“The Severest Censure of this House”: a government is repeatedly defeated in the House of Commons, 1810

Current events in Parliament are very interesting to me as a political historian, although I admit I’d prefer to be watching from the safer distance of, say, a couple of centuries. Since I am a historian, however, and a Napoleonic-era one at that, yesterday’s triple defeat of Theresa May’s government reminded me strongly of the situation of the Perceval government over the winter of 1809–1810. Perceval’s government wasn’t exactly found to be in “contempt of Parliament”, like May’s, but it might as well have been. Here’s why.

The Perceval Government

spencer_perceval

Spencer Perceval kissed hands as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer at the beginning of October 1809. He succeeded the Duke of Portland. At the beginning of September, it had been revealed that Foreign Secretary George Canning had been intriguing against the Secretary of State for War, Lord Castlereagh, for some months. Portland had actually agreed to force Castlereagh out and reshuffle the cabinet to accommodate Canning’s friend Lord Wellesley. The outcome of all this was that Canning and Castlereagh both resigned (and then fought a duel), while Portland – who had recently suffered a stroke and was in poor health – gave way to Perceval.

Perceval thus started out under the shadow of Canning and Castlereagh’s disgrace. His position was not improved by the fact that the Portland government’s big military campaign of the year – the Walcheren expedition, involving 40,000 troops and over 600 naval vessels – was in its final disastrous throes. The expedition’s commander, Lord Chatham, had failed to take Antwerp (his ultimate goal), and sickness was tearing through the troops. By mid-September, nearly 10,000 men were on the sick list. Most of the army was recalled, but a garrison of 16,000 men under Sir Eyre Coote remained on Walcheren, pending further orders.

Matters were made even worse by the fact that Lord Chatham, the expedition’s commander, had also been a member of Portland’s cabinet as Master-General of the Ordnance. This was a huge millstone around Perceval’s neck; indeed, many cartoons depicted Chatham at this time with a large millstone inscribed “WALCHEREN”.

AN00079358_001_l

(From here)

Perceval spent several weeks putting his government together. He approached the leaders of the opposition, Lord Grenville and Earl Grey; he approached former prime minister Lord Sidmouth, who had a reasonably sizeable political following. They all refused to join him. With Canning and Castlereagh both out of the question, Perceval found himself having to fall back largely on the same ministers who had served in the discredited Portland government. Even Chatham got to stay on at the Ordnance.

These attempts to shore up an already-tottering government took up most of Perceval’s attentions, and it was only in November that the cabinet finally got around to discussing what to do with Walcheren (meanwhile, half of Coote’s garrison there had fallen ill with fever). Walcheren was finally evacuated at the end of December.

Inquiry: political or military?

Perceval was aware he would face an immediate onslaught from the opposition in Parliament on Walcheren. He knew there was no way he would be able to avoid some sort of political scrutiny, particularly after the extremely influential London Common Council (representing London’s considerable mercantile interests) laid an Address before the King calling for an inquiry into the debacle. A year previously, the Portland government had managed to dodge a similar bullet over the dire military situation in the Peninsula by placing the responsible army commanders (including the future Duke of Wellington) before a military inquiry at Chelsea – despite calls from the City of London for a political investigation. Perceval knew he would not be so lucky now.

common-council-chamber-guildhall

Since an inquiry was inevitable, the only question was what form the inquiry should take. Perceval hoped he would be able to limit any damage to his government by restricting an inquiry to a select committee, which would only be obliged to publish its ultimate decision and not its full proceedings. Effectively, Perceval wanted to control the evidence that would be laid before Parliament (and the public).

Perceval managed to put the meeting of Parliament off over Christmas, but when Parliament met again on 23 January 1810, the opposition went straight to the attack. On 26 January, Lord Porchester led the opposition in its demand for a political inquiry – not a select committee, but a committee of the whole House of Commons (a format that had recently been used for assessing evidence that the Duke of York, as Commander in Chief, had been selling military commissions through his mistress, Mary-Anne Clarke).

mw64890

Lord Porchester

The opposition hoped this format would do two things – indict the government before the eyes of Parliament and the people, and force the government to produce and publish all the relevant paperwork, rather than cherry-picking their evidence. As Porchester argued, the nation at large had a right to know how the government was using its military resources:

I cannot consent to delegate the right of inquiry on this occasion to any select or secret Committee, by whom the course of investigation might be misdirected, or its bounds limited – before whom, possibly, garbled extracts, called documents, might be laid by ministers themselves, in order to produce a partial discussion … It is in a Committee of the whole House alone, we can have a fair case, because if necessary we can examine oral evidence at the Bar.[1]

In other words, Porchester and the opposition were putting the government on trial before the House of Commons – and, by extension, the people.

The government is defeated (repeatedly)

Perceval tried to deflect Porchester’s motion for an inquiry of the whole House by moving the previous question (effectively an attempt to dispose of the motion altogether), on the grounds that a select committee would be more suitable. He found himself deserted by a number of his supporters, including Lord Castlereagh, who (as former Secretary of State for War) welcomed an inquiry into the expedition he had planned, hoping it would clear him; and the Commons supporters of Lord Chatham, who hoped an inquiry would uncover the duplicity of his colleagues in sending him on the expedition with insufficient (and perhaps even false) information.

Perceval first tried to adjourn the debate until 5 February; he was defeated without a division. The previous question was then put, and the opposition carried the day 195 votes to 186. The government was now committed to a full inquiry of the sort they had been dreading. The inquiry began on 2 February 1810; all its proceedings were published, in the newspapers and in the official parliamentary debates (the future Hansard).

Despite the best hopes of the opposition, the government managed to weather the Walcheren storm and did not fall. After the government’s defeats on 26 January, nobody had really been expecting it to survive the inquiry. It nearly didn’t, particularly when it became clear that Lord Chatham had (apparently) submitted a private narrative defending his conduct at Walcheren to the King – an unconstitutional act.

