Francis Burdett, the son of the Baronet of Foremark (1743–1794), was born on 25th January 1770, near Repton, Derbyshire. He was educated at Westminster School from 1786 until his expulsion in 1788, and Christ Church, from 1786 to 1788. He later toured the continent for two years, before returning to Britain in 1791.
Burdett returned to England in 1793 and soon afterwards married Sophia Coutts, the daughter of the extremely wealthy banker, Thomas Coutts. On marriage, Sophia received a dowry of £25,000. According to his biographer, Marc Baer: "There were difficult relations with his wife and her parents, caused by the Burdett family's social prejudice, Burdett's own melancholia, pedantry, and quick temper, and Sophia's possessive attachment to him. In 1795–6 Burdett came close to separating from his wife, and discussed suicide. William Stevens, his family's chaplain, commented (18 August 1795) that 'He is too much a Philosopher to be happy or to make happy’. The marriage survived to produce six children. From an affair with Lady Oxford (Jane Elizabeth Harley), Burdett probably fathered one if not two children."
Burdett succeeded his grandfather Sir Robert Burdett (1716–1797) as fifth baronet on 13 February 1797, inheriting estates at Foremark and Bramcote. Later that year Coutts purchased the rotten borough of Boroughbridge in Yorkshire from the Duke of Newcastle for £4,000. Coutts gave the seat to his son-in-law and later that year Burdett became a member of the House of Commons.
Burdett became friends with the radical lawyer, Horne Tooke. He was deeply influenced by his political views and in parliament he refused to join the Whigs or the Tories. This enabled him to act as an independent. His maiden speech was on Ireland and he upset most of his colleagues with the claim that the government was guilty of the "oppression of an enslaved and impoverished people".
Burdett opposed the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1796 and criticised all attempts by the government to suppress individual freedom. Burdett later recalled: "The best part of my character is a strong feeling of indignation at injustice & oppression and a lively sympathy with the sufferings of my fellows". Marc Baer has argued: "He based his anti-establishment politics on the need to protect individuals put upon by those in power."
Edna Healey has argued: "He was at the height of his political fame in the first decade of the nineteenth century. It was his campaigns in 1798 and 1800 on behalf of mutinous sailors imprisoned in Cold Bath Fields Prison and his fierce attack on the conditions there that won him popular support. During his election campaigns his appearance on the hustings, elegant and long-limbed, brought cheering crowds.... A passion for freedom, justice and humanity inspired his political career."
Burdett was one of the few members of the House of Commons that supported the idea of parliamentary reform. Radicals in London approached Burdett and asked him to stand as their candidate for the county of Middlesex. He was elected in 1802, but was defeated in the elections held in 1804 and 1806. It has been estimated that Burdett spent £100,000 during these two elections.
Burdett now switched to Westminster, the constituency with a reputation for electing Radicals. At this time, Westminster had one of the largest electoral rolls in England. Most of the 13,863 voters were shopkeepers and artisans who had a strong dislike of aristocratic privilege. Sir Francis Burdett easily won the 1807 election, polling more votes than the combined total of the three defeated candidates. He later recalled: "The best part of my character is a strong feeling of indignation at injustice & oppression & a lively sympathy with the sufferings of my fellows".
Burdett became close friends with William Cobbett. In 1809 he was charged with a breach of privilege by the House of Commons. This resulted from an article that appeared in Cobbett's Political Register. Burdett was defended by Samuel Romilly. Burdett's biographer, Marc Baer, has commented: "The confrontation between the ‘Man of the People' and the Perceval government had been building for some time, owing to Burdett's speeches about the unrepresentative character of the Commons, criticism of the war and the sale of army commissions, and tiresome lectures on the ancient constitution. On 6 April the Commons voted to commit Burdett to the Tower of London, whereupon he challenged the speaker's warrant and barricaded himself in his London house."
Burdett was arrested on the morning of 9th April 1810 and was ordered to was confined to the Tower of London until the end of the parliamentary session on 21st June. The government was too afraid to expel him from Parliament. When Burdett was released he cancelled a march through London, fearing further riots and loss of life. His biographer has argued: "Burdett's popularity reached its peak after the incarceration; three separate biographies of him were published during that spring. But he proceeded to disappoint his followers by preventing a procession through London on his release, fearing further riots and loss of life, or that he would be assassinated." Richard Carlile complained that "the mind of the people has marched, and Sir Francis has not been disposed to march with it".
On 21st April, 1814, his daughter, Angela Burdett, the youngest of his six children was born at 80 Piccadilly, London, on 21st April, 1814. Burdett had been having an affair with Jane Harvey, the Countess of Oxford and as Edna Healey, the author of Lady Unknown: The Life of Angela Burdett-Coutts (1978) has pointed out: "She was the child of the reconciliation between Sir Francis and Sophia. But Sophia still had to endure the strain of conflict between husband and father. Thomas Coutts's attitude to his son-in-law can be imagined. During the years before and after Angela's birth even his tolerance was strained. But there was no moralizing on the subject of infidelity. For in the years when Sir Francis was finding release in the arms of Lady Oxford... he was having a relationship with an enchanting young actress called Harriot Mellon."
