Duke of York (1784-1827)
Commander-in-Chief of the British Army (1798-1809, 1811-1827)
Born 1763 Died 1827
The Grand old Duke of York,
He had two thousand men,
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.
'It is a foible of history that the Duke is now chiefly remembered in the public mind as a man who marched his army up and down a hill and ran it, as a commercial proposition, with the aid of his mistress'1
The military Duke
As the younger son of a reigning monarch Frederick followed tradition and decided upon a military career and enlisted in the British Army on the 1st November 1780 at the rank of Colonel, promoted to the rank of Major-General on the 20th November 1782 and Lieutenant-General on the 27th October 1784. Despite the impression given by this regular series of promotions Frederick actually spent most of the years between 1781 and 1787 in Germany, where he had been sent to receive his military training and where he spent much of his time observing the Austrian and Prussian armies on manoeuvres.
His first experience of military action was during the French Revolutionary Wars when on the 23rd February 1793 he was appointed Commander in Chief of the Forces in the United Provinces, and sent to Flanders in command of the English contingent of the army commanded by the Duke of Coburg which was planning on invading France. Promoted to the rank of General on 12 April 1793, Frederick fought in a number of battles before laying siege to Dunkirk, until an attack by the French at Hondschoote, forced him to abandon the siege and retreat and led to the eventual abandonment of the planned invasion in the following year.
Nothwithstanding the overall failure of the Flanders expedition, on his return to England in 1795 was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal on the 10th February 1795 and subsequently to the office of Commander-in-Chief of the army on the 3rd April 1798.
On the 4th September 1799 he was appointed Captain-General of the Forces and placed in command of the army which invaded Holland with Russian support later that month. Whilst the advance party succeeded in capturing the Dutch ships in the Helder, "from time of the duke's arrival with the main body of the army disaster followed disaster"2. Frederick was forced to sign the Convention of Alkmaar on the 17th of October 1799 and returned home somewhat chastened by the experience.
Frederick's conspicous lack of success on the field made him a popular figure of derision and provided the inspiration behind the nursery rhyme. But despite his failings as a soldier he proved to be a suprising asset to the British military effort. It was simply that his talents lay more in the areas of organisation and administration rather than actual fighting. As the Commander in Chief of the Army he set about the business of turning the British Army into a more professional operation, and in particlar sought to reduce interference by politicians and civil servants in the matter of officer appointments.
He established military schools in order to train a proper officer class (which afterwards became known as the Staff College and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst) and was generally "untiring in his efforts to raise the tone of the army, restore discipline, weed out the undesirables, and suppress bribery and favouritism2". No lesser person than Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington was later to speak highly of his achievements, "everything that relates to the military discipline of the soldiers and the military efficiency of the army has been greatly improved since H.R.H. was appointed Commander-in-Chief" 3
The Clarke Investigation of 1809
One thing can be said of Frederick is that he was not good with money, as one commentator later explained, the Duke of York "was inattentive to his pecuniary affairs, in consequence of which he fell into many difficulties, and in some instances his name stood on tradesman’s books" 4. Although to be blunt, Frederick's financial problems did not arise from inattentiveness so much as sheer extravagance; for one thing he was a notorious drinker and gambler, on his return to England in 1787 Frederick managed to drink and gamble his way through £40,000 in less than a year and was forced to sell some property in order to repay his creditors.
The Duke's financial problems were to be the cause of some later personal difficulties as we shall now see.
In 1803 Frederick entered into a relationship with a certain Mary Anne Clarke whom he set up as his mistress. She was promised an allowance, but due to the duke's aforementioned cashflow problems the promised allowance was often not forthcoming. Therfore in order to raise funds Mrs Clarke decided to take advantage of her position and accepted money from various individuals in return for a promise to use her influence to promote their case with the duke. Mrs Clarke was less than discreet in soliciting for such contributions to her household expenses and the matter soon became a public scandal. In 1809 a M.P. by the name of Colonel Wardle, brought a total of eight charges of 'abuse of military patronage' against Frederick in Parliament, which given the efforts that Frederick had been making to reduce corruption in the Army this was somewhat embarassing to say the least.
The House of Commons appointed a select committee to inquire into the matter which became known as the Clarke Investigation of 1809, and which subsequently reported that although Mrs Clarke had undoubtedly received bribes the duke, although aware of what was going on, had not derived any direct personal pecuniary benefit from the transactions. On this technicality Frederick was acquitted of the charge of any wrongdoing by 278 votes to 196.
