Below is a excerpt from our book, The Military and the Monarchy: The Case and Career of the Duke of Cambridge in an Age of Reform written by Kevin W. Farrell. Due to the restrictions of publishing on the internet, footnotes are not currently available in this excerpt. For the full chapter and references, please CLICK HERE to order a copy of The Military and the Monarchy.
The Legacy of a Royal Duke’s Career
London is filled with impressive statues and monuments to the great figures–and more obscure characters–of British history. Many are easily recognized by both historians and the general public. A magnificent statue of Lord Nelson sits high atop a column over Trafalgar Square, massive Wellington Arch is situated at the end of Buckingham Palace Gardens, the Victoria Monument stands majestically outside Buckingham Palace, a statue of Cromwell is positioned rather ironically before the Houses of Parliament, and a suitably bleak and pale Cenotaph rises in the middle of Whitehall to commemorate the British dead of the First World War.
In the middle of the street having the same name as that section of London– Whitehall–stands another impressive statue: an army officer seated on a horse across from the Horse Guards building just south of Trafalgar Square. Thousands of people pass by it every day in cars, buses and on foot without giving this larger-than-life memorial much attention. The lettering on the plinth on the left side reads, “FIELD MARSHAL HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS GEORGE, DUKE OF CAMBRIDGE K.G., G.C.B., &c.,” and on the right side it reads, “COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF OF THE BRITISH ARMY 1856-1895. BORN 1819. DIED 1904.” While the passing of a century has not diminished the statue, the man to whom the statue is dedicated is largely forgotten. This book investigates the important military and political changes that his life and career reflected, and more importantly, it reveals how the crucial relationship between the army, the Crown, and Parliament were affected at a key juncture in British history.
At first glance it might seem odd that the career of Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, royal duke and first cousin to Queen Victoria, should be so neglected. The Victorian era is one of the most heavily investigated periods of British history; scholars have devoted great effort to understanding the principal characters and minor figures of the age and readers continue to devour books of all types on the period. A particularly popular area of research has been the monarchy, its transformation and political influence, and yet, despite this enduring interest, there clearly remains much more to be said. In the words of a leading scholar in the field, “The difficulty with the study of the British royal family since 1837 is that there has been too much chronicle and too little history, a surfeit of myth-making and a dearth of scholarly skepticism.”
This book examines the Duke of Cambridge’s important relationship to the Crown while he served as Commander-in-Chief of the British army from 1856 until the Gladstone Ministry’s end in 1874. It places his life and actions in the context of his times. Although it is obviously quite difficult to rehabilitate the legacy of a man who resisted the use of khaki uniforms even in the desert, this book demonstrates that Cambridge was not a two dimensional figure obstinately opposed to any and all types of change. His career intersected an important period of transition for the British military and the monarchy, one that until now has not been sufficiently explored.
Historians studying this period have benefited from the tremendous amount of correspondence and government documents contained within the National Army Museum, the Public Records Office, and the British Library, to name but a few of their repositories, as well as the published diaries and correspondence detailing the attitudes and opinions of many of the important political, royal, and military figures of the era. Unfortunately, a great deal of the Duke’s correspondence has remained largely unexplored or at least unreported; this material is essential to a better understanding of the changing nature of the army, the Crown, and Parliament during a crucial period of British history. Thanks to the gracious permission of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the staff of the Royal Archives, this author had extended access to the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, wherein a very large amount of the military and private correspondence of the Duke of Cambridge remains well preserved. In the pages that follow, a more complete and accurate understanding of the role of the Duke of Cambridge will be presented and the result will be not only a new understanding of Cambridge, but more importantly, also of Queen Victoria, her ministers, and her government, providing a significantly revised understanding of the relationship between Crown and Parliament, and the army.
The long tenure of His Royal Highness (H.R.H.) George William Frederick Charles, 2nd Duke of Cambridge, as Commander-in-Chief from 1856 to1895 has traditionally been regarded as the major counterweight to a period that otherwise witnessed profound change in the administration of the British army. Not surprisingly, the majority of works devoted to the Victorian army deal with Cambridge only in a cursory manner; when he is addressed, in either political or military studies, he is invariably cast as little more than the main obstacle to serious reform, but little more than that. While serving as the Adjutant General, Sir Garnet Wolseley expressed the view of many in favor of reform when he wrote, “All the Secretaries of State [for War] here in my time, have suffered at his [the Duke of Cambridge’s] hands, and have had all needful reforms in the Army so blocked by him that one and all were determined never to have another Prince here.”
