Names can be a tricky thing in historical fiction. While working on Mistress of the Court, I was faced with several name-related challenges. Firstly, nearly every male character was called George. I managed to get around this by using the German version of George I’s name, Georg Ludwig, and I felt this was appropriate as his heart always remained in Hanover. A later character, George Berkeley, was simply always referred to by his surname.
Then there were the changing titles. For example, at the beginning of my narrative, Lord Chesterfield would have been called Stanhope. But with so many characters at court, I didn’t feel my readers would be able to keep up with changes like these, so I just referred to him as Chesterfield from the very start. A cheat, but I hope a forgivable one.
Titles are tricky, because so many people end up holding them. Since I research a period ranging from 1714-1837, dukedoms and earldoms change hands many times. So when I’m reading a book and they mention the Duke of York, I have to do a quick double-think to remember who it actually was at that time.
One title, however, seems to crop up a lot, and it always means trouble. The title Duke of Cumberland came to be infamous, at least for the Georgian era. In the period of my research, three different princes held the dukedom – and all three of them were scandalous in their way!
Over the next few weeks, I will give you a run down of the dastardly dukes, in chronological order.
We start with William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, (1721-1765). William holds the distinction of being the first Hanoverian prince born on English soil. He was a precious child, a much wanted son for George II and Caroline, who had lost three babies before his birth and were separated from their only other boy.
Today we remember him as ‘Butcher’ Cumberland, due to the role he played in the battle of Culloden. This final decisive clash of the Jacobite rebellion resulted in the death of many Scots who, despite their inferior firepower, were shown no quarter. Wounded men on the battlefield were shot dead and even worse, the surrounding areas were pillaged and burnt. The King’s army were determined to show that treason would not be tolerated; raping, hanging and eradicating the Highland way of life. Great as the tragedy was, I think it is a little unfair to blame the entire thing on William. Instead of the Butcher of Culloden, I think he should be called a Butcher of Culloden – for there were certainly many other men involved in the atrocities. Indeed, William was originally hailed as a hero when he returned – it was only as details of the battle and its aftermath crept out that public opinion began to turn.
Refreshingly, when writing Mistress of the Court, I got to look at William from his doting mother’s point of view. She died some nine years before Culloden, so it could not figure in her assessment of him at all. What I found behind the soldier was a spoilt, rather precocious child of great physical courage.
From the start, his parents lavished attention on him. He had leather cushions for his dogs and and entire suite to himself in Hampton Court Palace. His mother took him everywhere with her, and he particularly like to throw silver coins from her carriage. His father encouraged him in a military life from an early age, giving him a troop of small boys to drill. Rather predictably, William began to get a sense of pride and answer his parents back back. He refused to fast on 30 January in remembrance of King Charles I’s death, saying he did not know that the people were wrong to execute Charles – he hadn’t read that history book yet! But he also showed some signs of refinement, taking no food at his birthday ball because he ‘didn’t think it looked well to be pulling greasy bones about in a room full of princesses.’
It seems William was a handsome child and young man, although later on a battle wound to his leg would prevent him from exercising and make him extremely corpulent. Despite wishing to reform the army and introduce new discipline, he was not a very successful soldier. He certainly tried hard to serve his father the King, but after years of service the two quarreled. In his usual tempestuous way, George II heaped blame on William for misunderstanding his orders and greeted his son with the words, ‘Here is my son who has ruined me and disgraced himself, ruined his country and his army, has spoiled everything and lost his own reputation.’ Having become very familiar with George II’s furious tirades, I must say I admire the way William responded to the outburst. He very calmly told the King’s mistress that he was tendering his resignation. When George II inevitably calmed down later and tried to make amends, William was firm. He would always show the greatest respect for his father the King, but he would never again serve under him as a soldier.
William’s career therefore ended at the age of thirty-eight. It was just as well, for in the coming years he fell prey to a series of strokes that left him partially paralysed. He amused himself by following horseracing and boxing and throwing himself into the office of Ranger of Windsor Forest. He constructed Virginia Water and a private zoo.
Whilst William had a few brief mistresses, there was no lasting romantic attachment in his life. He never married, living instead with his sister Emily (Amelia). After his elder brother’s death in 1751, William tried to gain influence with and advise his nephew the future King George III. However, George and his mother Augusta distrusted William, seeming to see him as another Richard III.
The old battle wound on William’s thigh continued to trouble his health. With more strokes and complications caused by his corpulence, he was not long for the world. He died aged only 44, in his chair – not the glorious end on a battlefield he might have envisaged for himself. But though his life was short and not, after childhood, particularly happy, the reputation he had earned in the Jacobite rebellion would see him go down in history as one of the great villains.