The Queen and Her Second Prime Minister

When Lord Melbourne became the Queen's Prime Minister on her accession in 1837, she was a young girl only a few days over eighteen years of age. When Lord Melbourne was succeeded by Sir Robert Peel in 1841, the Queen was still a girl in years, but she was twenty-two and married. Under the gentle auspices of Lord Melbourne the girl-Princess had become a woman and a queen. Sir Robert Peel's task was a very different one. By the Queen's side he found a prince three months younger than the Sovereign, a foreigner by birth, full of keen intellectual interests, of singularly strong and masterful character, absorbed by honourable ambition to Utilise powers he was conscious of possessing, and yet, owing to the jealous regard of English statesmen in former times, precluded by constitutional usage from taking his place on the throne beside his wife. The Queen had been anxious to make her husband King-Consort, and indeed had strained every nerve to bring it about; but Lord Melbourne had turned a deaf ear to hints and suggestions, and it was only when he met her plain request by the rough though not unfriendly remark, "For God's sake let's hear no more of it, ma'am; if you once get the English people into the habit of making kings, you may get them into the habit of unmaking them," that the subject was dropped.

Sir Robert Peel, when he took office in 1841, found the Queen's husband her friend and secretary, but when he quitted office in 1847 Prince Albert in fact, though not in name, coequal Sovereign and King-Consort. Up to the time of the birth of the Princess Royal the Queen alone possessed passkeys of all the official boxes which were sent by the Ministers to the Palace. That event saw the first advance in the political position of the Prince, for he was then put in possession of duplicate keys and established as private secretary to the Queen; but when, four years afterwards. Lord John Russell went to Windsor at a crisis in the destinies of Sir Robert Peel's Government, he could not fail to notice the great change that had taken place.

Formerly, as he knew, the Queen received her Ministers alone; they communicated with her only, although they were aware that everything was known to Prince Albert; but now the Queen and the Prince together received Lord Lansdowne and Lord John Russell, and both of them, where the first person singular had been used, now employed the first person plural.

If Lord Melbourne's instinct was adverse to an official recognition of the Prince as king, others, including Stockmar, were equally opposed to the idea, and though the Queen's tenacity induced her to reopen the question with Sir Robert Peel, the Prince's sound judgment prompted him to see that the point was not pressed. To Peel, however, the Prince owed, as the Queen herself has affirmed, his introduction into public life. It was natural that a nature so intense, so full of romantic zeal to act rightly, and withal so self-commanding as that of Prince Albert, should appeal to the new Prime Minister. The difficulty lay at first in the seeds of prejudice which had been sown in the mind of the Queen by the action of Peel himself when leader of the Opposition to Lord Melbourne's Government. Two years before her marriage the Queen had occasion to meet Sir Robert Peel under circumstances which had galled and pained her, and if her behaviour to him personally had been perfectly kind, the dislike with which she regarded him as a successor to Lord Melbourne had become obvious to those about the Court. The resignation of her Ministers in May of that year had been altogether unexpected by her, and Lord John Russell has related that, during her interview with him, the young Sovereign was dissolved in tears; that afterwards she remained secluded for a whole day, refusing to dine as usual with her courtiers, and invisible to them all. Upon Lord Melbourne's advice, however, she sent for the Duke of Wellington, and before seeing him she had regained her composure. The Duke of Wellington, Tory as he was, adopted a position which in these days is supposed to be the special privilege of Radical politicians; and in refusing to be Prime Minister he relied mainly on a view, now a mere pious opinion, that that post should always be held by a member of the House of Commons. When he urged the Queen to send for Peel, whatever her reluctance may have prompted, she consented at once, and upon the Duke suggesting that it would be more in accordance with usage that she should herself write to the man who was about to be her Minister, she did so without comment, merely requesting the Duke to mention to him that he would receive a communication asking him to repair to the Palace. Peel has recorded that when he arrived in full dress, according to custom, somewhat doubtful of his reception, he was received extremely well, and left the Queen perfectly satisfied, having accepted the responsibility of attempting to form a Government.

