WE Gladstone, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland - Part Three Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

WE Gladstone, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland - Part Three

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This entry forms the third part of a three-part series looking at the life of William Gladstone, the religious-minded illustrious politician who dominated British Politics in the 19th Century.

Gladstone and Queen Victoria

In 1846 the Queen invited Gladstone to bring his wife and children to Buckingham Palace where the Princes and Princesses played with the Gladstone children. This is an image that was to become overshadowed by Victoria's later actions when she would refuse to have audiences with him and leave him out of events against all sense of protocol. Even in the end, she refused to acknowledge his death in the Court Circular, despite the fact that the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York1 acted as two of the ten pall bearers for his coffin. So what did lead to this schism between the monarch and the man who served as her Prime Minister during four terms, for a total of 11 and a half years?

Gladstone was a man to whom everything was black and white, right or wrong. He may have changed his view on a number of topics through the course of his life, but once he had his mind set on a course of action he was set. So, when a problem arose with the unpopularity of the royal family, Gladstone thought about how best to preserve that institution much as he had already done throughout his life for the Church of England. The Queen may have started her life-long mourning for Prince Albert, her consort, but Gladstone felt that to offset the growing feeling of Republicanism that had spread from Europe to British shores, some presence needed to be felt.

He recommended initially that the Prince of Wales should be given a job to do; his suggestion was that he should serve as Governor of Ireland and spend at least two months of the year residing at Dublin Castle. He later added that he felt that the Prince and Princess of Wales should spend time in London acting on behalf of Her Majesty as she was not attending public engagements at all. Gladstone went about presenting these ideas in his typical headstrong manner while the Queen became increasingly tired of his incessant badgering of her about the issue.

His Speeches and Lifelong Crusades

Gladstone's maiden speech in the House of Commons was in defence of his father and the treatment of his slaves during a debate on the emancipation of slaves. His brother Thomas was able to answer an accusation by Lord Howick2 that John Gladstone was systematically working his slaves to death. It was a long drawn-out debate and Gladstone wasn't called for over three weeks. In his response, he cited facts and figures to prove his father's innocence but also urged the need for a gradual and therefore safe emancipation of the slaves enabling them to be able to adjust to life without masters. From the first speech the young Gladstone had already caught the attention of some of the older political hands. These old hands included Lord Stanley and Sir Robert Peel, and even George IV wrote to the leader of the House of Commons expressing an interest.

Gladstone spent most of his life trying to 'rescue' the prostitutes of London. The way he went about this was always open to misinterpretation as he would wander the streets talking to prostitutes, trying to persuade them to come to one of his half-way houses in an attempt to set them on the straight and Christian path. During the 19th Century this approach would have had serious implications for anyone, never mind someone of such a high public profile, not just in terms of safety but also in terms of reputation. Several times there were concerns from within his own party that Gladstone should refrain from having such a close personal involvement in these projects especially as he carried on once he was Prime Minister.

Gladstone and the Church

Gladstone was brought up in a Christian household and everywhere he travelled he tried to get to as many Anglican or Episcopal services as he could, sometimes going to more than one service a day, even on weekdays. While at Eton he considered that the future lay in the Church but while in Rome on his tour of Europe and at Oxford he came to the conclusion that he would best serve God in the political field (although he did write a number of sermons which he shared with his family at their prayer time). He attributed his longevity - both in life and in Parliament - to God having one more important task for him to complete.

From this background then it is hardly surprising that Gladstone took a keen interest in the institutional ramifications of the Church of England being so closely tied to the State.

Gladstone and Ireland

Gladstone only visited Ireland once in his long and illustrious life. However, it did not prevent the whole issue of Ireland featuring significantly in his long political career. The whole dilemma of Irish Home Rule was starting to crescendo at the time that Gladstone first took a seat in the House. Little would he know that the subject he fought for so earnestly for years would still be a raging issue over 100 years after his death.

The first time that Gladstone got involved in Irish issues was not in connection with Home Rule but with his other life-long concern, the church. During his first administration he disestablished the Irish Church (1869), something he had felt strongly about since his first term as an MP. The fact that the Church in Ireland was paying money to the Government in London had been seen by Gladstone and others as one of the thorns in the Irish situation which was leading to all the tension and potential violence against the English landowners. The fact that most of the government including Gladstone had never visited Ireland and had seen the situation on the ground and the conditions of the tenant farmers, was something that had never really been addressed since the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Gladstone also produced an Irish Land Act in 1870 allowing compensation for improvements to tenants evicted by their landlords.

