Edward Wood, the fourth son of the 2nd Viscount Halifax, was born in Powderham Castle, the home of his maternal grandfather, William Courtenay, 11th Earl of Devon, on 16th April, 1881. He was the sixth child and fourth son of Charles Lindley Wood (1839–1934), who later became the second Viscount Halifax, and his wife, Lady Agnes Elizabeth Courtenay (1838–1919). His great-grandfather was Earl Grey, the motivating force behind the 1832 Reform Act. Wood was born with an atrophied left arm that had no hand.
David Dutton has pointed out: "The Woods had emerged from among the gentry of Yorkshire to become one of the great landowning houses of northern England, but with three elder brothers Edward seemed to have little prospect of inheriting his father's title. Between 1886 and 1890, however, each of his brothers fell victim to one of the Victorian child-killing diseases, leaving him heir to the family viscountcy."
Wood went to St David's Preparatory School in September 1892 at the age of eleven. Two years later he transferred to Eton College. He did not enjoy his early schooling and was pleased to arrive at Christ Church, in October 1899. An outstanding student, he obtained a first-class degree in modern history from University of Oxford. He was also elected to a fellowship at All Souls in November 1903 and devoted himself over the next three years to further academic study, which led to the publication of a short biography of John Keble, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement.
On 21st September 1909 he married Lady Dorheld government office oothy Evelyn Augusta Onslow (1885–1976), daughter of the William Onslow, 4th Earl of Onslow, who had served in the cabinet under Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury (1886-1889) and was a former governor-general of New Zealand. (1889-1892). The couple's first child, Anne, was born in July 1910. They also had three sons: Charles (1912), Peter (1916) and Richard (1920).
A member of the Conservative Party, Wood won the seat of Ripon from the Liberal candidate, Henry Finnis Blosse Lynch, in the 1910 General Election. As captain in the Queen's Own Yorkshire dragoons, a yeomanry regiment, he did not spend much time in the House of Commons during the First World War. However, when he did take part in debates, he joined Conservative hardliners who demanded all-out victory and a punitive peace with Germany. Wood spent time on the Western Front in 1916 and was relieved to be offered the post of deputy director of the labour supply department in the Ministry of National Service. He held this position to the end of the war. Robert Bernays later wrote: "He (Wood) has a magnificent head, and his tall figure and Cecilian stoop and sympathetic kindly eyes give more the impression of a Prince of the Church than a politician".
Ripon was a safe Conservative seat and at the elections of 1918, 1923, and 1924 Edward Wood was returned unopposed. In parliament Wood became a member of a small group of MPs which included Samuel Hoare, Philip Lloyd-Graeme, and Walter Elliot, whose aim was to espouse progressive policies. Wood was the co-author of The Great Opportunity (1918). As David Dutton has argued that Wood suggested that the "Conservative Party should focus on the welfare of the community rather than the advantage of the individual. It also advocated a federal solution to the Irish question." In April 1921 Wood was appointed under-secretary for the colonies in April 1921. In the winter 1921–2 Wood toured the British West Indies in order to report to Winston Churchill on the political and social situation there.
Wood became disillusioned with the leadership of David Lloyd George and was among the majority who voted at the Carlton Club on 23rd October, 1922 that the Conservative Party should contest the next general election as an independent force. With many leading Conservatives remaining loyal to Lloyd George, Wood was elevated from the obscurity of junior office to the ranks of the cabinet as president of the Board of Education on 24th October 1922. According to his biographer he regarded "it as little more than a stepping stone to higher office" and "made sure that his ministerial schedule left time for two days' hunting each week". He lost office when Ramsay MacDonald became the new prime minister following the 1924 General Election.
The Conservative Party returned to power in November 1924. In the government led by Stanley Baldwin Wood served as minister of agriculture on 6 November 1924. He held the post for less than a year for in October 1925 Wood was approached by the secretary of state for India, Lord Birkenhead, with the offer of the viceroyalty and governor-generalship in succession to Rufus Isaacs, 1st Marquess of Reading. He gave up his seat in the House of Commons and after accepting the title of Lord Irwin, left for India on 17th March 1926.