In order to appreciate the impression made upon the Queen by Peel, it is necessary to picture him as he then was in the prime of life; a man of great vigour, tall and manly, in his fiftieth year only, but with almost thirty years of parliamentary and official life marked on his face. His political career commenced when he was a lad of twenty-two. Three years later he was Chief Secretary for Ireland, and he had been ever since that time one of the most conspicuous figures in the House of Commons. Now he was fifty, and on the eve of becoming, with the exception of the Duke of Wellington, the most prominent Englishman of his day. In some respects he was a new type, and belonged to a new order of statesmen. Sprung from a mercantile stock, he possessed the defects and virtues which are inherent in the provincial middle class. He was essentially, as has been well said of constitutional statesmen, a man of common opinions though of uncommon abilities; and while in thought and ideas other men laboured, he entered into their labours. If he was devoid of all originality of mind, he was rich, decorous, hard-working, and had devoted himself regularly to the task of politics. In appearance when young, when his hair was brown and curly, he struck Mr. Disraeli as the possessor of a very radiant expression of countenance; he appeared to Carlyle later in life as a man finely made, of strong, not heavy, rather of elegant stature; stands straight, head slighdy thrown back, and eyelids modestly drooping; every way mild and gentle, yet with less of that fixed smile than portraits give him. Clear, strong blue eyes, which kindle on occasion, voice extremely good, low toned, something of cooing in it, rustic, affectionate, honest, mildly persuasive; reserved, seemingly, by nature; obtrudes nothing of diplomatic reserve; on the contrary, a vein of mild fun in him; real sensibility to the ludicrous.

Another physical attribute noticed by the shrewd old Scot is curious. On some occasion, when Peel was showing off his gallery of pictures at Bath House, and in so doing spread his hand over that of Dr. Johnson in Reynolds's well-known portrait, to illustrate some anecdote, Carlyle observed that it was "as fine a man's hand as I remember to have seen, strong, delicate, and scrupulously clean."

It may be thought that the qualities which Carlyle found to his taste were not necessarily appreciable by a young girl. Greville, whose point of view was somewhat different from that of the Scottish poet, was present at the first dinner which the Queen gave to her Minister. He observed that while she talked to her new much as she used to do to her old Ministers, and made no difference in her manner to them. Peel when spoken to could not help putting himself into his "accustomed attitude of a dancing-master giving lessons"; and he charitably suggests that she would have liked him better if he could have kept his legs still.

In the drawing-room, after dinner, Lord Melbourne's chair had gone, and the Lord-in- Waiting had orders to put the Ministers down to whist, while the Queen sat at her round table, with Lord Melbourne no more, but flanked by two ladies, whom Greville evidently thought scarcely capable of sustaining the burden of companionship for a whole evening. Bishop Wilberforce said of Peel that in his family he was reserved and shy: that he had the air of a man conscious of great powers and slight awkwardnesses, and this failure in manner was not limited to his domestic circle, for the Queen told Lord Melbourne that she found Peel so shy that it made her shy, and rendered intercourse difficult and embarrassing. Melbourne anticipated that this would wear off, and wear off it did, as the acquaintance between Peel and Prince Albert, and consequently between Peel and the Queen, ripened into regard and friendship.

The new Minister believed, he had been frequently told, that the Queen looked upon him with mistrust and dislike; and this hostility was known to have originated in the disputes called by the slang name of the "Plot," when Peel's manner, even though his contention may have been sound, was said to have been peremptory and harsh. Lord Grey's considerable experience of Court politics drove him to the conclusion that, although Peel was without Court favour, and although his manners and character were not best calculated to obtain it in the eyes of a young Queen of twenty-two, yet if he were prudent and conciliatory, he had no doubt of his successfully making his position secure and comfortable. If Lord Grey had no doubts, Peel had many, and he had been given to understand that the Queen's dislike of him would lead her to "trip up his heels whenever she could."

Lord Melbourne had done his best to assure Peel that these suspicions were ill founded, and so anxious was he to bring about a good understanding between the Sovereign and the man he felt sure would some day inevitably be her Minister, that it showed itself in queer ways and at unexpected moments. At a Court ball more than a year before he quitted office, he noticed that Peel stood proudly aloof, and going up to him he whispered with great earnestness, "For God's sake, go and speak to the Queen." Peel made no move, but it was said at the time that both entreaty and refusal were eminently characteristic of the two men.

