The Duke of Cumberland

This blog has been researched and written by Julia Brannan and I am sharing this here with her permission. To read more of her excellent blogs, visit her website

Prince William Augustus was born on 15th April 1721 at Leicester House in England, the long-awaited second son of his parents George, Prince of Wales, and Princess Caroline. The Prince of Wales and his father King George I did not get on at all, but the king appears to have taken a liking to his new grandson, and as a result there was some lessening of hostilities.

King George I

Prince William’s parents adored him, and he quickly became their favourite child, eclipsing his older brother and heir Prince Frederick, who later followed the Hanoverian family tradition of setting up in opposition to his father.

At the age of four he became the first member of the Order of the Bath, and when five was created Duke of Cumberland, the name he was to be known by for the rest of his life and beyond.

From infancy the duke took a great interest in military matters, to the delight of his family, and eschewed games in favour of learning military manoeuvres. He was given a ‘regiment’ of other small boys to train, which he apparently did with great success (how popular he was with his tiny soldiers is not recorded).

He’s also recorded as participating in a stag hunt at the age of seven, mounted on his own horse. This passion for horses, hunting and racing, along with his participation in military affairs was a lifelong one.

King George I arranged for a number of prestigious tutors to educate the young prince, and as a result he was fluent in Latin, French, German and Italian by the age of twelve. He also learned mathematics, and an interest in chemistry led to him setting up his own little laboratory, where he learned about the use of explosives.

In June 1727 George I died and Prince William’s father became King George II. The following year Prince Frederick arrived from Hanover to find that the parents he hadn’t seen for seven years didn’t want him. King George made no secret of the fact that he wished to disinherit Frederick in favour of William, although this does not seem to have soured the relationship between the brothers, and Prince William, although normally submissive to his father’s wishes, when approached in 1737 by the Lord Chancellor regarding this, stated that he had no wish to usurp his older brother.

King George II by Thomas Hudson

By his mid-teens, the young duke was engaging in various romantic liaisons, and it was realised that an occupation needed to be found for him. In spite of the fact that William’s interests lay with the army, his father wanted him to eventually become Lord High Admiral of the Navy, and to that end he was sent to sea at the age of nineteen, in 1740. Although William greatly impressed his superiors and became very popular, both with the men and the ladies who attended the various amusements, the fleet spent most of its time at anchor, either waiting for a favourable wind or for orders from the government. When those orders finally came, they were that the fleet should sail to the West Indies. King George, fearing that his favourite son might die of Yellow Fever in a far-off land, put an end to his naval career. From now on the Duke of Cumberland’s future would be with the army, to his delight.

Duke of Cumberland, Christian Friedrich Zincke, enamel on copper, circa 1743-1745

His career developed at a rapid pace. On his twentieth birthday he was made Colonel of the Coldstream Guards and went to join his regiment. At this time morale and discipline in the army were very lax, and soldiers were generally thought of by the people, with some justification, as the scum of the earth, a situation King George hoped to remedy by making his highly popular son commander. Prince William quickly won over his officers, but had little time to do more than that before he found himself leading his men into action, in the War of the Austrian Succession.

This war had broken out in 1741, and the king was eager to get involved, wishing to lead his troops personally.  Prince William, still in the process of gaining experience in his new role, suddenly found himself commanding the left wing of the attacking army at Dettingen, with the elderly king himself leading the centre.

King George II at the Battle of Dettingen

While the king dismounted and advanced on foot with his men, his son, seeing action for the first time in his life, marched forward at the head of the left wing with great bravery and coolness, winning the admiration not only of his father, but of the troops whom he led. Unlike the king, who emerged unscathed, the young duke was also wounded, which added to his reputation for bravery. It is said that he refused to allow the surgeons to treat his leg wound until a badly wounded (enemy) French officer nearby had been treated.  This story might sound like one of the typical tall tales attributed to royal princes; but for all his faults, William always showed care for his men, and respect for those he considered to be legitimate enemies.