Although Frederick felt compelled to resign his position as Commander in Chief 25 March 1809 as a result of the accusations, once he had been acquited and memories of the scandal had faded somewhat he was later reappointed to the office of Commander in Chief on the 25th May 1811.
Marriage and the Succession to the throne
Frederick Augustus was married to Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina, daughter of Frederick William II king of Prussia on the 29th September 1791 at Berlin-Charlottenburg in Germany. On their return to England the couple confirmed their vows in another ceremony conducted at Buckingham Palace on the 23 November 1791. Unfortunately aside from their first names, Frederick and Frederica had very little in common and the marriage soon came to grief. A separation was agreed upon and Frederica retired to Oatlands Park, near Weybridge in Surrey where she remained until her death on the 6th of August 1820.
Frederick's elder brother George Augustus became king George IV in 1820 and following the death of George's only child Charlotte Augusta on the 6th November 1817, Frederick became the heir presumptive to the throne. He did not however succeed as Frederick predeceased his brother, dying from dropsy on the 5th January 1827 at Rutland House, Arlington Street at St. James's in London. He was later buried at St George's Chapel in Windsor on the 20th January 1828.
As his short-lived marriage to the Princess Frederica was unsurprisingly childless the succession passed to his younger brother William Henry Hanover, Duke of Clarence who later became king William IV.
The Character of the Duke
Frederick Augustus was no intellectual; "not clever"5 is how one commentator described him, and his sole political intervenion appears to have been in 1788, when at his brother's urging he made a speech against William Pitts' Regency Bill in the House of Lords. Even this was to be the cause of a difference of opinion with a Colonel Charles Lennox, afterwards Duke of Richmond, and the two fought a duel on Wimbledon Common, in which neither participant was hurt but honour was duly satisfied.
But despite his lack of intelligence and a record of incompetent generalship Frederick was a popular figure. Charles Greville said of the Duke that "his amiable disposition and excellent temper have conciliated for him the esteem and regard of men of all parties". However the Count of Mirabeau described Frederick as "destitute of breeding and politeness"6. Both were of course describing the same man who, in many ways personified the English gentleman of the time, who enjoyed drinking, hunting and gambling and was fond of "jokes full of coarseness and indelicacy"7 and therefore could be regarded as jolly good company or a crass buffoon depending on one's taste.
His main contribution was his work in reorganising and professionalising the British Army; Sir John Fortescue was to write that of him that "It was he who had reduced choas to order, restored discipline and ... confidence, and made the British Army the most efficient in the world". 8
Perhaps the most tangible reminder of Frederick is the Duke of York's Column in Waterloo Place, London which was erected after his death in 1833. Although even in death there where those that quipped that the height of the 124 foot column on which Frederick's statue was placed was dictated by his need to remain out of reach of his creditors.
A note on his titles and honours
On the 27th February 1764 and at the age of six months, his father George III secured for his son the position of Prince-Bishop of Osnabrück (Osnaburg) which was described as a "secular dignity with an ecclesiastical designation worth £20,000 a year"9. This office, one of the relics of the increasingly anachronistic Holy Roman Empire was essentially a sinecure and provided the young prince with a steady income. In 1803 the bishopric was incorporated within the kingdom of Hanover the loss of this office and in particular the £20,000 a year that it brought, was one of the causes of Frederick's later financial embarassments.
In addition to the peerage titles referred to above Frederick was also awarded the following honours;
and thus might formally be styled as HRH Prince Frederick Duke of York and Albany, Earl of Ulster, K.B.,K.G.,G.C.H.,G.C.B.
Frederick also held the following Honorary military appointments
1 Quoted in thepeerage.com source
2 From the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica
3 Quoted in thepeerage.com source
4 From the V&A source quoting from A Biographical Memoir of Frederick Duke of York and Albany written by John Watkins in 1827
5 Charles Greville quoted in thepeerage.com source
6 Both quotations extracted from thepeerage.com source
7 Charles Greville again
8 Quoted in thepeerage.com source
9 From The Royal Dukes of the Family of George III by P. Fitzgerald quoted by robertburns.org/encyclopedia
Frederick Augustus at
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entries for YORK, FREDERICK AUGUSTUS, DUKE OF and CLARKE, MARY ANNE
- A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)