The Prince of Wales's Friends, 1801-1812

A recurrence of George III’s mental illness in February 1801 delayed the formalities of the replacement of William Pitt as prime minister by Henry Addington, and raised the prospect of a regency or even a new reign. The heir apparent, George, prince of Wales, indulged in some cabinet-making, planning an administration composed of his personal adherents and some Foxite Whigs.  The king’s recovery nullified this, but for the next five years the prince, whose increasing alienation from his periodically ailing father made the reversionary interest an attractive speculation for many opposition politicians, was an important player in the high political game.

The prince’s personal following, sometimes known as the Carlton House set, was comparatively small.  His closest friend was the Irish army officer Francis Rawdon Hastings, 2nd earl of Moira, commander-in-chief in Scotland, 1802-6. The prince envisaged him as prime minister in his putative ministry of 1801. Two other peers, the 11th duke of Norfolk and the 2nd duke of Northumberland, who both had borough interests, were particularly close to the prince. Also intimately attached to him and in his confidence were his `spaniel Members’ Thomas Tyrwhitt and John McMahon. `Clod’ Tyrwhitt was appointed secretary to the prince in 1795, and the following year was promoted to be keeper of his privy seal and auditor of the duchy of Cornwall. In December 1803 he became lord warden of the stannaries, and his secretarial role was assumed by the Irishman McMahon, a retired army officer, who had been the prince’s vice-treasurer since 1800. The leading Whigs Richard Brinsley Sheridan and George Tierney were close to the prince, but their Commons leader Charles James Fox, his former roistering companion, was a less ardent courtier than they.  

The prince’s extravagance had racked up massive debts, and on 31 Mar. 1802 his solicitor-general, Thomas Manners Sutton, moved in the Commons for inquiry into his claims to duchy of Cornwall revenues collected during his minority.  The motion was defeated by 160-103: the minority included not only the prince’s personal followers and Members who were regular in opposition, but some 40 others who did not habitually act with opposition. At the same time, at least 20 Foxite Whigs opposition regulars, including Charles Grey and Samuel Whitbread, did not vote for the prince’s claims. In the 1802 Parliament, a substantial minority of 139 divided for John Calcraft’s motion (about which he claimed not to have consulted the prince) for inquiry into his financial difficulties.  Its supporters were the same combination of Carlton House men, Foxite Whigs and Members who looked to the reversionary interest, which had much appeal as the prince became increasingly alienated from his father, whose health remained uncertain.  Some 40 Members voted in both these minorities, which contained about 50 who are not known otherwise to have divided against the Addington ministry between November 1802 and its fall in late April 1804.   

For most of its existence, the government received general support from the prince and his acolytes in both Houses.  There was recurrent speculation that Moira would be given office, and in May 1803, on the resumption of war, Tierney was appointed treasurer of the navy. While Fox placed no solid reliance on the prince’s loyalty to the Whigs, he recognised that his following in both Houses was substantial and potentially useful.  From March 1803 the prince and his leading political advisers were involved in a series of abortive manoeuvrings, conducted largely through Grey, aimed at uniting the old and new oppositions to Addington.

When the Foxite and Grenvillite Whigs joined forces to attack the government’s defence policies in the first months of 1804, the prince’s attitude was by no means clear.  On 15 Mar. 1804 his friends, including Norfolk’s five Members, voted for Pitt’s motion for a naval inquiry; but even at the end of April, when the ministry was on its last legs, Moira was deploring his unsteadiness.  He instructed Tyrwhitt and McMahon to stay away from the Commons for the critical divisions of 23 and 25 Apr., which forced Addington to resign.  The king’s veto of Fox’s inclusion in the broad-based coalition that Pitt wanted determined the prince to declare his allegiance to Fox and Lord Grenville in opposition, which estranged him even more from his father.

When Pitt was forming his ministry in May 1804, George Rose calculated the prince’s Members at 42. Of these, 22 had voted for his financial claims in March 1803.  Nine had been steady in opposition to Addington. Five were connected with Norfolk, five with Northumberland and three with the 1st marquess of Lansdowne.  George III was intermittently unwell for the rest of the year, and the political importance of the prince, who, on misguided advice, as Moira and Tierney thought, now set himself up as a party leader and focus for the discontented, increased with every gloomy health bulletin.  He held a series of lavish dinner parties, to which opposition members of both Houses were invited.  In June 1804, 25 of the Members listed under `Prince’ the previous month voted against Pitt’s additional force bill.

In a refined analysis of the Commons compiled in September 1804, Rose reduced the prince’s personal following there to 18.  They were Thomas Bligh; Charles and James Butler; Calcraft; Thomas Erskine; John Fonblanque; Christopher Hely Hutchinson; Robert Ladbroke; John and Robert Latouche; McMahon; William Madocks; James Milnes; John Palmer; Arthur Shakespeare; Sheridan; George Shum, and Tyrwhitt. Miles Peter Andrews, John Lubbock and John Manners were on the original list, but were subsequently transferred to `prince’s friends on whom some impression might be made’; Andrews and Lubbock were finally categorised as `doubtful Pitt’.  Of the other 26 Members who had been reckoned as prince’s friends in May 1804, 14 were now classed as `Fox and Grenville’; five as `Pitt’; four (including Tierney) as `doubtful’, and three as `doubtful Addington’.

The notion of recruiting Moira as a means of ending the prince’s hostility continued to appeal to ministers, and in November 1804 Pitt and lord chancellor Eldon combined with Moira and Tierney to arrange an interview between the king and the prince, in the hope of effecting a reconciliation. This came to nothing. When he was offered office, Moira insisted on Fox’s inclusion, and by 21 Nov. 1804 all negotiation was at an end.  Fourteen of the prince’s Commons friends voted in the anti-government majority for the censure of Lord Melville for malversation of public funds, 8 Apr. 1805, when the prince observed proceedings from a seat under the gallery.  The opposition majority for Melville’s criminal prosecution, 12 June 1805, contained 13 prince’s friends. Yet when Pitt’s head-counters again took stock of the Commons in July 1805, they included the prince’s followers with the Foxites and Grenvillites as  `opposition’, without separately distinguishing them.

When Grenville and Fox came to power on Pitt’s death in early 1806, Moira was appointed master-general of the ordnance, with Calcraft (for whom the prince tried to secure the treasury secretaryship) and McMahon holding posts in the department.  Sheridan became treasurer of the navy. 

The king’s final lapse into insanity in the autumn of 1810 revived the reversionary interest among the Whig opposition, but their hopes of a return to office under the aegis of the prince as regent were dashed.  The prince’s personal party, such as it now was, disappeared with Moira’s appointment as governor-general of Bengal and Sheridan’s election defeat in 1812.


Further Reading

Christopher Hibbert, George IV, 1: Prince of Wales (1972)

The Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales ed. A. Aspinall, 8 vols. (1963-71), vols. iv and v

Author: David R. Fisher