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Ernest Augustuslocked

  • Alan Palmer

Ernest Augustus (1771–1851)

by George Dawe, c. 1828

Ernest Augustus (1771–1851), king of Hanover, fifth son of George III and Queen Charlotte, was born on 5 June 1771 at Buckingham House (later Palace), St James's Park, London. His boyhood was spent at Kew, in a cottage set aside by George III for his sons Ernest, Augustus, duke of Sussex, and Adolphus, duke of Cambridge, and their tutors. The three princes were nominated as knights of the Garter on 2 June 1786 and a few weeks later sailed from Gravesend to begin four years of study at the University of Göttingen, even though when they left England they knew no German.

Prince Ernest—slim, tall, and handsome in his youth—wished to follow a military career and in June 1790 sought permission to train with the Prussian army. But George III insisted he should serve with the 9th Hanoverian hussars (which he entered as lieutenant in 1790 and of which he became lieutenant-colonel in 1793), later transferring him to the less dashing heavy dragoons, a move the prince bitterly resented. He was promoted major-general in the Hanoverian army in February 1794. He fought with courage in Flanders and the Netherlands against the French. When commanding the Hanoverian light battalion of grenadiers at Villers-en-Cauchi on 6 August 1793 he 'behaved remarkably well, with the greatest coolness and spirit' (The Later Correspondence of George III, ed. A. Aspinall, 5 vols., 1962–70, 2.72) and apparently carried off bodily a French dragoon officer as prisoner; a similar event has been ascribed to Ernest outside Nijmegen in November 1794. At Tournai (10 May 1794) he was wounded in the arm. When the prince returned finally to England in February 1796, his face was scarred for life and his left eye, always poor, had deteriorated: it was 'shockingly sunk, & has an amazing film grown over it' (Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales, 3.154). His sharp wit became cruelly sardonic and malicious. He was made lieutenant-general in the British army in 1799, backdated to 1798.

The prince was created duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale, and earl of Armagh, in April 1799, parliament approving an allowance of £12,000 a year. He was sworn of the privy council on 5 June 1799. By conviction Cumberland was a strong tory, staunchly protestant, especially over Irish affairs (from 1805 until his death he was chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin), and critical of the passing attachment of his eldest brother, the prince of Wales (later George IV), to the Foxite whigs. Most of his speeches in the House of Lords expressed reactionary principles with fearless defiance, prompting concern over his influence at court. There were unsavoury rumours of private vices, which included the possibility that he was the father of Thomas Garth (1800–1875), the son of his sister Sophia [see under George (III), daughters of], more widely accepted as Sophia's son with General Thomas Garth. Such gossip was magnified by his political enemies smarting from the lash of his vituperative tongue. The prince of Wales, uneasy at his brother's conduct, complained to Queen Charlotte in February 1807 of 'some very sarcastick remarks which the Duke made, for you know that HsRl Hnss is very comical though very imprudent sometimes' (Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales, 6.131); and he was so alarmed by Cumberland's behaviour that he warned his sisters not to be left alone in any room with him.

In the small hours of 31 May 1810 Cumberland's valet, Joseph Sellis, was found with his throat cut in the duke's apartments at St James's Palace. Cumberland, who had a deep wound in the head, maintained he had been awakened by blows struck by Sellis, whom he forced to flee to his own bedroom, where the valet committed suicide. At the inquest on Sellis this account was accepted by a jury whose foreman was the radical, Francis Place. The motive for an assault by Sellis on the duke remains unclear; it was alleged that, as a Corsican and a Roman Catholic (and thus paralleled with Britain's foe, Napoleon), he was goaded by taunts and insults from his ultra-protestant and anti-French master; but Sellis was actually Sardinian, and had his children baptized in the Church of England. So deep was the abhorrence felt towards Cumberland following the inquest, which despite its verdict revealed much contradictory evidence, that it was widely believed he had murdered Sellis to prevent him from revealing scandalous details of the duke's private life.

