CHARLES HANBURY WILLIAMS, a statesman and wit of considerable temporary fame, was the third son of John Hanbury, esq., a South Sea Director, who died in 1734. Charles, who in consequence of the will of his godfather; Charles Williams, esq. of Caerleon, assumed the name of Williams, was born in 1709, and educated at Eton, where he made considerable progress in classical literature; and having finished his studies, travelled through various parts of Europe. Soon after his return he assumed the name of Williams, obtained from his father the estate of Coldbrook, and espoused, in 1732, lady Frances Coningsby, youngest daughter of Thomas, earl of Coningsby.
On the death of his father in 1733, he was elected member of parliament for the county of Monmouth, and uniformly supported the administration of sir Robert Walpole, whom he idolized; he received from that minister many early and confidential marks of esteem, and in 1739 was was appointed by him paymaster of the marines. His name occurs only twice as a speaker, in Chandler's debates: but the substance of his speech is given in neither instance. Sprightliness of conversation, ready wit, and agreeable manners, introduced him to the acquaintance of men of the first talents: he was the soul of the celebrated coterie, of which the most conspicuous members were, lord Hervey, Winnington, Horace Walpole, late earl of Orford, Stephen Fox, earl of Ilchester, and Henry Fox, lord Holland, with whom, in particular, he lived in the strictest habits of intimacy and friendship. At this period he distinguished himself by political ballads remarkable for vivacity, keenness of invective, and ease of versification. In 1746 he was installed knight of the Bath, and soon after, appointed envoy to the court of Dresden, a situation which he is said to have solicited, that its employments might divert his grief for the death of his friend Mr. Winnington. The votary of wit and pleasure was instantly transformed into a man of business, and the author of satirical odes penned excellent dispatches. He was well adapted for the office of a foreign minister, and the lively, no less than the solid, parts of his character, proved useful in his new employment; flow of conversation, sprightliness of wit, politeness of demeanour, ease of address, conviviality of disposition, together with the delicacy of his table, attracted persons of all descriptions. He had an excellent tact for discriminating characters, humouring the foibles of those with whom he negociated, and conciliating those by whom the great were either directly or indirectly governed.
In 1749 he was appointed, at the express desire of the king, to succeed Mr. Legge as minister plenipotentiary at the court of Berlin; but in 1751 returned to his embassy at Dresden. During his residence at these courts, he transacted the affairs of England and Hanover with so much address, that he was dispatched to Petersburg, in a time of critical emergency, to conduct a negociation of great delicacy and importance. The disputes concerning the limits of Nova Scotia, and the possessions of North America threatened a rupture between Great Britain and France; hostilities were on the point of commencing in America, and France had resolved to invade the Low Countries, and the electorate of Hanover, and to excite a continental war. With this view the cabinet of Versailles proposed to the king of Prussia, to co-operate in invading the electorate, and attacking the dominions of the house of Austria, hitherto the inseparable ally of England. The British cabinet, alarmed at this aspect of affairs, formed a plan of a triple alliance between Great Britain, Austria, and Russia, and to promote the negociation, the king repaired to Hanover, accompanied by the earl of Holdernesse, secretary of state.
Sir Charles Hanbury Williams arrived at St. Petersburg in the latter end of June; the negociation had been already opened by Mr. Guy Dickins, who lately occupied the post of envoy to the court of Russia; but his character and manners were not calculated to ensure success. He was treated with coldness and reserve by the empress, and had rendered himself highly offensive to the great chancellor, count Bestucheff. On the first appearance of the new ambassador, things immediately wore a favourable aspect; at his presence all obstacles were instantly removed, and all difficulties vanished. The votary of wit and pleasure was well received by the gay and voluptuous Elizabeth; he attached to his cause the great duke, afterwards the unfortunate Peter the Third; and his consort, the princess of Anhalt Zerbst, who became conspicuous under the name of Catherine the Second. All the ministers vied in loading him with marks of attention and civility; he broke through the usual forms of etiquette, and united in his favour the discordant views of the Russian cabinet; he conciliated the unbending and suspicious Bestucheff; warmed the phlegmatic temper of the vice-chancellor, count Voronzoff; and gained the under agents, who were enabled, by petty intrigues and secret cabals, to thwart the intentions of the principal ministers. He fulfilled literally the tenor of his own expressions, that he would "make use of the honey-moon of his ministry," to conclude the convention as speedily as possible on the best terms which could be obtained: he executed the orders of the king, not to sign any treaty in which an attack on any of his majesty's allies, or on any part of his electoral dominions, was not made a casus foederis; in six weeks after his arrival at St. Petersburg, he obtained the signature, without using all the full powers intrusted to him by the British cabinet, and instantly transmitted it to Hanover.
