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Peel's appointment at Prime Minister

Taken from Norman Gash, Sir Robert Peel (Longman, London & New York, 1972), pp. 78-83.


Earl Spencer had died on the afternoon of 10 November. Two days later Melbourne wrote to the king asking for an interview to discuss the arrangements necessitated by Althorp’s elevation to the upper House. His mood was dispassionate to the point of indifference. Four months’ experience of the premiership had confirmed his fundamentally pessimistic attitude to politics. Since the end of the session the complaints of the Dissenters, the public extravagances of Brougham, the attacks of O’Connell, a threatened resignation from Lansdowne, the quarrels of Durham with Brougham and Russell, had endeared to him neither the colleagues he had inherited from Grey nor the political allies forced upon him by circumstances. On 16 October, two days after the Peels left England, a destructive fire in the rambling palace of Westminster had gutted the House of Lords and burnt down the ancient chapel of St. Stephen’s which had been the meeting-place of the lower House since the reign of Henry VIII. The old House of Commons had gone the way of its old constitution and to the prime minister’s nostalgic and melancholy mind it seemed, as he watched the flames, to symbolise the passing of the old order of politics to which he belonged.

In his letter to the king four weeks later he reminded him that in its existing form the government had been chiefly founded on Althorp’s weight and influence in the Commons and asked whether he should proceed with fresh arrangements to carry on the business of the government, or whether the king wished to follow some other course. He added that no personal consideration for Melbourne should deter the king from taking any action that was in the interests of the public service. Privately he was disturbed not so much by Althorp’s removal from the Commons, which was inevitable and long foreseen, as by his known wish to leave office altogether; and it is more than possible that the phrasing of his letter to the king was designed to open the way for the new Earl Spencer to succeed him as prime minister. For the king, however, who had brooded during the autumn over the state of politics and the onward march of reform, it seemed that a way had opened for an even more salutary change. Though, when Melbourne arrived at Brighton on 13 November, he disappointed his royal master by refraining from any mention of resignation or indeed from any suggestion that the ministry could not carry on, William’s mind was made up. What alarmed him above all was the attitude of the government towards Irish Church reform., further plans for which had been indiscreetly communicated to him by Duncannon. Melbourne’s only important proposal - the appointment of Russell as leader of the House of Commons in place of Althorp - seemed proof that his ministers were now firmly committed to the extreme policy which had provoked the resignation of the Stanleyites in the summer. Melbourne pointed out that neither he nor the king was pledged to any Irish Church measure, and the king could always refuse consent to any proposal made to him. But William, not without commonsense, rejected this somewhat sophisticated argument and after sleeping on the decision, gave Melbourne a note of dismissal the following day. As originally drafted it made the ground of his action the proposed appointment in the Commons, but this was softened at Melbourne’s suggestion to avoid any personal offence. The final version made it appear that it was simply Althorp’s departure to the upper House which had prompted the king’s action. Piqued, momentarily angered, but too proud to protest, Melbourne returned to London on the evening of 14 November, carrying with him a sealed packet for delivery at St. James’s Palace which with sardonic humour he realised must contain a message for the Duke of Wellington. For the last time in British history a monarch had dismissed his political servants; and Melbourne’s first ministry was over before it had barely started.

The king’s summons reached Wellington at Stratfield Saye early on the morning of Saturday, 15 November, just as he was about to go hunting. Setting off within a couple of hours he arrived at Brighton about five o’clock and was at once invited by the king to form a ministry. The duke was neither optimistic nor overawed and he spoke bluntly of the parliamentary difficulties. But the king’s mind was clearly set firm and the dismissal of the Whigs was a fait accompli for which Wellington did not feel that the opposition had any responsibility. On the matter of a new government he told the king that he must have his prime minister in the Commons and that the only possible man was Sir Robert Peel. For the time being, however, Wellington consented to take office as First Lord and Secretary of State; and he suggested that to prevent any folly from Brougham, the Great Seal should be put in commission under Lyndhurst. To all this the king cheerfully consented. Only Peel’s absence in Italy, he observed, had prevented his being summoned in the first place. The same evening the king and Wellington each wrote letters to Peel, while a young official of the queen’s household named Hudson, who had been acting as assistant to Sir Herbert Taylor, made ready to start abroad in search of the missing member for Tamworth.

