Who Was Harriet Mordaunt?

The Scandalous Life of Harriet Mordaunt

Harriet Mordaunt and the Prince of Wales. A royal scandal.
Harriet Mordaunt and the Prince of Wales. A royal scandal. | Source

Harriet Mordaunt and the Prince of Wales. A royal scandal.

It's a familiar story in some ways - a young, attractive and lively woman marries an older man...

But in this true story, British Royalty was involved in the scandal and the young woman was branded insane for the rest of her days.

Was this a conspiracy?

Harriet Mordaunt
Harriet Mordaunt | Source

Harriet Sarah Moncreiffe

Harriet was born to a wealthy and titled Scottish family. She was one of sixteen children, eight boys and eight girls.

The home was an easy-going and relaxed place and Harriet had a pleasant childhood and upbringing.

Amongst the visitors to the home - and there were always many - was the heir to the British throne, Bertie, the Prince of Wales.

Incommon with other guests, he enjoyed the parties, the playfulness and the freedom which was so unlike his own home.

There were plenty of opportunities for dalliances during these house parties. Did the Prince of Wales 'dally' with Harriet when he was a young man? This isn't known, but he certainly did later.

Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales.
Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales. | Source

The Prince of Wales

Albert Edward was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert. Known as Bertie, he eventually became King Edward VII.

But, like today's Prince of Wales, he had a long wait before he ascended to the throne. In the meantime, he filled his life with pleasure.

He had not had a happy childhood. You can imagine what expectations Victoria and Albert had for their eldest son and he repeatedly did not live up to them.

He was a charming man, diplomatic and sociable but he could never reach the academic heights his parents aspired to.

So he devoted himself to the pleasures of the flesh. As a young man who was basically without a job - but with plenty of money and a high position - he was ideally situated to make the most of life.

Walton Hall, the Mordaunt family home.
Walton Hall, the Mordaunt family home. | Source

Harriet's marriage

When she was only eighteen years old, Harriet married Sir Charles Mordaunt. On the right, you see their Warwickshire home.

This amply demonstrates Sir Charles' wealth.

The couple continued to be a part of the Prince of Wales' social set.

The couple were said to have a happy marriage initially but Sir Charles was almost the exact opposite of Harriet. She loved to dance, to entertain and to enjoy herself. He was the huntin', shootin', fishin' type who was the ultimate country squire.

Harriet, most probably due to her upbringing,saw no reason at all why she shouldn't have liaisons with other men. She assumed that, as was common with the upper echelons, her husband had a mistress. This, she thought, was the normal way of things.

But Harriet was unaware of, or simply ignored, an unwritten rule. Once a married woman had produced a son and heir, then affairs were tolerated, if not even expected. But the bloodline was not to be sullied until her duties were fulfilled.

The letters of the Prince of Wales.
The letters of the Prince of Wales. | Source

Harriet duly gave birth to a daughter. Of course,like most aristocratic fathers of the day, Sir Charles would have preferred a son but he was delighted that his wife had 'proven herself'.

But the baby was born with an eye condition. Convinced that this was due to an unpleasant disease that she had contracted during her recent dalliances, Harriet, in her distress, confessed to her husband that since their marriage,she'd had affairs with several men, including the Prince of Wales.

Sir Charles was distraught.Not only had his wife been unfaithful to him - breaking the unwritten rules - but the child might not even be his.

He forced open the locked drawer of her writing desk and discovered letters to her from none other than the Prince of Wales. He was now determined to divorce his wife.

At this stage, Harriet's father stepped into the fray. It must be remembered that he had other daughters for whom he needed to secure good marriages. The taint of divorce would greatly damage the family's reputation and his daughters' prospects.

To avoid this, and knowing that the law of the time insisted that a mad person could not be divorced, he declared that Harriet was insane.

Scandal in court

Sir Charles insisted on the divorce case being heard. The question on everyone's lips was, was Harriet insane?

Her family claimed that she was suffering from a temporary insanity due to childbirth. Sir Charles, on the other hand, insisted that she was faking in order to retract her confession of adultery.

He said that the servants were also aware of her condition. The court needed to determine the truth. There could be no divorce if Harriet was ruled to be insane.

Sir Charles went one further - he had the Prince of Wales summonsed to appear in court. This in itself was a terrific scandal.

The prince hotly denied that there had ever been any illicit relationship. Further, he had his own personal physician, an ultimately eminent doctor, to testify that Harriet was indeed insane.

The divorce case was dismissed.

The letters, when eventually seen, proved to have no evidence of intimacy- they were simply friendly and chatty.

Harriet was committed to an asylum where she spent the rest of her days.

Was there a conspiracy?