At the end of February 1810, the government was again defeated in the lobbies and forced to produce more written evidence. On 23 February, oppositionist Samuel Whitbread moved that all papers in the Royal archives relating to Chatham’s narrative should be produced; his motion was narrowly passed by 178 to 171. Whitbread then moved two resolutions on 2 March censuring Chatham’s conduct. Perceval was once more unable to move the previous question and throw Whitbread’s censures out without a debate; he lost 221 to 188, with many supporters once again in the Noes lobby. Only an amendment by George Canning (then a backbencher) softened Whitbread’s language and passed without a division, but Perceval had been unable to protect a member of his own government. Only Chatham’s resignation from the cabinet on 7 March prevented the government falling with him.

George Canning

George Canning

The outcome

On 26 March, Lord Porchester moved eight resolutions censuring the ministers:

The expedition to the Scheldt was undertaken under circumstances which afforded no rational hope of adequate success. … The advisers of this ill-judged enterprise are, in the opinion of this House, deeply responsible for the heavy calamities with which its failure has been attended. … Such conduct of His Majesty’s advisers, deserves the severest censure of this House.[2]

The resolutions were discussed by the House of Commons over the course of four bitter days. The opposition had been expecting to force Perceval’s resignation; what actually happened was that Porchester’s resolutions were rejected 272 votes to 232 early in the morning of 31 March. The House of Commons then passed a resolution approving of the retention of Walcheren until December by 255 votes to 232.

What had gone wrong? Perceval’s most recent biographer, Denis Gray, thought Perceval’s unexpected triumph was evidence that his “courage and steadiness had pulled it [survival] off against the greatest imaginable difficulties and odds. After the Walcheren debates Pittites again new that they had a leader of resolution and character.”[3]

Historian Michael Roberts, however, gives a different answer: “The majority of independent members preferred to take the chance that Walcheren would be a salutary lesson to the Government, than to risk putting the country into the hands of a party that had neither policy, nor prospect of uniting upon one, nor ability to carry it out.” Later, Roberts reiterates the point: “The Walcheren vote was not so much in favour of the Tories as against the Whigs”.[4]

In other words, Perceval’s survival was due less to his own skill and more to the weakness of the opposition, which found it easier to criticise than to propose its own alternative agenda. Divided as it was over the issue of whether or not to commit more fully to the war in the Peninsula, and with nascent divisions between Lords Grenville and Grey, the opposition was, indeed, perhaps no more capable than the government to guide the war effort – as their brief stint in power in 1806–7 as the Ministry of All the Talents had shown.

Modern parallels?

Only time will tell of Theresa May’s government is able to hold its own, or whether Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition is capable of presenting a valid alternative political agenda. I suspect we will find out more about that over the coming week. But it struck me that the Walcheren inquiry does have some modern echoes. At any rate, it is certainly not the first time that a government has fought for its life in the face of public scrutiny.

References

[1] Parliamentary Debates volume XV (1812), col. 162

[2] Parliamentary Debates vol. XVI (1812), cols. 78–80

[3] Denis Gray, Spencer Perceval: The Evangelical Prime Minister (Manchester: University Press, 1963), p. 304

[4] Michael Roberts, The Whig Party, 1807–12 (London, 1939), pp. 147, 322–3)

Advertisements

Sheepgate 1809, or how a surfeit of sheep nearly led to a diplomatic incident

In the summer of 1809, Britain and Spain had been allies against France for just over a year. Sir Arthur Wellesley was currently in the Iberian Peninsula with an army of about 30,000 men. Diplomatic relations with Spain, however, remained a little fraught – the two countries had been at war for much of the last decade, memories of Trafalgar were still fresh, and there was the little outstanding matter of Gibraltar, which made the prospect of any large body of British troops on Spanish soil a bit difficult.

George III

King George III

Understandably, therefore, the Spanish decided it was time to offer an olive branch in the form of a gift to His Majesty King George III. Their ambassador, Don Pedro de Cevallos, arrived in London in February 1809, bringing the King the Collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece. [1]

This the King refused, as it was his policy not to accept Orders from foreign governments (he felt it was improper for him to do so as the head of the Orders of his own kingdom). The Spanish, however, still wanted to make a statement of their gratitude for the way the Brits were helping them eject the French invaders from their country. They decided to think laterally, although they still kept to the fleecy theme.

merino sheep

Their thoughtful gift was an unspecified number of very valuable Merino sheep, much prized (then as now) for the quality of their wool, and this George III did accept.

Delighted by the success of their diplomatic coup, the Spanish decided to send him another gift. What do you get the King who’s got everything? Apparently, you get him more sheep, as a letter to the King from the Foreign Secretary, George Canning, dated 2 June 1809, makes clear:

“Mr Canning most humbly requests Your Majesty’s gracious Commands as to the answer to be returned to the Offer, by the Supreme Junta, of 4,000 Merino Sheep as a Present to Your Majesty.”[2]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The King was very grateful, but the problem was he didn’t want any more sheep:

“The King desires Mr Canning will assure Don Pedro Cevallos that he is very sensible of the Attention of the Supreme Junta in offering a present of 4,000 Sheep, but that His Majesty has already so large a Stock as not to require further Supply for the Accommodation of which He has not indeed the Means of providing.”[3]

It seems the Spanish were so keen to send the sheep that they hadn’t thought about how to transport them. The transports they had sent last time had been “improperly crowded”. When the Spanish suggested the world’s foremost maritime power could just send more ships, the King pointed out that such “Ships must be sent which are required for other pressing Services.”[3]

“Other services” referred to the expedition to Walcheren, currently taking up all the spare time, ships, and transports belonging to the Admiralty, which was having a hard enough time making up the full complement of over 650 vessels for the campaign.

The Spanish were undeterred. Would the King like some lovely Spanish horses instead?

Erm, no:

“Upon the same Grounds the King thinks it would be advisable to decline equally the Offer of the Horses, at this moment.”[3]

George Canning

George Canning

Canning duly passed on the King’s message to Cevallos; and there the matter rested.

For ten days.

On 13 June 1809, as Canning reported to the King, Cevallos — who had clearly been instructed not to take no for an answer — tried again. Maybe not 4,000 sheep then: how about a smaller number?

