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Hamilton, George, first earl of Orkney (bap. 1666, d. 1737), army officer, was the fifth son of William Douglas [see ], and his wife, . He was born at Hamilton Palace, Lanarkshire, Scotland, and baptized there on 6 February 1666. Under the tutelage of his uncle Lord Dunbarton his education focused upon military affairs, and by the age of eighteen he held a commission as captain in the Royal Scots, the 1st regiment of foot, the British army's premier infantry regiment. The same year he departed for a continental tour, and consequently he did not participate in the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685. In 1690 he received the colonelcy of an Irish regiment of foot. Active at the battle of the Boyne and wounded at the siege of Aughrim the same year, Hamilton became colonel of the 7th foot (Royal Fusiliers) on 23 January 1692. Displays of bravery at Steenkerke shortly thereafter brought him the colonelcy of the Royal Scots, which he retained for the next four decades. Further service in Flanders saw him fight at Landen; after suffering a wound at the siege of Namur in 1695 he was promoted brigadier-general. On 3 January 1696 he was ennobled with the Scottish titles of earl of Orkney, Viscount Kirkwall, and Lord Dechmont.

Following the renewal of hostilities during Queen Anne's reign, Orkney rose to the rank of major-general on 9 March 1702 and lieutenant-general on 1 January 1704. In an age inevitably overshadowed by the duke of Marlborough's reputation he has escaped significant recognition as a military commander. None the less, he was a remarkable subordinate general in his own right. Courageous, indomitable, and tenacious, this stoic and often almost humorously laconic Scot endured deprivations with his regiment and seldom failed to achieve the tasks assigned him; indeed, his achievements often exceeded others' wildest expectations. One of Marlborough's most able lieutenants and wing commanders, he missed not a single major battle or siege in either the Nine Years' War or the War of the Spanish Succession. It is perhaps in the latter conflict, as a British general counted among Marlborough's handful of reliable subordinates, that his most noteworthy service occurred. Orkney played a critical role in all four of Marlborough's major victories against the French, as well as significant action in numerous sieges undertaken in the Low Countries. His letters from the field provide some of the most vivid extant descriptions of battles fought between 1704 and 1712, and military historians have not yet fully availed themselves of many of these. At Blenheim, Orkney attacked the village churchyard with eight battalions of foot and, through sheer bluff and a deceptive self-confidence, tricked a superior French force into surrendering. His timely efforts in 1705 ensured the allied army rescued the besieged town of Liège. At Ramillies in 1706 he achieved notoriety in commanding a dangerous infantry advance through a marsh to assault fortified positions. Secretly designed as a diversionary assault on the French left, his attack was more successful than Marlborough had anticipated or intended, and, when he viewed the time right to launch the primary assault in the French centre, Orkney's troops had gained so much initiative that several couriers were required to procure his withdrawal. Tersely protesting that it ‘vexed him to retire’ (Cra'ster, 315), Orkney proceeded to command his forces' withdrawal in an orderly fashion under heavy enemy fire and rejoined the main assault. At the battle's conclusion he led the allied cavalry in a relentless twilight pursuit of retreating enemy forces. Orkney was one of three major-generals commanding detachments at the siege of Menin in the summer of 1706, and his letters leave intricately detailed accounts of these operations. After the battle of Oudenarde in 1708 he voted for an immediate march upon Paris, thereby demonstrating what is rightly recognized as one of few occasions where he challenged his superior's judgement. At Malplaquet in 1709 he led fifteen infantry battalions in an assault on fortified positions in the French centre, capturing them with minimal losses in this, a battle that provoked severe criticism for its high casualty rate. Other major engagements in which Orkney participated included the sieges of Douai (1710) and Bouchain (1711). He was promoted general of the foot in 1711, and the same year issued a set of revised regulations for British foot regiments in Flanders. He was also present under the duke of Ormond's command when British forces were forced to detach from the allied camp upon the issuing of the notorious ‘restraining orders’ of 1712.

Orkney's active military service concluded with the cessation of hostilities in 1712. His long military career had not, however, inordinately hindered his enjoyment of a rewarding family life. On 25 November 1695 he married his distant cousin , the daughter of Sir Edward Villiers and the sister of the first earl of Jersey. Possibly the mistress of William III until 1694, Lady Orkney was widely acknowledged as one of the most intelligent and engaging women of her time. Swift, whom she befriended about 1712, variously described her as the ‘wisest woman’ he had ever met and, on another occasion, a ‘squinting dragon’ (Swift, 456). By 1727 observers at George II's coronation were less flattering. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's acerbic characterization told of ageing Lady Orkney's ‘mixture of fat and wrinkle’, the ‘inestimable roll of her eyes’, and ‘grey hairs which by good fortune stood directly upright’ (Trench, 137).

