1902 Encyclopedia > John Stuart, Third Earl of Bute

John Stuart, Third Earl of Bute
British politician
(1713-92)




JOHN STUART, THIRD EARLOF BUTE (1713-1792), for a brief time prime minister of England, was born in 1713, and was educated at Eton. Horace Walpole, who was one of his contemporaries there, tells us that Bute " studied simples in the hedges about Twickenham." For many years he resided in the remote island of Bute, where he appears to have diligently studied mathematics, mechanics, and natural science. He married the daughter of Mr and the celebrated Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an alliance which subsequently brought the large Wortley estates into his family. A mere accident introduced him at court; a shower of rain interrupted a cricket match at Cliefden, and led to his services being required by the Prince of Wales. He received a bedchamber appointment in the household of the prince. Prince Frederick died, however, next year, and Lord Bute lived in retirement. On the formation of a separate household for the princess and the young princes, he received the appointment of groom of the stole, somewhat to the dissatisfaction of the old king, George II., who gave him the gold key of office in an ungracious way. In the household of the Prince of Wales Lord Bute acquired great influence over the mind of the youthful heir of the throne and his mother. The scandal of the last century associated his name most intimately with that of the princess, but for this cruel and persistent rumour there appears to be no foundation either in con-temporary literature or in the large inedited Bute MSS.

Lord Bute does not appear to have had much to do with the education of the future king and his brothers, which was chiefly left in episcopal hands. He took, how-ever, some part in the direction of his studies, and is known to have read Blackstone's Commentaries, when still in MS., with him. He seems also to have inculcated him with the writings of Bolingbroke, whose theory was that a king should not only reign but govern, and who had sketched out the ideal of a patriot king. The constant language of the Princess Dowager, re-echoed by the groom of the stole, was "George, be king!" In 1760 George II. died, and the young king proceeded to put in practice the teachings he had received. This marked an important era in constitutional history. Then began the era of the " king's friends;" the royal will was to be supreme; the ministers were simply to act ministerially, giving expression to and carry-ing out the sovereign's pleasure. It is manifest that this doctrine weakened the responsibility of ministers and the authority of parliament, and invited dangers in the direc-tion both of absolutism and of anarchy. Bute, however, was prepared to carry out a scheme very like Strafford's " Thorough" with zeal and energy. The day after the accession Bute was made a privy councillor. A little later he was made secretary of state. Afterwards he was made Knight of the Garter. The king told the ministers, ' Lord Bute is my very good friend;" and the royal will was expressed through him. The extraordinary spectacle was witnessed, on the meeting of parliament, of a man with no political connection, who had never been in the cabinet, and who had never served in any ministerial office, being practically prime minister. What he was in reality he soon became in name. In the Slielbume Correspondence we find him asserting that there was nothing which he could not do. The ministers at the time of the accession, who both in the Eastern and the Western World were main-taining the war with France with the greatest glory and success, were William Pitt, the duke of Newcastle, and Mr Legge. The last, Mr Legge, was ignominiously dismissed. Pitt could not carry the support of the cabinet in his pro-posal to declare war against Spain, and therefore resigned, —a resignation which probably prevented a dismissal. Such insults were heaped upon the duke of Newcastle that, although he long clung to office, he was at last compelled to resign.

As premier, Bute showed considerable ability. Lord Mansfield said he never knew any man come to business so late who did it so well, and he proved an extremely good speaker. He also gave considerable patronage to literature and art. He had several distinct points of policy. He wished to close the era of war and make peace with France. He wished to sever the political connection between England and Hanover. He wished to humble the dominant Whig families, and to make the king supreme. In all these objects he was to a considerable extent successful. The popular feeling against the peace was intense. Still the minister had secured a large majority in the House of Commons; but although he had spoken much of purity of election, it is not to be denied that there had been extensive bribery in the elections. Confident of the royal support and a parliamentary majority, he seemed secure of a long lease of power.





After being premier for eleven months, to the astonish-ment of all, he suddenly resigned. He was unable to face the black tide of personal unpopularity which set in so heavily against him. Wilkes's publication of the North Briton had both expressed and intensified his unpopularity. He was in danger of being impeached ; he was in danger of being torn in pieces by the mob. He went about dis-guised. He attempted to conciliate popularity by recalling Pitt to office; but Pitt would only return with his Whig friends, to which the king would not consent. Then Lord Bute's courage gave way. His own explanation was, " The ground I stand upon is so hollow that I am afraid, not only of falling myself, but of involving my royal master in my own ruin." But although he resigned office, his influence with the king was hardly impaired. It was the king's custom, at least for some time, to write a minute daily journal of events and transmit it to Lord Bute. Both Grenville who succeeded him, and Bockingham who succeeded Grenville, regarded him with the utmost jealousy. Grenville made it an absolute condition that Bute should retire from the presence and counsels of the young king. He retired to Luton ; he afterwards travelled on the Continent under the name of Sir John Stuart He complained bitterly that he was not allowed " to enjoy that peace, that liberty, which is the birthright of the meanest Briton, but which has been long denied me.''

The influence of Lord Bute over the king was great for a time, but it has been much exaggerated. After a few years it seems to have declined altogether. Both the king and Lord Bute soon disclaimed its existence, and there is no lack of corroboratory evidence But it was impossible to eradicate the notion that there was a back-stairs influence personified in Lord Bute. He was denounced in popular addresses before the king himself as a betrayer of the constitution, and mobs regularly broke his windows. Wilkes reviled him ; Junius thundered against him. Lord Chatham declaimed against him as one behind the throne greater than the throne itself. For twenty years he was regarded with invincible hostility and suspicion, yet we find him complaining that he had not the influence of an alderman in obtaining a position for his son. Horace Walpole gives a curious account of an offer being made to Chatham shortly before his death of making him premier with a dukedom, he himself being a secretary of state. The facts are not well ascertained, but Lord Mountstuart, afterwards first marquis of Bute, wrote to assert upon his honour that his father, Lord Bute, assured him that he had not thought of coming into place again.

Lord Bute had purchased an estate at Luton in Bedford-shire, where Adams, the Scottish architect, had built him a magnificent residence. Here he formed an immense library, a superb collection of astronomical and philosophical instruments, and an admirable gallery of pictures, which are preserved in a large house appropriated to them in Warwick Square, London. On the summit of a plain Tuscan pillar in the grounds is an inscription in honour of his great friend and benefactress the Princess Dowager. He took great delight in architecture, and among other edifices built himself a marine villa on the edge of the cliff, in Hampshire, overlooking the Needles and the Isle of Wight. He is said to have been an admirable tutor and father to his children, and to have taken a greater pleasure in simple, natural delights than he could have found in courts. His death was occasioned through that intense love of natural science which had followed him through life. Seeing a new plant on the cliff he climbed towards it, and received a severe fall, which brought on an illness of which be died.

The eleven months' premiership, during which he was mayor of the palace, was a singular episode in his prolonged life,—a remarkable and unconstitutional experiment in politics which has never been repeated. Lord Bute pos-sessed great virtues, great energy and ability, and was as able a premier as Newcastle, Grenville, or Bockingham. But the royal favouritism on which he relied proved the greatest bar to his political success, and has left a slur, exaggerated, but not altogether ill-deserved, on his memory. (F. A.)







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