The Duke of Cumberland and his valet: a bloody tale of attempted murder

In the early hours of a May morning in 1810, blood-curdling cries came from the darkened bedchamber of the Duke of Cumberland. The duke – who was the fifth son of King George III – would be at the centre of many lurid scandals that captured public imagination in Britain, though none would haunt him more than the mysterious, bloody death of his valet, Joseph Sellis. Writing for History Extra, historian Catherine Curzon shares the remarkable tale…

Prince Ernest Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland and fifth son of King George III

Every family has its villain, the rotten old branch on the family tree, a ‘black sheep’. The royal House of Hanover certainly wasn’t short of questionable uncles and eccentric aunts, but in the early 19th century, one figure towered above them all in the public consciousness. As far as the people of Great Britain were concerned, the thoroughly bad lot at the heart of the ruling house was Prince Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (1771-1851).

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The fifth son of King George III [r1760–1820] and Charlotte of Mecklenburg, Cumberland became known for his frightful visage, which were the result of battle injuries, and his torrid affairs. One day destined to wear the crown of Hanover [a German kingdom that existed between 1814-66, and which Ernest Augustus would rule between 1837-1851], Cumberland’s road to the throne was paved with scandal.

Of all of the scandals that he weathered, however, one in particular would haunt him for decades. It was a supposed tangle of murder and sex, and it all began in the early hours of 31 May 1810. As St James’s Palace slumbered, a blood-curdling, agonised cry of “Neale! Neale! I am murdered!” was heard from the darkened bedchamber of the Duke of Cumberland. Yet what exactly had happened in the hours leading up to that cry?

A mysterious attack

Deep in the darkest hours of the night, sometime between 2am and 3am, an assailant crept into Cumberland’s opulent bedroom. Lit by a dark lantern, that assailant slid open a drawer and took out the duke’s own recently-sharpened sabre, soon to become a key piece of evidence in a most singular crime. Gripping the razor-edged sword, the assailant then crept to the bed and let the blade fall in what should have been a deadly arc.

The first blow woke the duke and split his skull wide open, the wound so severe that it exposed his brain. With a cry, the duke stumbled from his bed as the blade fell again and again, until four wounds had been inflicted on Cumberland’s head. The duke’s life was saved by the lucky fact that it was the flat of the blade, and not the edge, which connected with his skull. In fact, the duke not only survived but, fired by adrenaline, began making a significant din.

Cumberland’s cries of anguish soon brought help in the dutiful form of Cornelius Neale, his page, who was confronted by a grisly sight. The wound in Cumberland’s skull was pouring with blood. Neale snatched up a poker as he entered the bedroom, expecting to find the attacker still there. In fact, the room was empty save for the injured duke. There on the floor lay the bloody sabre and just beyond it, an open doorway through which the attacker had fled into the palace.

Neale was torn between giving chase and helping his master, but he chose to attend the duke who was, by now, rather wobbly. He accompanied Cumberland to the safety of a porter’s room and then, with medical help summoned, the search of the palace began. The household staff were summoned and all but one rallied to the call. The missing man was Joseph Sellis, a long-serving valet, and he would soon become one of the most infamous men in the kingdom.

Sellis might have been missing but his personalised slippers were not, for they were discovered hidden in a closet in the duke’s bedroom: the same closet, it was soon suspected, in which Cumberland’s attacker had concealed himself before creeping out to commit his crime. With his sudden and unexplained disappearance, questions began to be asked about the absent Sellis. Had he fallen victim to the escaping assailant? Or might he, in a horrific turn of events, actually be the attacker?

As the porter and Mrs Neale made their way to Sellis’s rooms, they found a disturbing trail had been laid. Every door between the duke’s room and that of the missing valet stood open, as though they had been used as an escape route. The door of Sellis’s room, however, was ominously closed and from behind that locked door frightful sounds of gurgling and spilling liquid could be heard.

When the door was finally opened, they found Joseph Sellis within. He was dead, his throat ferociously slashed. Yet who had done the deed? Could such a terrible injury really be self-inflicted?

A tale of theft and scandal

As the day dawned, Samuel Thomas Adams, coroner of the king’s household, opened an inquest into the death of Sellis. The inquest was to uncover a tale of theft and scandal, and raised more questions that it answered.

Joseph Sellis had come a long way since the days of his childhood in Corsica, the French island in the Mediterranean Sea. He had been in the Duke of Cumberland’s service for five years and was a popular man with the royal family, even becoming one of just two people to be trusted with the key to Queen Charlotte’s bedchamber. At the inquest, however, a rather different sort of fellow emerged, along with a history that had already been blackened by accusations of criminality.

Sellis, it seemed, had once served as valet to a gentleman named Mr Church with whom he had resided in New York. During Sellis’s employment, Church’s desk had been burgled by an unknown member of the household. The thief smashed open a chest with a hammer and stole a large sum of money, a valuable gold watch and a showy diamond pin. Church was determined to catch the thief, sure that the wrongdoer was someone in his employ. He questioned the members of his household and decided that the guilty party must be none other than Joseph Sellis: Sellis alone had free access to Church’s private apartments and amongst his personal possessions was a hammer, the head of which perfectly matched the marks left on the pillaged chest.

