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General Robert Clerk, Paternal 2nd Cousin, His Wife Lady Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Warwick & Ties To Nobility

During my ancestral research I came across Robert Clerk, son of Doctor Robert Clerk and Margaret Rattray.

 

Robert Clerk was an interesting historical figure in his own right. Robert was a British Engineer officer who served in the War of the Austrian Succession as well as the Seven Years War. Reports of Robert vary from him being a "worthy, intelligent and skillful officer'" as reported by John Entick (English Schoolmaster) to him being "ill favoured in his person, a cast in his eyes, of intellect not very sound, but quick, bold and adventurous" written by Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Oxford.

 

Whatever the case may be, Robert was ambitious and played key roles in history. Robert entered the military as Second Lieutenant in Cotterrell's Marines on June 11, 1741. He was appointed practioner engineer in 1749 and then promoted to sub-engineer in 1753 while also becoming a lieutenant in teh 25th Regiment of Foot on October 2, 1755.

 

In 1746, Robert was appointed as engineer-in-ordinary to an expedition commande by General St. Clair, to take Quebec. However, due to the lateness of the season, the crew were forced to divert to Port L'Orient in Brittany.

 

In 1747, Robert was an engineer with the Anglo-Dutch troops defending the town of Bergen-Op-Zoom, Netherlands, against the French led by Count Lowendahl. It was here that Robert was captured and held as a prisoner of war until the end of the war in 1748.

 

During the Seven Years War between England and France, which took place between 1756 - 1763, Robert was involved in the Raid on Rochefort in 1757. Several years earlier, while returning from Gibraltar to England, Robert visited Rochefort and said this in his own words: "In returning from Gibraltar in (April) 1754, I went along Part of the western Coast of France to see the Conditions of some of their Fortifications of their Places of Importance, on purpose to Judge if an Attempt could be made with a Probability of Success.... I had heard that Rochefort, tho’ a Place of the utmost Importance, had been very much neglected. I went there, and waited upon the Governor in my Regimentals, told him, that I was upon my Way to England from Gibraltar, and that I came on purpose to see the Place, the Dock, and the Men of War. He was very polite; I was shewed every Thing, went on board ten Ships of the Line new built, and an Engineer attended me in going round the Place.... I got no Plan of the Place, and put nothing down in writing, for I found that the whole Town had been talking of me, and thought it very extraordinary, that I should be allowed to go about and see every thing." - Taken from The Proceedings of a General Court-Martial Held in the Council-Chamber At Whitehall, on Wednesday to Tuesday, 14 to 20 December 1757 Upon The Trial Of Lieutenant-General Sir John Mordaunt, Published By A. Millar, London, 1758.

 

By early August, 1757, Rochefort had been decided as the target by Prime Minister William Pitt for his planned series of descents upon the French coast. Command of the expedition was given to Lt-Gen Sir John Mordaunt and "Clerk was appointed Chief Engineer, and the unprecedented step was taken of promoting him at a bound to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, he being at the time only a Lieutenant (Commission Book, No. 1270, p. 266). This is the sole instance on record of such rapid promotion having been given to any Engineer. Under him were Sub-Engineers Richard Dudgeon and Thomas Walker, and Practitioners Robert G. Bruce, Augustus Durnford, William Roy (later Major General), and John C. Eiser.

 

The following excerpts are from Wikipedia:

 

The expedition left England on 8 September 1757 and on the 23rd the fleet entered Basque Roads, battered the fort on Île-d'Aix and captured the island. On the 24th Clerk was sent by Mordaunt to Aix to examine prisoners regarding the state of the defences of Rochefort but got no useful answers. After dinner Clerk went in the dark with Captain Howe of the Magnanime and Mr Boyd, the Controller of the Train, to reconnoitre Fouras. They landed at the tip of the promontory at low tide and walked over spongy ground for a couple of miles to within about a mile of the fort. On the 25th a council of war was held and it was determined that an attempt upon Rochefort was neither advisable nor practicable. Clerk again visited the Île d'Aix to examine prisoners, in particular a French engineer. His idea was to give the impression that he knew everything and to let the prisoners confirm his thoughts during casual conversation. On the 28th another council of war was held and it was resolved to land in Châtelaillon Bay, however, due to the tide and weather the landing that night was abandoned. Despite this, Clerk was further employed the next day in accompanying Maj-Gen Conway and Col Wolfe (of The Wolffe-Montcalme & Plains Of Abraham fame) to carry out further reconnaissance of the proposed landing sites at Châtelaillon. Meanwhile during the day of the 29th the demolition of the Aix fortifications was commenced: “The following two days were spent in blowing up the half-finished fortifications on the Island of Aix; and in doing of which, lest it be said that no blood was spilt upon our famous expedition, we managed so as to blow up a few of our own soldiers.”[6] On 1 October 1757 the fleet weighed anchor and on the 6th arrived back in England.

