From the Thorley Archives

The Grand Old Duke of York

The Pennington Files - Part Six

Part Four of the Pennington Files (January 2008) promised that further research could reveal the truth as to whether George Sparrow was indeed assassinated in Sicily in 1807 during the Napoleonic wars as a British Government spy. In the Rare Books Room at Cambridge University Library, Philip Hargrave was able to inspect a copy of 'The History of the King's Messengers' and confirm the incident. The work of the King's Messengers is to personally carry diplomatic dispatches. In May 1807 George Sparrow embarked on such a mission to Vienna intending then to proceed to Sicily and Constantinople. News came back that he had died and been buried in September 1807 at Cephalu, Sicily as a result of severe wounds. Further enquiries showed that 'His pistols were with him and both had been fired …….. his portmanteaux had gone and so had his dispatches ….. he drifted ashore in an empty boat.' The informant promised to send back to Whitehall George Sparrow's silver watch and Messenger's medal with the Kings Arms on it.

The outcome for the Sparrow family was that George's son Robert, and future son in law to our Rector Thomas Pennington (1798 - 1852), was given a commission in the British army in recognition of his father's 'most heroic defence of his dispatches'. The commission was the personal gift of Prince Frederick, Duke of York, and second son of King George III. As commander in chief of the British forces in the 1790s he experienced a series of minor victories and defeats in Northern France. These events are reputed to be the basis for the nursery rhyme 'The Grand Old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men etc.' However, his reputation was later restored. Early in the 1800s he founded the military schools at Sandhurst and Dover and then successfully supported the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula War.

Prince Frederick,
Duke of York
King George VI
King's Messenger Medal
with the Greyhound emblem

Philip's recent findings have enabled both a researcher in Australia to further her family history and an author in France to confirm the family background of General George Nivelle, commander of the French army at the beginning of WW1 (The Pennington Files - Part Two). General Nivelle was the great grandson of both George Sparrow and Thomas Pennington.

Bill Hardy
February 2009

Return to From the Archives

Return to St James' Rectors