Cumberland regarded himself as a professional soldier, but after 1796 he never again held command in the field, despite his wish to serve in the Peninsular campaign. He had been promoted general in 1808 (backdated to 1803) and was, however, sent as ‘observer’ to allied headquarters in Germany in 1813. As the only member of the royal family then on the continent, he showed enterprise in returning to Hanover on 4 November 1813, a few days after the French left the city. In going to Hanover, Cumberland was disobeying orders from the British military superintendent of the allied army in northern Germany, Sir Charles Stewart; his presence caused embarrassment to the British government who intended Hanover to be garrisoned by the prince royal of Sweden, formerly Napoleon's marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. Cumberland vainly protested his rank as the senior surviving officer on the Hanoverian general staff and his dynastic fidelity. He was bitterly disappointed when, a month later, his youngest brother, Adolphus, duke of Cambridge, was designated governor-general of the electorate. The prince regent commanded that Cumberland leave before Cambridge's arrival. Both royal dukes were gazetted field-marshal on 27 November 1813.

While in Germany, Cumberland became deeply attached to his twice-widowed cousin, Friederike Caroline Sophia Alexandrina of Solms-Braunfels (1778–1841), born a princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. A Lutheran marriage at Neustrelitz on 29 May 1815 was solemnized again, according to Anglican rites, at Carlton House, London, three months later. Queen Charlotte refused ever to receive the duchess, who, seventeen years earlier, had broken off marriage negotiations with the duke of Cambridge after becoming pregnant by Prince Friedrich of Solms-Braunfels. Friederike (already the widow of Prince Friedrich Ludwig Karl of Prussia) had married the prince, but had been in the process of divorcing him when she was widowed. The marriage, like most of Cumberland's undertakings, remained unpopular and the Commons declined to increase his allowance. A campaign of accusations of murder and incest, among other allegations, against both the duke and his wife continued in London society and in the press, and from 1818 to 1828 the Cumberlands lived in voluntary exile, mostly in Berlin, where their son, George, later king of Hanover, was born in May 1819. An affectionate mutual tolerance sustained the marriage happily until Friederike's death in Hanover in June 1841.

In the summer of 1828 Cumberland spent several months at Windsor, seeking to stiffen George IV's resistance to proposals for removing the civil disabilities of Roman Catholics. When the tory ministers, Wellington and Peel, moved towards Catholic emancipation, Cumberland was prepared to intrigue with Grey and the whig opposition, even though he deplored Grey's advocacy of reform. But British parliamentarians shunned contact with Cumberland: 'No government can last that has him either for a friend or an enemy' (Stanhope, Conversations, 25 April 1840), said Grey, coining an epigram which Wellington was to quote with approval. With William IV's accession, Cumberland lost political influence; the brothers had scant regard for each other. During the early 1830s Cumberland was actively involved in the ultra-tory, ultra-protestant Orange order, of which he had been Irish grand master since 1817. Increasing sectarian violence and allegations of a plot to replace William IV with the duke forced Cumberland to preside over the dissolution of the lodges in 1836. There was, moreover, a recurrent popular fear that Cumberland would in some way rob the heir-presumptive, Princess Victoria, of her 'youthful life'. Tales of an alleged ‘Cumberland plot’ persisted well into the following reign, although condemned by the queen herself in later years as 'utterly false' and 'quite an invention' (Woodham-Smith, 434–5).

As Victoria's eldest surviving uncle the duke was certain of accession in Hanover where, unlike the United Kingdom, the Salic law prevailed. William IV died on 20 June 1837, and on 28 June King Ernest made a triumphant entry into his capital. He gave early proof of his authoritarian convictions by abrogating the parliamentary constitution granted by William IV in 1833. When seven distinguished liberal professors at Göttingen protested at the king's absolutism, they were dismissed. Yet, at a time of economic growth in Hanover, the king's benevolent autocracy suited the majority of his subjects. He won a popular respect which was in striking contrast to the mistrust his reputation perpetuated in Britain. Relations with his niece, Queen Victoria, remained strained; he complained that she held crown jewels belonging rightly to Hanover; and he did not approve her choice of husband, for to him the Coburgs were ambitious upstarts. During a visit to London in 1843 he was again pilloried in the newspapers. Yet when revolution shook Germany in 1848 he found he could count on his subjects' loyalty; only one life was lost that year in demonstrations in Hanover.