David Dutton has argued: " In many ways Irwin was well fitted for his new post. He relished the pomp which was inseparable from it. Physically, he cut an impressive figure, and was an accomplished horseman. Six feet five inches tall, he easily gave an impression of aristocratic self-confidence which set him apart from lesser men.... Yet at the same time he showed a sympathy for the Indian point of view unmatched by many of his predecessors. He also displayed considerable physical bravery in the face of more than one attempt to assassinate him during his time in the subcontinent. His viceroyalty was characterized by a patient commitment to ensuring that a contented India should remain inside the British Commonwealth for the foreseeable future. He set out to win Indian goodwill and co-operation, but could be firm when necessary, and stressed that it would be difficult to meet Indian wishes while Indians remained divided among themselves... In his first major speech as viceroy he appealed for an end to the endemic communal violence between Muslims and Hindus, and returned to this theme at intervals throughout his time in India. Towards terrorism he was uncompromising and, despite his Christian beliefs, felt no hesitation or remorse when signing death warrants which he considered justified."
Lord Irwin clashed with Winston Churchill over his dealings with Mohandas Gandhi, who he considered a "malignant subversive fanatic". On 17th February 1931, Irwin met Gandhi for the first of a series of discussions. When he heard the news Churchill commented: "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace, while he is still organising and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor."
On 5th March, 1931, Lord Irwin agreed a deal with Gandhi. In exchange for prisoner-release and other concessions, civil disobedience would be halted and Congress would attend the next session of the Round Table Conference. A few hours after the agreement was reached, Gandhi came back to see Irwin. Jawaharlal Nehru had told Gandhi that he "had unwittingly sold India". Irwin later recalled: "I exhorted him not to let this worry him unduly, as I had no doubt that very soon I should be getting cables from England, telling me that in Mr Churchill's opinion I had sold Great Britain."
Ramsay MacDonald, the former leader of the Labour Party, and head of the National Government appointed Lord Irwin as his president of the Board of Education in June 1932. He did not have progressive views on education and is quoted as saying the country needed state schools to "train them up for servants and butlers". In 1933 he was appointed as chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Upon the death of his 94-year-old father in January 1934, became Viscount Halifax. When Stanley Baldwin replaced MacDonald as prime minister in June 1935, Halifax was moved from education to the War Office. He did not seem particularly worried by the emergence of Adolf Hitler and the growth of Nazi Germany and according to his biographer, David Dutton, "at the committee of imperial defence he challenged the assertion of the chiefs of staff that the country's paramount need was to step up the pace of rearmament. It was a weakness in his understanding of the international situation that he never fully grasped, until it was too late, the enormity of Hitler's capacity for evil."
Nancy Astor and her husband, Waldorf Astor held regular weekend parties at their home Cliveden, a large estate in Buckinghamshire on the River Thames. This group eventually became known as the Cliveden Set. Those who attended included Lord Halifax, Philip Henry Kerr (11th Marquess of Lothian), Geoffrey Dawson, Samuel Hoare, Lionel Curtis, Nevile Henderson, Robert Brand and Edward Algernon Fitzroy. Most members of the group were supporters of a close relationship with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. The group included several influential people. Astor owned The Observer, Dawson was editor of The Times, Hoare was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Fitzroy was Speaker of the Commons.
Norman Rose, the author of The Cliveden Set (2000): "Lothian, Dawson, Brand, Curtis and the Astors - formed a close-knit band, on intimate terms with each other for most of their adult life. Here indeed was a consortium of like-minded people, actively engaged in public life, close to the inner circles of power, intimate with Cabinet ministers, and who met periodically at Cliveden or at 4 St James Square (or occasionally at other venues). Nor can there be any doubt that, broadly speaking, they supported - with one notable exception - the government's attempts to reach an agreement with Hitler's Germany, or that their opinions, propagated with vigour, were condemned by many as embarrassingly pro-German."
In 1936 Halifax visited Nazi Germany for the first time. Halifax's friend, Henry (Chips) Channon, reported: "He told me he liked all the Nazi leaders, even Goebbels, and he was much impressed, interested and amused by the visit. He thinks the regime absolutely fantastic." Halifax later explained in his autobiography, Fulness of Days (1957): "The advent of Hitler to power in 1933 had coincided with a high tide of wholly irrational pacifist sentiment in Britain, which caused profound damage both at home and abroad. At home it immensely aggravated the difficulty, great in any case as it was bound to be, of bringing the British people to appreciate and face up to the new situation which Hitler was creating; abroad it doubtless served to tempt him and others to suppose that in shaping their policies this country need not be too seriously regarded."
