Benjamin Disraeli, first and last Earl of Beaconsfield, died on this day 140 years ago at the age of seventy-six from bronchitis contracted three weeks earlier in bitterly cold weather. Up until then, he had continued to lead the Conservative Party from the Lords with undiminished skill. The suddenness of his death deepened the impact that it made.
Gladstone, who was then in power, immediately offered a state funeral for his great antagonist. That was not what Disraeli had wanted. He left clear instructions that after a simple service he wished to be laid to rest alongside his wife in Hughenden Church on his small estate in Buckinghamshire, where this utterly devoted couple had worshipped together until her death in 1872. Those wishes were respected.
His passing occurred exactly a year after electoral defeat had ended his second premiership (February 1874-April 1880)—the only time he had a Commons majority— during which his reputation had been transformed.
Before 1874, he was regarded as a brilliant Parliamentarian and an astute, extraordinarily resourceful Party leader. By 1880, he had become a statesman of international renown, chiefly as a result of his triumph in June 1878 at the Congress of Berlin. Working in partnership with Bismarck ( he is England”, said the Iron Chancellor), Disraeli averted Russian domination of the Balkans, fixed new boundaries for Turkey and strengthened Britain’s strategic position in the region through the acquisition of Cyprus.
The measures of social reform passed during these years played little part in his apotheosis. Of limited practical effect, they only achieved prominence in the twentieth century when it suited the Conservative Party to emphasise them as it sought a pedigree for its contribution to the welfare state. Disraeli never used the phrase “one nation.”
Queen Victoria offered him a dukedom on his return from Berlin, bearing “peace with honour” (he settled for the Garter). From the time of his first, brief premiership in 1868, he had received rather more modest tokens of royal esteem. Baskets of spring flowers picked in the grounds of the monarch’s palaces were delivered to his door, making him the only prime minister ever to receive floral tributes from his Sovereign.
Primroses were supplied on a particularly lavish scale. The Queen was convinced they were his favourite flowers. He did not deny it, but he not confirm it either. A lifetime’s unwavering devotion to the primrose can certainly be discounted. Writing in 1860 to thank another female admirer for surrounding him with roses, he said: “My table has never been so adorned with my favourite flowers.”
It was his death in the month of April, a time when primroses are in abundant bloom, which ensured they became his permanent emblem, stamped with the Queen’s authority. A large wreath of primroses lay on his coffin at his funeral with a royal inscription: “His favourite flowers from Osborne, a tribute of affection from Queen Victoria.” There could be no room for doubt in the public mind after that.
The dates on which British prime ministers die are not normally remembered fondly when their anniversaries come round. In this, as in so many other things, Disraeli was an exception to the rule. A letter in The Times on 14 April 1882 noted that florists’ shops in London were preparing “what are called ‘Beaconsfield buttonholes’—that is, small bunches of primroses, for wearing on the anniversary of Lord Beaconsfield’s death, on the 19th inst. It will be remembered that the primrose was his favourite flower.”
Liberal Party hostility fuelled interest in a most satisfactory way. “The criticism of the Opposition press furnished the necessary additional publicity to make the first Primrose Day a success”, it was noted later. Lady Knightley, wife of a Conservative MP, recorded in her diary on the 19th itself that “ quantities of people are walking about with primrose buttonholes to commemorate the day.”
Primrose Day swiftly became a major national event, included as a matter of course in diaries and calendars year by year. As my friend and co-author, Professor John Vincent, who died last month, once pointed out, Disraeli was part of a very select, though ill-assorted group: “Only two other national figures, Guy Fawkes and Charles I ( not, for instance, Nelson or Wellington) have entered the calendar in this way.” There all three remained for many years, though only Guy Fawkes still keeps his place firmly today.
The little Disraelian flower grew in political importance the following year when Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Sir Winston, and a few discontented, attention-seeking backbench MPs created the Primrose League, inspired by the unveiling of the famous statue of the great Tory hero in Parliament Square on the second Primrose Day, 19 April 1883. Everyone present at the ceremony wore a primrose; according to Sir Winston, when his father entered the Commons later in the day, he found “ the whole Conservative Party similarly decorated with Lord Beaconsfield’s favourite flower.”
The Primrose League became a massive organisation. Its members were always divided fairly evenly between men and women ; the latter, who held senior positions alongside the men, came into British political life in significant numbers for the first time through the League, the only cult inspired by a statesman of any Party in British history.
Tories preferred the League to their local constituency associations, while working diligently for their Party candidates as canvassers both at, and between, elections. The League’s Vice-Chancellor declared in June 1904 that “the records show that we have enrolled 1,676,425 names, and you may take it for granted that every Conservative in England is a working member.” The total reached two million by the time of the First World War.
These hard-working Tory activists in the League’s 2,600 branches across the country were rewarded by a lavish social programme organised by their branch officers: fetes, garden parties, concerts, dances, drama productions, magic lantern shows—all new features of Tory life.
Each year members of the League placed elaborate floral decorations on Disraeli’s statue in Parliament Square as 19 April approached. On Primrose Day itself, they tossed hundreds of his favourite flowers over the railings which surrounded the statue(now long since removed). On the streets of the capital and throughout the country, primroses were worn. The League’s leaders journeyed to Hughenden to lay large wreaths on the great man’s grave. The last of these rituals continued until quite recent times. The others dwindled in the inter-war period.
The Primrose League was finally disbanded in 2004. It was the first organisation to raise an army of unpaid volunteers for party political work, and it conferred political immortality on perhaps the most fascinating prime minister in British history, in whose memory it was formed.
Copies of my short history of the Primrose League, A Gift from the Churchills: The Primrose League, 1883-2004, are available on request free of charge. Some of the League’s magnificent hand-embroidered silk banners are on display at the Carlton Club, where the League was founded in 1883, along with a valuable collection of its badges, stars and ribbons which were produced in huge numbers, including the Grand Master’s badge worn for many years by Sir Winston Churchill, who took great pride in the organisation that his father had created.