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Primroses for her Prime Minister: Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria

A fond tradition arose in the lifetime of Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield, Queen Victoria’s two-time Prime Minister, namely that of his receiving flowers, often primroses from the Queen. To Disraeli, Queen Victoria was the ‘Faery’ – his endearing name for his Sovereign, whatever the intention of Edmund Spenser’s epic poem Faerie Queene. Disraeli told his friend, Lady Bradford, that on his first visit to Osborne as Prime Minister, the Queen was ‘wreathed with smiles and… glided about the room like a bird’. Later, flowers would be sent from Osborne.

In literary terms, primroses are mentioned by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. John Donne suggests them as a symbol of womanhood. In the language of flowers, the primrose can mean youth or young love. Was Disraeli then thinking of Shakespeare, if the Queen was his ‘Faery’?

With his dyed-black curls, Disraeli was full of poetry and eloquent English; the Queen read his books Coningsby (in 1878) and Endymion (in 1880-81)It was Disraeli who had once famously described guests writing their names in Prince Albert’s visitor’s book after his death (part of the mourning Queen’s attempt at regenerating death with life which in itself then became something of a morbid obsession) as in fact, like ‘calling on a dead man’. More triumphantly, it would be Disraeli’s words which summed up the purchase of the Suez Canal shares from the insolvent Khedive on behalf of the British Government, in typically laconic and brilliant terms: ‘You have it, Madam’.

Disraeli was the Queen’s greatest political romance since Lord Melbourne, although in a very different way. Certainly Disraeli’s love for Queen Victoria was of a more superficial kind that the deep affection of ‘Lord M’, because it was based on flattery, a trait which he possessed and confessed to, at the end of his life: ‘You have heard me called a flatterer, and it is true…. When you come to royalty, you should lay it on with a trowel’ (cit, Elizabeth Longford, Victoria, 437). But whatever it was based on, it nevertheless was love as he knew it, as Disraeli once admitted: ‘I love the Queen – perhaps the only person in this world left to me that I do love…’ (cit., Ibid, 438).

Importantly, Disraeli was a widower who could understand the sentiments of a widowed Queen. On his death in 1881, his wishes were to be buried next to the wife he had loved, in Hughenden Church as opposed to Westminster Abbey, and ‘that my Funeral may be conducted with the same simplicity as hers was’. An over-life size, white marble statue of him stands in the north transept at Westminster Abbey. Queen Victoria wanted to be represented by her son, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, at Disraeli’s – now Lord Beaconsfield’s – funeral. If her first favourite minister was ‘Lord M’, Beaconsfield should rightly be called her ‘Lord B’.

Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield, photographed at Osborne by command of Queen Victoria, 22 July 1878 (Cornelius Jabez Hughes, British (1819 – 1884, London, England London, England) [United States Public domain or Public domain, Wikimedia Commons])

Queen Victoria would undoubtedly have understood this. Twenty years later, she was reunited with the Prince Consort, making true at last those words over the doors of the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore: ‘His mourning widow, Victoria the Queen, directed that all that is mortal of Prince Albert be placed in this sepulchre. A. D. 1862. Vale desideratissime! Hic demum Conquiescam tecum, tecum in Christo consurgeam. [Farewell best beloved! Here, at last, I shall rest with thee, with thee in Christ I shall rise again’. The Queen caused a sizeable memorial tablet to be placed above Beaconsfield’s pew at Hughenden Church with a Biblical inscription from the Book of Proverbs: ‘Kings love him that speaketh right’. So that no one doubted whom it was from, the words read: ‘To the dear and honoured memory of Benjamin Earl of Beaconsfield. This memorial is placed by his grateful sovereign and friend Victoria R.I.’

What was it then, about the primroses? At first glance, it seemed a most extraordinary gift to send a Prime Minister. But this is to misunderstand the nature of the Queen-Premier relationship, which was florid as much as the flowers. Just as roses might be seen to be a symbol of a romantic relationship, these primroses were a symbol of this curious political romance, part of Disraeli’s poetic language as well his nomenclature. When he, in fact, received snowdrops from Osborne, he considered them a ‘Faery gift’ (Longford, 437). When he got primroses, it was because ‘your Majesty’s sceptre has touched the enchanted isle’. This was the novelist speaking to Queen Victoria, leaving his Premiership looking over his shoulder as it were, as he wrote.

His flattery even extended to her own authorship. Referring to her published Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, he spoke to his Sovereign with the unmistakable words to her royal third person: ‘We authors, Ma’am’. Within this authorship was, of course, the Queen’s voluminous correspondence, personal and political. Nearly twenty volumes of the correspondence between Queen Victoria and Disraeli survive at Windsor, heavily bound in morocco (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 8) although alas, almost all of the Queen’s letters have been carefully removed. Those that remain of Disraeli’s lack any flavour.

Movingly, Disraeli – now Lord Beaconsfield – wrote to the Queen in the sinking stages of his final illness, bronchitis. A letter handwritten by him in pencil to the Queen betrays his quivering frailty and with it, the vivid impression of the Victorian sickbed, centuries on: ‘At present, I am prostrate though devoted – B’ (cit., Ibid, 401). Touchingly, this sums up I think, so much of Beaconsfield – polished flatterer, though sincere in his love.

