Saturday, January 08, 2011

Lord Rosebery: Britain's Gay Prime Minister

It's one of those gay-historical things! there isn't quite enough evidence to say with scholarly integrity and certainty that Lord Rosebery, Prime Minister 1894-1895, Foreign Secretary at other points, leader of the opposition at others, was gay. And yet, pretty much everyone thinks he was and was having some kind of affair with Francis Douglas, Viscount Drumlanrig. Unfortunately, Francis Douglas had a very gay brother, Alfred, aka Bosie, lover of Oscar Wilde and countless other men. Bosie and Francis's father, the mad bad Marquess of Queensbury pursued both Wilde and Rosebery and it is thought by many that only enormous pressure from the establishment kept Rosebery's name out of the Wilde trial and kept a serving British Prime Minister from ending up in the dock himself, a trial which would have eclipsed even the three trials of Oscar Wilde.

Why am I bring this up now, you might reasonably ask, if not just to display this fetchingly camp portrait of Rosebery I found on Wiki from a cigar box label? Well, at the time of Wilde's trials the speculation and innuendo about Rosebery was rampant but I came across an unusual example of it in, of all places, the boys' paper Chums. Every week there was a column entitled 'Five Minutes with the Famous' and it is very noticeable that Rosebery appears often in the first few months of 1895 (Wilde's trials started in April), and there is, I think you will agree, a very definite 'painting' going on in the anecdotes they chose to represent him.

"Lord Rosebery, though very ambitious, was considered rather a girlish schoolboy by his Eton friends, and was accordingly dubbed "Miss Prim," a contraction of his family name, Primrose" Chums, Vol III No 129, February 27, 1895, p,422

"Lord Rosebery is said to have been the very pink of neatness and propriety at Eton; he always walked very erect, and always had a smile on his face. He used to read a good deal of history, and was fond of newspapers and Parliamentary reports; but did not distinguish himself either in sports of scholarship." Chums, Vol III No 131, March, 1895, p.455

"Lord Rosebery was very proud as a boy, but showed hauteur in an inoffensive fashion. He used generally to appear blissfully deaf and unconscious when addressed too familiarly by his social inferiors." Chums, Vol III No 154, April 3, 1895, p.507


Anonymous said...

Miss Prim? Love it! It makes him see all the more human.

Have you read James Lees-Milne's bio of Lord Esher The Enigmatic Englishman? It's a must. He was Rosebery's best friend, and the letters within it from the screamers of his circle are as fresh and larky as if they had been written yesterday by Graham Norton and Julian Clary. (In fact, it makes a compelling case for someone to publish an edition of the letters of Howard Sturgis and his boyfriend, which I believe are in one the university libraries. Because what Lees-Milne quotes of them is wonderful.)

Rosebery donated a book of erotic drawings to the British Museum. I can't remember the title but I stumbled across the donation while looking for something else in a catalogue. Might be fun to follow up. He's certainly a fascinating figure. I do wonder if there's papers at his snug of Barnbougle Castle that could tell more.

Callum said...

Hi Anonymous,
Thanks for these bits and pieces, there are a couple of suggestions there I would like to follow up.

Certainly I need to get hold of a copy of the Esher biography by the sound of it.

Thanks again


Anonymous said...

My fault: the correct title is "The Enigmatic Edwardian: Life of Reginald, 2nd Viscount Esher". Amazon has some used copies.

There was a recent biography of Rosebery by ex-pollie Leo McKinstry, who gained access to some of private papers still held by the Rosebery family. But he comes across like a Colonel Blimp, so was unsurprisingly totally dismissive of any homosexuality/bisexuality.

Anonymous said...

I read a comment somewhere that Lord Roseberry was very generously endowed, and the main attraction of Francis Douglas was that the latter has the only person who could take him . . . I think it may have been in an Oscar W biog that I read it

Marmaduke Winterbotham said...

I read the Leo McKinstry biography and sensed that it was highly respectful and tone and as he'd been given such (unfettered?)access to the family papers there might have been an unspoken understanding that he wouldn't peddle this gossip. Was Rosebery a bag of nerves at the time of the OW trials or was it just anxiety over not being able to manage his cabinet? It could have been the latter as the posts here add evidence that he was not the gritty sort that was needed.

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