A reminder of Canning, and those obviously not completely wasted days, came with the news of a very interesting couple of medals coming up in Spink’s auction in London on January 28.
They commemorate George Canning MP (1770-1827), the 19th century statesman who has the ignominious title of being shortest-serving British prime minister in history at just 117 days in office.
Both struck in gold, the first medal commemorates Canning’s appointment to the Foreign Office in 1822, having previously served in this position in the Portland government of 1807-09. During his first time in office not only did he seize the Dutch fleet to ensure naval supremacy against Napoleon’s France, but also engaged in cabinet conflicts with Lord Castlereagh’s War Department.
Canning had been scheming behind Castlereagh’s back to get the war minister dropped. Castlereagh wrote a long letter of complaint to Canning but the latter declared he would rather fight a duel than read it.
This duel took place on Putney Heath on September 21, 1809, and Canning – who had never fired a pistol in his life - was wounded in the thigh. The two men observed a relatively civil truce afterwards.
In April 1822, Canning accepted the post of Governor-General of India, which carried with it an annual salary of £25,000. However, in August - following the suicide of his long-standing rival Castlereagh after questions about his sexuality surfaced - Canning accepted the post of foreign secretary.
The 1822 medal is estimated at £3000-4000.
More progressive period
While Canning's political career could largely be defined by his apparent inability to work with party colleagues in office, including the likes of Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister to be assassinated in office, his second term as foreign secretary was marked for a more progressive agenda, firstly in his support for abolition in Spanish-held territories as well as being a proponent for Greek autonomy.
The second medal, which may be the only example in private ownership, records his death in August 1827, when he had been made PM, and was struck by the French medallist Galle.
Canning’s appointment as prime minister prompted mass cabinet resignations including the likes of 19th century titans Wellington and Peel. His remarkably short tenure - just 119 days - came as the result of pneumonia contracted that January while attending the funeral of the Duke of York.
It is thought that his behaviour at the time of the duel contributed to him achieving his ambition to be PM only at what turned out to be the end of his life.
This medal is estimated at £4000-5000.