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Earl Of Rosebery

Prime Minister 1894 - 95

Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, was born 7th May 1847, and educated at Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford. Rosebery was highly intelligent and somewhat eccentric in his youth. At Eton he was considered brilliant, but was constantly being told that he did not work hard enough to fulfill his potential. At Oxford where he was expected to get a first, horse racing became a major distraction. The university authorities eventually gave their brilliant, wayward student an ultimatum, to sell his horse or take his degree. Rosebery chose the horse. Leaving university the young man succeeded his grandfather as 5th Earl of Rosebery, entered the House of Lords and became interested in liberal politics. He made speeches in the House of Lords attacking class divisions. A name was made in the management of William Gladstone's election campaigns of 1879 and 1880. But Rosebery did not get on with Gladstone, and in 1883 resigned from what he considered a menial job as under secretary at the Home Office. He then took a world tour, and developed a growing enthusiasm for the Empire, not shared by Gladstone.


A period followed in which two Liberal and two Tory governments fell over the vexed question of home rule for Ireland, Rosebery impressed during a time when many reputations were ruined. Gladstone was a man of causes and his relentless pursuit of Irish home rule to the exclusion of all else was not Rosebery's way. Rosebery was a cleverer and more ordinary man. He continued to love horse racing, and enjoyed the success he had with his horses. He also had ordinary vulnerabilities. In 1890 his wife died, which was a shattering blow. Rosebery had always been prone to introspection, depression and insomnia. The death of his wife made all of these things worse, and it took him a long time to recover. Rosebery was very reluctant to accept the position of foreign secretary offered to him in 1892.

Gladstone resigned for the last time over home rule for Ireland in 1894. And Rosebery, no doubt in two minds as to whether it was a good idea, took over as prime minister. On his resignation only two years later, Rosebery was to write: "There are two supreme pleasures in life. One is ideal, the other real. The ideal is when a man receives the seals of office from his sovereign. The real pleasure comes when he hands them back" (quoted in The Prime Ministers Vol2 P147). In between the ideal and the real pleasure Rosebery had a very tough time. The Liberals had been concentrating on the Irish home rule question for so long that there was very little else to offer. Rosebery was not a man of causes, and in a sense he was too intelligent to wholly enter into the charade of being prime minister, the pretence of control and power of one man over a country of millions, with overseas possessions containing more millions, all with their own aims, and rivalries and conflicting desires. Rosebery's horse Ladas II won the Derby in 1894, which didn't go down well in the more strait laced sections of the country. His speeches were not considered serious enough. His friend Edward Hamilton wrote of an image that was not sufficiently in earnest, and Queen Victoria urged the prime minister to take a "more serious tone".


On 19th February 1895, after sustained attacks on him in the House of Commons, Rosebery had a severe nervous breakdown. He was later to write: "I cannot forget 1895. To lie night after night, staring wide awake, hopeless of sleep, tormented in nerves, and to realise all that was going on, at which I was present, so to speak, like a disembodied spirit; to watch one's corpse as it were, day after day, is an experience which no sane man with a conscience would repeat" (quoted The Prime Ministers Vol2 P159). Rosebery resigned in June 1895. He was then to recover and remain in politics for ten years. But the death of his son in action in Palestine in 1917 was a blow too many. A stroke left Rosebery badly disabled in 1918, and he was to die on 21st May 1929.

Barnbougle Castle. This image is by Jonathan Oldenbuck and is copyright free

Rosebery was a clever and sensitive man who felt that being a prime minister was something of a charade. Rosebery was too clever to believe that he, as an individual could control world events. But he had to act as though he had such control. His inability to do so, and the effect it had on him is a salutary lesson in the realities of politics. Perhaps the best place to appreciate Rosebery is Barnbougle Castle just off the A90 between Edinburgh, Scotland and the Forth Road Bridge. This strange and lonely building has a tiny isolated bedroom at the top where Rosebery would find solitude to think and reflect on the realities of life away from the illusions of politics.