Back when I was a student, one of our tasks was to create a short story from a portrait of our choosing in the National Gallery. I chose Lord Frederick North, former Prime Minister who presided over America’s greatest day and, until recently, Britain’s greatest loss – The American war of independence. After much researching online and through the British Library (in which the main point of contention between accounts was whether or not it was snowing or raining), I created this dramatisation of the events which you would now call one of the biggest political “mic drops” in history. So as it’s Independence Day in America and a week of continuing resignations in the UK, I thought I’d let this out in to the wild.
My Memories of The Resignation of Lord Frederick North
It was March the 28th, in the year of our lord 1782. Some ten years before my friend Lord North, The Earl of Guildford passed away. I stood in the Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament looking out of the window over the Thames. Its majesty dampened by the falling of snow and the freezing weather. The reflection of the House lost on the surface of water. It was not unheard of, an early spring day in March, for snow to fall and cover the streets so far past Christmas and Whit Sunday. The horses would make small punctures in the otherwise perfectly white sheets above the cobbles as they pulled their carriages. Carriages, for which, we were awaiting. Not long after the New Year of 1782 had dawned on us that our Prime Minister, Lord Frederick North, was fighting three battles. All of which he was ready to surrender. The first was America. Since news of Cornwallis’s surrender in Yorktown had reached North in November of 1781, he had argued that ‘Peace with America was necessary.’
A view not shared by our King. George III had legislated the taxes that created this war, and he saw no end to it that wasn’t awash with blood, something that North had tried desperately to avoid in his attempts to first, suggest peace and later, resign. The final battle, the one with the House of Commons, was today. They had forced the King’s hand in accepting his resignation after a vote of no confidence. Today he finally surrendered, although if there was any relief in the man, it did not show.
Lord North stood in the doorway of the entrance to the Members Lobby. His resignation accepted. The House adjourned. The ministers gathered in the Central Lobby after leaving the spectacle, the snow starting to fall more rapidly outside. The rumors of the Kings final words to him circulated. North had been in constant communication with the King for months now. The King, stubborn as he had been in creating this war, refused all of North’s recommendations and resignations. Lord Cavendish, Rockingham and his Whig’s all made sure of his eventual demise from office. Picking off his party one by one. But the King did nothing, until now. North had come straight from Kew and had been told ‘it is you so desert me, not I you.’
He looked composed. He always looked composed, even when you could see the ills that had befallen his mind recently. But here and now the weight had been lifted and it showed upon the man. I’d spoken to him but a week ago about one of his many meetings with The King at Kew. ‘I will not be dictated upon,’ The King had said. ‘The house thinks that our way has been lost and our hard fought enterprise to the west has fallen afoul of greed and war. But I will not have it. They will starve and they will beg when their incredulous rebellion is brought to judgement. I will not bow to what God has granted us through victory to a population of peasants and rogues.’
North had told me in confidence, ‘I agree that The King is most correct. We shall not have this rebellion in our own house. But this war will, if it is not to be won, then be brought to conclusion through virtues of peace if not for a short time. But I am not he who can bring this to pass. I am no longer the keeper of our Empire’s interests in the eyes of our nobles and government. The King knows this but cannot see it or renders himself blind out of faith.’
‘The King has lost touch,’ I said.
‘I consider him a friend as well as my ruler and I respect his honourable charge. God has granted us fortune in battle. America, Spain, and Waterloo are some of the finest hours our navy and our empire have seen. But the King cannot see that Peace, in its nature, is not to lose. It is not to win either, but to compromise. This power over our Commons is not his to yield. It is my power and my responsibility.’
‘You intend to resign?” I enquired.
‘I have resigned in all but official record. The King will not abide by my decision and refuses to summon opposition to the House.’
‘You risk his wrath by defying him,’ I pointed out. ‘This could be seen as Treason by the King and you could be hung!’
‘That is so, yet the sacrifice of one man may be better employed for our continued victory, than to have him weigh down the stern of his fleet. I shall do what must be done. The King must see that, or more men will be lost to a futile battle in America. We have the French and the Spanish on our doorstep. We must pick our battles or risk losing all. America is lost. As is my government.’
