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13 August 2012

Different Views of the Prince of Orange


It's difficult to write about the battle of Waterloo without touching on the noted historical figures involved. Napoleon and Wellington. Lord Uxbridge, Marshal Ney, and other noted military commanders. And one other, who if he could not be called a noted commander, did hold a command in the battle - William, Prince of Orange, later William II of the Netherlands.

The Prince of Orange was born in the Hague on 11 December, 1792, eldest son of William I of the Netherlands and Wilhelmine of Prussia. When he was two, allied British-Hanoverian troops left the Netherlands and French troops swept in to join the anti-Orangist forces. The royal family fled to England. William went on to study at Oxford and in 1811, at 18, became an aide-de-camp to Wellington in the Peninsular War. He became one of the close knit "family" of Wellington's aides, kick-named "Slender Billy."

In 1813, Billy returned to the Netherlands when his father regained the throne. In 1814 he was briefly betrothed to the Prince Regent's daughter Princess Charlotte, but Charlotte wasn't keen on either Billy or on living in the Netherlands and ended the engagement.

In 1815 when Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to power in France, the prince was given temporary command of the Allied forces in the Netherlands until Wellington arrived from Vienna. Billy, who regarded Wellington with something akin to hero worship, was quite willing to relinquish command, but Wellington's relations with the prince's father were less amicable. Partly to mollify King William, Billy was given command of the I coprs, though he was not yet three-and-twenty. Young and untried as a commander, Billy ordered troops to form line rather than square three times over the course of Quatre Bras and Waterloo, exposing them to cavalry fire and crippling losses. At Waterloo, when the prince insisted that Baron Ompteda follow the order to form line, Ompteda looked at Billy as though he'd received a death sentence and said simply that in that case he would try to save the lives of his nephews, aged 14 and 15. Both the nephews survived, but Ompteda and dozens of others did not.

Billy was wounded late in the battle and carried from the field by his friend and aide Lord March (son of the Duchess of Richmond, who gave the famous ball at which Wellington received confirmation that the French attack was coming through Quatre Bras).

In An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer portrays Billy as young and enthusiastic, untried but sympathetic. Bernard Cornwell in Waterloo paints a much more biting picture of an arrogant young royal whose bumbling arrogance costs numerous lives. Cornwell has Richard Sharpe himself shoot the prince he exposes his men needlessly to cavalry fire. My own portrait of Billy in Imperial Scandal is somewhere between the two. Because my hero, Malcolm, has known Billy from childhood, I think he's more inclined to be sympathetic to him than is Richard Sharpe who doesn't share a history with the prince. At the same time Malcolm (and I) can't but be sickened by the lives lost by the prince's wanton stupidity. In my story, Billy is shot by one of the villains who is actually trying to kill Malcolm.

Heyer, Cornwell, and I all use the same facts to paint different portraits of the Prince of Orange. What other historical figures have you read different portrayals of at the hands of different historical novelists? Writers, what challenges have you faced writing about historical characters who've been portrayed in other novels?

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3 Comments:

Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Hi, Tracy - what a fascinating discussion of Slender Billy! I confess I sometimes thought the different novelists were talking about different historical figures, rather than the same man.

I've been reading medical histories of the latter Stuarts. I'm having a very hard time figuring out why William II of England (yet another prince of Orange!) didn't have a legitimate heir. The stakes were very high, his wife was fertile, and the modern doctors think it was possible. Boy, does he have a lot of friends and enemies. (Threw his father in law off the throne, the greedy man. Championed English liberties, the hero.)

I'm also having fun with Queen Anne. Modern medicine has diagnosed her with acute lupus, which puts a very different light on much of her day to day life - and many laws she encouraged or accepted. (How does one wear a corset with acute lupus???) To say nothing of Sarah Churchill's vituperative memoirs. Wow...

8:09 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

How fascinating, Diane! How do they know Mary (of William & Mary) was fertile? And do they know William was? It certainly seems they would both have wanted an heir. I can see about whom there'd be very different historical views. I've heard a bit about Queen Anne and lupus, which is fascinating. Interesting when modern medical info puts a new spin on the historical record.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Mary gave birth multiple times to live children early in her marriage. (They died of natural causes.) Then she abruptly stopped getting pregnant for no apparent medical reason, according to the doctors. William had multiple lovers, including a very famous mistress.

Queen Anne's lupus was so bad that she couldn't stand to wear much more than a dressing gown. Putting on a corset was torture. Can you imagine what getting dressed to receive her ministers was like or for state occasions? Plus, she became less and less able to tolerate sunlight as she grew older. Turning over royal prerogatives to her ministers would have seemed like preserving the realm, especially after her beloved husband died. Or when you think of the brutalities her male heir perpetuated on his wife. (shudder...)

8:41 PM  

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