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Georgian Britain: sex in high places

Susan Law reveals how a series of sordid scandals involving some of the most powerful men in Georgian Britain led many people to question whether the nobility was fit to rule...

This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

In a dingy alleyway off London’s Leicester Square, a tall, thin man with a badly pockmarked face accosted a young prostitute, asking her: “How do you do, my little wicked? Will you go and drink a glass of wine with me?” He was a regular visitor to backstreet brothels and often prowled the city looking for dirty street girls, preferably blondes, their ragged clothes crawling with vermin.

But this was no ordinary encounter with a penniless commoner seeking a cheap thrill. The prostitute’s client was actually the Rt Hon Richard, Lord Grosvenor, one of the wealthiest men in London, who owned most of Mayfair.

On that summer evening in 1770 he took the girl, Elizabeth Roberts, to a hotel in Leicester Fields where in an upstairs room they drank a five shilling bowl of arrack punch together. Then he told her to strip naked and, as Roberts recalled, “came to her and was ready for action; but his breeches hurting [her] thighs, he got off again, and pulled off his breeches and shoes, and then came to her again and rogered her; after which [the girl] sat quite naked upon his lordship’s lap, for near quarter of an hour … and then Lord Grosvenor rogered her again.”

All the sordid details of this sleazy encounter were thrust into the public spotlight when Grosvenor sued King George III’s brother HRH the Duke of Cumberland, for adultery with his wife, Henrietta. They had been involved in a passionate affair, snatching illicit trysts whenever they could, and were caught having a quickie while visiting Lady Camilla D’Onhoff, who told the court she, “saw Lady Grosvenor lying upon her back on a couch in the drawing-room, with her petticoats up, and the Duke of Cumberland’s breeches unbuttoned, and he was laying upon [her], and his body was in motion… in the very act of carnal copulation.”

There were many other furtive couplings until the guilty pair were entrapped at the White Hart Inn, St Albans, when the butler bored holes in their bedchamber door to spy on them.

The new mass media of the day pounced on the scandal, eager to expose the hidden moral corruption endemic in the establishment, and cash-in on the public appetite for sensation.

Naturally readers loved every titillating anecdote. But they were also deeply shocked by the unsavoury private lives of the ruling nobility, revealed during the trial. The case spawned a deluge of print, including an exclusive on Lord Grosvenor’s sexual tastes that launched Town and Country Magazine’s celebrity gossip feature ‘Histories of the tête-à-tête’. This monthly series on the intimate secrets of notorious couples was an early form of tabloid journalism, digging up all the dirt it could find, and proved so popular it ran for over 20 years.

By the late 18th century a rapid expansion of the commercial press had made it a powerful force shaping public opinion, with a vast range of newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and books being printed for a growing readership. Juicy sex scandals in high places were guaranteed to boost sales, but the widespread publicity also reflected serious underlying concerns that an ‘epidemic’ of adultery threatened to destroy the whole structure of English society. 

 

A guinea a session

A year before the Grosvenor adultery trial hit the headlines, the prime minister, the 3rd Duke of Grafton, became a national scapegoat when in March 1769 he divorced his wife, Anne, who had recently given birth to her lover’s baby. Grafton had himself been carrying on a five-year liaison with a courtesan called Nancy Parsons, who reputedly charged a guinea a session and boasted she had once earned 100 guineas in a busy week. The press revelled in the story and Grafton was nicknamed ‘the Black Duke’, who was unfit for office and neglected his country for personal pleasures.

The couple appeared openly together at public events and hosted lavish dinners at his London home, apparently impervious to all the gossip. As one magazine reported, the prime minister was seen as little more than “a gamester, one who squandered the treasures of the nation upon horses and women, and who, left to guide the helm of state, would soon plunge it into inevitable destruction”.

Vitriolic attacks on Grafton by an anonymous writer, known only as Junius, were published regularly in the influential London paper the Public Advertiser for three years. The sarcastic malice of the letters echoed public feeling and made Junius into a popular political commentator. Long rants about Grafton’s sins, condemned him not only for enjoying “all the fashionable excesses of the age”, but shamelessly flaunting his vices: “There is… a certain outrage to decency which for the benefit of society, should never be forgiven. It is not that he kept a mistress at home, but that he constantly attended her abroad. It is not the private indulgence, but the public insult, of which I complain.”

While the divorce was being finalised, Grafton split up with Nancy, who had now moved on to become the Duke of Dorset’s mistress. Several publications including the Public Advertiser and Gentleman’s Magazine printed Grafton’s farewell letter to Nancy, in which he praised her “personal and mental qualifications [and] assiduity to please”, but reiterated his qualms about their affair: “As I often told you… such a course of life was unseemly both in my moral and political character… all our former ties are from this day at an end.” He promised a generous pay-off, as long as she left the country forever.

The Grafton scandal provoked the first of four Parliamentary bills trying to proscribe adultery and combat the rising number of divorces, as a series of aristocratic lawsuits for ‘criminal conversation’ (when a husband sought compensation for his wife’s infidelity) caused a public outcry. Such appalling immoral behaviour began to undermine traditional respect for peers, and raise serious questions about the whole basis of legitimate hereditary power. Two anti-adultery bills in the 1770s were defeated, but after the chaos of the French Revolution had sent shivers of apprehension throughout England, the mood of panic escalated. Many feared that the insidious moral decay would soon have dire consequences. Two more attempts were made to curb adultery in 1800 and 1809 by proposing it was made a criminal offence, but both failed.

