In history

This December marks the 217th birthday of Benjamin Disraeli one of the most fascinating people to hold the office of prime minister. To mark the occasion, let’s look at the life and times of Queen Victoria’s favourite PM.

As we mentioned, Disraeli was a favourite of Queen Victoria, but there is much more to him than being a close friend to Britain’s best-known monarch. He was a novelist, a statesman, an aristocrat and held numerous high ranking positions in government – quite the feat for someone who started out as a social outcast. Here’s everything you need to know about Benjamin Disraeli.

Background

Benjamin Disraeli was actually born Benjamin D’Israeli. His parents were both Sephardic Jews, with his father Isaac hailing from Italy and his mother, Maria from Spain. Benjamin was their only son and was born on 21st December 1804 in Bloomsbury, London. His parents had made their way to London where Isaac’s father held important roles in the Jewish community.

Even though both his parents were Jewish and Disraeli would at times identify as both a Jew and a Christian, he became an Anglican at the age of 12 when his parents left Judaism after a despute at the Bevis Marks synagogue. It was a fortuitous decision for Benjamin however, as up until 1858, Jews were excluded from sitting in parliament.

Although the Disraeli family can hardly be described as poor, they were not members of the aristocracy and this was something that would hamper Disraeli throughout his political career. His peers saw him as a social outside because he was not part of the aristocracy, however, his family were wealthy enough to send him to private school where he received an extensive education.

Benjamin the writer

Like many of us, Disraeli had no idea what he wanted out of life.
He tried several different career paths, including trying to start his own daily newspaper and trying to work in stocks and shares. In 1824 he lost everything he owned when his shares in South American mining crashed, it took him almost 20 years to recover. He was however an avid reader and writer and wrote his first story when he was 15 years old. This was something he continued to do throughout his life, publishing many novels and essays. It wasn’t long before he had a reputation for being a bit of a literary dandy, he liked to dress ostentatiously in homage to his idol Lord Byron and he got himself into debt trying to impress his peers in literary circles. When he was 20, he had his first commercial success with his novel Vivian Grey which he published anonymously. When he was discovered to be the author he received negative feedback which badly effected his mental health.

Benjamin the politician

Four years after a mental breakdown, Disraeli launched his political career, something that would be a great success. It took him four attempts to win his first seat, finally reaching parliament in 1837 as the Tory MP for Maidstone.

His clear and concise speaking style won him many supporters and by 1852, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of the most senior positions in parliament. This was even after he told the prime minister that he didn’t know anything about finance! It was a role he would continue for three more governments and served more than 16 years in the job.

His friendship with Queen Victoria contributed greatly to him becoming Prime Minister. He served as chancellor under Lord Derby and through this position became acquainted with the queen who enjoyed his company and flirtatious nature. When Lord Derby resigned, Queen Victoria asked him to be the next Prime Minister, a role he would hold twice, first in 1868 and then later in 1874 at the age of 70.

He wasn’t just an influential figure in Britain either, he was well known internationally too, being one of the key players in acquiring British shares in the Suez Canal. He remains the only British Prime Minister to have been of Jewish birth.

Benjamin the Conservative

One of Disraeli’s biggest political achievements was founding the idea of modern progressive conservatism. He was a supporter of One Nation Conservatism where he sought to create an alliance between the land owners and the every day working man. Even though he swapped his elaborate costumes after rising the ranks of the Tory party, turning instead to wearing black and grey – but in the plushest fabrics of course.

He is famous for a number of prudent quotes including “The palace cannot rest if the cottage is unhappy” indicating that the key to a stable society was keeping the working people happy and prosperous. He continued to write and attacked the wealthy in society in his novels Coningsby and Sybil.

Despite rising quickly in politics, his Jewish heritage and lack of social standing limited his success and caused many of his peers to mock and distrust him. When he first started getting into politics, he had a sponsor, the Tory Leader, Lord Bentinck who helped him purchase Hughenden Manor, where he then lived with his beloved wife Mary Anne.

Benjamin vs William

Disraeli’s biggest political rival was William Gladstone, who was a member of the Liberals the opposition party to the Tories at the time. The pair would swap roles, with both of them taking on the job of Chancellor and Prime Minister. In fact, Gladstone succeeded him as Prime Minister after an election defeat in 1868 and Disraeli took over from Gladstone when he returned in 1874. Their rivalry was so intense that on being replaced as Chancellor by Gladstone, Disraeli decided not to return his ceremonial robes, instead keeping them. They’re on display at his former mansion in Buckinghamshire!

Benjamin and the Queen

Disraeli maintained a close friendship with Queen Victoria who made him an Earl in 1876. She initially didn’t like him because of his political views and because he opposed Robert Peel who was a favourite of hers, but after he bestowed flattery after flattery the pair became close friends. It is said that their friendship was closer than that of any of her other Prime Ministers, except perhaps her first. In fact, it was Disraeli who introduced the bill that would make Queen Victoria Empress of India.

He goes by many names…

Over the years Benjamin Disraeli went by several different titles. He changed his name from D’Israeli to Disraeli to appear less foreign but was also known as Viscount Hughenden of Hughenden (the name of his mansion in Buckinghamshire), Earl of Beaconsfield and to his close friends, Dizzy. When introducing himself to new people, he would present himself as Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield and Viscount Hughenden.

Benjamin the husband

In 1839 Disraeli married the widow Mary Anne Lewis who was 12 years older than him. It was initially believed that he had married her for her money, but in later years they would come to cherish one other and were close for the duration of their 30 year marriage until she died.

Mary Anne herself once said: “Dizzy married me for my money but if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love.”

Benjamin the favourite

For some time the anniversary of his death was celebrated as a public holiday known as Primrose Day. He was so beloved at the time of his death that Queen Victoria offered his family the opportunity to have a State Funeral, though they refused, choosing a smaller affair at Hughenden. Queen Victoria was not allowed to attend because of protocol, but did send primroses (his favourite flowers) and visited his grave to place a wreath four days later.

Even Gladstone, who was Prime Minister at the time of Disraeli’s death, spoke highly of his rival in the House of Commons and had a memorial to Disraeli built in Westminster Abbey.

Find out more about Benjamin Disraeli by visiting his former home, Hughenden which is now managed by the National Trust, the Houses of Parliament in London, Westminster Abbey or Bevis Marks Synagogue.

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