Monday 25 March 2013

Prince Ernest, Duke of Cumberland and King of Hanover (1771-1851)

HRH Ernest, Duke of Cumberland from A Biographical Memoir of Frederick,  Duke of York and Albany by J Watkins (1827)
HRH Ernest, Duke of Cumberland
from A Biographical Memoir of Frederick,
 Duke of York and Albany by J Watkins (1827)

Prince Ernest, Duke of Cumberland and King of Hanover (5 June 1771 – 18 November 1851) was the the fifth son of George III and Queen Charlotte and a younger brother of George IV.

Early years

Prince Ernest Augustus was born at Buckingham House on 5 June 1771. Ernest grew up at Kew, housed with his younger brothers, Augustus and Adolphus. The three Princes were made Knights of the Garter on 2 June 1786 and shortly after, were sent to the University of Göttingen to study.

Prince Ernest from The Lady's Magazine (1793)
Prince Ernest from The Lady's Magazine (1793)
Military action

Ernest was destined for a military career and entered the Hanoverian army in 1790 as a Lieutenant in the 9th Hanoverian Hussars. He saw fierce action against the French in Flanders and the Netherlands and on one occasion, was reported to have single-handedly carried a French officer from the battlefield as a prisoner of war. He was injured at the Battle of Tournai on 22 May 1794 and returned to England in 1796 with a permanently scarred face and the loss of sight in one eye.

Although commended for fighting bravely, he had a reputation for treating his men harshly and, despite regular promotion and being gazetted Field Marshal in 1813, he never saw active service abroad again.

Duke of Cumberland

On 23 April 1799, Ernest was made Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale and Earl of Armagh and awarded a grant of £12000 a year by parliament.

Extreme politics

Ernest was a radical Tory, unwaveringly Protestant in outlook and an opponent of political reform. He was vehemently opposed to Catholic emancipation and when the Duke of Wellington found it expedient to support it, Ernest used his influence over George IV to persuade him against it. 
As a result of his interference, Wellington’s government resigned. But it was a short-lived victory. Ernest did not have enough backing to form a government of radical Tories. Wellington was recalled and the act was passed in 1829.
George IV from Memoirs of her late royal highness Charlotte Augusta by Robert Huish (1818)
George IV
from Memoirs of her late royal
highness Charlotte Augusta
by Robert Huish (1818)
Character and appearance

Ernest was tall and elegant in person; whilst his brothers had a tendency to corpulence, he remained thin. He had handsome features, though one eye was disfigured in war and in later years he grew broad, drooping whiskers to mask his battle scars.

In character, he was radical and outspoken. He was able to wield a great deal of influence over weaker minds, notably over his brother George IV, whom he pushed towards his own radical Tory policies.

He was also inclined to be malicious. His brother William IV said of him:
Ernest is not a bad fellow, but if anyone has a corn, he will be sure to tread on it.1
An unpopular marriage

On 29 May 1815, Ernest married Princess Frederica of Solms-Braunfels in Neustrelitz, whom he had met and fallen in love with a few years previously. Princess Frederica was a niece of Queen Charlotte’s who had been married twice before – to Prince Louis of Prussia and to Prince Frederick of Solms-Braunfels – and twice widowed. The marriage was solemnised again at Carlton House on 29 August 1815 but the Queen refused to receive the new Duchess.

Frederica, Duchess of Cumberland from La Belle Assemblée (1830)
Frederica, Duchess of Cumberland
from La Belle Assemblée (1830)

The Queen disapproved of Princess Frederica who had been unofficially engaged to marry the Duke of Cambridge in 1797 but had become pregnant by the Prince of Solms-Braunfels and married him instead. Ernest’s marriage was very unpopular and parliament refused to increase his allowance, forcing the couple to live abroad, largely in Berlin, where their son George was born on 27 May 1819.