It is now clear the monarchy under Victoria looked quite different at the end of her reign than at the beginning. As a leading scholar on the monarchy, David Cannadine has aptly demonstrated “by the end of her [Victoria’s] reign, the monarchy was less powerful, more popular, more splendid and more imperial than it had been at the beginning.” As true as that might be, and as well documented as the political influence of Victoria may now be, the appointment–and subsequent long tenancy–of her cousin, the Duke of Cambridge, is an area which lends crucial insight into Victoria’s political and military outlook.7 Just as Cambridge’s role has been neglected in the important works dealing with the British army as a whole, so has the interaction between the Queen and her cousin been overlooked as a source to explore the political and military influence of Queen Victoria. Although written over sixty years ago, Frank Hardie’s introduction in The Political Influence of Queen Victoria could still well apply: “I have said very little about the relations between the Queen and her cousin, the Duke of Cambridge, as Commander-in-Chief from 1856 to 1895, and of her influence on Army questions generally, because…the obsoleteness of the subject deters me…”
Yet, an essential linkage between two of the most important and investigated institutions of modern British history, the military and the monarchy, can be found in the career of the Duke of Cambridge. Apart from a biography written over four and one-half decades ago, his legacy has been almost entirely neglected since the time of his death. In attempting to make the case why the former Commander-in-Chief of the British army mattered, his most recent biographer, Giles St. Aubyn, argued:
The biographer in his choice of a victim is confronted with a dilemma. Either he
writes about famous people of whom little new can be said, or he selects a
lesser-known person, the subject of a mass of unpublished documents, who
nevertheless is too obscure to catch the public’s fancy. How well known the
Duke of Cambridge is today is difficult to tell, but of three things I am certain.
First, as Commander-in-Chief of the Victorian Army for thirty-nine years he
occupied the centre of the political stage at one of the greatest moments in our
History. Secondly, the material for his life and times, much of it unpublished,
is important, extensive and exciting. Thirdly, the Duke enjoyed a fascinating
and momentous life.
Unfortunately, such an explanation is less than satisfactory for a work of serious scholarship. This book will not be a biography of the Duke of Cambridge, for, try as one might, the sad truth is that in many ways, contrary to what his biographer wrote, Cambridge was a rather dull figure and at times even quite absurd. That, however, is not an excuse for ignoring Cambridge’s contributions to the history of the Britain’s army, monarchy and political system. What Cambridge’s biographers failed to do, and what students of the British military and the monarchy have not yet done, is to place his career properly in the context of the changing relationship between the army and the Crown during the reign of Queen Victoria.
In the early spring of 1819, Princess Augusta, wife of the seventh and favorite son of King George III, Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, gave birth to a son, George. At the time, this royal birth was an important event for the monarchy, and therefore Great Britain, because it presented a male grandson as heir to the English throne. Scarcely two months later, however, young Prince George’s opportunity to become king was ended by the royal birth of Princess Victoria on May 24 to infant George’s aunt and uncle, Edward, Duke of Kent and Victoria, Princess of Saxe-Coburg. The significance of these two births lay beyond their timing and their royal nature, for each would go on to head important institutions in Great Britain: the military and the monarchy. If by the end of the reign of Queen Victoria the monarchy had undergone a considerable transformation, it was equally true that by the time George, the Duke of Cambridge, relinquished command, the office of the Commander-in-Chief had also. And while the monarchy survived the passing of both individuals, the office of the Commander-in-Chief did not last long after Cambridge left it. Why this should have been is one of the major themes of this book.