Despite contemporary speculation about Orkney's motivations for the marriage, such as the desire to curry royal favour by extricating a mistress from court following Queen Mary's death, this seemingly rather mismatched couple apparently enjoyed a happy and mutually beneficial conjugal union. Lady Orkney had received a grant of the confiscated Irish estates of James II, but, allowing for overvaluation, conversion from the Irish pound, and encumbrances of several thousand pounds, Lord and Lady Orkney's total annual income was probably somewhere in the region of £6000 per annum, not an overly spectacular amount for a courtier of his stature. This circumstance probably contributed to his interest in maintaining crown sinecures and his consequent relative political moderation. Of the three daughters born to the couple, the eldest, Anne, inherited the title and married William O'Brien, earl of Inchiquin, in 1720. The second daughter, Frances [see ], married Thomas, earl of Scarbrough. Henrietta, the youngest, was married on 9 May 1728 to John, Lord Boyle (after 1731 fifth earl of Orrery and after 1753 earl of Cork). She died in Cork in 1732. This marriage initially proved problematic. Orkney and his wife intensely disliked the fourth earl of Orrery's retention of a low-born live-in mistress, and Henrietta was forbidden to visit her new father-in-law; the ensuing family quarrel so enraged Orrery that he bequeathed most of his impressive library and scientific instruments to his Oxford alma mater instead of his only son. This prejudice was rather ironic, considering Lady Orkney's own chequered past, yet Orkney fiercely defended her honour. Contemporaries recalled an occasion in Will's Coffee House when he became infuriated by another patron's ‘Railing agst men who married whores & King's mistresses’ (BL, Add. MS 47128, fol. 48).

As a statesman, Orkney is more properly classified as an influential spectator than as a vigorous and proactive political leader. Oratorical eloquence was not one of his traits, as this admittedly courageous ‘well shaped black man’ was supposedly rendered timid in public affairs by ‘reason of a Hesitation in his Speech’ (Memoirs of the Secret Services, 162). Swift remarked on Orkney's integrity and amiable nature, and a fellow officer was quick to affirm his sincerity but added that he was ‘modest and shy to meddle’ (Portland MSS, 4.266). In parliament Orkney was naturally protective of the rights and privileges of Scottish peers after the passage of the Act of Union in 1707. He was elected among the first group of sixteen representative peers in February 1707 and sat with every subsequent group thereafter until his death. Along with his elected status in the Lords, Orkney had been made a knight of the Thistle in 1704, and while in the field he participated in ceremonies for other recipients of the order, such as Lord Stair in 1710. He was sworn of the privy council in 1710 and was reappointed when George I took the throne in 1714. Although Orkney generally avoided partisan squabbles and animosity, his significance in the politico-military struggles during the last few years of Queen Anne's reign should not be minimized. He was sometimes utilized by ministries under both Anne and George I to counter aspirations of powerful Scottish generals such as John Campbell, second duke of Argyll, one of many ambitious court figures who exerted themselves to undermine Marlborough's political authority. By the same token, when the tide of court favour began to turn against Marlborough in 1710, even Orkney, who was late in returning to the field, was perhaps unjustly accused of failing to evince the same devotion to duty displayed by other general officers. Even if it is justified in this instance, such criticism pales in comparison to the brazenly overt insubordination of other British generals with tory inclinations, which was apparent even to Dutch observers from the years 1709–11. Moreover, Lady Orkney frequented the court during Anne's reign, and according to Swift exercised considerable influence—yet another factor that made Lord Orkney's support worth cultivating.

Whether Orkney's inclinations towards support of the Hanoverians were motivated solely out of self-interest is unclear; if so, they did not, as was the case with many of his contemporaries, preclude him from associations with well-known Jacobites, such as the exiled Thomas Bruce, second earl of Ailesbury, whom Orkney fêted at a dinner in Flanders in 1705. Orkney's religious views are another matter of some ambiguity. His letters are flavoured intermittently with tinges of Calvinism and belief in providential predestination, yet his political allegiance suggests more lukewarm adherence for the Anglican church. Whatever the case, his moderate stance and court allegiance paid handsome dividends in the form of several appointments which he enjoyed throughout his later years. Although he never visited America, a patent was issued for him as governor of Virginia in 1710, and he retained this post until 1737. He was also appointed lord lieutenant of Lanarkshire in 1711. In 1714 he became a gentleman of the bedchamber to George I, as well as governor of Edinburgh Castle, a post he also held until his death. The sole exception to his political aloofness occurred during the summer of 1716, when animosity between George I and his son sparked the dismissals of Argyll and several other Scottish peers in the royal households. In Orkney's case this dismissal was only temporary, and in 1721 he was reckoned to receive a pension amounting to £2000 per annum. His career culminated with his appointment on 12 January 1736, mere days before the same honour was bestowed on Argyll, as field marshal of his majesty's forces.

