3d Earl of Bute

views updated

3d Earl of Bute

The British statesman John Stuart, 3d Earl of Bute (1713-1792), served as prime minister under George III, over whom he exercised an unpopular influence.

John Stuart was born in Edinburgh of aristocratic Scottish parents. His father died when John was 10, and the boy was raised in England under the guardianship of two maternal uncles. In 1737, when he was 24, Bute was elected to the English Parliament as one of the Scottish peers nominated by Lord Islay. Two years later he entered the opposition, thereby severing his connection with his patron and losing his seat at the next election in 1741. He remained excluded from Parliament for the next 20 years.

For 5 years after this setback, Bute lived in retirement on the island of Bute. Though better educated than most English aristocrats—an unsympathetic contemporary described him as having "a great deal of superficial knowledge … upon matters of natural philosophy, mines, fossils, a smattering of mechanics, a little metaphysics, and a very false taste in everything"—he was much worse off financially. His Scottish estates were poor, and his immediate financial prospects had not been improved by his marriage to the daughter of Edward Wortley Montagu, a notorious miser. In 1736 she had eloped with Bute. Hence Bute failed to get anything from his father-in-law except advice to continue to live economically in Scotland.

In 1746 Bute decided to return to London. There, despite his poverty, he appeared often in aristocratic society, where he attracted attention by his great physical beauty. The most important outcome of this was an introduction to the Prince of Wales, later George III, who quickly became utterly dependent upon him. After the prince succeeded to the throne in October 1760, his dependence on Bute continued. But although Bute's views completely dominated the King's conduct, he did not become prime minister until May 1762. Then he quickly found the strain of office too great. In April 1763, despite the King's entreaties, Bute resigned. His hysterical excuses of ill health and distaste for politics have no substance; he committed political suicide because he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

For another 3 years Bute retained the confidence of George III, and his influence over the King continued to be a major source of political friction and popular grievance. He was constantly lampooned and caricatured and could not appear in public without risk of injury. Repeatedly the King undertook to end Bute's irresponsible meddling, but not until 1766 did he finally sacrifice the relationship in the interests of governmental stability. Subsequently Bute played little part in active politics, and in 1780 he retired from Parliament to spend the last years of his life in the study of literature and science. He died on March 10, 1792, and was buried on the island of Bute.

Further Reading

There is no modern biography of Bute. A useful study is James A. Lovat-Fraser, John Stuart, Earl of Bute (1912). Fascinating insights into his relationship with George III are provided in Romney Sedgwick, ed., Letters from George III to Lord Bute, 1756-1766 (1939). For background material see Sir Lewis B. Namier, England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930; 2d ed. 1962), and Richard Pares, King George III and the Politicians (1953).

Additional Sources

Lord Bute: essays in re-interpretation, Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1988. □