Assassination: Lord Frederick Cavendish, 1882
Address by FELIX M. LARKIN at a conference on
‘The Irish National Invincibles & their times – perspectives on late Victorian nationalism’
Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin 18 May 2013
The killing of Lord Frederick Cavendish by the Invincibles in the Phoenix Park in May 1882 was the first assassination of a major figure in British politics that had occurred within the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland since Spencer Percival was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812. Assassination has not been a significant feature of British political life in the past two hundred years – and it is noteworthy that all instances of it, with just three exceptions, are manifestations of Irish unrest. Of the three exceptions, two were at a significant remove from Britain and Ireland. One was the murder of Lord Mayo, Viceroy of India, by a disgruntled convict in India in 1872; the other was the killing of Lord Moyne, a member of the Guinness family, by Jewish terrorists in Cairo in 1944. The third exception was Percival – who is the only British prime minister to have been assassinated, and it appears that his killing was the result of a largely personal grievance. It is the only truly ‘home grown’ political assassination in recent British history, with no Irish or other non-British aspect. In contrast, four US presidents have been assassinated – Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy – and thirteen others were the intended victims of credible assassins, though Ronald Reagan was the only serving US president actually to have been injured in an unsuccessful assassination attempt.
Of course, another British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was the target of an attempted assassination – the Brighton hotel bombing in 1984. That bomb killed Sir Anthony Berry, deputy chief whip in Thatcher’s government – and he was one of four MPs killed by the IRA during the recent Northern Ireland ‘troubles’, the others being two Conservative MPs close to Thatcher – Airey Neave in 1979, and Ian Gow in 1990 – and also Robert Bradford, the unionist MP for South Belfast, who died in 1981. To that list of victims of political assassination linked to the recent ‘troubles’ must be added the names of Christopher Ewart-Biggs, the British ambassador to Ireland blown up by a car bomb in 1976, and Lord Mountbatten, murdered in Sligo in 1979. There was also an earlier, unsuccessful attempt by the IRA in 1973 on the life of the Conservative MP Sir Hugh Fraser – then still married to the historian, Lady Antonia Fraser – and the car bomb that was intended to kill him very nearly killed Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy, who was in London at the time working in Sotheby’s and lodging with the Frazers, and she was due to be dropped off at her work by Sir Hugh Frazer on his way to the House of Commons.
Between the death of Spencer Percival and the attempt on the life of Hugh Fraser in 1973, there were just three British political assassinations. In reverse chronological order, these were: the aforementioned assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo in 1944; the killing of Sir Henry Wilson MP by the IRA in 1922 shortly after he had been appointed security advisor to the new government of Northern Ireland; and, finally, the murder of the man about whom I will speak this morning, Lord Frederick Cavendish. That took place little more than nine months after the shooting of President Garfield in the United States by a disappointed office-seeker, though (as far as I know) nobody has ever suggested that Garfield’s killing might have inspired the Invincibles to adopt assassination as a political weapon – but I suppose it is possible, especially given the American antecedents of the Fenian movement.
I mention these instances of political assassination in order to place the killing of Lord Frederick Cavendish in its proper context, to show the extent to which it was an aberration in British political life – and all the more shocking for that. As I have said, nothing like it had happened since the death of Spencer Percival seventy years earlier – and, in contrast to Percival’s killing, it was politically motivated (though, as the evidence given at the trial of the Invincibles clearly shows, Cavendish was not the intended target). The murder was, in short, very foreign to British traditions, and it was particularly gruesome – since long surgical knives were the assassins’ chosen instruments. This aspect appealed greatly to the popular press’ instinct for sensationalism, which was then coming to the fore. The outrage that the killing caused amongst the political elite in Britain and the horror which it engendered in the British public generally were both writ large within no. 10 Downing Street – because Cavendish had married in 1864 Mrs. Gladstone’s favourite niece, Lucy Lyttelton, and the young couple were part of the prime minister’s inner family circle. Lucy was the daughter of the fourth Lord Lyttelton and his first wife, Mary (née Glynne), a sister of Mrs. Gladstone – and she was taken under Mrs Gladstone’s wing, so to speak, when her mother died in 1857. The couple made their home at Holker Hall, a Cavendish house at Cark-in-Cartmel, Cumbria. Portraits of both of them by Sir William Richmond hang there today, and there is a monumental statue of Lord Frederick nearby in Barrow- in-Furness.
