John Stuart, Earl of Bute, the UK's first prime minister

23 January 2023
John Gartside explores the life of John Stuart, the UK’s first Scottish prime minister.

John Stuart was born on 25 May 1713 in Edinburgh, to James Earl of Bute, and Anne Campbell. Bute was fortunate enough to be born into the, Earldom of Bute, an honour bestowed on his grandfather.

Like many other aristocrats of his time he attended Eton school, where the year before joining upon his father’s death in 1723, he inherited the Earldom of Bute. In 1730, he finished his studies at Eton, and attended the Universities of Groningen and Leiden in the Netherlands, graduating in 1734 with a degree in civil law.

After a short stint as a Scottish representative peer between the years 1737 and 1741, he went back to his estates to indulge his passion in botany and to live a peaceful aristocratic life.  At this time he also became the first President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. 

Politically, all of Bute’s political achievements were effectively made due to the close and established connections he made with royalty and the upper classes. In 1747, Bute made his most valuable connection yet, Frederick the Prince of Wales and father of the future King George III. The two of them, from the moment they met, established a close and invaluable friendship which for Bute most definitely proved to be extremely useful, due to the plethora of opportunities this created for him.

Royal connections

After the death of Bute’s close friend Frederick in 1751, he was appointed to be the tutor to Frederick’s son, George III. This partnership ultimately led to the pair building a strong rapport, further cementing Bute’s place in the upper class and politics through the fact that he was now the advisor to one of the most powerful and influential men in the Union.

George’s trust for Bute resulted in making him the Secretary of State in March of 1761. Despite the magnitude and difficulty of this secretarial position, George needed him to go one step further and left him with the laborious task of removing the dominant Whigs from power and to help formulate a treaty in order to create peace with France, and hopefully end the Seven Years War, which by then had had taken a heavy toll both financially and mortality wise. 

From there he sided with Thomas Pelham Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, to remove William Pitt the Elder, who at the time was Secretary of State for the Southern Department but was seen by many as more powerful than the Prime Minister, out of power. He then turned his back on the newly appointed Prime Minister Thomas Pelham Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle and forced his resignation.

Despite this adding to the King’s penchant for Bute, throughout this process Bute built up much hatred against him, as he effectively ousted the popular Whig party from parliament, and as well as that, him being Scottish amongst an English crowd did most definitely irritate more rather than less. 

The UK’s first Scottish prime minister

However, on 26 May 1762, John Stuart 3rd Earl of Bute, officially became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. His appointment was not only significant for the fact he became the first Scottish Prime Minister, but also because he became the first ever Tory Prime Minister. After a few rather uneventful first few months of governing, Bute scored his most notable moment as Prime Minister, when in the February of 1763 he helped negotiate and sign the Treaty of Paris, ending the heinous Seven Years War between Britain and France. 

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The negative effect of this war in the UK was worsened by the need for increased military levels across the colonies, due to events such as the American Revolution. Mass financial instability led to Bute having to introduce the hugely unpopular cider tax of 1763. The tax meant that every hogshead of cider was taxed at four shillings, a desperate plea to help repair what was an almighty debt. Additional tax being a concept much disliked by the majority, along with much other negativity and hatred surrounding him, eventually led to his resignation in the April of 1763, less than a year after taking office. 

During the time of his resignation, Bute purchased the English country house Luton Hoo for a little under £100,000. The accomplished architect Robert Adam, under instructions from the Earl of Bute, designed the house to be in the same glory as it is found today. Despite the plans never being fulfilled and a fire in March of 1771 the house the house is still seen to be one of the most beautiful in the country, hence the plethora of films and television programmes having been shot there.

Despite being happily married to Mary Montagu in the year 1736, rumours and suspicions were being reported of Bute having an affair with Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, the widow of his close friend prince Frederick of Wales and father of King George III. Although the rumours were brushed off, this was inevitably one of the reasons for his downfall. With Mary he had eleven children, including his eldest son John Stuart 1st Marquess of Bute, an MP between the years 1766 and 1776.

After his resignation, due to his continued close friendship with George III Bute was still consulted on key issues and did to a certain extent have a high level of influence amongst politics in the UK. Dislike of his somewhat secret influence in politics, despite his resignation as Prime Minister, lead to the relative powers of the monarch on a political scale being debated heavily in Parliament.

Most probably to get away from the hectic political world in which he was absorbed, botany once again became Bute’s foremost occupation. The success he culminated in this field later on earned him the privilege of having the plants ‘Butea’ and ‘Stewartia’ named after him. Furthermore the position of Ranger of Richmond Park was given to him, a position which he held until his death, another testament to his royal friendship.

Following a fall off a cliff he experienced in his Hampshire estate, health became a paramount concern. He died approximately a year and a half later in his London property. He is buried in St Mary’s chapel in the town of Rothesay, situated in his earldom on the Isle of Bute. Despite him being a much disliked figure I believe he very much deserves his place in the history books for being not only the first Scottish Prime Minister but also the first Tory Prime minister.

About the author

John Gartside is a keen history student at Epsom College, Surrey.