- - Wednesday, January 8, 2014

By Kevin W. Farrell
University Press of North Georgia, $24.95, 297 pages, illustrated

When the royal baby, Prince George of Cambridge, was baptized on Oct. 23 in the Chapel Royal of St. James’ Palace in the heart of London, few thought back to the baptism of another Prince George of Cambridge, his first cousin seven times removed, nearly two centuries ago. Yet as this new book by West Point history professor Kevin W. Farrell makes clear, that far-off figure was not only a fascinating character, but also played an important role as commander in chief of the British army for nearly 40 years, from 1856 to 1895.

Born in Hanover on March 26, 1819, Prince George, a grandson of the reigning king, George III, was at the time the only heir among his grandchildren. Two months later, his first cousin Victoria came along, becoming heir apparent to their grandfather. When she succeeded in 1837, many in the English royal family favored George as her consort, although in the event she married Albert, who was a first cousin on her mother’s side. Mr. Farrell thinks that the queen may indeed have been interested in such a match, dismissing her diary entry: “I never could have thought of taking him — ugly and disagreeable as he was” as mere “defensive posturing.” The young prince, who was to succeed his father as duke of Cambridge in 1850, was not inclined toward her. His marriage, when it came, was anything but conventional: a long-lasting morganatic alliance to actress Louisa Fairbrother, which produced several children but was never recognized by the queen.

After a respectable career as a soldier, including service in the Crimean War, Cambridge achieved the pre-eminent military position of commander in chief at the end of that conflict, doubtless on account of his royal status. History has not been kind to his role. To put it bluntly, he is viewed as an archreactionary who resisted and retarded all efforts at reform, placing the British army at a disadvantage compared to others abroad at a critical time. He is notorious in particular for his resistance to the so-called Cardwell reforms, which included abolishing the punishment of flogging of soldiers and the purchase of commissions, among other improvements. “A man to whom a new idea was perdition” was one historian’s summing up.

As befits a biographer, Mr. Farrell tries to take the most sympathetic stance possible in an attempt to understand this problematic figure. He demonstrates that Cambridge was not heartless and, indeed, that he cared for his soldiers. His main point is that, although Cambridge was deeply resistant to change, his primary motivation in the discharge of his office was “one of preserving the ‘Royal Prerogative’ — the queen’s belief that in many ways the army was her own — and preventing undue civilian [i.e., political] interference in the command, discipline and efficiency of the army.” In this last, he doubtless reflected the attitude of many senior military.

When it came to maintaining the monarchical connection, there is little doubt that he was very much in tune with Victoria’s own thinking. She felt a profoundly personal connection to her soldiery and was bitterly frustrated that, as a woman, she was unable to lead them into battle. Mr. Farrell shows her support of him at every turn, and one almost gets the feeling that Cambridge served as a kind of surrogate for her. After all, their mutual great-great-grandfather George II (from whom Cambridge was also descended through his mother) was the last British monarch to lead his troops into battle. When Cambridge was eventually forced into retirement, Victoria tried doggedly — but ultimately, unsuccessfully — to replace him with her third son, Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, also a professional soldier. Clearly, she was heart and soul behind preserving that royal prerogative. However, as Mr. Farrell notes, the result of Cambridge’s tenure was, far from strengthening that office with its link to the crown, to doom it to extinction.

In view of Cambridge’s dubious character and unsavory reputation — for all Mr. Farrell’s efforts to redeem him — it may seem odd that Queen Elizabeth II chose to revive his dukedom (that died with him) for her grandson. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that in addition to the direct descent from George III, which he shared with her, he was also the uncle of her beloved grandmother, Queen Mary. So it was more a dynastic and indeed familial decision: She was paying tribute to that revered figure, who was still alive “to kiss her hand as her old granny” when she succeeded to the throne in 1952.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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