Lord Frederick Charles Cavendish was born on 30 November 1836, the second son of the seventh duke of Devonshire. So he was nearly 46 when he died, almost the same age as JFK at the time of his assassination. His elder brother was the marquis of Hartington who would later split with Gladstone over Home Rule for Ireland in 1886 and, after voting against the first Home Rule Bill, he became leader of the Liberal Unionists in parliament – and he declined to become prime minster on no less than three occasions. To what extent Hartington’s opposition to Home Rule was influenced by the murder of his brother is a matter for speculation – though Lucy Cavendish was later a supporter of Home Rule despite the sorrow that she had suffered at the hands of Irishmen.
In any event, Lord Frederick was educated at home by private tutors and at Trinity College, Cambridge – where he took a BA in 1858. From 1859 to 1864 he was private secretary to Lord Granville, leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords – and then, from 1865 until his death in 1882, Liberal MP for north-west Yorkshire. Gladstone was most assiduous in advancing his career: he became private secretary to Gladstone in 1872 during Gladstone’s first administration, and he served as a lord of the treasury from August 1873 until Gladstone’s government resigned in February 1874. When the Liberals returned to power in 1880, he was appointed financial secretary to the treasury. As Gladstone was combining the office of chancellor of the exchequer with that of prime minister, it fell to Cavendish as financial secretary to do the routine work of the chancellor.
When W.E. Forster quit as chief secretary for Ireland in May 1882 in protest at the so-called ‘Kilmainham treaty’, Cavendish succeeded him – but, unlike Forster, without a seat in the cabinet. Gladstone intended that the ‘treaty’ should inaugurate a policy of conciliation in Ireland, and his reason for appointing Cavendish was that the latter had, while at the treasury, drawn up a new land purchase scheme for Ireland – he was thought, therefore, to know something about Ireland and to be in favour of conciliation. His appointment, however, was greeted with incredulity – even derision. Cavendish had a speech impediment, and that seriously compromised his standing and effectiveness as a politician. But for his Cavendish name and the Gladstone connection, it is unlikely that he would ever have held office. Nevertheless, he was regarded as amiable, high-minded and industrious.
I don’t need to tell this audience that on his very first day in Dublin as chief secretary (6 May 1882), Cavendish was assassinated near the Viceregal Lodge in the Phoenix Park by the Irish National Invincibles, an extremist Fenian society – a splinter group of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who may also have had links with the Land League, perhaps through the League’s treasurer, Patrick Egan. The details are well-known: Cavendish knew Dublin reasonably well and, having met with officials in Dublin Castle immediately after his arrival in Dublin, he decided to walk to the Chief Secretary’s Lodge in the Phoenix Park, now the residence of the American ambassador. As he was walking along Chesterfield Avenue, a cab pulled up behind him and the undersecretary, Thomas Burke – the most senior Irish civil servant – got out and joined him. They walked amiably onwards, but were then set upon by the Invincibles just opposite the Viceregal Lodge and were both killed. It is accepted that Burke, not Cavendish, was the Invincibles’ intended target. They had originally planned to assassinate Cavendish’s predecessor as chief secretary, W.E. Forster, but after Forster’s resignation they decided to kill Burke instead. On 5 May, the day before the actual assassinations, they had waited for Burke in the Phoenix Park but missed him. They returned the following day to carry out their grim task, and – unfortunately for Cavendish – he happened to be in Burke’s company on that occasion and died simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is unlikely that the Invincibles knew who the man was who was with Burke. They killed him because he tried to defend his colleague.
Burke is himself an interesting figure, a scion of the Catholic landed gentry of county Galway and a grand-nephew of Cardinal Wiseman, the first Archbishop of Westminster. He had served in the office of the chief secretary in Dublin Castle since 1847, and was appointed under secretary in 1869. He was a conscientious and hardworking official, and W.E. Forster – Cavendish’s predecessor – said of him that he was ‘the most efficient permanent official I ever came across, and my only fear about him is that he will literally work himself to death’. He was closely identified with and involved in the coercion policies espoused by Forster in response to the first Land War from 1879 onwards, and no doubt this explains why the Invincibles targeted him for assassination. It is notable that, to quote from James Quinn’s entry on Burke in the Dictionary of Irish biography,
Although Irish national leaders were quick to denounce what had happened, some of their statements avoided mentioning Burke or did not condemn his killing in quite the same unequivocal terms as that of Cavendish whose appointment had generally been welcomed in Ireland.
