The Scandalous Lady Worsley.
In the eighteenth century, England was rocked by the scandalous story of Lord and Lady Worsley and her lover, George Bisset. There were many scandals amongst the aristocracy in those days but the case Seymour Worsley was seen to be one of the worst – certainly the most entertaining.
Born as Seymour Fleming to a wealthy family, she married Sir Richard Worsley when she was only seventeen. The couple had a child but the marriage wasn’t a success. Lady Worsley soon sought the company of other men and her eye landed upon George Bisset, a neighbour and a friend and military colleague of Sir Richard’s.
The affair soon resulted in a pregnancy. It’s believed that Worsley knew that his wife’s child was fathered by Bisset but he accepted the child as his own rather than face the embarrassment of the world knowing about Seymour’s affair.However, all of England was soon to know.
Seymour was desperately unhappy with Worsley and she wanted to run off with George, her lover. This they did and Worsley was furious. There were two legal avenues open to him. One of course was divorce but often, divorce meant that the husband had to provide for his ex-wife. Seymour, being from a wealthy family, had brought a considerable amount of money to the marriage – money that Worsley now controlled completely – and he saw no reason why she should have a penny.
So instead of divorce, he opted for the other solution -‘separation of bed and board’ – which would leave him with no obligation to support his unfaithful wife. Then he turned his attention to how he was going to deal with Bisset and decided to take him to court in a ‘criminal conversation’ trial.
What was criminal conversation?
Essentially, this phrase referred not to conversation at all but to extra-marital affairs. In effect, the husband / plaintiff sued the lover for compensation as he had been deprived of his marital and conjugal rights. In these cases, husbands were often awarded tens of thousands of pounds — all of which had to be paid by the defendant.
Worsley was determined to ruin both his wife and her lover
These cases were held in public courts that anyone could attend,including the popular press. Worsely was certain that his wife’s reputation would be in tatters and that Bisset would be ruined financially. One factor that the court took into account was how badly the plaintiff had been deceived which inspired Worsley to sue for £20,000 – an enormous sum in those days.
Bisset had been his friend and neighbour therefore his ‘crime’ was seen as being even greater than it would have been if his wife had taken a stranger as a lover – the deceit and disloyalty involved were far greater. And there was no doubt that the couple had runaway together and, at the time of the court case, were living together as man and wife. Worsley believed it was an open and shut case.
What could go wrong?
His lawyers had plenty of evidence. The runaway couple had spent time in an inn when they first ran away together and there were servants and employees who would testify that they had shared a room and indeed, had been seen in bed together.
There were also plenty of people who had known about the affair between Seymour and George Bisset and were also prepared to testify. But just as Worsley was determined to ruin the pair, so Seymour was determined that he would not.
She didn’t care about her reputation — she knew that it was in tatters anyway. So she urged some of her former lovers to appear in court to show that George Bisset was just one of many. She had her doctor explain that he had treated her for a sexually transmitted disease. Yes, it did her reputation no good at all but these testimonies were beginning to show that Worsley was not just a cuckold and that he had known about her affairs.
Things became even worse for him when it came out in court that he had helped his ex-friend Bisset spy the naked Seymour when she was in a bath house. The tables had turned. Worsley was not a deceived husband, the court decided. He had actively encouraged his wife in her liaisons.
Even worse, because the court was public, the newspaper-reading members of the general public were devouring the latest reports from the court case every morning. It seemed to them, as it did to the court, that Worsley had actively encouraged his wife to have affairs with other men. And it’s true, they said, that the married couple had had a child but why should Seymour crave affairs if he was able to supply her marital needs?
The court awarded Worsley damages from Bisset
But it was not the £20,000 he had asked for. It was one shilling – that’s just twelve pennies.
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