His popularity soared, and in June 1743, the duke was made lieutenant-general of the army. The fighting now over, he set about establishing discipline in his troops, a move which was not popular with those soldiers who had enjoyed a somewhat easy-going life until now. Requests for leave were refused, promotions were made on merit rather than on birth or influence, and reforms were introduced. In this Cumberland had the assistance of numerous experienced officers, but he certainly made his mark, and although he became known as a strict disciplinarian, he also had a reputation for ensuring that his men were paid on time, fed and dressed properly, and, when wounded, received care. This being in a time when many commanding officers showed contempt for the rank and file, it’s not surprising that Cumberland became an extremely popular leader, both with his officers and men.

The battle over, the duke, still limping from his wound, returned to England to an ecstatic welcome, becoming a national hero known as Billy the Bold, and threw himself into the entertainments on offer, taking part in both courtly pleasures and the more earthy joys of cock-fighting, bear-baiting and prize fighting enjoyed by the working classes. His private life was rough and unrefined, but he knew how to behave at fashionable balls, and attracted considerable attention from the ladies, embarking on a number of affairs. Most of these have not been documented, but he is known to have had a favourite amongst the actresses of Drury Lane, one Nancy Wilson.

Little more than a year later Cumberland went to war again, in Flanders, this time in command of the whole allied forces, some 42,000 men. He was not yet twenty-four. In spite of his youth, the appointment was a popular one. He set off for Flanders and spent some time knocking his troops into shape, imposing discipline and order on both officers and men, and setting a good example by putting duty before pleasure himself. Although he could never be said to be a great commander in the field, his reputation for taking good care of his men was well deserved. There are a large number of stories from those serving under him attesting to this throughout his career.

The Battle of Fontenoy, 1745

The Battle of Fontenoy, fought in May 1745, was a major battle in the War of the Austrian Succession and was fought against the French. Cumberland had settled for a two-pronged attack – the Dutch to attack independently to the left, while he moved forward to attack Fontenoy from the other side. The plan broke down when the Dutch refused to advance, and the French began to fire their heavy artillery at Cumberland’s main force.  Cumberland sent a brigade to deal with this, but its commanding officer lost his nerve. As a result the duke had little choice but to attack head-on, which he did. In fairness, the army under his command behaved with magnificent discipline, continuing to advance in spite of receiving heavy fire. On reaching the top of the hill they engaged in desperate close-quarters combat with the French army, in which Cumberland led his men, at considerable risk to himself.

At this point the French commander Marechal de Saxe sent his Irish brigade to attack the Hanoverians from another direction, and, having fought for the whole day and unable to answer this new threat, Cumberland ordered the retreat. The newly disciplined British Army retired in perfect formation, to theirs and Cumberland’s credit. By the time they reached safety, the duke had been on horseback for twenty-five hours, and when told that the casualties numbered nearly 8,000, he burst into tears.

Marechal Maurice de Saxe de la Tour

There is no doubt that the battle was a defeat for Cumberland. But the man he was fighting against, Marechal de Saxe, was one of the most brilliant military commanders of his time, and the young prince had conducted himself with the utmost courage, and had won the regard of his men. He was not blamed for the defeat – instead the blame was laid on the Dutch for their refusal to engage.

He remained in Flanders, tightening up the discipline amongst his officers and eagerly preparing for his next engagement against the French.

It was not to be. In July 1745 his distant cousin, Charles Edward Stuart landed in Scotland, raised the standard for his father James and marched south with his ever-increasing band of Jacobite followers. At first the rising was dismissed as a storm in a teacup by the government; but following the resounding defeat at Prestonpans after only five minutes of the British forces in Scotland by the Jacobite army, the authorities in London realised the seriousness of the situation.

Jacobite propaganda cartoon about the flight of General Cope after his defeat by the Jacobite army at Prestonpans.