On 17th June, 1936, Claude Cockburn, produced an article called "The Best People's Front" in his anti-fascist newsletter, The Week. He argued that a group that he called the Astor network, were having a strong influence over the foreign policies of the British government. He pointed out that members of this group controlled The Times and The Observer and had attained an "extraordinary position of concentrated power" and had become "one of the most important supports of German influence".
During the weekend of 23rd October 1937, the Astors had thirty people to lunch. This included Geoffrey Dawson (editor of The Times), Nevile Henderson (the recently appointed Ambassador to Berlin), Edward Algernon Fitzroy (Speaker of the Commons), Sir Alexander Cadogan (soon to replace the anti-appeasement Robert Vansittart as Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office), Lord Lothian and Lionel Curtis. They were happy that Neville Chamberlain, a strong supporter of appeasement was now Prime Minister and that this would soon mean promotion for people such as Lothian and Lord Halifax.
According to Norman Rose, Lord Lothian gave a talk on future relations with Adolf Hitler. "He wished to define what Britain would not fight for. Certainly not for the League of Nations, a broken vessel; nor to honour the obligations of others. As he had explained to the Nazi leaders, 'Britain had no primary interests in eastern Europe,' areas that fell within 'Germany's sphere'. To be dragged into a conflict not of Britain's making and not in defence of its vital interests would bedevil relations with the Dominions, fatal for the unity of the Empire. For the Clivedenites, this was always the bottom line... In effect, Lothian was prepared to turn central and eastern Europe over to Germany." Nancy Astor supported Lothian: "In twenty years I've never known Philip to be wrong on foreign politics." Geoffrey Dawson also agreed with Lothian and this was reflected in an editorial in The Times that he wrote a few days later. Lionel Curtis was the only member of this group that had doubts about Lothian's plans.
In November, 1937, Neville Chamberlain, who had replaced Stanley Baldwin as prime minister, sent Lord Halifax to meet Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering in Germany. In his diary, Lord Halifax records how he told Hitler: "Although there was much in the Nazi system that profoundly offended British opinion, I was not blind to what he (Hitler) had done for Germany, and to the achievement from his point of view of keeping Communism out of his country." This was a reference to the fact that Hitler had banned the Communist Party (KPD) in Germany and placed its leaders in Concentration Camps. Halifax had told Hitler: "On all these matters (Danzig, Austria, Czechoslovakia)..." the British government "were not necessarily concerned to stand for the status quo as today... If reasonable settlements could be reached with... those primarily concerned we certainly had no desire to block."
The story was leaked to the journalist Vladimir Poliakoff. On 13th November 1937 the Evening Standard reported the likely deal between the two countries: "Hitler is ready, if he receives the slightest encouragement, to offer to Great Britain a ten-year truce in the colonial issue... In return... Hitler would expect the British Government to leave him a free hand in Central Europe". On 17th November, Claude Cockburn reported in The Week, that the deal had been first moulded "into usable diplomatic shape" at Cliveden that for years has "exercised so powerful an influence on the course of British policy." He later added that Lord Halifax was "the representative of Cliveden and Printing House Square rather than of more official quarters." The Reynolds News claimed that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was "in protective custody at Cliveden". The Manchester Guardian, The Daily Chronicle and The Tribune reported the story in a similar fashion.
Whereas Lord Halifax supported Chamberlain's appeasement policy, the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, was highly critical of this way of dealing with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. On 25th February, 1938 Eden resigned over this issue and Lord Halifax became the new foreign secretary. It was claimed that this was a victory for the Cliveden Set. In a speech given in the House of Commons Eden argued: "I do not believe that we can make progress in European appeasement if we allow the impression to gain currency abroad that we yield to constant pressure. I am certain in my own mind that progress depends above all on the temper of the nation, and that tmper must find expression in a firm spirit. This spirit I am confident is there. Not to give voice it is I believe fair neither to this country nor to the world."
