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Disraeli’s policy during the Bulgarian Crisis of 1876 Essay

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To what extent was Gladstone’s religion the driving force behind his attempt to ‘sabotage’ Disraeli’s policy during the Bulgarian Crisis of 1876?

‘Of all the Bulgarian atrocities perhaps the greatest’1 was the label Disraeli ascribed to Gladstone’s 1876 pamphlet The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, which ‘concentrated into a single utterance a profoundly excited public mood struggling for articulation’.2 With the publication of this pamphlet, Gladstone effectively undermined Disraeli’s policy of unwavering support for the Turks in the face of the Bulgarian massacres, and emerged at the forefront of the Bulgarian Agitation.

The popular pressure that ensued ultimately forced Disraeli to abandon any overt military support of the Ottoman Empire, and to declare neutrality in the issue. While the consequences of Gladstone’s action are known, his reasons for involving himself in the debate are questionable. Gladstone’s fervent religious beliefs could have provided the main impetus for his involvement, but other arguments, such as his intervention being an anti-Conservative political strategy, are perhaps more plausible given an examination of the evidence.

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In examining this issue, it is important to understand the depth of contempt that Gladstone and Disraeli held for each other’s foreign policy. It was not their principles that differed: both believed in a policy of non-intervention in European affairs except for in those that could impact British interests. However, their methods were entirely different. Disraeli believed very strongly in the ruling right and superiority of the established aristocracy in Britain, and this certainly transferred across to his foreign policy, as illustrated by his endorsement of Austrian aristocratic Habsburg rule in Italy in 1851. He felt that Britain had a duty to Europe as the wealthiest and most powerful Empire, and that this would best be served by preserving British influence and furthering the spread of the British Empire.

Gladstone also wished to preserve British interests, but often found this to conflict with his nationalism, ‘sympathy with the unalienable rights of smaller nations to their nationhood’3. In terms of Italy, therefore, Gladstone could not support Austrian rule because it contravened his nationalistic beliefs, despite the fact that Habsburg domination could have proved more beneficial to Britain. This is mirrored in his stance in the arbitration of the Alabama settlement: Gladstone appeared to capitulate to American demands as opposed to supporting British interests, as he believed that it was the most moral course of action. It was from these differences that the deep opposition to each other’s foreign policy was born. Disraeli saw Gladstone’s policy as counter-productive in terms of British interests, accusing him of wanting to dismantle the Empire, while Gladstone found Disraeli to be far too much of an imperialist and insensitive to the rights of foreign nations.

Disraeli not only poured scorn on Gladstone’s foreign affairs, but also disliked his dogmatic religion. It is possible that the modern focus on Gladstone as a highly religious politician was brought about by Disraeli’s very public attacks on his fervent religious beliefs. Disraeli held nothing but scorn for Gladstone’s religion, and talked with disdain of him always ‘preaching, praying, speechifying or scribbling’4. For Disraeli, Gladstone used his religion to mask his true intentions – to appear pious while actually manipulating and manoeuvring his way through politics. Perhaps it is Disraeli’s emphasis on ridiculing Gladstone’s religious beliefs that has inspired the concept that he was first and foremost a highly religious man.

However, the general consensus is that Gladstone’s Evangelical upbringing led to a strong sense of religious morality that could be said to have permeated all aspects of his life, including his politics. In modern Britain it would rarely be expected for a Prime Minister to admit to religion colouring their policies: as Alastair Campbell famously declared, ‘we don’t do God’. Blair’s revelation that he ultimately looked to religion for his decision in declaring war on Iraq was frowned upon by many who felt that personal beliefs and convictions should not have an impact on decisions that will affect whole countries. However, in the far more religious Britain of 1876 this was not so controversial. Religious issues permeated every aspect of life, including law and politics.

The attitudes of the day are clearly demonstrated in the Bradlaugh Case, in which confirmed atheist and elected MP for Northampton Charles Bradlaugh was barred from taking up his parliamentary seat because of his refusal to take the religious Oath of Allegiance required for entry. This issue was disputed regularly in parliament, showing the height of religious feeling of the time. Gladstone in particular made no secret of his religion, or of his beliefs that it was entirely applicable to politics. In his book The State in its Relations to the Church (1838), Gladstone raised the idea that religion and politics were inextricably linked: the Church was the conscience of the State, while the State had a duty to lend its consistent, unwavering support to the Anglican Church. Although his views later changed to reject the exclusivity of the Church of England, throughout his life he retained the belief that religion should be firmly ingrained in the running of the country.

