William IV & the Royal Visit of 1827

Today’s virtual lecture was presented by Owen Ryles, Chief Executive of the Plymouth Athenaeum. It concerned the time that the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV) visited the naval yards at Plymouth.

The lecture began with a preamble establishing the titular character: William was his father’s third son, long expected to lead a relatively quiet life. Even his creation as Duke of Clarence & St Andrews was not guaranteed, being granted only because he threatened otherwise to stand as MP for Totnes. He was sent into the navy at age 13 to keep him away from the perceived negative influence of his elder brother George IV. In his active career he was the first British royal to set foot in the American colonies, took command of HMS Pegasus in 1786 and gave away Frances Nisbet in her wedding to Horatio Nelson in 1787. He was commissioned as an honorary admiral in 1798, and then appointed to the office of Lord High Admiral in 1827 during the brief ministry of George Canning. In his private life, he scandalised Georgian society by cohabiting with his mistress Dorothea Bland and siring ten illegitimate children with her. He gave her a stipend on the condition that she would not return to acting, and later took legal action against her when she did anyway. When his niece Princess Charlotte of Wales unexpectedly died in childbirth William moved up in the line of succession and was forced into a royal marriage, but his wife’s children all died young.

For the grand occasion the duke arrived on HMS Lightning to a deafening chorus from onlookers. He did not disembark until 7pm. He visited the original Admiralty House, later renamed Hamoaze House, and met the Superintendent of Works Jay Whitby. On 12th July he inspected the Plymouth Division of the Royal Marines and said that Plymouth was his favourite naval resort (it was also the first borough in which he had been made a freeman). On 13th he received a loyal address by the mayor and municipal corporation at the Royal Hotel. Among the military men with whom he dined was his own son, Colonel Frederick Fitzclarence.

Also during the visit he laid the top stone of the sea wall at the Royal William Victualling Yard and donated ten guineas to each of the workmen. He also witnessed a demonstration by William S. Harris of the application of fixed lightning conductors to ships.

William’s tenure as Lord High Admiral did not last long – the next year he was dismissed after taking HMS Britannia to sea for ten days without government permission. In 1830 he acceded to the throne, the eldest until Charles III last autumn. He was reluctant to have a coronation at all, eventually spending just £30k on it compared with his elder brother’s £420k. His reign was short, and he clung to life just long enough to see his niece Victoria come of age. He was regarded as the “least obnoxious Hanoverian”, which some might consider high praise.

A Note on Royal Peerages

Today it was announced that The Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and Forfar, was created Duke of Edinburgh, a title formerly held by his father. This had been speculated for years, but the intriguing part of the news is that the title is only for life – Edward’s son James will not inherit it. This is the first life peerage above the degree of baron for more than two hundred years, and the first given to a royal since medieval times.

For a newly-ascended king to denounce the principle of heredity seems unlikely. I think there is a more pragmatic reason for this – a desire to keep the title in circulation for the sons and brothers of future kings. The firm does not want to run out of place names (especially in Scotland) to use for dukedoms.

It has been tradition in Britain for the better part of a millennium that the younger sons of the monarch are granted dukedoms referring to prominent locations within the isles. Indeed, there is a lot of tradition in which particular place names are used, and even for which place in birth order.

On second thought, however, this shouldn’t be possible – if these honours are separately hereditary, and given to the offspring expected not to take the crown, then how do the same titles keep coming up time and time again. This paradox reveals an important detail about the royal dynasties of the past thousand years – their cadet branches normally don’t branch very far. It’s remarkably rare to find examples of a legitimate male line emanating from a younger son of a king that lasts for more than three generations. Most of the time either the junior line dies out (either only having daughters, or having no children at all), or the senior line fails so that the junior line ascends to the throne. To make matters worse, on the few occasions where a divergent line has managed to sustain itself, there has nearly always been some kind of intervention that prevented the title from doing so. What follows is by no means a complete history of the royal lineage, but a list of the most commonly-used royal dukedoms roughly in descending order of number of creations, with an explanation of what happened to them.


The first use of the northern city for a royal dukedom came in 1385, when Richard II bestowed the title on his uncle Edmund of Langley. This founded the House of York, which was to be one of the principal factions in the Wars of the Roses after Richard’s death. Edmund was succeeded by his son Edward of Norwich, who died at Agincourt, then his grandson Richard of York, who lead the opposition against the regime of Henry VI. Richard died before winning the throne, so the dukedom passed to his own son, who not long later succeeded as King Edward IV.

The title of Duke of York has since been conferred ten more times (thrice combined with Albany), nearly always for the monarch’s second son. Five dukes ascended to the throne, another four died without sons. Prince Andrew looks set to continue the latter tradition.


