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Friday 31 May 2013

The scandalous death of the Duke of Cumberland's valet

HRH Ernest, Duke of Cumberland  from A Biographical Memoir of Frederick,   Duke of York and Albany  by John Watkins (1827)
HRH Ernest, Duke of Cumberland
from A Biographical Memoir of Frederick,
 Duke of York and Albany
by John Watkins (1827)
A royal scandal

On 31 May 1810, the Duke of Cumberland was attacked while asleep in his bed in his apartments in St James’s Palace. One of the Duke’s valets, Joseph Sellis, was later found dead in his room. His throat had been cut.

The scandalous story caused a lot of gossip. In A Reason for Romance, the heroine Georgiana reads the account of the attack in The Times, excerpts from which are included below, and is desperate to talk about it. Popular opinion at the time was so against the Duke that it was generally believed that he had murdered his valet. But was Sellis responsible for the attack on the Duke? And did he commit suicide or was he murdered?

Night attack

In the early hours of 31 May 1810, Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, asleep in bed, was woken by being hit over the head. Initially he thought a bat had got into his bedroom.

The Times, 1 June 1810, reported:
On Wednesday, the Duke of Cumberland dined at Greenwich. His Royal Highness returned to town, about eight o’clock, in an open carriage and four. The Duke then went to the Concert for the benefit of the Royal Society of Musicians. His Royal Highness returned to his apartments in St James’s Palace about half-past twelve o’clock, and went to bed about one. About two o’clock, he was awoke by the assassin, when he was sound asleep.1
According to the Duke of Cumberland’s own testimony:
Who, being upon his oath, saith, that, before three o’clock this morning, being in bed and asleep, he received two blows upon his head, which awoke him, and, upon starting up, he received two other blows upon his head, which, being accompanied with a hissing noise, it occurred to him that some bat had flown against him, being between sleeping and waking, and immediately received two other blows; there was a lamp burning in the room, but he did not see any body; that there was a night table standing near the bed side, where a letter lay which was covered with blood. 

His Royal Highness says, he then got up and made for the door, which opens at the head of the bed; he then received a wound upon his right thigh with a sabre; he then called out to Neale, his page, and, upon returning to the bedroom with Neale, he perceived that the door leading to the yellow room, was wide open, which is always locked the last thing when he gets into bed; a naked sword had been dropped, which he supposes must have given the wound in this thigh.2
Attempted murder

The Times report continued:
On his Royal Highness extricating himself from the attack of the villain, and getting out of his bedroom, he exclaimed aloud to his valet in waiting, repeatedly, ‘Neale, Neale, I am murdered! I am murdered!’ Neale, who was sleeping in an adjoining room, got up instantly; and the Duke informed him of the particulars, and said, the murderers were in his bedroom. Neale armed himself with a poker, and he and his Royal Highness proceeded along the passage; when Neale stepped upon the sword with which the Duke had been attacked, which was one of the Duke’s, and had been sharpened within these few days.3
Cornelius Neale said that:
Joseph Sellis had taken out his Royal Highness’s uniform and the sword, and brought them into his bedroom for a regiment inspection which did not take place, and Sellis afterwards returned the regimentals to the wardrobe, but left the sword in the bedroom, where informant believes he saw the sword some time yesterday.4
By this time, the Duke’s assailant had fled, but the door to the yellow room which had been locked before he went to bed, stood open. The Duke gave orders to secure the premises to prevent his attacker escaping. In the closet at the foot of his bed was a pair of slippers belonging to Sellis, a darkened lantern and the key of the closet door.

St James's Palace from The Beauties of England and Wales Vol X   by EW Brayley, J Nightingale and J Brewer (1814)
St James's Palace from The Beauties of England and Wales Vol X
  by EW Brayley, J Nightingale and J Brewer (1814)
Death of a valet

When the servants went to arouse Joseph Sellis, they found that the door to his apartment was locked. They hurried round to his room by the other available route through the state apartments, the doors to which were, surprisingly, unlocked. By the time they entered the room, Sellis was dead; his throat had been cut with a razor.

The Times reported:
Upon the alarm being given in the Palace, Lieut Buller, with a Serjeant and several men, who were on duty in the Palace, entered his Royal Highness’s apartments, and found the villain on his bed with his head nearly severed from his body; the blood that issued from him had nearly covered the bed-clothes and furniture.5
But why would Sellis attack the Duke?