Gladstone’s beliefs caused him to take an ethical stance in foreign policy, which contrasted greatly with Disraeli’s firmly imperialist ‘Beaconsfieldism’ that attempted to secure the best outcome for Britain, sentiments that prefigured the practical criticism of mixing religion and politics today. Disraeli and Gladstone held the greatest of contempt for each other in their foreign affairs, each believing the other’s policy to be entirely nonsensical and unworkable, attitudes that stemmed from their differing interests.

While Disraeli held British interests at heart, Gladstone had ‘a catholic largeness of vision and sympathy embracing Europe as a cultural and spiritual community’5 stemming from his views on the unity of the Christian church, and believed that European affairs should be conducted with the best interests of the community at heart. Although Disraeli felt that it was necessary to support the Turks despite their actions in Bulgaria in order to deter Russia from gaining power on territory on the pretext of moral intervention, Gladstone would have found this inexcusable according to his personal moral code and ‘European sense’, principally derived from ‘the intense fervour of his Christianity’6: as Magnus perceptively states, Gladstone felt that Disraeli’s ‘interpretation of [British] interests excluded considerations of justice, or of humanity’7.

It was not only Gladstone’s ‘European sense’ that would have rendered support of the Turks inexcusable, but the very nature of the events taking place in Bulgaria. Gladstone consistently cast himself as a moral crusader in his policies, particularly regarding Ireland and in his opposition and criticisms of ‘Beaconsfieldism’. Following the brutal massacre of 15,000 Bulgarians, Jenkins’ argument that the moral Gladstone was ‘spontaneously seized with a passionate sympathy for the sufferings of the Balkan Christian communities’8 seems plausible.

Gladstone would most likely have been incensed by Disraeli’s initial denial of the rumours of the massacres, already believing Disraeli’s foreign policy to be aggressive, expensive and unprincipled. However, Abbot refutes Jenkins’ claims in stating that ‘the part played…by Gladstone’s ‘high moral principles’ has tended to be exaggerated’9, and states that the vast majority of his moral outbursts in terms of foreign policy were made when he was in opposition. As a moral stance in foreign policy was a common one for the opposition to take at the time, this indicates that Gladstone’s intervention was possibly not entirely fuelled by religion.

Gladstone’s role as a cabinet minister during the Crimean War could have provided another factor in his intervention. The Treaty of Paris that brought the war to a close increased the necessity for co-operation within the concert of Europe, as it had substituted a ‘European conscience expressed by the collective guarantee and concerted action of the European powers’10 for a pre-Crimean war guarantee of the protection of Christian minorities by the Russians. Turkey had promised better treatment for the Christians of the Ottoman Empire, and Gladstone felt morally obliged to ensure that the terms of the Treaty were not breached, particularly with reference to the protection of the Balkan Christians. Following Russia’s breach of the Black Sea clauses in 1870, Gladstone was even more determined to ensure that the European Concert continued to function in its protection of the minorities.

It seems unlikely that Gladstone wanted to preserve the terms of the Treaty of Paris for purely political reasons, as the maintenance of the balance of power within Europe required Russia to be contained, not encouraged to expand into the Balkans supposedly in order to protect the inhabitants. It is possible then that Gladstone intervened for the same reason as the Russians gave: in order to protect the Christians from an alien nation with an alien religion that mistreated them. A sample from his pamphlet gives a clear indication of his attitude towards the Turks – ‘Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and their Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall I hope clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned’11.

While this has racist overtones, it is difficult to determine whether this is due to a difference in religion. Jenkins raises the possibility that Gladstone could have felt sympathetic towards the Christians, but quashes it with the statement that ‘Gladstone was stronger on the rhetoric of indignation than on detailed knowledge of what was happening in the Balkans’12, never having visited the area or displayed any previous interest in it. Indeed, on the subject of previous massacres of Christians, Gladstone had remained suspiciously quiet, despite episodes like the massacre of the Maronite Christians in 1860 which left between 7,000 and 11,000 dead. It seems unlikely that a wild desire to protect those of the same religion only appeared during this particular occurrence, particularly as Gladstone failed to intervene when the news of the massacres initially broke, waiting another two months to bring himself into the limelight.