The “alluring courtesan”  Nancy Parsons in Turkish dress. Her five-year affair with the prime minister caused a press sensation and triggered the first of four anti-adultery bills in parliament. (Yale center for British Art/Bridgeman images)

Lurid tales of infidelity among the nobility continued to draw extensive coverage in print. In 1814, the politician the 4th Earl of Rosebery won the equivalent today of nearly £1m damages, in a lawsuit against his wife’s lover. Lady Rosebery’s affair with her dead sister’s husband, Sir Henry Mildmay, was described as a crime of “extraordinary atrocity”. The case was so sensational it was reported in papers nationwide and made page two of The Times.

The public was riveted by the dramatic saga and all the intimate details of the ardent love-letters read out in court, in which Sir Henry begged Harriet to leave her husband, recalling “every burning kiss” they had shared. He was so besotted, he wore her yellow garters as a keepsake because they had been “twined round, and encircled [my] dear Harriet’s limbs – bliss unspeakable!” The secret was exposed one night after dinner at the family seat of Barnbougle Castle in Scotland. Sir Henry had disguised himself as a common sailor and climbed in through the bedchamber window for a secret assignation, but the lovers were interrupted by Lord Rosebery’s brother trying to break down the locked door. The next day they eloped to the continent.

A decade later, an even bigger scandal erupted when an ageing courtesan blackmailed dozens of powerful men, threatening to reveal all in her ‘kiss-and-tell’ memoirs. Harriette Wilson had once been the most desirable woman in London, but by 1825 her charms had faded and, desperate for money, she published her Memoirs. To raise as much cash as possible they were released in 12 instalments. Before each part was printed, she wrote to her best-known former clients demanding payment to keep them out of the book.

It was an instant bestseller and the spicy revelations shook the establishment, as so many distinguished figures had bedded her in the past, including the foreign secretary George Canning, the ambassador to Paris, several dukes and even the king. Many of them paid to buy her silence, while others sued the publisher. The furore was hotly debated in the national press, and when one of Harriette’s victims passed her blackmail letter to The Times it was reproduced in full, with an editorial comment condemning the “detestable publication”.

 

Spiteful relish

The Duke of Wellington had been a regular client in his younger days, but now he was a prominent member of the Tory cabinet and refused to be intimidated by his ex-mistress. When he received the blackmail letter, his reply was just an angry scrawl on the envelope, “write and be damned”. With spiteful relish Harriette took her revenge in the next volume, telling the world that the military hero was a pathetic lover. She described how he “sighed over me and groaned over me by the hour”, but had no merit “for home service, or ladies’ uses… [and] when he wore his broad red ribbon, he looked very much like a rat catcher”.

Another high-profile case created outrage in April 1830 when a cabinet minister, the 1st Earl of Ellenborough, was granted a private parliamentary divorce and the case was splashed across the front page of The Times. Anger centred on the blatant collusion at his adultery trial, and the fact that divorce was allowed without the normal legal requirements. An arrogant man, whose insensitive personality had made him many enemies, ‘Elephant Ellenborough’ embodied exactly the sort of elite privilege that was now under attack by political reformers.

When his beautiful young wife, Jane, had a torrid romance with the Austrian diplomat Prince Felix Schwarzenberg and fell pregnant, there was little sympathy at this very public humiliation. Dozens of column inches in the press described Jane’s clandestine afternoon sessions with the prince, and criticised Ellenborough for neglecting her. The Satirist reported how just a week after their marriage, he was seen with a prostitute. The Observer commented that the divorce was more proof that “all virtue and all affectation of decency will ere long be confined to the middle classes”.

The flood of print exposing all these sexual intrigues confirmed suspicions that the ruling class was no longer fit to rule. When the House of Lords rejected voting reform, riots broke out across the country, and soon afterwards the passing of the 1832 Great Reform Act marked the first steps in the gradual decline of aristocratic power. Many people felt that peers only had themselves to blame.

 

Strife in the public eye

When these aristocrats got caught with their pants down, the press had a field day

Lord Bully v Lady Di: A marriage made in hell ends in divorce

The marriage of Viscount Bolingbroke (pictured below) to Lady Diana Spencer was doomed from the start. Dubbed ‘Bully the Battersea Baron’ by the press, he was addicted to whoring and gaming. After infecting his wife with venereal disease, she had an affair with Topham Beauclerk, discovered when a footman spying on them found dirty marks on a rumpled parlour couch. In 1768, Bolingbroke became only the fifth peer ever to divorce.

Viscount Bolingbroke. (Lydiard House)

Lady Percy’s disgrace: A cheating wife is found in flagrante

A reckless infatuation with a Cambridge University student made Anne (below) abandon her marriage to Hugh Percy, the wealthy Duke of Northumberland’s heir. The lovers were caught in bed together half-naked, by a maid. Lord Percy sued for adultery in 1779, and Town and Country Magazine alleged he was impotent due to excessive masturbation as a schoolboy and habitually visiting brothels.

Lady Percy. (Tate)

Blenheim’s heir on trial: A sad tale of love-letters in parmesan cheese

The Marquis of Blandford (below) was heir to a dukedom and Blenheim Palace, but vowed to give up his inheritance if his married mistress agreed to elope. He had seduced Lady Mary Anne Sturt, the wife of an MP who took legal action. Mocked by the press for his anguished love-letters hidden in gifts of parmesan cheese, Blandford was ordered to pay damages of £100 because of his infidelity with Sturt’s wife. He later became 5th Duke of Marlborough. 

The Marquis of Blandford. (NPG)

Dr Susan Law is a journalist, historian and author of Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Georgian Country House.

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