8 scandals that shocked Georgian Britain
Mass-produced newspapers, pamphlets and satirical drawings kept a voracious Georgian public well sated with salacious stories and gossip, but every now and again there would be a scandal that went too far. From royal marriages to ghostly murder enquiries, Emily Brand explores eight incidents that rocked Georgian Britain to its core
The king’s brother weds a widowed commoner
In November 1771, Henry, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn, handed his brother, George III, a note. In it he confessed his marriage to a young widow, Anne Horton (née Luttrell), in a secret ceremony. The horrified king demanded that the couple leave court, declaring that the alliance of prince and commoner “must inevitably ruin him and distress his relations”.
Within days, gossip columns were awash with tales of the duke being “desperately in love”. Wedding prints were published in The Lady’s Magazine, and letters alleged details of Anne’s disreputable father and “eye-lashes a yard long”. “The violence of the duke’s attachment to Mrs Horton has ended in a terrible mess,” wrote one gentleman. “What an event,” gasped another – “the Luttrell Duchess of Cumberland!”
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In the second half of the 18th century, matrimony in the fashionable Georgian world was undergoing a sea change. Expectations of love within marriage blossomed, and members of the younger generation of the upper classes were increasingly defying arranged matches. And when legislation passed in 1753 laid out strict requirements for a valid marriage, including parental consent for people under 21, a trend for eloping to Scotland was launched.
For the royal family, an unsuitable match risked damaging foreign alliances and the reputation of the monarchy itself. Cumberland had already proved himself to be a liability: having allegedly married another commoner in secret in 1767, two years later he had been sued for ‘criminal conversation’ with a baron’s wife. After this latest indiscretion, the king took decisive action.
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The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 forbade descendants of George II from marrying without the monarch’s permission. (The Duke of Gloucester subsequently admitted sheepishly that he had married an illegitimate commoner in 1766.) Later on, the act caused problems for the king’s son, the future George IV, whose clandestine marriage to a Catholic widow in 1785 would be ruled illegitimate. In 2013, the legislation was amended so that only the first six people in the line of succession required the monarch’s permission.
The trial of the swindling ‘thief takers’
Before the establishment of professional policing, law enforcement relied on a network of local parish constables, watchmen and ‘thief-takers’, who claimed state rewards for apprehending criminals. In 1756, the arrest of publican and thief-taker Stephen MacDaniel exposed the potential for corruption that skulked at the heart of the 18th-century criminal justice system. Working with accomplices for around six years, MacDaniel regularly brought offenders before London’s magistrates.
But after he brought forward two ‘thieves’ in 1754, one accomplice exposed their scam: with food, gin and tales of expensive goods, they persuaded “poor friendless Lads” to take part in or witness the ‘robbery’ of one of their own men, before another gang member apprehended them. They were then hauled before the courts to face a death sentence.
Following MacDaniel’s trial, along with three others, for perversion of justice in February 1756, it was estimated that they had racked up £1,200 in rewards. The men were sentenced to imprisonment and the pillory, where public rage was so acute that “such a multitude of people was never known to be assembled on the like occasion”, according to the Public Advertiser. Two men died after being beaten in the pillory; MacDaniel and the other died later in Newgate Prison.
Murder and the Cock Lane Ghost
In January 1762, word spread around London that a man had been accused of murder – with the finger being pointed at him from beyond the grave. Investigating a series of seemingly supernatural knocks only made in the presence of Richard Parsons’ young daughter, Elizabeth, an excited Methodist preacher established communication and ascertained that the ‘ghost’ was Fanny, the recently deceased mistress of Parsons’ former lodger, William Kent – who was accused by the phantom of her murder by arsenic poisoning.
Newspapers picked up the story, and the public – including author Samuel Johnson and Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany – crowded into the house in Cock Lane for seances. Public opinion was divided: while terrified witnesses insisted that it was “no laughing matter”, The London Magazine wrote that anyone who “exercises his rational faculties, unfettered by the chains and shackles of superstition” must recognise this as fraud.
Word spread around London that a man had been accused of murder – with the finger being pointed at him from beyond the grave
In February the affair descended into revulsion and then dismay as an investigative committee resorted to opening Fanny’s coffin. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was discovered to have made the noises by scratching at bits of wood hidden in her bedsheets – on the orders of her father, who had sought revenge on Kent over a disputed debt. The hoax uncovered, Kent was cleared of the “wicked and scandalous imputation”, while Parsons was found guilty of conspiracy, and sentenced to imprisonment and the pillory.
The affair of the Cock Lane Ghost energised religious controversy, delivering a public blow to the reputation of the more superstitious Methodism against ‘rational’ Anglican thought. Along with other impostures – including the 17th-century Bilston boy who faked demonic possession to avoid school, and the 1720s woman who appeared to give birth to rabbits – such Georgian ghost hoaxes further dented belief in the supernatural in an increasingly scientific world.