His sanguine imagination exaggerated the merit of his services; and he fondly expected an instantaneous answer filled with expressions of high applause. Some time, however, elapsed before any answer arrived; at length the expected messenger came; he seized the dispatches, and opened them with extreme impatience, in the presence of his confidential friend, count Poniatowski, afterwards king of Poland. In a few minutes he threw the letter which he was reading on the floor, struck his forehead with both his hands, and remained for some time absorbed in a deep reverie. Turning at length to count Poniatowski, he exclaimed, "Would you think it possible? Instead of receiving thanks for my zeal and activity in concluding the convention, I am blamed for an informality in the signature, and the king is displeased with my efforts to serve him." This interesting anecdote, Mr. Coxe, from whose "Tour in Monmouthshire" this life is abridged, received from the late king of Poland himself in 1785. To the same work we must refer for a particular detail of the intrigues which baffled the endeavours of sir Charles, and induced him to make repeated and earnest entreaties, in consequence of which, permission was granted for his return, but he was induced to continue in his post until all his efforts proved unsuccessful, and the empress coalesced with Austria and France. In the midst of this arduous business his health rapidly declined, his head was occasionally affected, and his mind distracted with vexation; the irregularities of his life irritated his nerves, and a fatiguing journey exhausted his spirits.
Soon after his arrival at Hamburgh, in the autumn of 1757, he was suddenly smitten with a woman of low intrigue, gave her a note for £2000 and a contract of marriage, though his wife was still living: he also took large doses of stimulating medicines, which affected his head, and he was conveyed to England in a state of insanity. During the passage, he fell from the deck into the hold, and dangerously bruised his side; he was blooded four times on board, and four times immediately after his arrival in England. In little more than a month he recovered, and passed the summer at Coldbrook-house. But towards the latter end of 1759, he relapsed into a state of insanity, and expired on the second of November, aged fifty.
His official dispatches, says Mr. Coxe, are written with "true life and spirit; he delineates characters with truth and facility; and describes his diplomatic transactions with minuteness and accuracy, but without tediousness or formality. His verses were highly prized by his contemporaries, but in perusing those which have been given to the public, Odes, 1775, 12mo, and those which are still in manuscript, the greater part are political effusions, or licentious lampoons, abounding with local wit and temporary satire, eagerly read at the time of their appearance, but little interesting to posterity. Three of his pieces, however, deserve to be exempted from this general character; his poem of Isabella, or the Morning, is remarkable for ease of versification, and happy discrimination of character; his epitaph on Mr. Winnington is written with great feelings and his beautiful Ode to Mr. Pointz, in honour of the duke of Cumberland, breathes a spirit of sublimity, which entitles the author to the rank of a poet, and excites our regret that his muse was not always employed on subjects worthy of his talents.
He wrote a very admirable paper in the World, No. 37, not noticed by Mr. Coxe, but which from the date appears to have been the employment of a leisure hour when at St. Petersburg.
Sir Charles left by his wife two daughters; Frances, first wife of William Anne, late earl of Essex, and Charlotte, who espoused the honourable Robert Boyle Walsingham, youngest son of the earl of Shannon; a commodore in the navy. On his death without issue male, the estate and mansion of Coldbrook came to his brother George, who cried in 1764, and now belongs to his son John Hanbury Williams, esq. the present proprietor.