This spirited engraving is one of the illustrations in A Biographical Memoir of His Late Royal Highness Frederick Duke of York and Albany; commander-in-chief of the forces of Great Britain, &c.&c.&c. by John Watkins. You need to read the text to realise that the martial Duke is not cutting his way towards victory but is escaping while surrounded and in danger of being captured at the Battle of Tourcoing. Yes, it’s that Duke of York, whose second campaign in the Low Countries was no more successful than his first:
The grand old Duke of York, He had ten thousand men. He marched them up to the top of the hill And he marched them down again. And when they were up, they were up. And when they were down, they were down. And when they were only halfway up, They were neither up nor down.
And whose portraits
generally give the appearance of an old buffer who has had at least one bottle too many
and lost a fortune at cards (both of which the duke did frequently). Even “the unerring hand and eye” of Sir Thomas Lawrence (above) can do little more than reveal a sensualist soon to die of dropsy. Add to this a full blown scandal involving the sale of commissions in the army and you could be forgiven for thinking there was little positive to say about the duke. You’d be wrong however. He was the best commander-in-chief Great Britain has ever had. Waterloo owed as much to the Duke of York as it did to the Duke of Wellington.
Frederick Augustus (1763-1827) was the second son of George III. At the age of six months he was appointed Prince Bishop of Osnabruck following the death of the previous Roman Catholic incumbent. At the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 it had been determined that the bishopric should alternate between Roman Catholics and Lutherans and that the Lutheran bishops should be chosen from the younger children of the Electors of Hanover. Opinions vary as to the income generated by Osnabruck which Frederick Augustus controlled from 1783 when he entered into possession. Ian Kelly in Beau Brummel puts it at £45,000. Dr Watkins states improbably that the Duke of York derived “no benefit” from Osnabruck because of the “dissensions” aroused by the circumstances of his election. A reasonable ball park figure is £20,000. This was to be significant in the years of George III’s mental instability since Frederick Augustus alone of all his children wasn’t dependent on the king’s manipulation of the civil list and the monarch’s hereditary income. It certainly cemented his friendship with his older brother who was increasingly at odds with his father. He benefited from this income until 1803 when Napoleon reformed the prince bishopric out of existence, incorporating it into Westphalia.
George III decided early that Frederick Augustus was to have a military career. The boy was gazetted colonel in November 1780. He left at the end of the following month for the University of Gottingen. He didn’t return to England until July 1786 by which time he’d been promoted to lieutenant general and created Duke of York and Albany. His want of experience as a regimental officer was to impact on his performance as an army commander.
In 1791 the duke married Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia. The duke was in debt as usual and Frederica’s money was her main attraction. The marriage was unhappy and produced little enthusiasm at home. Sometimes one can’t help but feel that Dr Watkins has his tongue in his cheek:
In 1793 the duke (as he now was) was promoted to full general and sent to Flanders to command the British contingent in the motley allied army under Coburg that intended to invade revolutionary France and restore the monarchy. The campaign began well. The French were defeated at Neerwinden and driven out of the Austrian Netherlands. Then Coburg set about taking French frontier fortresses. The newly arrived Duke of York was deputed to take Valenciennes. The duke had fully mastered the academic techniques of formal siege craft. After moving forward his batteries in the prescribed manner, the duke launched The Grand Attack on Valenciennes by the Combined Armies under the Command of His Royal Highness the Duke of York, 25 July 1793 depicted below by de Loutherbourg. By all accounts the duke behaved with great personal gallantry.
The success at Valenciennes was the high water mark of the duke’s active military career. In 1794 he suffered a notable defeat at Tourcoing (where we started) and in 1795 the British contingent was evacuated via Bremen. The duke’s second and last campaign was in 1799 when – now a field marshal – he commanded the British contingent in the Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland. It was a complicated campaign that included notable successes (such as the capture of the Dutch fleet) but that was doomed by a fundamental misconception, that the Dutch population would, like the Italian population, rebel against the French occupying forces and overturn the puppet Batavian Republic. The misconception was Pitt’s not the duke’s. The allied force was allowed to withdraw by the Convention of Alkmaar.