After he had been despatched the king and the duke turned to the task of establishing an interim administration. Neither of them believed in allowing cashiered officers to linger in their commands, and in view of Peel’s absence it seemed to Wellington essential ‘to take possession of the Government’ on his behalf. At a Council precipitately assembled on Monday, 17 November, the Whig ministers were unceremoniously deprived of their commissions and Wellington was formally installed as First Lord and Secretary of State for the Home Department with provisional custody of the seals of the other two secretaryships. The change of government, which on its first premature announcement in The Times and Morning Chronicle of the previous Saturday had been greeted by the public with astonished scepticism, was now a demonstrated fact; and the country settled down to wait under the singular constitutional rule of the Duke of Wellington. Fixing his headquarters in the Home Office, from which he made periodic descents on the other departments, the duke was unperturbed. The king’s government must go on and he was indifferent to ridicule encountered in the line of duty. Everything would be regularised when Peel arrived; though when that would be no one could say, since no one knew exactly where Peel was. The opening scene of the new Hamlet had to be played without the prince.

II

The twenty-four-year-old gentleman usher whom fate had entrusted with the task of locating the unconscious prime minister-elect had a frustrating time. In London he could get neither information on Peel’s whereabouts from his household nor money for the journey from the Keeper of the Privy Purse. It was Sunday; the banks were closed; and only the intervention of a clerk in Herries’ Bank eventually secured him the £500 he wanted for travel expenses. Reaching Dover the same evening he found that the last steam boat for that day had already left. He therefore hired a rowing boat, some oarsmen and a pilot who landed him at Boulogne after a four-hour crossing Arriving by post-chaise in Paris at noon on Monday, he called at the British Embassy where nothing was known of Peel’s movements further than that he was believed to be in Italy. Travelling by diligence via Dijon and Mont Cenis Hudson reached Turin still to find no trace of the Peels. He decided to go west to Milan, but there was no British legation or consulate there to assist his efforts and after a fruitless round of the hotels, he was delayed a further eighteen hours before he could recover the passport impounded by the police on his arrival. Striking south-west to Bologna, where he hoped to discover whether his quarry had gone south to Rome or west to Venice, he at last picked up the trail and followed it to Florence, only to be told that the Peels had left for Rome. Bribing his way past the Papal frontier guards he next found himself blocked by the floodwaters of the Trasimene at Casa Piano, and was forced to abandon his luggage while he proceeded at snail’s pace on an ox-wagon as far as Perugia. There he found horses but no carriages except a disused rattle-trap which conveyed him precariously to Rome, where he arrived wet, mud-spattered, tired, and clad in huge borrowed postilion-boots, on the evening of Tuesday, 25 November. At his hotel he learned that Peel was at a ball given by the Duchess of Torlonia and was due to leave for Naples the next day.

After a bath, a change of clothes lent by his landlord, and a warm meal, he completed his odyssey by taking his despatches to Peel’s hotel to await his return from the ball. If he expected the great man’s congratulations he was possibly disappointed. According to a Foreign Office tradition which if true could only have originated with Hudson, Peel unkindly observed, on being told his somewhat erratic itinerary, that he could have done the journey in one day less.

Time in fact must have been weighing heavily on Peel’s mind. Already it was eleven days since Melbourne had been dismissed; at least as many would be needed for the return journey. It was an aggravation of fate that the summons to power had come at a moment when he was further from London than he had ever been before or would be again. The packet which had been delivered to him contained six documents: an introduction for Hudson from Sir Herbert Taylor, two letters from Wellington briefly outlining the situation and giving his own view of the royal action, copies of Melbourne’s letter of 12 November and the king’s dismissal note of 14 November, and lastly an official summons from William dated 15 November to return to England and ‘put himself at the head of the administration of the country’. In the city of the popes and emperors, destiny had caught up with Peel at last. Two replies, a brief one to the king and a longer, cordial one to Wellington, were hastily written and given to Hudson, who after twenty-four hours’ rest set out once again on the evening of 26 November. Travelling more directly than on his outward journey he arrived at Boulogne again too late for the regular steam-packet. After another hazardous crossing in a small fishing boat, he eventually arrived at London in the small hours of Friday, 5 December, to put an end to three long weeks of ignorance and speculation.

Even before he had left Rome the Peels were on the road. Starting soon after midday they travelled via Genoa, Turin, Mont Cenis, and Lyons over bad roads and Alpine snows which made necessary the frequent hiring of extra horses and postilions. They stopped only four nights: at Massa to avoid a night ferry across a swollen river, at Susa before the ascent of the Mont Cenis pass, at Lyons where the town was under emergency law and their passports had to receive a visa, and finally at Paris to deal with correspondence and see the British ambassador. Outside Macon they were met by a special messenger carrying various communications from the duke, including a memorandum on offices and possible candidates, together with the first few scattered letters requesting employment and patronage that heralded the shoal of applications ready to pour in on him after his arrival. At Calais they found the steam-packet Ferret waiting expressly for them, and late on the evening of 8 December they landed at Dover. Leaving his wife and daughter behind him Peel posted on through the night and by eight o’clock the following morning he was at his desk at Whitehall Gardens writing to the king.


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