The Military Bishop – Frederick, Duke of York

In February 1788 a member of the royal family was lampooned by The Town and Country Magazine in one of its notorious Histories of the Tête-à-Tête articles, Memoirs of the MILITARY BISHOP and the CONVENIENT WIFE.

Frederick, Duke of York, second son of King George III, was the subject, designated by the title of The Military Bishop. Born on 16th August 1763, he had been sent to Hanover from a young age to pursue a military career. By the time of the magazine article, he was Colonel of the Coldstream Guards and had been granted the title of Duke of York. The epithet ‘Bishop’ makes reference to his election, at the age of only six months, in 1764, to the title of Prince-Bishop of Osnabrück in what is today Lower Saxony.

Frederick, Duke of York, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1788
Frederick, Duke of York, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1788

His mistress, a beauty from her picture, known only by the appellation of The Convenient Wife, was married to another, but had never had a sincere attachment to her husband. Neither, according to the article, did she have any regard to her own character and it was she who seduced her royal suitor, their amour carried on initially by letter.

Frederick - tete a tete

Eventually they began to conduct secret assignations, but were discovered by the lady’s servant, who ran home to tell the cuckolded husband, certain of a reward for doing so.

But the husband, a phlegmatic man unhelpfully named only as Mr. _____, surprised the servant by berating him for being a liar and a rascal, who had defamed his mistress for mercenary motives: the servant was thrashed, paid his wages, stripped of his livery, and turned out of doors.

Mercenary motives were, however, what now focussed the mind of the husband, who had only pretended to be enraged. Taking a poker, he broke the door of his wife’s cabinet, made of slight Indian wood, and discovered the letters which proved ‘the written evidences of her incontinence and his own dishonour’.

The Convenient Wife was in the arms of her royal lover, unaware that her husband had discovered her secret. But she was not to remain ignorant for long for, upon returning home that evening, she found her spouse sitting with the letters spread before him. He kept his cool through his wife’s confusion, and proposed that she repay her infamy by means of using her influence with the Duke to procure a position for him, either in the church or in the army. The Town and Country Magazine ended their article by saying, ‘. . . in one department he certainly will be placed, as the humble servant of his lady carries not only a truncheon but a crosier, and is completely church militant’.

Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia
Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia

Whoever The Convenient Wife was, she was soon supplanted in her Duke’s affections. He went on to make an unsuccessful marriage in 1791 to his cousin, Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia, the main attraction being the lady’s fortune (he was forever in debt!).

The Soldier's Return, courtesy of the British Museum, showing the Duke of York and Princess Frederica.
The Soldier’s Return, courtesy of the British Museum, showing the Duke of York and Princess Frederica.

LONDON

A treaty of marriage is on the tapis at Berlin, between the Duke of York and the Princess Frederica of Prussia, a very beautiful and accomplished lady. The match is not yet finally settled, as the Duke is said to have desired eight millions of dollars as a marriage portion, the greater part of which is to pay his debts. The King, we are informed, has offered his Highness the half of that sum.

(Stamford Mercury, 17th June, 1791)

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

The couple soon parted and the slightly eccentric Frederica lived at Oatlands surrounded by pet dogs, whose company she much preferred to that of her husband. In 1809 Frederick was to once more court scandal when another mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, was accused of selling army commissions signed by the duped Duke.

Mary Anne Clarke by Adam Buck, 1803. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
Mary Anne Clarke by Adam Buck, 1803. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

An adept administrator, which made up for failings in a military capacity, he is the subject of the well-known nursery rhyme The Grand Old Duke of York.

The grand old Duke of York,

He had ten thousand men.

He marched them up to the top of the hill

And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up.

And when they were down, they were down.

And when they were only halfway up,

They were neither up nor down. 

Courtesy of the British Museum
Courtesy of the British Museum

Frederick, Duke of York, died of dropsy on the 5th January 1827 aged 63 years. Had he survived he would, in due course, have succeeded to the throne of England after his elder brother, King George IV. Today his statue stands atop the Duke of York Column, erected in 1834 close to The Mall in London.

Duke of York column

 

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