Gladstone's Personal Life

Following the ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne in 1837 Gladstone was returned unopposed for his seat in Newark. However, he spent the remainder of the term of that parliament looking for a suitable young woman to consent to marry him. He was not the world's greatest suitor suffering a number of refusals before Catherine Glynne agreed to marry him. The service took place along with that of her younger sister Mary Glynne to Lord Lyttleton on 25 July, 1839, at Hawarden the Glynne family home in Flintshire, North Wales. Sir Stephen Glynne, the brides' brother, was Lord Lieutenant of Flintshire and was to become a close friend of Gladstone.

William and Catherine Gladstone were to have eight children; William, Agnes, Helen, Henry, Herbert, Mary, Catherine Jessie and John. William, Herbert and John all followed their father into parliament; John becoming Home Secretary from 11 December, 1905, until 19 February, 1910.

Gladstone the Author

One of Gladstone's legacies was the amount of written material he was able to produce throughout his life, not only various books on political, religious and classical themes but also the largest collection of letters held from any Prime Minister by the British Museum in its collection. He also wrote a vast range of personal correspondence, much of which is still in the library he had built at Hawanden, as well as extensive diaries. As will be expected of such a prolific statesman most of his writing not relating to events of the day was carried out while he was out of Government and sitting on the opposition benches.

In opposition for the first time following the defeat of Peel's government in January 1835 and between thinking of marriage, Gladstone did some study on the state of relations between the Church and the State. His first book, The State and its Relations with the Church, was published in July 1838, signalling the start of Gladstone's continued interest in the Church and State debate and whether or not the Anglican Church should be disestablished. In 1840 he revised it making it almost twice the length3 before he expanded the theme in a new book Church Principles Considered in Their Results.

He was later to try and correlate the works of Homer with Christian teaching in a series of books that most Greek Scholars and Theologians dismissed as fanciful. His first book on the subject Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858) was followed and enlarged upon in 1869 in Juventus Mundi and Homeric Synchronism in 1876. In each of these he maintained a belief in a personal Homer and that Homer was recounting factually all the events of the Trojan War. By linking Homer with Christian teachings he was also trying to justify classical studies as having a valid basis in Christian education, a thought at the time condoned by the Church.

He was also deeply concerned about the situation that was brewing in Europe, especially Italy, which he had visited extensively, and the Balkans4 and produced a pamphlet Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East (1876).

Reforms Brought About by Gladstone

As well as the Finance Bill, which he introduced as Chancellor to ease the budget through both Houses more easily, Gladstone was responsible for a number of important reforms to government and the nation as a whole.

The 1867 Reform Act may have allowed a great number of working class men the vote; all male lodgers paying £10 for unfurnished rooms in a Borough Constituency now had a vote, making them the majority. But employers still used their sway over their employees to influence the vote, by being present or sending representation to check on votes. In 1872, Gladstone introduced the Ballot Act which instituted secret ballots for all local and government elections. At last the employers would have no idea how the votes were going, another part of the electoral reform that was advancing towards the current situation of electoral law.

In 1880, having been returned for a third time, he tried to extend the working class vote to the rural seats as well. Though initially accepted in the Commons, the Lords rejected this Bill, but in 1884 they accepted it when Gladstone re-introduced the Bill providing that it came in with a redistribution of seats. He also passed at this time a Corrupt Practices Act, which limited the amount that candidates could spend on a campaign. It also banned the purchase of food and drink for voters as well as setting a limit on the number of vehicles that could be used to transport voters to the polls.

In 1870, along with his Education Minister, Gladstone worked an Education Act through Parliament which saw the introduction of schools boards throughout Britain.

In 1868 he also passed laws which restructured the high courts.

1Later Kings Edward VII and George V. 2Son of the Prime Minister, Earl Grey. 3Critics thought the argument was too long in the first place; Gladstone's excessive use of language again his undoing.4Over a century later his successor as leader of the Liberals (then Liberal Democrats) Paddy Ashdown would be a key figure in the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict.

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