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]

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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]

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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]

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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.

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“As honorable to the Commander, as advantageous to the Country”: the Walcheren command

In mid-May 1809, the British government was pretty sure it was going to be sending a sizeable expedition to the Scheldt basin to reduce the island of Walcheren and destroy the dockyards of Antwerp. Horseguards was busily preparing a force of thirty thousand men (the number would later rise to nearly 40,000); the Admiralty was putting together a flotilla of over six hundred vessels, from the 80-gun HMS Caesar to a vast fleet of transports and flatboats. At this point, however, the military and naval commanders had not yet been appointed.

Lord Castlereagh, by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Lord Castlereagh, by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Lord Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for War, had been thinking about an expedition to the Scheldt for months. When he had first considered it, he had intended the command to go to Sir John Moore, but Moore had been killed at Coruña in January. For a while there was a rumour that Sir John Hope would take the command, as he was one of the more senior generals attached to the expedition, and there were other rumours that Sir Harry Burrard and even the Duke of York were considered,[1] In fact the job went to John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, then a cabinet member as Master-General of the Ordnance.

Lord Chatham, engraved by Charles Turner, after  John Hoppner

Lord Chatham, engraved by Charles Turner, after John Hoppner

Why Chatham was chosen mystified contemporaries, and historians since. Chatham had joined the army in 1773, but, although a reasonably senior Lieutenant-General by 1809, had not served abroad since 1799. He had in fact not been militarily active at all between 1784 and 1798. There were the usual conspiracy theories – the King had nominated him; George Canning wanted Chatham to succeed so he could prop him up as a figurehead Prime Minister; Chatham needed the cash – and of course after the whole deal went wrong everyone at Horseguards and the War Office was busily accusing everyone else for the appointment.

From the evidence that wasn’t drawn from gossip, however, Chatham seems to have been Castlereagh’s own choice. Maybe Castlereagh remembered how Chatham had been leapfrogged for the Peninsular command the previous year. Maybe Castlereagh thought that, since the expedition was sure to succeed, a Cabinet member in command could only reflect glory on the rest of the government. Who knows? But on 18 May 1809 Castlereagh wrote the following letter to Chatham, who was ill at the time:

“Private & Confidential

Downing Street

18 May 1809

My Dear Lord

I am anxious to have the great Question on which we conversed yesterday put in a course of proper Investigation. The Admiralty are naturally pressing upon it, and Commodore Owen is come to Town for the purpose of giving his Assistance.

I do not conceive, that any Effectual progress can be made, till we have come to a decision, Who is to be Entrusted with the Execution of the Operation, if it should be determin’d on, nor indeed till this is fixed, can any of the Departamental [sic] Arrangements be satisfactorily proceded [sic] on.

Under these Impressions, and in the hope that the result may prove as honorable to the Commander, as advantageous to the Country, allow me to propose it for your acceptance. In Expressing my own wishes, that it may be confided to you, I am authorized to add the Duke of Portland’s, and I have no doubt those of all our Colleagues.

Until I am possess’d of your Sentiments, I shall not feel myself authoriz’d to mention the Subject to His Majesty, nor indeed can I well take any measures at the Horseguards in furtherance of our purpose.

Believe me my Dear Lord

Very Truly Yours

Castlereagh”[2]

Chatham’s response to Castlereagh’s offer didn’t exactly burn with enthusiasm:

“Private

Hill Street

May 18 1809

My Dear Lord,

I received your letter of this morning, and feel sensibly the kind manner, in which you have proposed to me, the command of the Expedition, now under consideration, and I am much gratified by the concurrence in your sentiments, expressed by the Duke of Portland. Of course, I shou’d be at all times, ready when called upon to obey His Majesty’s Commands, but considering this proposal, as an Option given to me, confidentially on your part, I can only say, that I shou’d be very anxious to have some further conversation with you on this subject, before I venture to give any decided answer to it. I am better, but still confined. I shou’d therefore be happy if you wou’d have the goodness to call here at any time most convenient to you.

Believe me,

My Dear Lord,

Yours Most Truly

Chatham”

Perhaps Chatham already had a premonition of what was to come. If so, I imagine both he and Castlereagh had reason to rue the day he overcame his reluctance and accepted the command of the Walcheren expedition.

References

[1] Henry Brougham to Lord Grey, 30 June 1809, from The Life and Times of Henry, Lord Brougham I, 439-40 (London, 1872)

[2] National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/366 ff 58-9

[3] PRONI, Castlereagh MSS D3030/3087

Another letter from Spencer Perceval

chatham1 chatham2 chatham3 chatham4 chatham5

I’m guessing the moment John read this letter was the moment he saw the end of his 22-year cabinet career rushing towards him at great speed.

