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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Lord Chatham … Lord Lieutenant of Ireland?

A bit of a puzzle this. Which is to say, no, it’s not a puzzle, but it is curious. When I was at the National Archives a few weeks ago I was thumbing in a bored and rather desultory manner through roughly four zillion equally illegible fluffy content-free letters from various members of the Royal Family to Mary, Countess of Chatham (“Your handkerchief at the drawing room yesterday was just sublime, can I borrow it?” “I love the way you do your hair— can we borrow your hairdresser?” “I hear dear Lord Chatham has a headache again” — the alarming thing is I am only slightly paraphrasing :-/). I was just about to switch my brain off in self-defence when I came across the following letter to Lord Chatham from King George III:

“Queen’s House Feby 18th 1801

The King is so much convinced of the Attachment and He flatters himself Affection of the Earl of Chatham that He prefers writing to the Lord President [Chatham was Lord President of the Privy Council] than in conversation calling upon Him (when the Marquess Cornwallis’s Resignation of the Lieutenancy of Ireland shall arrive) to accept that Office. The Manners, Integrity and Correct Line of Conduct of the Earl of Chatham certainly point Him out as the Person most proper for the Station; besides His having returned to His Military Profession, He as Lord Lieutenant must of course take the Supreme Command of the Troops stationed in Ireland, and the Commander in Chief only act under His Orders; the Military business must consequently be transmitted by the Lord Lieutenant to the Duke of York, as Commander in Chief of my Army, who when He has received my Approbation to the Successions proposed, will transmit them to the Successors of Mr Wyndham [sic – William Windham was Secretary at War], and the Commissions be prepared by the Secretary of State as those of the rest of the Army. – George R” (PRO 30/8/364 f 149)

Uhm, what now?

Some background, and I realise this is one of the most intricate and complicated topics in European history but I will have to be brief. In May 1798 Ireland (long disaffected and a target of repeated attempts of the French to invade the British Isles) exploded into rebellion. The rebellion was quickly put down, but the Lord Lieutenant at the time, Earl Camden, a civilian, was replaced by Lord Cornwallis, a military man. Pitt the Younger’s government decided to force through an Act of Union binding Ireland to Britain, dissolving the Irish Parliament and creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in January 1801. A great deal of patronage and corruption was required to persuade the Irish Parliament to dissolve itself (read Patrick Geoghegan’s The Irish Act of Union (2000) if you want to know more: it’s excellent). Part of the fallout was the collapse of Pitt’s own administration when the King got wind that Pitt was possibly considering making Catholic Emancipation (allowing Catholics in the United Kingdom to sit in Parliament and hold high office) part of the Union package. As far as the King was concerned this would lead to a violation of his Coronation Oath to defend the Anglican establishment. The resulting ruckus led to Pitt’s resignation and half his cabinet followed. Cornwallis, the Irish Lord Lieutenant and up to his ears in the Catholic business, was one of those who followed Pitt out of office. Lord Chatham, Pitt’s own brother and an opponent of Catholic Emancipation, stayed on under Pitt’s successor Henry Addington.

Given the circumstances it was clear Cornwallis was going to have to resign with Pitt, so to find the King ruminating on a possible replacement for him is not surprising. The main problem was that the shape of Ireland’s post-Union government was not clear. Very possibly there would not be a Lord Lieutenant at all, and if there was then he might well be of no more consequence than his county counterpart in Britain (county lords lieutenant still exist but on a purely ceremonial scale nowadays). One of the main reasons for the Union in the first place had been to tie Ireland’s government closer to London. Edward Cooke, one of the Irish under-secretaries of state, wrote to Lord Camden that “the Administration of the two Islands must be one” (18 July 1800, Kent RO, Camden MSS U840/C104/1). How this was to be achieved in practice was not clear, and remained in a state of lamentable confusion for decades after the Union was so hurriedly implemented, unfortunately much to Ireland’s detriment.

But Ireland could not really be considered as equivalent to an English county. So long as Ireland remained in a state of near unrest, it would also be best if the King’s representative in Ireland, Lord Lieutenant or no, was also a military man. In this context Chatham was to an extent a natural choice. In fact it was by no means the first time his name had been connected with Ireland. He was rumoured on numerous occasions in the 1780s to be a possible successor to the Marquis of Buckingham as Lord Lieutenant, although these were probably just rumours. In the summer of 1800, however, in the midst of the Union manoeuvrings, he seems to have been seriously considered. Lord Camden wrote to Lord Castlereagh on 30 June “that the Rumour you have heard of Ld Chatham coming over is not entirely without foundation” (PRONI, Castlereagh MSS D3030/1385). Camden later wrote to Pitt that Chatham’s “nomination [is] very desirable in many respects. His name & close connexion with you, His Manners & good sense would be advantageous there. The decided Preference He has for the Military Service would make it eligible for himself as the Command would be more considerable” (Camden to Pitt, 1 August 1800, Kent RO Camden MSS U840/C30/6). Having a military man who was also close to the Prime Minister in Ireland would have been of obvious benefit. (Incidentally Camden also mentioned that Chatham could do with the salary, although he seems to have struck that bit out of his draft to Pitt! 😉 )

What startled me most about finding the King’s letter was, firstly, the idea of Lord Chatham as Lord Lieutenant (…because let’s face it, this is John Pitt, 2nd Lord Chatham, known by all and sundry as the “Late Lord Chatham” we’re talking about) and, secondly, the fact that the King seems to have originated the proposal.

