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Reginald Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher

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Reginald Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher

Reginald Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher

Reginald Baliol Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher GCVO KCB PC DL (30 June 1852 – 22 January 1930) was a historian and Liberal politician in the United Kingdom, although his period of greatest influence over military and foreign affairs was as a courtier, member of public committees and behind-the-scenes "fixer".


  • Career Courtier and 'fixer' 1
    • Background and education 1.1
    • Courtier, diplomat and Liberal MP 1.2
    • Esher Committee 1.3
    • Liberal War Office 1.4
    • Esher's royal triumph and the Entente Cordiale 1.5
    • Esher's Great War 1.6
  • Historian and retirement 2
    • Family Life 2.1
  • Family 3
  • References 4
    • Bibliography 4.1
  • External links 5

Career Courtier and 'fixer'

Background and education

Reginald, known as Regy, Brett was the son of William Baliol Brett, 1st Viscount Esher and Eugénie Mayer (1814–1904).[1] Born in London, Esher remembered sitting on the lap of an old man who had played violin for Marie Antoinette, and was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. He held a militia commission after Cambridge.[2][3] His father was Solicitor-General in the Disraeli's ministry. He distinguished himself in the 1867 Reform Act debate dutifully supporting the triumphant Disraeli. Baliol Brett was an expert on northern politics, being Yorkshire born and bred. For many years he was MP for Bradford. In 1876 he was a Lord Justice, and Salisbury later elevated a Baron and raised to the bench. A distinguished common law judge, he was Master of Rolls for 1897, when created first Viscount Esher. Regy's mother was a jewess French émigrée, who arrived in England, after being expelled for supporting Bonaparte. A refugee she was adopted by John Gurwood. She was the famous jejeune captivated in Disraeli's novel Conningsby. The couple met at the romantic bohemian Tory set in Longleat House and with the society hostess Countess Blessington.

At Eton Brett was taught by the influential William Johnson Cory, whose pupils included Rosebery and those in the highest echelons of society. Rosebery's idealistic learning from romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, the liberal philosopher J S Mill, the chemistry of Leibniz, music of Mozart, and Jeremy Bentham were intellectual influences on the young Regy. Going up to Trinity College, Oxford, Brett was profoundly influenced by William Harcourt the radical lawyer, politician and Professor of International Law. Harcourt controlled Brett's rooms, and lifestyle at Oxford. Brett's father had introduced him to Albert Grey's Committee, but had a long-standing dispute with General Charles Grey, the Queen's Equerry. Brett was admitted to the Society of Apostles, dedicated to emergent philosophies of European atheism. Their number included the aristocratic literati of liberalism Frank, Gerald and Eustace Balfour, Frederick and Arthur Myers, Hallam and Lionel Tennyson, Edmund Gurney, S H and J G Butcher. Brett experimented approaching High Mass from Cardinal Newman on Sundays in London. The Oxford Movement included historians J Sedgwick and F M Maitland.

Brett was seen with the Carlton Gardens set of Lady Granville, he was friends of the Clare brothers, introduced by the Earl de Grey. He visited Howick Park, and took law with Lord Brougham of Vaux. The famous lawyer's lectures coincided with Justice Brett's employment with Richard Cross, as a parliamentary re-drafter at the Home Office. Albert Grey ushered provided an invitation to the India Office and entrée to met Sir Bartle Frere, the colonial administrator. When Disraeli tried to enforce Anglicanism, in the Public Worship Bill, and was defeated, Brett wrote copious letters to Hartington, leader of the Liberals in the Commons. The consequences were to push Harcourt into the limelight as a leading Liberal in the Commons. But moderates tended to be dragged into sharing a religious position when the Disraelian tradition was threatening to split English liberalism. Brett visited the actor's daughter Lady Waldegrave at Strawberry Hill, and took deportment lessons from the Duchess of Manchester at Kimbolton. She was Hartington's private secretary, stamping his credentials as a rich aesthete.