The circumstantial nature of the evidence meant that no formal charges could be brought against Sellis but Church fired him on the spot. Surprisingly, given that he was suspected of being a thief, the charitable Mr Church gave Sellis a generous severance payment. Church wasn’t the only man who recalled meeting Sellis in New York though, and the jury at the inquest heard that the dead valet had been a vocal and committed supporter of American independence, not to mention a critic of King George III: hardly the sort of man one might expect to find on the royal payroll just a few years later.

Yet on his return to British shores, Sellis had done rather well for himself. He joined the household staff of Lord Mount Edgcumbe, who introduced him to the Duke of Cumberland. Impressed by Sellis’s dedication to duty, Cumberland gave him a position – not bad for a suspected thief.

Conspiracy theories and accusations

The inquiry and the prevailing public opinion was that Sellis was the guilty party in the events at St James’s Palace, just as he seemed to have been in New York. Witnesses came forward to tell of all sorts of bizarre happenings involving the dead valet, including concealed pokers and pistols hidden in the domestic staff quarters at the palace.

A housemaid named Sarah Varley came forward to say that she had found a pistol hidden behind Sellis’s bed, though Cornelius Neale claimed ownership of it. Neale claimed that Sellis had begun a groundless vendetta against him a year earlier, when Sellis accused Neale of stealing from the household and threatened to tell the duke. Worried about the seemingly unbalanced Sellis, Neale procured a pistol. Now he stated that he believed Sellis had intended to murder Cumberland and frame him for the murder, as part of that ongoing and apparently illogical vendetta. When Sellis’s plan failed, Neale hypothesised, he slit his own throat to escape the law. Members of the household staff may have claimed that Sellis had a hot temper, but was he really capable of such a brutal scheme?

The inquiry decided that Sellis had attacked the duke but, failing in his plan to murder him, threw down his weapon and took off running and, upon his return to his own room he slashed his own throat. The jury took a trip to the palace and saw for themselves the blood-spattered walls and the footprints left by Neale, who had trodden on the bloody sabre in his rush to help Cumberland. They viewed the sabre, which Sellis himself had sharpened just days earlier, and they even peeked in on the body of Joseph Sellis, still lying on the bed where he had died and covered from throat to feet in his own dried blood, his bloody and hacked neck cloth tattered and tied around his neck. The wound was so deep that only his spine had stopped the blade. Later, the sheer ferocity of the attack led some to speculate that there was no way the wound could have been self-inflicted.

The washbasin in Sellis’s room was filled with blood but the straight razor that had killed him now became a point of discussion. It was nowhere near the dead man’s hand, and the jury wanted to know why. In fact, Sergeant Joseph Creighton explained that he had picked up the razor when he arrived to examine the scene, and put it down several feet from the bed, not in its original position. The crime scene hadn’t just been contaminated, it had been rearranged. Later, the distance of the razor from the supposed suicidal victim became a sure sign of conspiracy to Cumberland’s critics.

The duke’s survival in the care of Doctor Henry Halford seemed like a miracle. Meanwhile, the public couldn’t get enough of this grisly turn of events and they flocked to the palace, where they were admitted a few at a time to view the crime scene and Sellis’s rooms. The dead valet had been removed but everything else remained as it had been on that fatal evening, with blood splashes clearly visible in both the duke’s bedroom and that of his valet. Sellis was buried in an unmarked grave by night, but he didn’t go unmourned, leaving behind a wife and four children.

The verdict

The jury decided that Sellis had attacked the duke before taking his own life and this was the official verdict of the inquiry. Sellis’s bereaved wife, Mary Ann, however, would not accept it. She maintained that her husband was in high spirits and was looking forward to accompanying Cumberland to Windsor the following day. She was certain that he would not, could not be a killer. Perhaps the jury should look a little more closely at the oh-so-helpful Neale, she suspected, for her late husband had written to the duke the previous year and accused Neale of fiddling his expenses. Was this not motive to kill Sellis and frame him for the crime?

Those looking for even more scandal imagined a scandalous triangle, suggesting that Sellis and Cumberland were lovers until Neale arrived and supplanted Sellis in his employer’s bed. On the night in question, had Sellis discovered the men together and attacked the duke in a rage, causing Cumberland to order Sellis’s murder to silence him? When these rumours appeared in print, Cumberland sued the publisher for libel and won.

Yet the ghost of Joseph Sellis wouldn’t rest in peace and for the rest of Cumberland’s life, rumours of his valet’s death dogged him. Years later, the husband of one of the duke’s lovers cut his own throat and once again, the gruesome case of Cumberland and Sellis was in the news. When rumours of homosexual intrigues involving the three men appeared in print again in 1833, Cumberland went back to the libel courts. Once again, he won.

In truth, Cumberland was not half as villainous of his political enemies liked to claim. Physically disfigured and hard-line in his political beliefs, his fearsome visage made him a handy villain; couple that with an authoritarian attitude, and he was a man who found it difficult to make friends. Despite his reputation though, when he became King of Hanover, Cumberland was seen by many to be a mostly benevolent and well-liked monarch, favouring diplomacy over brute force.

Despite this, his name remains forever linked to scandal and one of the bloodiest royal crimes in the Georgian era and he is still, to some, the bogeyman of Hanover.

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Catherine Curzon is the author of Queens of Georgian Britain (Pen and Sword Books, 2017). Curzon also runs an 18th-century themed website named A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life.