When, however, it became necessary for Peel to "speak to the Queen," no one could have behaved with finer tact. Almost the first declaration he made to her was to the effect that if any other ministerial arrangement had been possible, or if any other individual could have been substituted for him, as far as his own personal inclinations were concerned, he should have been most ready to give way. He took great care to explain everything to her, both his proposals and his reasons for them. He adopted Lord Melbourne's advice not to suffer any appointment he was about to make to be talked of publicly, until he had first communicated with her. "The Queen," said Lord Melbourne, "is not conceited; she is aware there are many things she cannot understand, and she likes to have them explained to her elementarily, not at length and in detail, but shortly and clearly; neither does she like long audiences, and I never stayed with her a long time." It would have been well if all her Ministers had borne this advice in mind; for who can doubt that the Queen has suffered much at the hands of prolix political enthusiasts, who have treated her as though she were not a woman but a man, and not a sovereign but a public meeting?

Almost immediately after his first audiences, Peel announced himself to be not only satisfied, but charmed, and declared that the Queen's behaviour to him had been perfect. He had assured her that his first and greatest care should be to consult her happiness and comfort, and that he would take upon himself the responsibility of putting an extinguisher on the personal claim of any one to be near her who should be disagreeable to her or to whom she was disinclined; and the Queen never found her Minister swerving from this duty. Indeed, he may have carried his desire to be agreeable rather further than was consistent with due regard for the claims of his political friends, and certainly much further than they would be carried by any Minister in these days. To some extent this was forced upon him by the difficulty of following Lord Melbourne in office. He could not afford to be as unceremonious as his predecessor, and he was obliged to be more facile. When he refused to dine with the Lord Mayor in the first November of his Premiership, on the ground that he was commanded to the Palace, it was observed that Lord Melbourne under similar circumstances would have gone to the Guildhall. Peel did not think he could afford to excuse himself to the Queen; and men marvelled at the frequency with which his visits to the Palace were repeated.

At her first Council with her new Ministers, an occasion of severe trial, the Queen conducted herself with a dignity and self-control that excited in them the greatest admiration. It was noticed that she looked very much flushed, and her heart and eyes were evidently brimful of tears, but she was perfectly composed, and throughout the whole of the proceedings — the farewells of her old Ministers, the friends who had stood about her at her accession, the surrender of their Seals or Wands of Office, and the transference of these to new men, most of whom were unknown to her — she preserved her self-possession, composure, and dignity. In so young a woman it was thought a great effort of self-control, upon an occasion which might well have elicited uncontrollable emotions. The dejection which Peel had noticed during his first interview, when she expressed deep regret at parting with her Ministers, had almost disappeared, thanks to the dignified kindness with which he had assured her of his desire to serve her, and the good taste of his declaration that he had never presumed to anticipate being sent for, and had had no communication with anybody, and was quite unprepared with any suggestions. This was a coup de maitre, and from that moment the Queen's revulsion of feeling in favour of her Minister may be presumed to have commenced. Many attitudes that towards a monarch might by some be considered as subservient.

when the monarch is a woman become merely the high-bred homage due from the stronger to the frailer sex. Before Peel had been many months in office he had vanquished the dislike of the Queen, and had laid the foundation of a regard on her side that never was shaken.

If to a large extent this was due to the pains which he took to ingratiate himself with her, it was mainly owing to the circumstance that in Prince Albert he found a ready sympathiser and a congenial friend. The admiration of these two remarkable men was mutual. Sir Robert Peel had been introduced to Prince Albert by Lord Melbourne some months before the latter retired from office, but this acquaintanceship had not been followed up by any closer intercourse; so that, when the new Minister found himself necessarily thrown with the Prince, he was still embarrassed by the feeling that the Prince might bear malice for the part which he had taken during the debates on the Marriage Settlement, the effect of which had been seriously to curtail the income proposed by Lord Melbourne. In the Prince's demeanour not a shade of soreness could be traced, and Peel was touched. To Lord Kingsdown he said that he had found Prince Albert one of the most extraordinary young men he had ever met; and although so little was then known of the Prince that the expression may have appeared exaggerated, it seems trite enough by the light of fuller knowledge.