The Times stated:
No reason has been assigned sufficient to account in the smallest degree for this accumulation of crime and ingratitude.6
In his statement, the Duke of Cumberland said:
His Royal Highness further saith, that the said Joseph Sellis had not incurred his displeasure, and that he had not any reason to think ill of him.7
Several possible motives have been put forward. One is that the Duke may have made advances towards Sellis’s wife. The Duke and Princess Augusta stood as godparents to Sellis’s youngest child and the Queen had sent a gift of Indian muslin. Some people have suggested that this indicated a closer relationship between the Duke and Sellis’s wife.

Another possible motive is that the vehemently anti-Catholic Duke, who had a malicious streak, was inclined to poke jibes at Sellis who was a Sardinian and supposedly Roman Catholic and that Sellis could not take any more of it. However, Sellis had his children baptised according to the rites of the Church of England, so this argument loses much of its force.

Another theory is that he was seized by a fit of insanity.

Probably the best suggestion of a motive is jealousy and theft. Sellis was jealous of the other valet Neale who appeared to be given preferential treatment over him. His plan may have been to attack the Duke and rob him and leave Neale to take the blame. As Neale was the valet on duty that night, suspicion would most naturally have fallen on him.

Once a thief…

Sellis had once been valet to a Mr Church in America and had been accused of thievery before New York magistrates but there was insufficient evidence to convict him. Sellis left America for England and after first working for Lord Mount Edgecumbe, he moved into service for the Duke.

What went wrong?

Sellis used the Duke’s sword as his weapon, but he miscalculated his attack and hit the Duke with the flat of the blade rather than the edge, which only succeeded in rousing the Duke rather than killing him.

When help was called, Sellis escaped to his room, but he was unable to eradicate the evidence of his crime before the servants came knocking on his door. Rather than face the consequences of his actions, he committed suicide.

The jury’s verdict: Sellis committed suicide

The murderous Duke?

Did the Duke murder his valet? Probably not. I do not think that the Duke can have killed Sellis because of his own injuries and it seems unlikely that the dozen or so witnesses could have corroborated each other’s testimonies if they were not speaking the truth.

Also, Sellis’s door was locked. It is impossible to believe that the Duke, who had been viciously injured in the attack, could have killed Sellis and then set it up to look like suicide.

Another interpretation?

But what if there is another interpretation of what happened? What if the attack was set up by someone who wanted to get rid of Sellis? The obvious culprit would be Sellis’s rival valet, Neale.

The reason that I still feel uncertain as to whether this was truly what happened is that the attempted murder was such a botched affair. How difficult is it to kill someone with a sword? And why use the sword anyway when Sellis proved how effective a razor was at killing someone when he committed suicide, if, indeed, he killed himself.

Or what if Sellis used the sword against the Duke in anger or self-defence, in the heat of the moment, during an argument over his wife or money or his recent dispute with Neale, and then committed suicide when he realised what he had done?

A libel action

In 1832, the matter raised its ugly head again when the Duke brought a libel action against Josiah Phillips, author of a book called The Authentic Records of the Court of England for the last Seventy Years in which the writer accused the Duke of murdering Sellis to prevent him from exposing the Duke’s alleged homosexual acts with his other valet, Neale.

At the trial, it was proved that the book’s information was not sound, and Phillips was found guilty of libel.

Updated 15 May 2020

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian Regency era romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.

If you have enjoyed this blog and want to encourage me and help me to keep making my research freely available, please buy me a virtual cup of coffee by clicking the button below.

1. The Times digital archive, 1 June 1810.
2. Stockdale, JJ, A minute detail of the attempt to assassinate HRH the Duke of Cumberland (1810)
3. The Times op cit.
4. Stockdale op cit.
5. The Times op cit.
6. Ibid
7. Stockdale op cit.

Sources used include:
Fulford, Roger, Royal Dukes (1933, revised 1973)
Hatchard, J and son, The Trial of Josiah Phillips, for a libel on the Duke of Cumberland, and the proceedings previous thereto arising out of the suicide of Sellis, in 1810 (1833)
Leigh, Samuel, Leigh's New Picture of London (London, 1827)
Palmer, Alan, Ernest Augustus (1771-1851), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn, May 2009, accessed 23 Mar 2013)
Stockdale, JJ, A minute detail of the attempt to assassinate HRH the Duke of Cumberland, in a letter to WI esq (JJ Stockdale, 1810)
Watkins, John, A Biographical Memoir of Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1827, London)

The Times digital archive

Thursday 23 May 2013

When was the London season?