Apart from the monarchical and political aspects of the Victorian era, the general topic of the British army of that period has been an unending source of both serious and amateur investigation ever since. Much work has been done on British army administration reform and the development of a school for the professional education of senior officers, the Staff College. During the past several decades, historians have also thoroughly investigated the reforms of Viscount Edward Cardwell. Scholars have also addressed in depth the failure of reform after the Crimean War. Interestingly, however, very little effort has been devoted to the most senior ranking uniformed army officer in Great Britain, the Duke of Cambridge, whose career spanned thirty-nine years. Only two serious biographies of Cambridge have been written since his death in 1904. The extant works on Cambridge do little to improve our understanding of either the transformation of the military or the monarchy during this vital period in British history. The concluding paragraph from the most recent work by St. Aubyn demonstrates this point overwhelmingly. If all that can be discovered is that the Duke’s preservation of traditions and customs “was the salvation of the Queen’s Army,” clearly there remains much more to be done in this area.
Whereas historians have neglected the life of Cambridge, the most contentious issue of his tenure–the so-called Cardwell reforms–has been thoroughly investigated. The changes implemented under the Secretary of State for War, Edward Cardwell, were intended to modernize the British army. These included abolition of flogging and the purchase of commissions, introduction of significantly shorter enlistments, reform of the War Office, and other important changes. The debate over the Cardwell reforms has been a lively one. Ever since Hampden Gordon called Cardwell the greatest war secretary since the Napoleonic Wars, the historical debate has naturally found him at the center.
While Cardwell is generally regarded as the champion of reform, the Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Cambridge, has been consistently portrayed as his nemesis. Although written over seventy years ago, Gordon’s work characterized the two men in a manner that has persisted to the present day. According to Gordon, in Cardwell, “England had found a great Secretary for War in the clear-sighted and resolute person of the Rt. Hon. Edward Cardwell…this remarkable statesman achieved reforms in the space of five years the importance of which can hardly be overstated.” The image Gordon created of the Duke of Cambridge portrays a man whose “…ideas were extremely conservative. A man ‘to whom a new idea was perdition.’” However, it now seems clear that the Cardwell reforms were not nearly as sweeping as their supporters have argued, and army organization between the Crimean and Boer Wars underwent little effective change. How could it be that the country which spearheaded the Industrial Revolution and became the most successful colonial power the world has ever seen by the end of the 19th century was one of the last European powers to create a modern army? Part of the explanation must lie with Cambridge. Cardwell was new to the scene, whereas Cambridge could in many ways be seen as the physical embodiment of the Crown and the army. Examining the Cardwell reforms without understanding Cambridge is to overlook half of the issue.
Although it is quite useful to examine the Duke’s role in reforming the British army, Wolseley’s quotation cited above is revealing; it points out not only that the Duke appeared to be opposed to reform, but also that he was a “Prince.” Even though the military history of the 19th century may very well be an “obsolete” topic, to borrow Hardie’s description, the changed role of the monarchy and its relationship to the military remain, with good reason, vibrant areas of investigation, still factors in British political life to the present day. While the 19th century witnessed a dramatic change in the character and role exercised by the monarchy, the one area of influence to which the Crown held on most fiercely was its relationship to the military. Queen Victoria deeply cherished what she understandably viewed as “her army.” As the cousin to the Queen and former direct heir to the throne, the Duke of Cambridge exercised what authority he did have both by virtue of his position as Commander-in-Chief and the fact of his royal birth. The amount of real power of the former was, in his case, tied directly to the latter.
The struggle between Parliament and the Crown for mastery of the army could be traced back to the Glorious Revolution. It was during Cambridge’s tenure that the army witnessed once and for all the final triumph of civilian control. Although Cambridge viewed his primary mission to be one of preserving the “Royal Prerogative”–the Queen’s belief that in many ways the army was her own–and preventing undue civilian interference in the command, discipline, and efficiency of the army, ultimately he was far less successful than he would have liked. Under Cambridge’s leadership, the issues of civilian control and army reform would be tested, sometimes very publicly. Despite his best efforts and even with the Queen’s assistance, Cambridge would not succeed in thwarting major changes in the army’s organization and administration. By the end of the first Gladstone Ministry in 1874 it was clear not only that the matter was settled permanently, but also that the Queen and her cousin understood at long last they had lost. Although Cambridge continued in office for some two decades after the definition of his duties had been resolved at his expense, his importance as a military, political, and even as a royal figure was substantially and permanently diminished. In the end, rather ironically, it would be through the same royal connection that initially assisted his entry into office that Cambridge was finally forced to retire from it. Thus it was that the end of a struggle dating several centuries ultimately came to an end and changed forever the relationship between the military, the monarchy, and Parliament.