His aptitude for business was wonderful; the dullest and most intricate matters did not escape or weary his attention; his judgment was very good; his readiness to listen to any suggestion, though against his own opinions, was constant; — and these were all qualities which were bound to excite the attention and attract the sympathies of Peel. There was, it is true, a closer bond which united the two men, the unswerving fortitude with which they both braved misrepresentation.

Every imaginable calumny is heaped upon us, especially upon me; and although a pure nature, conscious of its own high purposes, is, and ought to be, lifted above attacks; still, it is painful to be misrepresented by people of whom one believed better things.

These words, written by Prince Albert at a time when his popularity was far from great, mere boy as he was, with the English people, might well with equal truth have been written by Peel two years afterwards, when the storm of obloquy broke over him. It was natural that minds, both proud, both reserved, both anxious always to do right, both misunderstood, should have drawn closely together. Before he had been two years her Minister, the Queen wrote to Peel that he was "undoubtedly a great statesman, a man who thinks but little of party, and never of himself"; and the Prince was already full of admiration at the resolve shown by the Minister to adopt his own line, and not to be turned aside from what he believed to be desirable by the fear of making political enemies or of losing support. After his death Peel's character was summed up by the Prince in words which carried the warm approval of the Queen: —

The constitution of Sir Robert Peel's mind was peculiarly that of a statesman, and of an English statesman: he was Liberal from feeling, but Conservative upon principle. While his impulses drove him to foster progress, his sagacious mind and great experience showed him how easily the whole machinery of a state and of society is deranged; and how important, but how difficult also, it is to direct its further development in accordance with its fundamental principles, like organic growth in nature. It was peculiar to him that in great things, as in small, all the difficulties and objections occurred to him; first he would anxiously consider them, pause, and warn against rash resolutions; but having convinced himself, after a long and careful investigation, that a step was not only right to be taken, but of the practical mode also of safely taking it, it became a necessity and a duty to him to take it; all his caution and apparent timidity changed into courage and power of action, and at the same time readiness cheerfully to make any personal sacrifice which its execution might demand.

If the Prince owed to Sir Robert Peel his initiation into public life, he also acquired from him much knowledge of the people over whom, in conjunction with the Queen, he was about to rule. There was something singularly attractive in the intimacy of the two men so different in age and education and training. Peel acted as moderator of the youthful enthusiasms of the Prince for reform, although he gave him invaluable assistance in the changes which the Prince introduced into the customs of the English Court.

Many abuses were, thanks to the Prince, swept away; and thanks to Peel this was done without a great outcry from the manifold interests involved. Peel was full of hearty praise of the wise and judicious economy founded upon good management and order in the Queen's household, under the eye of Prince Albert. To this he bore a strong testimony in the House of Commons; and the simple domestic tastes of the Queen and her husband, no less than their profound delight in natural beauty, suggested to Peel the desirability of the Isle of Wight as a place of retreat for them. Osborne was brought to the notice of the Queen by him, as a spot where privacy and repose could be ensured, and which, at the same time, was sufficiently near to the seat of Government to afford no great inconvenience to her Ministers.

It was entirely through Sir Robert Peel [the Queen once wrote], who knew how much we wished for a private property, and his extreme kindness, that we heard of and all about Osborne. When we showed him all we had done in 1849, he spoke, with evident pleasure, of his having been the means of our getting it.

