Modern history



THE WAR BETWEEN BRITAIN AND SPAIN, WHICH THE OPPOSITION had forced upon Walpole, was soon merged in a general European struggle. Britain had expected to fight naval and colonial campaigns in Spanish waters and on the Spanish Main. Instead she found herself engaged in a Continental war. Two royal deaths in 1740 set the conflict in motion. East of the Elbe the rising kingdom of Prussia acquired a new ruler. Frederick II, later called the Great, ascended his father’s throne. He inherited a formidable army which he fretted to use. It was his ambition to expand his scattered territories and weld them into the strongest state in Germany. Military gifts and powers of leadership, a calculating spirit and utter ruthlessness, were his in equal portion. Almost immediately he had the chance to put them to the test. In October the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI died, leaving his broad domains, though not his Imperial title, to his daughter Maria Theresa. The Emperor had extracted solemn guarantees from all the Powers of Europe that they would recognise her accession in Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and the Southern Netherlands. But these meant nothing to Frederick. He attacked and seized the Austrian province of Silesia, which lay to the south of his own territories. France, ever jealous of the Habsburgs, encouraged and supported him. Thus Europe was plunged into what is termed the War of the Austrian Succession.

In England King George II was much beset by the problems that arose. His hereditary Electorate of Hanover was dearer to his heart than the Kingdom of Great Britain. He correctly measured the ambitions of his nephew, Frederick of Prussia. He was fearful that the next Prussian onslaught might engulf his own estates in Germany. In London, after Walpole’s fall, King George’s Government was managed by Henry Pelham, First Lord of the Treasury, and his brother, the Duke of Newcastle, long a Secretary of State. Their great territorial wealth and electoral influence enabled them to maintain Whig dominion over the House of Commons. They were skilled in party manœuvre, but inexpert in the handling of foreign or military affairs. Newcastle knew much of Europe. By nature however he was cautious, and inconsequential. The exercise of patronage at home meant more to him than the conduct of war. George II turned for help and advice to the Pelhams’ rival, Lord Carteret. Under Walpole Carteret had shared the fate of all men who were clever enough to be dangerous, and was dismissed to the Lord-Lieutenancy of Ireland. Sir Robert’s fall restored him to public life at Westminster. By supporting the King’s German interests he was now able to outbid the Pelhams for the royal favour. Carteret wanted Hanover and England to preserve and promote a balance of power in Europe. He thought he held the clue to the Continental maze. He spoke German and was an intimate of the sovereign. He discerned the growing Prussian menace, and realised that a Franco-Prussian alliance could create measureless dangers for Britain. In 1742 he was appointed a Secretary of State. To meet the combination of France, Spain, and Frederick the Great he negotiated a treaty with Maria Theresa and renewed the traditional agreements with the Dutch. Financial help was promised to Austria, and preparations were made for raising an army to aid the Queen of Hungary, as Maria Theresa was proudly called. Forty years earlier Britain had supported her father, when he was the Archduke Charles, in his attempt to win the throne of Spain. Now the Island was again allied with the House of Austria against France. It was not for the last time.

Carteret, to his misfortune, lacked both the personal position and the political following to put his decisions to good effect. He was an individualist, with no gift for party organisation, depending essentially and only upon the favour of the Crown. Hostility soon gathered against him in Parliament. Foremost among his critics was William Pitt, Member for the ancient but uninhabited borough of Old Sarum. His grandfather had been Governor of Madras and owner of the famous Pitt diamond. From Eton Pitt had gone into the Army. His commanding officer, Lord Cobham, had been deprived of his regiment by Walpole for agitating against the Excise scheme. This had soon put an end to the young cornet’s military career, and he followed his patron and colonel into Opposition politics. Lord Cobham was head of the Temple family and related to the Grenvilles and Lytteltons. In close political association with this group of disaffected Whigs Pitt began his political career. He played a noisy part in the Opposition campaign for war against Spain, and was a relentless critic of Newcastle’s conduct of the operations.

