Biography

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Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and Albany (1763-1827)

This article was written by Henry Morse Stephens and was published in 1889


Frederick Augustus, Duke of York, was the second son of George III and Queen Charlotte. He was born at St. James's Palace on 16 August 1763, and on 27 February 1764 he was elected to the valuable bishopric of Osnaburg through the influence of his father as elector of Hanover. He was educated with the greatest care at Kew, and became the constant companion of his elder brother, afterwards George IV. In 1767 he was invested a knight of the Bath, and in 1771 a knight of the Garter.

On 1 November 1780 he was gazetted a colonel in the army, and in the following year was sent to Hanover to study French and German. He studied not only tactics but the minutiæ of regimental discipline, and varied his studies by visits to the Austrian and Prussian military maneuvres. He created a favourable impression in every court he visited, and in 1782 was presented to Frederick the Great. Meanwhile the Bishop of Osnaburg, as he was generally styled, was appointed colonel of the 2nd horse grenadier guards, now the 2nd life guards, on 23 March 1782; promoted major-general on 20 November 1782, and lieutenant-general on 27 October 1784, on which day he succeeded the Duke of Richmond as colonel of the 2nd or Coldstream guards. On 27 November 1784 Prince Frederick was created Duke of York and Albany in the peerage of Great Britain, and Earl of Ulster in the peerage of Ireland. He retained the bishopric of Osnaburg till 1803.

In 1787 the Duke of York returned to England, where he was received with enthusiasm by all classes. He was the favourite of his father, and the Prince of Wales was devotedly attached to him. His kindly manners, generous disposition, and handsome face made him popular in society. He took his seat in the House of Lords on 27 November 1787, and on 15 December 1788 he made, on the question of the regency in opposition to Pitt's Regency Bill, a speech which attracted attention, as it was held to convey the sentiments of the Prince of Wales. On 26 May 1789 he fought a duel on Wimbledon Common with Colonel Lennox, afterwards Duke of Richmond, who was aggrieved by some of the duke's remarks. The duke coolly received the fire of Colonel Lennox, and then fired in the air. His coolness and his refusal to avail himself of his rank to decline the challenge were much applauded.

In January 1791 a marriage was arranged for him with Princess Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina (b. 7 May 1767), eldest daughter of Frederick William II, king of Prussia, whose acquaintance he made during his visits to Berlin. Parliament granted him an additional income of £18,000 a year, and the king gave him £7,000 a year on the Irish revenue, which sums, with the revenues of the bishopric of Osnaburgh, raised his income to £70,000 a year. The marriage was celebrated at Berlin on 29 September 1791, and at the queen's house, London, on 23 November The princess was received with enthusiasm in London, where it is noted among other demonstrations of respect that a great sale was found even for imitations of the princess's slipper. The husband and wife soon separated, and the Duchess of York retired to Oatlands Park, Weybridge, Surrey, where she amused herself with her pet dogs, and died 6 August 1820, being buried in Weybridge church.

On the outbreak of war in 1793 George III insisted that York should take command of the English contingent despatched to Flanders to co-operate with the Austrian army under the Prince of Coburg. The campaigns of 1793, 1794, and 1795 in Flanders served to prove that the English army was unable to cope with the enthusiastic French republicans, and that York was not a born military commander. His staff, and especially his adjutant and quartermaster-generals, Craig and Murray, were chiefly responsible; the duke showed himself brave but inexperienced, and there is much truth in Gillray's caricatures and Peter Pindar's squibs, which represented him as indulging too freely in the prevalent dissipation of his officers.

In 1793 the allied army drove the French army out of Belgium, defeated it at Tournay and Famars, and took Valenciennes on 26 July. Then came a difference between the generals; the Prince of Coburg wished to march on Paris, while York was ordered to take Dunkirk. The armies separated, and Carnot at once concentrated all the best French troops and attacked the duke in his lines before Dunkirk. After severe fighting at Hondschoten on 6 and 8 September the English had to fall back, and, after the defeat of the Austrians at Wattignies, finally joined them at Tournay, where both armies went into winter quarters. In February 1794 the duke joined the headquarters of the army in Flanders, and the new campaign opened with some slight successes at Cateau Cambrésis, Villiers-en-Cauche, and Troixville. But on 10, 14, and 18 May the French army under Pichegru attacked the English army at Tournay. In the last engagement the English were entirely defeated, and would have been destroyed but for the conduct of Generals Ralph Abercromby and Henry Edward Fox. York himself was nearly taken prisoner. After this defeat the English army steadily fell back, in spite of the arrival in July of ten thousand fresh troops under the Earl of Moira. The duke was, in fact, driven out of Belgium after several severe engagements. There followed the terrible winter retreat of 1794-5, which concluded the unsuccessful campaign. York shared the perils of the retreat up to the beginning of December, in which month he returned to England.

