Following his return from Scotland, the Duke of Cumberland was hailed as a national hero, and it seemed that his future was bright. Beloved of his people and the monarch’s favourite son, he was the perfect choice to retrieve the somewhat hopeless situation in Europe.
While Cumberland and most of the British troops had been dealing with the Jacobite rising, their allies the Dutch and Austrians had been left in a greatly weakened position in Flanders, having been forced into a series of retreats. In February 1747, after a winter spent enjoying the adulation of his people, Cumberland headed back to Flanders.
At first things seemed to go well. He succeeded in gaining a promise of further help from the Dutch, and managed to avert the fall of Maastricht, at that time under siege. He was now in command of 138,000 men, which sounded good on paper, but which in fact comprised several divided nationalities, and was unwieldy.
However, he then made a bad decision, seeking an immediate confrontation with de Saxe’s troops at Lauffeld in July, where his forces were heavily defeated and his weaknesses as a military commander were highlighted. Although Marechal de Saxe himself later commended the duke, he was greatly outmanoeuvred by the French, and, once the village of Lauffeld was taken, ordered the retreat, believing his army to be defeated. In the meantime Sir John Ligonier had made a successful attack on the left, but was unable to follow up on this due to Cumberland’s decision to retreat, and was as a result captured by the French.
In Britain rumours abounded that the duke had lost his nerve at the crucial moment, and was not the brilliant commander they had been led to believe. However this opinion was not shared by either the king or the government, and Cumberland continued to lead the British Army. Seeing the sad state of his army in comparison to the enemy’s, he took the responsibility of signing armistice terms. Peace negotiations followed, leading to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. This was a somewhat ignominious end to a largely pointless (from the British perspective) war, and the army was reduced back to a peacetime footing. To his credit, the duke took great pains to alleviate the lot of those who had now lost their jobs, helping them to establish themselves in a trade, and giving alms where needed. He also employed ex-soldiers on his estate.
The Duke of Cumberland returned to London, where his popularity waned rapidly. Once the Jacobite threat had receded, people had become increasingly appalled by the conditions the prisoners were being kept in, barbarous even by the standards of the day, and by the on-going retribution in the Highlands. These stirrings were fanned into flame by Jacobite propagandists who took full advantage of the terrible plight of the Highlanders to lay charges of unwarranted brutality at the feet of the duke. As if to help their cause, Cumberland, always corpulent and now starting to be plagued by medical problems that would stay with him for the rest of his short life, put on an enormous amount of weight, becoming a figure of mockery and disdain.
In 1749 the duke spoke openly in favour of the Mutiny Bill of 1749, and was believed to be in favour of an extension of the death penalty. The nickname ‘Butcher’, already widely used by Jacobites and others appalled by the atrocities in Scotland, stuck.
He became increasingly unpopular, to the point that when Prince Frederick died suddenly in 1749, leaving his young son George as the heir to the throne, it was widely thought that should George II (already 67 and ailing) die, the Duke of Cumberland would attempt to usurp the throne. Some even cast him as an ‘evil uncle’ figure along the lines of Richard III. In fairness much of this was due to accusations from Prince Frederick’s widow, who cordially hated Cumberland, and it is highly unlikely that he would in fact have tried to steal the throne from his nephew, let alone murder him. But it’s a measure of how low his popularity was by this time that the rumours were widely credited.
In 1755 the prospect of war with the French loomed again, and the Duke once more came into his own, spending the winter preparing his troops for battle. Nothing in fact came of this, but the prospect of a French invasion went some way to restoring Cumberland’s popularity with the people, as they looked to him to avert a disaster.
In 1757 he embarked on what was to be his last campaign, and one that he did not particularly wish to fight. His orders were not to attempt to defeat the enemy, but to conduct a slow defensive retreat from Hanover, whilst keeping his forces in good order. It was not a campaign designed to win popularity, in spite of the fact that he made a good job of it, whilst in poor health. Nobody wants to celebrate a retreat, however well achieved. Cumberland continued to retreat until he reached the sea, whereupon the king ordered him to negotiate a separate peace in order to save his beloved Hanover from being devastated. Cumberland obeyed his father, and signed a peace treaty, not knowing that the king had already changed his mind, having been persuaded by his mistress that signing a separate peace was a dishonourable action.
Unfairly, George blamed his son for this, flying into a rage and saying his blood was tainted and his courage had failed. Cumberland, deeply and justifiably hurt, resigned his position on the spot, refusing to resume command of the army even after his father apologised and sent his whole cabinet to beg the duke to reconsider. Although he continued to attend Court, he never again served under his father. He was thirty-eight.
The following year he suffered a series of strokes which left him partially paralysed. The king died shortly afterwards, and the son who attended his father’s funeral, bloated, his face distorted, though still in early middle age, was relegated to the status of a respected member of the older generation, no longer of much importance.
In the years left to him, he became actively involved in his role as Ranger of Windsor Forest, reviving the ancient forest laws and making many improvements to his estate. He also enjoyed gambling and hunting, but his greatest passion was horse racing and breeding, and he turned Ascot and Newmarket into the highly fashionable race venues they remain to this day.
He never seems to have considered marriage, being too much of a man’s man, although throughout his life he had a series of affairs, but there are no records of any children from his liaisons.
He died in October 1765.
In conclusion, although I have no regrets about portraying him as I did in the Jacobite Chronicles (I believe his treatment of the Highlanders was appalling and unjustified), no one is all evil, and Cumberland is no exception to this. His unerring loyalty to his family, an honourable trait, no doubt infused his hatred of the Highlanders who had dared to rise up in treasonous rebellion against his father. He was undoubtedly courageous, devoted to duty, and had a genuine care for the welfare of his men, showing them great kindness beyond that normally demonstrated from men in his position.