In this latest post for the Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton considers the histories of two Dutch families who went on to produce some of the most influential noble houses in Britain through the 18th and 19th centuries.
Until the extinction of the line in 1990, one of the grandest titles in the British nobility was the dukedom of Portland. Their principal seat of Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire came to the family through one of the advantageous marriages with well-endowed heiresses which characterized the family’s ascent in the 18th century. The 2nd duke married an heiress to the Cavendish (dukes of Newcastle branch), Holles and Harley fortunes. The 3rd added to the estate by marrying an heiress of two other wealthy families, the Boyles and the Cavendishes, dukes of Devonshire, and subsequently renamed himself Cavendish-Bentinck.
However, the ancestor of these Cavendish-Bentincks, at the pinnacle of the British establishment, was a Dutch noble, Hans Willem Bentinck. Bentinck was William of Orange’s closest companion in the Netherlands who accompanied him in his invasion of 1688 and remained his principal adviser and ‘favourite’ during his English reign. Already a member of the Holland nobility, Bentinck was created earl of Portland in April 1689, much to the consternation of the offended native English nobles.
Portland, however, was not the only Dutchman to receive an English title at the hands of William III and to found a prominent British dynasty. Portland soon had a rival in Arnold Joost van Keppel, a young Dutch army officer who was as charming and outgoing at court as Bentinck was serious and reserved. William III rewarded van Keppel with positions of trust and in 1697 raised him to the English peerage as earl of Albemarle. Portland was so enraged by the rapid ascent of his rival that in 1699 he formally resigned his court offices.
Through William’s generosity Portland died very rich in 1709 and his English estates went to his heir Henry Bentinck, 2nd earl of Portland, subsequently created duke of Portland in 1716. Albemarle had returned to the United Provinces after Anne’s accession and fought for the Allies during the War of the Spanish Succession. His heir William Anne van Keppel, 2nd earl of Albemarle, strategically named after the British queen, also looked to Britain for his future. He had no landed estate in the country, but enjoyed the patronage of George I and the British officers who had fought alongside his father.
Albemarle pursued a successful military career and rose to be colonel of the Coldstream Guards and eventually ambassador to France and groom of the stole. His progeny cemented the place of the Keppels in British society, who significantly had dropped the ‘van’ in the family name by this generation. The family even infiltrated the Church of England, as one of the 2nd earl’s sons, Frederick, was bishop of Exeter from 1762 to 1777. His three other sons, including his heir, followed him into the military and rose to the highest levels of command in their respective services. George, 3rd earl of Albemarle, and William Keppel both ended their careers as lieutenants-general in the army, while Augustus Keppel rose to admiral in the navy, for which he acquired his own title, Viscount Keppel, in 1782. In 1762 the 3rd earl was appointed commander-in-chief of the expedition to capture Havana after Spain had entered the war allied with France. He and his brothers commanded the naval and land forces in the three-month siege and amphibious assault which led to the surrender of the Moro fortress in August. Apart from the renown they acquired, the Keppel brothers became rich from the spoils of this campaign, enough to undo their father’s debts and to become substantial landed proprietors.
These descendants of William of Orange’s Dutch followers stayed true to their roots by working to uphold the legacy of the Revolution of 1689 and the Protestant Succession. During the 1760s, when ministries were formed and dissolved at dizzying speed, both William Henry Cavendish Bentinck, 3rd duke of Portland, who succeeded to the title in 1762, and the 3rd earl of Albemarle stayed loyal to the Whigs, both in and out of office. In the summer of 1765 they were at the heart of the efforts to form a Whig ministry, eventually headed by Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd marquess of Rockingham, as first lord of the Treasury. Portland was made lord chamberlain, while Albemarle retained his military posts, but did not hold office.
After the fall of the Rockingham ministry in summer 1766 the two Anglo-Dutch peers became devoted lieutenants to Rockingham as he led the Whigs into a long period of opposition. In February 1770 Albemarle entrusted his proxy with Portland. Thus the heirs of the bitter rivals at William III’s court were, less than a century later, working together for their inherited Whig tradition. Albemarle’s brothers were also active for the opposition from their seats in the Commons. Portland held office again in the second Rockingham administration from March 1782 and, after Rockingham’s death in July, became leader of the Whigs and then nominal prime minister for the short-lived Fox-North coalition in 1783 (he was Prime Minister again from 1807 to 1809).
Albemarle had died in 1772 when his heir was barely six months old, but as soon as he reached his majority William Charles Keppel, 4th earl of Albemarle, got stuck straight away into business in the House of Lords on behalf of the opposition. In the 1850s the 3rd earl’s grandson, the Whig politician George Thomas Keppel, 6th earl of Albemarle, scoured the family archive to compile a laudatory two-volume work, the Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham and His Contemporaries, perhaps as an act of reverence to the long-standing family political tradition.
There were important differences between the two Anglo-Dutch families. Bentinck and other Dutch members of William of Orange’s coterie arrived in 1688 with existing English connections through kinship or diplomatic experience. Arnold Joost van Keppel, though, was more thoroughly Dutch, arriving with no English connections and, despite William III’s best efforts, leaving with no landed estate. Yet his descendants became thoroughly integrated into British society and were some of the most energetic servants of the British state and adherents of the Whig cause in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Frank O’Gorman, The Rise of Pary in England: the Rockingham Whigs, 1760-1782 (1975)
Paul Langford, The First Rockingham Administration, 1765-66 (1973)
George Thomas Keppel, 6th earl of Albemarle, Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham and His Contemporaries (2 vols, 1852)
Sonia Keppel, Three Brothers at Havana, 1762 (1981)
A. S. Turberville, A History of Welbeck Abbey and its Owners (2 vols., 1938-9)
David Onnekink, The Anglo-Dutch Favourite: the Career of Hans Willem Bentinck, 1st earl of Portland (2016)