Entering Parliament (1833) as a Tory, he became a protégé of Sir Robert Peel, who made him undersecretary for war and the colonies (1835). In Peel's second ministry, he became vice president (1841) and president (1843) of the Board of Trade, introducing the first government regulation of the railroads, and then (1845) colonial secretary. A supporter of free trade, he resigned (1846) with Peel in the party split that followed repeal of the corn laws and gradually aligned himself more and more with the Liberals. As chancellor of the exchequer (1852-55, 1859-66), he eloquently proposed and secured measures for economic retrenchment and free trade. He also espoused the cause of parliamentary reform (see Reform Acts).
Gladstone served as prime minister four times (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886, and 1892-94). In his first ministry the Church of Ireland was disestablished (1869) to free Roman Catholics from the necessity of paying tithes to support the Anglican church, and an Irish land act was passed (see Irish Land Question) to protect the peasantry. He achieved important reforms—competitive admission to the civil service, the vote by secret ballot, abolition of the sale of commissions in the army, educational expansion, and court reorganization. Conservative reaction to reforms and a weak foreign policy defeated him in 1874.
In 1876, Gladstone published a pamphlet, Bulgarian Horrors and the Questions of the East, attacking the Disraeli government for its indifference to the brutal repression by the Turks of the Bulgarian rebellion. His renewed attack on Disraeli's pro-Turkish and generally aggressively imperialist policies in the Midlothian campaign of 1879-80 brought the Liberals back to power in 1880. During Gladstone's second ministry, a more effective Irish land act was passed (1881), and two parliamentary reform bills (1884, 1885) further extended the franchise and redistributed the seats in the House of Commons. The army's failure to relieve Charles George Gordon at Khartoum helped to bring this ministry to an end (1885).
Gladstone's advocacy of Home Rule for Ireland was a notable recognition of Irish demands, but wrecked his third ministry (1886) after a few months. Many anti-Home Rule Liberals allied themselves with the Conservatives, and the slow decline of the Liberal party may be traced from this date. Gladstone also split with the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell because of the divorce case in which Parnell was involved. Gladstone's last ministry followed the election of 1892 and continued the fight for Irish Home Rule. He retired in 1894 after the House of Lords defeated (1893) his bill.
Many of Gladstone's speeches and letters have been collected. See biographies by J. Morley (3 vol., 1903, repr. 1968), P. Stansky (1981), R. Shannon (1984), H. C. Matthew (1989), and R. Jenkins (1997).
Gladstone was born in Hawarden, Flintshire. He attended Eton College and read Greek and Latin at Christ Church, Oxford University. He was a Member of Parliament for a total of 20 years, representing Chester for three, Whitby for 12 and East Worcestershire for five.
A singer and organist, he was well versed in musical history, especially the development of Anglican church music. He wrote on musical topics, and one of the views he expressed was that choral church services were to be deplored because “the choirs often discourage the congregations from singing.” He wrote the anthems “Gracious and Righteous” and “Withdraw Not Thou,” and chants, anthems, introits and organ voluntaries. He composed the hymn tune Hammersmith which can be used for the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.
William played for Scotland in the first England v Scotland Soccer International in 1872. He remains the only sitting Member of Parliament to play in an England-Scotland match, albeit in an unofficial international.
When his mother's brother Sir Stephen Glynne died without heirs in 1874, the Glynne baronetcy became extinct, but William inherited the Glynne estates, including Hawarden Castle, which had in any case been the Gladstone's family home since his grandfather Sir John Gladstone had used some of his substantial fortune to rescue the Glynne family from bankruptcy in the 1840s..