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Sir William George Granville Venables Vernon Harcourt KC (14 October 1827 – 1 October 1904) was a British lawyer, journalist and Liberal statesman. He served as Member of Parliament for Oxford, Derby then West Monmouthshire and held the offices of Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer under William Ewart Gladstone before becoming Leader of the Opposition. A talented speaker in parliament, he was sometimes regarded as aloof and possessing only an intellectual involvement in his causes. He failed to engender much emotional response in the public and became only a reluctant and disillusioned leader of his party.[1] Historian Roy Jenkins says he was "too much of a party man. In manner and by origin he was a patrician figure, but he saw most issues exclusively in terms of parliamentary infighting… His views were usually much more of a reaction to what his political enemies, in the other party and in his own, were saying than the result of any objective thought. He inspired considerable loyalty among his followers – the Great Gladiator he was sometimes enthusiastically called – but his colleagues, partly as a result of his execrable temperament and his bullying… found him a difficult man with whom to work."[2]

Harcourt was the second son of Rev. Canon William Vernon Harcourt, a scientist and owner of Nuneham Park, Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire and Matilda Mary, daughter of Colonel William Gooch.[3] His father was the fourth son and eventually heir of The Most Rev. Edward Harcourt, Archbishop of York[3] and Lady Anne Leveson-Gower.[4] Anne was a daughter of Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Marquess of Stafford and kinswoman Lady Louisa Egerton. Her maternal grandparents included Scroop Egerton, 1st Duke of Bridgewater and Rachel.[5] Rachel was a daughter of Wriothesley Russell, 2nd Duke of Bedford and the rich heiress Elizabeth, daughter of John Howland of Streatham.[5] William was, due to the family's appendage of a surname to recognise an inheritance, born a Vernon, and his position as a senior heir in the landed Vernon and Harcourt was emphasised by his link to many of the greater English houses, a fact of which he was proud. In later life his descent from the Plantagenets was a joke among his political opponents.[1]

William's childhood was an austere one, educated at home by a Swiss governess, he was sent to a private school at Southwell, Nottinghamshire, when he was eight. William's father denied him a public school education, sending him to be educated in classics at the small class of Rev. John Owen Parr. In 1840, Parr moved to Preston and William witnessed the Preston bread riots there in 1842. He left Parr in 1844 and, after two more years' study at home, William entered Trinity College, Cambridge, to pursue his interest in mathematics.[7] At Cambridge he became a Cambridge Apostle, and graduated with first-class honours in the classics tripos in 1851, but he did not enjoy the mathematics, graduating only senior optime.[3] At Cambridge, William rejected his family's Tory instincts and began to write for the Morning Chronicle in support of Sir Robert Peel. William's father encouraged him to seek a Cambridge fellowship or a career in politics but William chose law and journalism. He entered Lincoln's Inn in 1852 and was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1854.[3] He quickly made his mark as a speaker,[1] his reception into London society being eased by his uncle George Harcourt and aunt Frances Waldegrave. From 1855 William started to write for the Saturday Review, becoming increasingly a follower of William Ewart Gladstone and an opponent of Lord Palmerston. He practised in railway law, commentating, especially in The Times on international law. In 1862, he wrote some famous letters to The Times over the signature of "Historicus," supporting Britain's neutrality in the American Civil War and condemning the widespread public sympathy for the Confederate States. He also wrote on the Trent Affair and the Alabama controversy.[3][8] He became a Queen's Counsel in 1866, and was appointed Whewell professor of international law at the University of Cambridge in 1869.[1]

On 5 November 1859, Harcourt married his first wife Maria Theresa Lister, known as Therese. She was a daughter of novelist Thomas Henry Lister and Lady Maria Theresa Villiers. They had two children: Julian Harcourt (1860–1862) and Lewis Harcourt, 1st Viscount Harcourt (1863–1922). Lewis Harcourt served as Private Secretary to his father and later became a prominent politician in his own right, most notably as Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1910 to 1915. His first wife died on 1 February 1863, only a day after giving birth to their second and last son. Harcourt remained a widower for thirteen years. On 2 December 1876, he married his second wife Elizabeth Cabot Motley.[17] Elizabeth was a daughter of American historian John Lothrop Motley and Mary Benjamin. Her maternal uncle Park Benjamin was a patent lawyer and writer on scientific subjects. She had been previously married to naval officer Thomas Poynton Ives. Ives was among the casualties of the American Civil War. By this second marriage, Harcourt had his third and final son: Robert Harcourt (born 1878). He married Marjorie Laura Cunard. Their daughter Mary Elizabeth Harcourt married Ian Rochfort Johnston, a Commander of the Royal Navy.

William Harcourt's probate was sworn in the year he died (when he was resident at Nuneham Park and at Malwood in Hampshire) then resworn, over £3000 upward, at ninepence short of £190,265 (equivalent to about £21,800,000 in 2021).[6]

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