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Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and King of Hanover (1771-1851)

This article was written by Henry Morse Stephens and was published in 1888

The Duke of Cumberland was the fifth son of George III and Queen Charlotte. He was born at Kew on 5 June 1771, was baptised at St. James's Palace by Archbishop Cornwallis on 1 July following. His sponsors were Prince Ernest of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, from whom he received his name, Prince Maurice of Saxe-Gotha, and the Hereditary Grand Duchess of Hesse-Cassel. He was educated at Kew with his younger brothers, and his first tutors were the Rev. G. Cookson, afterwards canon of Windsor, and Dr. Hughes, who regarded him as a far more promising lad than his brothers. He was destined by his father from the first to be the commander-in-chief of the Hanoverian army, and in 1786 he was sent to the university of Göttingen with his younger brothers. Among his teachers at Göttingen were Heyne, the classical scholar, and General Malortie, who was his tutor in military subjects.

Before leaving England Prince Ernest was installed a knight of the Garter on 2 June 1786, and on completing his education in 1790 he was gazetted a lieutenant in the 9th Hanoverian hussars, of which regiment he was appointed lieutenant-colonel in 1793. His military training was superintended by Lieutenant-general Baron Linsingen, and on the outbreak of war in 1793 his regiment was sent to the front with a division of the Hanoverian army under the command of General Walmoden. Prince Ernest served with the Hanoverians through the campaigns of 1793 and 1794 in Belgium and the north-west of France. In the campaign of 1793 the Hanoverians were generally kept in reserve, but in 1794 the Duke of York was obliged to make use of all the troops under his command. In February 1794 Prince Ernest was gazetted to the rank of a major-general in the Hanoverian army, and when the campaign opened he was appointed to the command of the first brigade of Hanoverian cavalry in charge of the outposts. In this capacity he was constantly engaged with the enemy, and in the first battle of Tournay, 10 May 1794, he lost his left eye and was severely wounded in the right arm in a hand-to-hand conflict. Recuperating in England, he hurried back to the army in the November of the same year before his wounds were thoroughly healed. Again conspicuous in the field, he in the sortie from Nimeguen on 10 December 1794 lifted a French dragoon off his horse and carried him prisoner into the English camp. Prince Ernest then commanded the Hanoverian cavalry of the rear guard through the winter retreat before the French army, until the troops returned to England and Hanover respectively in February 1795.

In 1796 Prince Ernest returned to England with a high military reputation for courage, and in July 1799 he was made lieutenant-general in the English service, his first rank in the English army; his commission was antedated May 1798. In 1799 also he became governor of Chester. On 4 April 1799 George III created his four younger sons peers of the realm. Prince Ernest became Duke of Cumberland and of Teviotdale in the peerage of Great Britain, and Earl of Armagh in the peerage of Ireland. Parliament also granted him £12,000 a year, which was in 1804 increased to £18,000 In the same year (1799) the duke was appointed to command the division of cavalry which was to support the expedition of the Duke of York to the Helder, but owing to the immediate failure of the campaign the cavalry never embarked. On 28 March 1801 he was appointed colonel of the 15th light dragoons, afterwards hussars, and in April 1808 he was gazetted general (commission antedated September 1803); he also received some lucrative military commands, such as that of the Severn district, which he held from 1801 to 1804, and of the south-western district, from 1804 to 1807.

Far more important than these military commands was the commencement of Cumberland's political career. He soon gained an important influence over the mind of the Prince of Wales, and in the House of Lords he showed himself a clear, if not very eloquent, speaker and a ready debater. He was a constant attendant at debates, and soon obtained much weight in the councils of his party. From the first he took his place as a tory partisan and a supporter of the protestant religion. His first speech in parliament was delivered in opposition to the Adultery Prevention Bill in 1800, and in 1803 he seconded an address from the House of Lords in reply to an address from the crown, in a speech vigorously attacking the ambition of Napoleon.

