“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

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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.

An extract from Richard Glover’s “Peninsular Preparation”

“The decline of the [Board of] Ordnance, which began under Cornwallis, continued unabated under his deplorable successor, John, the second Earl of Chatham. Fortescue has well and truly said that, when he chose, Chatham could both think and write. Unfortunately, however, he very rarely made this exacting choice, and in sheer laziness he eclipsed even [William] Windham [Pitt’s Secretary at War in the 1790s]. Any reader of Castlereagh’s military correspondence must be struck by the frequency with which Chatham is to be found at his country home when he ought to have been in London. Relatively few documents attributable to him are to be found in the Chatham Papers, or elsewhere, in the Public Record Office; and it is surely significant that among them lies a trim little notebook containing lists of garden flowers written in an admirably neat italic printing hand. This suggests where his real interests lay … Yet in spite of his lack of interest in the duties of his office, Chatham did his country the disservice of clinging like a limpet to [the Ordnance] from May 1801 to 1810, with only the break of the eighteen months when the Ministry of All the Talents was in power”.

(Richard Glover, Peninsular Preparation, 1963, p. 39)

Jeeeeeeeeeeez. To quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Where do I begin with the bad?”

It certainly had me snorting at certain moments— “he very rarely made this exacting choice”, “clinging like a limpet” in particular— but at base, there’s little evidence here to make such sweeping statements about Chatham’s uselessness. I was kind of hoping there might be more examples to work with, so that I could at least say “OK, fair enough”, but now I’m just left thinking, “Bleagh, poor John.”

And the lack of evidence is, at least in this instance, not overwhelming proof. I agree there are few of John’s papers anywhere; I haven’t had the opportunity to go to Michigan to see those at the Clements Library, nor have I managed to get to Manchester to see the ones held there. The National Archives (as the PRO is now called) is disappointing, but I really get the impression that John’s papers were either destroyed by his executors, who cared more about his father and brother, or they were destroyed by John himself (and let’s face it, he had 25 years of kicking his heels in the political wilderness to sort through his papers).

(Although I am soooo going to look up that gardening notebook next week when I’m at the National Archives. 😉 )

So what a value judgment: and the only concrete evidence for it is from the Castlereagh Papers, where he ought to have been in London but was at his country estate!

I confess I have not read Castlereagh’s correspondence cover to cover, but I have consulted them. Chatham doesn’t appear a great deal (except on the volumes covering Walcheren, obviously). I presume that Glover is mainly talking about the instance also cited by Wendy Hinde in her biography of Castlereagh (London, 1981, p. 119): after describing Chatham as “incurably idle” she relates how he “preferred to remain in the country potting pheasants” rather than come to town for a cabinet in October 1805 to discuss reeling Prussia into the Third Coalition. She continues: “Chatham’s irresponsibility is scarcely more surprising than Castlereagh’s polite—or philosophical—acceptance of it”, thereby implying that this sort of thing happened all the time, ho ho ho, it’s the Late Lord Chatham again, oh well, never mind.

Shall we take a look at this letter in the Castlereagh Correspondence? It’s from Volume 6, p. 19, dated 16 October 1805. I quote it in full:

“My dear Lord,

Colonel Hadden communicated to me this morning your kind offer to come up to town in the course of next week, if there was anything of importance. Things are grown so interesting, that I trust you will forgive me for availing myself of your proposal; and if you could appropriate Sunday to the journey, you would, without wasting a sporting day, catch your brother before his return to Walmer on Monday. I send you by the messenger the outline of our immediate measures, which has been approved by the King, and will be executed without delay. But this subject connects itself so much with the state of the Continent, and the general scheme of our future military views, that I feel extremely desirous of having a full conversation with you upon the whole of this interesting subject.

Believe me &c., Castlereagh.”

What leaps out at me from this immediately is:

1) John is not the only member of the Cabinet currently on holiday (Pitt is “RETURNING” to Walmer, so obviously has also come up for a debrief)

2) John had asked for permission to go (“your kind offer to come up to town in the course of next week, if there was anything of importance”: translates as “I’m off, but if you need me I’ll come back”)

3) Whether this was flattery or not I couldn’t say, but Castlereagh seems to imply he wants Chatham’s views as a military man rather than those as a cabint minister. No mention of ordnance, for example.

I certainly see nothing in the above to justify Glover’s character assassination of Lord Chatham, and I think Hinde was also writing with that good ol’ 20/20 historical hindsight.

After all, people will see what they want to see in anything. (And of course I guess this applies to me too, so I will take my own fulminations with a pinch of salt 😉 )

Ironically the book from which I took the reference to the Glover paragraph quoted above was much nicer to Chatham. I really thought that by following the reference I might find some concrete evidence of Chatham’s incapability … but I am once again disappointed. (And maybe a little relieved too!)

Edited to add:

WHAT country home? In 1805? :-/