The Duke of Cumberland Revisited

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Although the author has studied the British Royal Family since he was 9, he does not profess his knowledge to be infallible on the subject. He can, and sometimes does, make mistakes. One such mistake was recently made when he asserted in his last post that Prince Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, later King Ernest Augustus l of Hanover, was unique among the sons of George lll because he was apparently faithful to his wife. Upon re-reading the first volume of The Greville Diaries, however, he discovered that Charles Greville, their celebrated author, begged to differ with that assertion. In the chapter ironically entitled The Charm of Cumberland, the diarist chronicles two incidents that clearly demonstrate the Duke’s loyalty toward his wife to have been as sincere as that of his brothers toward their spouces, i.e. not at all.

It has long been rumored that Prince Ernest, half of whose face was permanently disfigured from a saber wound he received while serving in the War of the First Coalition in 1793, raped his little sister Princess Sophia and was the father of her secret illegitimate son. Although most serious historians doubt this accusation is true, Greville writes that it was well known throughout the Court of St. James that Queen Charlotte had banned the Duke from ever entering his sisters’ apartments. He further claims that the then Prince of Wales, later King George lV, had also warned the princesses to never allow themselves to be left alone in Cumberland’s presence. While the circumstantial evidence both then and now points to the father of Princess Sophia’s son having been Major-General Thomas Garth, an equerry in George lll’s household, Charles Greville was told in 1829 by Lord Bathurst that Princess Sophia had written in one of her letters to General Garth, copies of which had been used by her son in an attempt to blackmail the Royal Family, that the Duke of Cumberland had attempted to sexually assault her.

Lady Lyndhurst, the wife of The Lord Chancellor in 1828, was aware enough of Prince Ernst’s notoriety to deny him entry to her house when he came to call one day while her husband was elsewhere. The diarist writes that the Duke vowed half jokingly and half menacingly that he would return and not be deterred a second time. Cumberland, who at this point had been married to his first cousin Princess Fredericka of Mecklenburg-Strelitz for thirteen years, made good his vow and next paid a visit to Lady Lyndhurst that was so early in the morning that she hadn’t had time to inform the servants not to let him in. They did so and Prince Ernest, according to Lady Lyndhurst, attempted to rape her. She fought him off and he fled. He then spread the rumor that she had invited him over for a tryst and was now telling the lie that he had assaulted her. An account of the Duke’s first aborted visit to the Lyndhurst household eventually made its way into a London newspaper. He wrote Lord Lyndhurst ordering that The Lord Chancellor write the paper demanding a retraction. Lord Lyndhurst refused and in spite of repeated attempts by Prince Ernest to change his mind, which included the Duke insinuating that he might plant his calumnious version of the subsequent event in another paper, Lord Lyndhurst remained steadfast. Cumberland soon lost his nerve, but not before his and Lyndhurst’s mutual political enemies made the most out of the potential scandal.

In 1830 another sexual scandal involving the Duke was reported in The Times, this one concerning the suicide of Lord Graves. The peer had slit his throat shortly after catching Prince Ernest in flagrante delicto with his wife at the Hampton Court home of Lady Landsdowne. There was a brief inquest that declared the cause of death to be insanity. The Times first criticized the inquest, then printed a seemingly unrelated article attacking the Duke. Charles Greville then writes that the paper was forced to retract its article concerning the Duke. Although not stated directly, as was the custom at the time, both articles sent a clear message to the esoteric few that Prince Ernest’s indiscreet affair with Lady Graves proved to be the straw that broke the back of Lord Graves’ sanity.

Ghislain de Diesbach writes in Secrets of the Gotha that King Ernest Augustus l, what the Duke became after inheriting the Hanoverian throne in 1837, became so distraught over his Queen Consort’s death in 1841 that he ordered her bedchamber be prepared every night as if she was about to retire for the evening until his own death ten years later. Perhaps guilt over his marital infidelities compelled him to mourn Queen Fredericka’s passing in a manner that was an eerie precursor to, and may’ve served as the inspiration for, the manifold eccentric and disturbing ways in which his niece Queen Victoria began mourning the death of her beloved husband Prince Albert less than twenty years later.

Although Charles Greville’s diary is held in high esteem by most historians, a close examination of its contents reveals it to be the work of a chronicler as adept at recalling rumors and innuendo as he was at writing down incontestable facts. Still, his only agenda seemed to be to record the truth as best he could decipher it, which in late Georgian, early Victorian England was no simple task. Regarding the sexual exploits of the Duke of Cumberland after he wed, the author can only offer this post as a mea culpa to his readers for having overlooked these anecdotes that so clearly demonstrate the married Duke’s lack of sexual propriety. The author, however, stands by his concluding remarks regarding Ernest Augustus’s character in his last post. Human beings are such a mix of good and evil as to be perfectly imperfect, and Prince Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, later King Ernest Augustus l of Hanover, was no exception.