CUMBERLAND — Across the ocean, pedestals and columns dedicated to the man for whom this town and Maine’s largest county are named stand empty, the statues having long since been carted away.

That man, Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, was for a quarter-century in the mid-1700s one of England’s greatest heroes: military champion, defender of Protestant England against alleged Catholic conspiracies and Scots barbarism, and the power behind the throne of his young nephew, the child king George III. Statues rose glorifying “Sweet William” in English and Irish cities, and British colonial officials from North Carolina to Nova Scotia named towns, counties and forts after him.

A painting of Prince William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Then he wasn’t.

By the 1780s, Cumberland was a posthumous embarrassment in England and reviled in Scotland and Ireland as “the Butcher,” a war criminal who massacred captured Scots troops and local women, children and elderly people after the Battle of Culloden. Cumberland then oversaw the suppression of the defeated Scots Highlanders, who were forbidden from wearing their tartans, speaking their language or playing the bagpipe.

His reputation today in Scotland? “Not good,” says Rab Houston, professor emeritus of history at the University of Saint Andrews in Edinburgh, “even among Unionists,” those who oppose Scottish independence. His reputation across the United Kingdom isn’t any better. In 2005 BBC History magazine readers voted him the seventh most reviled Briton of the past 1,000 years, a few slots behind Jack the Ripper and Robin Hood’s nemesis, King John.

Cumberland’s rapid fall from hero to monster illustrates the pitfalls of naming things after living political figures, whose reputations can rapidly change as the fog of one era’s politics fades, allowing a broader and often more accurate reckoning of their place in history. His case parallels that of American figures such as Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Woodrow Wilson, whose status as wartime heroes in their own eras obscured actions, atrocities and positions largely endured by people “othered” at the time: Native Americans in Jackson’s case, and African Americans in Lee and Wilson’s.

Place naming has always been political, and Maine is no exception. Wabanaki places were given English names in the early 1600s, then renamed again after Massachusetts forcibly annexed the royalist colony in the aftermath of the English Civil War of the 1640s. (York, Scarborough and Falmouth were, at the time, humiliating references to sites of royalist defeats in the conflict back in England.) Unscrupulous land barons named towns and counties after themselves, including the Loyalist Gardiners, the callous slave trader Samuel Waldo, and Waldo’s son-in-law Henry Knox, a war hero turned corrupt land speculator who became so hated by early 19th century midcoast Mainers his Thomaston mansion was nearly burned down by a torch-bearing mob.

“The Duke of Cumberland was an important military leader and hero, and leading member of the royal family close to the line of succession,” says Emerson Baker, a resident of York and historian of Colonial New England, and professor at Salem State University. “I guess I am not surprised to have a county named after him.”

Cumberland County was created and named for the duke by order of the Massachusetts Assembly in June 1760, when New England was still British territory and “Sweet William” was still alive and very much at the height of his power and influence. He’d led British forces to a stunning and decisive victory over Scottish forces at Culloden, outside Inverness, putting a final end to a 1745-46 uprising in support of the Catholic rival to the British throne, “Bonnie Prince Charles.” Handel wrote one of his most famous compositions, “See the Conquering Hero Comes,” as a tribute. His father, King George II, had a monument to him placed in a London park and a huge Cumberland statue was erected in the center of the Irish town of Birr. Some in England thought he might become king or even a new Oliver Cromwell, the regicidal ruler of the short-lived English republic of the 1650s.

“Cumberland, because of his putting down the ’45 rebellion, was associated with being a champion of English and British and Protestant things,” says Geoffrey Plank, professor of early modern history at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. “For Maine, this was amplified, because there had been all of these conspiratorial ideas out there that, if he became king, Charles Stuart would give parts of the colonies back to France and begin a period of Catholic rule where the rights of Protestants would be restricted throughout the empire.”