He was elected chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, in 1805 and grand master of the Orange lodges of Ireland two years later. In 1808 he presented a petition from the Dublin corporation to the House of Lords with a speech in which he declared his undying opposition to any relief of the penal laws against the catholics. In 1810 the tory ministry introduced a regency bill, intended to limit the prerogatives of the Prince of Wales on account of his supposed sympathy with the whigs, when Cumberland at once told the ministers that they were filled with a false idea of his eldest brother's character, and both spoke and voted against them. This conduct strengthened his influence alike over the prince regent and the Duke of York. When his prophecy came true, and the prince regent maintained the tory ministry in power in 1812, the ministers too felt the perspicuity of Cumberland, and admitted him freely to their councils. This alliance with the tories exasperated both the whig leaders and the radical agitators and journalists.

On the night of 31 May 1810 the duke was found in his apartments in St. James's Palace with a terrible wound on his head, which would have been mortal had not the assassin's weapon struck against the duke's sword. Shortly afterwards his valet, Sellis, was found dead in his bed with his throat cut. On hearing the evidence of the surgeons and other witnesses, the coroner's jury returned a verdict that Sellis had committed suicide after attempting to assassinate the duke. The absence of any reasonable motive caused this event to be greatly discussed, and democratic journalists did not hesitate to accuse the duke of horrible crimes, and even to hint that he really murdered Sellis. In 1813 Henry White was sentenced to fifteen months' imprisonment and a fine of £200 for publishing this rumour.

In the short campaign of 1806, under Lord Cathcart (1755-1843), the duke commanded a Hanoverian division, and after the battle of Leipzig, at which he was present as a spectator, he took over the electorate of Hanover in his father's name, and raised a fresh Hanoverian army, at the head of which he served during the campaigns of 1813 and 1814 in France. At the opening of the campaign of 1813 Cumberland was promoted to be a field-marshal in the British army, and in January 1815 he was made a G.C.B. on the extension of the order of the Bath.

It now became apparent that the duke might possibly succeed to the throne of England. He accordingly married at Strelitz on 29 May 1815 his cousin, Frederica Caroline Sophia Alexandrina, daughter of the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and widow of Prince Frederick of Prussia and of Prince Frederick of Solms-Braunfels. This marriage, solemnised according to the rites of the English church on 29 August 1815 at Carlton House, received the consent of the prince regent, but was most obnoxious to Queen Charlotte, who until the end of her life absolutely refused to receive the Duchess of Cumberland. It was not popular among the English people, who were prejudiced against the duke, and even the tory House of Commons refused to grant him the increase in his income, from £18,000 to £24,000 a year, which was subsequently granted to the Dukes of Clarence, Kent, and Cambridge.

The accession of the prince regent as George IV greatly increased Cumberland's power. His influence over the king was only rivalled by that of the Marchioness of Conyngham, and Greville's ‘Journals’ show how that influence was consistently maintained. The duke had the power of a strong mind over a weak one, and this influence, always exercised in the tory interest, caused him to be absolutely loathed by the radical journalists. Yet he sought no wealth or honour for himself, and the only appointment he received was in January 1827, the colonelcy of the royal horse guards (the blues). The death of the Princess Charlotte, and then that of the Duke of York, brought him nearer to the throne, and his policy was closely watched. He opposed the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts with vigour, and when the Catholic Emancipation Bill was introduced into the House of Lords he said: ‘I will act as I believe my sainted father would wish me to act, and that is to oppose to the utmost the dangerous measure, and to withdraw all confidence from the dangerous men who are forcing it through parliament.’

The accession of William IV put an end to Cumberland's influence on English politics. One of the first measures of the new reign was the placing of the royal horse guards under the authority of the commander-in-chief of the army. This measure was contrary to old precedent. Cumberland regarded it as a personal insult to himself, and at once resigned the colonelcy of the blues. He continued to attend regularly in the House of Lords, and energetically opposed the Reform Bill of 1832, the Municipal Corporations Reform Bill, and the new poor law. This conduct made the duke still more obnoxious to the radical press and to the whig statesmen, and in 1832 a pamphleteer named Joseph Phillips published the statement that ‘the general opinion was that his royal highness had been the murderer of his servant Sellis.’ The duke prosecuted the pamphleteer, who was immediately found guilty by the jury without retiring, and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. Lord Brougham in the House of Lords went nearly as far, and deliberately called him to his face ‘the illustrious duke — illustrious only by courtesy.’

