Wood, Edward Frederick Lindley, 1881-1959, 1st Earl of Halifax

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Wood, Edward Frederick Lindley, 1881-1959, 1st Earl of Halifax

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  • Lord Irwin, 1925-1934
  • Viscount Halifax, 1934-1944

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Edward Frederick Lindley Wood was born in 1881, the fourth son of Charles Lindley Wood, later 2nd Viscount Halifax, and his life Lady Agnes Elizabeth Courtenay, daughter of the 11th Earl of Devon. His three elder brothers, Charles, Francis and Henry, died between 1886 and 1890, leaving him the only son and heir to his father’s title and estate. He also had two sisters; Alexandra Mary Elizabeth (1871-1965) who married Major General Hugh Clement Sutton, and Mary Agnes Emily (1877-1962) who married George Richard Lane Fox, 1st Baron Bingley.

Later dubbed the ‘Holy Fox’ for his devout Anglo-Catholicism, Wood was educated at Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford, achieving a first class degree in modern history. He was subsequently elected to a fellowship at All Souls College in 1903, a position he held until 1910. It was during this period that he took a ‘grand tour’ of Europe with his friend Ludovic Heathcote Amory, travelling to India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

In 1909 he married Lady Dorothy Evelyn Augusta Onslow, the daughter of the 4th Earl of Onslow. The couple had five children together; Anne Dorothy, Mary Agnes, Charles Ingram Courtenay, Francis Hugh Peter Courtenay and Richard Frederick.

The following year Wood was elected as Conservative Member of Parliament for Ripon. He served as Captain of the Queen’s Own Yorkshire dragoons during the First World War, returning to England at the end of 1917 to take up the post of deputy director of the labour supply department in the Ministry of National Service. In 1918 he co-wrote a pamphlet with David Lloyd George entitled ‘The Great Opportunity’, calling for the Conservative Party to focus on welfare.

In 1921 he was appointed under-secretary for the colonies under Secretary of State Winston Churchill in Lloyd George’s coalition government. Wood toured the British West Indies in this role in 1921-1922 but following the resignation of Lloyd George in 1922 he joined the cabinet as President of the Board of Education. In 1924 he was made Minister of Agriculture under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

In 1926 he was offered, and accepted, the viceroyalty and governor-generalship of India. He resigned his seat in the House of Commons and travelled to India in March of that year as Baron Irwin of Kirby Underdale. His viceroyalty came at a time of significant turmoil in India, as demands for self-government gathered pace. The Indian Statutory Commission, known as the Simon Commission after its chairman Sir John Simon, was appointed in 1927 to report on the effects of constitutional reform in India following the 1919 Government of India Act, and to propose further changes. Wood supported an all-British commission, believing it would be more likely to reach agreement, a decision that provoked considerable anger in India. Indian leaders largely ignored the Commission and after a conference in December 1929 between Wood and Indian political leaders on the granting of Dominion Status failed to produce an agreement, a campaign of civil disobedience was launched by the Indian National Congress, led by Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi. Wood attempted to repress the campaign, arresting many of its leaders, but eventually chose to negotiate, agreeing to the Delhi Pact in 1931 which ended civil disobedience and promised a conference. The Gandhi-Irwin agreement was signed in March and Wood left India a month later at the end of his term as viceroy.

On his return to England, Wood held a number of government posts. He was Secretary of State for War briefly in 1935, the Lord Privy Seal from 1935 to 1937 and Lord President of the Privy Council from 1937 to 1938, as well as leader of the House of Lords. He also assisted Samuel Hoare with the 1935 Government of India bill. In 1934 he inherited his father's title and estate, becoming 3rd Viscount Halifax.

A proponent of appeasement, Wood visited Germany in 1937 at the invitation of Hermann Göring, ostensibly on a hunting expedition, but in reality to open dialogue with the German government on behalf of the British. His meeting there with Adolf Hitler had little effect and indeed Wood was later criticised for failing to indicate British objections to the German threat to Austria and Czechoslovakia.

With the resignation of the foreign secretary Anthony Eden in February 1938, Wood was appointed in his place, working alongside Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who in September 1938 brokered the Munich Agreement with Germany. Wood’s attitude towards appeasement was changing however as the full scale of Nazi ambition became clear. He became increasingly opposed to making further concessions to Germany and argued for rearmament and opening talks with France and Russia in preparation for a possible war, often in opposition to Chamberlain. In response to the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Wood granted a guarantee of British aid to Poland, should the Germans attack. The Agreement of Mutual Assistance between Britain and Poland was signed in August 1939. Germany invaded Poland in September and war was subsequently declared between Britain and Germany.

In May 1940, as the military situation in Norway deteriorated, Chamberlain survived a vote of no confidence in parliament. The ‘Norway Debate’ had exposed the instability of his government however and he sought to form a coalition government. When it became clear such a government could not be formed under his leadership, a series of meetings were held to appoint a successor. Wood was the natural choice, but he refused the position, recommending Churchill instead, whom he felt he was better placed to advise in his current role as Foreign Secretary. Churchill became Prime Minister on 10 May, the same day that Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and France.

In these early stages of the war Wood still believed that a ‘compromise peace’ was possible and indeed might be necessary given Britain’s weak position and the military might of Germany. Churchill was strongly opposed to this and in a series of meetings of the war cabinet in late May secured a majority to overrule his advocacy of peace negotiations.

In January 1941 Wood was sent to Washington as British Ambassador to the United States. Although initially unpopular with the American people, his hard work and America’s entry into the war in December 1941 greatly increased his popularity. In this role he was instrumental, alongside J. M. Keynes, in negotiating desperately needed loans to Britain from America and Canada in 1945. During his period in Washington, his eldest son Peter was killed at the Battle of El Alamein. Two months later his youngest son, Richard, lost both his legs in combat, although he survived and later joined his parents at the embassy.

Wood was created 1st Earl of Halifax in 1944. He retired in 1946 and refused further political office, although he continued to attend the House of Lords and spoke on the 1947 Indian Independence Bill. In 1957 he published an autobiography, ‘The Fullness of Days.’

He died on 23 December 1959 at his home at Garrowby Hall and was succeeded by his son Charles as 2nd Earl of Halifax.


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Wood family, Earls of Halifax (fl 1763-)

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Metcalfe, Lady Alexandra Naldera, 1904-1995, née Curzon (1904-1995)

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Wood, Charles Lindley, 1839-1934, 2nd Viscount Halifax (1839-1934)

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Wood, Charles Lindley, 1839-1934, 2nd Viscount Halifax is the parent of Wood, Edward Frederick Lindley, 1881-1959, 1st Earl of Halifax

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GB 193

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ISAAR(CPF): International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families, International Council on Archives (2nd edition, 2003); Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names, National Council on Archives (1997).


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Created by S. A. Shearn, 19.04.16.




D. J. Dutton, ‘Wood, Edward Frederick Lindley, first earl of Halifax (1881–1959)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

Andrew Roberts, 'The Holy Fox: A Biography of Lord Halifax' (London, 1991).

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