His premiership is notable for major social changes, for example National Insurance and pensions. He was the Prime Minister during the first two years of World War I before he was replaced by David Lloyd George in 1916.
During his lifetime he was known as H. H. Asquith before his accession to the peerage and as Lord Oxford afterwards.
Herbert was seven years old when his father died. Emily and her children moved to the house of her father William Willans, a wool-stapler of Huddersfield. Herbert received schooling there and was later sent to a Moravian Church boarding school at Fulneck, near Leeds.
In 1870, Asquith won a classical scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. In 1874, Asquith was awarded the Craven scholarship and became president of the Oxford Union. He graduated that year and soon was elected a fellow at Balliol. Meanwhile he entered Lincoln's Inn as a student barrister and for a year served a pupillage under Charles Bowen.
He was called to the bar in 1876 and became prosperous in the early 1880s from practising law. Among other cases he appeared for the defence in the famous case of Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co
When raised to the peerage in 1925, he proposed to take the title "Earl of Oxford" for the city near which he lived and the university he had attended. Objections were raised, especially by descendants of Earls of Oxford of previous creations (titles by then extinct), and his title was given in the form Earl of Oxford and Asquith. In practice, however, he was known as Lord Oxford.
During Asquith's period as deputy to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, "C. B." was known to request his presence in parliamentary debate by saying, "Send for the sledge-hammer," referring to Asquith's reliable command of facts and his ability to dominate verbal exchange.
In 1894, he married Margot Tennant, a daughter of Sir Charles Tennant, 1st Bt.. They had two children, Elizabeth Charlotte Lucy (later Princess Antoine Bibesco) (1897-1945) and the film director Anthony (1902-1968). In 1912, Asquith fell in love with Venetia Stanley, and his romantic obsession with her continued into 1915.
All his children, except Anthony, married and left issue. His best-known descendant today is the actress Helena Bonham Carter, a granddaughter of Violet.
After the Conservative government of Arthur Balfour fell in December of 1905 the Liberal Party formed a new cabinet and Asquith became Chancellor of the Exchequer under Henry Campbell-Bannerman. The party won a landslide victory in the 1906 general election. He demonstrated his staunch support of free trade in this post. He also introduced the first of the so-called Liberal reforms, but was not so successful as his successor David Lloyd George in getting this reforms through Parliament.
Campbell-Bannerman resigned due to illness in April 1908 and Asquith succeeded him as Prime Minister. The King, Edward VII, was holidaying in Biarritz, and refused to return to London, citing health grounds, although it is now known that he was enjoying the company of his mistress Alice Keppel. Asquith was forced to travel to Biarritz for the official "kissing of hands" of the Monarch, the only time a British Prime Minister has formally taken office on foreign soil.
The election resulted in a hung parliament, with the Liberals having two more seats than the Conservatives, but lacking an overall majority. The Liberals formed a minority government with the support of the Irish Nationalists.
The radical solution in this situation was to threaten to have King Edward VII pack the House of Lords with freshly-minted Liberal peers, who would override the Lords' veto. With the Conservatives remaining recalcitrant in spring of 1910, Asquith began contemplating such an option. King Edward VII agreed to do so, after another general election, but died on 6 May 1910. His son, King George V, was reluctant to have his first act in office be the carrying out of such a drastic attack on the aristocracy and it required all of Asquith's considerable powers to convince him to make the promise. This the King finally did before the second election of 1910, in December.
The Liberals again won, though their majority in the Commons was now dependent on MPs from Ireland, who had their own price. Nonetheless, Asquith was able to curb the powers of the House of Lords through the Parliament Act 1911, which essentially broke the power of the House of Lords. The Lords could now delay, but not defeat outright, a bill passed by the Commons.
Asquith headed the Liberal government into the war. However following a Cabinet split on 25 May 1915, caused by the Shell Crisis (or sometimes dubbed 'The Great Shell Shortage'), he became head of a new coalition government, bringing senior figures from the Opposition into the Cabinet. But his performance over the conduct of the war dissatisfied certain Liberals and the Conservative Party. Women's Rights activists also turned against him, when he adopted the 'Business as Usual' policy at the beginning of the war. Opponents partially blamed a series of political and military disasters (including the failed offensives at the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli and the 1916 Battle of the Somme) and the Easter Rising in Ireland (April 1916) on Asquith. Acting to displace the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George managed to split the Liberals and, on 5 December 1916, Asquith resigned. Lloyd George became head of the coalition two days later.
Raised to the peerage as Viscount Asquith of Morley in the West Riding of the County of York and Earl of Oxford and Asquith in 1925, Asquith retired to the House of Lords after losing his seat again in the 1924 election held after the fall of the Labour government. Lloyd George succeeded him as chairman of the Liberal Members of Parliament, but Asquith remained head of the party until 1926, when Lloyd George succeeded him in that position as well, healing the split in the Liberal Party.
In 1925 Asquith was nominated for the Chancellorship of the University of Oxford, but lost to Viscount Cave. On 6 November 1925 he was made a freeman of Huddersfield
Asquith died at his country home The Wharf, Sutton Courteney, Berkshire in 1928. Margot died in 1945. They are both buried at All Saints' Church, Sutton Courtenay, (now in Oxfordshire); Asquith having requested that there should be no public funeral.
Asquith's estate was probated at £9,345 on 9 June 1928 (about £ today), a modest amount for so prominent a man.
Asquith had five children by his first wife Helen, and five by his second wife Margot, but only his elder five children and two of his five younger children survived birth and infancy.
His eldest son Raymond Asquith was killed at the Somme in 1916, and thus the peerage passed to Raymond's only son Julian, now 2nd Earl of Oxford and Asquith (born in 1916, only a few months before his grandfather's resignation as Prime Minister).
His only daughter by his first wife, Violet (later Violet Bonham-Carter), became a well-regarded writer and a life peeress (as Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury in her own right). His fourth son Sir Cyril, Baron Asquith of Bishopstone (1890-1954) became a Law Lord. His second and third sons married well, the poet Herbert Asquith (1881-1947) (who is often confused with his father) married the daughter of an Earl and Brigadier-General Arthur Asquith (1883-1939) married the daughter of a baron.
Among his living descendants are his great-granddaughter, the actress Helena Bonham Carter (b. 1966); and his great-grandson, Dominic Asquith, British Ambassador to Egypt since December 2007. Another leading British actress, Anna Chancellor (b. 1965), is also a descendant, being Herbert Asquith's great-great-granddaughter on her mother's side.
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