William IV did not hesitate to insult his brother also, and in 1833, full of reforming ardour, he granted a liberal constitution to his Hanoverian dominions, which was drawn up by Professor Dahlmann. This constitution was submitted by the king to his brothers, the Duke of Sussex and the Duke of Cambridge, who was governing Hanover as viceroy, but it was not even laid before Cumberland, the heir presumptive to the throne of Hanover. A further accusation was made openly in the House of Commons. The duke had been since 1817 grand master of the Irish Orangemen, and he was accused of making use of this position to pose as the defender of protestantism, and to tamper with the loyalty of the army. These accusations were only set at rest by the duke's categorical denial, and by the assistance he rendered in suppressing the whole of the Orange societies at the request of the government.

Upon the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne of England, the duke, under the regulations of the Salic law, succeeded to the German dominions of his family as King Ernest I of Hanover. He first took the oath of allegiance to the queen as an English peer, and then started for Hanover, where he took over the administration of his new kingdom from the Duke of Cambridge, who had acted as viceroy during the two preceding reigns. He at once cancelled the constitution, which had been granted by William IV, and assumed absolute power, a proceeding which drew down upon him the hatred of the liberal parties, both in England and in Hanover. The Hanoverian radicals conspired against him and projected open rebellion, and in the English House of Commons Colonel Perronet Thompson proposed that he should be deprived of his right to succeed to the throne if Queen Victoria should die. The fact that he was the next heir to the throne was the reason which urged the whig cabinet to hurry on the queen's marriage; and King Ernest, who had commenced his reign by quarrelling with the queen about the Hanover crown jewels, loudly protested against her marriage, and refused to be present at it. He preserved an implacable attitude for many years later, and when he visited Queen Victoria's court in the summer of 1843, gave many proofs of his surliness.

The reign of King Ernest was popular in Hanover. The personal interest which he took in the affairs of his people, compared with the absenteeism of his three immediate predecessors, compensated to a great extent for his unbending toryism. In 1840, when his power was firmly established, he granted his subjects a new constitution, which was based upon modern ideas, and, while maintaining the privileges of the aristocracy, recognised the right of the people to representation. The care which he took of the material interests of his people, his accessibility, and the way in which he identified himself with Hanover, made up for his roughness of manner and confidence in himself. In 1848 he was supported by his people, and was able to suppress with ease the beginnings of revolt. In England he became yet more unpopular owing to his conduct with regard to the Stade tolls. The king continued his interest in English politics, and constantly corresponded with his old friends and the leaders of the tory party. He had many domestic misfortunes; in 1841 he lost his wife, and his only son, afterwards George V of Hanover, was totally blind.

An interesting account of the court of Ernest of Hanover has been published by his English domestic chaplain, from which it appears that the character of the monarch remained the same throughout his life. He was always a plain, downright man, and his manners are well summed in the words of William IV, which were quoted to Mr. Wilkinson by Dean Wellesley: ‘Ernest is not a bad fellow, but if any one has a corn he is sure to tread on it.’ Of all the sons of George III he was the one who had the strongest will, the best intellect, and greatest courage.

King Ernest died on 18 November 1851 at his palace of Herrenhausen, at the age of eighty, and was buried on the 26th amidst the universal grief of his people. ‘I have no objection to my body being exposed to the view of my loyal subjects,’ he wrote in his will, ‘that they may cast a last look at me, who never had any other object or wish than to contribute to their welfare and happiness, who have never consulted my own interests, while I endeavoured to correct the abuses and supply the wants which have arisen during a period of 150 years' absenteeism, and which are sufficiently explained by that fact.’ The inscription affixed to the statue of King Ernest in the Grande Place of Hanover bears the words, ‘Dem Landes Vater sein treues Volk.’

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