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A Right Royal Victorian Scandal

Updated on March 29, 2016
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The man who would become Edward VII (he was known to everyone as Bertie) was a person of prodigious appetites. As Spartacus Educational notes, he ate “five large meals a day. These meals often consisted of ten or more courses. By the time he was middle-aged he had a waist of forty-eight inches.

Edward also smoked twelve large cigars and twenty cigarettes a day.” There was plenty of liquor to go along with the food and smokes. In addition, he had a well-earned reputation as a Jack-the-lad in constant pursuit of females. In his 2007 book Royal Mistresses and Bastards: Fact and Fiction, 1714–1936, Anthony John Camp claims to have identified 55 consorts of Edward’s.

Bertie was a busy chap within the bounds of matrimony as well. Alexandra, daughter of Christian of Denmark, was his long-suffering wife (shown at their wedding) who bore him six children.

Edward the Caresser

The Prince of Wales acquired a nickname that aptly described his overactive libido. Bertie, the Prince of Wales tomcatted around British society with wild abandon. An early liaison with the actress Nellie Clifton (sometimes Clifden) deeply upset his father, Prince Albert. He scolded his son by writing “I knew that you were thoughtless and weak - but I could not think you depraved.” He ordered the affair ended.

Two weeks later, Prince Albert died of typhoid fever, probably because of poorly constructed drains at Buckingham Palace (A recent school of thought suggests that Albert was stricken with Crohn’s disease). Queen Victoria blamed Edward for her husband’s death as though his scandalous behaviour had somehow killed his father. Victoria never forgave him. She wrote in her diary that “Bertie (I grieve to say) shows more and more how totally unfit he is for ever becoming King.”

It’s not often a mother will write of her son as Victoria did, “I never can or shall look at him without a shudder.”

Bertie threw legendary parties at his country estate, Sandringham House, where late-night “corridor creeping” was a hallowed feature. The Prince of Wales was one of the more enthusiastic bed hoppers. For those with the stamina, and this clearly included the future king, these late night trysts were a repeat of the pre-dinner get-togethers that were delicately referred to as cinq à sept assignations.

Bertie surrounded by the ladies of Le Chabanais.
Bertie surrounded by the ladies of Le Chabanais. | Source

Between romps in country houses, Bertie was a frequent and honoured guest at the famous Parisian bordello, Le Chabanais (right). The establishment was called a “maison de tolerance,” words such as brothel and whorehouse being considered vulgar. A favourite diversion for the Prince of Wales was to wallow in a swan-necked bathtub filled with champagne and ladies of the house.

Le Chabanais had a special chair built for its distinguished client. It was constructed in such a way as to allow the decidedly portly and far from lissom prince to enjoy the amorous attentions of two women at the same time. Apparently, His Royal Highness was not required to exercise himself over much. (Replicas of the contraption are not available at Ikea).

Given Bertie’s decadent behaviour it was inevitable that his path would cross with that of Lady Harriet Mordaunt. She was a beautiful, flirtatious, young woman who approached lovemaking with a similar gusto to that of the future monarch.

Harriet Mordaunt
Harriet Mordaunt | Source

Sir Charles Mordaunt and Harriet Sarah Moncreiffe Marry

The daughter of a Scottish baronet, Harriet Moncreiffe (right), wed a man 12 years her senior. Sir Charles Mordaunt was a wealthy member of the English landed gentry who spent a great deal of time shooting, fishing, and hunting, but vivacious Harriet had little taste for these occupations.

So, while Sir Charles was off slaughtering wildlife, Harriet filled her time with a series of lovers. She developed a reputation as a woman of “fragile virtue,” to quote the words of the Chief Justice of the Queen’s Bench.

Roger Wilkes writes in The Telegraph that, “it was only when she gave birth to a blind baby daughter, Violet, in February 1870 that she confessed that he (Sir Charles) was not the father, and blamed the infant’s affliction on a venereal disease.”

She told her husband that among her lovers were Viscount Cole, Sir Frederic Johnstone, and the Prince of Wales, “and with others - often, and in open day.”

