Charles Mordaunt Earl of Peterborough


The Mordaunt family

The fifth baron of Beauchamp and Mordaunt was made Earl of Peterborough by Charles I in 1627 and he repaid this by siding with parliament in the civil war. His sons were named Henry and John. Henry would become governor of Tangier in 1662 and rose to high influence by converting to Catholicism. In 1688 Henry was therefore imprisoned in the Tower. John Mordaunt was involved in a conspiracy against Cromwell, but got away when his wife bribed the judges. This and other services prompted the king to create him Baron of Reigate and Viscount of Avalon in 1659. Charles Mordaunt was born in 1658 to John Mordaunt and Elizabeth Carey1. So he got the titles Earl of Peterborough, Viscount of Avalon and baron of Beauchamp. He was the eldest of a family of seven sons and four daughters.

Peterborough's early career

Peterborough performed his first service in 1674. He was then present as a volunteer on one of the ships of Admiral Arthur Herbert's expedition against the Algerian pirates. Cloudesley Shovel was a lieutenant on the same ship and they were both in the same cutting out expedition. In February 1675 he took part in the battle which succeeded in subduing the Bey of Algiers. At the return of the fleet in 1677 Peterborough's father was dead and Peterborough was Viscount Mordaunt of Avalon at age 19. Peterborough was however not so rich as one might believe: on the death of his father the Reigate lands went to Earl Henry and later on his daughter Mary, his main possessions therefore consisted in what his mother had left him. Peterborough was therefore probably quite happy to get appointed to the sinecure of Keeper of the New Lodge in 1678.

The young Earl soon married to Carey, daughter of Sir Alexander Frasier of Durris, Kincardineshire. This did not impede him from embarking on the 'Bristol' in September 1678, a frigate destined for the Barbary Coast. From this expedition he returned after a year at sea2. In 1680 he was again a volunteer, this time in an expedition to relieve Tangier. He entered Tangier but left before the end of the year.

Peterborough's career at court

At court Peterborough was protected by his uncle Henry (at that moment still called Earl of Peterborough). It's also quite likely that Charles II liked Peterborough's contempt for religion and morality. As a viscount Peterborough was a member of the House of Lords and he made his first mark there in 1681 when he subscribed to a petition of 16 peers against the convocation of parliament at Oxford in 1681. On the death of Charles II James II ascended the throne and asked parliament for a large increase in the standing army and the appointment of Catholic officers. On this occasion Peterborough addressed the house for the first time. In a brilliant and audacious speech he warned that the nation was facing an attempt to establish arbitrary power3.

Early in 1686 he got permission to serve in a Dutch fleet bounded for the West Indies, but he did not leave on it. It seems that Peterborough then started to travel back and forth between England and Holland and became involved in William's plans against James. It's said that Peterborough asked Stadholder William III to invade England immediately, but that William rebuked this plan as 'too romantical to build on'. According to the later Bishop Burnet, who was Mary's chaplain, Peterborough became: 'the one whom his Highness chiefly trusted, and by whose advice he governed his motions'. Whatever the particulars may be there can be little doubt that Peterborough played a role in preparing the Glorious revolution.

Peterborough was present in William's fleet when it landed near Torbay on 5 November 1688. He immediately got a commission to raise a regiment of horse and orders to seize Exeter. On 8 November Peterborough summoned the town and entered it. Peterborough then continued into Dorsetshire and further north. All this gained Peterborough a lot of favors when William became king. On 14 February 1689 he was admitted into the Privy Council and in March he became Lord of the Bedchamber. On 1 April he was appointed as colonel of an infantry regiment and he was also appointed as lieutenant-colonel of a City of London volunteer cavalry regiment. He was also made Lord-Lieutenant of Northamptonshire in April and Water-Bailiff of the Severn in August.

The most significant of his appointments were that of First Commissioner of the Treasury on 8 April 1689 and the one that made him Earl of Monmouth on 9 April. The latter made Peterborough part of the peerage. One could thus be tempted to believe that Peterborough became heavily involved in the financial affairs of the kingdom, but these were in fact taken care of by Godolphin, who could not be continued as official head of the treasury. Peterborough's responsibilities were with the civil service which could hand out a lot of jobs. In this capacity he used his patronage to help John Locke and Isaac Newton. Already in March 1690 Peterborough lost this job to Sir John Lowther, but he was compensated with a pension.

Peterborough quarrels with everyone

When William went to Ireland on 11 June 1690 he asked Peterborough to accompany him. Peterborough refused, but was still appointed as one of the Council of Nine. Shortly before 11 June letters to Monsieur de Coutenay, a French agent in Antwerp, had been intercepted. These were written in lemon juice and could be read by heating them. They revealed the detail of the deliberations of the Privy Council and thus led to the conclusion that there must be a traitor in this council. After William left these continued to be intercepted.