Conferred twice as a dukedom – the first was for The Prince Augustus Frederick, sixth son of George III. He married twice without permission so his children were deemed illegitimate and the title died with him. The second was for Prince Henry of Wales in 2018. He currently has one legitimate son. It is too early to speculate about grandsons. An earldom of Sussex was also given by Queen Victoria for her son Arthur (see Connaught).


Created as a dukedom five times (and used as an informal style on two others), the most memorable recipient being Richard III. All died without an heir until Prince Henry, son of George V, whose son Richard (b. 1944) holds the title to this day. He has a line of succession two generations deep (though only one person wide) so barring any accidents for Xan Windsor we can expect the title to escape from the royal family for most of the rest of this century. The title “Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh” was created once and inherited once, the second duke dying childless in 1834.


Five creations and two more stylings. The first four dukes died as small children. Prince George (1706) and Prince William (2011) were both directly in line to the throne so their honours were doomed to merge. Prince Adolphus, son of George III, produced an heir but his children were born outside the Royal Marriages Act so they could not inherit. His daughter’s son, Prince Adolphus of Teck, was created Marquess of Cambridge in 1917 and passed it to his son George ten years later, but George only had a daughter and Frederick, his brother, died a bachelor.


First granted by Robert II to his third son (also Robert) in 1398, the title passed to his son Murdoch in 1420, but five years later Murdoch was attainted and his peerages removed. Conferred again by James II on his second son Alexander in 1458, it passed to his son John, but John died childless and brotherless in 1536. James V’s son Robert was styled as such in 1541, but he died at eight days old. Mary I conferred the dukedom on her husband Henry in 1565 and it was inherited by their son – later James VI, merging with the crown on his accession. James recreated the title for his second son Charles, but his first son died so Charles also became king. Charles II upon his restoration gave the title to his brother James, who succeeded him on the throne. Albany was also created three times as a joint peerage with York. The final creation was in 1881 for Victoria’s son Leopold, and inherited by his son Charles (also Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) until he was stripped of it in 1919. The claimant today would be his great-grandson Prince Hubertus.


First created for Charles I’s nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine, then William & Mary’s brother-in-law Prince George of Denmark, then George II’s son Prince William. All died without sons to succeed them. Prince Henry Frederick, George III’s brother, was made Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn in 1766, but he died childless as well. George later made his fifth son, Prince Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland & Teviotdale. Ernest passed the dukedom (and the Hanoverian crown) to his son George in 1851, then grandson Ernest Augustus in 1878, but he was deprived of the title in 1919. The claimant today would be the first duke’s great-great-great grandson Prince Ernest Augustus (born 1954).


Ignoring non-royal creations, the title was conferred on George V’s youngest (surviving) son in 1934, and passed to his son in 1942. Currently the duke is fortieth in line to the throne, with two direct heirs and six spares of his own, so neither extinction nor merging is likely in the forseeable future. The double-dukedom “Kent & Strathearn” has been used once, for Queen Victoria’s father, but he died with no sons.


Referring to the town of Clare in Suffolk, the first two creations were for the second sons of their respective kings, both dying without legitimate sons. The third creation was for George Plantagenet, brother of Edward IV. He was survived by a son, but the title was not passed on as he was attainted and executed for treason. The title fell out of favour until 1789 when George III made his third son (later William IV) Duke of Clarence & St Andrews. William had several children out of wedlock who used “Fitzclarence” as a surname. Queen Victoria ennobled her senior grandson Albert Victor as Duke of Clarence & Avondale in 1890, but two years later he died just before his planned wedding. An earldom of Clarence was already in existence, created nine years earlier for Victoria’s fourth son (see Albany).


Granted twice to John of Lancaster, son of Henry IV, but he died childless. Conferred on John Nevill, intended son-in-law of Edward IV, in 1470, but he was later attainted for treason. Given in 1478 to George, said king’s third son, who died young. Given in 1485 to Jasper Tudor, uncle of Henry VII, who died childless. Given in 1694 to the non-royal William Russell, whose descendants carry it to this day.


The first creation was by George I in 1726, for his senior grandson Frederick. Frederick predeceased his father, and the dukedom was held for nine years by his own eldest son, who then acceded as George III. Victoria gave it to her second son Alfred in 1866. He died in 1900, his only son having died the year before. The third and likely most significant creation was by George VI in 1947, for his son-in-law Philip Mountbatten. Philip spent a record time as royal consort and founded an award scheme under that title, raising the name to a significance it had not previously enjoyed (despite being a capital). Philip died in 2021 and his peerages were inherited by his eldest son Charles, who six months ago became King. Today Charles conferred the title for life on his youngest brother Edward.


