In 1832, Britain was gripped by a sensational libel trial that, although forgotten today, represented an important milestone in the relationship between the royal family and the media. The Duke of Cumberland, fifth son of King George III and Queen Charlotte of England (and next in line to the throne after his niece, the future Queen Victoria), went up against a London publisher, Josiah Phillips.


The cause was a book published by Phillips earlier in 1832, titled The Authentic Records of the Court of England for the last Seventy Years. It set out a series of shocking and serious allegations against the royals, including a suggestion that the duke had murdered his own valet some 20 years earlier, and covered it up.
Not only did it paint the royal family in the darkest possible light, but it claimed to have been penned by Lady Anne Hamilton, a lady-in-waiting at court, who after the book’s release denied all knowledge of the work before fleeing to France.

But how did this book – which also included accusations of royal bigamy, abuses of power and financial corruption – come to be? And what was the truth of the events of 1810 to which it referred, and around which the trial would hinge?

Who was the Duke of Cumberland?

Born in June 1771, Prince Ernest Augustus was the fifth son of King George III and Queen Charlotte. The peerage of the Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale was created for him in 1799 by his father.

The duke was no stranger to scandal. He cut a memorable figure, his face bearing gruesome scars from the battle of Tournai in 1794, a skirmish in which he also lost sight in one eye.

Despite this outward show of patriotism, however, he courted controversy and faced criticism from the public as well as newspapers and satirists of the day.

He had various affairs with married women and was forcibly ejected from more than one aristocratic house. His illegitimate children were thought to be numerous, though this did not stop his marriage in 1815 to his first cousin, Duchess Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

Ernest and Frederica met while she was still married to her second husband, Prince Frederick William of Solms-Braunfels, though the couple was estranged. Frederica and William later agreed to divorce, freeing her to marry the duke, but many suspected foul play when William suddenly died in 1814, before divorce took place.

The match between Ernest and Frederica was deemed so unsuitable that Queen Charlotte refused to receive her new daughter-in-law at court – perhaps influenced by the fact that Frederica had, some years prior, been unofficially engaged to Ernest’s younger brother Adolphus, with whispers that she had ended things with the younger prince for another man. Likewise, parliament rejected the duke’s requests to increase his yearly allowance. But, predating his controversial marriage, another far sinister scandal lurked in the royal shadows.

The death of the valet

On 31 May 1810, at two o’clock in the morning, cries rung out from St James’ Palace. Inside his bedchamber, the Duke of Cumberland had been attacked by a figure in the darkness, who slashed at him with a sabre before fleeing the scene.

Down the corridor, the duke’s valet Joseph Sellis had apparently locked his door. Through it, palace guards could hear a terrible gurgling. Breaking in, they found Sellis lying on the bed gasping his final breaths, his throat having been cut.

At first glance, it appeared as though Sellis had taken his own life after failing to assassinate his master. But all was not quite as it seemed. The razor used on Sellis lay discarded far from the body. It had been used blunt side only, not likely the action of a man intent on a speedy suicide.

Read more |

Suspicion immediately rose. Was Sellis the real target, and the attack on the duke merely a distraction? Had the duke himself killed his servant? Salacious gossip of blackmail, sexual relations and bribery abounded. Maps of the crime scene were sold to the public, and Sellis’s room was even opened to crowds of amateur detectives, the blood splatters still visible across the walls and floor for all to see.

An inquest began the day after Sellis’s death, and ruled it as a suicide. For the duke, however, this event would cast a long shadow on his already tarnished reputation. Indeed, fascination with his role in the events of 1810, dubbed ‘the memorable year,’ was only just beginning.

Who wrote The Authentic Records and why?

When The Authentic Records of the Court of England for the Last Seventy Years first appeared in 1832, it was instantly explosive, opening old wounds and shocking British readers.

“There are […] murderers in the world, wallowing in their ill-gotten wealth,” its preface claimed excitedly, “who may be desirous of suppressing these unwelcome truths.” Anticipating a backlash from the start, its authors – whoever they were – professed themselves “neither to be bought nor intimidated!”

Inside, it repeated the rumours about the Duke of Cumberland’s involvement in Sellis’s death and gave a blow-by-blow account of the night in question, alleging the ways in which the royal had carried out the attack.

But just who had written this riveting account of royal misadventure? The name given on the title page was Lady Anne Hamilton, a lady-in-waiting to George IV’s estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick.

Hamilton was horrified by the association. It was not the first time she had been embroiled so publicly in royal scandal. Ten years earlier, in 1822, another anonymous work claimed to include the deathbed confessions of George IV’s mistress, Frances Villiers. Among them were details of Villiers’ apparent abuses of Queen Caroline – for whom she also acted as personal attendant.

The text, the book’s editors claimed, had been copied directly from letters supplied to them by Hamilton. In both instances Hamilton denied any knowledge of the works and, in 1832, found herself so socially humiliated that she escaped to France.

A more likely candidate for authorship of The Authentic Records is Olivia Serres, the daughter of a house painter who claimed to be the illegitimate child of Prince Henry, a grandson of King George II.

Serres had, according to Hamilton, gained her confidence before stealing certain papers from her to write her exposé. Many believed Serres a probable author of the 1832 book, perhaps produced to settle scores after her claims of royal lineage were repeatedly discredited and her position at court denied.

The Duke of Cumberland vs the press

Ultimately, it was impossible to prove who had actually penned the text. Nevertheless, Cumberland was so incensed by the repetition of accusations levelled at him in 1810 that he went after the book’s publisher, Josiah Phillips.

The result was a sensational trial at the King’s Bench [a branch of Great Britain and Ireland’s high courts], in which the duke himself took to the stand – a remarkable sight, as several newspapers noted. Several other witnesses were called to discredit the book’s claims, including the coroner who had originally ruled Sellis’s death as a suicide years before and who now confirmed his findings with renewed fervour.

Although Phillips’s defence argued that the allegations made in the book were a matter of public interest, the prosecution were quick to condemn its creators as possessing “no ordinary amount of malice”. They even gave dramatic readings from the text before the jury in attempts to demonstrate its apparent ridiculousness. The jury were convinced and found Phillips guilty, though he fled to exile before he could be imprisoned.

Although largely overlooked today, the mysterious events of 1810 and those that followed 22 years later reveal much about the delicate relationship between the British crown and press. The publication of The Authentic Records and the trial that swiftly followed it crystallised questions of public interest and private action, and tested the line between rumour and reporting.



Dr Madeleine Pelling
Dr Madeleine PellingHistorian and author

Dr Madeleine Pelling is a historian, writer and podcast host, specialising in early modern Britain. Her books include Writing on the Wall: Graffiti, Rebellion and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Britain (Profile Books, 2024) and Pop Enlightenments: The Eighteenth-Century Now (co-edited with Dr Emrys Jones, forthcoming)