A True Renaissance Man:  6 Facts About The Grand Old Duke of York

A True Renaissance Man: 6 Facts About The Grand Old Duke of York

Natasha sheldon - June 3, 2017

“The grand old Duke of York

He had ten thousand men

He marched them up to the top of the hill

And he marched them down again”

Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and second Son of King George III of England is the only member of the British Royal to be immortalized in a nursery rhyme. The rhyme in question immortalizes the duke’s military defeats. But the grand old Duke of York was much more than an impotent figure of fun.

A True Renaissance Man:  6 Facts About The Grand Old Duke of York
The Future Duke of York, his mother and the Prince of Wales. Google Images

A Prince – and a Bishop!

Frederick Augustus was born on August 16, 1763, at St James Palace in London, the second son of George, the third Hanover King and Queen Charlotte, the former Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The Hanovers continued to maintain their territories in Germany as well as occupy the British throne. One of them was Osnabruck in Lower Saxony, which King George maintained as Elector.

Osnabruck had a curious custom stemming from The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The treaty stipulated that a Catholic and a Protestant bishop would hold the bishopric of Osnabruck alternatively. The archbishop of Cologne would select the Catholic Bishop. The Elector selected the Protestant bishop.

In 1764, it was the turn of a Protestant bishop. And so King George, as Elector selected his six-month-old son. On February 27, 1764, Frederick Augustus became the prince-bishop of Osnabruck.

The title was not an empty one. It secured for the young Prince a solid income as he was entitled to the tithes from fairs and markets and the rights of toll and coinage. In addition, he owned the forest and hunting rights, as well as mining royalties. Prince Frederick continued as bishop of Osnabruck until 1803 when he was relieved of the title- and its income- when the bishopric became part of Prussia.

A True Renaissance Man:  6 Facts About The Grand Old Duke of York
The Duke of York in Flanders. Google Images

The Military Commander

It was common for second sons of monarchs to embark upon a military career. So on November 4, 1780, 17-year-old Prince Frederick was made a colonel. He was then sent off to study at the University of Gottingen for seven years.

In the meantime, the student Prince acquired several other military titles- all without lifting a sword. His father appointed him colonel of the 2nd Horse Grenadier Guards in March 1782-and promoted him to Major General that same November! Other appointments in absentia followed: lieutenant general in October 1784 and colonel of the Coldstream guards in 1784. Finally, on November 27, 1784, he was created Duke of York and Albany- a title commonly passed to the king’s second son.

Two years after the new Duke of York returned to England, in 1789, the French Revolution occurred. The new republic was seized with a zealous desire to spread its principles across Europe- something that made neighboring monarchies decidedly nervous- especially as the new French army had swelled its ranks by the introduction of conscription.

In 1792, the War of the First Coalition had begun. The Duke of York, inexperienced but now a full general, found himself in charge of a military expedition to Flanders. Although the Duke started well, taking the port of Dunkirk, he soon lost it again and was pushed back. For the next few months, his British and German troops found themselves marching ‘back and forth’ as they made gains and then lost them again. Eventually, in July 1794, the British lost Flanders outright and York and his troops were evacuated. These events inspired the rhyme, which immortalizes the Duke.

Despite this defeat, George III, went on to promote his son to Commander in chief of the army. In 1799, York once again took to the field, this time as part of the Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland. He fared no better. The invasion soon began to falter and on October 17, 1799, he signed the Convention of Alkmaar, which saw the withdrawal of allied troops.

A True Renaissance Man:  6 Facts About The Grand Old Duke of York
Duke of York as Commander of the Coldstream Guards. Google Images

Military Reformer

But the Duke learned from his mistakes. He took his appointment of Commander in Chief of the army seriously, vowing that no officer should ever labor under the disadvantages he had faced. For his defeats were not just down to his own inexperience but the state of the army in general. The previous Commander in Chief, Lord Amherst had cultivated a culture of favoritism and bribes, as well as undertraining and under-maintained troops. Official positions were purchased rather than earned on merit.

The Duke set about reforms. He increased troop discipline, ensuring all new recruits were properly trained in drill and field maneuvers. At the same time, he ensured that punishments became much less brutal and barracks and rations were improved to heighten morale. Soldiers’ provisions were now provided out of the public purse rather than relying upon a company’s colonel to cloth and equip them. He also modernized by creating a new regiment, the 95th Rifle Brigade, equipped with the latest high-precision Baker rifles and plain uniforms so they did not provide easy targets in the field.