The immediate lesson the Duke of York learned from the 1799 campaign was the need to ensure that all field officers were adequately trained. He himself was an example of a man who had attained the rank of colonel without passing through any of the lower ranks. He wasn’t alone in this. Under the purchase system as it then operated it was open to anyone with the necessary means to purchase a lieutenant colonelcy. The duke put an immediate stop to the practice, ordering that no one should be appointed lieutenant colonel who hadn’t served in the army for at least six years. The duke had also been impressed by French riflemen. The creation of a Rifle Brigade under Coote Manningham was another immediate and easy reform.
Other necessary reforms required harder work. The duke instituted a system of monthly returns whereby all units were required to report ration strengths and other details. The regulations and orders of men like Marlborough and Cumberland were updated and simplified and published as General Regulations and Orders for the conduct of His Majesty’s forces in Great Britain. The commissariat “which from time immemorial had been an infinite source of fraud” was subjected to root and branch reform. Work got under way which was to culminate in the nineteen reports of the Commissioners of Military Enquiry.
All this required exceptionally hard work by the duke who, as commander in chief, shared the Horse Guards building with the Secretary of War. His work load intensified in 1804 when vast numbers of men joined various volunteer units in an Army of Reserve formed when French invasion was feared. The duke rarely visited his country house at Oatlands, preferring to spend his evenings gambling and his nights with Mrs Clarke.
Mary Anne Thompson (1776-1852) was briefly married to a stonemason called Clarke. She had a brief career on the stage, probably mainly so as to advertise her charms, though her Portia was much admired. She lived with various men before being picked up, apparently literally off the street, by the Duke of York.
Captain Gronow in his Reminiscences and Recollections dwells at length on Mary Anne, a lady “remarkable for her beauty and her fascinations” whose wit “was piquant and saucy”. After dismissing her own accounts in The Authentic and Impartial Life of Mrs. Mary Anne Clarke and The Authentic Memoirs of Mrs. Clarke (sold to different publishers) “as all her stories were considered apocryphal” the gallant captain gives us his own account of her capture of the duke, and continues:
“Mrs Mary Anne Clarke was soon reconciled to the thought of being the wife of a prince by the left hand, particularly as she found herself assiduously courted by persons of the highest rank, and more especially by military men. A large house in a fashionable street was taken for her, and an establishment on a magnificent scale gave her an opportunity of surrounding herself with persons of a sphere far beyond anything she could in her younger days have dreamt of; her father having been in an honourable trade, and her husband being only a captain in a marching regiment. The duke, delighted to see his fair friend so well received, constantly honoured her dinner-table with his presence, and willingly gratified any wish that she expressed; and he must have known (and for this he was afterwards highly censured) that her style of living was upon a scale of great expense, and that he himself contributed little towards it. The consequence was that the hospitable lady eventually became embarrassed, and knew not which way to turn to meet her outlay. It was suggested to her that she might obtain from the duke commissions in the army, which she could easily dispose of at a good price.”
Like all of Gronow this is as unreliable factually – Mary Anne’s father was a stonemason and her husband was never an officer – as it is spot on as social history. My edition of Gronow is that of 1892 which is illustrated by Joseph Grego. Its introductory chapter includes a description of Gronow himself taken from de Villemessant’s Memoires d’un Journalistie. The biter was bit as follows:
“Mr Gronow, when I knew him, was small, spare, and about fifty years of age.; his hair was thinning, and he wore a small moustache, of which the edge was daily shaved, which did not disguise the circumstance that the Captain’s latent vanity had recourse to a brown dye. He always wore a blue tight-fitting coat, closely buttoned, just allowing a narrow line of white waistcoat to be visible.”
Another Gronow story concerns the bankruptcy of Hamlet the jeweller who “had advanced money to the Duke of York, and had received as security property in Nova Scotia, consisting chiefly of mines, which, when he began to work them, turned out valueless, after entailing enormous expense.” From which we deduce that the duke was often strapped for cash. But keeping Mary Anne on short commons was very unwise. Apart from 20 servants, 10 horses, 2 coaches and 18 Gloucester Place itself, he provided her with only £100 a month (a miserly £8000 or thereabouts in today’s money). Barely enough to buy a fur muff.
Fortunately for Mary Anne – unfortunately for the duke – she had parted on friendly terms with William Dowler, an army agent, and other gentlemen with army connections with whom she had previously been intimate. They spread the word that Mary Anne could persuade the duke to gazette promotions for less than the rate laid down in the army regulations. The point being that the duke could arrange for a promotion to be granted gratis and for merit, leaving Mary Anne and her fellow conspirators to pocket the balance. Dr Watkins explains it thus:
On 27th January 1809 Gwyllym Lloyd Wardle MP presented to the House of Commons particulars of the charges against the Duke of York. The House went into committee on the subject. The duke was acquitted of taking bribes by a majority of 278 to 196. Thinking correctly that the paucity of the government majority made his position untenable the duke resigned. From then on the case against him unravelled. In July 1809 Francis Wright, a furniture manufacturer, brought a case against Wardle alleging non-payment of bills for the furnishing of Mary Anne’s house. During the course of the trial it became abundantly clear that Mary Anne and Wardle were good friends who had acted in collusion against the duke. Wardle made matters worse by suing someone for libel for saying as much and losing his case. On 29th May 1811 the duke was reinstated as commander in chief.
Why, you may ask, did the full weight of outraged authority not fall upon Mary Anne? As the duke well knew she had an ace up her sleeve that she hadn’t yet played. Neither of her Authentic Memoirs had quoted directly from the large number of letters the duke had sent to her. Apart from familiarities he is supposed to have expressed himself fully and frankly about various other members of the royal family. According to the old Dictionary of National Biography:
“Mrs. Clarke next proposed to publish the letters she had received from her princely lover. This had to be stopped at all risks, and Sir Herbert Taylor bought up the letters, and offered Mrs. Clarke 7,000l. down and a pension of 400l. a year, and for this consideration the printed edition was destroyed, with the exception of one copy deposited at Drummond’s bank. Her next publication, ‘A Letter to the Right Hon. William Fitzgerald,’ brought her into trouble, and she was condemned in 1813 to nine months’ imprisonment for libel.”
Stung by The Modern Circe and other unflattering cartoons, Mary Anne spent some of her £7000 having a bust made by the sculptor, Lawrence Gahagan. In this she is depicted as Clytie, deserted lover of Helios the sun god, transformed into a sunflower and following her lover as he travels though the sky. Not quite in the spirit of agreement perhaps.
Apart from this, both parties were true to the agreement. After her stay in jail, Mary Anne retired to France where she lived a quiet life, though, if Gronow is to be believed, the Marquess of Londonderry was a frequent visitor. Her pension continued until she died at Boulogne in 1852. It appears then to have been transferred to her daughter Ellen. Possibly this was because Prince Albert believed – as many other people did – that Ellen was the daughter of the Duke of York. The dates don’t in fact fit since Ellen was nearly six when the duke met Mary Anne. But Prince Albert won’t have inquired too closely. Ellen married L-M du Maurier, a failed inventor. Her son George was a cartoonist for Punch. His son Gerald du Maurier was a famous actor manager whose daughter was Daphne du Maurier the author. According to Daphne du Maurier in Mary Anne, her great great grandmother’s last words were, “It is high time we had another party.”
In 1811, after his older brother was appointed Prince Regent, the Duke of York was restored to the command of the army. Like other biographers of the duke, Dr Watkins gives little space to the final fifteen years of his life. Of just over a hundred pages in all, ten are taken up with the obsequies of Princess Frederica Charlotte who died at Oatlands on 6th August 1820. The duke, who had spent as little time as possible with her while she was alive, was punctilious in observing her wishes which included a desire to be buried in state at Weybridge parish church. Her main achievement was the construction of a grotto of shells costing upwards of £12,000. Like many eccentrics she was much loved by the locals. Dr Watkins attributes this to her love of dogs, remarking that “it was no uncommon thing to see her in the park surrounded by thirty or forty of these animals….”
Elizabeth Manners Duchess of Rutland was a lot more striking than Princess Frederica. She was the last pash of the duke’s life and who can blame him? She was famous for having rebuilt Belvoir Castle at a cost of £82,000 after a disastrous fire in 1818. The duke, who hadn’t previously displayed any great interest in architecture, went along with her when she suggested the building of York House at St James, the foundation stone of which she laid on 17th June 1825.
Neither she nor the Duke of York were to see the building finished. She died on 29th November 1825 aged 45. The duke hurried up to Belvoir to console her husband John. The two men remained good friends. The Duke of York died on 5th January 1827 at the Duke of Rutland’s London house on Arlington Street. He had lived there for some months in increasingly poor health requiring him to spend day and night in a specially designed chair
He was buried in state and lauded as “Our Nation’s Hope, the Father of the Army.”