A caricature of the dissolute, stout, but much loved monarch
A caricature of the dissolute, stout, but much loved monarch | Source

Divorce Proceedings

Sir Charles was angry at being cuckolded and petitioned for divorce from Harriet. The editors of today’s tabloids and gossip TV would have thought they had died and gone to heaven, carried there on the backs of golden, flying unicorns.

Roger Wilkes suggests the worst of the scandal was made to go away with royal money being paid to Viscount Cole who took the fall and confessed to an adulterous coupling with Lady Mordaunt.

The Telegraph notes that the “divorce case lasted for several years, with the public treated to further titillation by the Prince’s appearance in the witness-box to deny any impropriety.” Bertie gave evidence in court but only as a witness not as an accused lover of Lady Mordaunt; never before had an heir to the British throne been forced to give testimony in an open court.

But Harriet had a defence of her own; this was that she was mentally unbalanced and unable grasp the gravity of her extramarital activities in the boudoir. The jury agreed with her, but Sir Charles continued to pursue a divorce, while Harriet’s family continued to drag out proceedings.

The two thousand pounds a year (about £167,000 in today’s money) that came from Sir Charles was certainly an incentive to keep the marriage going, if in name only, as long as possible.

Harriet’s parents conspired to have the psychiatric diagnosis confirmed and asserted that her confession of adultery was simply the ravings of an unhinged woman. But, Sir Charles eventually got his divorce in 1875.

Aftermath of the Scandalous Affair

The downside of Lady Mordaunt’s defence was that she was declared insane and locked away in an asylum for the remaining 35 years of her life. But, was Lady Mordaunt really mad? Biographer Diana Souhami feels the finding of insanity was a convenient way of punishing Harriet and, at the same time, keeping her royal entanglement quiet. However, Royce Ryton and Michael Havers, who wrote about another scandal involving the Prince of Wales, claim that Harriet was obviously deranged.

The Prince of Wales, of course, suffered no consequences other than a severe tongue lashing from his mother, Queen Victoria, and was happy to continue his playboy lifestyle.

Eventually, he succeeded his mother on the throne in 1901. At his coronation he had a special box set aside for his mistresses, who he called “wifelets.” When on his deathbed in 1910, Bertie’s his wife, Princess Alexandra, allowed his favourite mistress, Alice Keppel, to be at his side. Given the way he abused his body he survived a surprisingly long 68 years.

Alice Keppel
Alice Keppel | Source

Bonus Factoids

Alice Keppel’s great-granddaughter, Camilla Parker Bowles, became the mistress and, later, wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, the current heir to the throne of England and great-great-grandson of Edward VII.

Alexander Thynn, 7th Marquess of Bath is 83 years old. The married peer refers to the estimated 74 girlfriends who have been partners in his life as “wifelets.” His great-grandmother was Harriet Mordaunt.

The apple does not fall far from the tree.

Sources

“Royal Mistresses and Bastards: Fact and Fiction, 1714–1936.” Anthony John Camp, self published, September, 2007.

“A Love Seat Fit for a King.” Eugene Costello, The Daily Mail, March 22, 2010.

“Sex Mad – and off to the Asylum to Prove it.” Roger Wilkes, The Telegraph, January 16, 2002.

“Sir Richard Hamilton, Bt.” Obituary, The Telegraph, October 3, 2001.

“Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter.” Diana Souhami, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998.

“The Royal Baccarat Scandal.” Royce Ryton and Michael Havers, Samuel French Ltd., 1990.

“Baby Daddies and Dandy Scandals.” Emma Garman, The New Enquiry, November 30, 2012.

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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 15 months ago from Australia

      Great hub - my life seems so boring! (Don't even have a swan-necked bath.)

    • Sparrowlet profile image

      Katharine L Sparrow 17 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Wonderfully entertaining hub! I knew some about the infamous Bertie, but your delicious detail added a spicy layer to my fund of knowledge on the topic. Love the little plugs of humor. Great hub.