The English statesman George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston (1859-1925), served as viceroy of India and as a member of several Cabinets.
High offices in the British political and imperial structure at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century were generally held by men chosen on the basis of highly restrictive family and educational connections. George Curzon was the epitome of this system, and it was useful to his political and social ambitions before World War I. Afterward, however, he was hurt by his connection with it and by his inconsistent actions that bordered on opportunism in his late drive for government leadership.
Curzon was born on Jan. 11, 1859, at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire. His early life was dominated by the influence of a governess and a schoolmaster who were both strict disciplinarians; those years were not very happy ones for him, but he did exceptionally well at school. He was a leader and an outstanding student at Eton from 1872 to 1878 and at Balliol College, Oxford, from 1878 to 1882, although he was disappointed when he missed getting every honor. With an aristocratic appearance and a bearing that commanded attention, he put unrestrained energy into his work and was not satisfied unless he was in the center of every situation.
In the 3 years after leaving Oxford, Curzon traveled extensively in the Mediterranean world and used the knowledge he acquired to write articles on important issues. In 1885 Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, chose him as his assistant private secretary. Curzon lost his first election that year, but he won a seat the next year in the House of Commons. From 1887 to 1894 he continued to travel widely, choosing Asia as his particular interest and writing three outstanding books on Asian affairs: Russia in Central Asia (1889), Persia and the Persian Question (1892), and Problems of the Far East (1894).
Curzon began his government service in 1891 as undersecretary in the India office in Salisbury’s government. The government fell from power in 1892, but when the Conservatives came in again in 1895, Curzon was named parliamentary undersecretary in the Foreign Office, directly under Salisbury, who was both prime minister and foreign secretary. Curzon was the principal government spokesman on foreign affairs in the House of Commons.
Viceroy of India
Curzon was chosen viceroy of India in 1898. This position was perfectly suited to his desire for public attention, since he was in charge of the entire British administration of the Indian empire. He stayed in India for 7 years, ruling firmly in matters of domestic policy and making strong appeals in matters of foreign policy. In the latter, Curzon was particularly involved in the problem of defense along India’s frontiers and in those areas of possible danger from Russian expansion and competition—Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet.
Military matters were Curzon’s undoing. He and Lord Kitchener, the commander in chief of the Indian army after 1902, became locked in a dispute over military organization; the government in England, then under Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, chose to sacrifice Curzon in favor of Kitchener, who was a more popular figure. Curzon returned to Britain in late 1905, out of favor with his own Conservative party leadership and, since the Liberals were coming into power, with no opportunity of remaking his reputation in another government assignment.
War Cabinet and Foreign Office
Curzon was out of politics except as a member of the House of Lords, until he was included in the wartime coalition government formed in May 1915. When David Lloyd George became prime minister in December 1916, Curzon was brought into the five-man War Cabinet, and he participated in all the major decisions of the latter part of World War I. He was given the task of running the Foreign Office through most of 1919, while Lloyd George and the foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, were at the Paris peace conference, and in late 1919 he was named as Balfour’s successor in the Foreign Office.
Curzon’s service in the War Cabinet and as foreign secretary was the second peak in his career. But his role in the Foreign Office in the postwar era was not so satisfactory to Curzon as it would have been in an earlier era. British government was changing, and concentration of authority in the prime minister’s hands had increased tremendously under Lloyd George’s personal control and the emergency of wartime government. Curzon was a leading candidate for prime minister in May 1923; he was disappointed at the last moment, however, and Stanley Baldwin was chosen instead. Curzon was dismayed, but he stayed on to serve under Baldwin in the same post until the government fell in January 1924. Curzon’s public service ended then, and he died on March 20, 1925.
Further Reading The most complete work on Curzon is the Earl of Ronaldshay, The Life of Lord Curzon (3 vols., 1928). Two studies which are old but still worthwhile are Harold Nicolson, Curzon, the Last Phase, 1919-1925: A Study in Post-war Diplomacy (1934), and Arthur Anthony Baumann’s sketch in Humbert Wolfe, ed., Personalities: A Selection from the Writings of A. A. Baumann (1936). Two other books essential to a full understanding of Curzon as a man are Leonard Mosley, The Glorious Fault: The Life of Lord Curzon (1960; published in England as Curzon: The End of an Epoch), and Kenneth Rose, Superior Person (1969). Michael Edwardes, High Noon of Empire: India under Curzon (1965), deals with India while Curzon was viceroy. Recommended for general historical background are R. C. K. Ensor, England, 1870-1914 (1936); Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert, eds., The Diplomats, 1919-1939 (1953); The Cambridge History of the British Empire, vol. 3: E. A. Benians and others, eds., The Empire- Commonwealth, 1870-1919 (1959); and A. J. P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945 (1965). Additional Sources Curzon, George Nathaniel Curzon, Marquis of, 1859-1925, A viceroy’s India: leaves from Lord Curzon’s note-book, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984. Gilmour, David, Curzon, London: J. Murray, 1994 (1995 printing). Goradia, Nayana, Lord Curzon: the last of the British Moghuls, Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Parker, James G., Lord Curzon, 1859-1925: a bibliography, New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. Rose, Kenneth, Curzon, a most superior person: a biography, London: Papermac, 1985.