I checked with a friend of mine, Charles J. Fedorak, author of Henry Addington, Prime Minister 1801-4, to find out whether Addington had even been aware the King was offering Chatham the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland (I’d say the above quoted letter suggests he was not). He referred me to Pellew’s Life of Henry Addington, Lord Sidmouth (1847, I, 301-4) in which it is clear that it was indeed the King who came up with the idea. Chatham wrote to Addington offering to continue in his office as Lord President of the Council on 8 February 1801, and on 11 February the King wrote to Addington as follows regarding “the natural, nay necessary, return of the Marquess Cornwallis from Ireland”:

“At present it is neessary to fill up that office [Lord Lieutenancy] with a person that shall clearly understand that the Union has closed the reign of Irish jobs; that the civil patronage may be open to his recommendation, but must entirely be decided in England. Earl Chatham, if he can be persuaded, is the man who, from his honour, rectitude of mind, and firmness, is best calculated for that station, particularly from his love for the military profession to which he is again returned; and though of too inferior a rank in the army for a separate command, his employment as Lord Lieutenant would of necessity place him above the commander in chief of the troops in Ireland. He would thus embrace both the civil and military command.”

Chatham was much more of a courtier than his brother was and had spent much of the previous summer drilling his regiment at a camp near Windsor. He and his wife seem to have been in charge of entertaining the Royal Family when they came to visit the encampment and Chatham had obviously made an impression. On 12 February 1801 the King wrote to Addington that “I truly bear the warmest affection for him [Chatham]” (Pellew I, 304).

Chatham had clearly already been quite definite in his refusal to serve in Ireland (and who can blame him— Ireland cannot have been a good place to go in 1800 or 1801). He replied to the King on 18 February declining the Lord Lieutenancy, politely but firmly in tones that evoke echoes of the “Hell no, not again!” that may have crossed his mind on first reading the King’s letter:

“Lord Chatham has been long persuaded that the office of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was one which he cou’d neither hold with any comfort to himself or with any prospect ot advantage to your Majesty’s service. At the same time, if personal difficulties (however strong) alone stood in the way of the possibility of his undertaking that situation, Lord Chatham would have readily sacrificed them at such a moment as this, to a sense of dutiful obedience to your Majesty’s commands. But being firmly convinced, on considering all the circumstances of the present times, as well as on a review of the past, that he shou’d be, of all others, the most unfit to advance (what must be always nearest his heart) your Majesty’s service, he presumes to hope that he cannot more strongly evince the sincerity of his attachment or the warmth of those sentiments which he must ever gratefully entertain towards your Majesty, than by supplicating your Majesty to permit him to decline a station to which your Majesty’s partiality has induced you to call him.”

(Aspinall, Later Correspondence of George III, III, 504)

George III seems to have been anxious to see Chatham provided for under the new administration. His response to Chatham’s letter on 19 February suggests that, although he accepted Chatham’s answer on the Lord Lieutenancy, he was determined Chatham should have some reward. I wonder what Addington would have thought had he known the King was offering Chatham not only another cabinet office, but also a pay rise:

“The King should not do justice to His Affection for the Earl of Chatham if He Bid him farther on a Station in His Service which His Majesty is convinced the Earl of Chatham is more capable to fill with Efficiency than any Person. His Majesty thinks the Marquess Cornwallis will certainly resign the Office of Master General of the Ordnance, the Irish Ordnance ceasing, the King will think it but right on the encrease of business to raise the Salary of that Office to an equality with the President of the Council, iun which case He should hope the Earl of Chatham will accept of that Employment; His Integrity would be highly useful in Controuling that Great Branch of Military Service. – George R” (PRO 30/8/364 f 151)

Chatham did in fact take on the Ordnance but not for another few months. I do find it interesting that the King seems to have been taking it upon himself to make so many of the arrangements for his new government in February 1801, at least before he caught his chill and slid into a brief relapse of mental illness. I also find it interesting that the King obviously took such a personal interest in Lord Chatham— who, after all, took the King’s side in the Catholic Emancipation debate.

Sorry it’s so long, but I found this fascinating and felt I had to share.

Years ago I saw this…

Visit of George III to Howe's Flagship, the 'Queen Charlotte', 26 June 1794 by Henry Perronet Briggs - print

It’s a painting by Henry Perronet Briggs (1828) in the Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and depicts the visit of King George III and Queen Charlotte to Portsmouth on 24 June 1794 to congratulate Admiral Lord Howe on his victory over the French at Ushant (the battle became known as the “Glorious First of June”). George III is shown handing Howe a ceremonial diamond-hilted sword on the quarterdeck of Howe’s flagship, the Queen Charlotte. Various members of the Royal family and the court watch. I can’t identify too many of them off hand, but conspicuous among them are the two main characters of my novel: prime minister William Pitt the Younger on the far left, and (immediately to the right of the chap in the rather dashing red and gold pelisse) Pitt’s brother John, Second Earl of Chatham. Chatham was, of course, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time and so had a prominent role in the celebrations.

I think it’s pretty cool. One day I might even go and see it in person!