Perhaps recognizing his own shortcomings, the Duke also encouraged merit-based promotion. He stamped down on commission purchasing and increased the number of free commissions to allow worthy men to rise through the ranks. In 1802, he established the Royal Military College at Sandhurst for the training of officers. Finally, he founded the Duke of York’s school at Chelsea for the sons of soldiers.

All of this was timely. For in 1802, war broke out again with France-this time under the command of Napoleon. Without the Duke’s reforms, it is unlikely the British army could have defeated Napoleon’s troops in the Peninsular War.

A True Renaissance Man:  6 Facts About The Grand Old Duke of York
Martello Towers on Romney Marsh. Google Images

Thwarting Napoleon’s Invasion

In 1803 Napoleon turned his attention to invading England. “All my thoughts are directed towards England,” he said, “I want only for a favorable wind to plant the Imperial Eagle on the Tower of London”. Although the invasion never happened as the French Dictator turned his attention to Egypt instead, the Duke of York played his part in the military preparations for thwarting any French invasion.

Firstly, the Duke saw to it that 50 out of the 93-army regiments had a reserve battalion created. These reserves would only serve on British soil and only be called upon if the invasion occurred. The Duke also organized the activities of civilian volunteers. These volunteers were not to engage the enemy directly but to act as a kind of resistance. Operating in small bands, they were to harass and distract the occupying French in localized guerrilla attacks.

The Duke also put forward the case for building field fortifications in advance of any invasion, as “the erection of such Works must be immediate with a view to their probable utility”. These fortifications were placed along the coast at spots where any invading force was most likely to land.

He received permission and funding and so began building fortifications on the western heights over Dover and the first of the Martello towers along the Kent and Sussex coasts, which acted as artillery emplacements.

A True Renaissance Man:  6 Facts About The Grand Old Duke of York
The Duke of York’s Duel with Colonel Lennox. Google Images

Duelist and Rake

The Duke may have earned respect as a military reformer. But he also had a reputation for irresponsibility. He and his elder brother, the future Prince Regent and George IV were close friends. And like George, the Duke had a reputation for extravagance and was perpetually in debt through gambling.

That close relationship with his brother could have ended his life prematurely. On May 26, 1789, the Duke fought a duel on Wimbledon Common with Colonel Charles Lennox, the future Duke of Richmond. The colonel had been appointed to the Coldstream guards, against the Duke’s wishes as Lennox was opposed to his brother. So when York made disparaging remarks about Lennox’s family, the colonel challenged his superior officer to a duel.

The Duke may have been an incompetent commander. But he was no coward. He avoided using his rank to avoid the challenge and met Lennox at the appointed place. Lennox fired first and the Duke received the shot, without flinching.

The short grazed his hair. When it came to the duke’s turn to fire, he simply shot into the air declaring he bore Lennox no animosity. Honor was satisfied and the colonel quietly switched regiments.

A True Renaissance Man:  6 Facts About The Grand Old Duke of York
Caricature of the Mrs. Clarke Scandle. Google Images

The Mrs. Clarke Scandal

But in 1809, the Duke was forced to resign his commission because of a scandal emanating from his personal life.

Unhappily married to his cousin Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia, the Duke had had a mistress, a Mrs. Mary Anne Clarke. The Duke and Mrs. Clarke lived together for two years. The Duke tired of the relationship – but promised his ex-mistress an annuity so her daughters could be established in respectable lives. However, due to his excessive lifestyle, he did not keep up with the payments. The disgruntled Mrs. Clarke was forced to downgrade and move to Hampstead and there she came to the attention of Colonel Gwyllym Wardle.

Mrs. Clarke told Wardle him that the duke had been selling commissions. The person desiring promotion would approach Mrs. Clarke who would then ‘recommend’ them to the Duke. Generally, Mrs. Clarke claimed, the Duke would agree as he went without her attentions if he did not comply. This was a massive embarrassment, not least because the Duke’s reforms were attempting to eradicate this very practice. But the possibility that the Duke himself could have been using his mistress as an intermediary to receive bribes was a grave matter.

Wardle accused the Duke of corruption and a House of Commons inquiry was set up. The Duke was acquitted of receiving bribes by 278 to 196. But feeling that the votes against him were enough to constitute a vote of no confidence, he resigned from his command. But in 1811 when it was revealed that Mrs. Clarke had been paid by Wardle to provide her testimony. Wardle had promised her £5000 in cash and all her debts cleared and a new house in Chelsea. Honor restored, the Duke returned to his post.

He died of dropsy and heart disease in 1827, honored for his military work by parliament and in 1834 commemorated by the Duke of York column, just off Waterloo Place in London.