“Mr Canning  … humbly requests to receive Your Majesty’s gracious Commands, whether he may encourage Don Pedro Cevallos to hope that Your Majesty at some future time might be graciously pleased to accept a limited number of Merino Sheep; and also a few of the Horses, when the means of transport can be conveniently afforded.”[4]

Apparently the Spanish insisted (“No, really, please — take our sheep”).

mrsdoyle

Maybe they thought George III was just being coy. The King, however, was adamant:

“The King desires Mr Canning will persist in declining the Offer of the Merino Sheep conveyed in Don Pedro Cevallos’s note, His Majesty really not having Room for them & being actually under the Necessity of hiring Ground for those last received.”

One imagines the corridors and State Rooms at the Queen’s House full of roaming sheep, chewing on the furniture and making a tremendous mess.

newspaper

The horses, however, were not positively declined:

“In regard to the horses, Don Pedro Cevallos may be told that, at a future more convenient Opportunity His Majesty will accept a few.”[5]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This was a mistake, as the Spanish seem to have interpreted it rather more broadly than the King presumably intended. It’s possible they genuinely couldn’t believe George didn’t actually want any more sheep.

So they decided he was just being polite, and sent them anyway.

thousands-sheep-merino-huddled-together-96748051

On 18 July 1809, as the preparations for Walcheren were really hotting up, a large, smelly, and very noisy package arrived in Portsmouth.

Canning was horrified:

“Mr Canning humbly reports to Your Majesty the intelligence received this day from the Admiralty of the arrival at Portsmouth of 1,500 Merino Sheep part of the present destined for Your Majesty by the Supreme Junta; which had been embarked before Your Majesty’s desire to decline that present was made known in Spain.”

Who was responsible for the mix-up? Canning didn’t know, but he did haste to assure the King he had given instructions, probably at a very high volume, to make sure such a mistake did not happen again:

“Mr Canning trusts that the notification has arrived there  in time to prevent any further embarkation.”[6]

The King’s reaction can best be summarised as “WHAT THE HELL ARE THESE QUADRUPEDS DOING HERE”:

“His Majesty is much embarrassed by the arrival of the Sheep from Cadiz, as He has not any Ground at present for them, and cannot make any Arrangements for bringing them up by Hand. The King therefore desires that Mr Canning will communicate to the Admiralty His wish that the Sheep should be sent from Portsmouth by Sea, up the River to Deptford, as the Transports will not be immediately required, the Embarkations being completed, and in the mean time His Majesty will endeavour to provide for their Disposal in those.”[7]

(Soooo … who knew the embarkation of the Walcheren expedition was in fact delayed by the need to move 1,500 unwanted merino sheep from Portsmouth to Deptford?)

The King’s secretary, Colonel Taylor, wrote to Canning to confirm final arrangements:

“My Dear Canning, The King having ordered the Bearer Mr Smart to make arrangements for landing the Sheep at Deptford &c I trouble you with this Letter at his Desire to request You will have the goodness to furnish him with the necessary authority if he should have occasion to apply to you.”[8]

Canning must have been extremely relieved to be able to make the sheep Someone Else’s Problem. The King’s letter is endorsed:

“Relative to Mr Smart & His Majesty’s Merino Sheep. July 20. Letter to Ld Mulgrave given to Mr Smart.”[8]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I can just imagine Lord Mulgrave, up to his ears in Walcheren business, with the army yelling at him to provide more transports and the Transport Board yelling at him to provide more tonnage and the ships’ captains yelling at him to find out when they were supposed to be sailing, getting a visit from a gentleman smelling strongly of farmyard — said gentleman bearing a letter from the Foreign Secretary that probably said something along the lines of: “There are 1,500 sheep outside. Deal with it.”

I don’t suppose he found it very funny.

Postscript: what happened to the sheep?

I can’t be sure, although there was a letter from September 1809 referring to Spanish shepherds being placed under the control of a page in the Royal Household at the Queen’s House, so presumably some of them ended up in Green Park.

Aspinall suggests the rest of the sheep were distributed among the King’s courtiers. Canning himself didn’t get away without some (after initially declining them, but apparently his wife liked fluffy woolly ceatures more than he did, so he asked for a small flock of 50).[9]

References

[1] Arthur Aspinall (ed.), The Later Correspondence of George III, vol. 5 (Cambridge: University Press, 1970), pp. 214-5.

[2] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 2 June 1809. The correspondence is also printed in Aspinall.

[3] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 3 June 1809.

[4] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 13 June 1809.

[5] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 14 June 1809.

[6] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 18 July 1809.

[7] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 19 July 1809.

[8] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, Colonel Taylor to Canning, 19 July 1809.

[9] Aspinall, Later Correspondence, vol. 5, p. 315 n. 1.

Confession: a significant error of interpretation in “The Late Lord”

I’m sure it happens to most biographers, but I must confess to an important error of interpretation in The Late Lord.

marychathamrosenburg

Mary, Countess of Chatham (ca 1800) by Charles Rosenburg of Bath; in the possession of Ron Mills

On pp. 181-2, I describe the death of Mary, Countess of Chatham, on 21 May 1821:

On Monday, 21 May 1821, Chatham, at home in Hill Street, received the visit of Sir William Bellingham [an old friend] … The two men sat down to dinner at 5 o’clock. Lady Chatham did not join them. She had been unwell with a liver complaint since Saturday … She greeted her husband’s guest, then took a glass of barley water and brandy laced with laudanum and retired early to bed. Her maid remained in the room with her as she drifted peacefully off. She was so peaceful, in fact, that it was some time before the maid realised Lady Chatham was no longer sleeping. … What exactly killed her is a mystery, although the signs point to an accidental laudanum overdose.

This passage came from two separate letters in private hands. I can’t reproduce either of them here, but one was written by J C Villiers, a close friend of Chatham’s who saw him on 22 May. The other was written by a third party, reporting a conversation with Sir William Bellingham.

I came across my transcripts of those two letters yesterday, and it immediately struck me that I had completely misinterpreted them. Eighteen months of not thinking too much about it allowed me to see new connections between the two accounts (which I had previously found somewhat contradictory).

