceded byGeorge Wyndham Rector of the University of Glasgow 1905–1908 Succeeded byBaron Curzon of Kedleston Preceded bySir Frederick Treves Rector of the University of Aberdeen 1908 – bef. 1914 UnknownNext known title holder:Winston Churchill Peerage of the United Kingdom New creation Earl of Oxford and Asquith 1925–1928 Succeeded byJulian Asquith Awards and achievements Preceded bySamuel Gompers Cover of Time Magazine 8 October 1923 Succeeded byFrank O. Lowden