The prime minister parades his mistress, then divorces his wife
When Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton, discreetly separated from his wife, Anne Liddell, in 1764, he was careful to avoid scandal. Unfortunately, this prudence did not extend to his relationship with courtesan Nancy Parsons, who was branded “one of the commonest creatures in London” by gossip Horace Walpole. Living openly with his mistress, Grafton allowed her to preside over his dinner table and paraded her at the opera.
As a promising young politician, this was unwise; after he became prime minister in 1768, it was a gift to his enemies. As bad press and titillating exposés proliferated, Grafton came to embody all the out-of-touch vices of the elite, and his fitness for office was questioned. “When we see a man act in this manner we may admit the shameless depravity of his heart,” proclaimed one commentator, “but what are we to think of his understanding?” Grafton was accused of neglecting his country and setting Nancy’s whims over national security. Claiming that the couple had illegally smuggled goods from France, politician John Wilkes even called for their arrest.
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When the duchess fell pregnant by her own lover, the Earl of Upper Ossory, a divorce by Act of Parliament was the only option for salvaging their reputations and remarrying. Despite colluding to keep the dirtiest laundry from court, servants’ testimonies of illicit trysts were printed and read voraciously. The divorce was finalised in March 1769, and both remarried within weeks. (Nancy was dropped unceremoniously.)
As the public became increasingly disillusioned with the “Folly and Excess” of those in power, the scandal sparked a series of (unsuccessful) calls for legislation prohibiting adultery. Grafton’s record as the only prime minister to divorce and remarry while in office was broken only with the recent tenure of Boris Johnson.
The South Sea Bubble pushes Britain to bankruptcy
In the autumn of 1720, London was in shock and desolation. Following a summer of unparalleled investment mania, the implosion of stocks in the South Sea Company had bankrupted thousands and brought the economy to its knees. “The vast inundation of the S. Sea has drowned all,” regretted poet Alexander Pope, “except a few unrighteous men” who had grown “richer for the calamities of others”.
In 1713, the company had been licensed to conduct the slave trade with Spanish America, and huge profits were promised. When those failed to materialise, the company directors dabbled in illicit trading, and evaded providing accounts. In 1720, the government became further entangled when the company secured an agreement to refinance the national debt. Hopes were raised of expanding trade and increasing the value of shares; a propaganda campaign plugged the actual short fall and boosted public confidence, while new money was paid out to older investors – a ponzi scheme.
In 1713, the company had been licensed to conduct the slave trade with Spanish America, and huge profits were promised. When those failed to materialise, the company directors dabbled in illicit trading, and evaded providing accounts
Many people bought shares on credit in hopes of huge profits from selling them in future. Share prices surged to over £1,000 in August, then – as people sought to realise their profits, and no income from the company materialised – plummeted, falling to £124 in December. Amid this “general calamity”, fortunes disappeared and suicide rates soared. The company’s chief cashier fled with a ledger of incriminating evidence. Along with concurrent financial bubbles in France and the Dutch Republic, the fraud contributed to the first international stock market crash.
Amid intense popular backlash, the scheme was lambasted in newspapers and prints. Outrage was directed, of course, at greedy speculators; there was little sympathy for African lives stolen and lost. The estates of company directors were confiscated to alleviate the national debt, and John Aislabie – the unrepentant chancellor of the Exchequer, who had made a fortune – was imprisoned. The newly appointed chancellor, Robert Walpole, introduced emergency measures to shore up Britain’s economy, ultimately emerging as the nation’s first ‘prime minister’.
A love triangle and shambolic duels
The unconventional courtship between renowned singer Elizabeth Linley and aspiring young writer Richard Brinsley Sheridan began with a clandestine flight to France in March 1772. That alone would spark sensation enough, but Sheridan’s note explaining that he was acting to protect Elizabeth from the unwanted advances of married military officer Thomas Mathews embroiled all three in a very public affair of honour. Retaliating with an advert in the Bath Chronicle, Mathews branded Sheridan a “Liar and treacherous Scoundrel”; feeling bound by “the laws of honour”, the defamed Sheridan challenged him to a duel.
Duelling was a murky business. Despite being a popularly accepted means for an upper-class gentleman to defend his reputation – or that of a lady – he might yet be charged with manslaughter or murder. Over the Georgian era, hundreds of such combats with sword or pistol were recorded in England (the true number can never be known), provoked by slights ranging from accusations of military cowardice to writing unchivalrous poetry about a lady.