Courtier, diplomat and Liberal MP

The Great Eastern Crisis (1875–78) had released Turkey from the threat of Russian invasion. But the success of the Midlothian Campaign had re-energized Gladstone's authority as rightful leader of his party; casting Hartington and Brett as marginalized jingos. Six years later the Whigs would be pushed into the unionist camp. Brett needed his vanity satisfied but felt comfortable in neither party. He rose to become the mediator between Liberal factions, and was a leading light at the Liberal Round Table Conference in 1887.

Having been a Conservative supporter as a young man, Brett began his political career in 1880, as Liberal Member of Parliament for Penryn and Falmouth. He was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Hartington, who was Secretary of State for War (1882-5) and once drove him to a Cabinet meeting on a sleigh through the snow.[2] However he elected to withdraw from public politics in 1885, after losing an election at Plymouth, in favour of a behind the scenes role. He was instrumental in the Jameson raid of 1895 vigorously defending the imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

In 1895, Lord Brett became Permanent Secretary to the Office of Works, where the Prince of Wales was impressed by his dedication to the elderly Queen Victoria.[2] A lift was built at Windsor Castle to get the elderly Queen upstairs in a redecorated palace. In Kensington Palace, Esher would push the Queen around in wheel chair so she could revisit her childhood. The devoted royal servant would work even more closely with Edward VII. Upon his father's death on 24 May 1899, he succeeded him as 2nd Viscount Esher.

Brett in 1880

During the Boer war Esher had to intervene in the row between Lansdowne and General Wolseley, c-i-c who tended to blame the politician for military failures. He would make the walk between palace and War Office to iron out problems. Into the political vacuum, Esher wrote the memos that became established civil service procedure. When the Elgin Commission was asked to report on the conduct of war, it was Esher who wrote it after the Khaki Election, and continued to act to influence both King and parliament. They met Admiral Fisher at Balmoral to discuss reform of Naval structures, which relied heavily on Fisher's complex web of relatives in senior posts.

In 1901, Lord Esher was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Berkshire[4] and became Deputy Governor and Constable of Windsor Castle,[5] he remained close to the royal family until his death. By the end of 1903 Esher was meeting or corresponding with King Edward VII every day.[2] He lived at 'Orchard Lea', Winkfield on the edge of the Great Park. During this period, he helped edit Queen Victoria's papers, publishing a work called Correspondence of Queen Victoria (1907).

From 1903 Esher shunned office, but was a member of Lord Elgin's South African War Commission,[6] which investigated Britain's near-failure in the Boer War. At this time he was writing to the King daily (and having three or four meetings a day with the King’s adviser Knollys), informing him of the views of the Commission, of party leaders, and war office civil servants with whom he was still in touch from his days working for Hartington. St John Brodrick, Secretary of State for War, was resentful of Esher’s influence.[2] Broderick's scope for operation was paralysed by Esher's circumvention, and in October 1903 the government nearly fell when Chamberlain and Devonshire resigned over the rejection of Tariff Reform.

Esher Committee

In 1904 Esher set up a sub-committee of Hugh Arnold-Foster's attempt to block militia reform, Clarke "discountenancing" told him he could not possibly read the Order".[7] A Triumvirate included Esher, Rosebery, and General Murray, notorious for making policy on the hoof misusing ministerial offices. Furious Esher was determined the King should have intervention: on 7 December, Arnold-Foster advised to save £2 m the militia must be absorbed into the Army. His scheming encouraged by the King, wanted Balfour to look to party first, while at the same time warning the King's Secretary that "the Prime Minister will have to take matters into his own hands".[8] Esher's role was for sixty-seven years a secret, by a memorandum behind the scenes, unaccountable to parliament. It was decided on 19 December a Reserve Force should be set up "in commission". On 12 January Esher told the minister to accept his sub-committee's recommendation, even though Arnold-Foster had not even been told of the agenda.[9] Despite the intrigues, the King approved of the committee's work.[10]

