I thought I'd finished but I hadn't. In my pursuit of Prime Ministerial graves I had believed two to be off limits – the 1st Earl of Wilmington (1742-43) and the 1st Earl Russell (1846-52 and 1865-66) – but it seems I spoke too soon.
The first is buried at the private estate church of Compton Wynyates, the Tudor home of Great Britain's second Prime Minister (the Earl of Wilmington) and now of the Marquess of Northampton. The house and church used to be open to the public but not since the 1970s. A friend suggested writing to the present Marquess, which I did. Several weeks later, I got an email from 'Spenny' Northampton, who said he had no objection to me visiting the church, although he (correctly) said there was no visible memorial. I was asked to liaise with a member of his staff, who turned out to be Lord Northampton's butler.
I visited at the weekend, thanks to the indulgence of two Oxford-based friends. On a surprisingly sunny and warm November morning, we were given access to the beautiful Church of St Mary Magdalene, which lies 100 metres north-west of the Compton Wynyates. I'd deliberately lowered my friends' expectations, but the church turned out to be a hidden gem. Largely destroyed during the (English) Civil War, it was rebuilt in 1665 and featured a series of unusual box pews, the largest of which was reserved for the Earls of Wilmington. As expected, there was no visible memorial, although we could see the entrance to the crypt where the former premier's coffin was interred following his death in 1743.
Born at Compton Wynyates, Spencer Compton was first elected to represent the constituency of 'Eye' in Suffolk in the pre-Union (English) House of Commons. Skilled in parliamentary procedure and oratory, in 1715 Compton became Speaker of what was now the House of Commons of Great Britain.
When King George II succeeded to the throne in 1727, he attempted to oust Sir Robert Walpole (the first acknowledged Prime Minister) and install Compton, although a combination of the former's hard work and the latter's timidity meant Walpole survived in office for another 15 years. Instead, Compton was elevated to the House of Lords, from which he served as Lord Privy Seal and Lord President of the (Privy) Council during the 1730s.
Only in February 1742 did the King succeed in making Wilmington First Lord of the Treasury (Prime Minister). Although premier for more than a year, he doesn't appear to have achieved very much. Wilmington died in July 1743 and as he was unmarried, his estates passed to his nephew James, the 5th Earl of Northampton. His name, however, lives on in the American States of Delaware, North Carolina and Vermont, all of which were named after Britain's second Prime Minister.
By contrast, Lord John Russell – the 1st Earl Russell – served as Prime Minister for more than six years, from 1846 to 1852 and again between 1865 and 1866. He was one of the architects of the 1832 Great Reform Act, a then significant expansion of the United Kingdom's electoral franchise. Russell was regarded as the last 'Whig' and first 'Liberal' Prime Minister.
Russell reached Downing Street when Sir Robert Peel's Tory Government fell apart in 1846. Although stymied by a weak parliamentary position and economic turbulence, his first government managed to pass legislation which imposed limits on working hours in factories, increased state grants to schools and compelled local authorities to improve sewerage and drainage. Earl Russell's great political rival was the more charismatic Lord Palmerston, who he sacked in 1851.
When Palmerston later gained the upper hand, Russell served in his government as Foreign Secretary, before briefly becoming Prime Minister again following Palmerston's death in 1865. Determined to pass a second electoral reform measure, Russell was frustrated by Liberal MPs and resigned as premier when the Bill was defeated in 1866. A more radical reform measure was, ironically, passed the following year by the Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
Earl Russell died in 1878, at which point he joined other members of the Russell family, the Dukes of Bedford, at the impressive Bedford Chapel in Buckinghamshire. This, as I've previously written, is only accessible upon a generous donation to a charity of the present Duke's choice, but what I hadn't realised (until informed by a church-visiting friend) was that it's visible through a glazed screen in the adjoining St Michael's Church at Chenies.
Thus primed, I took an afternoon off work to visit the Tudor Chenies Manor House, to which St Michael's is attached. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described the manor as 'archaeologically a fascinating puzzle'. Built in 1460, it served as the seat of the early Dukes of Bedford, playing host to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, who held Privy Council meetings in an upstairs room. Although the Bedfords later outgrew Chenies and moved to the more ostentatious Woburn Abbey, they continued to inter their dead in the Bedford Chapel.
Pevsner described this 'as rich a store of funeral monuments as any parish church of England', and from what I could see through the glass screen, he wasn't exaggerating. Unfortunately, it wasn't clear from my vantage point which of the memorials was that of the 1st Earl Russell, but I felt I'd got as close as possible without breaking the bank. So that's that, I am now properly done with former Prime Ministers. What next? Well, I've already started researching the final resting places of kings and queens…
David Torrance is a writer and historian