Charles was sent for his education to Leiden and Oxford. At the Dutch university, where he matriculated on October 27, 1745, he associated with a small knot of English youths, afterwards well known in various circles of life, among whom were Dowdeswell, his subsequent rival in politics, Wilkes, the witty and unprincipled reformer, and Alexander Carlyle, the genial Scotsman, who devotes some of the pages of his Autobiography to chronicling their sayings and their doings.
He represented Great Yarmouth in parliament from 1747 to 1761, when he found a seat for the treasury borough of Harwich. Public attention was first drawn to his abilities in 1753, when he delivered a lively attack, as a younger son who might hope to promote his advancement by allying himself in marriage to a wealthy heiress, against Lord Hardwicke's marriage bill. Although this measure passed into law, he attained this object in August 1755 by marrying Caroline (d. 1794), the eldest daughter of the 2nd duke of Argyll and the widow of Francis, Lord Dalkeith, the eldest son of the 2nd duke of Buccleuch.
In April 1754 Townshend was transformed from the position of a member of the board of trade, which he had held from 1749, to that of a lord of the admiralty, but at the close of 1755 his passionate attack against the policy of the ministry, an attack which shared in popular estimation with the scathing denunciations of Pitt, the supreme success of Single-Speech Hamilton, and the hopeless failure of Lord Chesterfield's illegitimate son, caused his resignation. In the administration which was formed in November 1756, and which was ruled by Pitt, the lucrative office of treasurer of the chamber was given to Townshend, and in the following spring he was summoned to the privy council.
With the accession of the new monarch in 1760 this volatile politician transferred his attentions from Pitt to the young king's favorite, Bute, and when in 1761, at the latter's instance, several changes were made in the ministry, Townshend was promoted to the post of secretary-at-war. In this place he remained after the great commoner had withdrawn from the cabinet, but in December 1762 he threw it up. Bute, alarmed at the growth in numbers and in influence of his enemies, tried to buy back Townshend's co-operation by sundry tempting promises, and at last secured his object in March 1763 with the presidency of the board of trade.
When Bute retired and George Grenville accepted the cares of official life, the higher post of first lord of the admiralty fell to Townshend's lot, but with his usual impetuosity he presumed to designate one of his satellites, Sir William Burrell (1732-1796), to a place under him at the board, and the refusal to accept the nomination led to his exclusion from the new administration. While in opposition his mind was swayed to and fro with conflicting emotions of dislike to the head of the ministry and of desire to share in the spoils of office. The latter feeling ultimately triumphed; he condescended to accept in the dying days of Grenville's cabinet, and to retain through the "lutestring" administration of Lord Rockingham "pretty summer wear," as Townshend styled it, "but it will never stand the winter" the highly paid position of paymaster-general, refusing to identify himself more closely with its fortunes as chancellor of the exchequer.
The position which he refused from the hands of Lord Rockingham he accepted from Pitt in August 1766, and a few weeks later his urgent appeals to the great minister for increased power were favorably answered, and he was admitted to the inner circle of the cabinet. The new chancellor proposed the continuance of the land tax at four shillings in the pound, while he held out hopes that it might be reduced next year to three shillings, whereupon his predecessor, William Dowdeswell, by the aid of the landed gentlemen, carried a motion that the reduction should take effect at once.
This defeat proved a great mortification to Lord Chatham, and in his irritation against Townshend for this blow, as well as for some acts of insubordination, he meditated the removal of his showy colleague. Before this could be accomplished Chatham's mind became impaired, and Townshend, who was the most determined and influential of his colleagues, swayed the ministry as he liked, pledging himself to find a revenue in America with which to meet the deficiency caused by the reduction in the land tax. His wife was created (August 1767) baroness of Greenwich, and his elder brother George, the 4th viscount, was made lord-lieutenant of Ireland.
He himself delivered in the House of Commons many speeches unrivalled in parliamentary history for wit and recklessness; and one of them still lives in history as the "champagne speech." His last official act was to carry out his intention by passing through parliament resolutions, which even his colleagues deprecated in the cabinet, for taxing several articles, such as glass, paper and tea, on their importation into America, which he estimated would produce the insignificant sum of 40,000 for the English treasury, and which shrewder observers prophesied would lead to the loss of the American colonies. Soon after this event he died somewhat suddenly on the 4th of September 1767.
The universal tribute of Townshend's colleagues allows him the possession of boundless wit and ready eloquence, set off by perfect melody of intonation, but marred by an unexampled lack of judgment and discretion. He shifted his ground in politics with every new moon, and the world fastened on him the nickname, which he himself adopted in his "champagne" speech, of the weathercock. His official knowledge was considerable; and it would be unjust to his memory to ignore the praises of his contemporaries or his knowledge of his country's commercial interests. The House of Commons recognized in him its spoilt child, and Burke happily said that "he never thought, did or said anything" without judging its effect on his fellow members.