Esher cultivated a friendship with Colonel Sir Edmund Ward, secretary to the Army Council in order to control minute-takings, agenda, and meetings quorum telling him he had secret information of "proof of the Army Order"; and a plan known as "Traverse" towards Army decentralisation. That was in Sept 1904 when the Army Council's power were still undefined at the time it was enlarged by Lord Knollys. The issue confronting Esher was the Crown Prerogatives which had been circumvented "without reference to the Sovereign".[11] He marched into Arnold-Foster's office to remind him that precedent under Victoria had been to yield to arguments from the monarch[12] which had already been put forward y the Adjutant-General.[13]

Liberal War Office

Behind the scenes, he influenced many pre-World War I military reforms and was a supporter of the BritishFrench Entente Cordiale. He chaired the War Office Reconstitution Committee.[6] This recommended radical reform of the British Army, including the setting up of the Army Council, and established the Committee of Imperial Defence, a permanent secretariat that Esher joined in 1905. From 1904 all War Office appointments were approved and often suggested by Esher. He approved the setting up of the Territorial Army, although he saw it as a step towards conscription; a step not taken as the Conscription acts became mandatory. Many of Esher’s recommendations were nonetheless, implemented under the new Liberal governments of Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Herbert Henry Asquith by Haldane, Secretary of State for War, assisted by Esher's protege the young Major-General Douglas Haig.[2] When Haldane entered the War Office, he was provided with Colonel Sir Gerard Ellison as a new military secretary to make the transitional reforms. Haldane wished to avoid 'corner cuts' and so established the Information Bureau in the War Office. Although Eshers's biographer Peter Fraser argued "the Haldane reforms owed little to Haldane."[14] The initial Liberal reforms were thrown out by the Lords, and the resulting documents looked like Esher's original efforts.[15]

Esher found his son, Oliver Brett, a job as an additional secretary to John Morley. And he was on good terms with Capt Sinclair, Campbell-Bannerman's secretary.

Esher's royal triumph and the Entente Cordiale

Esher was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of London in 1909.[16] and the King's Aide-de-Camp. Esher was an able administrator, and a silky, smooth influence as a courtier, and supporter for the monarch. Moreover the King liked Esher, as his influence over the Army grew, leading to a more liberal far-sighted attitude towards the possibility of conflict in Europe. Esher's invaluable contribution prevented further promotion in a political career, in which he had been destined for high cabinet office. His close political friends in the Liberal party included Edward Marjoribanks and Earl Rosebery. His aristocratic connections and military experience made him an ideal grandee, but such was the importance of his ties to the monarch, that his career was somewhat restrictive of ambition. He was by nature ambitious, 'clubbable' sociable, and frequently seen at High Society parties in the fashionable houses of the Edwardian era.

In 1911 Esher helped ease out Lord Knollys, who was then seventy-five years old, having been in the Royal Household since 1862, but who had lost some royal confidence over the negotiation of the Parliament Act. Esher arranged a replacement as King George V's principal adviser with Lord Stamfordham.[2]

Esher declined many public offices, including the Viceroyalty of India and the Secretaryship for War, a job to which King Edward VII had urged he be appointed.[2]

Esher's Great War

In January 1915 Esher visited Premier Briand in Paris, who told him Lloyd George has "a longer view than any of our leaders". An earlier opening of a Salonika Front might have prevented the entry of Bulgaria into the war".[17] He also made contact with Bunau Varilla, editor of Le Matin, to keep Russia in "the alliance and Americans to come to aid of Europe".[18] The French war effort was almost spent. Finance Minister, Alexandre Ribot told them to sue for peace, Esher reported.[19] The Chatilly Conference they discussed combined operations - "Dans la guerre l'inertie est une honte."[20] Esher accompanied Haig to the Amiens Conference, but was back in Paris to be informed of the surprise news of Kitchener's death. Returning to London Esher spoke with Billy Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia. The following month at the Beaugency Conference they discussed the Somme Offensive. "For heaven's sake put every ounce you have got of will power into this offensive" he told Hankey.[21] He often travelled to France to leave the "mephitic" atmosphere of the War Office, [22] on a trip to Liaison Officer, Colonel Sidney Clive at Chatilly. He learnt first hand the French government's scheme for a "Greater Syria" to include British controlled Palestine. France's allies on the Eastern Front, Russia were losing the war badly; so Asquith's neutrality over Briand's Plan perplexed Esher. He perceived the balance of power in cabinet shifting towards a new more conservative coalition.[23] During the First World War Esher was, in one writer’s description, de facto head of British Intelligence in France, reporting on the French domestic and political situation, although he told his son he preferred not to have a formal position where he would have to take orders.[2]His son Maurice Brett set up a bureau in Paris called Intelligence Anglaise keeping his father informed through a small spy network with links to newspaper journalists.