This was indeed lamentable, but the main attack fell upon the extension of the war to Europe. The Opposition proclaimed it a disgraceful and irresponsible subservience to Hanoverian influences. Pitt made a withering speech against the subsidies proposed for raising Hanoverian troops, which gained him the lasting displeasure of the King. In another speech he declared that if Walpole had “betrayed the interest of his country by his pusillanimity, our present Minister sacrifices it by his quixotism.” These attacks on Carteret were not unwelcome to Pelham and Newcastle. Intensely jealous of their brilliant colleague, they were only waiting for an occasion to remove him, and when that time came Pitt’s eloquence would be remembered, and rewarded.

Thirty thousand British troops, under the command of one of Marlborough’s old officers, the Earl of Stair, fought on the Continent. In the spring of 1743 the King himself, accompanied by his younger son, the Duke of Cumberland, left England to take part in the campaign. The Allied forces were concentrated upon the river Main, in the hope of separating the French from their German allies. Bavaria too had taken advantage of the turmoil to attack Queen Maria Theresa, and the Bavarian Elector, with French backing, had been declared Holy Roman Emperor. In the Empire this was the first departure from the Habsburg line in three hundred years. It proved to be a brief interlude. A superior French army under Marshal Noailles lay in the neighbourhood, with the object of cutting off his enemy from their bases in Holland and destroying them in open battle. At the village of Dettingen, near Aschaffenburg, the forces came into conflict. The French cavalry, impatient at delays, charged the Allied left wing. King George’s horse bolted, but, dismounting, and sword in hand, he led the Hanoverian and British infantry into action against the French dragoons. They broke and fled, and many were drowned in trying to cross the Main. The French foot failed to retrieve the day, and after four hours’ fighting the Allies were in possession of the field. They had lost barely two thousand men, the French twice as many. For the last time an English king had fought at the head of his troops. His son, the Duke of Cumberland, had also shown marked bravery in this sharp action. The witness was a young officer named James Wolfe. But though the house of Hanover had proved their gallantry on the field, they lacked the higher arts of generalship. No decisive results were achieved by their victory at Dettingen.

The campaign subsided. There was bickering between the English and the Hanoverians and much inactivity. The battle of Dettingen raised a brief enthusiasm in London, but opinion slowly hardened against the continuance of a major European war. England was again the head and the paymaster of another Grand Alliance. A new Bourbon Family Compact had been signed between France and Spain, and Secret Service agents reported Jacobite intrigues in Paris. There was talk in London of a French invasion. Dutch troops were hastily brought over to Sheerness. At the end of 1744 Carteret, now Lord Granville, was driven from office. Newcastle again dominated the Government, but he could hardly repudiate the commitments which Carteret and George II had forced upon him, and he was not yet strong enough to oblige the King to accept Pitt. As he complained to his brother, “We must not, because we seem to be in, forget all we said to keep Lord Granville out.”

For the campaign of 1745 the King made Cumberland Captain-General of the Forces on the Continent. This young martinet had created the illusion of military capacity by his bravery at Dettingen. His conduct at the head of the Army was, said one of his officers, “outrageously and shockingly military.” He had to face the most celebrated soldier of the day, Marshal Saxe. The French Army concentrated against the barrier fortress line, the familiar battleground of Marlborough’s wars, now held by the Dutch. Having masked Tournai, Saxe took up a strong position centring upon the village of Fontenoy, near the Mons road. Cumberland drew up his army in battle order, and marched it under fire to within fifty paces of the French army. He was outnumbered by nearly two to one. Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Charles Hay, of the 1st (Grenadier) Guards, stepped from the front ranks, took out a flask, raised it in salute to the French Household troops, and declared, “We are the English Guards, and hope you will stand till we come up to you, and not swim the Scheldt as you did the Main at Dettingen.” Cheers rang out from both sides. The English advanced, and at thirty paces the French fired. The murderous fusillade did not halt the Allied infantry, and they drove the enemy from their positions. For hours the French cavalry tried to break the Allied columns, and, watching the Irish Brigade of the French Army sweeping into action, Cumberland exclaimed, “God’s curse on the laws that made those men our enemies.” It is a more generous remark than is usually recorded of him. At the fall of darkness he withdrew in perfect order down the road to Brussels.

The set battle-pieces of Dettingen and Fontenoy were perhaps useless, but certainly the most creditable engagements in which English troops took part in the middle eighteenth century. At any rate England played no further part in the War of the Austrian Succession. In October 1745 Cumberland withdrew his men to meet the Young Pretender’s invasion of England, and our Continental allies were beaten on every front. The only good news came from across the Atlantic. English colonists, supported by a naval squadron, captured the strongest French fortress in the New World, Louisburg, on Cape Breton. This “Dunkirk of North America,” commanding the mouth of the St Lawrence and protecting communications between Canada and France, had cost the French over a million pounds. London recognised the significance of the achievement. “Our new acquisition of Cape Breton,” wrote Chesterfield, “is become the darling object of the whole nation; it is ten times more so than ever Gibraltar was.”

Newcastle, “the impertinent fool” as King George called him, was in confusion. He had no war policy, and having ousted Carteret from the Government had now to “broaden the bottom of the administration,” as they said in the terms of those days. The Pelham régime, built up upon the support of Whig family groups, was artificial, but it had its merits. Henry Pelham was a good administrator, economical and efficient, but he was a lesser Walpole faced with a major European war. Newcastle, in his own whimsical way, looked upon the work of government as the duty of his class, but he had no clear ideas on how to discharge it. Lord Shelburne, later Prime Minister, describes these brothers: “They had every talent for obtaining Ministry, and none for governing the kingdom except decency, integrity, and Whig principles. . . . Their forte was cunning, plausibility, and the cultivation of mankind; they knew all the allures of the Court; they were in the habits of administration; they had long been keeping a party together. . . . Mr Pelham had a still more plausible manner than his brother, who rather cajoled than imposed upon mankind, passing for a man of less understanding than he was.”

But the war dominated everything. For ten years the Pelham brothers made constant and frantic efforts to create a stable Government. The ghost of King William hovered over them. Their foreign policy was a faint and distorted shadow of the previous generation’s. Austria and Holland were no longer Great Powers on the Continent. The Grand Alliance was dead. Fumbling and out of date in Europe, and unmindful of the great future overseas, the Broad-bottomed Administration of the 1740’s was a painful affair. One man saw the need for a new policy—William Pitt. And what likelihood was there that the King would admit him to his councils?


There had been much discontent in Scotland since the Union of 1707. In the inaccessible Highlands, where the writ of English government hardly ran, there was a persistent loyalty to the house of Stuart and the Jacobite cause. Living in their mountain villages like hill tribesmen, a law unto themselves, the immemorial zest for plunder and forays was still unslaked among the clans. The Union had not alleviated their poverty. “Not infrequently,” writes Lecky, “the chiefs increased their scanty incomes by kidnapping boys or men, whom they sold as slaves to the American planters. Generations of an idle and predatory life had produced throughout the Highlands the vices of barbarians. The slightest provocation was avenged with blood. Fierce contests between chiefs and clans were perpetuated from age to age, and the pile of stones which marked the spot where a Highlander had fallen preserved for many generations the memory of the feud. In war the Highlanders usually gave no quarter. Their savage, merciless ferocity long made them the terror of their neighbours.”1

While the rest of Scotland was gripped by the discipline of the Presbyterian Kirk, the Highlands were ruled by chiefs incapable of combining among themselves or of keeping the peace, but still preserving the tatters of warlike and romantic honour.

After the failure of the rising in 1715 the Jacobites had stayed quiet, but once England was involved in war upon the Continent their activities revived. The Old Pretender was now living in retirement, and his son, Prince Charles Edward, was the darling of the impecunious exiles who clustered round him in Rome and Paris. His handsome presence and gay demeanour fortified the popularity of his cause. In 1744 he sought the help of the French Government and established a base at Gravelines. His hopes of invading England in that year with French assistance were frustrated. Nothing daunted, he sailed from Nantes in June 1745 with a handful of followers and landed in the Western Isles of Scotland. Thus began one of the most audacious and irresponsible enterprises in British history. Charles had made scarcely any preparations. He could command support only in the Highlands, which contained but a small proportion of the whole population of Scotland. The clans were always ready to fight, but never to be led. Arms and money were short, the Lowlands hostile, and the Highland troops were hated. The commercial classes regarded them as bandits. The cities had long accepted Hanoverian rule.

Twelve hundred men under Lord George Murray raised the Jacobite standard at Glenfinnan. About three thousand Government troops gathered in the Lowlands under Sir John Cope. The rebels marched southwards; Prince Charles entered the palace at Holyrood, and Cope was met and routed on the battlefield of Prestonpans. By the end of September Charles was ruler of most of Scotland in the name of his father, “King James VIII”; but his triumph was fleeting. The castle of Edinburgh held out for King George, and from time to time discharged a sullen shot. The mass of the Scottish people were apathetic. In London however there was panic; a run on the Bank was only met by paying out in sixpences. Most of the Army was still in Flanders.

With five thousand men the Young Pretender crossed the Border. Three forces were assembled against him. General Wade stood at Newcastle; Cumberland marched to block the London road at Lichfield and strike westwards if he tried to join the Jacobites in the Welsh mountains. A third, encamped on Finchley Common to protect London, still lives in Hogarth’s satirical print. This the King did not like. He fancied himself as a warrior and thought it unbecoming to make fun of soldiers.

The Highlanders were quick on the move. Plundering as they went, they marched due south, occupying Carlisle, Penrith, Lancaster, and Preston. The number of English adherents that came in was depressingly small. They had hopes of getting reinforcements in Manchester. A drummer boy and a whore preceded them into the town as an inducement for recruits. Their combined efforts brought in two hundred men. Many Highlanders deserted and returned home during the southward march. Liverpool was staunchly Hanoverian, and equipped a regiment at its own expense.

The chieftains demanded to return to Scotland. Charles knew of the panic in London, and hoped to profit by it, but he had no control over his followers. By brilliant tactics Lord George Murray had manœuvred Cumberland away from the London road and the path to the capital was open. But it was December. The English commanded the sea; there was no hope from France; the Dutch and Hessians were sending troops to England. There was feverish recruitment in London. A six-pound bonus was paid to everyone who enlisted in the Guards.

At Derby Charles gave the signal to retreat. Two days later news came that the Jacobites in Wales were ready to rise. A winter march began to the fastnesses of Northern Scotland. The English forces followed like vultures, hanging upon the rear and wings of the rebel army. Murray showed great skill in the withdrawal, and in rearguard actions his troops were invariably successful. They turned and mauled their pursuers at Falkirk. But with Teutonic thoroughness the Duke of Cumberland concentrated the English armies for a decision, and in April 1746 on Culloden Moor the last chances of a Stuart Restoration were swept into the past for ever. The Stuarts were to linger in men’s memories as a sentimental, though ill-founded, legend of gracious and kindly kings. No quarter was given on the battlefield, where Cumberland earned his long-lived title of “Butcher.” Charles Edward escaped over the moors with a few faithful servants. Disguised as a woman, he was smuggled across to the island of Skye by that heroine of romance, Flora Macdonald. Thence he sailed for the Continent, to drink out his life in perpetual exile. Flora Macdonald, for her gallant and virtuous part in this episode, was imprisoned for a time in the Tower of London.

Ruthless repression measured the fears of the Hanoverian Government for their régime. The Highlanders were disarmed and the remnants of feudalism abolished. Jacobitism vanished from the political life of Great Britain. Wade, now a Field-Marshal, drove military roads far into the Highlands, garrisons were established at Inverness and elsewhere, and finally, when the Seven Years’ War broke out, Pitt canalised the martial ardour of the Highlanders into the service of his Imperial dreams. Highland regiments brought glory to Scotland under Wolfe at Quebec, and ever since have stood in the forefront of the British Army. Highland traditions and Jacobite legends survived in the romances of Sir Walter Scott. There is still a White Rose League.


In the crisis of the rebellion the Pelhams delivered their ultimatum. They must have Pitt or they would resign. In April 1746 Pitt became Paymaster of the Forces, an office of immense emolument in time of war. By a custom, openly avowed, the Paymaster was permitted to carry his balances to his private account and draw the interest on them. Further, he received commission on the subsidies paid to foreign allies for the maintenance of their troops in the field. Pitt refused to accept a penny beyond his official salary. The effect on public opinion was electric. By instinct rather than calculation he gained the admiration and confidence of the middle classes, the City, the rising mercantile towns, and the country freeholders. A born actor, by this gesture he caught the eye of the people, and held it as no statesman had held it before him. For nine years Pitt learnt the day-to-day work of administration. The dismal war on the Continent ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. Nothing was settled between Britain and France by this peace. The only gainer was Frederick the Great, who had stepped in and out of the war as it suited him. He kept Silesia.

Pitt now spent many hours in earnest discussion with Newcastle on the need for a new foreign policy. He pointed out the danger of ignoring Prussia. “This country and Europe,” he declared, “are undone without a secure and lasting peace; the alliance as it now stands has not the force ever to obtain it without the interposition of Prussia.” The French menace obsessed his mind. His ideas were forming and clarifying during this period of subordinate office. Pelham was delighted with the new recruit. “I think him the most able and useful man we have among us; truly honourable and strictly honest.” But Pitt fretted, impotent to control or to criticise the policy of the administration of which he was a member. By acid and frequent attacks he had forced his way into the Government, only to find himself paralysed by the displeasure of the sovereign. He could not achieve supreme political power by traditional means. He must gain it by appealing to the imagination of the country. But in the interlude of peace between 1748 and 1754 the issues were too confused and the intrigues too virulent for a dramatic move. In 1751 Frederick, Prince of Wales, the nominal head of the Opposition, died. Pitt and other young politicians had once entertained great hopes of achieving power when this nonentity should succeed to the throne. His death weakened the unity of a potential Ministry. In 1754 Henry Pelham expired and the flimsy administration tottered. Pitt was enveloped in the toils of group politics. He was now a powerful candidate for high office, backed by his political allies, the Cobhams and the Grenvilles, and what was left of the Prince of Wales’s circle who met at Leicester House. But the King was relentless in his dislike of Pitt, and Cumberland, who had a political following of his own, succeeded in pushing into the Cabinet Pitt’s most dangerous rival, Henry Fox.

Hope of a great political career seemed at an end for William Pitt. He could gain little from the smiles of the Princess of Wales, the garrulous promises of Newcastle, or the narrow backing of his own political group. As he himself wrote to Lyttelton, “Consideration and weight in the House of Commons generally arises but from one or two causes—the protection of the Crown or from weight in the country, generally from opposition to public measures.” To this latter he was now forced. Breaking away from the constricted field of politics, which Newcastle managed by the methods of Walpole, Pitt was to revive and rekindle the national sentiment of the English which had been inspired by Marlborough’s wars. Appealing over the heads of petty groups to the nation at large, he was eventually to knock down the fragile structures of contemporary politicians and bring a driving wind of reality into politics. But the arrival of Fox in the Government, an avaricious expert in contemporary political method, made Pitt despair. After a great speech in the Commons he was dismissed from the Pay Office in November 1755.

Two months later a diplomatic revolution took place towards which the four main Powers of Europe had for some time been groping. A convention was signed between Britain and Prussia, shortly followed by a treaty between the French and the Austrians. Thus there was a complete reversal of alliances. A third war with France began with a new and vigorous ally on England’s side, the Prussia of Frederick the Great, but with a fumbling Government at Westminster. The mismanagement of the early years of the struggle, which had been precipitated by the bellicose Cumberland, gave Pitt his chance. The loss of the island of Minorca raised a national outcry. The Government, faced with this national disgrace, lost its nerve. Cumberland’s favourite, Henry Fox, bolted into retirement. The Government shifted the blame on to Admiral Byng, whose ill-equipped fleet had failed to relieve the Minorca garrison. By one of the most scandalous evasions of responsibility that an English Government has ever perpetrated Byng was shot for cowardice upon the quarterdeck of his flagship. Pitt pleaded for him with the King. “The House of Commons, Sir, is inclined to mercy.” “You have taught me,” the King replied, “to look for the sense of my people elsewhere than in the House of Commons.” Pitt’s hour had almost come. “Walpole,” Dr Johnson once remarked, “was a Minister given by the Crown to the people. Pitt was a Minister given by the people to the Crown.” But he had learnt by experience that “weight in the country” was not enough without Parliamentary influence, such as the Duke of Newcastle commanded. The Duke, thoroughly frightened by the general outcry, knew that all his connections, all his patronage, would not save him if the nation was determined to call him to account. The two men drew together. Pitt was ready to leave the jobbing to the Duke. And the Duke showed himself ready to lead a quiet life behind the glory of Pitt’s achievements and the splendour of his eloquence.

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