Far from being a “mystery”, I think Mary’s death was due, not to any laudanum overdose in the barley water, but to the liver complaint from which she was suffering. It sounds like it was sudden but extremely virulent. According to Villiers’s letter, she was fine on the Friday and dead by the end of Monday. The crucial thing I’d missed is that Bellingham wasn’t there because he happened to be visiting: he had been called in because Lady Chatham’s death was imminently expected to happen, and Chatham didn’t want to be alone when it did.

Hyperacute liver failure it is, then. The only mystery is what might have caused Lady Chatham’s liver to fail so rapidly (under 72 hours).

Short Story: The Arabian

tumblr_mftkvywA6K1rk0xtlo1_500

Grey desert arabian, from  here

The Late Lord was published exactly a year ago today (11 January). To commemorate the occasion, I am putting up a blog post (gasp!) to publish a short story I wrote six months or so before the book was published, for my own enjoyment. The Arabian is based on an episode that occurred during Lord Chatham’s governorship of Gibraltar, in September 1822; it’s mentioned briefly on p. 188, but it’s the sort of thing that I felt needed a longer treatment — hence this short story.

I must apologise for any horse-related errors — a friend read it through and picked me up on several idiocies, which I have corrected, but, while I am very definitely a Chatham person, I am not a horsey person at all.

Enjoy!

***

The Arabian

 

The morning gun woke Stokes just before five. The report shook the glass in the windows of his tiny room, then rolled away into a silence broken only by the crying of seagulls and the sound of the sea. From the nearby Governor’s quarters came three distant words, uttered in clipped, aristocratic annoyance:

‘That bloody gun.’

Silence re-established itself. Stokes knew from experience he would not hear that voice again for at least another six hours. He rolled out of his narrow cot, slipped Sophia’s miniature over his head, then went into the small adjoining room where his batman waited with hot water and a razor.

Stokes was at his desk at seven, the reports from the garrison neatly stacked by the inkstand. Beside them were the latest communications from the Town Major and the Captain of the Port. Laid out on the centre of the table was the leather-bound Orderly Book, already opened to the first crisp, empty page. Stokes consulted the hastily-scribbled notes his clerk had left for him, dipped his pen in ink, and began to write.

Head Quarters, Gibraltar, 2d. September 1822

General Order No. 1. The 26th Regiment will be prepared to evacuate the Cooperage Barrack immediately on the arrival of the 43rd Regiment, when four companies of the 64th will move from their present Quarters into that Barracks…

While Stokes opened letter after letter, copied their contents into the ledger books and composed formulaic responses, the Governor’s Cottage began to wake up around him. Footsteps creaked up and down the stairs, and a hum of voices intruded on Stokes’s awareness. Outside, drums beat the tattoo as the night guard at Europa Point was relieved, and a regimental band launched into a rendition of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’. A ship coming into the Bay fired its gun to warn the garrison of its approach, followed a few moments later by the deeper reverberation of Europa Point’s battery in acknowledgement.

The door opened, and Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson came for the Governor’s correspondence. Stokes barely looked up from reaching for the pounce pot. ‘Lord Chatham is awake?’

‘Awake, dressed, and ready for his letters.’ The aide-de-camp held his hand out for them; Stokes obliged. Wilson flicked through them swiftly.

‘No dispatches from the Colonial Office,’ Stokes said helpfully. ‘One communication from Tangiers, and I’ve left it at the top.’

‘His Lordship will be grateful for that.’

‘If it will save him the trouble of reading the rest, I daresay,’ Stokes remarked, and immediately regretted the words. Wilson raised an eyebrow and changed the subject.

‘His Lordship wished me to ask if the American horse had been brought ashore yet.’

‘You mean the Arabian.’ Stokes kept his voice neutral. The Arabian had been purchased in Tunis by an American captain, whose ship was re-provisioning in Gibraltar on its way back to New York. Lord Chatham had insisted on having the horse brought ashore to see it race, but then Chatham, in Stokes’s opinion, never gave a thought for the inconvenience of others. ‘Mr Sweetland said he would be landed tomorrow.’

‘His Lordship wishes someone to report back when he is ashore. I believe you are carrying dispatches to the Lieutenant Governor. Will you go?’

‘Of course.’

‘Excellent. Lord Chatham will see you this afternoon as usual.’

The next few hours passed swiftly. The sun rose higher in the cloudless sky. Stokes loosened his stock and opened the window. The Rock shimmered in the heat. Stokes pulled out the locket that hung round his neck and opened it. Sophia’s cream skin and golden hair gazed at him, her mouth curved into the faintest smile as though to say: I am waiting for you. But Sophia was on the other side of the sea, and Stokes was in Gibraltar, chained to five isolated square miles of jagged Rock. He tucked the locket away, stared for a few moments at the tiny British flag hanging limp from the flagpole at O’Hara’s Battery, then returned to his desk to sharpen yet another pen.

At three he stood outside the Governor’s drawing-room, the day’s out-letters in one hand. Despite being perfectly on time, he could tell from the absence of orderlies that His Lordship was not yet returned from his morning ride. Stokes had only been Military Secretary three months, but those three months had been sufficient to see that everything here – the morning and evening guns; the inspections; the parades; the arrival and departure of the packet boats – worked like a military metronome. Everything, that is, save for the Governor. Lord Chatham’s habits had not changed in the twelve years since he had become notorious for commanding the disastrous Walcheren campaign, when his inactivity had contributed to the destruction of his army from disease. He drifted in and out of Gibraltar’s military and civil routine at his own pace, always good-natured but remarkably disengaged.

It was half past the hour before the sound of the guard presenting arms alerted Stokes to Lord Chatham’s return. Stokes stepped away from the map depicting the Great Siege just as Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson and Captain Taylor came upstairs followed by two Spanish servants carrying trays of wine and water. The aides barely gave Stokes more than a nod as they passed. A few minutes later the Governor himself appeared, wiping his hands on a towel. His long face was sheened with sweat and reddened from the sun, but, despite the exercise, His Lordship still gave the impression he would much rather be anywhere but here. Looking at Chatham’s melancholy, rather bored expression, Stokes fought a swell of contempt. He wished he could know, even for a moment, a fragment of the thoughts passing through the Governor’s mind. If he were able to at least respect the man, he suspected his exile from home, and from Sophia, would be less difficult.

