The Duke of York Scandal, 1809

In the first quarter of 1809, public attention was distracted from the recent British military humiliation in Spain by the scandal of the alleged involvement of the duke of York, the king’s second son and commander-in-chief of the army, in the sale of commissions by his former mistress, Mrs. Mary Anne Clarke. After an open Commons inquiry, its instigator Gwyllym Wardle, radical Member for Okehampton, moved for the duke’s dismissal. His motion was crushed, but the Portland ministry’s resolutions affirming the duke’s innocence were opposed by such a substantial minority that he resigned.  The affair prompted popular calls for reform and sparked a series of parliamentary attacks on corruption in high places.  Wardle soon fell from grace, and the duke was reinstated in 1811. 

Frederick, duke of York (1766-1827), George III’s favourite son, led the English  army in Flanders, 1793-5, with little success. As commander-in-chief from 1798 he did much to weed out corruption and jobbery in the army’s administration. However, like four of his five brothers, he was an adulterer, and he became entangled with the attractive adventuress Mrs. Clarke, whose lavish lifestyle he subsidised from his civil list income.  He separated from her in 1805, buying her silence with an annual pension, but he cancelled this in 1808 and Mrs. Clarke sought payback. That summer the press was full of rumours that she had used her influence over the duke to secure commissions for money. The story was given substance when one Major Denis Hogan published an Appeal to the Public, in which he alleged that he had been passed over for promotion because he had refused to meet Mrs. Clarke’s demands.  In  the context of the British retreat from Spain and the controversial convention of Cintra which stopped the allied offensive in the Peninsula, corruption in the army was an inviting target for radicals. In addition, there was an element of prurient disgust with the sexual licence of a senior member of the royal family.

On 20 Jan. 1809 Wardle gave notice of a motion on the conduct of the duke  regarding appointments and promotions.  A week later he brought it on, introducing Mrs. Clarke’s name, reviewing specific cases in which she admitted having trafficked in military appointments in return for money, and arguing that the duke had been complicit in these transactions. His motion was seconded by Sir Francis Burdett, and to his surprise the Portland ministry, led in the Commons by Spencer Perceval, opted for a public investigation at the bar of the House. Initially, few of the leading opposition Whigs were willing to back Wardle, partly because York was the prince of Wales’s favourite brother and, with the king’s health uncertain, the reversionary interest remained a seductive prospect. Only the Burdettites and the Whig `Mountain’, notably Samuel Whitbread, Lord Folkestone (who soon found his way into Mrs. Clarke’s bed), and Thomas Creevey joined in with a will at first. 

The inquiry occupied 12 parliamentary days, and became a piece of public theatre, with the pert and saucy Mrs. Clarke, who cheerfully admitted all the charges and implicated the duke, the star attraction. Although Wardle was never able to prove that the