John Stuart, third Earl of Bute, who served as Prime Minister from 26 May 1762 to 8 April 1763, was educated at Eton and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, where he was awarded a Degree in civil and public law. He did not undertake the Grand Tour as most of his contemporaries did. Bute was tall, slim and was deemed to be very handsome. He was renowned for his "fine pair of legs", of which he was very vain. He was passionately interested in botany and studied the subject extensively, along with making studies of agriculture and architecture. Prior to his marriage, he was not wealthy and his father-in-law (who was a miser) unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the marriage. Bute acquired all his wife's wealth upon his marriage, in accordance with the law at that time.
In 1747 Bute was introduced to Frederick, Prince of Wales whilst attending Egham races. Bute was asked to make up a foursome at cards; this saw the start of a friendship with the Prince of Wales that laid the foundations of Bute's future personal and political career, although Frederick is reported to have said, "Bute, you are the very man to be enjoy at some small proud German court where there is nothing to do". The Earl of Shelburne described Bute as being "proud, aristocratical pompous, imposing, with a great deal of superficial knowledge, such as is commonly to be met in France and Scotland, chiefly upon matters of natural philosophy, mines, fossils, a smattering of mechanics, a little metaphysics, and a very false taste in everything."
Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute: the country home of the Earls of Bute
In 1751 the Prince of Wales died and the dowager Princess Augusta began to rely heavily on the advice of Bute, to the point where rumours abounded that the two were more than just "friends".
In 1754, Bute bought a house on Kew Green in London and built an extension to accommodate his botanical library. The house had a private gate into the grounds of Kew Palace where he helped Princess Augusta to create Kew Gardens. The following year, Bute was appointed "finishing tutor" to Prince George, the future George III. In 1756, Bute was appointed Groom of the Stole in Prince George's household. On the accession of George III in 1760, Bute became a Privy Counsellor and the following year he was made Secretary of State for the Northern Department . In May 1762 he became Prime Minister and in December of that year began the "Massacre of the Pelhamite Innocents" in which the Dukes of Newcastle and Grafton and the Marquis of Rockingham were dismissed from their Lord Lieutenancies.
Bute's appointment to head the government came at a time when British successes in the Seven Years' War meant that a favourable peace settlement was highly likely. Most of the people in Britain wanted peace so the government's policy potentially had great support; however, politicians were eager to criticise any peace proposals in order to embarrass the government. Peace negotiations were initiated but Bute found himself isolated in parliament since he appeared to be arranging a peace that would bring less than Britain could have achieved. Because he was not a good speaker, Bute decided to publicise his policies through the press, to gain popular support for his peace policies. He chose Smollett as the journalist who was to write in praise of the government's policy in the periodical The Briton. In opposition to The Briton, John Wilkes set up his paper The North Briton in 1762 in which he attacked the government and its policies. Much of the venom produced by Wilkes came because of his expulsion from the Hell Fire Club.
By the end of October 1762 the government had completed the peace preliminaries with the French, forcing Prussia and Austria to conclude peace also, on the basis of the status quo of 1756. The terms of the Peace of Paris, proclaimed in March 1763, were a recognition of victory for Britain even though some people were disappointed in the gains. Pitt the Elder was a particularly virulent opponent of the terms of the treaty. Having been absent from parliament during the negotiations - because of ill health - he returned to attack the government in typical theatrical style. Pitt, dressed in black velvet and swathed in flannel, was carried in the arms of a servant to the Bar of the House of Commons. Despite his attire and emaciated appearance, Pitt was able to speak against the peace terms for 3½ hours.
There were several possible lines of attack on the peace terms and the opposition to the government maximised its opportunity. However, the National Debt made the conclusion of a peace the matter of some urgency. The costs of war did not end with the conclusion of hostilities and there had been no innovation in raising taxes to compensate for the additional expenses of war. The land tax, which had been raised during the war, was to stay at 4/- (four shillings) in the £ instead of being reduced to its usual peacetime level of 3/- in the £. The taxes on malt and beer were continued but Bute decided to increase government revenue by introducing a 4/- per hogshead tax on cider and 4/- a bin on wine. Unfortunately, these taxes were within the jurisdiction of the Excise Service, which was hated: no other form of taxation was so likely to lead to massive opposition. Even worse
- Sir Francis Dashwood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was possibly the least competent minister ever to hold the post and clearly did not understand the figures with which he had to work
- no-one seems to have worked out the anticipated yield of the new tax and therefore its imposition could not be justified on the grounds of it being vital to the economy
- the affairs of every apple grower in the West Country would have to be investigated if the tax was to be collected
- the number of government agents would have had to increase enormously for the tax to be collected. The government was accused of using the tax as a means of increasing its power and influence through nepotism
The government fought for the tax in order to save face; the parliamentary opposition attacked it in order to gain popular support. It was at this time that the myth emerged of the king and Bute plotting to subvert the constitution and introduce a despotism. The opposition used
- Bute's Scottish ancestry
- his name (the 1745 Jacobite rising has been in favour of returning the Stuart royal family to the throne of Britain) and
- his closeness to the Queen Mother (rumours were rife that they were lovers)
to blackguard him. Although the Bill passed through parliament, the opposition played on the discontent of the general public.
The City of London petitioned both Houses of Parliament against the legislation; when these petitions were ignored, the king was petitioned directly, to refuse to sign the Bill. Riots broke out and there were hangings of effigies of Bute - mainly boots. Politicians were stoned in the streets and the mob smashed the windows in Bute's house.
The king hoped that Bute would ride out the storm but the Prime Minister was unable to take any more criticism and personal attacks. On 8 April 1763, Bute resigned as PM, on the grounds that he had always said he would stay in office until peace was achieved. He was relieved to give up public office because he had not had the support of his colleagues, he was extremely unpopular with the public and was greatly disliked in parliament. He was abused in the press as "the Northern Thane" (a reference to Macbeth) and "Sir Pertinax MacSycophant". He was succeeded as PM by George Grenville. Bute remained a friend of the king, continuing to advise him until George III broke with him in 1766.
Bute bought the Luton Hoo estate in Bedfordshire in 1763 and went to live there towards the end of that year although he continued to sit in the House of Lords. However, ill health caused him to travel in Europe between 1768 and 1771. In 1773 he bought land near Christchurch in Hampshire and built Highcliffe House, overlooking the sea. In 1780, he retired from parliament because of his age — he was 67. In November 1790 he slipped and fell about 30 feet down the cliffs at Highcliffe whilst collecting plants. This fall is thought to have contributed to his death in March 1792.
Coats, AM. Lord Bute: an illustrated life of John Stuart, third Earl of Bute 1713-1792. Aylesbury, 1975.
Lovat-Fraser, J.A.John Stuart, Earl of Bute. Cambridge 1912.
Last modified 27 February 2002