‘Stokes,’ Chatham said, in response to the secretary’s bow. ‘What have you for me today?’

‘Nothing out of the ordinary, my lord.’

‘Well then, let us get to work.’ Chatham handed his towel to Captain Taylor, folded his tall frame into the chair by the desk, and passed a hand across his forehead with a groan. ‘Dear God, it’s hot.’

And so it went. The first time Stokes had waited on Lord Chatham he had been so tense he had forgotten to eat breakfast. Now he barely needed to think about what he did, because every day was the same. First came the dispatches for the local consuls, which Chatham read before signing next to Stokes’s pencilled cross. Then came the court martial reports, and the general orders to the various regiments for the day. Chatham worked in silence; Stokes had quickly discovered His Lordship was not over-fond of small talk. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked away, punctuated by the sound of marching and drumbeats from outside. Stokes shifted his feet and wondered whether he would have time for a walk before dinner.

‘A fair few visitors from Morocco,’ Chatham observed. The sound of his deep, cultured voice shook Stokes out of his reverie.

‘They have all been through quarantine.’

‘Good.’ Chatham signed a few more papers and lapsed back into silence. Stokes returned to thinking wistfully of his next meal.

After leaving Lord Chatham, Stokes went for his walk along the cliffs. Behind him the batteries remained a sign of Gibraltar’s military status as the guardian of the Straits, but before him was the broad, glittering expanse of the sea. A faint breeze disturbed the turgid air and brought a salty scent to his nose. The low and stately Atlas mountains of Africa pierced the haze across the Straits. The sight distracted him, and the strange golden hills made him think less of home. Less of Sophia. What was she doing now? Was she thinking of him too?

He came back to the Governor’s Cottage just as the heat began to draw off into the coolness of evening, when the shadows lengthened and the Rock glowed red in the setting sun. Stokes heard his name as he entered his office, bracing himself to receive the evening dispatches and finish work while the light persisted. He turned to face Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson.

‘Mr Stokes,’ Wilson said. ‘His Lordship would like to see yesterday’s return from the Captain of the Port a second time.’

‘Certainly.’ The aide waited while Stokes rooted through the papers until he found the list of vessels that had successfully completed their period of quarantine. He handed it to Wilson. ‘His Lordship is working late.’

‘Does that surprise you?’

In fact it did – Stokes had formed the impression Chatham stopped thinking about his official concerns after dinner – but he said, ‘I am in no hurry for the papers to be returned.’

Wilson was on his way out. At Stokes’s words he turned and closed the door behind him. ‘You do not like His Lordship, do you, Stokes?’

‘He has never been anything but kind to me,’ Stokes stammered. It occurred to him that, though most of the garrison spoke jokingly of His Lordship, he had never seen Chatham’s aides-de-camp behave with anything but respect and even affection. Wilson looked down his nose.

‘Were you at Walcheren?’ the aide said at last. Before Stokes could answer, Wilson corrected himself. ‘No, of course not. You’re far too young for that.’

‘I am a secretary,’ Stokes said, with as much dignity as he could manage. ‘My duties do not take me on active service.’

Wilson’s duties, however, clearly had. Stokes’s eyes lingered on the man’s weather-beaten face and the jagged white scar running from chin to cheek. On parade days Stokes had seen the Waterloo medal on Wilson’s chest. He had never understood how men like Wilson could lower themselves to serve men like Lord Chatham, but even as the thought registered he felt a swell of shame, as though his disrespect for Chatham somehow reflected on Wilson, too.

‘In that case,’ Wilson said in clipped tones, as though he had read Stokes’s mind, ‘I suggest you pay more attention to your duties and less to garrison gossip.’

Stokes’s cheeks flamed. ‘I am sorry. I meant nothing by what I said. I only noticed His Lordship seemed out of sorts today.’

Wilson gave him a strange look. ‘Do you not know the date?’

‘Of course I do.’ Stokes had only written it out several dozen times at the head of all the letters and orders he had drafted on Chatham’s behalf. ‘It is the second of September.’

‘Today would have been Lady Chatham’s sixtieth birthday.’

‘Lady Chatham has been dead for over a year,’ Stokes said, in genuine confusion.

‘Is it any wonder, then, that Lord Chatham should miss her this day more than any other?’

Stokes blinked. The idea that the Governor might be missing his wife had never even occurred to him. He knew Chatham’s coming out to Gibraltar had been delayed by Lady Chatham’s illness and death; he knew His Lordship had still been in full mourning when he had finally arrived. But Stokes had never felt the Governor longed for anything other than to return to England, or to be left alone. Chatham had never once spoken of his wife in the three months Stokes had known him. Stokes, who never stopped thinking about his Sophia, had always found that significant. ‘I see.’

‘I am not certain you do,’ Wilson said, and turned his back before Stokes could respond.

 

*

 

The next day Stokes again stood by the Governor’s desk as Chatham signed the day’s orders, and tried not to stare in too obvious a fashion. Did His Lordship seem more melancholy than usual? Was Lord Chatham thinking about his wife at that very moment, and did it bring him pain? Was that why he remained permanently detached from the garrison, as though he were not fully present – as though a part of him remained at his wife’s graveside in London? Lord Chatham’s heavy-lidded blue eyes flicked up and Stokes hastily looked away.

When business was over Chatham said, ‘I thank you for sending me the Captain of the Port’s account last night. It seems the Arabian is to come ashore today.’

Stokes had almost forgotten about the racehorse. How typical of Chatham to fasten on that, amidst the accounts of plague on the Barbary Coast and political unrest in Spain. ‘Yes, my lord.’

‘You will accompany me with the rest of the staff to the race tomorrow,’ Chatham said. It was not a request. Stokes bowed.