King of Hanover

When William IV died on 20 June 1837, his niece Victoria became Queen of England. But she could not accede to the throne in Hanover which could only pass to the male line, and so Ernest became King of Hanover. He entered his capital on 28 June and proceeded to attack the liberal constitution. He ruled autocratically, but listened to reasonable complaints and avoided any hint of revolution. Ernest was a good king and well-respected in Hanover and he successfully ruled during a very unsettled period in Europe.

A life of scandal

The Duke of Cumberland’s life was beset with scandal. On 31 May 1810, his valet was found dead and rumours circulated that he had murdered him, though the jury passed a verdict of suicide.

You can read more about the scandalous death of his valet here.

In 1813, he was involved in a political controversy over a parliamentary election in Weymouth. He was accused of influencing the outcome in favour of the Tories, which was considered improper behaviour for a member of the House of Lords.

Years later, he wrangled with Queen Victoria over some jewels that he declared were his by right under Queen Charlotte’s will and which his niece refused to give up. The bitter dialogue between the parties caused considerable embarrassment to the government and when Ernest visited England for three months in 1843, Queen Victoria showed her continued disapproval by only inviting him once to dinner.

Yet more scandal

In 1829, Ernest created a scandal over Lady Lyndhurst who claimed that he had tried to assault her and, when she resisted, had threatened to ruin her and her husband. The following year, he faced another over Lady Graves. Rumours of a relationship between Ernest and Lady Graves reached the ears of her estranged husband. Lord Graves wrote a note declaring that he did not believe them, but nevertheless committed suicide.

But the most serious scandal which confronted Ernest was in relation to his sister, Princess Sophia. His affection for her was judged by some to be unhealthily intense, and it gave rise to the rumour that he had fathered the illegitimate son she was said to have given birth to in 1800. Although this was almost definitely untrue, there are comments in her letters which hint at the possibility that he had tried to assault her.

Princess Sophia from A Biographical Memoir of Frederick,  Duke of York and Albany by John Watkins (1827)
Princess Sophia
from A Biographical Memoir of Frederick,
 Duke of York and Albany
by John Watkins (1827)

Ernest outlived all his brothers but eventually died at Altes Palace in Hanover on 18 November 1851. He was succeeded in Hanover by his only son George, who had been blinded in an accident as a child. Ernest was buried on 26 November in the mausoleum at Herrenhausen, Hanover. Although despised in England, he was popular in Hanover and an equestrian statue was erected there in his memory, paid for by voluntary donations.

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian Regency era romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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1. From The Letters of Queen Victoria (1908)

Sources used include:
Fulford, Roger, Royal Dukes (1933, revised 1973)
Hibbert, Christopher, George III (1998, Viking, Great Britain)
Hibbert, Christopher, George IV (1972, Longmans, 1973, Allen Lane, London)
Hibbert, Christopher, Queen Victoria (HarperCollins, 2000, London)
Huish, Robert, Memoirs of her late royal highness Charlotte Augusta (1818)
Palmer, Alan, Ernest Augustus (1771-1851), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn, May 2009, accessed 23 Mar 2013)
Victoria, Queen, The Letters of Queen Victoria, A Selection from Her Majesty's Correspondence between the years 1837 and 1861, edited Benson, AC and Esher, Viscount, Vol I 1837-1843 (1908)
Watkins, John, A Biographical Memoir of Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1827, London)


  1. What a useful post.

    Did anyone suggest that Victoria should marry Cumberland's son to retain the throne of Hanover for her male heirs?

    Charlotte Frost

    1. I have not come across this suggestion, Charlotte. I think there was a lot of bad feeling between the Duke and Victoria who was a constant reminder of how close he had been to the throne of England. Also, the Duke's son, George, was blind and therefore he may not even have considered trying to promote what he saw as a lost cause. On the other hand, the Duke of Cambridge did hope that his son George would attract Victoria's eye, but obviously she (and her uncle Leopold) had other ideas!

    2. Charlot this is a late response to your interesting question as I wonder have you looked into what Greg Hallet has written about Victoria and the blind prince(George) getting together? And interesting from you Rachel too.

    3. Thanks for the suggestion - I'm not familiar with this writing.

  2. I tend to get caught up in history's star players forgetting that there is always a supporting cast. Wonderful information that gives insight into what it's like to be a younger son often in the shadows.

    I enjoyed your previous post, too. We've come such a long way understanding the needs of wild creatures. It's hard to imagine what the cages and confines for these animals must have been like.

    1. Thanks for the encouraging comments. I think that the Prince Regent's brothers were an interesting bunch and I have enjoyed researching their lives.

  3. Thank you for another enlightening post. I think the English showed more sense in their attitude toward Ernest than did the Hanovarians.

    Obviously a firm believer in "The Importance of Being Ernest" He must have been he origianl, what a nasty piece of work.

    1. There is not much to recommend Ernest, is there? In his defence, I think it must have been hard to have adjusted to the bad facial scarring he got in battle and maybe people were a little too ready to think he was bad because he looked sinister.

  4. He didn't look sinister, and probably a lot of what has been said about him has been exaggerated.
    But there's more than enough circumstantial evidence to show he DID father his sister's child. I know people don't want to believe that, but his behaviour towards her backs this up. His own brothers and other family thought so. Garth was just brought in as cover-up.

    He was with his sister exactly 9 months before she had her baby, and he was there for her at the birth.
    As for his reputation, again, you have to take a lot of claims with a grain of salt. Remember, Queen Victoria herself had this reputation of being this saintly Queen, but in actuality she was a petty, emotional, and jealous woman with a vindictive streak.
    So, don't believe all you read. :)

    1. Thanks for your comments. I agree that it is possible that Ernest fathered a child by Sophia, but the evidence is, as you say, circumstantial. He certainly seemed to be overly fond of his sister and it would explain why Garth remained in favour, but Garth could equally well have been the father of young Thomas Garth. I guess there are some things we will never know for certain :)

    2. As to Thomas Garth, fact supporting Ernest was NOT his father was his height. Ernest and all his brothers were tall. Captain Garth was not. And Thomas Garth was not tall. This is by no means proof but it provides the question. As for Ernest, he had man good qualities as well as bad but it seems that history has chosen to define him with the bad.

  5. Probably no "smoking gun", so to speak, but a lot of strong circumstantial evidence.
    The son was known to look VERY royal. ;)

    1. That is certainly in favour of him being Sophia's son, but not necessarily her brother's. I admit the possibility but remain open-minded. :)

  6. How did Yound Cumberland lose his sight?

    1. I'm sorry but I don't know. I vaguely remember reading something that suggested a rather nasty childhood accident, but I have been unable to find the account. Most sources simply refer to it as an unspecified childhood accident or illness, or possibly both as some record that he lost his sight in one eye and then the other a few years later.

  7. I do not understand why, when Willian IV died did the throne of England not go to Cumberland, being a brother of George IV and William, neither having a legitimate heir.

    1. As the only child of Edward, Duke of Kent (deceased), who was older than Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, Victoria took precedence in the line of succession. Ernest became King of Hanover as women were excluded from the succession there.

  8. Rachel, that is incredible - looks like in more ways than we could ever know, England was very lucky Victoria became its ruler, rather than Ernest.

  9. I don't understand why the throne passed to Victoria, rather than one of her surviving uncles upon the death of William. Can you explain the succession?

    1. By law, on William's death the throne should have passed to his next brother in age - Edward, Duke of Kent. Clearly Edward could not become King as he had predeceased William, but the royal line still passed to his children in preference to Edward's next youngest brother. Edward only had one child, Victoria, and so she became Queen. In the same way, Prince Charles is heir to the throne today followed by his eldest son Prince William and not Charles's brother Prince Andrew.

  10. I've seen the silver Royal (Buckingham Palace) Ice Bucket in M.S. Rau Antiques that supposedly was stolen (along with some other items) by Cumberland when he became King of Hanover. Supposedly, Victoria sued him for their return, without success.