In 1917 he told Lloyd George that the diplomacy in Paris was weak, informing the Prime Minister that he "was badly served". The ambassador Lord Bertie was the last of the Victorian imperial envoys, was failing to do enough to persuade a faltering France to remain fighting in the war. When offered the ambassadorship in Bertie's stead Esher crowed "I cannot imagine anything I would detest more."[24] His considerable diplomatic skills included fluent French and German. The following month there was a French mutiny, as the Poilus were dying in appalling conditions. Haig and Wilson lent their support to an offensive to bolster the French. Petain, the new French commander-in-chief, was deemed too defensive: Esher sent Colonel Repington as liaison officer on a 'charm offensive'. Backed by Churchill and Milner for dramatic action, Esher entered a diplomatic conversation with the Cabinet's War Policy Committee; a unique new departure in the management of British policy. The bad weather and sickness of war made Esher ill in 1917; he was encouraged by the King to holiday at Biarritz.

Partly on Esher's advice, the War Office undertook major re-organization in 1917. He advised unification of commands, in which all British military commands would be controlled from Whitehall's Imperial War Office only.[25] Esher was at the famous Crillon Club dinner meeting in Paris on 1 December 1917 in which with Clemenceau they took critical decisions over the strategy for 1918. The Allied Governments proposed a unified Allied Reserve, despite negative press and publicity in the Commons. As cabinet enforcer, Esher visited Wilson on 9 February 1918, during the crisis over his succession to Robertson as CIGS. Esher became instrumental in remonstrating with loose press articles critical of the war effort in particular, the Northcliffe press and the Morning Post, which was seized and shut down at 6.30 pm on Tuesday, 10 February 1918. In France, Esher had established a rapprochement with the press to help hold the Poincare-Clemenceau government together, at a time when England was at the zenith of her military strength."[26]

Esher was admitted to the Privy Council in 1922. In 1928 he became Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle, an office he had always wanted, holding it until his death in 1930.

Historian and retirement

Lord Esher was also a historian; besides the aforementioned work, he also published works on King Edward VII and Lord Kitchener. Together with Liberal MP Lewis ("Loulou") Harcourt he established the London Museum, which opened its doors on 5 March 1912.[27] In February 1920 he proof read Haig's History of the General Head Quarters 1917-1918. That summer Esher's critique of a 'Life of Disraeli' appeared in Quarterly Review. His own life would be written by Oliver, eldest son and heir.

As the Great War concluded Esher intimated that the King wanted a resignation as Lieutenant-Governor of Windsor. In fact he coveted the post of Keeper of the Royal Archives. Stamfordham demanded his resignation in favour of historian Sir John Fortescue, but Esher remained as Governor. Professionalization also warned Hankey against becoming secretary to the Peace Conference, which to Esher's mind was beyond his competence. Esher also persuaded his friend not to desert the Empire for the League of Nations. Domestic unrest, unionism , which Esher loathed, as it threatened peace and stability, also destabilized his position as President of the Army of India Committee. Ever skeptical of political changes, "omnivorous" introductions to the Viceroys work forced him to decline a solicitous offer to Chair a sub-committee of the Conditions of the Poor.

Family Life

Esher's most cheerful experiences were at Roman Camp in Scotland. He embraced the healthy Scottish highland air. His son, Maurice Brett was the successful founder of MI6 in Esher's Paris flat during the war; a meeting place for Prime Minister's and Presidents. In November 1919, Maurice sold Orchard Lea; Esher was a family man.

