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 duke had been complicit in or connived at Mrs. Clarke’s corrupt dealings, public opinion was strongly with him by the time the inquiry ended.  The duke’s letter to the Speaker protesting his innocence and regretting his adultery cut no ice.  On 9 Mar. 1809 Wardle reviewed the evidence and moved an address calling for the duke’s dismissal.  Perceval replied with a clever speech in favour of resolutions and an address acquitting the duke of corruption but deploring his involvement with Mrs. Clarke.  Wardle’s address was rejected by 364-123, 15 Mar., but a minority of 193 (to 279) divided against the duke’s complete exoneration, 17 Mar. 1809, and he resigned next day.

Wardle was lionized as a popular hero, while the scandal injected fresh life into the floundering campaign for parliamentary reform, stimulated a call for economical reform and prompted a series of Commons attacks on supposed corruption, a few of which received substantial minority support in the lobbies. Ministers felt obliged to amend rather than reject outright a bill to reform election abuses (venality of seats and votes) proposed by John Curwen.

Wardle, however, was soon hoist with his own petard, for in June 1809 Mrs. Clarke, who had been paid £10,000 and given an annuity of £400 by the government in return for York’s letters and the destruction of her prepared memoirs, persuaded an upholsterer, Francis Wright, to sue Wardle for non-payment of a bill for furniture for her new London house.  The case came before king’s bench, 3 July 1809, when the appearance for Wright of the attorney-general indicated that ministers were out to destroy Wardle, and it emerged for the first time that he had probably bought Mrs. Clarke’s hostile testimony against the duke with a promise to pay for the furnishing of her house.  The jury found for Wright and Wardle was ordered to pay £1,095 for the furniture and £1,194 in legal costs.  He immediately vowed publicly to vindicate himself, before indicting Clarke, Wright and his brother Daniel for conspiracy. This case was tried in king’s bench, 11 Dec. 1809, when Wardle prevaricated under questioning. The verdict was returned for the defendants.  Although Wardle was badly damaged, he retained some popular support, and over £4,000 was subscribed at meetings called to pay his legal expenses. 

In the summer of 1810 Mrs. Clarke published The Rival Princes, in which, admitting that she had joined in the attack on the duke purely to make money, she portrayed the entire business as a conspiracy organized by his jealous brother, the duke of Kent, who had paid Wardle for his co-operation.  While much of this was probably untrue, Wardle was by now largely discredited.  He was humiliated in the House, 26 Feb. 1811, when his motion for inquiry into the allegedly brutal punishment of a soldier in the Oxfordshire militia was defeated by 91-1, with Wardle and Burdett as tellers for the minority.  Soon afterwards Wardle faded from the  scene of radical politics.  His last recorded vote was cast against the reinstatement of York as commander-in-chief (which had been intended ever since his resignation), 11 June 1811.  In severe financial trouble, he left the House at the 1812 dissolution, spent a few years farming in Kent and in about 1815 went abroad to evade his creditors.  He died in Florence in November 1833.

Author: David R. Fisher