The nursery rhyme "The Grand Old Duke of York" is thought to be about Frederick. No one would sing it if history told a different tale.
Frederick, Duke of York: Typical House of Hanover Royal
Today, the focus is on Prince Andrew’s legal battle, but he’s not the first royal to be accused of a crime and to face a fight to clear his name. George III’s second son Frederick, Duke of York, was born on the 16th of August 1763, and he was the spare to the heir to the throne, George, Prince of Wales, later King George IV (1762-1830).
His father told him that he was to join the British army as a colonel in 1780, and he rose through the higher ranks, becoming a general in April 1793 and a field marshal in spring 1795. He enjoyed a steady military career and saw action in Flanders. His experiences made him keen to reform the army. He, like his brother, was heavily in debt, an inveterate gambler and a womanizer. These traits were inured in the Hanoverian genes.
Frederick and Frederica of York's Marriage
In 1791, George III married Frederick to Princess Frederica of Prussia, but because he was a committed philanderer, their marriage produced acrimony and tears but no heirs. The couple separated after a few years, and he lived mainly in London as Frederica and an ever-growing menagerie of animals settled into the York's country home Oatlands in Surrey. The two Freds became far better friends when they were separated.
Commander-in-Chief of the British Army
In February 1795, George III made his son the unofficial Commander-in-Chief of the British Army as his predecessor Lord Amherst retired. Three years later, this became an official appointment. He saw active duty in Europe again in 1799 but was not to enjoy victory.
Although it remains unproven, the nursery rhyme "The Grand Old Duke of York" was reputedly about Frederick. It was used to mock him. As Napoleon Bonaparte claimed numerous European countries in the late 1790s and early 1800s, Frederick continued his role as Commander-on-Chief and began making reforms.
And then came the scandal.
Mary Anne Clarke Implicates Frederick, Duke of York in Bribery Scandal
On the 25th March 1809, Frederick, Duke of York, resigned as C-in-C. His mistress Mary Anne Clarke, an ancestor of author Dame Daphne Du Maurier, was accused of offering bribes for army commissions by Welsh politician and army officer Gwyllym Wardle. Claims of corruption so close to a royal brought demands for an investigation.
While giving testimony in the House of Commons, Mary Anne stated that as she accepted several army men's money, she only acted on behalf of the duke. Members of Parliament saved the Duke of York from a criminal trial for bribery. They acquitted him by 278-196 votes. As this was not the landslide victory that Frederick had hoped for, he resigned, disgraced by association and with questions about his conduct still echoing in his ears.
The story was not over. In July 1809, a London-based furniture upholster brought legal action against Gwyllym Wardle regarding work carried out at Mary Anne Clarke’s home. The verdict went against Wardle, and the web of lies snapped. Wardle had paid Mary Anne to damage the Duke of York’s reputation.
Wardle tried to sue Clarke and the upholster and lost again. His own reputation was in tatters, and he lost his seat in the House of Commons in the 1812 elections. He emigrated and died in Florence, Italy, in 1833.
Duke of York, Commander-in-Chief Again
The duke was lauded as innocent by his brother George, but he did not reclaim his role as C-in-C. Only when George became the Prince Regent in early 1811 was he reappointed at George’s insistence.
To ensure Mary Anne’s silence about their time together, the Duke of York paid her a generous sum of money and cut all ties with her. She moved to Essex, was jailed for nine months after a libel case, and when released, she crossed the English Channel to reside in less notoriety in France. She died there in 1852.
Remembered In Literature
Frederick became a widower in 1820, continued to increase his debts, gamble unwisely and keep colourful company before dying at a friend’s London home on the 5th January 1827 from heart disease and dropsy. He was buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.
In 1954, Mary Anne’s great-great-granddaughter Dame Daphne du Maurier wrote Mary Anne based on the scandal.
For the National Portrait Gallery’s collection of Frederick, Duke of York artwork: https://www.npg.org.uk
- The Duke of York Scandal, 1809 | History of Parliament Online
- Frederick Augustus, duke of York and Albany | English Nobleman | Britannica
- Prince Frederick, Duke of York | Unofficial Royalty
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Joanne Hayle