Words popularly attributed to him suggest that he may have thought Queen Victoria wished him on his deathbed to take a message to Prince Albert, into the beyond. Beaconsfield’s last recorded words are believed to have been: ‘I had rather live, but I am not afraid to die’.

The Queen’s grief for Lord Beaconsfield was sincere, in fact the news of his death fills subsequent journal entries. So devastated was she, that she wrote to Lord Rowton – Beaconsfield’s private secretary and literary executor – whilst she wept ‘I can scarcely see for my fast falling tears’ and for once, was unable to write in her usual third person (Ibid, 402). She wrote: ‘Never had I so kind and devoted a Minister, and very few such devoted friends’. 

The grave of Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield at Hughenden Church (Rob Farrow / The Primrose Tomb, Creative Commons)

It is now that the primroses return. Queen Victoria numbered the art of pressing flowers amongst her interests, and several albums of these have survived. It was also a known practice for the Queen’s children to enclose flowers in their correspondence with their mother. Queen Victoria was also, of course, a highly accomplished watercolour artist and flowers were part of Osborne life. The royal children had carried nosegays for the Queen’s birthday, whilst flowers had decorated the established birthday tables. The Queen enjoyed breakfasting as well as reading and writing in her alcove on the terraces at Osborne, where she often described the flowers blooming in the pergola, such as jasmine and orange blossoms (ed. Michael Turner, Osborne House, 24).

Primroses grew in abundance in the woods of Osborne (HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, Victoria and Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House, 40) and seemed to have held special meaning for Queen Victoria. She painted them, for example, as a nosegay between 1874 and 1876.

It becomes, I think, more evident that primroses were a symbol of the Queen’s taste and love for Osborne. She came to associate them with Beaconsfield by sending them as gifts (which he, of course, accepted) as opposed to them being solely Beaconsfield’s flower. As a gift from his ‘Faery’, he gladly received them, and because he accepted them, Queen Victoria came to think that they were his favourite flower. Probably they were instead for Beaconsfield, a symbol of his Queen, although he did name the primrose flower in his letters to her, so perhaps it symbolized their friendship more than anything else (Longford, 477). Certainly it was the flower of their relationship and its poetry, aside from the world of politics. Or just perhaps, primroses were indeed Beaconsfield’s favourite flower, as she said.

Perhaps significantly, I discovered that primroses were believed to have been Queen Victoria’s favourite flower (Longford, 563).

Queen Victoria’s journal makes numerous mentions of primroses, largely at Osborne, but also for example on the area known as ‘The Slopes’ at Windsor. There are idyllic mentions of the royal children picking primroses, poignantly in their last year as a family – 1861.

The primrose story achieves its highest poignancy on Beaconsfield’s death. The Queen sent a wreath of primroses from Osborne for Beaconsfield’s grave, on which was tied a card in her handwriting ‘His favourite flowers, from Osborne, a tribute of affection from Queen Victoria’. 

The Queen even seems to have tried to institute a special ‘Primrose Day’; on the anniversary of Beaconsfield’s death – 19 April. This she established in 1886, where at Osborne, people were commanded to wear a primrose (Ibid, 537). Her journal entry for this date the following year on ‘Primrose Day’ of course, mentions the anniversary of Beaconsfield’s death. Three years earlier, the Primrose League was founded, to spread Conservative principles.

Movingly, the Queen’s journal for 26 April 1881 records Beaconsfield’s funeral (which under protocol she did not attend); she wrote her journal entry at Osborne, home of those primroses. The Prince of Wales was present instead, at the funeral.

Not long back at Windsor, she went to Hughenden, Beaconsfield’s home on 30 April 1881. Queen Victoria visited Hughenden’s Church of St Michael and All Angels, where the vault of the late Beaconsfield had been opened for her. In the space available, she placed a wreath of china flowers on his coffin (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 403). Beaconsfield’s grave is situated at the west wall of the church. After this moving moment, the Queen went to Hughenden Manor and took tea, sadly visiting Beaconsfield’s rooms. Of these, she spent particular time in the Study alone. Movingly, she walked the route of his funeral cortege. The Queen’s journal tells us her thoughts in her own words: ‘All was just the same as when, two and half years ago, dear Lord Beaconsfield had received us there, such a sad contrast. We went into the library and drawing room where hangs my picture, all, all is the same only He is not there! I seemed to hear his voice and the impassioned, eager way he described everything‘.

I wonder if it was a wreath of china primroses that she placed on Beaconsfield’s coffin, a gift from his ‘Faery’, the Queen. ‘Primrose Day’ would not be established for another five years. But alas for us, Queen Victoria does not say.

A small oval photograph of Beaconsfield’s portrait in the Dining Room at Hughenden, may be seen in a glass case. This was given as a gift by Queen Victoria to her daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Connaught on 22 July 1881, inscribed on the back in Disraeli’s memory.

The primrose story however, has endured. Perhaps the Queen more than anyone, was in a position to tell us whether or not they were ‘His Favourite Flower‘. This might be based on correspondence which has not survived, or a remark which was never recorded. Either way, yellow primroses still seem to be blooming on Beaconsfield’s grave, to this day.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.