Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

The Sandy Ground of Prince Edward: Profligacy and Royal Credit in the Empire of George III

· January 30th, 2019 · 1 Comment

Peter Olsen-Harbich spent the September of 2018 in the Royal Archives at Windsor as an Omohundro Institute–Georgian Papers Programme fellow and as the recipient of a William & Mary Dean’s Research Fund fellowship. The latter was jointly funded by the Omohundro Institute and the William & Mary Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences via the William & Mary Office of Graduate Studies and Research. Peter is a Ph.D candidate in History at William & Mary. He is currently at work on a dissertation (tentatively) titled “ A Meaningful Subjection: Coercive Inequality and Indigenous Political Economy in the Colonial Northeastern Woodlands.”

This post also appears on the Georgian Papers Programme website.

By Peter Olsen-Harbich

“Zeno said, that an avaricious man was like barren sandy ground, which sucks in all the rain and dews with greediness and thirst, but yields no fruitful herbs or plants for the inhabitants.” [1] So wrote the young Prince Edward, son of George III and the future Duke of Kent, in a perfectly tidy hand around the spring of 1774. Edward copied this proverb as a writing exercise while under the strict and watchful eye of his governor, J. Bruyere, who may have still believed in 1774 that the six-year-old boy could learn something from it. If Bruyere was so naive, such illusions could not have remained intact over the following decade of instruction. By 1784, Edward had inaugurated what became his lifelong preferred means of securing satisfaction: utterly profligate and disobedient expenditure. That year, a now teenaged Edward employed his servants to acquire him an unknown “trifling pleasure.” This indulgence was quickly discovered and rebuked by Bruyere, and Edward spent the night consumed by anxiety over how he had “exposed the servants to lose their bread.” In the morning, putting guilt aside, Edward decided that the potential risks of further such deprivation did not outweigh the deprivation he and others would face if he were prevented from producing melodies. He thus ordered his page to purchase “an English flute without Mr B’s knowledge.”[2] These were only the first dew drops. Over the next three decades, Edward would use his name to nourish a near infinite spring of credit that quenched his thirst in both hemispheres of his father’s Empire. In the process, Edward demonstrated with great clarity the pathological relationship to wealth that easily sprang from such access.

Edward, Duke of Kent, in 1818. Painting by George Dawe. Image available courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust, copyright HM Queen Elizabeth II.

Edward’s profligacy was the sinew that ran throughout his professional and familial life. Domestic debts and the shame they wrought compelled Edward from Britain in his early twenties, where he left behind the comforts of regular dancing and opera attendance for bitter winters and severe regularity in German military camps, in which he served as Colonel of the Electoral Regiment of Foot Guards. In this distinctly unmelodious environ, Edward did not simply grin and bear his circumstance. Instead, he employed a complete “Band of musick and Drummers” for the regiment, and went about “altering and changing Carriages” with additional horses for his personal use. Word of these expenses soon reached his father, who blasted off a strongly worded reprimand reminding Edward of his “repeated assurances” that his spending habits would improve. The band, carriages, and horses, George wrote, were “contrary to my express orders,” and had warranted his “highest disapprobation!” Though the King bemoaned having to so explicitly direct his son, he insisted that Edward’s “absurd singularities make it absolutely requisite to prevent your exposing yourself.”[3] As punishment, Edward was cut off from the credit and correspondence of his father. Though the latter tortured him greatly, the former was of little trouble at all, and Edward quickly found solace from his paternal estrangement in the “Generosity of a Geneva Banker” who agreed to bankroll him further.[4]

By the 1790s, Edwards military career had taken him from Germany, where his misbehavior was too easily indulged, to Gibraltar, where the “immoderate heats” led him to request “removal to a colder” climate, landing him in Canada.[5] Throughout this time, Edward was effectively exiled from his father’s favor, and corresponded mostly with his brother William, Prince of Wales, to whom he made clear his dissatisfaction with the backwater he had chosen to escape Gibraltar. “The contrast, between the comforts, and the beauty of England,” Edward moaned, “with the want of every resource, and the drearyness of Nova Scotia, is certainly very glaring.” Noting his equal contempt for the new United States, Edward lamented that “this part of the world, you will easily perceive affords nothing interesting.”[6] With few creature comforts and a conspicuous lack of Genevan financiers at the ready, Edward turned his attention to formal duties, and acquired a new target for his excess: the military chest of the exchequer.

Upon arriving in Canada, Edward found that his military superiors, Lord Amherst, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, and Lord Dorchester, Governor General of North America, had failed to anticipate the exacting needs of their newest commandant. Edward immediately took issue with the paucity of men and improvements under his authority. Doing his best to fashion a sense of urgency among his superiors, Edward alerted Lord Amherst of the “extreme weakness of the Military Force” in Nova Scotia, especially “when compared to the importance of the Port [Halifax] to be defended.” At “the very highest computation,” Edward insisted, there were only 750 men in the combined regiment of regulars and the company of artillery. As for the outposts of Nova Scotia, Edward objected that he was “unable to send one single man” to defend them, and formally requested two additional regiments of regulars and one additional company of artillery.[7] Edward believed himself to have been restrained in these requests, insisting to his friend (and fellow profligate) Henry Dundas that his application was “extremely moderate,” since it would have been reasonable for him to demand “four times the number [which] could have been employed with advantage.”[8] Edward’s superiors were less than awed by this temperance.