Soon after Lord Halifax's appointment, Adolf Hitler invited Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, to meet him at Berchtesgarden. Hitler demanded concessions for the Austrian Nazi Party. Schuschnigg refused and after resigning was replaced by Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the leader of the Austrian Nazi Party. On 13th March, Seyss-Inquart invited the German Army to occupy Austria and proclaimed union with Germany.
The union of Germany and Austria (Anschluss) had been specifically forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. Some members of the House of Commons, including Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill, now called on Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain to take action against Adolf Hitler and his Nazi government. However, they still retained the support of most of the Conservative Party and Henry (Chips) Channon suggested that the problem was with the rest of the government: "Halifax and Chamberlain are doubtless very great men, who dwarf their colleagues; they are the greatest Englishmen alive, certainly; but aside from them we have a mediocre crew; I fear that England is on the decline, and that we shall dwindle for a generation or so. We are a tired race and our genius seems dead."
Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe, a close friend of Adolf Hitler, asked her friend, Lady Ethel Snowden to arrange a meeting with Lord Halifax, about arranging unofficial talks with the Nazi government. Halifax wrote in his diary on 6th July 1938: "Lady Snowden came to see me early in the morning. She informed me that, through someone on the closest terms with Hitler - I took this to mean Princess Hohenlohe - she had received a message with the following burden: Hitler wanted to find out whether H.M. Government would welcome it if he were to send one of the closest confidants, as I understand it, to England for the purpose of conducting unofficial talks. Lady Snowden gave me to understand that this referred to Field-Marshal Goering, and they wished to find out whether he come come to England without being too severely and publicly insulted, and what attitude H.M. Government would take generally to such a visit."
Lord Halifax was initially suspicious of Princess Stephanie. He had been warned the previous year by Walford Selby, the British ambassador in Vienna, that Stephanie was an "international adventuress" who was "known to be Hitler's agent". He had also heard from another source that she was a "well known adventuress, not to say blackmailer". Despite this, after obtaining permission from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, he agreed to meet with Hitler's representative, Fritz Wiedemann. The meeting took place on 18th July at Halifax's private residence in Belgravia. Halifax noted in a memorandum: "The Prime Minister and I have thought about the meeting I had with Captain Wiedemann. Of especial importance to us are the steps which the Germans and the British might possibly take, not only to create the best possible relationship between the two countries, but also to calm down the international situation in order to achieve an improvement of general economic and political problems."
Someone leaked the meeting to The Daily Herald. When it appeared in the newspaper on 19th July, it created a storm of controversy. The French government complained that the meeting had been arranged by Princess Holenlohe, who according to their intelligence services was a "Nazi agent". Jan Masryk, the Czech ambassador in London, wrote to his government in Prague on 22nd July: "If there is any decency left in this world, then there will be a big scandal when it is revealed what part was played in Wiedemann's visit by Steffi Hohenlohe, née Richter. This world-renowned secret agent, spy and confidence trickster, who is wholly Jewish, today provides the focus of Hitler's propaganda in London." On 23rd July 1938, Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary: "Wiedemann's visit to Halifax on the Führer's instructions continues to dominate the foreign press more than ever."
Walford Selby was also shocked by this meeting that had been arranged by Princess Stephanie. He warned the government that he had information that her suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London had become a base for Nazi sympathisers and an "outpost of German espionage", and that she had been behind much of the German propaganda circulating in London since she first moved to England. On 31st July, The Daily Express published an article about the man who had met Lord Halifax in secret. They described Fritz Wiedemann as Hitler's "listening-post, his contact man, negotiator, a checker-up, a man with a job without a name and without a parallel".
International tension increased when Adolf Hitler began demanding that the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia should be under the control of the German government. In an attempt to to solve the crisis, Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain and the heads of the governments of Germany, France and Italy met in Munich. On 29th September, 1938, Chamberlain, Hitler, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement which transferred to Germany the Sudetenland, a fortified frontier region that contained a large German-speaking population. When Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's head of state, who had not been invited to Munich, protested at this decision, Chamberlain told him that Britain would be unwilling to go to war over the issue of the Sudetenland.
The Munich Agreement was popular with most people in Britain because it appeared to have prevented a war with Germany. However, some politicians, including Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, attacked the agreement. These critics pointed out that no only had the British government behaved dishonorably, but it had lost the support of Czech Army, one of the best in Europe.
