History has a tendency to surprise even the most astute observers and experts. Ludwig van Beethoven might have been working on a tenth symphony, based on the controversial weaving of sketches by musicologist Barry Cooper. Two University of Mississippi Medical Center colleagues, Ranjan Batra and Ken Sullivan, discovered their state had never officially notified the United States archivist that it had ratified the 13th amendment to abolish slavery. (This historical oversight was corrected in February 2013.) Meanwhile, Nova Scotia’s 155-year-old coat of arms was only recognized as a provincial flag in May 2013 due to some solid detective work by eleven-year-old Regan Parker on a school project.
These examples demonstrate that our historical knowledge occasionally needs some fine tuning. Which brings us to Nathan Tidridge’s impressive new book, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent: Father of the Canadian Crown. The author identifies Edward as “one of the most honoured among our forgotten historical figures” in Canada’s formative years. Of interest, Tidridge includes himself in a “list of authors who have not given the Duke of Kent, or his companion of twenty-seven years, Julie de St. Laurent, the attention they deserve.” In doing so, the missing component in a vital chapter of Canada’s genesis, growth and development has finally been unearthed for all to see.
Edward was born on November 2, 1767. He was the fifth child of King George III and Queen Charlotte. More to the point, Edward was the fourth son of a monarch who ruled for more than 50 years (a few of them in a state of madness). Although never destined to sit on the throne, he was an impressive member of the Royal Family. Tidridge notes that “Edward, with the exception of the Prince of Wales, was considered the most intelligent of the brothers.” He was a “self-professed liberal” who could “carry conversations on a variety of topics if given the chance.” As well, “unlike his brothers, Edward also knew when to keep his mouth shut and had a capacity for quietness largely unknown to the Hanoverians.” These skills would serve him well in his royal duties.
Edward also had weaknesses, including dalliances with the fairer sex. King George, who grew weary of his son’s exploits, sent him to Gibraltar in February 1790—where he was accompanied by Julie de St. Laurent. Edward had originally “dispatched his valet to Europe to locate a female companion who could relieve his loneliness on the Rock,” and she became his mistress. While Tidridge acknowledges “there certainly was a physical dimension to this mission,” he was “more concerned with finding a companion than simply a lover.” Julie would “prove to be a stabilizing force in Edward’s life” throughout his Canadian travels. They would part when the “family dynasty [was] at stake” and the royal dukes were obliged “to produce legal offspring,” but Julie “would be financially supported by the Duke until his death.”
The prince only served in Gibraltar six months due to health problems in the hot Mediterranean weather. This situation provided the perfect entrée to Edward’s arrival on Canadian soil. Contrary to popular belief, he “was not sent to Canada against his will, but actually requested his posting to Quebec.” According to a December 1790 letter to his father, Edward wrote:
I petition that if it does not interfere with your commands for other Regiments in your service, you will allow me to be sent in the Spring with mine to any part of North America which you may chuse [sic] to appoint; allowing me, if it means with your approbation, to prefer Canada.
In Tidridge’s view, the “idea that a prominent member of the Royal family would have lived in Canada—in Quebec no less—at a crucial point
in its formative history, and participating directly in that formation, is a notion that most Canadians are surprised to learn.” Which makes the fact that Edward held a status equivalent to an asterisk in Canadian history for centuries all the more puzzling.
Prince Edward, Duke of Kent therefore sets out to adjust the muddled historical record of the forgotten Royal. Tidridge’s clear, concise writing style and stellar research skills reveal an individual who was actively engaged in Confederation rather than a silent participant. Edward “employed the Crown as a great unifier.” Two royal historians pointed out he was the first individual to use “the term ‘Canadian’ to refer to both the French and English inhabitants of the country.” He travelled through Upper Canada and Lower Canada, dealing with prominent figures such as John Graves Simcoe and Lord Dorchester. He met with First Nations tribes, earning the honorary title “Chief-Above-All-Other-Chiefs.” He would later leave Quebec and become the first Royal to set foot on U.S. soil in 1794.
Edward’s central contribution to Canada occurred during his six-year posting in Halifax. Tidridge writes that if he “became the commander-in-chief of the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick forces, Prince Edward would have considerable influence in the military development of the Maritimes.” After he spent a successful stint in the West Indies, Halifax became the perfect vehicle to help increase his stature. King George consented, thereby allowing Edward and Julie to live at The Lodge, a beautiful estate owned by Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governor, John Wentworth.
Fearing a French invasion over “reports that New England timber was being harvested to build French warships,” Edward told royal engineer Captain James Straton “to draw up plans to transform the settlement into British North America’s premier military complex.” This included renovating Fort George, constructing the Prince of Wales tower and welcoming 550 Maroons into the port city. Many Maritimers were appreciative of his efforts. In particular, Charlottetown’s legislature voted to change its name to Prince Edward Island on November 29, 1798. This honour remains “the greatest monument to Edward’s presence on the continent.”
Edward returned to his beloved England in 1800. He disliked the harsh Canadian weather and had constant health issues. Regardless, Canada maintained a special place in his heart. He worked hard to ensure Charles-Michel de Salaberry was recognized as “the hero who saved Lower Canada.” He exchanged correspondence with his Loyalist friend Jonathan Sewell, who wanted a united British North America “centred on a powerful Crown with provincial officers appointed by the governor general and largely independent of the local assemblies.” For his part, Edward preferred a two-province model, “one encompassing the Canadas and the other the Maritimes,” to unify the country from sea to sea to sea.
The Canadian Confederation ultimately created four provinces. Edward’s daughter, Victoria—who started fifth in the line of succession, but moved up rapidly due to a sudden rash of deaths in the House of Hanover—ruled during this time. It is therefore of great significance that Lord Durham’s Report on the Affairs of British North America directly mentions Edward. Moreover, the fact that his name “was being evoked to his daughter in an appeal to unite the colonies of British North America … places the Duke of Kent at the very heart of Canada’s constitutional development as a unified state.”
Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, famously called Victoria the “Queen of Canada.” It therefore makes sense that her father, Edward, should also be acknowledged as the father of the Canadian Crown.