The Queen had had an opportunity of estimating the domestic taste of her Minister, for within two years of his taking office she had visited his home at Drayton. The visit gave great pleasure to Peel, although it cost him many an ill-natured jest; his entertainments were cruelly criticised, and the fact that the proud and reserved Minister had actually condescended to dance before the Queen supplied the wits of the press with subject for endless mockery. Raleigh's cloak for the feet of Elizabeth was said to be dry commonplace compared with the gallantry of Sir Robert, who offered himself up as a dancer for her Majesty's diversion. It was as if the Archbishop of Canterbury had performed on a tight-rope. All this cheap wit, and the gibes of the Morning Chronicle although the pride of Peel may have chafed under them, only served to strengthen the mutual regard of the Queen and her Minister; for Peel grew rapidly in the good graces of the Sovereign. During her journey to Scotland, accompanied by Sir Robert Peel and Lord Aberdeen, the Prime Minister constantly travelled and drove with the Queen, leaving his own carriage to be occupied by his private secretary, Mr. Drummond; and it was to this special mark of favour that he owed his life, since the madman who shortly afterwards shot the unfortunate Drummond did so under the delusion that the man he had so often seen driving in Peel's carriage must be the Minister himself. When the Queen was abroad on a visit to the King of the French, Peel's "cheering letters" were anxiously awaited, and especially was this the case owing to the fear then entertained that her Minister might sink under the weight of unpopularity which was beginning to gather round him. A short while before, when the Maynooth Bill had sapped the foundations of his power, the Queen, to mark her sense of the importance of the measure and her confidence in Peel, had offered him the Garter. It was refused on grounds characteristic of him: that his heart was not set on titles of honour or social distinctions; that he sprang from the people and was essentially of the people; that in his case such honour would be misapplied; that the only distinction he coveted at her hands was that the Queen should say to him, "You have been a faithful servant, and have done your duty to your country and to myself."

That this opinion was entertained by his royal mistress he already well knew, for she had sent to him a letter written by King Leopold in warm terms which she had more than endorsed: — Peel works so hard and has so much to do [the Queen wrote] that he sometimes says he does not know how he is to get through it all. In these days a Minister does require some encouragement, for the abuse and difficulties he has to contend with are dreadful.

If such opinions were expressed to and about Sir Robert Peel, his appreciation of them is curious and worth noting: —

Sir R. Peel is scarcely less obliged to your Majesty for your goodness in communicating to him the favourable opinion which King Leopold has been pleased to express of the course of public policy, pursued with the sanction, and frequently under the special direction, of your Majesty, by Sir R. Peel. His Majesty has an intimate knowledge of this country, and is just so far removed from the scene of political contention here as to be able to take a clear and dispassionate view of the motives and acts of public men. Sir R. Peel looks to no other reward, apart from your Majesty's favourable opinion, than that posterity shall hereafter confirm the judgment of King Leopold, that Sir R. Peel was a true and faithful servant of your Majesty, and used the power committed to him for the maintenance of the honour and just prerogatives of the Crown and the advancement of the public welfare. He would, indeed, be utterly unworthy if, after the generous confidence and support which he has invariably received from your Majesty, he could have used power for any other purposes.

If he could write in these terms to the Sovereign, in his Memoirs he wrote with even greater warmth: —

I will not say more than that the generous support which I had uniformly received from her Majesty and from the Prince, and all that passed on the occasion of the retirement, made an impression on my heart that can never be effaced. I could not say less than this without doing violence to feelings of grateful and dutiful attachment.

When Peel was forced to resume office preparatory to carrying out his repeal of the Corn Law, his "unbounded loyalty, courage, patriotism, and high-mindedness" were noted by the Queen in her Journal, and she speaks enthusiastically of his "chivalry" to her, and the "excitement and determination" which he exhibited in what he thought so good a cause. "We are seelenfroh" (glad in soul), wrote Prince Albert, "at the arrangement under which the Prime Minister remains in office"; and there was no doubt of the sentiments of the Court, although a paper so bitterly hostile to Peel as the Examiner recognised the "scrupulous observance of constitutional rules which marked the conduct" of the Queen at that trying time.

The parting between the Queen and her Minister could not, however, be long delayed. When it came, there were poignant regrets on both sides.

Peel may have sighed with relief at escaping from the cares of office, noble as these then were; but his parting from the Queen cost him some tears.

Yesterday [the Queen wrote to King Leopold] was a very hard day for me. I had to part with Sir Robert Peel and Lord Aberdeen, who are irreparable losses to us and to the country. They were both so much overcome that it quite upset me, and we have in them two devoted friends. We felt so safe with them. Never during the five years that they were with me did they ever recommend a person or a thing that was not for my or the country's best, and never for the party's advantage only.