‘Of course.’

Chatham dismissed him with a wave, visibly suppressing a yawn. Stokes felt a burst of irritation. At least it will be a holiday, he thought as he mounted his horse to ride into town.

A heat haze rose off the grey brick fortifications as Stokes crossed the drawbridge and entered the fortress. The guards posted to the southern gate saluted him as he passed. As a civilian he had found this odd the first time he had experienced it, but now he barely registered the sound of hands slapping against wood and metal as the men smoothly presented their arms. Gibraltar’s cobbled streets, lined with colourful houses packed between the looming Rock and the bastions fringing the Bay, were full of people going about their business. Europeans in sober woollen coats rubbed shoulders with Spanish women in bright red cloaks. Stokes had to concentrate to guide his horse through the throng of dark-faced Moroccans, Jews with caps and long curls, and red-coated soldiers marching to their duties. Stokes often wondered what Sophia, who had never been anywhere more alien than Covent Garden Market, would make of it all. The air was heavy with the scent of sea salt and spices, and reverberated with the sound of street cries, drumbeats and all the languages of Babel.

The Convent stood empty, its tiny windows tightly shuttered against the heat, waiting for the cooler weather and the Governor’s return to the garrison. Closer to the waterside, the heat was more bearable. Evening was drawing in by the time Stokes accompanied Lieutenant-Governor Don’s aide-de-camp, Captain Waller, to the New Mole. The Bay bristled with the masts of ships at anchor, enormous warships casting shadows over tiny, patched boats from the Barbary Coast. The first evening gun fired from the signal bastion as Stokes stood on the narrow quay stretching out towards the Spanish lines and watched a flatboat approaching from the American frigate moored a mile or so offshore, away from the treacherous rocks close to the harbour. As the boat approached, Stokes could hear a high-pitched neighing that suggested the approaching horse was not entirely happy with its predicament.

‘Oh dear,’ Captain Waller murmured as the boat approached the Mole.

It took time to bring the Arabian ashore. The horse sidled and ducked as the sailors and grooms in the flatboat tried to fasten him into the sling, and squealed in fright as he was winched back onto solid ground. Stokes had no idea how long the horse must have been cooped up aboard ship, but he was certainly making up for it now, skittering from side to side. Stokes watched as the grooms calmed him down until he quieted and stopped swinging his hindquarters about in an effort to break free.

Even to Stokes’s untrained eye he was a fine horse. He was small, but built almost entirely of lean, trembling muscle, his sinews standing out like cords. Pale grey in colour, he had a handsome dark mane and legs and a proud, offended look in his intelligent eyes as he pawed at the ground, raised his head and pulled half-heartedly at the bridle. The thought popped into Stokes’s mind, unbidden: You don’t want to be here anymore than I do.

‘Where are we to take him?’ one of the grooms asked in a pronounced American drawl. Stokes stopped staring at the horse.

‘His Lordship has made a stall in his own stables available for the Arabian. It is behind the Convent in Secretary Lane.’

‘He’ll be glad of a rest,’ the other groom said, stroking the Arabian’s nose fondly. ‘It’s been a long journey.’

Stokes returned to the Governor’s Cottage just as the last evening gun heralded the curfew. The sun was low on the horizon and a breeze shifted the turgid air from the direction of the sea. As Stokes dismounted he saw Lord Chatham’s junior aide, young Captain Taylor, coming towards him. ‘Mr Stokes. Is the Arabian safely ashore?’

‘You may tell His Lordship it is.’

‘He will be grateful for the news,’ Taylor said. Stokes did not know the man well; he had kept his distance, knowing Taylor to be Lord Chatham’s great-nephew, and indeed there was a faint family resemblance in the shape of the face and the proud set of the nose. The young man added, with naked curiosity, ‘Was it a handsome horse?’

‘Very much so.’

‘His Lordship has chosen a horse to run against him. He is very much looking forward to tomorrow’s race.’

Stokes had no doubt Chatham was looking forward to the leisure time. He felt immediately ashamed of himself at the thought, and the memory of his previous day’s conversation with Wilson rose in his mind. The question formed itself in an instant, and before he could stop himself he had blurted it out. ‘What happened to Lady Chatham? Why does Lord Chatham never speak of her?’ The aide stared in astonishment. Stokes felt himself blush. ‘I am sorry. That was out of order.’

‘No,’ Taylor said, at length. ‘Those of us who work closely with His Lordship have a right to know.’ He went silent, as though picking his words.

‘I know she was ill for many years,’ Stokes prompted.

‘Yes, she was. But…’ Taylor looked Stokes in the eye. ‘Not physically.’

It took a moment for that to sink in. Then Stokes’s eyes widened. ‘Oh.’ Embarrassment vied with curiosity; curiosity won. ‘How did she die? Did … did she…?’

‘No, she did not,’ the aide said curtly. ‘In some ways it was worse. She was recovering; it was a miracle, because nobody had expected her to.’ Taylor paused; he seemed suddenly older than his twenty-three years. ‘Until her maid put too much laudanum in her barley-water.’

‘My God,’ Stokes said, hollowly. He could think of nothing else to say. ‘I am sorry.’

‘We all were,’ Taylor said. ‘We all were.’

 

*

 

The race day dawned with the morning gun. The glowing purple sky heralded a continuation of the same hot, cloudless weather Gibraltar had been enjoying for some time. Stokes worked quickly through his routine tasks, aware he would not have time to devote to them later. At one the Governor’s staff were all ready and assembled on horseback in the courtyard behind the Cottage. Somewhat to Stokes’s surprise, the Governor himself was only a few minutes late, wearing a handsome scarlet dress uniform coat with elaborate gold frogging. His steel grey hair was pulled back into an elegant queue, and the eagerness on his face made him seem younger, and happier, than Stokes had ever seen him. He mounted his horse from the block unaided, with the litheness of a man half his age, and called across to his aides,

‘Let us enjoy the pleasure of the turf, even though we are so far from home.’