Although Feuchtwanger claims that Gladstone’s ‘life in politics was a constant quest for God’13, the historian’s emphasis on Gladstone as a singularly moral, religious politician is overly simplistic, and does not take into account Gladstone’s practical, political nature. There is an obvious practical angle for Gladstone’s participation in the Bulgarian Agitation: propping up a declining Ottoman Empire was not a viable long term policy for Britain. The tradition of Palmerstonian foreign policy supported Turkish rule in the East, partially in order to maintain a balance of power in Europe, but mostly as a matter of self-interest: in order to protect trade routes in the Mediterranean. Particularly following the Crimean War, the expansion of a hostile Russia would have been detrimental to British trade and to British power and influence within Europe. In the short term a strong Turkey would act as an efficient barrier to Russian expansion, but the Ottoman Empire had become increasingly corrupt and weak; the Bulgarian uprising and subsequent massacre was not the only such occurrence.

Moreover, overtly supporting the Ottomans would anger the Dreikaiserbund of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia: although it was best not to allow the alliance of these three countries to grow too powerful, neither was it sensible to pursue a policy of mindless support for the Turks whose influence was already declining. Prior to the confirmation of the truth of the massacres, Disraeli, advised by the pro-Turkish British ambassador Elliot, had made moves towards supporting the Turks against Russia, and even went so far as to dismiss the rumours of the massacres as ‘coffee house babble’. In sabotaging Disraeli’s policy by stirring up public opinion, Gladstone effectively limited the options open to the prime minister and possibly prevented him from forming a dangerous alliance with Turkey.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that Gladstone in fact saw a better solution to the problem of Russian expansion than bolstering Turkey. From his attitudes towards Italy it is clear that Gladstone favoured nationalism, and believed that all people had the right to national self-determination. Blake claims that Gladstone was ‘hostile to any sort of forward policy’14, an unnecessarily harsh statement from the pro-Disraeli biographer: in fact, in supporting nationalism, Gladstone proposed a solution ahead of his time.

The creation of Balkan states was the solution used in 1935 to contain Russia, but it would have been equally applicable here. It could be argued that Gladstone was contradicting Disraeli’s policy because he could see a flaw in the reasoning. It is evident from his pamphlet that he wanted the Turks removed from Bulgaria, but further to this, Magnus claims that ‘he repeatedly urged that the matter should be taken out of Russian hands’15 and that this was a solution more ‘realistic’16 than Disraeli’s. Ever politically expedient, Gladstone intended to attack British support of the Turks as well as advocating Russian containment, reasserting the balance of power in Europe.

Of course, it is entirely possible that Gladstone was simply launching a direct attack on the policies of the government without any real moral or religious reasoning. A response not born out of righteous indignation or passionate sympathy for the suffering of the Bulgarians but of an attempt to make the government appear weak or badly led would explain his delay in joining the Agitation.

Gladstone’s particular rivalry with Disraeli would have provided motive enough for such an attack: the two men held the greatest contempt for each other, stemming from the repeal of the Corn Laws and the split of the Conservative party in 1846. Although their practical aims were often remarkably similar in foreign affairs, their ideologies differed vastly and each held the other’s principles in utter contempt. It would not be beyond the bounds of rational thought to assume that in sabotaging Disraeli’s policy the only thing that Gladstone intended to do was to make him look like a fool.

It could be argued that even in this there was a religious motivation. Disraeli’s Jewish background has led to the suggestion that his anti-Russian foreign policy had more to do with anti-Christian feeling. Feuchtwanger claims that Gladstone was aware of this and distrusted Disraeli for it: ‘all his deep suspicions about Disraeli were aroused; he now even suspected him of being influenced by Judaic sympathy for the Turks and hatred of Christians’17, although Blake dismisses such suspicions as ‘absurd’18. At a stretch, the poor relationship of the two politicians could also be said to have its roots in their differing religious views. Gladstone may have resented Disraeli’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity, which could be interpreted as only having been undertaken for social gain and not true faith.

