William Cavendish

The 4th Duke Of Devonshire

Historical figures can often be considered in very different ways depending on who is telling their story – one man’s hero is another man’s villain. This is particularly true for the 4th Duke of Devonshire because the story of his success and achievements can be told in different ways and while some would view him as a mere link in the family chain with very little impact or importance, others would take a more positive view on his achievements during his short life.

William Cavendish’s story begins on May 8th 1720 when he was born, it is believed, in Hardwick Derbyshire to the 3rd Duke of Devonshire and his wife Catherine Hoskins. He became a wealthy land owner, married Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Boyle – the 6th baroness, had four children of his own and enjoyed a number titles and positions. For a number of years he was Lieutenant and Treasurer of Ireland until he was forced into a much more powerful role.

Head quaters of 4th Duke of Devonshire

Head quaters of 4th Duke of Devonshire

 4th Duke of Devonshire’s time as Prime Minister
The pages in history books regarding Cavendish’s time in power are rather short and lacking in detail because the man and the role did not exactly fit together happily. The Duke was not really cut out to be Prime Minister, despite the insistence of George II that he take the position, and he resigned just seven months after taking the position in November 1756. To some degree, his work and the extent of his power has been misrepresented and there are two sides to the story. One account of this short-lived leadership tells of a reluctant Whig that was basically just a front for William Pitt the Elder, Pitt being the the true man in power and the Duke being nothing more than First Lord of the Treasury. The other way of looking at these seven months is to see a youthful Prime Minister of just 36 who lead the country with a focus on defence during the Seven Years war and was responsible for the 1757 Militia Act.

House & bridge of Chatsworth - taken by Rob Bendall

House & bridge of Chatsworth – taken by Rob Bendall

The 4th Duke of Devonshire and the city of Derby.
The Duke’s connection to Derbyshire did not end with his birth because he was given the role of Lord Lieutenant from 1756 until his death in 1764 and is directly tied to the city of Derby thanks to one strange night in December 1745. This tale is another brilliant example of how one aspect of the Duke’s life can be interpreted in different ways. First there are the local legends that talk of an extraordinary night on December 4th when the county was last invaded by a foreign force. A plaque on the George Inn in Irongate talks of the night when Bonnie Prince Charlie appeared at the door in person requesting billets for 9000 men and how the Duke commanded his own troop of loyal “Derbyshire Blues” in the same venue.

William Cavendish

William Cavendish

The alternative version of this tale suggests no confrontation of any kind and states that the actions of the Prince have been misrepresented. If the Prince and his troops – of which there were certainly not 9000 – were chased out of the county then it was not by the Duke’s Derbyshire Blues because they had apparently previously left their beds at the inn to leave the town to fend for itself and, to further dampen the story, it is suggested that it was not even the Prince that asked for the billets.

Cavendish’s death and legacy.
The Duke’s short lived life came to an end on October 12th at just 44 years of age – 44 and 147 days to be exact because this is recorded as the youngest a PM has ever died. The exact place of his death is difficult to determine because different accounts mention Belgium, Austria and Germany but that is because he had travelled to the mountains in the area for treatment. Following his death, the line of Dukes was continued by his son, the 5th Duke with the unsurprising name of William Cavendish.

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The way that William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, should be remembered depends on which side of his story you choose to focus on; some still hold onto the folklore of the George Inn and re-enact the preferred, romanticised story of the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie every December 4th, others will see him as little more than an average, caretaker Prime Minister or the coward that ran out on the city of Derby. Whatever the truth behind that night in Irongate and his leadership, the 4th Duke’s story will ensure that this particular William Cavendish is not forgotten.