Who better to defeat this upstart Stuart pretender to the throne than Prince William Augustus, darling of the nation? In October 1745, Cumberland was ordered home along with most of his army, to deal with the increasingly serious threat to his father’s crown.

By the time the Duke of Cumberland arrived home from Flanders, Prince Charles Stuart had taken Scotland for his father, assembled over 5,000 followers, and was clearly intent on heading south for England. Cumberland was given a tumultuous welcome in London, and immediately set about preparing his troops to address the menace of his ambitious cousin.

In November the Jacobite Army crossed into England, taking the town and castle of Carlisle within a few days before continuing southward. Cumberland took command of the forces stationed in the Midlands to intercept Prince Charles’ army, but by a series of feints the Jacobites outmanoeuvred the British, reaching Derby in December.

Carlisle Castle

It was at this point that they made the controversial decision to retreat, and in doing so handed the military initiative over to the government. On 8th December Cumberland marched his fastest troops to try to overtake the Jacobite army as they moved north again, ordering General Wade to move west across Yorkshire to cut the army off in Lancashire.

But the Jacobites had a head start, and that, coupled with the fact that Cumberland was temporarily halted at Macclesfield due to rumours of a French invasion on the south coast, ensured that the retreating army got as far north as Clifton Moor before Cumberland’s advance guard caught up with Prince Charles’ rear guard. There followed a fire-fight and some fierce hand-to-hand combat in a running skirmish in which the dragoons were pushed back, after which the Jacobites retreated and continued their way back into Scotland.

Somewhat romantic image of a Highland warrior, complete with targe and basket-hilted broadsword

The duke continued north in pursuit, retaking Carlisle Castle, which was held by Jacobite troops including most of the Manchester Regiment, on 30th December. In the surrender terms, Cumberland stated only that the ’rebels’ would not be killed on the spot, but would be ‘reserved for the King’s pleasure’. Although Cumberland was later accused of betraying the terms of surrender by the Jacobite garrison, who were treated with extraordinary brutality once captured, in fact he had given no guarantees as to what form the King’s pleasure would take.

After this, Cumberland returned briefly to London due to rumours of yet another French landing. He was greeted by the populace as a great hero once more.

Meanwhile the government discussed the policies to be used once the rising was over. All of them called for extreme measures to be taken against the enemy, the general view being that the rising was a case of King George’s subjects rebelling against their lawful king. This is an important distinction and the resultant actions taken against the Jacobites by Cumberland and his army must be seen in this light. In the eyes of both the duke and the British government the Jacobites had no right to be treated according to the rules of war, and if captured would not be treated as prisoners of war, but as traitors (an exception being the French troops who fought for Charles).

Some people also felt that all Scots were responsible for the rising, and that the whole country needed to be crushed. This was the prevailing mood in London when the news came that the Stuart prince’s army, far from retreating to Scotland to disperse, had in fact won a victory over General Hawley’s troops at Falkirk Muir.

General Henry ‘hangman’ Hawley, named due to his renowned brutality, even towards his own soldiers

Cumberland now went to Scotland, determined to put down this rebellion once and for all, and to ensure that the Highlanders would never be able to rise again. He recommended that small parties of men burn and destroy the homes of the rebels and kill anyone who was found to have weapons in their houses. As a result of this, even in advance of Culloden the looting and burning of Highlanders’ homes began, not all of them belonging to people who had risen for Prince Charles. During this time, among other things the Movern coast was devastated, and part of the town of Maryburgh was destroyed.

Not all Cumberland’s men agreed with this draconian and somewhat indiscriminate policy. In February General Campbell refused to obey orders to plunder the rebels’ houses, while the Lord Chief Justice for Scotland, Andrew Fletcher pointed out that Cumberland’s orders were illegal. Cumberland’s military secretary retaliated by saying that for those found in open rebellion, legal niceties could be disregarded.