Somewhat later the English fleet was lacking in its duty to engage the French, and so Peterborough offered to go to the fleet in order to press Admiral Torrington to fight. After a lot of hassling the queen ordered Peterborough and Admiral Russell to go to the fleet in order to determine what was to be done. They traveled with Peterborough's secretary Major Wildman, but before they arrived news of the defeat of Beachy Head (30 June 1690) arrived in Portsmouth. The queen did however notice that while they were away the letters to Antwerp had stopped. Peterborough's enemies in the Privy Council therefore thought that Peterborough had put up a scheme in order to mark some of them as traitors, and in this they were probably right4. Peterborough furthermore occupied himself with accusing a lot of people of being unfaithful to King William, but it's difficult to determine whether these accusations were fuelled by his own ambition or sincere anxiety for the throne.

In January 1691 Peterborough accompanied William III to Holland and in April he returned. In April and May 1692 he got a military command with orders to bolster the defense of the Channel Islands. After that he made some trips to the Low Countries and returned with the king in October. After that he was one of the 18 Lords who protested the 7 December 1692 rejection of a proposal to have the public administration be investigated by a joint committee of the two houses. This boiled down to an attack upon William's administration of military affairs and broke their confidential relation.

At length William was so fed up with Peterborough's behavior that he suspended him in his duties as Gentleman of the Bedchamber in February 1694. Peterborough was furthermore barred from the Privy Council and induced to give his infantry regiment to his brother Henry Mordaunt. All this did not mean that Peterborough took any action to be reconciled with the King. In January 1695 he supported a Tory motion for another investigation and a little later he supported actions against Danby. Meanwhile the court did try to appease him, but these attempts were not successful.

Peterborough plots to use Fenwick against his enemies

In the end of 1696 Sir John Fenwick, a man deeply involved in an assassination plot against William, was caught. In return for a full confession he was offered his life. In this 'confession' he implied Whigs like Russell and Shrewsbury and moderate Tories like Marlborough and Godolphin, but shielded William's real enemies. The Whigs answered these lies with a bill of attainder which reached the Lords on 26 November 1696. When it was read there for the first time on 1 December Peterborough saw his chance to unmask the 'false friends' of the king. He wanted Fenwick to repeat his accusations against the moderate Whigs and Tories, but Fenwick refused and the bill would finally carry on 11 January 1697.

Seeing that that her husband could get killed Lady Fenwick induced her brother the Earl of Carlysle to reveal the part Peterborough had played to the House of Lords. In this house the accused then allied with the radical Tories in order to destroy Peterborough. Fenwick was interrogated again on 22 December and revealed that in the previous interrogations he had written directions for his behavior. These he claimed had been handed to him by his wife at Newgate. In turn she had gotten them from the Duchess of Norfolk, and the Duchess (only child of Henry of Peterborough) from Peterborough. In explaining the plot to Lady Fenwick Peterborough and the Duchess had however been overheard by Mrs. Elizabeth Lawson, and she confirmed these reports as a witness.

Peterborough was next heard in defense of his actions. He delivered a lengthy speech which stressed the fat that he had not personally profited since the revolution and that the whole affair was a papist plot against him. Peterborough had an interview with the king, but by then the rank and file of the parties could no longer be held back and Peterborough was formally accused. In January 1697 an official investigation of the documents Fenwick had received was started. In the end the House of Lords judged that Peterborough had had a share in making the papers Lady Fenwick had received and had uttered vehement words against the king in the affair. They therefore judged him to be sent to The Tower and to be stripped of his appointments.

Peterborough's disgrace

Peterborough thus lost his important offices, but he did not have to stay in the Tower very long. He was released on 30 March. His uncle Henry died on 19 June 1697 and so Peterborough, who had been called Earl of Monmouth was from then on referred to as the Earl of Peterborough5. It seems that all this induced Peterborough to keep quiet for a time, but from the spring of 1698 onwards he again appeared in the list of peers present in the Lord's debates. From then onward he seems to have associated himself with the moderate Tories like Marlborough and Godolphin and against the king and the Whigs. In the actions against John Somers on account of the Partition Treaties he ranged himself against the Whigs.