Following the end of his active military service, Orkney seems to have spent most of his time living in England. He and Lady Orkney resided primarily in London and at Cliveden, a country estate near the village of Taplow, Buckinghamshire, which was purchased in 1696. Convenient to the capital, situated on a bluff overlooking the Thames valley, adorned with Flemish tapestries commemorating Marlborough's victories in which Orkney had played such a prominent role, Cliveden was the scene of the Orkneys' entertainment of George I in 1724 and George II and his family in 1729. Orkney died at his London house in Albemarle Street on 29 January 1737 and was buried at Cliveden in the spartan funeral ceremony he had requested. Lady Orkney had predeceased him in 1733.

Lawrence B. Smith


C. Dalton, ed., George the First's army, 1714–1727, 2 (1912), 35–8 · Duke of Hamilton and G. Hamilton, first earl of Orkney, correspondence with Charles, second earl of Selkirk, 1703–36, NL Scot., Hamilton and Orkney MSS 1032–3 · H. H. E. Chaster, ed., ‘Letters of the first Lord Orkney during Marlborough's campaigns’, EngHR, 19 (1904), 307–21 · GEC, Peerage · J. C. Leask and H. M. McCance, eds., The regimental records of the royal Scots (1915) · dukes of Hamilton, family and estate MSS, NA Scot., GD 406 · Orkney letters, BL, Blenheim MSS, Add. MS 61162, fols. 89–113 · DNB · C. Dalton, ed., English army lists and commission registers, 1661–1714, 6 vols. (1892–1904) · The Marlborough–Godolphin correspondence, ed. H. L. Snyder, 3 vols. (1975) · C. T. Atkinson, Marlborough and the rise of the British army (1921) · J. Swift, Journal to Stella, ed. H. Williams, 2 vols. (1948) · N. Luttrell, A brief historical relation of state affairs from September 1678 to April 1714, 6 vols. (1857) · NL Scot., Newhailes MS Acc. 7228, nos. 530–32, Accession 7228, #530–32 · G. M. Trevelyan, England under Queen Anne, 3 vols. (1930–34) · W. Robertson, Proceedings relating to the peerage of Scotland, from January 16, 1707 to April 29, 1788 (1790) · F. Taylor, The wars of Marlborough, 1702–1709, 2 vols. (1913) · W. Coxe, Memoirs of the duke of Marlborough, with his original correspondence, rev. J. Wade, 3rd edn, 3 vols. (1847–8) · camp journal of the allied army, BL, Add. MS 61404 · The manuscripts of his grace the duke of Portland, 10 vols., HMC, 29 (1891–1931), vol. 10 · J. C. R. Childs, The Nine Years' War and the British army, 1688–1697: the operations in the Low Countries (1991) · D. Chandler, Marlborough as military commander (1973) · S. H. F. Johnston, ed., ‘Letters of Samuel Noyes, chaplain of the royal Scots, 1703–4’, Journal of the Society of Historical Research, 37 (1959), 33–40, 67–71, 125–35, 145–52 · P. Verney, The battle of Blenheim (1976) · C. C. Trench, George II (1973) · BL, Add. MS 47128, fol. 48 · Memoirs of the secret services of John Macky, ed. A. R. (1733)


NA Scot., dukes of Hamilton, family and estate MSS · NL Scot., Hamilton and Orkney MSS |  NL Scot., letters to Lord Selkirk · Northumbd RO, Newcastle upon Tyne, Craster MSS, corresp. · NRA Scotland, priv. coll., letters to his mother and nephew


G. Kneller, oils, c.1704, Lennoxlove, Haddington, East Lothian · D. Paton, plumbago miniature, c.1710, Scot. NPG · M. Maingaud, oils, c.1730, NAM · J. Houbraken, line engraving, 1746 (after M. Maingaud), BM, NPG; repro. in Birch, Heads (1746) · oils, Scot. NPG