Style of Charles II’s nephew in 1666. He died young.


Created by George VI for his brother, the former king Edward VIII. Edward died childless in 1972.

The Heraldry of Haiti

Malcolm Lobley’s lecture tonight for the Yorkshire Heraldry Society concerned the country which has long been a source of cult fascination among armory enthusiasts.

He began with a short history of how the country came to be – which was, by his own admission, a way of padding the event’s length.

Henry Christophe founded the Kingdom of Haiti in 1811. In addition to proclaiming himself as monarch, he established a native nobility on the European model consisting of four princes, eight dukes, twenty-two counts, thirty-seven barons and forty chevaliers. He assumed arms of dominion for his realm, and also created a heraldic authority to assign arms to his appointees.

Lobley noted that as in Britain there was a convention on helmet usage according to rank – nobles used a barred helmet, the most senior affrontee and the rest facing dexter. Some of the titles of the peers, based on contemporary local place names, sounded comical to English speakers, such as the Duc de la Marmelade and the Duc de Limonade. Lobley was especially drawn to the Duc de l’Anse, which he translated to “jug handle”. Hyenas were a common choice as supporters. The contents of the shield tended to a medieval degree of simplicity though incorporating more modern imagery, such as Baron de Beliard with his rake and watering can.

The lecture was also used as an opportunity to advertise the Armorial Général du Royaume d’Hayti, which the College of Arms has been trying to flog for more than a decade.

Elizabeth I: A tale of betrayal and deception

Continuing the Treason theme pursued by the archives for the past year, Tracy Borman tonight gave a presentation about how the life of Good Queen Bess was shaped by the ever-present threat of insurrection against the crown.

The Tudors are among England’s (and perhaps the world’s) most celebrated dynasties, often associated with ideas of absolutism and supreme power, but in reality they were always fundamentally insecure on the throne. Henry VII’s descent from John of Gaunt and his mistress made a weak claim to the throne, and anyone outright seizing it by force would forever suffer the taint of usurpation. Henry played on the idea of treason right from the start – legally backdating his reign to the day before Bosworth so that Richard III’s supporters would be the traitors.

Henry VIII would take the concept further, regularly hurling treason charges at his ministers, blood relatives and even wives once they had fallen out of his favour. An example highlighted was the treatment of Anne Boleyn and Henry Norris – accusing them of adultery was not enough, it was also alleged based on an offhand joke that he was plotting to assassinate the king. The real motivation, of course, was that Anne had failed to birth a living son and thus Henry needed rid of her. That she would be beheaded was a foregone conclusion before the start of the trial. This is posited as one reason her daughter Elizabeth avoided conjugal attachments.

Another came after Henry’s death when her stepmother Katharine Parr swiftly remarried to Thomas, Lord Seymour of Sudeley. He is rumoured to have behaved inappropriately toward Elizabeth, even plotting to marry her (without Edward VI’s permission) after Katharine’s death. He too was executed as a traitor following an incident where he shot one of the king’s dogs and broke into the royal bedchamber.

During the unpopular reign of Mary I & Philip of Spain, Elizabeth was used involuntarily as the figure head for Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebel movement. Mary imprisoned her sister for a time and only narrowly avoided killing her. Lady Jane Grey was not so lucky.

Once Elizabeth had actually ascended the throne, another Queen Mary proved similarly dangerous. Deposed in Scotland, Mary Stuart still possessed the strongest claim to the English throne. She sought Elizabeth’s mercy but instead became her prisoner. Her very presence made her a focal point for revolutionary intentions by English Catholics, made worse when Pious V actually issued a Papal Bull encouraging them to rise up. This led to the Treason Act 1571, which expanded the offence to include intent of harm against the monarch. Elizabeth ultimately executed Mary, but had to put on a show of reluctance about it, scapegoating her ministers to distance herself from regicide.

In the question period that followed, Borman rejected the theory that Henry VIII had been nice until his 1536 jousting accident. She said that he had always been paranoid and vicious. She also said that Cromwell and Wolsey were the only deaths for which Henry demonstrated any remorse.

Asked about Elizabeth, she said there were hints by a midwife about a lovechild with Seymour, but no evidence of substance. The Queen had to be subtle in her attempts to rehabilitate her mother’s legacy, for Anne was still hated by most of the English populace. Borman cited Miranda Richardson in Blackadder II as her favourite onscreen portrayal.

An Evening with Philippa Gregory

I have virtually visited the National Archives many times to hear talks from authors of historical fact. This time I got to see an author of historical fiction.