Ernest Augustus, the Black Sheep, as Queen Victoria's father once called him (Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales, 6.26) outlived his eight brothers, finally succumbing 'to a chill' at the Altes Palais in Hanover on 18 November 1851. His son, accidentally blinded when he was thirteen, acceded to the Hanoverian throne as George V. Ernest Augustus was buried in the mausoleum at Herrenhausen, Hanover, on 26 November. Voluntary contributions paid for an equestrian statue, erected outside Hanover's Hauptbahnhof. It was inscribed, 'To the father of his country from a faithful people'.


  • G. M. Willis, Ernest Augustus, duke of Cumberland and king of Hanover (1954)
  • H. van Thal, Ernest Augustus, duke of Cumberland and king of Hanover (1936)
  • The correspondence of George, prince of Wales, 1770–1812, ed. A. Aspinall, 8 vols. (1963–71)
  • The letters of King George IV, 1812–1830, ed. A. Aspinall, 3 vols. (1938)
  • C. Woodham-Smith, Queen Victoria: her life and times, 1: 1819–1861 (1972)
  • P. H. Stanhope, Notes of conversations with the duke of Wellington, 1831–1851 (1888)
  • GM, 2nd ser., 37 (1852)
  • Punch, 4 (1843)
  • A. Palmer, Crowned cousins: the Anglo-German royal connection (1985)
  • J. Wolffe, The protestant crusade in Great Britain, 1829–1860 (1991)
  • J. Wardroper, Wicked Ernest (2002)
  • GEC, Peerage, new edn, 3.575–6


  • Königinvilla, Gmünden, Austria, MSS
  • Niedersächsisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Hanover, MSS
  • Royal Arch., MSS
  • Schloss Marienburg, Hanover, MSS
  • BL, corresp. with Princess Lieven, Add. MSS 47350–47354
  • CBS, corresp. with Richard Vyse
  • Harrowby Manuscript Trust, Sandon Hall, Staffordshire, corresp. with Richard Ryder
  • LPL, letters to Archbishop Howley
  • Northumbd RO, letters to Lord Wallace
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Eldon
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Spencer Perceval, etc.
  • Royal Arch., letters to George III
  • U. Southampton L., letters to first duke of Wellington
  • W. Sussex RO, letters to duchess of Richmond
  • Warks. CRO, letters to Sir J. A. Waller


  • J. Zoffany, oils, 1772, Royal Collection
  • B. West, group portrait, oils, 1776, Royal Collection
  • B. West, group portrait, oils, 1779 (Queen Charlotte with her children), Royal Collection
  • T. Gainsborough, oils, 1782, Royal Collection
  • B. West, group portrait, oils, 1782 (Queen Charlotte with her children), Royal Collection
  • J. C. Lochée, Wedgwood medallion, 1787, Royal Collection
  • W. Beechey, oils, exh. RA 1802, Royal Collection
  • H. Edridge, drawing, 1802, Royal Collection
  • P. Turnerelli, marble bust, 1809, TCD
  • J. Nollekens, marble bust, 1814, Royal Collection
  • W. Owen, oils, exh. RA 1814, Gov. Art Coll.; on loan
  • J. G. P. Fischer, miniature, 1823, Royal Collection
  • W. Behnes, marble bust, 1828, Royal Collection
  • G. Dawe, oils, 1828, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. P. Danton, caricature, plaster statue, 1834, NPG
  • D. Wilkie, group portrait, oils, 1837 (The first council of Queen Victoria), Royal Collection
  • A. Woolf, bronze equestrian statue, 1860–61, Ernst-August-Platz, Hanover
  • J. Doyle, caricatures, drawings, BM
G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)
Gentleman's Magazine