Last month the Prince of Wales became the longest-serving holder of that title. The role of Prince of Wales was politically very different in the Georgian period and none of the four princes who held the title during the 18th century came close to the 59 years Prince Charles has served. In this month’s blog, Dr Robin Eagles considers one of them, Prince Frederick. Frederick was Prince of Wales for over 22 years, and is best remembered for failing ever to make it to the throne, but he proved influential as well as controversial during his tenure.
History has not been kind to Prince Frederick. He is best known (if known at all) by a couple of examples of wretched doggerel. The first, appropriately enough, referred to one of his dogs – a gift of Alexander Pope, who was said to have had inscribed on its collar: ‘I am His Highness’ Dog at Kew; Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?’ The second, popularized in the days following the prince’s early death in 1751 ran:
Here lies poor Fred
Who was alive and is dead:
Had it been his father,
I had much rather;
Had it been his brother,
Still better than another;
Had it been his sister,
No one would have missed her;
Had it been the whole generation,
Still better for the nation
But since ‘tis only Fred
Who was alive and is dead
There’s no more to be said
The truth of the matter is, of course, rather less clear-cut than the ditty suggests. At the time of the Hanoverian Accession (1714), a decision had been made to leave Frederick behind in Hanover, when his grandfather, George I, father and mother, Prince George and Princess Caroline, and other members of the family made the journey to England. Frederick was to remain at the Electoral court at Hanover as a symbol of George I’s continuing commitment to his original dominions. This is not to say that the people in England had no conception about the young prince. Numerous English courtiers visited Hanover, especially on the occasions when George I travelled back to oversee affairs in person, where they had an opportunity to meet and assess the heir but one to the throne of England. Comments were usually, perhaps unsurprisingly, positive. He was thought to have a particular gift for informality, alongside of a keen intelligence and good memory for those he met.
Such optimistic appraisals were shared by the king, but could not have been at greater variance with the opinion of Frederick’s mother, Caroline, who by all accounts could not bear her eldest son. Quite why she adopted this aversion is the subject of debate – as is the true extent of her dislike. Many of her more spiteful pronouncements were recorded by John Hervey, Lord Hervey, who had his own axe to grind, but it seems reasonable to conclude that the princess found her eldest son difficult and that experience of his activities once he came to England compounded her initial concerns about his character.
Historians too have tended to be wary of Frederick. At best he has been considered something of a lightweight – a man led by stronger personalities. These included Hervey, with whom he was intimate before a falling out; the irrepressible George Bubb Dodington (future Baron Melcombe); Lord Baltimore and Viscount Bolingbroke.
Such assessments, however, tend to overlook the real achievements of Prince Frederick and his associates. It was not until the winter of 1728 – aged 21 – that Frederick was finally brought to England. His father had succeeded as George II the previous year and it was only the joint pressures of the political nation questioning loudly why Frederick was not resident in England, and the prince’s increasing tendency to exert himself over policy matters in Hanover that finally persuaded the king to give way and call him to court. There Frederick kicked against the restraints of life at St James’s, where, as the lord chamberlain’s warrants for September 1730 demonstrate, his bedchamber was refurbished with an eye to parsimony typical of Frederick’s father the king. Thus although he was treated to a ‘new bed of yellow Genoa damask with four posts’ and other furniture upholstered to match, in his drawing room his arm chair and six stools were upholstered with old curtain material. Frustrated by the limitations of his predicament, Frederick looked for other ways to fill his time.
It is only to be expected that Frederick might have proved a rallying point for those out of favour at court, but in his years as Prince of Wales he was able to do much more than that. In spite of being born and raised between the royal palace in Hanover and the retreat at Herrenhausen, Frederick was able to reinvent himself as a British prince in a way that George II was never able to do. He took as his inspiration King Arthur and mediaeval heroes such as Edward the Black Prince and Henry V, and established a vibrant alternative court based ultimately at Leicester House (on the edge of modern day Leicester Square). Perhaps most significant of all, he wielded his patronage as Prince of Wales to establish a meaningful bloc in both houses of Parliament. It was in part as a result of the agitations of the members of the prince’s circle that the great man, Sir Robert Walpole, was ultimately brought down. Towards the end of Frederick’s life, with the king’s health apparently failing, the prince worked in association with Dr Lee and Lord Egmont on preparing careful plans for his anticipated succession. Frederick’s influence, it can be argued, helped shape the development of the concept of ‘loyal opposition’ by proposing an alternative programme of government rather than simply a reversionary interest with no particular plan bar taking over when the old king died.
Such hopes were brought to a close by Frederick’s early death in the spring of 1751. The most likely culprit was a cricket injury, which ultimately led to his death from a ruptured abscess, though his autopsy revealed a number of other health issues as well. With the figurehead gone, many of the prince’s adherents made their peace with the government. Their decision to do so is indicative of Frederick’s crucial importance as a rallying point and the vacuum created by his loss, whatever the merits or demerits of his own contributions to politics in the period.
Robin Eagles, ‘ “No More to be Said?” Reactions to the death of Frederick Lewis, prince of Wales’, Historical Research, 80:209 (2007)
Frances Vivian (ed. Roger White), A Life of Frederick, Prince of Wales, 1707-1751: a connoisseur of the arts (Mellen, 2007)