John Montagu: A noble aristocrat

Stall plate of John, 2nd Duke of Montagu

John Montagu, the second Duke of Montagu (1690-1749), who became a Knight of the Garter in 1718, deserves remembrance not for his achievements, but for his range of interests and for the kind of man he was. He was born at Boughton in Northamptonshire, the county of “spires and squires” into a fairly conventional aristocratic family. We don’t know much about his early years, but he had a private tutor and went on the tour of France and Italy which was almost obligatory for young men of his social background.

In 1705, aged only fifteen, he married into one of the grandest families in England. His bride was the teenage Mary Churchill (1689-1751), who was the fourth and youngest daughter of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Their marriage was to last more than forty years until Montagu’s death, but was tinged with sadness. Their two sons both died young, and one of their three daughters died in infancy.

Montagu’s father-in-law was one of the great military leaders of his time, so he went off to Flanders with him on campaign in 1706. However he soon returned home to England having little taste for the arts of warfare. He was much more suited to the life of a courtier. When his father died in 1709, he inherited the dukedom as well as the office of master of the great wardrobe, which he held until his death.

Aside from his life at court, Montagu was something of a scholar with a keen interest in the advancement of scientific knowledge. He was very pleased therefore to be made a fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians and, in 1717, he was admitted a doctor of physic at Cambridge. Colonial enterprise was another area of his interests and in 1722 he was granted the West Indian islands of St Lucia and St Vincent. Having been appointed governor of the islands he set about establishing British settlements there, and dug into his own pocket to finance the venture. It was a total failure, partly because of opposition from the French who regarded the islands as neutral under treaty.  He lost over £40,000, a huge sum at the time.

Despite his colonial failure, the duke remained in favour under both George I and George II. He was created a Knight of the Bath in 1725, was made captain of the gentlemen pensioners (the monarch’s personal bodyguard) in 1734 and, in 1740, was appointed master-general of ordnance. Notwithstanding his lack of military prowess, he was made a major-general in the army in 1735, and in 1745 (the year of the Jacobite rebellion) was promoted to general.

In character, Montagu was a generous and kindly man, who also loved fun, practical jokes and hoaxes, which led more sober spirits (his mother-in-law included) to see him as frivolous. According to an 18th century source, he funded the education at grammar school and Cambridge of a black Jamaican, Francis Williams (c.1690-1762). This is an intriguing story, but the facts are doubtful. Francis was the son of freed slaves, but his parents did well financially so it seems unlikely he needed patronage, and also his name does not appear in the records of Cambridge University. But Montagu certainly helped another black man called Ignatius Sancho (1729?-1780). Ignatius was born on an Atlantic slave ship, his father took his own life, and aged two he came into the care of three maiden sisters living in Greenwich. They named him Sancho after Don Quixote’s companion, but had no regard for his education. One day, Montagu, who had a house at Blackheath, met Ignatius by chance, invited him home, and went on to lend him books. Ignatius later became an author, had his portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough, and may have been the only Afro-Britain to have voted in an 18th century parliamentary election.

The duke’s country seat, Boughton House, had gardens laid out in the style of Versailles (the work of his father), and he continued the work of developing these. Boughton later came into the possession of the Buccleuch family. He also had a London residence called Montagu House, later the site of the British Museum, which opened to the public in 1759.

He died of a violent fever at a house in Whitehall on 6 July 1749, leaving his widow and two daughters. He’d been a man of many parts, who, in the words of the Oxford DNB, was “the proponent of a gentler way of life, all hidden under a devil-may-care attitude and style of life.”

Simon Harrison (Archives volunteer)

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.