An excerpt from

This Island in Time: Remarkable Tales from Montreal's Past
by John Kalbfleisch

Montreal has seen many royal visitors over the centuries. The first was Prince William Henry, third son of King George III.

The prince was serving in the Royal Navy, and in July 1786 sailed from Britain in command of the 28-gun frigate Pegasus. He was bound for the West Indies, but during his 15 months in North American waters he was in Quebec City at least twice and Montreal once. During his week-long stay in Montreal, in September 1787, the future King William IV visited the Sulpician seminary and was feted at a dinner given by the local Masonic lodge.

About that time, plans were afoot to establish a university for the colony in Quebec City. Largely outside the orbit of the Catholic Church, it would offer a secular education and accept English and French students alike. Despite the secular bias, there was support for the idea in some church quarters, and soon the Sulpicians were pressing for an affiliate in Montreal.

Guy Carleton, the governor-in-chief who had been created Baron Dorchester in 1786, was keen on the proposed institution. However, he balked when it was proposed to call the Montreal branch Collège Dorchester. The Sulpicians then thought of their recent royal visitor. Like Carleton, the prince had also acquired a new title as the Duke of Clarence, so a possible Collège Clarence at least had events of the day to recommend it.

Nonetheless, the prince had no discernible interest in the life of the mind. He was far more interested in womanizing, drinking, cards and his naval career, in that order, so perhaps it's not entirely a bad thing that the college project eventually fizzled out. Montreal was deprived of secular higher education for at least another generation, though the affair did have the virtue of sparing the city a name that would have been something of a joke. ...

It's hard to imagine Prince William ever being aware that his new name had been spurned. Yet he could hardly avoid another piece of lèse-majesté that had been right under his nose during his Montreal visit. But first, the background:

The Sulpician seminary where he dined in 1787 stands to this day on Place d'Armes. In 1766, six years after Montreal fell to the British, another of the many fires that have been the bane of Montreal's history devastated the core of the town. In faraway London, a wealthy philanthropist named Jonas Hanway organized a relief campaign in aid of this new outpost of the empire. Within months, £8,500, two fire pumps and, of all things, a marble bust of King George III arrived.

King George himself contributed the bust. It was the work of Joseph Wilton, soon to be a founding member of the Royal Academy, and was probably the first to be executed of the king after his ascension to the throne in 1760.

Several years were to pass, however, before it would be revealed to public view in Montreal. The bust had to be displayed properly, and to this end it would rest on a pedestal in the middle of Place d'Armes, sheltered from the elements by a kind of canopy above. Hanway, said to have been the first Englishman to walk the streets of the capital carrying an umbrella, would have understood.

This confection was unveiled on October 7, 1773, and a prominent Montrealer named Luc de la Corne decided that the town's church bells should be rung in celebration. Luc de la Corne had been a French soldier of distinction before the conquest, and he never entirely reconciled himself to the new British regime. But he was also a realist. There could be no harm in the occasional, well-chosen profession of loyalty.

La Corne went to the commander of the British troops in Montreal and urged that the bells be rung. This officer had no particular objection, but he also had no wish to annoy the ecclesiastical authorities needlessly. It was not for him to give such an order, he replied, but rather for Étienne Montgolfier, the superior of the Sulpicians, to do so.

Abbé Montgolfier made it a general point not to attend such ceremonies, and had not been invited to this one. He would stay put in the seminary, and there the ardent La Corne hastened to present himself. He pressed Montgolfier not once, not twice, but three times about the bells. Finally the exasperated priest replied: "The bells are an instrument of religion, and have never served in military or civil ceremonies. ... If the military commander wants the bells to be rung, let him give the order to the beadle himself. I have nothing else to say."

Back went Saint Luc de la Corne to the British commandant, who by then was also growing weary of the importunate Canadian. The result of the day's buck-passing was that the king's marble image was presented to the city a little less enthusiastically than even casual royalists might have wished. The bells never did ring.

About this time, the ferment that was erupting in the American Revolution could be felt in Montreal, at least among a few of its citizens. On May 1, 1775, not two years after the bust's unveiling, the city awoke to find that it had been vandalized. It was blackened with tar, and something resembling a bishop's mitre was jammed on its head. A rosary of potatoes was strung about its neck, together with a cross on which could be read Voilà le Pape du Canada et le Sot Anglois.

Everybody was outraged, though for different reasons. The military authorities blamed the merchants, seeing nothing but traitorous republicans among them. French-speaking Catholics blamed the Protestants for insulting the pope. English-speaking Protestants blamed the Catholics for demeaning the king. Some said it was the work of the Jews. When a certain Sieur Le Pailleur upbraided Ezekiel Solomons, a Jewish fur trader, they started pummeling one another. Le Pailleur was knocked to the ground and for a brief time Solomons was arrested.

Governor Carleton offered a reward of $200 to anyone identifying the perpetrators, with a pardon on offer should the informant be an accomplice. The merchants added 100 louis they raised among themselves. But nothing happened; lips remained sealed. The bust was more or less cleaned up and resumed its watch over the square.

The next day, a drummer, a crier and several British officers strode into the square. When a drum roll had got everyone's attention, the crier announced that the officers were adding 50 guineas to the reward.

One of those listening was François-Marie Picoté de Belestre. He had served with distinction under the former French regime, and even more than La Corne had made his peace with the new British order. The vandals, he growled, should be whipped by the hangman and then banished from the colony; no, better still, "they deserved to be hanged."

This was too much for a young man of republican sympathies named David Franks. "Hanged! What, for such a trifle?" This infuriated Picoté. "You are a giddy-headed, insolent spark!" he exclaimed, then accused Franks of knowing more about the vandalism than he was letting on. The two men began shoving each other, and when Picoté grabbed the younger man's nose and twisted it, Franks started throwing punches.

The fight "deprived the old gentleman of his senses for some time and was the occasion of some loss of blood." Onlookers had to pull Franks away.

The magistrates took a dim view of Franks's part in the dust-up. "Every good subject ought to look upon the said insult to His Majesty's bust as an act of the most atrocious nature," they intoned, "and as deserving of the utmost abhorrence. ... Therefore all declarations made in conversation that tend to affirm it to be a small offence ought to be esteemed criminal."

On May 4, Franks was arrested by a detachment of soldiers who, with fixed bayonets, marched him to the jail. Defiantly, however, he refused to post bail, even though he had the resources to do so. Staying behind bars, he maintained, would reveal the authorities for the royalist tyrants they truly were. Governor Carleton knew a no-win situation when he saw one. Not wishing to create a martyr, he ordered Franks's release. Even then, the young man wouldn't back down; he had to be forcibly thrown back into the street.

Late that autumn, with the American struggle for independence under way in earnest, a column of the Continental Army moved north and occupied the city, seeking to persuade Montrealers to join in the revolutionary adventure. By the following spring, however, with the Royal Navy once again able to move up the St. Lawrence, the Americans were gone. So, too, was the bust of the king.

No one knew precisely what had happened to it, though the departed invaders were the obvious culprits. The decapitated pedestal and its canopy, now sheltering nothing, looked more and more forlorn as the years passed. It was a metaphor for the fragility of monarchy on this side of the Atlantic, and Prince William could hardly have avoided the implicit mockery when he came calling on the Sulpicians in 1787. What the priests might have offered by way of explanation or even apology for this affront to his father is not known. ...

Only in 1834, when workmen were cleaning out the 50-foot well that stood in the square, was the bust rediscovered, mud-covered but more or less in good shape otherwise. It's now in the McCord Museum on Sherbrooke Street.