‘There stood in a square in our fair, old town,
Begirt by a deep moat of water,
A column to Cumberland, damned to renown;
whose statue on top….
Still seemed to gloat on slaughter’.
John de Jean Frazer, Birr, Co Offaly (1809-1852)
For more on the Duke and his monument in Birr, County Offaly, click here.
Prince William Augusts, Duke of Cumberland, was born in London on 26 April 1721, six years before his German-speaking father succeeded to the British throne as George II. He was a popular boy, known as ‘Sweet William’ by the people of Britain. Indeed, he was such a firm favourite with his parents that they even explored the possibility of his succeeding as king in lieu of their eldest son, Frederick, Prince of Wales. His parents gave him his own splendid purpose-built apartments at Hampton Court, designed by William Kent, one of the finest architects of the day. His tutor Andrew Fountaine was a close friend of Jonathan Swift.
In 1737, his exceptionally intelligent mother, Queen Caroline, was taken ill and died. She had hoped thoughtful young Willy would join the Navy and become Admiral of the Fleet. He had a stab at sailing as a 19-year-old but soon tired of it and volunteered for the military instead. In December 1742, while Dubliners were listening to Handel’s Messiah, the young Duke became a Major-General in the British Army. The following year, he first saw active service in Persia at a time when the Afsharid dynasty expanded Persia’s borders to their greatest extent in over a thousand years.
THE BATTLE OF DETTIGEN
In June 1743, George II personally led the British Army to victory over the French at the Battle of Dettigen. 22-year-old Willy was by his side and, wounded in the action, was swiftly elevated to the status of in London and promoted to Lieutenant General. That same year he was initiated into the Freemasons in Belgium.[i]
THE BATTLE OF FONTENOY
To the consternation of many in the military elite, Cumberland was then appointed Commander-in-Chief of the allied British, Hanoverian, Austrian and Dutch troops in 1745. The Irish Huguenot Sir John Ligonier was appointed his mentor. That spring, the young duke attempted to outwit the great French general, Marshal Saxe, at the Battle of Fontenoy. [ii] Among the troops who lined out for the French were the six Irish regiments of Clare, Dillon, Bulkeley, Roth, Berwick, and Lally, all under Charles O’Brien, Viscount Clare, afterwards Marshal Thomond of France. It transpired to be one of the most disastrous battles the British ever fought, with 1,200 British dead at day’s end, including Lieutenant John Isaac, brother-in-law to Thomas Bunbury of Kill.
Shortly after the battle, the Duke was introduced to Robert Clements, nephew of Henry Clements (of the Killadoon, Co Kildare family) who died at Fontenoy. The Duke remarked that he would be happy to take the boy into his own regiment ‘if he is a pretty lad. If he is not handsome, [he can go] to a purchasing regiment’. At this period in his life the Duke was known for his “dull gallantries” with the ladies of the two who frequented ‘the bosquets of Marylebone Gardens’. There are some suggestions that the Duke may have been homosexual, that to borrow from Switzer’s phrase about William of Orange, he was ‘a Gardn’ner as he was a soldier’. The Duke’s private estate was a Rococo paradise, which Richard Pococke, the Irish bishop, recalled as including ‘a serpentine river, with grottoes and cascades, an obelisk a Chinese bridge and a ‘triangular tower which is a hexagon within, [and] a hexagon at each corner’.[iii]
THE JACOBITE CURSE
Cumberland lost several further engagements against the French but was still considered the best man for the job to take on the Jacobites who were now all ablaze in Scotland under the spell of Bonnie Prince Charlie, known as the Young Pretender. The Jacobite entourage was followed by a small French force, including 500 Irishmen from the Irish Brigade. The Jacobites proved victorious in the first year, making it as far south as Derby before retreating to the security of the Highlands. In January 1746, the Jacobites were on the warpath again and the Duke was appointed commander of the forces in Scotland. He took a carriage to Edinburgh and proceeded immediately in search of the Young Pretender. The Duke proved unexpectedly capable as a commander in this instance, restoring his troops discipline and self-confidence to such an extent that when they met the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746, the Scots were annihilated.
Over 1,000 Jacobites died in the battle. A further 3,470 were taken prisoner, of whom at least 120 were executed, 88 died in prison, 936 were transported to the colonies and 222 more were simply ‘banished’. Many of the rest were eventually released, though the fate of nearly 700 is simply unknown.