Astute, reserved, and modestly discreet Esher assiduously courted success and avoided scandal. He turned down an invitation to attend on David, Prince of Wales and his mistress Violet Dudley Ward at Balmoral. But when his wild, artistic daughter invited Colette and husband Bunau Varilla, the family stayed on his yacht in the Clyde; family came first.[28] Dorothy Brett was a slightly bohemian artist living at 2 Tilney Street. She befriended Gertler, a wild Russian Jewess, her father despaired.


In 1879, Reginald Brett married Eleanor Van de Weyer, daughter of Belgian ambassador Sylvain Van de Weyer and granddaughter of Anglo-American financier Joshua Bates. They had four children.

Although married with children, Esher had homosexual inclinations, but his flirtations with young men were regarded with tolerant amusement in polite society.[2][29]


  1. ^ Hedley (2004)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Reid 2006, pp127-31
  3. ^ "Brett, Reginald Baliol (BRT870RB)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  4. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27281. p. 766. 5 February 1901.
  5. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27336. p. 4838. 23 July 1901.
  6. ^ a b "The Papers of Viscount Esher (Reginald Brett)". Janus. Cambridge University. 
  7. ^ Clarke to Esher, 26 Nov 1904, Esher's Journals and Letters
  8. ^ Esher to Lord Knollys, 27 Nov 1904, Journals and Letters
  9. ^ Arnold-Foster, Diary, 25 Jan 1905
  10. ^ Edward VII to Balfour, RA R 25/68, 69
  11. ^ Esher to Knollys, 18 Oct 1904, Journals and Letters
  12. ^ Clarke to Esher, 16 Nov 1904, Journals and Letters,
  13. ^ Adj-Gen. Sir Charles Douglas, W.O, 7 Nov 1904
  14. ^ Fraser, p.23.
  15. ^ Fraser, p.23-4
  16. ^ The London Gazette: no. 28255. p. 4062. 28 May 1909.
  17. ^ Journal and Letters, May 6, 1916
  18. ^ Journals, May 17, 1916
  19. ^ Journals, Esher to Robertson, Paris, 20 May 1916
  20. ^ President Poincare on the state of battle at Verdun, Esher's Journals, May 23-24, 1916
  21. ^ Journals, Esher to Sir Maurice Hankey, Paris, August 3, 1916
  22. ^ Esher to Haig, Aug 6, 1916
  23. ^ Esher to Robertson, 11 Aug 1916, Journals and Letters, vol.4, 1916-30
  24. ^ Journals and Letters, May 19, 1917.
  25. ^ FM Sir William Robertson, 'Soldiers and Statesmen 1914-1918' (1926)
  26. ^ Memorandum to Stamfordham, 18 October 1917, Royal Archives, Windsor, GVK1340/1; Fraser, p.372
  27. ^ Bailkin, Jordanna "Radical Conservations: The Problem with the London Museum" Radical History Review - Issue 84, Fall 2002, pp. 43–7
  28. ^ The Enigmatic Edwardian, p.325
  29. ^ Bloch 2015, pp32-41


  • Bloch, Michael (2015). Closet Queens. London: Little, Brown.  
  • Brett, Oliver (1938). Journals and Letters of Reginald Brett, Viscount Esher. 6 vols. Routledge. 
  • Fraser, Peter (1971). Life and Times of Reginald Brett, Viscount Esher. Routledge. 
  • Lees-Milne, James (1986). The Enigmatic Edwardian: The Life of Reginald, 2nd Viscount Esher. London: Sidgwick & Jackson. 
  • Magnus, Philip (1964). King Edward VII. John Murray. 
  • Reid, Walter (2006). Architect of Victory: Douglas Haig. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd.  

External links

  • Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by the Viscount Esher
  • The Papers of Viscount Esher (Reginald Brett) at Churchill College
  • Works by Reginald Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Viscount Esher at Internet Archive
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Henry Thomas Cole
David James Jenkins
Member of Parliament for Penryn and Falmouth
With: David James Jenkins
Succeeded by
David James Jenkins
Honorary titles
Preceded by
The Marquess of Cambridge
Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle
Succeeded by
The Earl of Athlone
Peerage of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
William Brett
Viscount Esher
Succeeded by
Oliver Brett
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