The eldest son of the 1st Lord Ellenborough, he was educated at Eton College and St John's College, Cambridge. He represented the subsequently disfranchised borough of St Michael's, Cornwall, in the House of Commons, until the death of his father in 1818 gave him a seat in the House of Lords. He was married twice, but had only one child, who died young; his second wife was divorced by act of parliament in 1830.
In the Duke of Wellington's government of 1828, Ellenborough was made Lord Privy Seal; he also took part in the business of the foreign office, as an unofficial assistant to Wellington, who recognised his talents. He hoped to be Foreign Secretary, but had to be content with the presidency of the board of control, which he retained until the fall of the ministry in 1830. Ellenborough was an active administrator, and took a lively interest in questions of Indian policy. The revision of the company's charter was approaching, and he held that the government of India should be transferred directly to the crown. He was impressed with the growing importance of a knowledge of central Asia, in the event of a Russian advance towards the Indian frontier, and despatched Alexander Burnes to explore the district.
Ellenborough subsequently returned to the board of control in Robert Peel's first and second administrations. He had only held office for a month on the third occasion when he was appointed by the court of directors to succeed Lord Auckland as Governor-General of India. His Indian administration of two and a half years, or half the usual term of service, was from first to last a subject of hostile criticism. His own letters sent monthly to the queen, and his correspondence with the duke of Wellington, published in 1874, afford material for an intelligent and impartial judgment of his meteoric career. The events chiefly in dispute are his policy towards Afghanistan and the army and captives there, his conquest of Sind, and his campaign in Gwalior.
Ellenborough went to India in order "to restore peace to Asia," but the whole term of his office was occupied in war. On his arrival there the news that greeted him was that of the massacre of Kabul, and the sieges of Ghazni and Jalalabad, while the sepoys of Madras were on the verge of open mutiny. In his proclamation of March 15, 1842, as in his memorandum for the queen, dated the 18th, he stated with characteristic clearness and eloquence the duty of first inflicting some signal and decisive blow on the Afghans, and then leaving them to govern themselves under the sovereign of their own choice. Unhappily, when he left for upper India, and learned of the failure of General England, he instructed Pollock and William Nott, who were advancing triumphantly with their avenging columns to rescue the British captives, to fall back. The army proved true to the governor-general's earlier proclamation rather than to his later fears; the hostages were rescued, the scene of Sir Alexander Burnes's murder in the heart of Kabul was burned down.
Dost Mahommed Khan was quietly dismissed from a prison in Calcutta to the throne in the Bala Hissar, and Ellenborough presided over the painting of the elephants for an unprecedented military spectacle at Ferozepur, on the south bank of the Sutlej. When Sultan Mahmud, in 1824, sacked the Hindu temple of Somnath on the north-west coast of India, he carried off the richly-studded sandalwood gates of the fanes and set them up in his capital of Ghazni. The Mahommedan puppet of the English, Shah Shuja, had been asked, when ruler of Afghanistan, to restore them to India; and what he had failed to do the Christian ruler of opposing Mahommedans and Hindus resolved to effect in the most solemn and public manner. In vain had Major (afterwards Sir Henry) Rawlinson proved that they were only reproductions of the original gates, to which the Ghazni moulvies clung merely as a source of offerings from the faithful who visited the old conqueror's tomb. In vain did the Hindu sepoys show the most chilling indifference to the belauded restoration. Ellenborough could not resist the temptation to copy Napoleon's magniloquent proclamation under the pyramids. The fraudulent folding doors were conveyed on a triumphal car to the fort of Agra, where they were found to be made not of sandalwood but of deal. That Somnath proclamation (immortalized in a speech by Macaulay) was the first step towards its author's recall.
Hardly had Ellenborough issued his medal with the legend Pax Asiae Restituta when he was at war with the amirs of Sind. The tributary amirs had on the whole been faithful, for Major James Outram controlled them. He reported some opposition, and Ellenborough ordered an inquiry, but entrusted the duty to Sir Charles Napier, with full political as well as military powers. Mir Au Morad intrigued with both sides so effectually that he betrayed the amirs on the one hand, while he deluded Napier on the other. Ellenborough was led on till events were beyond his control, and his own just and merciful instructions were forgotten. Sir Charles Napier made more than one confession like this: "We have no right to seize Sind, yet we shall do so, and a very advantageous, useful and humane piece of rascality it will be." The battles of Meeanee and Hyderabad followed; and the Indus became a British river from Karachi to Multan.
Sind had hardly been disposed of when troubles arose on both sides of the governor-general, who was then at Agra. On the north the disordered kingdom of the Sikhs was threatening the frontier. In Gwalior to the south, the feudatory Mahratta state, there were a large mutinous army, a Ranee only twelve years of age, an adopted chief of eight, and factions in the council of ministers. These conditions brought Gwalior to the verge of civil war. Ellenborough reviewed the danger in the minute of November 1, 1845, and told Sir Hugh Cough to advance. Further treachery and niilitary licence rendered' the battles of Maharajpur and Punniar, fought on the same day, inevitable though they were, a surprise to the combatants. The treaty that followed was as merciful as it was wise. The pacification of Gwalior also had its effect beyond the Sutlej, where anarchy was restrained for yet another year, and the work of civilization was left to Ellenburough's two successors. But by this time the patience of the directors was exhausted. They had no control over Ellenborough's policy; his despatches to them were haughty and disrespectful; and in June 1844 they exercised their power of recalling him.
On his return to England, Ellenborough was created an earl and received the thanks of parliament; but his administration soon became the theme of hostile debates, though it was successfully vindicated by Peel and Wellington. When Peel's cabinet was reconstituted in 1846 Ellenhorough became First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1858 he took office under Lord Derby as president of the board of control, for the fourth time. It was then his congenial task to draft the new scheme for the government of India which the mutiny had rendered necessary. But his old fault of impetuosity again proved his stumbling-block. He wrote a caustic despatch censuring Lord Canning for the Oudh proclamation, and allowed it to be published in The Times without consulting his colleagues, who disavowed his action in this respect. General disapprobation was excited; votes of censure were announced in both Houses; and, to save the cabinet, Ellenborough resigned.
But for this act of rashness he might have enjoyed the task of carrying into effect the home constitution for the governmént of India which he sketched in. his evidence before the select committee of the House of Commons on Indian territories on June 8, 1852. Paying off his old score against the East India Company, he then advocated the abolition of the court of directors as a governing body, the opening of the civil service to the army, the transference of the government to the crown, and the appointment of a council to advise the minister who should take the place of the president of the board of control. These suggestions of 1852 were carried out by his successor the Earl of Derby, in 1858, so closely even in details, that Lord Ellenborough must be pronounced the author, for good or evil, of the present home constitution of the government of India. Though acknowledged to be one of the foremost orators in the House of Lords, and taking a frequent part in debate, Ellenborough never held office again. He died at his seat, Southam House, near Cheltenham, and the barony reverted to his nephew Charles Edmund Law (1820-1890), the earldom becoming extinct.
See History of the Indian Administration (Bentley, 1874), edited by Lord Colchester; Minutes of Evidence taken before the Select Committee on Indian Territories (June 1852); volume i. of the Calcutta Review; the Friend of India, during the years 1842-1845; and John Hope, The House of Scindea: A Sketch (Longmans, 1863). The numerous books by and against Sir Charles Napier, on the conquest of Sind, should be consulted.