Shikha Sharma, the Events Manager, introduced the talk as part of the “What’s Online?” series. The interview was primarily centred on Dawnlands, part of the Fairmile series taking place in England in the seventeenth century, but there were questions and observations about Gregory’s other works as well.

Gregory said that a lot of people think they don’t know the Stuarts very well, and that it is much easier to convince publishers to print books about the Tudors. It was the notion of a family story developing into global affairs that got them interested.

Sharma reminded us that the talk was part of the Treason exhibition. The accusation of treason was the state’s supreme weapon to suppress rebellion and scrub out subversive ideas. She asked about the character of Ned Ferryman, who sticks to his personal ideals throughout but is considered a traitor by the law. Gregory said Ned was an old Cromwellian soldier who thought he was fighting for a new world of liberty. None of them could have predicted the restoration of the king so soon. Most of Cromwell’s soldiers were pardoned by Charles II, but those who had been directly involved in his father’s execution were pursued across the world. Ned is contrasted with Lyvia, who joins a long line of ambitious, manipulative women (nearly always Catholic and Italian), ingratiating herself at court, with occasional warm feelings never prioritised. Gregory said it was always helpful to have someone who can observe important historical events.

Sharma asked why it was important to tell these stories, and how the research is done. Gregory said that the life stories of lower-class women were not often recorded except as character assassinations when they stepped out of line, official records often differing sharply from personal accounts. Around 1660-80 there was a prominent increase in the number of women writing and publishing. The range of subjects on which books can be written was widened by the English Marxist historians of the 1950s. Each character presents a different research problem – she could find only two biographies about Mary of Modena, both very old and out of print. The working-class characters are usually composites from historical records rather than directly based on specific individuals. Her favourite character is always the one she’s just finished working on. Gregory covers her study with maps and drawings relevant to the book she’s writing, meaning she redecorates for each new book. She doesn’t want to delay the creative process for research – typically each new book takes 18-24 months in all, though by now she has a large stockpile of research from all the books she’s done before. We are separated from the Stuarts by generations of Whig historians, but you can often find hidden treasures in local museums.

Sharma noted that the books were prone to “painterly” descriptions, and asked if that was deliberate. Gregory said that if you pick up any historical fiction you know the author’s narrative voice. One’s idea of historical Venice is heavily mediated by Canaletto, as is London by Gustave Doré.

On the topic of historical accuracy and the grand sweep of her plots, she said that she doesn’t plan much for the series – it’s dictated by the real history but she has to decide as she goes along how her characters fit into it. Most family lineages start as peasants in the mud, much as they’d like to be aristocrats. If somebody points out an error in a book she corrects it in the next edition. She claims this has only happened 3-4 times in over thirty publications.

Sharma often asked questions from the audience but she did not name the members and often merged several similar questions together. I asked how close to the present day Gregory would consider setting her books. She said she had originally considered taking the Fairmile series as late as 1920, where British society was plagued by a fear of moral decay after the First World War and a sense that the prosperity of empire had reached its limits. Her plan had been to write two books per century, but she now finds herself writing four or five which may require the breadth of her series to be reduced.

The obvious question to ask of these kinds of authors is when they would go if they could travel through time. Gregory said she was less interested in specific eras than in solving historical mysteries, such as the Princes in the Tower or Amy Robsart.

Sharma asked specifically about the baby in the warming pan. Gregory said we know what happened in the birthing chamber because James VII was forced to hold a public inquiry. Princesses Mary and Anne both claimed to believe the story in order to justify the later coup, but the books written now cannot present it as fact.


A Blackmailer at Frogmore

Today’s virtual outing was with the National Archives again. James Travers, Cultural Property Manager, was promoting his new book on the “ghost” of Caroline of Brunswick, Queen of George IV.

The centrepiece of the book, and the lecture, was Thomas Ashe, whom the injured consort had commissioned to write her memoirs. His book The Claustral Palace was suppressed from publication, for it would have revealed the intimate life stories of her sisters-in-law who were confined at Frogmore House.

How much of the novel was true is unclear, but it put Ashe in conflict with the government as well as George IV’s brother the Duke of Cumberland (later Ernest Augustus I of Hanover).

Travers’s lecture was quite convoluted in its story, which combined with his soft way of speaking and some technical glitches at my end meant it wasn’t always easy to follow the plot, so reading the book itself is probably necessary to get a full understanding.


Today’s virtual lecture was by the York Festival of Ideas, starring Eleanor Parker.

I asked her at what point in English history the Saxons and Normans were no longer considered different races/nations. She replied that the Normans quickly came to call themselves English, but that twelfth century sources still indicate a cultural and linguistic split, with non-Francophones held back in life.