Few men who knew Peel as a Minister, and even in his home life, would have readily believed him capable of a display of emotion. His composure and powerful self-command in Parliament were compared to those similar qualities in Mr. Pitt by Lord Stratford, who had seen both of them in turn lead the House of Commons. It is true that a few men, Bishop Wilberforce for one, had noted the tenderness of nature which underlay the cold husk which Peel turned outward to the world. The Queen had had experience of this on a previous occasion, for in early days of her intercourse with him, after the attempt upon her life by Bean, Sir Robert Peel hurried up from Cambridge to consult with the Prince, and upon the Queen entering the room she was surprised to see the Minister, in public so cold and self-commanding, unable to control his emotion, and burst into tears.

Self-repression was the rule with Peel, and these revelations of the real man were rare. It was once said that his temper was really bad, morose, and sullen, but if so these characteristics were never obvious during the months of furious temptation to which he was subjected by his political foes. During the four years that Sir Robert Peel lived after his fall from power there was no cessation of intercourse between him and the Queen. In him the Queen and the Prince found an adviser to whom they could always turn with perfect reliance on his disinterestedness and sincerity. He ceased to be the leader of a party, and for this reason he found himself able to correspond with the Prince " without saying a word of which the most jealous or sensitive successor in the confidence of the Queen could complain."

Although ostracised from political office, no living Englishman at that time stood higher in the opinion of moderate men of both parties. "Everybody," Greville wrote, "asks with anxiety what he says, what he thinks, and what he will do." When for a few hours after his fatal accident he lay dying, the whole nation watched by his bedside; the entrance to his house was besieged by immense crowds, and the sadness upon the faces of his friends as they passed from the door was reflected in the eyes of thousands who had never known him by sight. When he was dead the Queen wrote, "The sorrow and grief at his death are most touching, and the country mourns over him as a father. Every one seems to have lost a personal friend"; and these words were endorsed, as the Queen's words often have been during her reign, by the sentiments of her people. "We have lost," said the Prince, "our truest friend and trustiest counsellor, the throne its most valiant defender, the country its most open-minded and greatest statesman." The character of Sir Robert Peel has often been placed in various lights by those who knew him, who admired and liked him, or who admired and hated him. The Duke of Wellington, in a voice broken with emotion, bore testimony to the love of truth which animated the great commoner under whom he had been willing to serve. Mr. Gladstone, in characteristic words, has laid stress on his qualities of ability, sagacity, indefatigable industry, his sense of public virtue, and his purity of conscience.

The encomiums of friends may be sweet enough to the heart and ear, but they are not those by which a man of disinterested mind would soonest find himself judged worthily. To men like the Duke of Wellington or Mr. Glad- stone, who served under him, to the Queen and Prince, whom he served so faithfully, Peel's character would naturally appear exalted by the shadow of death. As his epitaph, it would perhaps be better to let stand the famous passage in which Mr. Disraeli, in his inimitable and epigrammatic style, summed up the character and career of the Minister he had so bitterly opposed. He was not, notwithstanding his unrivalled powers of despatching affairs, the greatest Minister this country ever produced, because, twice placed at the helm, and on the second occasion with the Court and Parliament equally devoted to him, he never could maintain himself in power. Nor, notwithstanding his consummate parliamentary tactics, was he the greatest of party leaders, for he contrived to destroy the most compact, powerful, and devoted party that ever followed a statesman. Nor, notwithstanding his great sway in debate, was he the greatest of orators, for in many of the supreme requisites of oratory he was singularly deficient. But what he really was, and what posterity will acknowledge him to have been, is the greatest Member of Parliament that ever lived. Peace to his ashes! His name will be often appealed to in that scene which he loved so well, and never without homage even by his opponents.

If, when those lines were written, they fell under the notice of the Sovereign, she must have read them with mixed feelings of acquiescence in their truth, and of resentment against the hand that had penned them. It must have seemed then to her and the Prince almost a sacrilege to find the memory of the friend and adviser, so recently honoured, treated with qualified though warm approval by the politician who in life had so bitterly traduced him. Yet time has curious revenges; for that politician was not only in later days to endorse as Minister much of the policy which Peel inaugurated, but was to stand, both as Minister and friend, in an even closer relation to the Queen than Peel himself ever occupied.

The Yoke of Empire: Sketches of the Queen's Prime Ministers
By Reginald B. Brett, 1896