Cumberland then ordered his troops to show no quarter to Jacobite rebels, irrespective of whether they were French, British or Irish by birth. At least 475 Irish had fought for the Jacobites in the battle, under the command of Colonel John O’Sullivan and Sir Thomas Sheridan. The Duke allegedly sent his men into the Highlands with instructions to kill all suspect rebels and to destroy all rebellious settlements. Rebel aristocrats were thrown in gaol. Castles and fields were burned and livestock confiscated to such a large degree that many Scots starved to death the following winter. One family were said to have been burned alive in a barn. Smollet wrote how ‘the men were either shot upon the mountain, like wild beasts, or put to death in cold blood, without form of trial; the women, after having seen their husbands and fathers murdered, were subject to brutal violation and then turned out naked, with their children, to starve on the barren heaths’.[iv] Thomas Paine considered this ethnic cleansing ‘one of the most shocking instances of cruelty ever practiced’.[v]
ALL HAIL THE BUTCHER
The Prince of Wales – the Duke’s eldest brother – seems to have been amongst those who labelled him ‘The Butcher’ after this battle. His behaviour had been very savage, even by the standards of the time, and he draw profound criticism from many in England, as well as Scotland. One of his own officers reported his behaviour to the Scots Magazine.
But most people in Britain and Ireland absolutely lionized the young Royal who had delivered them from ‘the Papist menace’ of Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was the House of Hanover’s finest hour. Glasgow, Edinburgh and, rather bizarrely, Birr named streets and squares in his honour. Henry Fielding applauded his courage. Plates, bowls, mugs and punchbowls were produced in his honour, with mottoes such as ‘Duke William for ever’. Porcelain mugs with his head were even manufactured in China. The University of Glasgow gave him an honorary degree. Parliament awarded him an annual income of £25,000 over and above the money he got for being a King’s son. He was toasted in taverns across the land. At a special thanksgiving service in St Paul’s Cathedral, Handel premiered ‘The Conquering Hero’, written in the Duke’s honour. And perhaps, above all, Britain’s provincial towns lauded him for thwarting the Jacobites and thus defeating the French. He was the champion of Britain’s imperial interest.
Indeed, many of his own officers, who had applauded his stance against the wounded and dying Jacobites after Culloden, would carry out the expulsion of the Arcadians from the present-day Canadian Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, as well as present-day U.S. state of Maine, between 1755 and 1764. As such, Cumberlands dark legacy ran far well beyond the blood-soaked moors of the Scottish Highlands.
But Culloden was to be his only victory for sometime. He became a fanatic for Germanic discipline and standing armies. He became grossly corpulent. His latter campaigns were disasters. He had simultaneously become the most hated figure for Jacobites since William of Orange.
‘Butcher of the Northern Clime,
Thy Fame descends to future time.
Billy my darling and blood-thirsty boy
He’ll ravish and plunder, burn, kill and destroy’.
JACK BROUGHTON THE BOXER
The Duke of Cumberland was also a boxing enthusiast and, from 1741, a patron of the great Jack Broughton, the so-called ‘Father of English Boxing’. In 1750, Broughton was summoned from retirement to accept a challenge from a butcher called Jack Slack. Cumberland pressed Brougton to accept, reckoning he would make a fortune on the match.
Broughton began promisingly but after 14 minutes, he was struggling. He received a blow above the nose which caused his eyes to swell. According to Piece Egan, the Duke roared: ‘What are you about, Broughton? You can’t fight. You’re beat”. Broughton bravely replied: ‘I can’t see my man, your Highness. I am blind, but not beat. Only let me be placed before my antagonist and he shall not gain the day yet’.
It wasn’t to be. Cumberland lost £10,000 on the fight and Broughton never fought again. He died in 1789 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. (from ‘Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please?’ By Julian Norridge).
In 1751, Frederick, Prince of Wales was struck by a cricket ball, developed an abscess and died. Any hopes the tough young duke might have had that he would be appointed Regent should the Prince’s small boy (later George III) become King were dashed by the hostility of the Princess of Wales. Some compensation came from Ireland where he was invited to succeed his late brother as Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin, but that was to be his solitary prize in terms of status. (It was during his tenure that the Provost’s House was built).
By the close of 1757, Cumberland’s military reputation was in tatters. Sent to defend the German principality of Hanover against the French, he had failed miserably, ultimately surrendering in an abandoned monastery in Lower Saxony. His father refused to accept these terms of surrender and the Duke retired from public life, resigning all public offices, except his Chancellorship in Dublin. Sir Joshua Reynolds painted him in 1758.