Nearly five months after Yorktown, after months of motions for resignation and continued attacks from the opposition, he had finally resigned. The new parliament needed to be formed. A few people shook hands with North as they left the Members Lobby and one who was still loyal to him gathered behind him in a show of support. I decided to join them both. North greeted me warmly, quite obviously thankful for my continued loyalty in this dire hour for him. He returned to the rest of the exiting ministers with stillness in his eyes and his expressions. Eventually everyone had left the Members Chamber. North studied them all. Congratulating themselves, laughing, shaking hands to new allegiances and making plans for meetings. You could overhear people mentioning that they had defeated the King, that America was theirs for the taking, and that the Crown needed to be brought to heel in the wake of such a defeat. It was true that this was a big defeat for King George. The partnership of government that North and him had formed had lasted for twelve years. They were more than peers they were friends as well. It could not have been easy for North for have risked his friendship with The King, nor could it have been easy for him betray his wishes. If what the King had said was true, and that countenance had been paid, then their friendship was lost. In his later days, North did not recover well from the loss of his friendship. He was always ailed by his failure that brought this personal catastrophe, more so than his later blindness.
North was too busy studying the assembled crowd to bother thinking about such notions. Even if he was thinking, his face did not portray it. A porter appeared and advised North that his carriage was ready. North thanked him and began to smile. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said to us, his gaze not faltering from the crowd. ‘You two have been loyal supports of me and I value your friendship at this difficult time. Please allow me to invite you to my home. The day is still young and we have many things to discuss.’
We both agreed and were ready to leave, but North waited. The day was young. It could not be long after 4 in the afternoon. Big Ben had only tolled its bells a short time ago. The crowd had begun to look at each other, slightly worried. They had seen the porter talk to North, but their carriages had not arrived yet. Plans had been made between them all to visit houses, pubs, inns, and all manner of places. But they had no means to get there and the conversations were beginning to run dry. There was no way in all their gentry they would brave the snow. They would hardly do it in the dry. All the carriages had been sent away, the peers expecting to have taken much longer in deliberating North’s departure. This was their time to criticize to insult and to establish their own positions before Parliament would be recalled the following Monday. North had robbed this from them and now it became clear that out of the Chamber, their noise was powerless. The noise itself in the lobby had dropped and North signaled us to follow him. He cut a commanding figure as he began to cut through the crowd. North, being a robust gentleman was not someone you wanted to get in the way of, lest you be knocked to the ground rather unceremoniously. People parted and the chatter dropped to an even quieter level. North just strutted through to get towards Westminster Hall, and to his carriage outside.
The Marquis of Rockingham stood at the end of North’s path. He stopped him briefly as if to gloat in front of him. It was the Marquis and his Whig’s that had engineered the fall of North. Although his policies had failed, and North would freely admit this, his connection to the King and his absolute resolve in implementing his wishes was his downfall as much as their military losses. They stood together staring in to each other’s eyes. The King could have entered the hall and no one would have notice. The silence was ready to be entertained with Rockingham’s ferocity. It did not come. Rockingham moved out of the way to let North past. Chatter raised behind us as we walked through the hall. It wasn’t audible but idle gossip never is. The crowd had started to follow us out and by the time we had reached the entrance, the mass of people looked like a mob from the Gordon Riots of a few years before. The snow was still falling and a carriage stood outside with North’s and he offered us entry. ‘After you, gentlemen,’ he said and we went on ahead with North carefully treading behind us.
The crowds had begun to spill outside behind us and were getting covered in the snow. Their jackets picking up the flakes before they melted under their body heat making them more and more sodden. The Marquis of Rockingham among them. Next to him Lord Cavendish held a face that seemed perplexed by these events. Other peers gathered around them and behind them, forcing them further out into the elements. We entered the carriage, steam rising from our breath and from the horses, like a chimney bellowing smoke into the air. North went to get on board and paused, turned to face the gathered crowd and addressed them. He said, pointing to us, ‘I have my carriage. You see, gentlemen, the advantage of being in the secret. Good night.’
He climbed aboard, smiling. No one said a word. I was dumbstruck by his words. The wit and intellect he had possessed to orchestrate this entire event amazed me. Even in his lowest hour he had won a victory. The faces of the crowd were equally as amazed. The carriage driver snapped his whip and shouted an unintelligible noise as the horses started to pull us. The clopping sound of the horses metal shoes against the cobblestone underneath echoed between the high walls of the building. The snow, soft, gentle and serene, still fell as the horses made their little puncture marks in the sheet below us, the wheels of the carriage cutting through the sheet also, creating a trail for anyone to follow us. We left Parliament into the streets as we headed towards Lord North’s residence. London, even in the snow, was working. The day was still light and people around us went about their daily routine. The snow did nothing to stop them. ‘Well gentlemen,’ North started. ‘I do hope you’re in the mood for a feast. I have a great selection of meats and cheeses at the house and wine that needs to be drunk.’
He started to laugh, and nervously we joined in. This was the measure of the man we knew, the Prime Minister that lost America.