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Viscount Palmerston

Viscount Palmerston Born: 20 October 1784 in Westminster, London

First entered Parliament: 8 May 1807

Age he became PM: 71 years, 109 days and 75 years, 235 days

Maiden Speech: 3 Feb 1808 on the decision to order the Navy to bombard Copenhagen to stop Napoleon seizing the Danish fleet

Total time as PM: Nine years, 141 days

Died: 18 October 1865 at Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire

Facts and figures

Nicknames: “Lord Cupid” and “Lord Pumicestone”

Education: Harrow, Edinburgh University and St. John’s College, Cambridge

Family: Palmerston was the second but eldest surviving of five children. He was married with three children

Interests: Dancing, swimming, riding, hunting

Biography

Dominated by foreign affairs

A charismatic and popular figure, Palmerston did not become PM until he was 71, making him the oldest prime minister in history to take up the office for the first time. His premiership was dominated by foreign events, making him a truly global statesman.

A vivacious aristocrat well known in society circles, Palmerston was first elected at the age of 26. Over the next four-and-a-half decades, he built up an impressive long record of ministerial service.

He served first under Tory prime ministers as Junior Lord of the Admiralty and then, for two decades, as Secretary for War.

During that period, Palmerston was chiefly known as a man of fashion, a junior minister without influence on the general policy of the cabinets he served.

Around 1830, Palmerston defected from the Tories to the Whigs because of his support for Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. Earl Grey made him Foreign Secretary, a position in which he excelled, although he was headstrong and independent rather than instinctively diplomatic.

Nickname

His abrasive style earned him the nickname “Lord Pumicestone”.

For two decades, Palmerston was at the centre of foreign affairs not only in Europe but also in Turkey, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Asia. He waged the Opium War with China, resulting in the delivery of Hong Kong as a trading base to Britain in 1842.

Opium poppies Highly patriotic, Palmerston did not shirk from threatening the use of force in the national interest.

This jingoism almost led to his downfall in 1850 when he mobilised the Royal Navy against Greece in defence of a British subject. Palmerston’s line - that a British subject would always be protected - proved very popular with the public.

Palmerston was finally forced to resign as Foreign Secretary after approving Louis Napoleon’s coup in Paris in 1851. The public was angry at his dismissal, but the establishment was delighted that ‘Palmerston is smashed’.

He retaliated by bringing down his PM, Lord Russell, the following year.

After serving as Home Secretary under Aberdeen, Palmerston became prime minister himself in 1855 when Lord Aberdeen was blamed for the disasters of the Crimean War.

Palmerston successfully ended the war, and served as the Prime Minister for eight years despite his old age.

Indian mutiny

In his first term, 1855-58, Palmerston had a chance to put his foreign experience into practice. He responded successfully to the Indian mutiny of 1857, supporting a lenient approach in the face of British calls for hard treatment.

In February 1858 he introduced the Government of India Bill to transfer the administration of India from the East India Company to the Crown.

Palmerston was out of office for a year and a half. During that time he helped to form the Liberal Party in 1859. He returned to government as PM a few days later.

Political office did not prevent Palmerston from affairs with women. A ladies’ man, he was cited in a divorce case as late as 1863, while in his late 70s.

He died in office in 1865 after catching a chill, aged 80. A much-loved public character, he received a state funeral. His last words, apparently, were ‘Die, my dear Doctor, that is the last thing I shall do’.

Quote unquote

“The function of government is to calm, rather than to excite agitation.”

Did you know?

Florence Nightingale said of Palmerston after his death “Though he made a joke when asked to do the right thing he always did it. He was so much more in earnest than he appeared, he did not do himself justice.”

Wife

Lady Mary Cowper was popular in society and seen as kind and even-tempered.

She had a succession of lovers, including Palmerston, as she was bored with her husband. Her own brother described as ‘a remarkable woman…but not chaste’. She is buried in Westminster Abbey.

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