Shannon suggests that Gladstone’s return to the political arena could have been for selfish reasons; that he wanted to restore his ‘bond of moral rapport with the ‘masses”19 and adds that ‘it was less a case of Gladstone exciting popular pressure than popular pressure exciting Gladstone’20: rather than Gladstone carefully crafting his attack on Disraeli, he merely saw an opportunity to join ‘the virtuous passion’21 sweeping the nation and manipulate it to his advantage. Again, this would explain the delay between the beginning of the Agitation and Gladstone’s involvement. His action in publishing the pamphlet drew him back to the forefront of political life, and his continuing focus on the Midlothian campaign throughout the next four years was an important factor in ensuring his re-election as Prime Minister in 1880.

Many historians agree with Shannon’s interpretation that Gladstone wanted to ‘reforge his links with….mass audiences’22, but disagree on the reasoning for this. Shannon and Blake are both of the opinion the Gladstone simply seized upon the opportunity to ‘take part in…a moral crusade’23 in an attempt to inject himself back into the contemporary political field. Although the consequences of his action suggest that this is a realistic motive, and that he could have chosen to speak out against Disraeli to ensure his own self-advancement, this does seem unlikely considering Gladstone’s character; Blake’s portrayal of Gladstone is excessively negative, probably due to his pro-Disraeli sentiments.

The perhaps more reliable Jenkins contradicts these claims of intervention for self-advancement, as ‘It did not follow that what he did was contrived for his own convenience’24 and claiming that he ‘was driven on Bulgaria by the same sort of elemental force which had seized him at the time of his Neapolitan pamphlets’25. This is a far more accurate judgement given the evidence: Gladstone constantly looked to his moral principles in seeking to do what was best for Britain and for Europe, and it seems unlikely that he would have stirred up such a commotion merely to return himself to the forefront of political affairs.

Shannon states that Gladstone’s ‘first love had been the Church, and to the Church he remained ever faithful’26, but despite the politician’s overt Christianity historians are unable to agree on the extent to which his religion impacted his policies. In terms of his reaction to the Bulgarian Atrocities alone, numerous theories have been put forward as to the cause: his animosity towards Disraeli, his strong belief in nationalism, a wish to unite with the masses protesting a cause. Although these theories are superficially disparate, a closer examination reveals that they are all underpinned by Gladstone’s strong sense of morality. This morality caused him to reject Disraeli’s policies as unprincipled, to campaign for the creation of the Balkan states and to view Europe as a spiritual community that Britain had an obligation to protect and preserve. Ultimately, Gladstone’s politics were motivated by morality; a morality derived from his fundamental, unwavering religious beliefs.


1 Blake, R., Disraeli, St. Martin’s, 1967, p.602

2 Shannon, R.T., Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation 1876, Nelson, 1963, p.110

3 Abbot, B.H., Gladstone and Disraeli, Collins, 1986, p.95


5 Shannon, R.T., Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation 1876, Nelson, 1963, p.4

6 Shannon, R.T., Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation 1876, Nelson, 1963, p.5

7 Magnus, P., Gladstone, Penguin Books, 2001, p.240

8 Jenkins, R., Gladstone, Macmillan, 2002, p.401

9 Abbot, B.H., Gladstone and Disraeli, Collins, 1986, p.22

10 Magnus, P., Gladstone, Penguin Books, 2001, p.239

11 Feuchtwanger, E.J., Gladstone, British Political Biography, 1975, p.183

12 Jenkins, R., Gladstone, Macmillan, 2002, p.404

13 Feuchtwanger, E.J., Gladstone, British Political Biography, 1975, p.13

14 Blake, R., Disraeli, St Martin’s, 1967, p.760

15 Magnus, P., Gladstone, Penguin Books, 2002, p.241

16 Ibid.

17 Feuchtwanger, E.J., Gladstone, British Political Biography, 1975, p.181

18 Blake, R., Disraeli, St Martin’s, 1967, p.600

19 Shannon, R.T., Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation, 1876, Nelson, 1963, p.13

20 Ibid. p.110

21 Ibid. p.107

22 Jenkins, R., Gladstone, Macmillan, 2002, p.406

23 Blake, R., Disraeli, St Martin’s, 1967, p.600

24 Jenkins, R., Gladstone, Macmillan, 2002, p.401

25 loc. cit.

26 Shannon, R.T., Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation 1876, Nelson, 1963, p.3

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