Halifax also did what he could to persuade the British press not to criticise Adolf Hitler. According to Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambassador to London, he even went to see the cartoonist, David Low: "On his return to England he (Lord Halifax) had done his best to prevent excesses in the Press; he had had discussions with two well-known cartoonists, one of them the notorious Low, and with a number of eminent representatives of the Press, and had tried to bring influence to bear on them. He (Lord Halifax) had been successful up to a point. It was extremely regrettable that numerous lapses were again to be noted in recent months. Lord Halifax promised to do everything possible to prevent such insults to the Führer in the future."
In March, 1939, the German Army seized the rest of Czechoslovakia. In taking this action, Adolf Hitler had broken the Munich Agreement. Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, now realized that Hitler could not be trusted and their appeasement policy now came to an end. However, the British government was slow to react. As Clive Ponting, the author of 1940: Myth and Reality (1990) points out: "Hitler remained obdurate and the British government, under immense pressure from the House of Commons, finally declared war seventy-two hours after the German attack on their ally. Until the summer of 1940 they continued to explore numerous different approaches to see whether peace with Germany was possible. The main advocates of this policy after the outbreak of war were the Foreign Office, in particular its two ministers - Lord Halifax and Rab Butler - together with Neville Chamberlain."
Halifax defended his role in appeasement in in his autobiography, Fulness of Days (1957): "One fact remains dominant and unchallengeable. When war did come a year later it found a country and Commonwealth wholly united within itself, convinced to the foundations of soul and conscience that every conceivable effort had been made to find the way of sparing Europe the ordeal of war, and that no alternative remained. And that was the best thing that Chamberlain did."
After the outbreak of the Second World War Lord Halifax remained as the country's foreign secretary. On 14th December, 1939, Lord Lothian wrote to Halifax: "American opinion is still... almost unanimously anti-Nazi. In addition it is now almost more strongly anti-Soviet. It is to a much less degree pro-French or pro-British. There are formidable elements which are definitely anti-British which take every opportunity to misrepresent our motives and attack our methods.... I have no doubt that the best corrective is the fullest possible publicity from England and France through the important and high class American correspondents of what the Allies are thinking and doing."
When Neville Chamberlain resigned in May, 1940, the new premier, Winston Churchill kept Lord Halifax as foreign secretary in order to give the impression that the British government was united against Adolf Hitler. The following month, Joseph Goebbels recorded in his diary that Hitler had told him that peace negotiations had begun with Britain through Sweden. Three days later, a Swedish banker, Marcus Wallenberg, told British Embassy officials in Stockholm that the Germans were prepared to negotiate - but only with Lord Halifax.
In December, 1940, Lord Halifax was replaced as foreign secretary by his long-term opponent, Anthony Eden. Halifax now became British ambassador to the United States. As Nicholas J. Cull, the author of Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American Neutrality (1996), has pointed out: "Lord Halifax was the six-foot-six-inch, living, breathing personification of every negative stereotype that Americans nurtured with regard to Britain - the very antithesis of the dynamic new nation of Spitfires and the Dunkirk spirit."
In November 1942 Lord Halifax heard that his second son, Peter, had been killed in action in North Africa. Only two months later he learned that his youngest son, Richard, had been severely wounded. Halifax remained a somewhat reluctant ambassador over the following months. At the end of the Second World War he agreed to the request of the new Labour foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, that he should carry on until May 1946. This extension enabled him to play an important part in the negotiations led by John Maynard Keynes to secure an American loan after the abrupt termination of lend-lease.
On his arrival home he was invited to join Churchill's shadow cabinet, but he declined the offer. However, he continued to play an active role in the House of Lords. He took part in the debate over Indian Independence. Lord Templewood, the former Samuel Hoare, criticizing the decision of the Labour cabinet to hand over India to an Indian government by June 1948 at the latest "without any provision for the protection of minorities or the discharge of their obligations". According to David Dutton, Halifax argued that "he was not prepared to condemn what the government was doing unless he could honestly and confidently recommend a better solution, which he could not".
In his retirement Lord Halifax wrote his memoirs, Fulness of Days (1957) where he attempted to defend the policy of appeasement. Edward Wood, 3rd Viscount Halifax, died at Garroby Hall, near York, on 23rd December, 1959.