In the Jacobite Chronicles Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland features as a villain, his personality and actions being mainly viewed from the Jacobite perspectives of Beth and Alex. In this series of blogs about the life of the duke, I try to take a more impartial view.
Prince William Augustus was born on 15th April 1721 at Leicester House in England, the long-awaited second son of his parents George, Prince of Wales, and Princess Caroline. The Prince of Wales and his father King George I did not get on at all, but the king appears to have taken a liking to his new grandson, and as a result there was some lessening of hostilities.
Prince William’s parents adored him, and he quickly became their favourite child, eclipsing his older brother and heir Prince Frederick, who later followed the Hanoverian family tradition of setting up in opposition to his father.
At the age of four he became the first member of the Order of the Bath, and when five was created Duke of Cumberland, the name he was to be known by for the rest of his life and beyond.
From infancy the duke took a great interest in military matters, to the delight of his family, and eschewed games in favour of learning military manoeuvres. He was given a ‘regiment’ of other small boys to train, which he apparently did with great success (how popular he was with his tiny soldiers is not recorded).
He’s also recorded as participating in a stag hunt at the age of seven, mounted on his own horse. This passion for horses, hunting and racing, along with his participation in military affairs was a lifelong one.
King George I arranged for a number of prestigious tutors to educate the young prince, and as a result he was fluent in Latin, French, German and Italian by the age of twelve. He also learned mathematics, and an interest in chemistry led to him setting up his own little laboratory, where he learned about the use of explosives.
In June 1727 George I died and Prince William’s father became King George II. The following year Prince Frederick arrived from Hanover to find that the parents he hadn’t seen for seven years didn’t want him. King George made no secret of the fact that he wished to disinherit Frederick in favour of William, although this does not seem to have soured the relationship between the brothers, and Prince William, although normally submissive to his father’s wishes, when approached in 1737 by the Lord Chancellor regarding this, stated that he had no wish to usurp his older brother.
By his mid-teens, the young duke was engaging in various romantic liaisons, and it was realised that an occupation needed to be found for him. In spite of the fact that William’s interests lay with the army, his father wanted him to eventually become Lord High Admiral of the Navy, and to that end he was sent to sea at the age of nineteen, in 1740. Although William greatly impressed his superiors and became very popular, both with the men and the ladies who attended the various amusements, the fleet spent most of its time at anchor, either waiting for a favourable wind or for orders from the government. When those orders finally came, they were that the fleet should sail to the West Indies. King George, fearing that his favourite son might die of Yellow Fever in a far-off land, put an end to his naval career. From now on the Duke of Cumberland’s future would be with the army, to his delight.
His career developed at a rapid pace. On his twentieth birthday he was made Colonel of the Coldstream Guards and went to join his regiment. At this time morale and discipline in the army were very lax, and soldiers were generally thought of by the people, with some justification, as the scum of the earth, a situation King George hoped to remedy by making his highly popular son commander. Prince William quickly won over his officers, but had little time to do more than that before he found himself leading his men into action, in the War of the Austrian Succession.
This war had broken out in 1741, and the king was eager to get involved, wishing to lead his troops personally. Prince William, still in the process of gaining experience in his new role, suddenly found himself commanding the left wing of the attacking army at Dettingen, with the elderly king himself leading the centre.
While the king dismounted and advanced on foot with his men, his son, seeing action for the first time in his life, marched forward at the head of the left wing with great bravery and coolness, winning the admiration not only of his father, but of the troops whom he led. Unlike the king, who emerged unscathed, the young duke was also wounded, which added to his reputation for bravery. It is said that he refused to allow the surgeons to treat his leg wound until a badly wounded (enemy) French officer nearby had been treated. This story might sound like one of the typical tall tales attributed to royal princes; but for all his faults, William always showed care for his men, and respect for those he considered to be legitimate enemies.
His popularity soared, and in June 1743, the duke was made lieutenant-general of the army. The fighting now over, he set about establishing discipline in his troops, a move which was not popular with those soldiers who had enjoyed a somewhat easy-going life until now. Requests for leave were refused, promotions were made on merit rather than on birth or influence, and reforms were introduced. In this Cumberland had the assistance of numerous experienced officers, but he certainly made his mark, and although he became known as a strict disciplinarian, he also had a reputation for ensuring that his men were paid on time, fed and dressed properly, and, when wounded, received care. This being in a time when many commanding officers showed contempt for the rank and file, it’s not surprising that Cumberland became an extremely popular leader, both with his officers and men.
The battle over, the duke, still limping from his wound, returned to England to an ecstatic welcome, becoming a national hero known as Billy the Bold, and threw himself into the entertainments on offer, taking part in both courtly pleasures and the more earthy joys of cock-fighting, bear-baiting and prize fighting enjoyed by the working classes. His private life was rough and unrefined, but he knew how to behave at fashionable balls, and attracted considerable attention from the ladies, embarking on a number of affairs. Most of these have not been documented, but he is known to have had a favourite amongst the actresses of Drury Lane, one Nancy Wilson.
Little more than a year later Cumberland went to war again, in Flanders, this time in command of the whole allied forces, some 42,000 men. He was not yet twenty-four. In spite of his youth, the appointment was a popular one. He set off for Flanders and spent some time knocking his troops into shape, imposing discipline and order on both officers and men, and setting a good example by putting duty before pleasure himself. Although he could never be said to be a great commander in the field, his reputation for taking good care of his men was well deserved. There are a large number of stories from those serving under him attesting to this throughout his career.
The Battle of Fontenoy, fought in May 1745, was a major battle in the War of the Austrian Succession and was fought against the French. Cumberland had settled for a two-pronged attack – the Dutch to attack independently to the left, while he moved forward to attack Fontenoy from the other side. The plan broke down when the Dutch refused to advance, and the French began to fire their heavy artillery at Cumberland’s main force. Cumberland sent a brigade to deal with this, but its commanding officer lost his nerve. As a result the duke had little choice but to attack head-on, which he did. In fairness, the army under his command behaved with magnificent discipline, continuing to advance in spite of receiving heavy fire. On reaching the top of the hill they engaged in desperate close-quarters combat with the French army, in which Cumberland led his men, at considerable risk to himself.
At this point the French commander Marechal de Saxe sent his Irish brigade to attack the Hanoverians from another direction, and, having fought for the whole day and unable to answer this new threat, Cumberland ordered the retreat. The newly disciplined British Army retired in perfect formation, to theirs and Cumberland’s credit. By the time they reached safety, the duke had been on horseback for twenty-five hours, and when told that the casualties numbered nearly 8,000, he burst into tears.
There is no doubt that the battle was a defeat for Cumberland. But the man he was fighting against, Marechal de Saxe, was one of the most brilliant military commanders of his time, and the young prince had conducted himself with the utmost courage, and had won the regard of his men. He was not blamed for the defeat – instead the blame was laid on the Dutch for their refusal to engage.
He remained in Flanders, tightening up the discipline amongst his officers and eagerly preparing for his next engagement against the French.
It was not to be. In July 1745 his distant cousin, Charles Edward Stuart landed in Scotland, raised the standard for his father James and marched south with his ever-increasing band of Jacobite followers. At first the rising was dismissed as a storm in a teacup by the government; but following the resounding defeat at Prestonpans after only five minutes of the British forces in Scotland by the Jacobite army, the authorities in London realised the seriousness of the situation.
Who better to defeat this upstart Stuart pretender to the throne than Prince William Augustus, darling of the nation? In October 1745, Cumberland was ordered home along with most of his army, to deal with the increasingly serious threat to his father’s crown.
In my next blog I will talk about Cumberland’s participation in the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and its aftermath.