The French had claimed and, with their Wabanaki allies, controlled the eastern half of what is now Maine until just months before authorities created both Cumberland and Lincoln counties (the latter extending through the conquered territories). At the time the Massachusetts Assembly created the new entities, Quebec City had been in British hands for only nine months and mopping-up operations were still underway around Montreal.

“The British were just finishing up their conquest of Canada, and that’s a big reason why there’s this sense of triumphalism,” says Plank, who notes the parallels to Scotland in what happened next: the ethnic cleansing of Acadia’s French from what is now New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, many of whom wound up in another French colony, Louisiana, to become the “Cajuns.”

Cumberland himself suffered a stroke and died in 1765, at the age of just 44. In the decades that followed, the truth about the Battle of Culloden and its aftermath slowly percolated to the surface. It was not a pretty story.

The battle itself was a rout and over in half an hour, leaving 1,500 Highland troops – and fewer than 100 of Cumberland’s forces – dead on the field. Cumberland ordered his forces to give no quarter and “pursue and hunt these vermin amongst their lurking hills.” They obliged by bayoneting and clubbing the wounded on the battlefield, and then marching onward to hack civilians to death, hang suspected Stuart sympathizers, burn villages, seize farmers’ livestock and execute captured Highlanders by firing squad.

This was followed by the Act of Proscription, which banned the wearing of kilts, Highland dress or weapons as well as playing bagpipes or speaking Gaelic in public. When Cumberland heard of children praising Bonnie Prince Charlie, he ordered “those boys, be they who they will, to be whipped through the town, their parents or guardians assisting, and the cryer of the town proclaiming at proper places, what it is for.”

By the early 19th century, Cumberland’s reputation had collapsed. Sir Walter Scott’s Romantic novel “Waverley,” set during the events, transformed the British establishment’s view of Scotland. George IV read it as a child and, after becoming king, knighted Scott and traveled to Scotland, where Scott feted him and persuaded him to adopt the trappings of a Highland chief. His daughter, Queen Victoria, was also entranced by Scott’s novels and purchased Balmoral Castle, which has been the monarch’s royal Scottish retreat ever since.

All this made “the Butcher” Cumberland something of an embarrassment. A statue erected in London shortly after his death was taken down in 1868 and still hasn’t been replaced. The one in Birr was removed for repairs in 1915, never to return. The plinths of both of these stand empty today. An Inverness-area campground owner became the focus of ire when he named his business after Cumberland, as did a real estate developer who in 2019 tried to name a street of a new Culloden subdivision after the duke. Local officials vetoed the latter plan, leading The Scotsmen newspaper to crow that “one of the most ruthless figures in Scottish history has finally met his match.”

There’s none of that controversy in Maine and other parts of North America, however, where Cumberland’s identity and legacy are almost entirely unknown and Scottish national-historical pathos is thin on the ground. Few Mainers have probably ever wondered where Cumberland got its name and, if they have, probably assume its an homage to the historic north English county of the same name.

That’s certainly true in the town of Cumberland, which broke off from North Yarmouth in 1821 and was given its name by the town’s esteemed treasurer, Ephraim Sturdivant (1782-1868), best known for introducing the merino sheep to Maine.

“It’s unclear whether Sturdivant was just taking the name from the county or referring to the (county) back in England when he chose it,” says local historian Thomas Bennett, director of Cumberland’s Prince Memorial Library. “I think it’s more of the former, but people seem to like the idea that it’s connected to the city in England.”

Bennett himself was unaware that Cumberland County was named for the Duke of Cumberland, or the latter’s reputation, and expects that’s true of most people in town, probably including Sturdivant himself, who was descended from Mayflower passengers, had fought the British in the War of 1812 and had no obvious connection to the north of England. “I would say if I asked all the members of the historical society where Ephraim got the name, nobody would bring up Prince William Augustus,” he says.

And that’s probably for the best, advises Houston of the University of Saint Andrews, when asked what Mainers should make of the association. “Live with it,” he says. “Most people will not have heard of the Duke.”

Correction: This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. Tuesday Sept. 21, 2021 to correct the year of Cumberland’s death.


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