Peterborough under Queen Anne

While in disgrace Peterborough and his wife had made friends with Sarah Churchill and on the accession of Queen Anne this paid off. Peterborough was reappointed as Lord-Lieutenant of Northamptonshire. In October he was furthermore appointed as commander of an expedition to the West-Indies6 and as Governor and Captain-General of Jamaica. On 16 January 1703 Peterborough indeed received orders to depart with the fleet to the West Indies. On 25 January an Anglo-Dutch council in London did however cancel the expedition on grounds that it was already too late in the season7.

February 1703 saw Peterborough as one of the leading figures in rejecting the Bill for the Preventing of Occasional Conformity.

Peterborough goes to Spain

There was a lot of anticipation about whether Peterborough would get an important post, but on 31 March 1705 things became clear. On that day he was gazetted as general and commander in chief of the forces in the fleet. In April this was followed by an appointment as general and Commander in Chief of the allied forces in Spain8 and on 1 May he was made joint-admiral and Commander in Chief of the fleet. Late in May the fleet sailed to Spain and it arrived in Lisbon on 20 June 1705.

Peterborough attacks Barcelona

The original goal of Peterborough's expedition was probably to take some action to relief the stress on Victor Amadeus of Savoy. On 11 July 1705 Landgrave George of Hessen-Darmstadt arrived there to, and on 12 July a Council of War was held. It decided to attack Barcelona and on 28 July Peterborough and Charles III sailed for Gibraltar. It left there on 5 August and sailed north to Valencia were it captured Denia.

On 22 August the fleet arrived before Barcelona with about 7,000 men and it disembarked the troops somewhat east of the city on 23 August. These consisted of 17 battalions and 2 dragoon regiments, the garrison was estimated at 2,500 men9. The command then seriously started to think about the siege and soon concluded that their forces were not sufficient to attempt a siege. For this there were three reasons: the city was far too large, the garrison too strong and the help of the local population too small. Charles III did recognize the truth of these objections, but asked that some attempt should at least be made. Peterborough therefore went on shore to, but at first not much was achieved10.

After some time the besiegers were despairing of success and on 8 September it was expected that on the next day one would start to embark the artillery. Peterborough and Hessen-Darmstadt then decided to make a final attempt. In the morning of 14 September they stormed Fort Montjuich and that assault succeeded against expectations. The Castle of Montjouich did however resist somewhat longer. On 17 September a powder-explosion then led to its surrender and so the siege made good progress, leading to the surrender of Barcelona on 9 October.

In Valencia

The fall of Barcelona was followed by almost the whole of Catalonia opting for Charles III. In December the insurrection In Valencia then started to make great progress and was crowned with the capture of Valencia city. Felipe reacted by sending De Las Torres who started to blockade Valencia in January 1706. Peterborough then succeeded in lifting this blockade in February with less than 1,000 horse. In London the government was however not much pleased with Peterborough's conduct. A lot of officers did not want to serve under him and he was perceived as taking more initiatives than he could handle11. Peterborough furthermore quarreled with almost everyone present in Spain.

Meanwhile a large French army had started to besiege Barcelona. A fleet under Admiral Leake was sent to lift the siege. Under his commission Peterborough took its command and arrived before Barcelona on 8 May 1706. After some last attempts the French then quit the siege on 11 May. Their retreat involved leaving the siege train and cost them a lot of soldiers because they were harassed by the Miquelets. On 11 June Peterborough was then appointed as ambassador to Charles III.

To Madrid

Peterborough now wanted to advance to Madrid, but before he could do so Galway captured it on 27 June. In August Peterborough joined Galway's army near Madrid with King Charles III. In this camp there were 4 generals with a claim to the supreme command: De Las Minas as official commander of Galway's army; Noyelles as commander of Charles III's army; Galway as commander of the English army from Portugal and Peterborough. Peterborough therefore suggested that he might remove himself from the theater and on 9 August a council of ministers and generals was only to happy to approve his withdrawal.

To Italy

After making some arrangements in Valencia Peterborough left for Italy and arrived in Genoa in September. Here he heard that the siege of Turin had been lifted. He nevertheless met Victor Amadeus at Turin and Eugen in Pavia. Peterborough furthermore succeeded in loaning Lbp 100,000 in Genoa, pretending to be authorized by the government to do so. On 27 December he was back in Barcelona with the money.

Back in Spain

From Barcelona Peterborough reached Valencia on 10 January 1707. The allied army had meanwhile retreated into Valencia before Berwick's forces. On 4 January a Council of War was then held in which Peterborough strongly opposed another march on Madrid and pleaded for the defense of Aragon. In this he agreed with Charles III, Liechtenstein and Noyelles, but opposed Galway and Stanhope. In the end it decided first to take some measures to defend Valencia and then to march on Madrid from Aragon.