This may confirm that some Land League elements were in cahoots with the Invincibles – and that those convicted of the murder of Cavendish and Burke were only foot soldiers, behind whom were more important, shadowy figures who masterminded and financed the gruesome deed. The chief suspect is Patrick Egan, treasurer of the Land League, who strongly disapproved of the more moderate approach towards land agitation which the ‘Kilmainham Treaty’ presaged. He mysteriously disappeared after the murders – first to Paris, but ultimately to the United States. Donal McCracken, in his recent biography of the famous Inspector Mallon of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, suggests that Mallon, unable to get hard evidence against Egan, may have connived in his flight to safety in return for information about the murders. Such pragmatism would not have been untypical of Mallon. In fact, the murders of Burke and Cavendish brought Mallon his greatest success: he was fêted for securing the convictions of the Invincibles. However, Cavendish and Burke had been given little or no police protection, a lapse for which Mallon was partly to blame. He was well aware before the murders of the threat posed by the Invincibles – and indeed was due to meet an informer in their ranks on the very evening of the murders – but he had not yet discovered their plans at that time.
I mentioned earlier that Cavendish’s widow had supported home rule for Ireland – and she was also identified with a number of other good causes, notably in the field of education. Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, is named after her. Her marriage to Lord Frederick was without children, and her lonely widowhood lasted forty-three years – she died in 1925. She showed extraordinary forbearance and generosity in her misfortune. Thus, she wrote to Earl Spencer, lord lieutenant of Ireland, immediately after her husband’s death that she ‘could give up even him if his death were to work good to his fellow-men’. Such benevolent thoughts were also her first thoughts when she heard of her husband’s death. She was in London – and in her Diary, published posthumously in1927, she records that Gladstone visited her immediately after he learned of her husband’s death. She writes as follows:
I saw his [Gladstone’s] face, pale, sorrow-stricken, but like a prophet’s in its look of faith and strength. He came up and almost took me in his arms, and his first words were: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. Then he said to me: ‘Be assured it will not be in vain’, and across all my agony there fell a bright ray of hope, and I saw in a vision Ireland at peace, and my darling’s life-blood accepted as a sacrifice for Christ’s sake to help to bring this to pass.
Moreover, Lucy Cavendish sent a small crucifix to the first of the men executed for the murders of her husband and Burke. The story was told, albeit in a garbled version, by her nephew, George Lyttelton, in one of his remarkable letters to his former pupil, the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis – and I quote:
My aunt Lucy (Lady Frederick Cavendish)’s husband was murdered in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, in 1882, and it broke her heart. She was very religious and quite enchanting, so full of humour and understanding; we children all loved her. Well, the murderers were rounded up and several put to death. The ring-leader Casey, nicknamed ‘Skin-the-goat’, was to be hanged on a certain day, and the evening before Aunt Lucy sent his wife the little gold crucifix she always wore, as a sign of forgiveness – and other things. Of course, she never told anyone, but Mrs C probably did. Anyway, old George Trevelyan tells it in his Life of Macauley, and says it is the most beautiful human action he ever heard of. That makes me cry whenever (very rarely) I have told it. It could be misunderstood, but Aunt Lucy was the most entirely genuine person that ever lived.
Some of the details here are wrong, but there is no doubt that this most touching story is essentially true. Trevelyan, whose life of Macauley is mentioned by George Lyttelton, was, in fact, Lord Frederick Cavendish’s successor as chief secretary for Ireland – so he is an authoritative source; and, in addition, Tim Healy confirms the substance of the story in his Letters and leaders of my day. Curiously, Ronan Fanning in his new book, Fatal Path, records that in 1922 the then colonial secretary, the ninth duke of Devonshire – a nephew of Lord Frederick Cavendish – supported Healy’s appointment as governor general of the new Irish Free State because he said Healy put flowers on the grave of his uncle every year on the anniversary of his assassination. The tragedy of Cavendish’s death threw a long shadow in certain influential circles in England.
To conclude: Lord Frederick Cavendish’s funeral was held on 11 May 1882. It was a huge affair, reputedly attended by 30,000 people, including 300 MPs – the crowd no doubt swelled much beyond what it would otherwise have been as a gesture of protest at his violent death. He is buried in his family’s plot in Edensor churchyard, near Chatsworth house, the principal seat of the dukes of Devonshire. Ironically, next to his grave is the grave of Kathleen Kennedy, sister of John F. Kennedy – the first U.S. President of Irish Catholic descent. In 1944 she had married William, marquis of Hartington, son of the tenth duke – and William, had he not been killed in the Second World War, would in time have succeeded to the dukedom. She died in a plane crash in 1948. A tablet on her grave records that President Kennedy visited her grave on 29 June 1963, just after his trip to Ireland and shortly before his own assassination. It is fortuitous that Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, should have so narrowly escaped being, like Lord Frederick Cavendish, an unintended victim of Irish terrorism.