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Robert Gascoyne-Cecil 3rd Marquess of Salisbury

Conservative | 1885 - 1886 | 1886 - 1892 | 1895 - 1902

Marquess of Salisbury


3 February 1830, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire


22 August 1903, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire

Dates in office

23 June 1885 - 28 January 1886

Dates in office (Second term)

25 July 1886 - 11 August 1892

Dates in office (Third term)

25 June 1895 - 11 July 1902

Political party


Major acts

Naval Defence Act 1889 - greatly enlarged the size of the Royal Navy, to ensure the “two power standard” which maintained the number of battleships to at least the combined size of the next two largest navies (France and Russia). 

Interesting facts

Founded the London County Council in 1889 - the directly elected municipal authority for the County of London. Was in existence until 1965.

Salisbury was the last peer to serve as PM, with the brief exception of the 14th Earl of Home who renounced his peerage within a few days of being appointed.

“English policy is to float lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collisions.”

Compared to the flamboyance of Disraeli and Gladstone, the Marquess of Salisbury, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, was a reserved, distant figure, yet he ranks among Britain’s longest-serving prime ministers.

Adopting a laissez-faire attitude to matters at home, Salisbury’s main interests lay in the direction of foreign affairs, especially British interests in Africa. His other political legacy was strengthening the Conservative party by unifying different factions.

Born into an aristocratic family, Salisbury was descended from Lord Burghley, a minister of Queen Elizabeth I. A frail child, prone to depression, he developed a love of books and botany.

After gaining a fourth-class degree in mathematics from Oxford, Salisbury set out on a world tour for the good of his health, visiting South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. He returned much stronger, with a keen interest in the British Empire.

Salisbury entered the Commons in 1853 at the age of 23, as MP for Stamford.

To earn enough to support himself and his wife, he started writing political articles for journals, gaining him a reputation as a shrewd commentator.

His first political post came in 1866, when he was appointed Secretary of State for India under Lord Derby. Less than a year later, he resigned in opposition to plans to extend the electoral franchise.

In 1868 Salisbury entered the House of Lords following the death of his father, and Chancellor of Oxford University a year later. He maintained his intellectual interests, building a laboratory at Hatfield House where he experimented with electricity.

Securing peace

When the Conservatives returned to office in 1874, Salisbury became Secretary of State for India under Disraeli [pictured right]. Although their relationship started out stormily, it improved so much that in 1878 Disraeli appointed Salisbury Foreign Secretary.

In that role, Salisbury helped to secure peace in the Balkans at the Congress of Berlin. Salisbury took over the Conservative leadership on Disraeli’s death in 1881, and reluctantly became prime minister of a minority administration in 1885.

His first administration included legislation on housing the working class, but within months an election cut short his term.

Returning to office in 1886, his second administration was much stronger, benefiting from the Liberals’ internal strife. Reforms at home included the Local Government Act of 1888, transferring the administration of counties to elected county councils, and the 1891 Free Education Act, abolishing fees for primary education.

Instead of the traditional role of First Lord of the Treasury, Salisbury unusually combined the role of the Prime Minister with that of Foreign Secretary, a demanding double job.

Under his direction, the colony of Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) was established, with its capital city named Salisbury. The PM’s diplomatic skills were demonstrated in 1890-91 through a settlement reached with the other European imperial powers over African territories.


By the time he became prime minister for the third and final time in 1895, Salisbury had become a well-loved elder statesman.

Home legislation included the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1897, making the employer liable for accidents at work.

Yet there were problems brewing in the Cape Colony in South Africa. The Boer War broke out in 1899, splitting the Cabinet and leading to Salisbury’s resignation in 1902. His nephew, Arthur Balfour, replaced him as prime minister.

Salisbury died in 1903 at Hatfield House, his family home in Hertfordshire.