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A Life of Scandal: Ernest, Duke of Cumberland

Queen Victoria and those closest to her viewed her Uncle Cumberland with deep suspicion. Not just because he openly coveted the British throne, but because the Duke’s reputation was very black; his adult life was marked by a series of scandals and misdemeanours.

Born in 1771, Prince Ernest, Duke of Cumberland was the fifth son of George III and Queen Charlotte, a younger brother to Kings George IV and William IV, as well as Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent. He joined the Hanoverian army as an officer in 1790 and is said to have fought bravely in the early years of the wars against France, although he was reputedly a harsh disciplinarian. When he returned to England, he had not only lost the sight in one eye, but his face was noticeably and permanently scarred, giving the Duke the unfortunate look of a villain. And it was not long before he had the reputation to match.

Ernest failed to endear himself to either his family or the British people on his return. His sisters found him an unnerving presence: they disliked his indecent jokes and unsettling way of skulking around the palaces and were said to be reluctant to be left alone with him. The Duke’s politics did not sit well with the public either; he was an outspoken opponent of political and social reform.

Then, in 1810, reports surfaced in the press that the Duke of Cumberland had murdered his valet, a man named Joseph Sellis. There was little doubt in the public’s mind that the Duke was capable of murder, opinions only differed on his motive: some thought that the valet had been blackmailing the Duke, threatening to expose some shocking detail of his private life; others that the valet had discovered an affair between the Duke and his wife. In fact, the evidence suggested that the Duke was the victim. Sellis had apparently tried to murder his royal employer while he slept. He had crept into his bedroom, and brandishing a large sword, had inflicted several severe wounds to the Duke’s head, neck and thighs before he was interrupted in the act. Under cover of darkness, Sellis fled back to his room. He was not initially suspected, but when his fellow servants came to alert him of the incident, there was no response; the valet had locked himself in and cut his throat. There was no evidence of a struggle, and at the inquest, the jury, without hesitation, brought in a verdict of suicide. But even in the face of the judgment, many members of the public maintained a determined belief in the Duke’s guilt. So great was the interest in the affair that his apartments at St James’s Palace – complete with blood-stained walls – were opened for public viewing.

Ernest’s reputation was not improved by the announcement in 1814 that he was to marry Princess Frederica of Solms-Braunfels. Her crime was a broken engagement with Ernest’s younger brother, the comparably popular Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge. The Princess had jilted him in favour of her second husband, the Prince of Solms-Braunfels, who had then sought to divorce her because of her ‘loose behaviour’. To the Royal Family, the match was an insult, never mind the rumours about the Princess’s lax morals. After their marriage in 1815, Queen Charlotte and her daughters refused to receive her at court, and Parliament declined to increase the Duke’s allowance as was usual practice. In the face of unwavering unpopularity and limited funds, the couple decided to live abroad.

They returned in 1828 but continued to be deeply unpopular. More scandal embroiled the Duke when shocking rumours – which had been whispered behind closed doors for many years – appeared in the press, to the effect that he had fathered a child with his younger sister, Princess Sophia, some 30 years earlier. Again, the rumour was almost certainly untrue; the Princess had borne an illegitimate child, but the real circumstances were much less salacious. The boy’s father was almost definitely a General Garth, one of her father’s equerries, although neither the relationship, nor the birth of the child, was publicly acknowledged by the Princess, and rumours persisted about ‘attempts on her person’ made by her brother. The rumours may have been stoked by the Duke’s political enemies, but the fact they were quite widely believed only serves to show how black was his character; in the eyes of the nation, the Duke was capable of every form of wickedness and immorality. This was only reinforced when later that year, the Lord Chancellor’s wife, Lady Lyndhurst, accused Ernest of making an attempt on her person; one of a number of times that the Duke’s name was to be connected with incidents of harassment and adultery.

Among the royals, Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, was concerned by the Duke’s behaviour. He was thought to be responsible for rumours in the press about Victoria’s sickly constitution, and the Duchess suspected him of making attempts to remove her from the line of succession. Without Victoria, the Duke and his son would be Britain’s future monarchs. The Duchess over-reacted perhaps in the lengths she went to in order to protect Victoria from any such plot, but she, like others, feared that the Duke might want her daughter dead. Rumours of a plot, masterminded by Cumberland, to kill the young Princess were later dismissed by Victoria herself as entirely untrue. She did, however, acknowledge that she knew of many dark and unsettling stories connected with her uncle.

The Duke’s reputation for wickedness never changed; the British public and politicians alike rejoiced that it was Victoria who ascended to the throne in 1837 and not her uncle. As a woman, however, she could not inherit the throne of Hanover, and the Duke of Cumberland, therefore, became King Ernest I of Hanover at the age of 66. He lived out the remainder of his life in the kingdom, making only rare visits back to his home country when he often clashed with his niece. He continued to be maligned in the British press, even upon his death in 1851, when The Times went so far as to write ‘the good to be said of the Royal Dead is little or none’.

In Hanover though, it was quite a different matter. There, the Duke was a popular King, who survived during a period of instability and revolution on the continent, helped by the fact that he was not an absentee monarch like his father and brothers had been. A statue, erected in memory of King Ernest after his death was inscribed from ‘his faithful people’.