Strangely, although the duke had expressly issued these orders, he took a very dim view of unauthorised looting, inflicting severe punishments on soldiers who overstepped the mark, even going so far as to hang some soldiers who plundered houses near Aberdeen without permission.

For himself, although a good number of Scottish soldiers fought on his side, he had a profound distrust of the Scots in general, and of the Highlanders in particular. In a letter to London, Cumberland summed up his view of the Highlanders, and no doubt this view coloured his future actions, which were to ensure that he go down in history as the Butcher of Culloden.

‘The Highlanders are almost universally a nest of knaves and they are always ready to rise in order to rob, many of them are also Papists, they have been poisoned by that connexion which has been kept up. Even those of the Episcopal Clergy who take the Oaths, retain generally their old principles’.

A Highlander in winter

The duke marched north, finally reaching Aberdeen in March, where he stayed for a month, gathering supplies and retraining his men in a new manoeuvre intended to blunt the ferocity of the feared Highland charge, while he waited for the River Spey to fall enough to be fordable.

I won’t write here about the Battle of Culloden. Anyone who has read my books or knows anything of the ’45 knows that all the hopes of the Stuart cause were crushed in less than half an hour on 16th April 1746.

After the battle the French troops surrendered, were taken prisoner and dealt with as legitimate prisoners of war, many of them later being sent home. This was not the fate of the rest of the Jacobite troops. Cumberland and the British authorities now had the chance and the excuse to finally rid themselves of that perennial thorn in their side, the Highland clans, until now virtually ungovernable, answering to no law except their chiefs’. Much of the rest of Britain considered them to be barbarian savages; the extirpation of such a threat could only be good for the country as a whole. There was also the real threat that the Jacobites, if left unpunished would rise again, one we tend to forget, having hindsight.

One of the controversies surrounding the battle itself was the fate of the wounded. Only about 154 were taken prisoner and it’s certain that some of the wounded were killed after the battle. No order from Cumberland survives stating that he sanctioned this, but he certainly made no move to stop it.

Once the battle and its immediate aftermath were over, the redcoats were ordered to take any Jacobites found as prisoners rather than killing them, unless they resisted, with the result that the prisons soon became vastly overcrowded, and the prisoners suffered horrific conditions, many dying of untended wounds or disease. The attitude of the government towards this appears to have been one of utter indifference, their main concern being how to securely house as many prisoners as cheaply as possible.

Fort Augustus, engraving after Turner

On 24th May Cumberland arrived at Fort Augustus, determined to subdue the Highlands as quickly as possible so that he could return to Flanders. It was now that the actions took place that were to earn the Duke of Cumberland his new nickname ‘the Butcher’, a name by which he is still known, nearly 300 years after the events. Raiding parties were sent out to burn houses, drive off cattle and shoot anyone who resisted. Before long stories started to spread of women and children dying of hunger and cold, having had their homes destroyed, and not only Jacobite supporters; the redcoats were not overly concerned as to whether the villages they were burning belonged to loyalists or rebels. Jacobite stories abound of atrocities committed against innocents, and it is impossible to ascertain for certain how many of these are exaggerated. But what is known is that for months the redcoats rampaged around the Highlands, looting and burning at will, with few consequences.

After Culloden, rebel hunting. By John Seymour Lucas

Those who would defend Cumberland state that he could not be held responsible for those of his men who exceeded their orders, and it is on record that periodically he did restore stolen property to their owners. But although known as a strict disciplinarian, he seems to have done little or nothing to rein in the savagery of his officers, and in view of his known attitude towards Highlanders and his tight control over his troops, it is hard to believe that he was either unaware of what was going on or did not condone the actions of his army.

In July the duke returned to London to a hero’s welcome. Churches the length of the country rang the bells, bonfires were lit and celebrations were held. But it was not only the English who were happy that the Jacobite threat had been squashed. Celebrations were also held in much of Scotland, including Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling. The duke himself however,  still believed that the Scots were ready to rise again, stating ‘I have nothing to say new from this country but that to my great astonishment I find them a more stubborn and villainous set of wretches than I imagined could exist’.

