Willoughby Bertie became fourth Earl of Abingdon on the death of his father, also Willoughby, in 1760 and was made High Steward of Abingdon and of Wallingford in the same year.
He was an active radical politician, who as a young man had gone in company with the then outlawed John Wilkes to visit Voltaire, the great figurehead of advanced Enlightenment politics, in Geneva. His political opinions seem unexceptionable today but were regarded as outrageous by his contemporaries. He strongly opposed the war against the American colonies, taking the view that Parliament was acting outside its legal powers in seeking to justify taxation without representation, and that this might lead to a parliamentary tyranny in Britain as it had in America. He took a similar position on British rule in Ireland. His effectiveness as a politician was always limited; he was too principled to join with others and too undiplomatic to make tactical alliances, and was often regarded as eccentric rather than serious.
Bertie was a notable musician. He played the flute, and was a prolific and skilful composer and song writer. About 150 of his compositions are extant. Some works were joint productions between himself and Haydn. He was patron of a series of concerts in London, on which he lost a large amount of money. A painting of him by J F Rigaud (shown above as a print) depicts him in the act of composition.
In Abingdon, he was active in local politics, supporting Whig candidates at the hustings. At his accession, he presented the Corporation with two valuable silver bowls and ladles, and in 1788 he made a gift of his accumulated fees as High Steward which were sufficient to pay for the culverting of the Stert Stream from the end of Broad Street to the Vineyard.
An enthusiastic huntsman and horse breeder, Bertie was very probably one of the backers of the Abingdon Races, which began in 1767 at Culham Heath; certainly, he opened the dancing at the ball given on the occasion, and served as a steward of the course in the following year.
In 1768 Bertie married Susanne Warren, daughter and co-heiress of a wealthy naval officer with interests both in England and America, but this did not save him from severe financial difficulties which had their origin in debts inherited from his father. He had to withdraw from the turf and sell off the furnishings of his seat at Rycote (near Thame). He died, bankrupt, in 1799, and his third and only surviving son, Montague Bertie, succeeded at the age of fifteen to the earldom, to the High Stewardship of Abingdon, and to his debts. Successive Earls of Abingdon have continued to be High Stewards of the town to this day.
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