The Harriet Mordaunt Scandal.
A Royal Scandal: The Prince of Wales and Harriet Mordaunt.
It’s not really unusual to hear of an older man marrying a much younger woman. But in the case of Harriet Mordaunt, it became a scandal that fascinated Victorian society. Harriet was young and attractive and her story involved British royalty and led to Harriet being locked up as insane for the rest of her life.
Was a conspiracy at work?
Harriet Sarah Moncreiffe
Harriet was born in Scotland. Her family was a titled one and had the wealth that was commensurate with their standing in life – Harriet was one of sixteen children that her parents could well afford to bring up.
Her childhood was happy as her parental home was easy going and relaxed. There were many visitors to the ancestral pile, among them was the Prince of Wales.
The prince enjoyed staying at the Moncreiffe family home. All the guests did because of its informal atmosphere. For the prince in particular this was in start contrast to his own family life.
Guests enjoyed a sexual freedom that was common in the more relaxed home of the day in the upper echelons of society- another aspect that was no doubt appreciated by the prince. Whether or not he had a relationship with Harriet at this time is unknown but there were those who believed it to be so. But he most certainly did in later years
The Prince of Wales, Albert Edward
Albert was the eldest son of Queen Victoria so you can easily imagine the difference between the Moncreiffe family home and his own. He was known as Bertie to his family and friends and would one day become King Edward VII.
But like Prince Charles today, he had a long wait before he became king. Unlike today’s royals who involve themselves in charity and ambassadorial work, Bertie had plenty of time on his hands. He knew his life would become more formal once he was king so was determined to enjoy himself before that came to pass.
As a young man he was attractive and charming but he knew he could never live up to his parents’ expectations. His father, Prince Albert, had particularly rigid requirements for his son that interfered with Bertie’s pleasures.
Harriet and marriage
There was no doubt that Harriet should marry – and marry well. She was eighteen when she landed a wealthy husband, Sir Charles Mordaunt. He was older by quite some years but the picture here shows the couple’s home and gives an indication of his wealth.
The remained part of the prince’s circle of friends. Sir Charles though, as was traditional, had mistresses and this meant that Harriet saw absolutely no reason why she couldn’t take lovers of her own.
This meant that she ignored one of the golden unwritten rules of the upper classes – a married woman does not have affairs until she has given birth to at least on son and heir. This way the family bloodline remained pure.
Harriet did produce a child – a girl. Sir Charles was not too disappointed that their first born wasn’t a son. His wife was young, there was plenty of time and by giving birth she had proved her fertility.
But Harriet was worried. The baby had been born with an eye condition. Had she transmitted this to her daughter due to some sexually-transmitted disease she had contracted because of her affairs? Foolishly, she confessed to her husband. She told him about her affairs with several men, including the Prince of Wales.
Now Sir Charles was seriously upset. His wife had broken the unwritten rules and the baby whose birth he had been celebrating might not actually be his. He broke open the drawers in his wife’s desk and found letters – from the prince. He was not certain that he must divorce her.
Harriet’s father was appalled at the thought that his daughter might be divorced for adultery. He had other daughters and needed them to make good marriages. If Harriet was divorced on the grounds of adultery, the family name would be seriously tainted and he would have a lot of unmarried daughters on his hands. So he suggested that Harriet was insane.
The scandalous court case
Sir Charles was determined to go through with the divorce. But in those days, insanity, real or imagined, was a good way to get rid of an awkward female without too much disgrace. Harriet’s family stated that she had been suffering from a temporary hysteria brought about by childbirth.
This was believable to many people – childbirth was not a pleasant business in those days and Harriet had the added disadvantage of finding that her daughter had the eye condition.
Sir Charles though, who had seen the prince’s letters, insisted that she was of perfectly sound mind and simply an adulteress. He went a stage further – he demanded that the Prince of Wales should appear in court. What a scandal this was.
Needless to say, the prince denied that there had been an affair. He declared that he believed Harriet’s confession to be a symptom of her madness. And because he had his own reputation to maintain, he had her inspected by his own personal doctor. Surprise, surprise – the royal physician declared that she was insane and the prince’s reputation was in the clear.
And the letters? Sir Charles produced them and they were examined. But we just the type of messages that friends would write – there was nothing incriminating. The divorce case was duly dismissed and Harriet, now believed to be insane, was locked in an asylum for the rest of her days.
Was there a conspiracy against Harriet?
Many people thought so at the time and still do. We have to remember that:
- Harriet had seven sisters. Their reputations would have been in tatters had she been branded as an adulteress
- It may have been possible that she was persuaded by her father that she should sacrifice herself to the pretence of insanity for the sake of her family
- Harriet’s sisters did all make successful marriages so if it was a ruse, it worked well
- It’s unlikely that Harriet wanted to give up her freedom – she could have ‘recovered’ from her post-baby hysteria had she wanted to. She could have said that seeing her baby’s eye condition induced her confession
- It’s known that the prince visited Harriet at home when Sir Charles was safely away out of the country. An affair does seem likely
- Did she have unduly faith in the prince and naively believe that he would protect her? She was very young
- Did the prince justify his lies to himself, if indeed they were lies, by believing that he had protected her reputation? Or was he thinking only about himself?
- It could even be possible that the baby was the prince’s. It’s a fact that his great great grandson has a daughter who was born with an eye defect…..
What happened to the child?
The little girl was named Violet and remained in her father’s care after Harriet had been sent away. Although it’s probably more accurate to say the care he paid for in the form of nannies, tutors and nursemaids.
Although the true facts were never proved,it was later accepted that Violet’s father was not Sir Charles but one of Harriet’s lovers, Viscount Cole (pictured right).
Under oath he did not contest the assertion that he was the father of the child. It was suggested though that this was an honourable act of his part to protect the prince. He ‘did not contest’ the assertion but that’s not quite the same thing as admitting it.
Violet married well – she was married to the Marquess of Bath. As an interesting side note, her grandson, who is still alive today, claims to have had over a hundred affairs with various women since his marriage in the 1960s.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR