Battle of Fontenoy
William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland
Since March 1745 the Captain General of the British forces in Flanders had been George II’s son Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. The duke had been born at Leicester House, located on the north side of Leicester Square in London, on 15 April 1721 (OS), the first surviving Hanoverian prince to be born in Britain. In his early years this and the name chosen for him seems to have made him a popular royal figure, locally at least, as the duke’s early biographer Andrew Henderson recounts: ‘He was baptized by the name of William, a name very propitious for England, for Holland, and in short for the protestant cause: the birth of a son born to the Royal family, and among ourselves, was singularly pleasing to the public, and the more so on account of the name given him.’ Unlike his grandfather and father, English was William’s first language, but like most European princes the duke spoke several, including German and French. Contemporary descriptions of the young prince suggest a character that was naturally measured and not prone to impulsive reactions or responses.
Unlike his elder brother Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, William was adored by King George and Queen Caroline and, as the relationship between Frederick and his parents disintegrated, so their younger son increasingly became the particular focus of their attention and love. Many theories have been put forward as to why the Hanoverian monarchs invariably hated their heirs. The fact that Frederick had been left in Hanover on the accession of his grandfather in 1714 (he was only seven at the time) to act as the representative of the dynasty in their German domains is unlikely to have assisted familial bonding. He was only brought to London in 1728 – despite becoming the British heir apparent in 1727 – and as a result seems to have held a very bitter grudge against his father. Prince Frederick, also unlike his brother, became and in turn encouraged the perception that he was a safe focus for any opposition to his father: safe, in that anyone paying court to Frederick could not be accused of being anti-Hanover or a Jacobite, whether or not that is exactly what they were. As a result Frederick became the unlikely focus for disenfranchised Tories as well as the Whig opposition. Frederick appeared to delight in opposing the king in everything. It was reported by the courtier John, Lord Hervey, that on her deathbed in 1737 the queen took leave of all her children, excepting the Prince of Wales, and ‘“As for you, William,” continued she to the duke, “you know I have always loved you tenderly, and placed my chief hope in you.”’ According to Hervey, the queen then urged her teenage son to
show your gratitude to me in your behaviour to the King; be a support to your father, and double your attention to make up for the disappointment and vexation he must receive from your profligate and worthless brother. It is in you only I hope for keeping up the credit of our family when your father shall be no more. Attempt nothing ever against your brother, and endeavor to mortify him no way but by showing superior merit.
However, despite his toxic relationship with his father, Frederick wanted to be seen to be British and patriotic. He was a great supporter of the arts, and it is to him that we owe the existence of the patriotic song, ‘Rule, Britannia!’, from the masque Alfred, the text by the Scotsman James Thomson set to music by the Englishman Thomas Arne.
Despite the extreme contrast in the widowed King’s attitude towards his two sons, surprisingly perhaps this did not completely damage the relationship between the brothers – at least from the young duke’s point of view. Certainly William had no thought of taking advantage of his father’s partiality for him. Regarding Frederick’s expected assumption to the throne, Horace Walpole later observed that the duke’s ‘strongest principle was the dignity of the blood royal, and his maxim to bear any thing from his brother . . . rather than set an example of disobedience to the royal authority’. It seems he had indeed taken to heart his mother’s dying wish. The duke’s loyalty to the king, the Hanoverian dynasty and therefore the Prince of Wales was absolute. On Frederick’s part, the resentment and even jealousy that he surely felt towards his younger brother must have reached new heights after the duke’s dramatic rise in the military and the mark of particular favour King George had shown him.
The duke was four months younger than his Stuart cousin and inevitably, as the second surviving son (Prince George William having died in 1718), had been given the relative freedom to pursue his own inclinations. The duke was a fine horseman – as would have been expected from any man of his status – enjoyed hunting and had a passion for horseracing. From a very early age he had shown a desire to be in the armed forces. In 1740 he enlisted as a volunteer on the flagship of Sir John Norris, HMS Victory, but then committed to a future in the army when he became Colonel of the Coldstream Guards.
Three years later the duke saw action at the Battle of Dettingen alongside his father, during which he was wounded in the leg. His behaviour during and after the battle was widely reported and generally admired. Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond (a grandson of Charles II through the King’s mistress, Louise de Kérouaille), writing to the Duke of Newcastle, observed that ‘by his brave behaviour upon the Day of Battle, by his love of the service, by his generosity & compassion to prisoners, & by all the good qualitys that ever a young Prince was endow’d with: he has justly got the love and esteem of every body’. It was vital for Georgite Whigs, as well as the House of Hanover, that this still recently arrived and decidedly foreign royal family should have a rising British-born star in their midst. And the admiration was not only felt among political supporters. Voltaire recounted a story that occurred after the Battle of Dettingen, which the author felt offered an example of the duke’s generosity, and therefore ‘ought to be handed down to posterity’. While having his in need of more assistance ; I shall as yet want none.’
In 1745 William was unmarried, having recently avoided a political alliance to Princess Louise of Denmark. Besides, the bachelor life seems to have been the standard for high-ranking officers in the British army. The duke had pale blue eyes and mid-brown hair. He was handsome, tall and, like his mother, tended towards plumpness, but in his mid-twenties he was fit and energetic. Long after the wound itself had healed, the injury he received at Dettingen affected his gait, which was particularly noticeable when he was tired. As a result he preferred to ride. Indeed, on horseback, on his favourite Yorkshire hunter, he cut a very imposing figure. Andrew Henderson, admittedly a not unpartisan observer, offers a comprehensive description of the duke’s bearing, character and, to an extent, appearance. From this William emerges as no-nonsense, forthright, uninterested in either pomp or frivolity, charming and attentive if needs be but far from superficial or insincere. He certainly did not court the limelight, was neither hot-tempered nor reckless – a solid military man from head to toe. Above all the duke is shown as steadfast in his loyalties and perhaps therefore unforgiving, or at least unbending, in his attitude towards anyone who sought to undermine those he was loyal to. Inevitably, at the top of this list would be anyone hell-bent on removing King George and the House of Hanover from the British throne. But the duke was also mindful of who had been responsible for bringing his family to the throne and who was keeping them there: the Whigs. For as he wrote to the Duke of Newcastle, ‘without them we should never have seen England, & without them I fear we should hardly stay’. Of course, as ever in politics, there were Whigs, and then there were Whigs.
During the threatened invasion by France in 1744, the duke had been put in charge of defending London. But by early 1745 he had assumed his new command in Flanders. To support the prince in this role, Sir Everard Fawkener, then fifty years old, was appointed as personal secretary and Major Robert Napier took charge of the duke’s military correspondence. The duke’s aides-de-camp included William Kerr, Earl of Ancram, son of the 3rd Marquess of Lothian; George Keppel, Viscount Bury, son of the Earl of Albemarle and, through his mother Lady Anne Lennox, a great-grandson of Charles II; Charles Schaw Cathcart, 9th Lord Cathcart, Chief of the Lowland Clan Cathcart; and the Hon. Joseph Yorke, younger son of the Lord Chancellor, Philip Yorke, 1st Baron Hardwicke. The urbane and well-travelled Sir Everard was an interesting choice. He came from an old gentry rather than aristocratic family in Leicestershire, and like his father had been a successful merchant. He was a member of the Levant Company and between 1716 and 1725 had resided in Aleppo, Syria. Through his regional knowledge and connections Sir Everard was later appointed as British ambassador at Constantinople. A close friend was Horatio Walpole, the diplomat brother of Sir Robert. Sir Everard was not only well connected, but he was also a cultured man. Voltaire had lived at Fawkener’s house in Wandsworth from 1726 to 1728 and they became lifelong friends – if erratic correspondents. On hearing, rather belatedly, that Fawkener had become the duke’s private secretary, Voltaire wrote a witty letter stating, ‘How could I guess that your musulman person had shifted from Galata [an area of Constantinople] for Flanders? and had passed from the seraglio to the closet of the Duke of Cumberland?’ If he had known that it was ‘my dear sir Everard who was secretary to the great prince, I had certainly taken a journey to Flanders’.
In Flanders, Sir Everard’s new master was not only commander of the British forces but also the commander-in-chief of the Allied or ‘Pragmatic’ army, which was formed of Austrian and Hanoverian troops under Marshal Lothar Josef Dominik von Königsegg and the Dutch under Prince Karl August of Waldeck. The duke was brave but still inexperienced for such a command – a reminder that the British king still wielded great power and influence – although the duke’s role was tempered by the presence of the other commanders, in particular Marshal Königsegg and the French-born British senior officer, Sir John Ligonier. Sir Everard travelled to Flanders in advance and, clearly relishing his new role, writes to the Prime Minister Henry Pelham on 19/30 (NS/OS) April 1745 from Brussels, ‘I feel myself in a most happy situation, & shall always have in mind how much I owe to you for the part you so kindly took towards placing me in it.’
The duke arrived in Flanders accompanied by Joseph Yorke. Lord Chancellor Hardwicke wrote to his twenty-year-old son ‘Joe’ on 15 April (OS) that ‘it was with great joy’ that news had arrived ‘of yo[u]r safe landing at Ostend. May the same good providence attend you & yo[u]r master & bring you home in safety.’ He concludes, displaying the concern of any father whose son has gone to war: ‘Why should I tell you I love you, since you know it, & [that] it will always be a pleasure to me to hear from you.’ The duke and his entourage arrived at Brussels at the time Maréchal Maurice de Saxe was besieging Tournai, one of the principal strongholds in the Netherlands. On 24 April (OS), Lord Chancellor Hardwicke wrote to his son, ‘Wee are told here Tournay is invested, but false news is so much in fashion, wee are at a loss what to credit, & I am told some of our millitary people are disposed to think The French have not troops enough in Flanders to form the siege of [that] place, & a covering army too.’ He goes on, ‘The Parliament separates next week, & then the King leaves us [for Hanover]. God send him a prosperous journey & return, but such folk as I wish he stay’d here, since the greatest are not exempt from accidents, more than those of less consequence.’ He concludes, ‘God Bless you, & send us a prosperous champaign, [that] wee may rejoine in safety next winter by the fire side, where I am like to spend many an hour by myself, wanting yo[u]r Company.’