Gambling, Guns & Women: Frederick, Duke of York


Oh, to be a son of George III – all of the perks, none of the restrictions. Unfortunately, there were a few other key characteristics missing and few from this batch of men particularly distinguished themselves as industrious, ambitious or responsible.

Prince Frederick was the second son of George III and Queen Charlotte, born on August 16, 1763, a year after his older brother, the future George IV. Within six months of his birth he was made a Prince-Bishop in Lower Saxony and by eight years old he was a knight in the Order of the Garter.

Frederick with his older brother, the Prince of Wales

Ushered into the military without much choice in the matter, Frederick was a colonel at 17, major-general at 19, lieutenant-general at 21 and full general at 30. Between the years 1781 to 1787 he studied in Hanover alongside his younger brothers: Edward (future father of Queen Victoria), Ernest, Augustus (future grandfather of Queen Mary) and Adolphus. He was made Duke of York and a member of the Privy Council in 1784, and when he returned from Hanover he took his seat in the House of Lords, speaking out against the proposed Regency Bill in 1788 that addressed his father’s mental health at the direction of his brother, the Prince of Wales.

In short, his career was one of nepotism and cronyism, but such was what his birth dictated. The year that Frederick was made general, he was sent to Flanders with a command that was meant to aid the invasion of France. He took part in a few notable victories over the next two years before the British army was evacuated in April 1795. Upon his return, George III promoted him field marshal and, shortly after that, Commander-in-Chief.

His time in active campaigns underscored for Frederick the need for massive military reforms, efforts which he not only helped implement but which were key to British successes in the Napoleonic Wars. As Sir John Fortescue later said, “[The Prince did] more for the army than any one man has done for it in the whole of its history.”

A political cartoon depicting the Clarke incident

And while that is laudable, of course, Frederick had the Hanoverian drawback, which was massively poor judgment with women and a seeming inability to maintain even a modicum of decorum in his personal life. On March 25, 1809, Frederick resigned as Commander-in-Chief because his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, was accused of selling army commissions under his protection. A Parliamentary committee eventually had to acquit the Prince of receiving bribes and when it came out that Clarke had received payment from Frederick’s main accuser, he was exonerated and reinstated.

Personally, Frederick was usually in debt thanks to gambling, a situation that was somewhat helped when he married Princess Frederica of Prussia on September 29, 1791 in Berlin, thus increasing his Parliamentary allowance. The union wasn’t happy and within three years, they separated. Frederica retired to Oatlands Park in Weybridge where she became known as a bit of an eccentric. There were no children from the marriage.

Frederick in 1822

When the Prince of Wales’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, unexpectedly died in 1817, Frederick’s dynastic importance as his father’s second son increased. He became the heir presumptive when George III died in 1820 and his brother ascended the throne.

Three years before George IV died, Frederick passed away from dropsy in London. His body was interred in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor.

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