Earl Grey tea is a popular flavored black tea named after a historic figure in 19th century England. Earl Grey’s existence and historic accomplishments are well documented but his influence on the tea that bears his name is less clear.

Charles Grey was the 2nd Earl Grey, (13 March 1764 – 17 July 1845), and was a British Whig statesman and Prime Minister. His father, Charles Grey, the 1st Earl Grey, was a notable British general in the American Revolution who commanded victories in several battles, notably against the American forces under General Anthony Wayne and at the Battle of Germantown (1777-78).

Descended from a long-established Northumbrian family, Grey was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, and was elected to Parliament at the age of 22 in 1786. He became a part of the Whig movement, and soon became one of the major leaders of the Whig party which befitted his high standing in British society. Grey was noted for advocating strong Parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation.

The Whig Party slowly evolved during the 18th century. In general terms, the Whig tendency supported the great aristocratic families and non-Anglicans, while the opposing Tories supported the Anglican Church and the gentry. Later on, the Whigs drew support from the emerging industrial interests and wealthy merchants, while the Tories drew support from the landed interests and the British Crown.

By the first half of the 19th century, however, the Whig political program came to encompass not only the supremacy of parliament over the monarch and support for free trade, but the abolition of slavery, and, significantly, expansion of the franchise. Eventually, the Whigs would evolve into the Liberal Party while the Tories became the Conservative Party.

In 1830, the Whigs finally returned to power, with Grey as Prime Minister. His Ministry was a notable one, seeing the passage of the Reform Act 1832, which finally saw the reform of the House of Commons, and the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. Grey eventually became more conservative, however, and he avoided more far-reaching reforms. In 1834 Grey retired from public life.

Earl Grey tea is named after Grey who reputedly received a gift, probably a diplomatic present, of tea flavored with bergamot oil. The legend reportedly involved a grateful Chinese mandarin whose son was rescued from drowning by one of Lord Grey’s men, although this blend of tea was first made from fermented black Indian and “Ceylonese” (Sri Lankan) teas not found in China.

Since green tea is much more popular in China than black tea, it is improbable that they would have had a recipe for what we now call Earl Grey to bestow on visitors, though over the years many other varieties of tea have been used. In addition, Lord Grey never visited China.

A second version of the legend has the son of an Indian raja being rescued from a tiger by one of Grey’s servants and expressed his gratitude through the gift of the newly flavored black tea.

The tea became a commercial favorite as many merchants realized the value and popularity of the flavored tea and began to market Earl Grey intensively. This marketing effort was aided by the tax reductions implemented by the British Government at the end of the prior century.