A Royal Nuisance

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By Jeremy Black | Published in History Today Volume: 62 Issue: 11 2012


Jeremy Black considers Hanoverian precedents for the wayward behaviour of royal younger brothers.

Duke of Cumberland seated on a bank with the Savoyard girl, his arm about her neck. The Duke's rival mistresses stand behind, and are vehemently jealous.Duke of Cumberland seated on a bank with the Savoyard girl, his arm about her neck. The Duke's rival mistresses stand behind, and are vehemently jealous.

By historical standards the media verdict on the recent naked antics of Prince Harry was quite tame. There was no attempt to make political weather out of his behaviour nor any serious dent to royal reputation. The Hanoverians certainly put the Harry episode into perspective. The problems George I, George II and George III faced with their heirs were numerous and notorious, but their younger brothers were almost as bad.

George I had five brothers (and only one sister), but of these only two were still alive when he came to the throne in 1702. However, both Friedrich (1661-90) and Maximilian (1666-1726) turned against their father and elder brother by seeking foreign support in their effort to thwart the primogeniture that Ernst August, 1st Elector of Hanover, enforced for the benefit of his eldest son. With his conversion to Catholicism and siring of an illegitimate daughter, Maximilian would have offered the British press plenty of column inches but he lazily spent his time in foreign service. The youngest brother, Ernst August (1674-1728), lived in Germany as Prince-Bishop of Osnabrück, a position that gave him a revenue, although he was created Duke of York in 1716. He got some money from Britain but avoided scandal.

Due to his parents’ bad relations and eventual divorce, George II (r.1727-60) had fewer problems as he only had a sister, while his close marriage led to eight children, of whom five were girls and one a boy, who died as a baby. As a second son, William, Duke of Cumberland did his family military duty until defeated by the French at Hastenbeck in 1757. Outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, he subsequently signed the Convention of Klosterzeven, disbanding his army and leaving the French in control of Hanover. A livid George humiliated his son when he returned to London, leading the latter to resign all his military posts. The king changed his will, taking away a large legacy. He told the Duke of Newcastle ‘a scoundrel in England one day may be thought a good man in another. In Germany it is otherwise. I think like a German’.

George III (r. 1760-1820) had four brothers. Frederick (1750-65) died young but the other three, Edward, Duke of York (1739-67), William, Duke of Gloucester (1743-1805) and Henry, Duke of Cumberland (1745-90) all caused problems and, from the king’s perspective, displayed neither princely responsibility nor the necessary family solidarity. Thus Edward shared neither his brother’s religious beliefs (he was a Latitudinarian) nor his moral conduct. Freed from the burden but not the privileges of royal status, York was able to follow his own desires. Visiting Italy as a tourist, he enjoyed the company of attractive women and caused comment by appearing hand in hand with the artist Angela Serra at a reception in Genoa. George was closer to William, although the latter also visited Italy three times, largely in pursuit of female company. On his last visit he was accompanied by his family and his mistress, the beautiful Lady Almeria Carpenter, who was officially his wife’s lady-in-waiting.

Gloucester’s royal status made him a field marshal, but the king refused to let him or his brother Henry, an admiral, serve during the War of American Independence. George’s brothers, like his father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his eldest son, later George IV, suffered from the lack of a meaningful role.

Henry’s personal life received much public attention as the result of an affair with Harriet, Lady Grosvenor. Found guilty in 1770 of adultery, he was ordered to pay damages of £10,000, which obliged him to borrow from a reluctant George. Henry’s clandestine marriage in 1771 to a commoner (Anne Luttrell, daughter of the 1st Earl of Carhampton and a widow) further infuriated George, partly because, under German law, any children from such a union would be unable to inherit Hanover. The king was also concerned that such a step might threaten civil war, claiming that the Wars of the Roses owed much to the intermarriage of crown and nobility.

As Henry resisted his brother’s pressure to disavow the marriage, the king barred him from his presence. George also sponsored the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, under which descendants of George II (with the exception of the descendants of princesses who married abroad) could only marry before the age of 25 with royal permission. Thereafter they had to give a year’s notice to the Privy Council. This led William to reveal that he had married Maria, the widow of the 2nd Earl Waldegrave. He was banned from court. Neither brother was received again until 1780, when the offer of help during the Gordon Riots changed the king’s attitude. Their wives, however, were never received.

Henry also introduced the future George IV to gambling and encouraged him in drinking and womanising; but the antics of George’s sons are another story altogether.

Jeremy Black is the author of George III (Yale, 2006)

A Royal Nuisance | History Today

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