To a modern eye it might seem obvious that the Highlanders, loyal or rebel, were hardly likely to feel conciliatory or grateful to either the Duke of Cumberland or the British government, in view of the contempt in which they were held by them, and the horrific and somewhat indiscriminate retribution that had been meted out to them. Indeed Duncan Forbes of Culloden, a devoted Hanoverian, stated that the common Highlanders should be shown some indication of mercy, otherwise they would be bound to rise again at the first opportunity.

Duncan Forbes of Culloden

Cumberland and the authorities did not see it this way, however. A series of Acts were passed intended to destroy the very fabric of Highland life, and which were largely successful.

In August Horace Walpole stated in a letter that; ‘the Duke, who has not so much of Caesar after a victory, as in gaining it, is for the utmost severity. It was lately proposed in the city, to present him with the freedom of some company; one of the aldermen said aloud, “Then let it be of the Butchers!”’

In this way was the nickname which was to haunt the duke born. But at this time Cumberland’s star was still rising. He was still only twenty-five, yet a veteran of three campaigns, and had saved his country from the Stuart threat. His popularity was enormous.

Following his return from Scotland, the Duke of Cumberland was hailed as a national hero, and it seemed that his future was bright. Beloved of his people and the monarch’s favourite son, he was the perfect choice to retrieve the somewhat hopeless situation in Europe.

While Cumberland and most of the British troops had been dealing with the Jacobite rising, their allies the Dutch and Austrians had been left in a greatly weakened position in Flanders, having been forced into a series of retreats. In February 1747, after a winter spent enjoying the adulation of his people, Cumberland headed back to Flanders.

At first things seemed to go well. He succeeded in gaining a promise of further help from the Dutch, and managed to avert the fall of Maastricht, at that time under siege. He was now in command of 138,000 men, which sounded good on paper, but which in fact comprised several divided nationalities, and was unwieldy.

The Siege of Maastricht 1748

However, he then made a bad decision, seeking an immediate confrontation with de Saxe’s troops at Lauffeld in July, where his forces were heavily defeated and his weaknesses as a military commander were highlighted. Although Marechal de Saxe himself later commended the duke, he was greatly outmanoeuvred by the French, and, once the village of Lauffeld was taken, ordered the retreat, believing his army to be defeated. In the meantime Sir John Ligonier had made a successful attack on the left, but was unable to follow up on this due to Cumberland’s decision to retreat, and was as a result captured by the French.

Battle of Lauffeld – King Louis XV showing Marechal de Saxe the village of Lauffeld

In Britain rumours abounded that the duke had lost his nerve at the crucial moment, and was not the brilliant commander they had been led to believe.  However this opinion was not shared by either the king or the government, and Cumberland continued to lead the British Army. Seeing the sad state of his army in comparison to the enemy’s, he took the responsibility of signing armistice terms. Peace negotiations followed, leading to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.  This was a somewhat ignominious end to a largely pointless (from the British perspective) war, and the army was reduced back to a peacetime footing. To his credit, the duke took great pains to alleviate the lot of those who had now lost their jobs, helping them to establish themselves in a trade, and giving alms where needed. He also employed ex-soldiers on his estate.

Allegory on the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, 1748

The Duke of Cumberland returned to London, where his popularity waned rapidly. Once the Jacobite threat had receded, people had become increasingly appalled by the conditions the prisoners were being kept in, barbarous even by the standards of the day, and by the on-going retribution in the Highlands. These stirrings were fanned into flame by Jacobite propagandists who took full advantage of the terrible plight of the Highlanders to lay charges of unwarranted brutality at the feet of the duke. As if to help their cause, Cumberland, always corpulent and now starting to be plagued by medical problems that would stay with him for the rest of his short life, put on an enormous amount of weight, becoming a figure of mockery and disdain.

