Back in January, when the pandemic was only a few weeks into the future but light years away in terms of comprehension, a friend and I drove from Oxford – where I'd been attending a conference – to London. We didn't take the quickest route, nor did we follow a scenic alternative. Instead, we attended to my Prime Ministerial bucket list. I remain grateful to my companion for indulging me.
In fact, he indulged me so much that we ended the day with four premiers under our belt, three of whom – unlike others I've written about – are among the better-known British leaders. We started with perhaps the most famous, Sir Winston Churchill. If he were a former US president of similar standing – a Franklin D Roosevelt or an Abraham Lincoln – he'd be interred at something monumental and treated with reverence. Churchill, however, was buried modestly in Bladon parish churchyard.
There is an American connection. Jennie Spencer-Churchill, Winston's US-born mother, is also buried at St John's, as is the Vanderbilt wife of Churchill's cousin, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Through Lady Churchill (as Jennie became), Winston was a distant kinsman of the aforementioned Roosevelt. Also close by is Winston Spencer-Churchill junior, whose political career never quite took off (for obvious reasons). Instead, his legacy was beginning the sprawling multi-volume authorised 'life' of his father, substantially completed by the historian Martin Gilbert. I have a full set at home.
At this point, we took a non-Prime Ministerial diversion to see the Scottish writer and politician John Buchan, who's buried similarly modestly at St Thomas of Canterbury Churchyard in Elsfield. Viscount Tweedsmuir (as he became) died an incumbent governor-general of Canada in Quebec, just months before Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain. His flat, circular gravestone also records his birth in Perth, Scotland, on 26 August 1875. Buchan ended up in South Oxfordshire because he lived close by at Elsfield Manor. Intriguingly, there's still a Buchan name plate on what is now a posh apartment block.
George Grenville also had a North American connection: the 10 Downing Street website's 'Past Prime Ministers' section records that he was 'sacked' by King George III for 'imposing stamp duty on the American colonies'. From a political family, Grenville was born at Wotton House, Buckinghamshire, and was laid to rest there, at All Saints Churchyard, Wotton Underwood, on the family estate. We found the church looking austere but open. One of Grenville's four sons, William, would also become Prime Minister in 1806, while his sister Hester married Pitt the Elder, a useful political connection.
When the Earl of Bute resigned as Prime Minister, George III – reluctant to bring others back into power – offered Grenville the positions of First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. His ministry lasted just two years and was marked by two parliamentary controversies. The first brings to mind today's cultural and constitutional battles: Grenville insisted that the courts (rather than parliament) decide the legality of general warrants, which were used to censor the political radical, John Wilkes, and his populist attacks on Bute.
The second controversy cost Grenville his premiership. Feeling the financial toll of the Seven Years War, he wanted customs duties enforced more strictly in Britain's American colonies and also proposed a new set of stamp duties in order to raise revenue. The resulting backlash sowed the seeds of the American Revolution. George III, who had come to regard Grenville as a bore, dismissed him and called on the Marquess of Rockingham to form an administration. Today, Grenville is commemorated at Wotton Underwood by a small brass coffin plaque. This notes his provenance but not his troubled premiership.
Next stop was Herbert Henry Asquith, one of two Prime Ministers who led the UK during the First World War. His tomb commits the same mistake as that of Rockingham's at York Minster, asserting that the Earl of Oxford and Asquith was 'Prime Minister of England' from April 1908 (following the resignation of Scotsman Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman) until December 1916 (when he was ousted in a political coup d'état by Welshman David Lloyd George). Buried in the same graveyard are George Orwell and his journalistic patron David Astor.
The reason for Asquith's rather ungainly title arose from a dispute with the de Vere family. Wanting to be created, simply, the 'Earl of Oxford', the de Veres – who had once held the dormant earldom of Oxford – objected and so 'Asquith' was bolted on as a compromise. Much to their chagrin, the title nevertheless continued to be abbreviated to the 'Earl of Oxford' in everyday conversation and newspaper articles.
Talking of titles, the grave of Benjamin Disraeli – our last stop that day in January – gives prominence to his wife Mary Anne Disraeli, who, it notes, was Viscountess Beaconsfield 'in her own right', this being several decades before the first female life peers were created in 1958. What it doesn't record is the fact that neither Mary Anne nor the earlier Lady Bute, also a peeress in her own right, were allowed to take their seats in the Upper House. There has rarely been an uncomplicated connection between hereditary titles and a right to sit in the House of Lords.
Disraeli's grave is down the hill from his chintzy Buckinghamshire estate, Hughenden Manor; indeed, his grave makes a point of telling us he was 'Lord of This Manor'. Inside St Michael and All Angels' Church is a brass plaque marking Dizzy's Sunday pew and, more interestingly, a marble memorial 'placed by his Grateful Sovereign and Friend Victoria R. I.'. It probably helped that Disraeli made her Empress of India in 1876. Some monarchs have better relationships with their first ministers than George III had with George Grenville. Perhaps the latter should have made his king Emperor of America.