The duke's reputation had not been raised. Nevertheless George III promoted him to be a field-marshal on 18 February 1795, and made him commander-in-chief of the army 3 April 1798. Amherst, the retiring commander-in-chief, was an old man, who had allowed countless abuses in the discipline and administration of the army. The duke by his high rank could be considered as belonging to no party, and he was able from his position to put down much of the jobbery which had disgraced his predecessor's tenure of office. He was not a man of brilliant parts, but he determined to remove some of the abuses which he had seen in Flanders.

In 1799 he was appointed to command an army destined to invade Holland in conjunction with a Russian corps d'armée. The vanguard of this army, under Sir Ralph Abercromby and Admiral Sir Charles Mitchell, performed an important duty in capturing the Dutch ships in the Helder; but when the main force arrived under the duke on 13 September nothing but disaster followed. Generals Brune and Daendaels collected an army, which, though defeated on 19 September, 2 October, and 9 October, managed to keep the English and Russians penned on the narrow strip of land seized by Abercromby, and on 17 October the duke signed the disgraceful convention of Alkmaer, by which the victors were allowed to leave Holland on condition that eight thousand French prisoners of war should be surrendered to the republic. This failure confirmed the general opinion that the duke was unfit for the command of an army in the field.

The attention of the public was now turned to the state of the army; money was not spared by parliament, and while Abercromby was engaged in the Mediterranean in restoring the true spirit of discipline in the field, the duke devoted himself to the task of weeding out incapable officers, and encouraging those who did their duty. It was nothing short of a disaster that York was on 18 March 1809 forced to retire from his post of commander-in-chief. He had become entangled with a handsome adventuress, Mary Anne Clarke, who made money out of her intimacy with the commander-in-chief, by promising promotion to officers, who paid her for her recommendations. This matter was raised in the House of Commons by Colonel Wardle on 27 Jan. 1809, and referred to a select committee, which took evidence on oath. The inquiries of this committee proved that York had shown most reprehensible carelessness in his dealings with Mrs. Clarke, but he could not be convicted of receiving money himself, and the House of Commons acquitted him of any corrupt practices by 278 votes to 196. Sir David Dundas, who succeeded the duke at the Horse Guards, continued his policy, and the action of the prince regent in replacing his brother at the head of the army in May 1811 was received with almost unanimous satisfaction. The House of Commons rejected Lord Milton's motion censuring the ministry for allowing the appointment by 296 votes to 47.

No other scandal marked the duke's career. He was twice thanked by the houses of parliament, in July 1814 and July 1815, after the battle of Waterloo, for the benefits he had bestowed on the army and his unremitting attention to his duties as commander-in-chief; and in 1818, on the death of Queen Charlotte, he was appointed guardian of the person of the king, with an allowance of £10,000 a year. The death of George III made York heir to the throne, but he continued to hold his post at the Horse Guards. The real affection which George IV entertained for him made him an important personage, but he never interfered much with politics. He opposed catholic emancipation, and on 25 April 1825, in a speech in the House of Lords, declared his opinions in opposition to it in a speech which was held to embody the ideas of his royal brother. In July 1826 York was attacked with dropsy, and after a long illness, borne with exemplary fortitude, he died at the Duke of Rutland's house in Arlington Street on 5 January 1827. His body lay in state in St. James's Palace, and on 19 January 1827 he was buried in St. George's Chapel, Windsor, his brother, the Duke of Clarence, acting as chief mourner.

The conduct of York as commander-in-chief had the greatest influence on the history of the British army. He supported the efforts successfully to revive military spirit made by commanders in the field, and by his own subordinates, above all by his military secretary, Sir Henry Torrens. Without his strenuous support the regulations of Sir David Dundas could not have been successful, nor the quartermaster-general's department purified. He looked well after the soldiers and their comforts, but it was with the officers that he was most successful. He set apart every Tuesday as a levée day, in which any officer might have an audience. He sternly put down the influence of personal favouritism. The purchase system was in force during his tenure of office, but a certain amount of military service in every rank was required before an officer could purchase a step, and it was impossible for boys at school to hold rank as colonels. The duke did much to eradicate political jobbery in military appointments, and set his face against systematic corruption. Though he had himself failed on the field, he generously recognised the superior merits of Wellington and his subordinates.

York was good-tempered and affable; he was a sportsman, and kept a racing stable, which was superintended by Greville, the diarist, and he possessed the open, if unintellectual, features common to his brothers. His name is better commemorated by his foundation of the Duke of York's School for the sons of soldiers, Chelsea, London, than by the column which bears his name at the end of Waterloo Place, St. James's Park, London.


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