 

On the return of the fleet with nothing to show for the great expense of the expedition, both Pitt and the King were understandably annoyed. On 1 November the King issued a warrant for an inquiry, Clerk being among the many called as witnesses. On the 21st it reported its findings and the King ordered Mordaunt to be tried by court-martial for disobeying his instructions.

The court-martial opened on 14 December 1757. Wolfe was quite clear in his mind, “The whole affair turned upon the impracticability of escalading Rochefort, and the two evidences brought to prove that the ditch was wet (in opposition to the assertions of the Chief Engineer, who had been in the place), are persons to whom, in my mind, very little credit should be given. Without their evidence we should have landed, and must have marched to Rochefort; and it is my opinion that the place would have surrendered or been taken in forty-eight hours.”

 

Despite having been instrumental in the choice of Rochefort as a target, Clerk seems to have escaped any blame for the failure; indeed, he was associated with Wolfe as a bold, adventurous young officer held back from capturing Rochefort by the timidity and indecisiveness of superannuated commanders.

 

Clerk continued to mix with the highest levels of society. On 1 December 1757, while both he and Wolfe were on notice to be witnesses at Mordaunt’s court-martial, Wolfe wrote to his mother, “(Tomorrow) night I am to meet (the) guest (of my old friend Rich), who is sent by the King of Prussia; Mr. Keith, our late envoy at Vienna; a son of Field-Marshal Count Lacy's; and Colonel Clarke, the engineer. These, with myself, make five very odd characters, and for the oddity of the mixture I mention it to you.”

 

Clerk’s particular talents were much lauded by some; Lord Bute said of him, “With regard to Clarke, I know him well: he must be joined to a general in whom he has confidence, or not thought of. Never was a man so cut out for bold and hardy enterprises; but the person who commands him must think in the same way of him, or the affair of Rochfort will return.”This was a prescient remark because even as it was written on 8 September 1758, Clerk’s impetuosity was getting him into trouble.

 

In 1758 Clerk, who had resigned from the Corps of Engineers on 1 January 1758, was appointed to the staff for the expedition to Cherbourg in Brittany. After taking and burning Cherbourg the expedition, led by Major-General Edward Bligh, made an ill-advised attempt to take St Malo, but the land forces were abandoned by the navy and had to fight a disastrous rear-guard action at St. Cast. Clerk’s conduct in this action led to his arrest:

“General Blighe… had been actuated, during the course of these enterprises, by a young Lord Fitz-morrice and the adventurer Clarke, who diverted himself from the ships with the difficulties his comrades found in re-embarking. But he was on the point of falling under the punishment due to his arrogance: depending on his interest in the General, he had broken the arrest under which he had been put, for some misdemeanour, by Cunningham, his commanding officer; the same Cunningham, whose handsome behaviour at Minorca I have mentioned: at his return from thence he had been preferred by the Duke, who told him he had been misinformed of his character, and was sorry he had not sooner known his merit.

 

At their return from St. Cas, Cunningham insisted on bringing Clarke before a Court-Martial. The Princess (Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Dowager Princess of Wales) unwisely countenanced the latter, who had made himself odious to the Army, and who escaped.” Even while Clerk was under arrest he continued to exert his charm. On 16 October 1758 “Clarke was talked to by the Princess yesterday much more than any body in the room.”

 

Despite his court-martial, Clerk progressed through the ranks of the army becoming colonel on 19 February 1762, major-general on 25 May 1772, lieutenant-general on 29 October 1777 and general on 12 October 1793, before dying on 22 May 1797.

 

Robert married Lady Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Warwick, sometime after 1742. Although they had no children together, Robert having died suddenly at his mistress's home sometime before May 22, 1797, he was step-father to Elizabeth's 5 children born to her while she was married to Francis Greville, 1st Earl of Warwick. His stepchildren were:

Lady Frances Greville

Lady Charlotte Mary Greville

George Greville, 2nd Earl of Warwick (King George II attended his baptism)

Hon. Charles Francis Greville (who took as his mistress, Emma Hart who later married Charles' uncle, Sir William Hamilton and then became the mistress of Lord Nelson of The Battle Of Trafalgar fame).

Hon. Robert Fulke Greville

 

The Hamilton family, related to me by marriage, are a treasure trove of history, scandal and as such will need to be further explored.