Or, Not Your Typical Drinking Buddy

Earl Greys have come in several shapes and sizes over the years, there having been more than one. But the man who arguably made the name famous was in fact the 2nd Earl Grey, Charles, after whom the well-known, much enjoyed black tea is named.

Given the breadth of Charles' political career, and the services he performed for King and Country, it is doubtful he would express much joy at being remembered as a nice accompaniment to finger sandwiches and scones. But one must take what one can get, historically speaking, and unless you're a political historian, you've gotten more interest out of the beverage.

The Backstory

They weren't always earls, but the Grey family had been of the nobility for nearly four hundred years by the time little Charlie came along. Briefly, then:

I give you the family Grey.

Back to the Subject at Hand

The future 2nd Earl, that is--Charles Jr., son of the above. You know. The tea guy. Born to good stock, then, young Charles was on the right path from the get-go; lineage breeds success. And sometimes it's actually deserved.

  • March 13, 1764: Charles born at Fallodon. Grows up with a taste for something he can't quite put his finger on.
  • ca. 1781: Goes to look for it, among other things, at King's College, Cambridge. Excels as a student, but still cannot shake nagging thirst.
  • 1786: Charles, at 22, enters Parliament. This is where things start to get interesting, amongst very boring people.

The Grey Area

The man's involvement in politics is quite extensive--if not always particulary successful. I hope you aren't hoping to read too much about this whole tea business, there really isn't nearly as much to it.

Despite a rather Toryish upbringing, or perhaps because of it, Charles soon falls under the sway of a major Radical Whig in the House of Commons, Charles Fox. The two do a lot of coughing during Prime Minister William Pitt's speeches, and Charles gets himself the beginnings of a reputation.

  • 1792: He and other reformational Whigs form the Friends of the People, a society the goal of which was to secure more equal representation in Parliament and increase the frequency of elections. Grey did not go so far as to advocate universal suffrage, as some of his colleagues did, but he did want to see a few more ballots in the boxes.

    A Reform Bill he introduced that year with those goals in mind was thoroughly crushed in a vote.

  • 1793: Try, try again. Another Reform Bill, another attack on Pitt. The debate around this got rather warm, with Grey speaking loudly on behalf of the underrepresentated population, Pitt on behalf of conservatism. No good stirring up the Radicals, what with the French Revolution still going on strong across the Channel.

    The proposals again failed miserably, and the Friends of the People went their separate ways.

  • 1794: More opposition: this time he railed against the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act.

    He also married Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby, an Irish Catholic--another unpopular thing to do at the time.

  • 1795: But the lost cause that broke the camel's mixed metaphor was his challenge to the Seditious Meetings Bill, also passed despite his blusterings.
  • 1797-1800: Entirely too fed up with Pitt's unwillingness to budge on reform, Grey took a three year hiatus from the House of Commons. Where was he during the interim? Experimenting with tea? Perhaps.
  • 1800: If so, it refreshed him enough to return this year to arch his eyebrow over the Act of Union with Ireland.
  • 1801: Finally, some almost good news. Pitt's ideas about Catholic Emancipation soured George III, who got him replaced as PM by Henry Addington. The latter's views of Grey weren't quite so negative.
  • 1806: As seen here, when Addington gives him a spot as the new first Lord of the Admiralty. Later the same year, Charles Fox finally stepped out of his way, and he became the Foreign Secretary and head of the Commons. As such, he championed the bill abolishing the African Slave Trade.
  • 1807: Even more good news, depending on how you feel about your family. Charles Sr. went the way of all men, and the world got its 2nd Earl Grey. Charles also graduated into the House of Lords--so you'd think his career in politics would be over. Not so. Not entirely.

Relax, Have a Cup of...er...

As befits a member of the House of Lords, history heard somewhat less from Earl Grey in the years beyond his father's death. There are some acts of note, naturally, but his role in government did become less active. For awhile. He didn't just give up being a pebble in the Tory shoe for twenty years--he opposed the Gagging Acts, and a few other things here and there--but it wasn't until 1830 that another really big boot came along.

This Time, It's Personal

Grey's next big brouhaha was made before the Duke of Wellington, whom he demanded, once more, to undertake measures for Parliamentary reform. The Iron Duke was entirely unimpressed, and claimed the system in place was essentially perfect.

But this time, Fortune smiled on Earl Grey. In November, the Wellington government lost the vote, and a new king, William IV, approached Grey (over tea?) about his very bright future. The long beleaguered, never-give-up (for too long), always keep fighting Earl finally became the Prime Minister, and announced plans for reform to Parliament the following year. The House of Commons voted them through, at long last.

They were blocked by the House of Lords.

A second Reform Bill met the same fate, even after Grey called for a general election that gave Whigs a greater advantage in the Commons. Riots broke out over the news amongst the populace, which took upon itself to set fire to Nottingham Castle.

Third times the charm. In 1832, Grey appealed to the King to pack the Lords with new Whig peers, and at this, the group finally backed down. The Reform Act received the Royal Assent, and Grey settled in for a few more years of serious work.

Another general election gave the Whig a very powerful majority, and the Earl managed to push through several reformative acts before resigning from office in 1834. He died in his home in 1845.


Ah yes. As I warned you, there's remarkably little to say on the subject. Earl Grey tea, now usually made with an Indian or Sri Lankan black tea, was originally a Chinese blend flavored with oil from the Bergamot Orange, the latter being a sort of pear shaped sour orange native to Vietnam.

The Earl did not invent it, did not really own it, nor in fact can one verify that he even drank unreasonable amounts of it. The story is that once he found the stuff, he was constantly after his tea merchants to supply it. It soon became a Grey drawing room staple, and the family eventually agreed to allow it to be sold to the public with their name on it because that's how it had come to be known.

But as to how he found it, there are only rumors:

  1. He encountered and became enamored with the brew during a mysterious trip to China.
  2. He encountered and became enamored with the brew during a singularly mundane trip to China.
  3. He saved the life of a Mandarin Chinese fellow who out of gratitude gave him the secret recipe.
  4. He saved the life of a Mandarin Chinese fellow while on a mysterious trip to China.
  5. He saved the life of a Mandarin Chinese fellow while on what would otherwise have been a singularly mundane trip to China.
  6. He happened to be chummy with a Chinese fellow who told him what it was and gave him the recipe.

Sadly, the last is the most likely variant. There are no solid records that Grey ever made it to China, but then, there are none that say he didn't. And equally none that say it wasn't mysterious, if it happened. Or that it was. Or that the Chinese fellow wasn't mysterious. Or mundane. And so on.

In any case--raise your cup (pinky out) the next time you're at tea, and hail Earl Grey, the Prime Minister.

Two lumps for:

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