2021 is the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of British history’s most controversial characters: William Augustus, duke of Cumberland, younger son of George II and the brutal victor of the battle of Culloden. Dr Robin Eagles, editor of the Lords 1715-1790 section, reconsiders Cumberland’s longer career and how he was – for a brief while – effectively the only royal ever to have been Prime Minister.
In the summer of 1765 there was a crisis in government. George III, suffering from his first major bout of ill-health, was determined to do away with Prime Minister George Grenville but was unable to persuade his first-choice alternatives to take on the burden of government instead. William Pitt was approached but refused to accept as he was unwilling to share the fruits of office with others. With all other options exhausted the king was left with no choice but to turn to his uncle, the duke of Cumberland, to set about forming an administration.
Relations between the two had not always been so cordial. As a boy George III had been shown round his uncle’s apartments, which were largely decorated with an array of weapons, and when Cumberland had drawn a sword to show it off to the young prince, George had been convinced his uncle was about to murder him. Cumberland was bemused by his nephew’s apparent pusillanimity.
Cumberland might have been surprised, but George probably thought he had good reason to fear the duke. Born in 1721, Cumberland had soon become his parents’ favourite – in marked distinction to the heir to the throne, Prince Frederick, who was always on bad terms with the king and queen – and had been marked out early on for a military career. He became a popular figure with the soldiers, and was dubbed ‘the martial boy’. In 1743 he was given his first serious taste of action at the battle of Dettingen, where he was seriously wounded in the leg – an injury from which he never fully recovered. By 1745 he was in command of the British armies on the continent and presided over a close fought, though ultimately unsuccessful, battle at Fontenoy.
Cumberland’s reputation was made the following year when he was brought back to take charge of the government army combatting the Jacobite rebellion. Charles Edward Stuart’s largely Scots Highland army had performed with considerable success against the professional forces ranged against them: they had trounced Sir John Cope at Prestonpans in a matter of minutes, and launched a successful invasion of England that carried them all the way to Derby before losing heart and heading back. Even on the retreat there were further successes, so Cumberland faced no mean challenge in rallying his troops and convincing them that the apparently invincible Highlanders could be overcome.
When he eventually caught up with them at Culloden it was no longer an even contest. The Highland army was depleted, starving and attempted to fight on ground that did not favour their usual tactics. Nevertheless, Cumberland fought a devastatingly successful battle, decimating the Jacobite army and ensuring there was no prospect of it rallying to fight another day. The subsequent brutal suppression of the rebel soldiers, their families, and broader Highland society gave rise to Cumberland being dubbed ‘the Butcher’.
In the years after the ’45 Cumberland was viewed with increasing suspicion. He fell out with his father over his decision to sign the 1757 Convention of Klosterzeven with the French, which George II considered dishonourable, and in 1760, when the old king died, some viewed Cumberland’s potential power over the young George III with considerable unease. Comparisons were made openly with another ‘wicked uncle’ Richard III.
However, by 1765 George III had come to appreciate Cumberland’s presence. After the fall of Bute in 1763, and with the demise of the Grenville administration in 1765, George turned to Cumberland to help broker a new ministry, urging him to ensure:
the World see that this Country is not at the low Ebb that no Administration can be form’d without the Grenville familycited by Langford
After failing in his negotiations with Pitt the Elder, assembling a new government was left largely in Cumberland’s hands. Two of his horse-racing acquaintances were given the prime slots: the marquess of Rockingham heading the treasury, while the duke of Grafton was made one of the secretaries of state. The other secretaryship went to General Henry Seymour Conway, a former aide de camp, who had seen action along with Cumberland at Fontenoy and Culloden. The remainder of the cabinet comprised old war horses like the duke of Newcastle. Much of the negotiating was carried out at Newmarket and Ascot leading to one pamphleteer declaring that the new government comprised:
Persons called from the Stud to the State, and transformed miraculously out of Jockies into Ministercited by Langford
Cumberland himself did not take a specific post, but he attended cabinet and, according to John Brooke, ‘was the real Prime Minister’. Certainly, he was the glue that held the administration together.
Cumberland’s moment at the apex of government proved very short-lived. The government came into being in July. Three months later he suffered a massive stroke, and on 31 October he died. According to the duke of Newcastle his death left ‘a chasm which must be supplied’, while Horace Walpole underscored how important Cumberland had been as a conduit between king and ministers ‘which no other man in England was capable of doing’. In his absence the relatively inexperienced Rockingham was left to take up the reins as premier working closely with Grafton and Conway, but the government floundered and by 1766 they were out.
Cumberland is usually remembered to history as a brutal man, an obese unattractive individual who was responsible for some of the worst atrocities carried out in Britain. Unquestionably, he presided over some thoroughly disreputable actions. However, it is important to remember that he died at the age of just 44 on the brink of achieving significant power and that had he lived he may have contributed to a very different trajectory for his nephew. Whether ‘Sweet William’ or ‘the Butcher’ what might have been had he survived remains an intriguing prospect.
John Brooke, George III
Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People
W.A. Speck, The Butcher: the duke of Cumberland and the suppression of the 45