Recalled to England

Meanwhile the government was getting serious about removing him from the theater. Late in February a message arrived which appointed Galway as commander in chief of all British forces in Spain, thus annulling Peterborough's authority. For Peterborough this hint did not suffice and so on 14 March a message arrived which ordered him to London. Peterborough understood that he had to leave Spain, but he went to Italy and was in Turin in April. Here he had discussions with Victor Amadeus, but the English ambassador made sure that the Duke of Savoy understood that Peterborough's commissions were revoked and that he had been ordered back to England.

On 30 April Peterborough left Turin and went for Vienna. Here he was received by the emperor and left in early July. He next went to Leipzig to see King Charles of Sweden. He later visited Electress Sophia in Hanover. Finally he arrived in Marlborough's headquarters at Soignies in August and outstayed his welcome there. On 20 August 1707 Peterborough finally arrived back in London.

Back in England

Back in England Harley was for starting formal procedures against Peterborough, but at first nothing was done. Peterborough meanwhile occupied himself by letting Freind write the 'Account of Peterborough's Conduct in Spain. On 15 December Lord Rochester then remarked in the Lords that he had been employed in important posts, but had been neither thanked nor censured. Peterborough replied that an investigation should then be started and this was commenced in January 1708. The investigation did not come to anything. Neither a motions of censure for fraud nor a motion to thank him were carried.

In the controversy about his conduct Peterborough had been accused by the Godolphin ministery and defended by the Tories. At the 1710 change in government this paid off and Peterborough came in office again. On 2 November 1710 he was appointed as Captain General of the Marines. In December he was then nominated as ambassador extraordinary to Vienna. His departure was however delayed by a vigorous debate in the Lords about the war in Spain. This debate ended by applauding Peterborough and censuring Galway and the Godolphin ministery. On 10 February 1711 an address was presented to the queen expressing the admiration of the House for the many great and eminent services performed by the Earl of Peterborough.

Ambassador Extraordinary to a lot of courts

Peterborough then went to Vienna with instructions to smooth out the differences between the emperor and the Duke of Savoy. While in the theater emperor Joseph died and was to be replaced by Charles III. Peterborough then came up with a plan to make Victor Amadeus king of Spain, but his intentions were discovered. This made his position untenable and so he arrived back at Yarmouth on 23 June 1711.

The desire to have him out of the way might have the reason to next appoint Peterborough as ambassador extraordinary to the Imperial Diet at Frankfurt. From this mission he left in December 1711. From there he went to Italy and visited the Carnival of Venice in January 1712. Peterborough only returned home in December 1712. In 1713 he then got appointed as colonel of the Oxford regiment of Horse Guards and in August he was made a knight of the garter. He was also made ambassador extraordinary to the King of Sicily and started for Paris in November. He later arrived in Palermo, but on the death of Queen Anne he was recalled to London. The day after his return he presented himself at court, but was very coldly received. An express order forbade him to reappear

Peterborough under King George

Under King George Peterborough was out of employment, but still considered eminent in society.

Generalship of Peterborough

There can be little doubt that Peterborough was very successful in creating for himself the public image of a brilliant general. Under his command the alliance achieved a lot of successes in Spain. On closer examination one however has to account for him not being the supreme commander of all forces in Spain. There is therefore no reason to ascribe the conquest of Valencia and the taking of Barcelona and the conquest of Catalonia to him in stead of ascribing them to local partisans of Charles III.

The fact that there is a lot of documentary evidence of his quarrelsome nature made him unsuitable for supreme command on this ground alone. Next to that he probably did have some insight into military and a lot of talent for guerilla style operations, but the fact that London recalled him says enough about how his military abilities were appraised at the time.


Service record


The prime reference for this page is: 'Peterborough' by William Stebbing, Printed in London by Macmillan and Co. 1890.


1) See page 6 of Stebbing.
2) See page 8 of Stebbing.
3) See page 13 of Stebbing.
4) See page 23 of Stebbing.
5) It's very typical that at the time people's names could continually change because they got a noble title. I've here throughout referred to Charles Mordaunt as 'Peterborough' in order to make the page more comprehensible.
6) In a letter by Nottingham to Heinsius dated 6 October Peterborough is mentioned as having been appointed
7) Letter by Van Vrijbergen to Heinsius on 26 January 1703.
8) See page 47 of Stebbing. An appointment as CiC of forces in Spain does however seem doubtful because of Galway's position
9) Letter by Van Almonde to Heinsius on 26 August 1705. Van Almonde was then rather optimistic about allied chances.
10) Letter by Van Almonde to Heinsius on 8 September 1705.
11) Letter by Sauniere de l'Hermitage to Heinsius on 2 march 1706