Monday, 8 October 2018

The Duke of Sussex and Napoleon: "Peace to the remains of that Great Man."


Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843)

On the death of Napoleon:

"the close of a most disgraceful transaction in which the Ministers have made this country to participate. To be the persecutor of fallen glory and the gaoler for the European sovereigns is not the situation in which England ought to have been placed. Peace to the remains of that great man, whom History will treat hereafter with greater justice than his contemporaries have hitherto done, while our disgrace will I fear be handled with all due severity." - The Duke of Sussex(1)

Wearing Knight of the Garter Robes

The Duke of Sussex was the sixth son and the ninth child of George III. His Foxite Whig politics set him apart from most of the Royal Family, except for his much loved brother the Duke of Kent, a fellow Whig and father to the future Queen Victoria. The Duke of Sussex gave Victoria away at her wedding, and he became a godfather to her eldest daughter, but according to his biographer and contrary to conventional opinion, their relationship was far from tranquil.(2)

The Duke (tall figure on right), at Queen Victoria's Wedding

Like his brothers his private life was unconventional, and neither of his marriages received Royal assent. The first, secretly to a Catholic in Rome in 1793 was in 1794 annulled under the Royal Marriages Act, and his second, to Lady Cecilia Letitia Gore, in contravention of the same act, was never recognised at Court.(3)

Probably the poorest of the sons of George III and perpetually in debt, he spent much of his income on building up a large library. When the Whigs finally got into power they refused to increase his allowance because it would be seen as corrupt to reward one of their own! He died leaving little or nothing to his heirs. His wishes that his body be used for dissection by scientists was ignored, but he was buried as he instructed in Kensal Green Cemetery rather than Windsor Chapel, to ensure that his beloved, unrecognised second wife could rest beside him.

Augustus Frederick's Grave, Kensal Green Cemetery

At 6ft 4" tall, with a far from slender frame, the Duke cut a striking easily recognisable figure, and was reportedly very popular with the public at a time when the Monarchy was not held in the highest esteem.

The Duke of Sussex ironically portrayed as a Protestant champion, circa 1825

From 1805 when he took his seat in the House of Lords until late in his life he supported all the liberal causes of the day. His support of the 1832 Reform Bill was unequivocal. Whilst he had "every respect for the nobility of the country" he argued that

education ennobles more than anything else, and when I find the people increasing in knowledge and wealth, I should be glad to know why they ought not, also, to rise in the ranks of society. (4)

He was a particularly strong supporter of Catholic Emancipation and of the rights of Jews, both highly controversial issues for a Royal Family whose coronation oath included a vow to maintain the established Protestant Church and to preserve the rights and privileges of its Bishops and clergy.

Anti-Irish cartoon used to attack supporters of Catholic Emancipation

In the bitterly divisive period after Waterloo the Duke lined up solidly against the repressive measures of the Lord Liverpool Government. He described the laws of England as vindictive and barbarous, and their application as often capricious, he opposed the Alien Bills of 1816 and 1817 which gave the Government the right to deport aliens without trial, he opposed the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1817, and he opposed the Blasphemous Libel Bill of 1817, warning against the erosion of the liberty of the press. He also gave support to Queen Caroline, arguably the most popular of all the Royal Family, during her divorce trial in 1820.(5)

It should be no surprise then that the Duke was brave enough to make a public stand with Lord Holland against Napoleon's exile to St. Helena. As a Whig he did not subscribe to the Loyalist caricature of Napoleon as the "Corsican Ogre." The Whigs saw much in Napoleon's record that compared favourably with the status quo in Britain: the Code Napoléon, the career open to talents, religious liberty. To their Tory opponents, Napoleon was an illegitimate ruler, but to the Foxite Whigs, sovereignty ultimately resided in the people, and Napoleon clearly had a great deal of support in France. The Duke voted against the resumption of war in 1815 after Napoleon's return from Elba, and pointed out that if a foreign government had intervened on the side of Legitimacy in 1688, then his own family would not be on the throne. (6)
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1. Quoted in Mollie Gillen, Royal Duke, Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) (London 1976) p.186.
2. Gillen pp 210-214.
3. Although in 1840 Victoria did give her a title, the 1st Duchess of Inverness.
4. Gillen p. 188. 5. Gillen pp 184-192
6. Quoted by Sir Robert Wilson at Southwark election in June 1818. Morning Chronicle , 19th June 1818. Similar sentiments were expressed by his close friend, another Foxite Whig, Coke of Holkham, 1st Earl of Leicester, the famous agricultural reformer, who publicly described Louis XVIII as a "usurper", placed on the French throne against the wishes of the French people. Norfolk Chronicle 6 April 1816.