Sir Francis Burdett was now seen as the leader of the Radicals in the House of Commons. Burdett introduced motions for parliamentary reform and supported all attempts to expose government corruption. Burdett also supported the campaign against the slave trade. In 1816 he attacked William Wilberforce when he refused to complain about the suspension of Habeas Corpus. Burdett commented: "How happened it that the honourable and religious member was not shocked at Englishmen being taken up under this act and treated like African slaves?" Wilberforce replied that Burdett was opposing the government in a deliberate scheme to destroy the liberty and happiness of the people."
In 1819 Burdett led the campaign for an independent inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre. Burdett wrote to the Westminster electors on 22nd August 1820 condemning the massacre and calling on "the gentlemen of England" to join the masses in protest meetings. Burdett was prosecuted for seditious libel, found guilty, sentenced to the Marshalsea Prison for three months, and fined £2,000. Samuel Bamford, a weaver from Manchester, wrote during this period that Burdett "was our idol".
In a speech on the Peterloo Massacre in the House of Commons on 15th May 1821, Burdett argued: "The pretence of the people having carried arms to the meeting was utterly groundless; and to talk of their having commenced the attack upon the armed soldiers, was, on the face of it, absurd and ridiculous. The people knew they had no means of repelling the attack. They thought they had assembled under the protection of the law, and they knew they had no other protection than that law. The wretches who had perpetrated the massacre at Manchester were at the time in a state of intoxication. When they attacked, sword in hand, the people fled, or attempting to fly, from the dreadful charge made upon them; but, to their horror and surprise, they found flight impracticable; for the avenues of the place were closed by armed men. On one side they were driven back at the point of the bayonet by the infantry; while on the other they were cut down by the yeomanry."
Burdett was also a strong advocate of religious toleration and several times attempted to persuade Parliament to grant Catholics equal rights with Protestants. The Catholic Emancipation Act was finally passed in 1829. Burdett also had the satisfaction of seeing the start of parliamentary reform with the passing of the 1832 Reform Act.
Burdett became friends with Benjamin Disraeli and supported him as the Radical candidate for High Wycombe. Disraeli later wrote about Burdett: "He was tall, and had kept his distinguished figure; a handsome man, with a musical voice, and a countenance now benignant, though very bright... He still retained the same fashion of costume in which he had written up to Westminster more than half a century ago... to support his dear friend Charles Fox; real top-boots, and a blue coat and buff waistcoat."
As he got older, Burdett became more conservative. In his sixties he began to argue that the Catholic Emancipation Act and the 1832 Reform Act had gone too far. These opinions upset the Radicals and his thirty years as M.P. for Westminster came to an end in 1837. He was approached by the Tories to be their candidate in North Wiltshire. Sir Francis Burdett accepted their offer and he won the election.
Harriot Mellon Coutts, Duchess of St Albans, died on 6th August, 1837. The will was read in the presence of the various relatives. To the surprise of all concerned, it was announced that almost the entire estate was left to Burdett's daughter, Angela Burdett-Coutts. This amounted to some £1.8 million (£165 million in 2012 figures). The duchess's will made the inheritance conditional on Angela not marrying a foreign national, in which event it would pass to the next in line, and stipulated that her successors take the surname of Coutts. It has been claimed that after Queen Victoria she was the wealthiest woman in England. The Morning Herald estimated that "the weight in gold is 13 tons, 7 cwt, 3 qtrs, 13 lbs and would require 107 men to carry it, supposing that each of them carried 289 lbs - the equivalent of a sack of flour". Angela gave her mother, Lady Sophia Burdett, £8,000 a year and all her sisters received an allowance of £2,000 a year.
Under the guidance of her father, she decided to give a large percentage of the money to good causes. Edna Healey, the author of Lady Unknown: The Life of Angela Burdett-Coutts (1978) has argued: "She absorbed his values, which, in spite of his change of party (he was now a Tory MP) remained humanitarian and progressive." Her father also encouraged her to be interested in science and she provided funds for research in physics, geology, archaeology and the natural sciences. At his home she met men like Charles Babbage, Michael Faraday and Charles Wheatstone. In 1839 she provided financial backing for Babbage's "calculating engine", the forerunner of the modern computer.
Francis Burdett remained the Tory M.P. for North Wiltshire until his death on 23rd January 1844 at his residence at 25 St James's Place, two days short of his seventy-fourth birthday, from a pulmonary embolism. He was buried in the family vault in Ramsbury Church together with his wife, who had died eleven days earlier.