Thursday, 7 July 2011

Hanoverian Standoff - the Maidstone affair of 1756

On Monday 13th September 1756 a German soldier walked into a shop in Maidstone, Kent, to buy some handkerchiefs. What happened next helped bring down a government and led to a big change in military policy.

Britain was at war, and it was not going well. Since 1754 Britain had been fighting a losing war against the French in North America, and now this had spread to Europe, to become the Seven Years war. Defeats in Ohio and the loss of Menorca in the Mediterranean had raised well founded fears of a French invasion, but most of England's regular forces were abroad.

To make up the short fall the government hired troops from Germany, or rather the German states of Hanover and Hesse. These were not technically mercenaries, which are hired individually, but auxiliaries hired as units from the rulers of the state. A huge 12,000 had been hired, and they arrived in May. They had to go somewhere, so a enormous camp was set up at Cox's heath (modern Coxheath), an area of open ground outside of Maidstone, presumably as it lay on the obvious invasion route from France. The disruption and anxiety this caused locally can be imagined, but draconian discipline ensured that the troops were well behaved and they were, for the most part, accepted. After all they had to buy their supplies, and handkerchiefs, somewhere.

Coxheath Camp 20 years later in 1778, this time with 15,000 Hanoverians

Trouble in the Haberdashers

Christophe Guilleme Schroder, who was from Hanover, entered the shop with his friend Winckler and asked to see some silk handkerchiefs. The owner, Christopher Harris showed some, which Schroder accepted, paid for and tried to leave. Unfortunately he had 8, but only paid for 6. This might have been a mistake, or as Harris claimed, Christophe might have slipped in another two when his back was turned. Now it´s not mentioned in the accounts, but Harris must have had some trouble with Germans, or soldiers, before, or maybe his gout was playing him up, because he immediately charged Schroder with theft and demanded he be taken to the local authorities. According to the Hanoverian account he used "offensive language". Well, a crowd had gathered by now, and Schroder was taken in front of the mayor of Maidstone, called, slightly suspiciously, John Harris. Schroder was charged with common felony, and committed to jail to wait the next quarter sessions, or trial date. Most commentators at the time considered that he got off lightly, although Maidstone prison was condemmed around 1800 for it's terrible conditions even by the standards of the day, so not the pleasantest of places.

The commander of the Hanoverian troops in Maidstone was Georg Ludwig, Graf von Kielmansegg, and he wasn't accustomed to having civilians telling him what to do. Next day, he went to the mayor and demanded that Schroder be released to him, claiming that he was under Hanoverian, not English jurisdiction. The major refused, at which point Kielmansegg threatened to march troops into town and get him. This where the affair starts getting serious. News of the threat spread all over the country, but especially in Kent where they suddenly became aware that there were 12,000 foreign troops in their midst with very little to stop them. Many comparisons were made with Hengist and Horsa, Saxon auxiliaries of the Roman-British who had rebelled and set up their own kingdom in Kent - the alliteration with Hanover and Hesse helping no end in this regard. Plays on the words "outside the law" and "outlaws" were also quite tempting.

A contemporay cartoon of the event. Hanoverians, with handkerchiefs, kept out of the pub by stout Kentish men. The Hanoverians, being outside English law, are "outlaws".

Nonetheless, Mayor Harris still refused to release Schroder so Kielmansegg went up a level, to the government in Whitehall. Unfortunately, most senior ministers were away so it fell to a junior minister, the Earl of Holderness, to make a decision. He did, ordering the mayor to release Schroder at once, which he reluctantly did. Harris could have let the matter drop, but his revenge was to write again to Whitehall demanding "clarification" of the jurisdiction of town and Hanoverians. This forced the entry of the Attorney General and other senior figures, and bought the whole thing much more into the public domain.

Holderness's Problems

Earl of Holderness

Holderness found himself in the middle of a political firestorm, various controversies converging on him at once. They can perhaps be summarised as follows

a) A military officer had threatened the mayor of an English country town, and Holderness had supported the army. This did not go down well. Soldiers were regarded at this time with ambivalence, necessary but dangerous and frankly, almost criminal. Britain spent a fortune on her fleets, but the army was kept as small as possible. They were also regarded a potential threat to liberty, and the Maidstone affair" played right into this prejudice.
b) The military officer was foreign.
c) Not only foreign, but Hanoverian. George II was also King of Hanover, and was widely rumoured to prefer his homeland, not least because there he was an absolute monarch. The Jacobite rebellion was only 11 years earlier, and although there was little enthusiasm for a Stuart revival in England, there wasn´t a great deal of popularity for the Hanoverians either. There was always the suspicion that English interests would be second to Hanoverian ones, which the Schroder affair rather suggested. Holderness himself was generally held to owe his position to royal patronage rather than any particular talent, so it was especially unfortunate that he was the one handed this hot potato.
d) The government of which Holderness was a part, lead by the Duke of Newcastle, was already unpopular due to the debacle at Menorca, and was unlucky enough to face a talented political operator in the form of William Pitt who knew a good stick to beat the government when he saw one.

There were of course counter arguments. It made sense for a threatened, rich, country with a small army to hire troops elsewhere, and no one claimed the Germans were anything but good troops. Being Hanoverian might make them more loyal to England, not less - after all they shared the same king. In fact, of 12,000 troops the only claim laid against them was stealing some handkerchiefs, and thats debatable. In contrast, an officer of Foot, John Lauder, had been executed in Maidstone in August for killing a pot boy, William Forster, with his sword "in the heat of passion and liquor".


The country was not in the mood to listen to the Hanoverian side. Kielmansegg was sacrificed and sent back to Hanover, but it wasn't enough and by December Newcastle was out and Pitt was in charge. The King refused initially to sack Holderness, but he soon went too. At the end of November, 4 battalions of Hanoverians marched to Chatham and embarked for Germany, the transports returning for another 3 battalions. They had, incidentally, been camped on Cox's Heath all this time "notwithstanding the severity of the weather".

The incoming government started a process of forming a citizens militia, which was felt to more patriotic. Men would be trained, but continue their normal professions - lack of military training was held to be balanced by fervour in defending their homes and families. Of course Germans were still hired, in both the American Revolution and the wars against Napoleon, but home defence was to rely on English forces.

I would like to tell you what became of Schroder, but I cannot, it is not known. A local paper, the Kentish Post, reported that he was lashed repeatedly, and then thrown out of the army, but another reorted that he couldn't be tried, as Harris refused to testify in front of a foreign court. Let's imagine he returned home, married a beautiful Fraulein and set up shop back in Hanover. Selling handkerchiefs.

A more detailed description of the Maidstone affair, especially the political implications, can be found in an article by M McCormack - Citizenship, nationhood, and masculinity in the affair of the Hanoverian soldier, 1756. The Historical Journal, 2006 - Cambridge Univ Press
The rest comes from various contempory documents

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