Prime Minister for almost 19 years, William Pitt the Younger steered Great Britain through some of the most volatile periods in European history.
From restoring Britain’s crippled finances following the American War of Independence to forming the Third Coalition against Napoleon Bonaparte, Pitt’s administration saw its fair share of tribulations during the Age of Revolution, alongside tackling the failing mental stability of King George III and the ideological struggles uprooted by the French Revolution.
Oh, and did we mention he became the Prime Minister at just 24 years old?
Here are 10 facts about the fascinating life and career of William Pitt the Younger, Britain’s youngest ever leader:
1. He was born into a political family
William Pitt was born on 28 May 1759 to William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham (often referred to as ‘the Elder’) and his wife Hester Grenville.
He hailed from political stock on both sides, with his father serving as Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1766-68 and his maternal uncle, George Grenville, serving as Prime Minister from 1806-7.
2. He was admitted to Cambridge University aged 13
Though sickly as a child, Pitt was a bright student and showed great talent for Latin and Greek at an early age.
A month shy of his 14th birthday, he was admitted to Pembroke College at Cambridge University where he studied a myriad of subjects, including political philosophy, classics, mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry and history.
3. He was a lifelong friend of William Wilberforce
While studying at Cambridge, Pitt met the young William Wilberforce and the two became lifelong friends and political allies.
Wilberforce would later comment on Pitt’s amicable sense of humour, stating:
no man … ever indulged more freely or happily in that playful facetiousness which gratifies all without wounding any
4. He became an MP through a rotten borough
After failing to secure the University of Cambridge parliamentary seat in 1780, Pitt entreated an old university friend, Charles Manners, 4th Duke of Rutland, to help him secure the patronage of James Lowther, later 1st Earl Lowther.
Lowther controlled the parliamentary borough of Appleby, a constituency considered to be a ‘rotten borough’. Rotten boroughs were places with tiny electorates, meaning those who were voted in gained an unrepresentative influence within the House of Commons, and the small amount of voters could be coerced into casting their ballot a certain way.
Ironically, Pitt would later decry the use of rotten boroughs to gain power in government, however the by-election of 1781 saw the budding young politician elected into the House of Commons for Appleby, initially aligning himself with a number of prominent Whigs.
5. He spoke out against the American War of Independence
While MP, Pitt began to make a name for himself as a noted debater, with his youthful presence in the House a refreshing addition.
One of the most notable causes he rallied against was the continuation of the American War of Independence, pushing instead for peace to be reached with the colonies. His father had also supported this cause.
When Britain eventually lost the war in 1781, shockwaves ran through Westminster, plunging the government into crisis between the years 1776-83.
6. He is the youngest Prime Minister in British history
During the governmental crisis, the young Pitt began to emerge as a leader amongst those calling for reforms within the House of Commons.
Well-liked by King George III, he was chosen as the next Prime Minister in 1783 aged just 24 years old, becoming the youngest to hold the position in British history.
His newfound power was not received well by all however, and in its early years he suffered much ridicule. The satirical pamphlet The Rolliad scathingly referred to his appointment as:
A sight to make surrounding nations stare;
A kingdom trusted to a school-boy’s care.
7. He was the second-longest serving Prime Minister
Despite many believing him to be a mere stop-gap until a more suitable leader was found, Pitt grew into a popular and capable leader.
He would serve as Prime Minster for a total of 18 years, 343 days, making him the second-longest serving Prime Minister in history after Robert Walpole.
8. He stabilised Britain’s economy after the war with America
Among many, one of Pitt’s most enduring legacies were his astute financial policies. Following the war with America, he helped to save Britain’s economy, whose national debt had doubled to £243 million.
In order to reduce the national debt Pitt introduced new taxes, including the country’s first ever income tax, and clamped down on illegal smuggling. He also instituted a sinking fund, in which £1 million was added to a pot that could accumulate interest. Just 9 years into his government, the debt had fallen to £170 million.
With the loss of the colonies and the reorganisation of Britain’s finances, historians often conclude that Britain was able to deal with the oncoming French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars with firmer unity and coordination.
9. He formed the Third Coalition against Napoleon
After the crushing defeat of the First and Second Coalitions against the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte, Pitt formed the Third Coalition, made up of Austria, Russia and Sweden.
In 1805, this Coalition won one of the most infamous victories in history at the Battle of Trafalgar, crushing the French fleet and ensuring British naval supremacy for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars. After being hailed as “the Saviour of Europe” at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, Pitt made a stirring yet humble speech in which he declared:
I return you many thanks for the honour you have done me; but Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.
10. He died aged 46 in Putney
With the later collapse of the Third Coalition and the immense national debt accrued from the war with France, Pitt’s already weakened health began to fail. On 23 January 1806, he died at Bowling Green House on Putney Heath aged 46, probably from peptic ulceration of his stomach or duodenum.
A testament to his immense services to the country, he was honoured with a public funeral and was buried in the magnificent Westminster Abbey in London, with many conservatives embracing him as a great patriotic hero after his death.