This letter was written by the prime minister, Spencer Perceval during the enquiries in Parliament in early 1810 over the failure of the expedition to Walcheren, which Lord Chatham commanded. Perhaps the most embarrassing detail for Perceval’s government was the fact that Chatham submitted a memorandum of defence to the King, privately, on 15 October 1809 after returning from campaign. He later resubmitted the memorandum in accordance with protocol to the King via the Privy Council, on 15 February 1810, but it was too late. The opposition, led by Sir Samuel Whitbread, accused Chatham and, through him, the government of unconstitutional behaviour. Chatham was Master General of the Ordnance with a seat in the cabinet at the time.

The government had only been in power a few months and was already half-crippled with weakness. Whitbread’s attack was a disaster, and it is clear from the letters Perceval sent to Chatham that he was utterly incandescent with rage at Chatham’s foolishness. During the debate to which Perceval refers in the following letter Whitbread made a direct accusation of unconstitutionality against Chatham. Perceval managed to get the debate adjourned till Monday. His defence of Chatham was lukewarm at best. After saying he would not merely sacrifice a cabinet colleague because the opposition had made unfounded accusations against him, he went on:

“He begged, however, not to be misunderstood: he did not mean to say if a colleague was wrong he should, under any circumstances, be supported. But in a ballanced [sic] case, where a colleague was merely in error, he thought by deserting his cause, he should be exposed to more merited reprobation than could otherwise fall to his share, justice, decency, and propriety alike called on them to postpone coming to a decision on the resolutions that night”.

(Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates volume 16, p. 1**, here)

In public Perceval and his colleagues focused on the rather weak argument that Chatham had made a “mistake”. In private, Perceval was much more brusque. He had already written to Chatham informing him that Whitbread would pounce if Chatham did not resign his cabinet post. Perceval did not outright demand Chatham’s resignation now, but his letter was clearly designed to tell him: “There’s only so much my government can now do. I’m not going to destroy the ministry for you. Weigh the consequences of your actions well.”

I can hardly read this letter without wincing, and I imagine John, too, had a bad moment or six when he opened Perceval’s packet to read the following.

Spencer Perceval to John, Earl of Chatham, 4 March 1810, PRO 30/8/368 f 145

“My Dear Lord

I was in expectation of seeing you to day at the Cabinet, or I should have endeavoured to pursue a meeting with you by appointment.

You are aware of the Line which I took in the Ho of Co on Friday last [the debate of the 2nd, in which Perceval labelled Chatham’s early submission of his memorandum to the King an “error” and postponed the vote]; it succeeded to the extent of putting off the discussion, and gave me the opportunity of making known to our Friends, that while on the one hand I did not mean to Satisfy you in delivering your Narrative to the King with the request that it should not be communicated for the present, so on the other I could not consent to ascribe to that delivery any of that Motive or Character which our adversaries endeavour to impute to it [ie, that it was unconstitutional]; and therefore that I should recommend it to the House to pass it by with the previous Question. With this Impression known to be felt by me, we shall meet the Question in the Ho of Commons tomorrow, and I believe that this is the most advantageous manner in which this Question can be met.

I wish it may succeed; but I have too much reason to fear that we shall be beat [in fact Whitbread’s motion was not passed, but only by a slim margin of 33 votes]. I have heard to day and yesterday of several who will keep away, and not suffer us. Lascelles, & the Master of the Robes are two, who think the House of Commons cannot pass over the subject by the previous Question. These are authorities of great weight. Still I feel most strongly that, if the Ho of Co should pronounce any judgment against this proceeding of yours [note: “of yours” ~ If John didn’t feel his hair standing on end at that phrase then he was excessively dim], more especially if they characterize it as unconstitutional, it will be impossible that the King’s Service can go on, particularly in our State of Weakness, with the Weight of such a vote against any one of His Servants; and therefore it is absolutely necessary to endeavour to resist it.

This I shall do to the best of my power. But I should not think I acted fairly by you if I did not thus fully apprize you of the view which I take of this unfortunate Business [John’s hair, already standing on end, probably started to turn white at this point].

[And then the last paragraph, in which Spencer Perceval, deeply religious as he is, doesn’t swear but clearly wants to say something stronger than “unfortunate”:]

I cannot conclude this note without assuring you how deeply I lament all the untoward circumstances which this unfortunate narrative has brought upon us all, and more particularly upon you.

[Ouch!]

I am My Dr Lord

Yrs most truly

Sp Perceval”