After an hour’s riding they arrived at the racetrack in the Neutral Ground, a mile-long gravelled track cut from one side of the narrow peninsula to the other. Stokes had been mildly surprised to find horse-racing was not unknown here, as the terrain seemed so unfavourable to it, but the British had some time ago informally expanded into the flat band of unclaimed land between the Rock and the Spanish lines at La Linea. Here were the temporary wooden huts and shelters occupied by many of the people of the town during the hottest months of the year, when the fear of contagious disease was at its highest. Behind them, the Rock rose up from the plain with silent, monumental grace.

News of the race had travelled. There were English-born merchants in top hats and tails, Spanish gentlemen in embroidered coats, and Gibraltar’s usual mix of Europeans, Jews, and Moors, each easily distinguishable by the clothes they wore. Ladies promenaded on their husbands’ arms, sheltering under parasols or, in the case of the Spanish women, hiding behind lace veils. The regimental bands played jaunty tunes. Stokes picked out ‘British Grenadiers’, ‘Heart of Oak’ and, after a group of local women promenaded past, a spirited version of ‘Spanish Ladies’.

The moment the Governor appeared the band struck up ‘God Save the King’, and all the soldiers on duty lining the track presented arms with perfect precision. Waiting for Lord Chatham at the finishing line were Lieutenant Governor Don and a group of American naval officers. They turned, gold braid glistening in the afternoon sun. Chatham dismounted and the rest of his staff, including Stokes, followed suit. General Don made the introductions. ‘Captain Jacob Jones, your lordship. The Arabian is his.’

Jones, a spare, grizzled man with a weather-beaten face, removed his hat and bowed. ‘Your excellency. I am glad of this opportunity to see my horse run.’

‘As am I,’ Chatham said, removing his own extravagantly-feathered hat. Stokes was accustomed to seeing the Governor going through the motions on parade as though he would rather be elsewhere: he was surprised to see the enthusiasm in the cold, distant blue eyes. ‘My Weathercock has not been out for many years. I am certain your young Arabian will give him a good race, and may the best horse win.’

The horses arrived, walked over at a gentle trot by their grooms. Lord Chatham’s was a large chestnut, his sleek flanks quivering in the afternoon sun. He towered over the Arabian, who was clearly not pleased with the competition. He held his grey head up proudly as though to make himself seem larger, flicked his tail and pulled at his bridle impatiently as though to say: I want to run now. I can win.

‘A magnificent beast,’ Chatham observed to Captain Jones as the horses rode past the cheering spectators. ‘Eighteen months old, you say?’

‘Just so.’

‘He has presence for a colt of his age.’

The horses took some time to arrive at the starting line, about a mile away. Stokes could see them, distantly. He could not so much make out the horses themselves as he could the movements at the end of the track through the shimmering haze: the milling of the crowds, the clouds of dust and the glare of sunlight off metal fastenings. By the edge of the track Stokes saw Chatham call over Taylor. The aide handed the Governor a telescope; Chatham opened it and trained it on the start line.

The sun shone down relentlessly, with not a single cloud to impede it. Heat from above warred against the cool rising from the sea, and the sound of waves beating the shore travelled sluggishly through the heavy, humid air. Sea salt mingled with earthy dust coated the back of Stokes’s throat; he discreetly wiped a thread of sweat off his brow and gladly accepted a glass proffered by one of the Governor’s servants. To his astonishment, the Governor – who regularly complained about the heat, and who often took days to recover from the exhaustion of public parades – looked as sprightly as though he were by the track at Newmarket. Stokes saw him laughing at a comment from one of the American officers. The sight of it made him realise he had never seen the Governor laugh before.

‘His Lordship is in good spirits,’ Stokes remarked to Taylor, as the aide passed by. Taylor shrugged.

‘Of course he is.’

Stokes did not see why it was so obvious, but he had to admit he was fascinated by the transformation in the Governor. The habitually bored expression on Chatham’s face had completely dropped away, and when pistol shot from the other end of the track signalled the start of the race, the glint in Chatham’s eye as he traced his telescope on the start line was full of intensity. The Governor’s enthusiasm was infectious. Even though he had never been fond of racing, Stokes felt his heart pounding as he fixed his gaze on the horses and raised a hand to shield his eyes.

The Governor’s narrow shoulders were rigid, his gloved hands perfectly steady as he held the telescope. His cheeks were red in a way that owed nothing to the heat of the sun.

‘Weathercock in the lead,’ he observed to Captain Jones, who also held a telescope. ‘By at least half a length.’

Stokes could now clearly hear the thunder of hooves. The cheers were getting closer. He could see the shape of the horses, the grooms perched high on their backs. After a few moments Stokes could distinguish one horse from the other: the Arabian’s small, lithe frame moving with sinuous grace, its little legs beating the ground at a tremendous rate, alongside the much larger Weathercock. Chatham gave a cry.

‘He’s catching up.’

‘Look at him run,’ Captain Jones exclaimed. The Arabian, having spent so long aboard ship, had more work to keep up with the bigger horse, but there was something so determined about the way he moved, black tail streaming behind, that Stokes would have been completely won over even if he had not already been championing him. He felt slightly ashamed for not backing the British horse, yet one glance told him the Governor, too, was more interested in the Arabian than in the progress of his own animal.

Chatham lowered his telescope, his face bright. ‘Remarkable,’ he said. ‘Truly remarkable.’

The horses were nearly alongside now, so close to each other their legs were a confused blur of activity. Their hooves shook the ground and the scent of competition filled the air. Around Stokes everyone began to cheer. The Governor pulled off his hat and waved it, huzzaying loudly with no thought for the audience around him. Not that anyone was watching; all eyes were on the two horses, heads stretched out, nostrils flared, long tails flying behind them.

And then it was over. The horses crossed the finishing line, Weathercock a head in the lead. The grooms reined them in as best they could. The Arabian squealed when his groom yanked on the bridle, more out of frustration, Stokes thought, than pain or exhaustion. A hundred or so more yards and the Arabian would have pulled past, Stokes was certain of it.

‘Remarkable!’ Chatham shouted again. He turned to Captain Jones and pumped him by the hand. ‘I have never seen anything like it!’