Was her insanity faked? Did her father persuade her to act accordingly? Did she have an affair with the Prince of Wales? Points to consider:

  • Her father had a bevy of daughters who needed to make good marriages.If Harriet was divorced for infidelity, prior to produced a son and heir, the family's reputation would be ruined
  • Did her father prey on her family feeling in order for her to help her sisters?
  • If indeed her madness was a ruse, then it worked. All her sisters made what were considered to be good marriages
  • If she regretted her impassioned confession, as she do doubt did after seeing her husband's reaction, then it would be easy for her to 'recover' and say that her words were simply part of her post-birth mania
  • The chances are strong,that even without the factor of her sisters, Harriet had no desire to be divorced and lose her comfortable and wealthy life
  • Her confession was brought about by her great fears for her daughter's eyesight. She could claim that this was the reason for her temporary mania
  • Without question, the Prince of Wales visited Harriet at her home when her husband was out of the country. Knowing Harriet's propensity for liaisons, an affair between the two seems more than likely
  • Did she believe that the Prince,once in court and under oath, would protect her?
  • Did he in fact, by denying the relationship protect her good name? This may be the case but if true,it was thanks to him that she was incarcerated an an imbecile for the rest of her life
  • Is it possible that her baby was actually fathered by the Prince of Wales? It's possibly purely coincidental that today's Prince Edward, Edward VII's great great grandson, has a daughter who was born with an eye defect...

Viscount Cole
Viscount Cole | Source

What happened to Harriet Mordaunt's child?

Violet remained in her father's care after her mother had been sent away. But it is said that he had little to do with the child.

It was eventually accepted, although not proved, that Violet was the daughter of one of the men Harriet admitted to having had an affair with, Viscount Cole.

Later,in court, he did not contest the assertion that he was the father. However, it has been suggested that he made this admission as a gentlemanly gesture to the Prince of Wales. (Did not contest doesn't necessarily constitute an admission.)

Like her mother's sisters, Violet made a good marriage. She married the Marquess of Bath.

Her grandson, who is still alive today,is an interesting character. The present Marquess was married in 1969. Since that time, it is estimated that he has had almost a hundred liaisons with other women.

Did he inherit Harriet's genes?

© 2014 Jackie Jackson

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Comments 14 comments

BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

Hi @bravewarrior - your mum was spot on! I keep discovering stories all the time:)


BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

@MelRootsNWrites - that's an interesting question. One modern historian claims that it's likely that she was faking madness for the trial but ultimately really developed a mental condition because of doing so. That seems to be believable. But as you say, women were their father's or husband's 'property' in those days.


BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

@MelRootsNWrites - it was probably a lot easier for the 'lower classes' who didn't have to live up to the strict moral codes of the day.


bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 2 years ago from Central Florida

This is very interesting and certainly raises a lot of questions. My mother once told me that if I wanted to read about lust, sex, and the forbidden, there's plenty to be found in reading the stories of royalty. Apparently, she's right!


MelRootsNWrites profile image

MelRootsNWrites 2 years ago from California

I love history and found this so fascinating. I'm wondering how many women from prominent families might have found themselves in a similar situation with similar results. Women used to be sent off to nunneries to avoid scandal, so perhaps having them deemed mentally ill would be a more modern version of that. When you consider that women during the time were considered no more than property either of their father or husband, it isn't surprising the tactics that might be used. I wonder if she went along or if she had no choice?


BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

I am doing so much research about the British royal family at the moment, my head is spinning with so much information :)

There's so much material and of course, Victoria and Albert seem to have a lot to answer for. I have an article coming up about Prince George (of Kent) - wow.


BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

@GeorgeneMBramlage - thanks, it's like another world, isn't it?


BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

@ecogranny - thank you so much, I have great material to work with:)


BritFlorida profile image

BritFlorida 2 years ago from Fort Lauderdale Author

Thank you so much @Nancy Hardin! Aren't these stories fascinating?


MelRootsNWrites profile image

MelRootsNWrites 2 years ago from California

This was a really interesting story. I would venture that it was a probably not uncommon for women in wealthy families to be treated in this manner especially to avoid scandal. They used to send them off to nunneries, didn't they?


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

This was the court case that had Victoria's dynasty on their back feet, nearly toppling them. A programme on the 'Yesterday' channel outlined the case in its coverage of 'Bertie'.

He proved an able, affable sort of fellow who unfortunately didn't last long enough on the throne, having waited so long to get onto it (shades of Charlie?) He instituted the building of the 'Dreadnought' class of heavy warship in the light of his cousin Bill's naval armament programme. His son George V mirrored Victoria's personality. This was another travesty, as we had an able heir in Arthur, Duke of Connaught who might have actually averted a war had he survived an illness - Albert and Victoria didn't pass on a robust consititution to their offspring - not long after marrying one of the Danish princesses.


GeorgeneMBramlage profile image

GeorgeneMBramlage 2 years ago from southwestern Virginia

Very interesting reading.


ecogranny profile image

ecogranny 2 years ago from San Francisco

Your scandalous tales never fail to intrigue and leave me wanting to know more--the hallmark of an excellent writer!


Nancy Hardin profile image

Nancy Hardin 2 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

I SO love your stories of this nature. I really enjoyed this story and the speculation about the great great grandson's daughter was born with an eye defect...just adds to the mystery. I could just read your stories all day and never get anything else done...if I allowed myself the luxury. Thanks for sharing!

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