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When Sheridan and Mathews clashed swords in a London tavern in May 1772, the latter was quickly disarmed and forced to apologise. Unable to bear the humiliation – Sheridan jubilantly set about spreading the story – Mathews issued another challenge. The even messier second duel, fought near Bath in July, was derided in the press as “an unmanly combat”. According to one letter, after both men’s swords shattered, “they threw each other down, and with the broken Pieces hacked at each other rolling upon the Ground”.
Mathews fled, leaving his opponent with apparently fatal wounds. Recovering, Sheridan and Elizabeth were legally married, albeit in the face of reluctance from both families. Enacted and reported in mortifying detail by the newspapers, the affair was later immortalised in poetry, ballads and even in Sheridan’s own plays.
From ambitious MP to “a disgrace to the age”
While sex scandals were very much grist to the 18th-century gossip mill, the disgrace of wealthy 24-year-old writer and MP William Beckford in autumn 1784 stood apart. He had been discovered in flagrante with 16-year-old William Courtenay, heir to Powderham Castle in Devon, after the boy’s tutor peered through a bedroom keyhole. Even worse came when information from their letters, intercepted by Courtenay’s uncle, was leaked to the press.
To modern eyes, the most troubling aspect would be the age difference: though it’s uncertain when the relationship began, Courtenay was just 11 when the two met. For Georgian society, the charge of homosexuality caused more consternation. Sodomy was illegal – a capital offence, in fact. Though same-sex relationships are well attested in records of the time, exposure could mean imprisonment or execution. Long-standing rumours about Beckford’s sexuality had been quelled by his marriage in 1783. But the new revelations, spread by newspapers, letters and tea-table chatter, derailed both of the men’s lives.
For Georgian society, the charge of homosexuality caused more consternation. Sodomy was illegal – a capital offence, in fact... Long-standing rumours about Beckford’s sexuality had been quelled by his marriage in 1783
Beckford’s expected peerage evaporated, and he lamented that Courtenay, “poor wretch… is mangled, bruised and smashed every day”. The Morning Herald wrote scornfully of “a Grammatical mistake of Mr. B and the Hon. Mr. C, in regard to the genders”, sinking them “below the lowest class of brutes”. Lady Milbanke – later embroiled in similar scandal as the mother-in-law of Lord Byron – scoffed: “What an infamous wretch is Beckford! & what a disgrace to the Age that he should be suffered to walk about!”
Ignoring his mother’s recommendation to dispel suspicion by gathering “half a dozen women about him” in Covent Garden, Beckford escaped social censure and potential arrest with a self-imposed exile in Europe until 1796, living reclusively thereafter. Courtenay continued to be “reviled and insulted” by neighbours decades later, eventually emigrating to America in 1811. The death penalty for homosexual sex was abolished in 1861, 17 years after Beckford’s death. It was not decriminalised until 1967.
George IV brands his queen a cheat – hypocritically
In August 1820, the sensational trial of Queen Caroline, estranged wife of newly minted George IV, dominated the news. After 25 years of unhappy marriage – 15 of which had been blighted by very public mud-slinging about promiscuity and infidelities on both sides – she stood formally accused of adultery. A bill was proposed to dissolve their marriage and deprive her of the rank of queen; a guilty verdict on this charge from the Houses of Parliament would allow the king to discard her once and for all.
Unfortunately for the unpopular George, the story snowballed into much more than just another salacious royal dispute, as the ‘persecution’ of his wife was condemned in the press and lampooned in satirical prints. Fervent support for Caroline sprang up among all classes. According to radical journalist William Cobbett, the affair “let loose for a time every tongue and pen in England”.
For some, the case was entwined with women’s rights. “Poor woman,” Jane Austen had observed as early as 1813, “I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a woman, and because I hate her husband.” The parliamentary debate – amounting to a trial of the queen – highlighted the double standards in divorce law: whereas men could sue on the basis of adultery, women could not escape marriage without evidence of physical cruelty. So while witnesses spilled damning details of Caroline bathing with her Italian lover, George’s succession of brazen infidelities was deemed irrelevant.
The case also provided a rallying point for a public eager to show their displeasure with their extravagant new monarch and his increasingly oppressive Tory government. Provoking a “daily mobbing” of parliament and hundreds of petitions that poured in from across the country, the trial not only sparked popular political protest but also proved that it could be effective.
The force of public opinion made it clear that the proposed bill would never pass in the Commons. It was ultimately dropped, providing a victory of sorts for the people and an important moment in 19th-century radical activism. Of the Tory government, one newspaper gloated that: “They are beaten, disgraced, and humbled, and put in that place which they deserve.”
This article was first published in the September 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Emily Brand specialises in social history and romantic relationships during the long 18th century. She is the author of The Fall of the House of Byron (John Murray, 2020) has previously worked as an editor of history and classic literature for the University of Oxford, and has since provided historical consultancy for television – including reality dating show The Courtship.