‘Persons of Rank and Distinction’: negotiating the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748)

Last month @GeorgianLords joined with @HistParl to discuss a series of treaties from the 17th to the mid-18th centuries. In this follow-up blog post, Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the Lords 1715-90 section, considers in more depth the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which brought to a close the War of the Austrian Succession.

In the winter of 1748 two British peers presented themselves to the French authorities. Having explained that they were the designated hostages nominated to stand surety for certain provisions of the recently settled Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, they were conveyed to Paris, where they were introduced at court in their formal role as ‘otages’. They then settled into what was to turn out to be a remarkably enjoyable, if not trouble-free, period of detention, a high-point of which (for them) was no doubt a dinner tête-à-tête with Louis XV held in his private ‘alcove’.

News of the deal struck between France, Britain and the States General (the Netherlands) had first been made public in Parliament on 13 May 1748. On that day, both Houses had assembled to hear the king’s speech bringing the current session to a close, the main thrust of the address being the announcement of the conclusion of the peace talks with France. George II, who had achieved in the course of the campaign the distinction of becoming the last British king to lead his own troops into battle [https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2018/10/11/his-presence-contributed-greatly-to-the-success-of-the-day-george-ii-king-and-soldier/], was at pains to justify the deal that had been settled:

In this important Transaction, my great Views have been steadily to adhere to the true Interests of Europe, to pursue and maintain those of my own Kingdoms in particular, and to procure for my Allies the best Terms and Conditions that the Events of a War, in some Parts unsuccessful, did admit.

Considered by both sides little more than a breathing space, the basis of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, as described by the king in his speech, was ‘a general Restitution of Conquests made, during the War, on all sides.’

I hope soon to see this necessary Work brought to Perfection, with the Concurrence of all my Allies, with whom it is my firm Intention to cultivate the most perfect Harmony, and to cement and strengthen, if possible, the Ties of our ancient Union and Friendship, in such a manner as may render the Peace secure and durable. [CJ xxv. 660]

Parliament may have been informed of the outlines of the Treaty earlier in the summer, but it was not until November that full details of the Treaty finally made it into the press, with several newspapers carrying full listings of the articles. Some of the stipulations were fairly obscure, notably one undertaking that the kings of France and Britain, alongside the States General would do their best to overcome ‘Differences that have arisen on the subject of the great mastership of the Order of the Golden Fleece’. Others were more contentious, in particular the undertaking that both sides would restore most of the territories taken in the course of the conflict. By this France agreed to hand over Madras to the British, while Britain agreed to the return of the fortress of Louisburg on Cape Breton, the seizing of which had been one of the (few) major successes of the war. Surrendering the strategic fortress was bad enough, but one additional concession proved especially galling to the British delegation. To ensure that the British honoured their side of the agreement the French insisted that two noble hostages (the requirement that they should be peers only very slightly disguised by the terminology ‘persons of Rank and Distinction’) should be sent to Paris while Cape Breton was evacuated. This was controversial enough in itself but British political and popular opinion was infuriated that the agreement was not reciprocal. Annoyance at large was reflected in one letter submitted by ‘A Briton’ published in the Westminster Journal and New Weekly Miscellany on 12 November, which suggested (in unison with the paper’s editorial policy):

if Hostages are to be sent to France, no Men are so proper for such an Embassy as those who submitted to the Condition of making it. I do not think… our Neg[otiato]rs had a Right to stipulate for the Captivity of the meanest Briton, much less for two Britons of the first Distinction, other than themselves or their Employers.

There was also a significant parliamentary angle to the demand as it was feared that agreeing to it might be an infringement of privilege. Some even questioned (in harmony with the author of the newspaper letter) whether such an undertaking was legal. The duke of Richmond queried to his friend the duke of Newcastle:

“how you will be able to satisfy the Court of France upon the two hostage peers I don’t know, nor do I conceive you can by law agree to it; if you could I should fancy a couple of Scotch peers might be found that would not be sorry to go.” [Richmond Newcastle Correspondence, ed. McCann, p.276]

There was plenty about the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle that disappointed the ministers who signed it off, but for Newcastle the article referring to the hostages was ‘The only disagreeable thing in the whole’. The eventual solution was to send two peers, who were not strictly speaking members of Parliament. The first was Charles Cathcart, 9th Lord Cathcart, a Scots peer, and member of the duke of Cumberland’s entourage, who had not yet been elected a representative peer, so had no role within Parliament. The second was George Augustus Yelverton, 2nd earl of Sussex, who had not taken his seat in the Lords as he was still underage and so was thus also (technically) not a member.

While some disgusted commentators may have reeled at Britain’s supine willingness to give in to French demands, for Cathcart and Sussex the experience was largely pleasurable with one of their principal preoccupations proving whether they might secure from the government extra supplies to help them with their round of entertaining. Their only major difficulty was in avoiding the Young Pretender (Charles Edward Stuart), who appeared to enjoy appearing in Parisian society at unpredictable moments and ‘they could not help thinking that all this was done to affront and mortify them’.

Sussex and Cathcart were to remain in France beyond the terms of their captivity. At the close of August 1749, the French announced their satisfaction that Cape Breton had been cleared of British personnel, but it was not until the end of October that the two men returned to London, having taken advantage of an invitation to enjoy their liberty for some time longer in France. Their conveyance back to England was aboard the appositely named sloop, The Charming Peggy. Both went on to have careers in the Lords, Sussex taking his seat not long after his arrival on 16 November 1749, while Cathcart had to wait for his election as a representative peer in November 1752 before finally claiming his place on 11 January 1753. As predicted, Aix-la-Chapelle failed to provide a lasting solution to Anglo-French rivalries, which ignited once more the following decade in what was to come to be known as the Seven Years’ War.



Further Reading

Reed Browning, The War of the Austrian Succession (1993)

Robin Eagles, ‘ “The Only Disagreeable Thing in the whole”: the selection and experience of the British Hostages for the delivery of Cape Breton in Paris, 1748-49’, in Kathleen Hardesty Doig and Dorothy Medlin (ed.) British-French Exchanges in the Eighteenth Century (2007)

J.M. Sosin, ‘Louisburg and the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, 1748’, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 14 (1957)


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