Friday, July 7, 2006

Victorian Titan

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (pronounced 'sissil' and 'markiss')

**Peers are of five ranks: duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron. In Scotland, the fifth rank is called a lord of Parliament, as "barons" in Scotland are not peers, but holders of feudal dignities. Baronets, while holders of a hereditary title, are not peers. A woman with the rank of marquess (rare), or the wife of a marquess, is a marchioness, pronounced: Mar-she-on-ess (spoken:Mah-shuh-ness).

From the Khyber Pass on India's North-West Frontier to the Kimberley goldmines in South Africa, from Khartoum on the Upper Nile to Hong Kong on the Chinese coast, the destinies of the British Empire were directed for nearly two decades by a single remarkable brain. Working from his study at Hatfield House, Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903), masterminded the policies and campaigns, secret treaties and jubilee pageantries which brought the British Empire to its zenith in terms of power and prestige.

Thrice Prime Minister between 1885 and 1902, and four times foreign secretary over 22 years, Lord Salisbury seemed to personify the solid, worthy, complacent Victorian Tory statesman. But in fact he was a profoundly unconventional aristocrat, a depressive who was forced into journalism becaused he insisted on marrying for love. Witty, sardonic and intellectually brilliant, he astonished contemporaries by the violence of his speeches and opinions. Disraeli dubbed him "the master of the flout, the jibe and the sneer". Yet in private he was eccentrically charming and as a father he adopted the un-Victorian policy of encouraging his children to be both seen and heard.

In the course of a tumultous career - which saw his 1867 shock resignation from the Cabinet, the Congress of Berlin, the Scramble for Africa, the Jameson Raid and the Boer War - Lord Salisbury saw off threats to his policy from Gladstone and Disraeli, Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II, Cecil Rhodes and Paul Kruger, Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Randolph Churchill, Charles Stewart Parnell and Tsar Nicholas II. Had his diplomatic policy - now misnamed "Splendid Isolation" - been followed after his death, the Empire he championed would not have been fatally weakened by the First World War.

At the end of his 53 year parliamentary career, Queen Victoria even rated Lord Salisbury above Disreali as her greatest Prime Minister, but today he is largely unknown, partly because there has been no definitive biography. Filling this longest and largest historiographical gap, Andrew Roberts presents a life of the statesman, scientist, sceptical polemicist and wit who raised the British name higher than ever before or since.