The Supreme Aristocrat on Trial

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National Portrait Gallery, London
‘Edward Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby’; engraving by D.J. Pound, 1861

The family name and title of Edward Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby, both enjoy a certain renown today. But as the title of Angus Hawkins’s new biography suggests, that is not because of the achievements, significant as they were, of the 14th Earl. Even though he served three times as prime minister—in 1852, 1858–1859, and 1866–1868—and spent a record twenty-two years as head of the Conservative Party, Derby the politician is rarely talked about even in Britain. On this side of the Atlantic, he is completely unknown, except to specialists in Victorian political history. When people do know the name Derby, they usually mean the Derby—the horse race established by the prime minister’s grandfather, the 12th Earl, as the chief event in the British racing season, or else its Kentucky offspring. Fans of hockey know the name Stanley thanks to the Stanley Cup, the trophy donated by the prime minister’s son, Frederick, when he served as governor-general of Canada in the 1890s.

Yet Derby would not necessarily be displeased that sport, rather than politics, is what the world thinks of when it hears his name. For when he was not in Westminster—he served in Parliament from 1822, when he was twenty-three years old, until his death in 1869, first in the Commons, then in the Lords—Derby was a passionate sportsman, addicted to horse racing and shooting. Hawkins’s immensely detailed, nearly week-by-week account of Derby’s parliamentary career is regularly interrupted by bulletins from Epsom and Newmarket, where Derby’s stable of thoroughbreds won stake after stake. “Horses such as Dervish, De Clare, Canezou, Iris, Uriel, and Toxophilite,” Hawkins writes, “brought him much personal pleasure, some financial profit, and considerable prestige.” (Even if there had been no profit, Derby wouldn’t have minded: he was enormously wealthy, one of the largest landowners in England, yet still managed to live far beyond his income.) Ironically, the only trophy that eluded him was the Derby itself.

Much as he loved horses, and spent on them, Derby’s record as a politician is one of constant, lifelong effort, and no small accomplishment. By the early 1830s, when he was chief secretary for Ireland in the reforming Whig government of Lord Grey, he was already considered one of the most promising politicians of his generation. As colonial secretary in 1833, he had the honor of shepherding through Parliament the bill that ended slavery in the British Empire. As prime minister in 1867, Derby, aided by his lieutenant Benjamin Disraeli, delivered the Reform Bill that, more than any other single piece of legislation, turned Britain into a modern democracy. He never gave up on politics, despite terrible disappointments and an affliction of gout that left him, in his later years, a virtual invalid.

Still, Hawkins’s emphasis on both turf and Parliament does capture something fundamental about …

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