The horses stood by the edge of the racetrack, quivering flanks streaked with sweat. Soldiers hurried forth carrying buckets of water to wash the horses down. Chatham led Captain Jones over, Stokes following close behind with the rest of the staff. Having expended all its energy in the run, the Arabian’s head hung down with exhaustion, but at their approach he looked up and began to fidget. Weathercock turned his head towards Chatham and gave a soft whinny of welcome. The Governor reached up and stroked his nose fondly; the horse snorted and nuzzled his coat.

‘Congratulations, your excellency,’ Captain Jones said. ‘It appears your English horses are still capable of holding their own against Arabian stock.’

‘Weathercock did well, I admit,’ Chatham observed, rubbing the horse’s forehead. His gaze, however, was on the other animal. ‘But he is six years old, and has not spent the last few months on a ship.’ The Governor turned to the Arabian. The horse was perfectly still, its black eyes on Chatham. When the Governor came closer and reached out a hand the Arabian whinnied loudly and pulled its head away, twitching its ears.

‘Hush,’ Chatham said. ‘Hush.’ The Arabian continued to pull at his reins, but the Governor moved gently closer, whistling through his teeth, pulling off his gloves and edging forwards with exquisite patience. To Stokes’s amazement, the Arabian did not move as Chatham’s hand made contact with his neck.

‘Easy,’ Chatham murmured, running his hand along the horse’s sweat-streaked flanks. The appreciation on his face as he moved around the horse was obvious; he stroked the Arabian’s nose for a moment, then bent over and ran his hands delicately down the horse’s forelegs. Stokes expected the horse to protest, but to his surprise he just stood there. It was as though the Arabian knew Chatham was impressed, and was flattered by the attention.

Stokes glanced across at Wilson and Taylor, but the two aides looked as though they had expected nothing less. This behaviour from the Governor, though entirely new to Stokes, was clearly something they were familiar with, and had seen many times before. He turned back to Chatham with new respect.

‘Splendid forequarters,’ Chatham observed, straightening slowly and whistling again as the Arabian started back in alarm. ‘The shoulder is particularly fine. He will bring you much credit, once he has matured.’

‘Weathercock is no less admirable,’ Captain Jones said. Chatham smiled and turned back to the English horse, which nickered and nibbled at his golden sash as though in protest at having been ignored.

‘My Weathercock is the pride of my stables. He was a gift from Lady Chatham; she chose him for me herself, when he was barely older than your Arabian.’ It was the first time Stokes had ever heard Lord Chatham speak his wife’s name. An expression of sadness came over his face, as though the memories had taken the shine off his enjoyment. ‘How she would have loved to have seen him run today.’

As though he sensed his master’s melancholy, Weathercock nuzzled at his lapel. Chatham lowered his head; his hand on Weathercock’s mane stilled. He said nothing, but for the first time Stokes understood exactly what the Governor was thinking about.

 

*

 

The next afternoon Stokes waited on the Governor as usual with the dispatches. Chatham had just come in from his morning ride and was still mopping his face with a handkerchief. He stopped when Stokes came in and held out a well-manicured hand for the papers.

Stokes watched the Governor as he worked. Chatham wore the same closed, distant expression he always did, but this time Stokes fancied he saw signs of the emotion the impassive mask was meant to hide. Little wonder Chatham felt the need for such a façade, with everything he had experienced over the last few years and the way in which nearly everyone – including Stokes – held him in contempt. He was like the Arabian, forced away from home to perform endless repetitive duties on foreign soil, against his desire and inclinations. No wonder he cultivated a sense of detachment; no wonder his aides were protective of him. Stokes began to feel ashamed of his own preconceptions.

‘Did you see the race, Stokes?’ Chatham asked, after a time.

‘Yes, my lord. It was most diverting.’

‘The Arabian did well,’ Chatham said. ‘I have rarely seen a horse run with so much energy. I was quite captivated.’

‘Your horse performed admirably too, sir,’ Stokes said. Remembering Chatham’s words the previous day, he added, on a whim, ‘I believe Lady Chatham would have been proud of him.’

Chatham’s pen stilled. He glanced up sharply and for a moment Stokes thought he had overstepped the mark. Disappointment welled up and he braced himself for the reprimand, but the muscles in the Governor’s jaw relaxed. ‘I believe you are right.’

He returned to the papers. Stokes decided it was high time he stopped talking. To his surprise the Governor looked up after a handful of documents and peered at Stokes as though trying to remember something. ‘You came out in the spring to relieve Major Marshall, did you not?’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘You are to be married upon your return to England?’

A strange tingle raced up Stokes’s spine, as it always did when Sophia came into his thoughts. ‘I am. To Miss Blake.’

Chatham looked at him for a moment, an unfathomable expression in his eyes. Then he smiled, and Stokes realised how rarely he had seen the Governor bestow genuine smiles on anyone. ‘It cannot be easy coming so far when you have someone waiting at home.’

Sophia’s portrait around Stokes’s neck was warm against his chest. He put his hand to where it lay, resting his fingers lightly against the lapel of his plain civilian coat. Then he saw something he had never noticed before. On the wall behind Chatham’s desk, swallowed up among the many engravings of the Bay, was a miniature of a woman with the powdered hair and enormous hat of the previous generation. She gazed out of the gilded frame with a mysterious smile, her blue eyes bright with youth and love. Stokes did not need to ask who it was; the pang of pity that lanced through him took him by surprise. Like Chatham, he wanted nothing more than to climb aboard the first available ship and leave Gibraltar for good. But he had Sophia eagerly awaiting his return, whereas Chatham would never see his wife again.

There suddenly seemed to be an extra presence in the room, bending over Chatham as he sat at his desk, arms resting lightly on his shoulders. The impression was so strong Stokes could feel the power of Chatham’s loss surging through him like electricity. He saw the pain behind Chatham’s detachment, indelibly etched into the older man’s features, and wondered how he could have missed the fact that Chatham longed for his lost love as much as Stokes did himself.

‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘but serving here brings its own reward.’ And he meant it.