In 1749 the duke spoke openly in favour of the Mutiny Bill of 1749, and was believed to be in favour of an extension of the death penalty. The nickname ‘Butcher’, already widely used by Jacobites and others appalled by the atrocities in Scotland, stuck.

Duke of Cumberland, 1748

He became increasingly unpopular, to the point that when Prince Frederick died suddenly in 1749, leaving his young son George as the heir to the throne, it was widely thought that should George II (already 67 and ailing) die, the Duke of Cumberland would attempt to usurp the throne. Some even cast him as an ‘evil uncle’ figure along the lines of Richard III. In fairness much of this was due to accusations from Prince Frederick’s widow, who cordially hated Cumberland, and it is highly unlikely that he would in fact have tried to steal the throne from his nephew, let alone murder him. But it’s a measure of how low his popularity was by this time that the rumours were widely credited.

Cartoon from 1749 making fun of the corpulent duke and his many sexual liaisons

In 1755 the prospect of war with the French loomed again, and the Duke once more came into his own, spending the winter preparing his troops for battle. Nothing in fact came of this, but the prospect of a French invasion went some way to restoring Cumberland’s popularity with the people, as they looked to him to avert a disaster.

In 1757 he embarked on what was to be his last campaign, and one that he did not particularly wish to fight. His orders were not to attempt to defeat the enemy, but to conduct a slow defensive retreat from Hanover, whilst keeping his forces in good order. It was not a campaign designed to win popularity, in spite of the fact that he made a good job of it, whilst in poor health. Nobody wants to celebrate a retreat, however well achieved. Cumberland continued to retreat until he reached the sea, whereupon the king ordered him to negotiate a separate peace in order to save his beloved Hanover from being devastated. Cumberland obeyed his father, and signed a peace treaty, not knowing that the king had already changed his mind, having been persuaded by his mistress that signing a separate peace was a dishonourable action.

Duke of Cumberland 1758-60

Unfairly, George blamed his son for this, flying into a rage and saying his blood was tainted and his courage had failed. Cumberland, deeply and justifiably hurt, resigned his position on the spot, refusing to resume command of the army even after his father apologised and sent his whole cabinet to beg the duke to reconsider. Although he continued to attend Court, he never again served under his father. He was thirty-eight.

The following year he suffered a series of strokes which left him partially paralysed. The king died shortly afterwards, and the son who attended his father’s funeral, bloated, his face distorted, though still in early middle age, was relegated to the status of a respected member of the older generation, no longer of much importance.

In the years left to him, he became actively involved in his role as Ranger of Windsor Forest, reviving the ancient forest laws and making many improvements to his estate. He also enjoyed gambling and hunting, but his greatest passion was horse racing and breeding, and he turned Ascot and Newmarket into the highly fashionable race venues they remain to this day.

He never seems to have considered marriage, being too much of a man’s man, although throughout his life he had a series of affairs, but there are no records of any children from his liaisons.

He died in October 1765.

Ode on the death of the Duke of Cumberland

In conclusion, although I have no regrets about portraying him as I did in the Jacobite Chronicles (I believe his treatment of the Highlanders was appalling and unjustified), no one is all evil, and Cumberland is no exception to this. His unerring loyalty to his family, an honourable trait, no doubt infused his hatred of the Highlanders who had dared to rise up in treasonous rebellion against his father. He was undoubtedly courageous, devoted to duty, and had a genuine care for the welfare of his men, showing them great kindness beyond that normally demonstrated from men in his position.


2 thoughts on “The Duke of Cumberland

  1. Thanks for sharing this article– very interesting. My husband’s fifth great grandfather was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Cumberland, and my two of my fifth great grandfathers were Highlanders, one about 18 miles from Culloden Moor. Bizarre to think about!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s