Though Edward did not copy his formal reproach by Lord Dorchester (as he had done with that by his father), his response to the censure makes clear the severity of Dorchester’s displeasure. Dorchester had not only denied that “another Regiment should be sent” to Nova Scotia—he had in fact ordered one such regiment be moved away from Halifax and into Quebec. Edward regretted that Dochester had felt “vertually superceded” by his own “direction for further expenditure.” But as he had learned long ago while bristling under Bruyere, regret was ephemeral, and need not be a lasting impediment to further disobedience. Edward informed Dorchester that he would not abide by the relocation order until Dorchester “determined to repeat the order of sending them immediately off.”[9] Less than a week later, he received the surprising news that Dorchester’s rebuke had not been complete, as the Paymaster General had approved a £10,000 allocation for the “Military Chest” of Canada. Edward immediately requested that the Paymaster “draw further,” demanding a doubling of this increase, “for not less than a sum similar to that you have last completed.–You are hereby directed and authorized to draw for the sum of Ten thousand pounds.”[10] Though he had not acquired his men, he had acquired some money, and this was surely a sign that no one would mind if he took twice what they had offered.

At the end of the 1790s, Edward was allowed to return home. A fourteen-year banishment on both sides of the Atlantic, wrought entirely by his own immoderation, had finally ended. His military record was surprisingly free from blemish, and no scandals of cross-continental proportions had erupted. Years of illness while in foreign service had convinced Edward that he had in “the worst, and most trying climates…contracted the seeds of disorders likely to stay by me as long as I live.”[11] Now was the time to rest, truly rest, for the first time in over a decade. Amends could be made, apologies given, pride swallowed. It, anything, would be worth the opportunity to remain in England, or if this was impossible, maybe a position in Ireland could be opened, as Edward had long pleaded for in letters to his father that yielded forth only devastating silence. But such sentiments of prudence were to be found only in Edward’s book of proverbs, by now surely buried and forgotten in a chest beneath the letters to and from his creditors. Instead of drafting such a letter of apology, Edward composed his magnum opus of extravagance, entitled, “Statement of the number of Horses which I humbly conceive to be indispensably necessary to enable me to attend upon his Majesty.” The answer: 28 horses.[12]

Edward was not a modest man, and it is clear he never attempted to become one. Indeed, the accounts of his profligacy even in childhood suggest that such an improvement was simply not in his nature. But his story, while it is indisputably one of personal failing, is also demonstrative of the disturbing effect a lifetime of easy access to wealth can have, especially upon those whose names are protected from depreciation in personal credit networks. Edward became the sandy ground Bruyere had warned against, but it was others who provided the water, and a trans-Atlantic network of sorely misplaced confidence that delivered the irrigation.


 [1] Proverb Book, Letters of the Duke of Kent, 1779-1825 (GEO/MAIN/ 46300-46788), [Uncatalogued, end of box], f.3.v. Royal Archives, Windsor, England. All following citations are drawn from the Royal Archives.
[2] Daybook, Letters of the Duke of Kent, 1779-1825 (GEO/MAIN/ 46300-46788), [Uncatalogued, end of box, prior to Proverb Book], f.5.r; f.13.r.
[3] Letters of the Duke of Kent, 1780-1806 (GEO/MAIN/ 45698-46299), 45750-51.
[4] Letters of the Duke of Kent, 1780-1806 (GEO/MAIN/ 45698-46299), 45754-55.
[5] Letters of the Duke of Kent, 1779-1825 (GEO/MAIN/ 46300-46788), 46660.
[6] Letters of the Duke of Kent, 1780-1806 (GEO/MAIN/ 45698-46299), 45967-69
[7] Letter Book of Edward, Duke of Kent, 1794-1795 (GEO/ADD/7/57-100), 58.
[8] Letter Book of Edward, Duke of Kent, 1794-1795 (GEO/ADD/7/57-100), 91
[9] Letter Book of Edward, Duke of Kent, 1794-1795 (GEO/ADD/7/57-100), 100.
[10] Letter Book of Edward, Duke of Kent, 1794-1795 (GEO/ADD/7/57-100), p. 179.
[11] Letters of the Duke of Kent, 1780-1806 (GEO/MAIN/ 45698-46299), 45980.
[12] Letters of the Duke of Kent, 1780-1806 (GEO/MAIN/ 45698-46299), 45957.

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  1. […] This is a fascinating look by Peter Olsen-Harbich at Prince Edward (son of George III) and his profligate spending habits, including his visit to Nova… […]

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