I am nearly at the end. I spent last weekend in Norfolk and Suffolk, not only two English counties largely unknown to me but, usefully, the final resting places of two early Prime Ministers.
Fittingly, one of the two was also the first acknowledged Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, although disappointingly there wasn't much by the way of commemoration at St Martin's Church, part of the Houghton estate built by Walpole while he was in office.
Originally a 13th-century medieval church, St Martin's has been enlarged and restored over the centuries, most notably by Sir Robert, who rebuilt the tower as a memorial to his grandfather. But beyond that fact, nothing. It's a lovely church with Walpoles galore commemorated on handsome memorial slabs, but all a printed guide says is that Sir Robert 'is believed to be buried in the east end of the church'. He was Prime Minister for 21 years.
Two Pelham premiers are similarly unmarked in a West Sussex church, while Viscount Melbourne, whom I saw (again) at Hatfield recently, only has a rather pathetic 'near this spot lies' plaque at St Etheldreda's, having apparently been misplaced during a late-Victorian refurbishment. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, this seems almost disrespectful, but it also tells us something about shifting attitudes to death, burial and commemoration.
There is much more of Sir Robert at Houghton Hall, the vast neo-Palladian house he commissioned shortly after becoming Prime Minister. His books and paintings still fill its vast rooms, while there's a slightly preposterous bust of him in the Stone Hall kitted out as a Roman senator. Upon Walpole's death (he didn't enjoy the completed house for long), Houghton passed to successive Walpoles and then, in the late 18th century, to the 1st Marquess of Cholmondeley.
Cholmondeley's descendants live there to this day, and indeed the current Marquess holds the office of Lord Great Chamberlain, a member of the Royal Household who manages parts of the Palace of Westminster and arranges state occasions. This explained the presence of the Consort's Throne – most recently used at the Opening of Parliament by the Prince of Wales – in one of the State Rooms. A previous Marquess was given custody of the throne during the 1936 abdication crisis, and it still resides at Houghton when it's not needed at Westminster.
As well as being the first Prime Minister (of Great Britain), Sir Robert Walpole was the first premier to marry while in office. The second was the 3rd Duke of Grafton, who is also buried in an estate church, that of Euston Hall about an hour's drive south of Houghton in a Suffolk village of the same name. Indeed, until last year, Grafton was only the second Prime Minister to have divorced and remarried while resident at 10 Downing Street – a London residence secured by Walpole for successive First Lords of the Treasury.
In 1764, the Duke had a very public affair with a courtesan called Nancy Parsons, with whom he often appeared in public. It appears to have been tit for tat given that the Duchess of Grafton had already embarked upon her own affair with the Earl of Upper Ossory. This gave His Grace the pretext for a divorce, which in the 18th century required an Act of Parliament. This was granted Royal Assent on 23 March 1769, and three months later, the Prime Minister married Elizabeth Wrottesley, the daughter of the Dean of Worcester.
Anyway, Grafton became Prime Minister in 1768 aged only 33 (he was overtaken as the youngest holder of that office 15 years later by Pitt the Younger). The Duke didn't last long; he was widely attacked for allowing France to annex Corsica and stepped down in 1770, handing over the reigns to Lord North, who had his own troubles with foreign affairs. The Duke, however, continued as Chancellor of Cambridge University, a position he had assumed at the same time he became First Lord.
Given he had achieved high office so young, Grafton had the longest post-premiership career of any Prime Minister thus far, lasting more than 41 years and including two stints as Lord Privy Seal. His 'earthly career was terminated in piety and peace' in March 1811, by which point Great Britain had lost America but gained Ireland via the Union of 1801. Unlike Walpole, Grafton is commemorated with a physical memorial at St Genevieve, a Wren-like 17th-century Anglican parish church.
It records his appointment as First Lord of the Treasury and subsequently held offices of Secretary of State (for the Northern Department), Lord Privy Seal and 'for upwards of 40 years' that of Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. The memorial continues: 'In all these stations, and throughout the course of an active life, he was constantly distinguished by the liberality of his sentiments, which evinced, at once, the highly cultivated state of his understanding, & the goodness of his heart'.
St Genevieve has a very un-English interior, although the congregation had done its best to extinguish this continental flair with a series of Platinum Jubilee displays devoted to aspects of the Queen's life and reign. And with that, I found myself with only one more Prime Minister to locate, and he's north of Bristol. I should find time for that next weekend, or perhaps the one after that. Melancholy always strikes when I near the end of a bucket list.
David Torrance is a writer and historian