Monday, August 28, 2017

Benjamin Disraeli: Imperium Et Libertas, death and primroses

Benjamin Disraeli died on April 19th, 1881.

Protocol did not permit Queen Victoria to attend his funeral, but she sent two wreaths of primroses with a simple message attached: “His favourite flowers.”

She used to dispatch many bunches of primroses from Osborne House, her holiday home on the Isle of Wight, to Disraeli, for which he always thanked her effusively. Perhaps he was just being polite; perhaps he really did like primroses more than any other flower.

Queen Victoria sent primroses to Disraeli’s grave at his home in High Wycombe on each anniversary of his death until 1901, when she herself died.

Some people allege that by ‘his’, Queen Victoria meant Prince Albert’s!

Either way, because of what she wrote and sent, primroses became associated with Disraeli’s name and were featured in two legacies, Primrose Day and The Primrose League.

Primrose Day
On the first anniversary of Disraeli’s death, many people in London wore primroses in their hats and buttonholes as a tribute to the great statesman who had done so much for his country and the British Empire.

This established a tradition and for decades to come April 19th was Primrose Day, which became an unofficial national holiday until the First World War.

On the day, people made pilgrimages to Disraeli’s grave and to his statue near the Parliament that was his Mecca.

As late as 1916, Pathé News filmed the laying of a wreath of primroses at Disraeli’s statue outside the Palace of Westminster.

No other Prime Minister’s death has been honoured in this way.

Primrose Day is no longer celebrated officially, but a few primroses are still laid at this statue. I must remember to go and see the show for myself next April.

A wood engraving of Primrose Day at the statue in 1886:

The same statue today:

The Primrose League
This political organisation was founded in 1883 as a means of  spreading Conservative principles via a mass movement. Winston Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a founding member.

The League was named in tribute to Benjamin Disraeli and it adopted what is said to be one of Disraeli’s favourite slogans, Imperium Et Libertas, Empire and Liberty, as its motto.

It encouraged the celebration of Primrose Day, with the members holding festivities on a large scale all over the country. 

It promoted a Disraeli mythology; it published newspapers in which selections of Disraeli’s writings and speeches were featured.

The League stressed selective Disraelian themes: the importance of maintaining the constitution, the role of the Conservative Party in serving national interests and in promoting the union of all classes, as well as the famed slogans of Disraeli, Peace With Honour and Imperium Et Libertas.

All this reminds me of a modern-day fan club. No other Prime Minister has been promoted in this way.

Membership was open to all, including Catholics, with the exception of atheists and enemies of the British Empire.

Members got some romantic historical job descriptions: officers had titles such as ‘Knight Harbinger’, ‘Squire’ or 'Dame'.

Officers were expected to make declarations of secrecy and obedience, which sounds rather sinister to me. There are allegations of connections to the Freemasons. Primrose League branches were known as ‘Habitations’, which makes me think of Masonic Lodges.

Unlike Disraeli’s Young England organisation, the League was long-lasting. It was also very successful, with millions of members, some of whom even set up Habitations in places such as Malta, Trinidad and Australia.

When Winston Churchill made his first ever public speech, it was in 1897 and to a Primrose League Rally. He proclaimed that ''England would gain more from the rising tide of Tory Democracy than from the dried-up drainpipe of Radicalism."

The Primrose League lasted for 121 years. Eventually decline set in; this was followed by a slow death, and the organisation was officially disbanded in 2004. By coincidence, this was 200 years after the birth of Benjamin Disraeli.

Imperium Et Libertas
From Disraeli’s speech in the House of Lords in 1879:

“...I speak on this subject with confidence to the citizens of London, because I know that they are men who are not ashamed of the Empire which their ancestors created; because I know that they are not ashamed of the noblest of human sentiments, now decried by philosophers—the sentiment of patriotism; because I know they will not be beguiled into believing that in maintaining their Empire they may forfeit their liberties. One of the greatest of Romans, when asked what were his politics, replied, Imperium et Libertas. That would not make a bad programme for a British Ministry. It is one from which Her Majesty's advisers do not shrink.

From a description of the ceremony at Disraeli’s statue on Primrose Day 1896:

The square pedestal had a broad band of primroses at its crown and base and also at each angle, and upon the panel facing Westminster Abbey was a solid tablet of three blooms with the words "Imperium et Libertas" worked upon it in purple violets. Here and there the predominant colour was relieved by blue hyacinths... Scores of admirers threw over bunches of primroses, and even single blooms, so that the ground in front of and around the statue was literally covered with pale yellow flowers.

There is a statue of Winston Churchill close to the statue of Benjamin Disraeli. Churchill too used the expression Imperium Et Libertas: