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Reference group
Cottage coterie (act. 1823–1825) was a short-lived group whose members attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to displace George Canning from the Foreign Office to which he had succeeded on the death of Lord Castlereagh in the summer of 1822. It is principally interesting for the role played by George IV in conspiring with foreign diplomats against his own foreign secretary and as illustrating how Canning was regarded by conservative politicians, both British and European, at the time.

In the 1820s the king still had a strong voice in choosing cabinet ministers, subject only to the overriding consideration that the ministry must be able to command a majority in the House of Commons. The monarch generally took a particular interest in foreign affairs and George IV, like his immediate predecessors, had both his own perspective on Europe and his own sources of information, springing from his dual role as elector of Hanover and British king. He had been reluctant to accept Canning as foreign secretary in 1822. Canning already had a reputation for liberal views but George's animosity was also very personal. In 1795 George had reluctantly married his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. They soon separated. George went back to his mistresses and Caroline travelled on the continent, taking her own lovers. Some believed, on rather slight evidence, that Canning was among their number, but he did constitute himself her champion in 1820. When George succeeded to the throne, Caroline returned to England and demanded her rightful place as queen. George tried unsuccessfully to divorce her. The people on the whole sympathized with Caroline and the excitement grew to what some regarded as dangerous proportions.

The group took their name from the ‘Cottage’ at Windsor, to which George IV had retired while Windsor Castle underwent extensive restoration. Most of the discussions took place there, usually at weekend parties. The conspiracy began in January or February 1823, seemed to be fizzling out in the autumn of 1823, revived in 1824, but was dead by April 1825. A leading spirit was Dorothea Lieven, the wife of the Russian ambassador, Prince Khristofor Andreyevich Lieven (1774–1839). She may have been influenced by her wish to revive her old romance with Prince Metternich, the Austrian chancellor, but her incorrigible love of intrigue was probably more important. In addition to her husband, the Austrian ambassador, Paul Esterhazy (1786–1866), and his attaché, Philipp von Neumann (1781–1851), were early recruits. The French ambassador, Prince Jules de Polignac (1780–1847), joined later in 1823. The coterie made determined efforts to recruit the duke of Wellington. If they had succeeded the outcome might well have been different. Dudley Ryder, first earl of Harrowby, and John Fane, tenth earl of Westmorland, were also approached but never had more than a fringe role. The only English people deeply involved were the king's mistress, Elizabeth Conyngham, Marchioness Conyngham, and his physician, Sir William Knighton. Their failure to win the support of any major English politician was fatal to the coterie's hopes. Canning was impregnable in his popularity with the House of Commons and the British public. He was an extremely effective speaker in the house and he pioneered a new policy of openness in the conduct of diplomacy, publishing documents freely in the parliamentary blue books. His speeches extolling liberalism and constitutional government and his habit of taking the electorate into his confidence about diplomatic exchanges only served to horrify his opponents in the coterie, ultra-conservatives and believers in the arcane secrecy of traditional diplomacy to a man, or woman.

The Congress of Verona in 1822 was principally concerned with the revolutionary movement in Spain. Castlereagh had drawn up instructions declaring that Britain could not join the continental powers in acting as a policeman to suppress all liberal movements. After Castlereagh's death Canning sent Wellington as the British representative to Verona. Although, technically, Canning adopted Castlereagh's instructions, it soon became apparent that he meant to set a more radical course, detaching Britain from the congress system and close alliance with the European conservatives. Wellington felt he had been put in a false position and in January 1823 succumbed, rather against his better judgement, to Countess Lieven's pleas that he should show confidential documents to her husband and Esterhazy. This really marked the beginning of the conspiracy. The countess also urged George IV to play a more active role himself, emphasizing that Canning was ‘distrusted’ by all the foreign diplomats. George was flattered but the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, stood by Canning, and George feared that, if he destabilized the ministry, he might be forced to accept the whigs, whom he feared more.

Matters came to a head when a French army entered Spain on 6 April 1823. A week earlier Canning had made Britain's position clear. The French must not remain permanently in Spain and must not extend the conflict to Portugal or to Latin America. He laid all the relevant papers before parliament in April and, in a rousing speech on 14 April, he denounced French policy, declared himself a ‘Liberal’, even a ‘Radical’, and wished the liberals in Spain well. The conspirators at the Cottage were apoplectic but in the face of Canning's triumph in the Commons, winning the crucial vote 372 to 20 on 30 April, there was little they could do. George IV showed his displeasure, complaining of Canning to anyone who would listen and refusing to see him. Countess Lieven departed for Italy, nominally for her health's sake. Wellington was very angry but did not wish to see the French establish themselves in Spain any more than Canning did. In fact the French became bogged down, as they had been under Napoleon, in interminable guerrilla warfare.

What revived the conspiracy in 1824 was the fate of the former Spanish colonies in South and Central America. During the Napoleonic wars they had achieved a considerable degree of independence and, while the French revolutionaries ruled Spain, conservatives and even the Catholic church approved, but once Ferdinand VII was restored as the legitimate king of Spain the conservatives' assumption was that the colonies would return to their old allegiance. The British attitude was somewhat different. Trade with South and Central America had increased fourteenfold during the war. Independent states would make good trading partners and the British did not want to see them drawn back into the Spanish commercial system. In the event the genie could not be put back into the bottle. The only question was what system of government the new states would adopt. The European conservatives' revulsion at the idea that they would become republics seems exaggerated to the point of incomprehension to a later generation but, to the conservatives, republicanism meant the horrors of the French republic of the early 1790s. The idea that a large part of the world would become republican was insupportable. It was not chance that the coterie frequently called Canning a Jacobin. Canning's attitude was more relaxed. The United States was a republic, he pointed out, and an acceptable, if sometimes difficult, diplomatic partner. He tried, in fact, to do a deal with Richard Rush, the American minister in London, by which Britain and America should jointly declare that they would not acquire, or allow any other power to acquire, any part of the former Spanish empire. President Monroe notoriously pre-empted him by issuing his ‘doctrine’ that the American continent was no longer open to European colonization. Canning did persuade Prince Polignac, the French ambassador, to sign his memorandum that France would not intervene in America or acquire territory there. He prevailed in his declared intention that, if he could not prevent France gaining a dominant position in Spain, it should not be ‘Spain with the Indies’. In December 1824, urged on by important British trading and banking interests, Canning formally recognized those Latin American states that had achieved a reasonable degree of stability, Buenos Aires, Mexico, and Colombia. The king was so angry that he made a feeble excuse (he had lost his false teeth) to ensure that his speech at the next opening of parliament, in which this was referred to, was delivered by commissioners and not in person.

His letters to Lord Liverpool, the prime minister, in the autumn of 1824, prove that Canning knew of the intrigue, that Westmorland and Knighton were involved, and that the duke of Wellington had again been indiscreet, although Canning admitted he had not ‘got to the bottom’ of the conspiracy. He wrote firmly, ‘But they are mistaken if they think I will acquiesce in such treatment, or let them play their game for popularity at my expense—(I say “they” because I know he [the King] has advisers)’ (Canning to Liverpool, 10, 12, 17 Oct, 14 Dec 1824, West Yorkshire Libraries, 250/8 bundle 71). He assured Liverpool he could deal with the situation and a little later (11 March 1825) he told Lord Granville, the British ambassador in Paris, that he would have resigned on the issue, told the Commons he was driven from office by the Holy Alliance, and revealed the links between the king and the foreign ambassadors, after which Lieven and Esterhazy would find London ‘too hot for them’ (Diary and Political Sketches, 71–2).

The coterie never had a serious chance of unseating Canning. The government needed him too much. Wellington had no illusions about Madame de Lieven. He told a friend later, ‘She can and she will betray everybody in turn’ (Private Letters, ix). Their fears of Canning were greatly exaggerated. He was no Jacobin but as Harold Nicolson long ago said ‘a philosophical Tory of the school of Edmund Burke’ (Nicolson, 274). The vicomte de Marcellus, the French chargé, got it right in April 1823 when he suggested that they should flatter him and bring him ‘on side’ rather than intrigue against him. Ironically Canning, in appealing to public opinion to strengthen his own position, made more liberal speeches and resorted to more open diplomacy than he might otherwise have done. The conspiracy simply faded away and George IV, never a constant man, lived to be on good terms with his foreign secretary and, later, prime minister.

Muriel E. Chamberlain


H. Temperley, The foreign policy of Canning, 1822–1827 (1925) · W. Hinde, George Canning (1973) · J. Charmley, The princess and the politicians: sex, intrigue and diplomacy in regency England (2005) · Letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven, during her residence in London, 1812–1834, ed. L. G. Robinson (1902) · The unpublished diary and political sketches of Princess Lieven, together with some of her letters, ed. H. W. V. Temperley (1925) · The private letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, 1820–1826, ed. P. Quennell (1937) · H. Nicolson, The Congress of Vienna: a study in allied unity, 1812–1822, another edn (1961) · West Yorkshire Libraries, Canning papers, Harewood MSS · BL, Liverpool papers, papers of Prince and Princess Lieven · U. Southampton, Wellington papers