Grand Old Scandal: Mark Bryant Looks at a 19th-Century Tale of Sex, Royalty and Corruption Which Inspired Scores of Satirists and Even the Makers of Curiosity Mugs

By Bryant, Mark | History Today, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Grand Old Scandal: Mark Bryant Looks at a 19th-Century Tale of Sex, Royalty and Corruption Which Inspired Scores of Satirists and Even the Makers of Curiosity Mugs


Bryant, Mark, History Today


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Almost exactly 200 years ago the British establishment was rocked by a royal and military scandal that led to the dismissal of the commander-in-chief of the army in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1809, as the British Expeditionary Force was forced to retreat Dunkirk-style from the northern coast of Spain, more than 100 caricature prints were published on the scandal and even souvenir pottery was produced. The alleged involvement of the supreme commander in the sale of military honours via his former mistress led to a parliamentary inquiry and his resignation from office. However, he was not just Britain's top general, he was also George III's favourite son, the Duke of York.

Though he appeared in earlier satirical prints, Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and Albany (1763-1827), first made a major impact on the world of caricature when he married the daughter of King Frederick William II of Prussia in 1791. His bride's tiny feet were lampooned in James Gillray's celebrated 'Fashionable Contrasts, or the Duchess's Little Shoe Yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke's Foot' (January 24th, 1792).

The duke's next significant appearance was in 1793 as the 29-year-old leader of Britain's expeditionary force to Flanders to join the Allied armies fighting the French. After initial successes at Valenciennes, the British were forced to retreat and the popular mocking children's rhyme was born:

   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 ...

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The lavish lifestyle of the Allied military commanders in the field was also lampooned in Gillray's 'Fatigues of the Campaign in Flanders' (May 20th, 1793), which shows Frederick together with Austrian and Dutch officers (including the Prince of Orange) at a banquet, disporting themselves with Flemish women while being served by starving soldiers. (Gillray was the son of a soldier and had actually been present in Flanders during the duke's campaign, drawing portraits for Philippe de Loutherbourg's painting The Grand Attack on Valenciennes.)

Despite the failure of the Flanders campaign, the duke was promoted to field marshal in 1795 and commander-in-chief of the British army in 1798. The caricaturists continued to draw him occasionally, but it was not until 11 years later that he suddenly featured in a mass of satirical prints.

On January 27th, 1809, Colonel Gwylym Lloyd Wardle MP attacked the duke in a speech in Parliament, accusing him of corrupt administration of the army's Half-Pay Fund and abusing the rules for the purchase of commissions by making military promotions on the recommendation of Mrs Mary Anne Clarke, who had been the duke's mistress from 1803 to 1806. It was also alleged that Mrs Clarke ran a promotions business from a house in London's Gloucester Place, which the duke had acquired for her in 1803, and that the duke not only knew that she charged a fee for this service, which also included promotions for ecclesiastical posts, but shared in the proceeds.

The Prime Minister, the Duke of Portland, though himself by then infirm (he died in October 1809) and largely a figurehead, with the government being run by Minister of War Viscount Castlereagh and Foreign Secretary George Canning, ordered a parliamentary inquiry into the affair, headed by the Attorney-General, Sir Vicary Gibbs.

In February 1809, the 33-year-old Mrs Clarke was called to the House of Commons for questioning, where she gave a very self-confident and witty performance which was greatly admired by the public. As William Wilberforce, one of the prosecutors, recorded in his diary: 'She, elegantly dressed, consummately impudent and very clever, got clearly the better of the tussle.'

The scene is well portrayed by Gillray in 'Pandora Opening Her Box' (February 22nd, 1809). …

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Grand Old Scandal: Mark Bryant Looks at a 19th-Century Tale of Sex, Royalty and Corruption Which Inspired Scores of Satirists and Even the Makers of Curiosity Mugs
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