ECLIPSE & THE JOCKEY CLUB
The Duke was among those sporting aristocrats who founded the Jockey Club, winning a Jockey Club Plate in 1751. After his 1757 defeat, the Duke gave up military life to focus on racing and gambling. ‘He gambled all day and every day’, says Norridge. ‘The sight of him carefully placing is huge belly under the card table every night, with his stake money in a pile in front of him, led the writer and social observer Horace Walpole, in a memorable phrase, to describe him as “the prodigal son and the fatted calf both”. His ultimate legacy was Eclipse (1764-1789), the amazing racehorse who was born at his Cranbourne Lodge Stud during a solar eclipse and who went on to become probably the greatest sire of the century.
SECOND WIND & PREMATURE DEMISE
His father died in 1760 and his 22-year-old nephew succeeded as George III. The Duke and his sister-in-law, the Dowager Princess of Wales, proved bitter rivals for the role of Regent. Behind the scenes the Royal bachelor was one of the main players in bringing the Bute ministry to an end, and the Dowager Princess with him, aided by his friend John Wilkes. He was also a major supporter of Pitt.
By 1762, public opinion was back on the Duke’s side and he was almost as popular as he had been as a young man. Indeed, his nephew, the King, even toyed with the idea of asking the Duke to become Prime Minister. However, the 44-year-old died suddenly in London on 31 October 1765, apparently from a heart attack brought on by his life-long obesity. He was buried beneath the floor of the nave of the Henry VII Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey. [vi]
- Laffan, William, with Toby Barnard and Christine Casey, Peter Harbison, ‘Miscelanea Structura Curiosa by Samuel Chearnley’ (Churchill Press, 2005)
- Lepper, John Heron, and Philip Crossle, ‘History of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Ireland’, vol i. Dublin : Lodge of Research. CC , 1925 542p. p. 130-132.
- Robinson, John J, ‘Born In Blood, The Lost Secrets Of Freemasonry’ (1989)
[i] He is not to be confused with Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland, third son of Frederick, Prince of Wales, who was initiated in 1767 at the Thatched House tavern in St. James’s-street and unanimously elected Grand Master of England in 1782, which office he held until his death in September 1790. In 1771, Prince Henry caused serious ripples in Georgian Britain when he married Anne Houghton (alias Nancy Parsons), a widow who had been on the social scene for some time to whom he was allegedly introduced at a Hellfire Club meeting by John Wilkes. Horace Walpole described her as ‘a coquette beyond measure, artful as Cleopatra, and completely mistress of all her passions and prejudices’. Walpole also paraded her easy-loving nature around by calling her ‘The Duke of Grafton’s Mrs. Houghton, the Duke of Dorset’s Mrs. Houghton, everyone’s Mrs. Houghton.’ Prince Henry was the laughing stock of London but it transpired the couple were perfectly happy with one another. George III, his brother, was less pleased and passed the Royal Marriages Act which gave the monarch the power to veto all royal marriages until the person concerned was 25 years old.
[ii] Edward Cornwallis, credited with introducing Freemasonry to Nova Scotia, was on Cumberland’s staff at Fontenoy. He is sometimes confused with Charles, Lord Cornwallis, who led the British forces in the American Revolutionary War and was Viceroy of Ireland during the 1798 Rebellion.
[iii] See T. Mowl, and B. Earnshaw, An Insular Rococo, Architecture, Politics and Society in Ireland and England, 1710 – 1770 (London 1999) 82-32
[iv] Quote in John Prebble’s Culloden, Penguin, 1961,
[v] Rather like Cromwell at Drogheda a hundred years earlier, or indeed Hiroshima 200 years later, the harsh response certainly brought an abrupt end to the enemy action.
[vi] A memorial Obelisk to him in Duke in Windsor Great Park is inscribed “THIS OBELISK RAISED BY COMMAND OF KING GEORGE THE SECOND COMMEMORATES THE SERVICES OF HIS SON WILLIAM DUKE OF CUMBERLAND THE SUCCESS OF HIS ARMS AND THE GRATITUDE OF HIS FATHER THIS TABLET WAS INSCRIBED BY HIS MAJESTY KING WILLIAM THE FOURTH”. According to a local park guide the Obelisk was originally inscribed “Culloden” but Victoria had “Culloden” removed.