The first quadrille at Almack's
from The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1889)
Many a Regency heroine has gone to London to have a ‘season’ in the hope of finding a husband. But when was the London season?

Parliamentary sessions

The London season developed to coincide with the sitting of parliament. During the months when parliament was in session, members of both Houses needed to be in attendance in London and came to the capital bringing their families with them. The London season grew up in response to this influx of upper class people who needed to be entertained.

The House of Commons,  from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
The House of Commons from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
So when was parliament in session?

In her biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Amanda Foreman stated:
The aristocratic ‘season’ came into existence not only to further the marriage market but to entertain the upper classes while they carried out their political duties. The season followed the rhythm of Parliament: it began in late October with the opening of the new session, and ended in June with the summer recess.1
An article on the court in The Penny Magazine (1837) suggested similar timing:
The London ‘season’, or winter, was reckoned, during the last century [the 18th century], from about the month of November till that of May. It was regulated, as it is now, by the usual duration of the session of Parliament. Affluent people, who divided their time between London and the country, had less inducement then to absent themselves from the metropolis after the winter had set in, than they have now; and the state of the roads and means of communication rendered it convenient to the legislature to meet before travelling became, if not dangerous, at least very troublesome and annoying.2
The shift of the season

The Opera House
from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
But this is talking about the season in the late 18th century, long before the Regency started, so was the season held at the same time throughout the Georgian period?

The article in The Penny Magazine sheds some light on this:
During the present century [19th century], the commencement of the London ‘season’ has been gradually postponed. Since 1806, the opening of the session of Parliament has been veering from November to January; since 1822, it has almost settled into a rule (unless, of course, when interrupted by anything extraordinary) that it should not be opened till about the month of February, the session extending till July, or the beginning of August. Thus the London ‘season’, or winter, has been thrown into the months of spring and summer.2
So, when was the season?

To summarise, parliament traditionally sat from late October or November through to May or June. As travel was difficult, there was little incentive to leave the capital once the winter weather had set in and therefore it was convenient for the upper classes to stay in London during the whole of the winter period and the London season was fixed accordingly.

However, as travel improved with the spread of turnpike roads and more investment in the infrastructure, the ton was able to travel more easily to and from London during the winter months. It was no longer necessary to become established in London before the winter weather set in and so the opening of parliament, and hence the season, shifted to January or February. The most active part of the season was the period between Easter and when parliament adjourned for the summer, in July or August.

A drawing room at St James' Palace  from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
A drawing room at St James's Palace
from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
An interesting observation

If you examine the actual dates of the parliamentary sessions, you will discover that, during the 1780s, parliament often began in January and conversely, many of the parliamentary sessions after 1800 began before Christmas. The shift in the start date of the parliamentary sessions from October/November to January/February was certainly not consistent and the shift in the season had more to do with the increased ease of travel during the winter.

The summer recess

After the close of the parliamentary session, in June to August, the nobility would leave the city and return to their country estates. They might visit a spa such as Cheltenham or Bath or a seaside watering place such as Brighton or Weymouth, or go travelling abroad.

Weymouth bay
from Weymouth and Melcombe Regis New Guide
by E Groves (1835)
The little season?

The question arises as to whether there was, in fact, a ‘little season’ in the Regency period, held during the autumn months of September to November. Although this concept is used in many Regency romances, I have not been able to find any contemporary evidence that such a season existed during this period, although it was definitely a part of the Victorian social calendar.

No doubt those people who came back to town early, in September or October, typically those who did not own country estates, entertained each other during these months, but the existence of an official little season is questionable.

The royal family in residence

The Debrett’s website suggested that the timing of the season was determined by when the royal family were in residence in London, from October to December and from April to July.3 This broadly corresponds with the normal parliamentary sessions, though with a gap over the winter, and might help explain why the period after Easter became the height of the London season during the Regency.

St James' Palace
from Leigh's New Picture of London (1827)
Have you come across any references to the Regency season which suggest different timing? In particular, do you know of any references to the ‘little season’ in the Regency period?

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background (2021)Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian historical romance set in the time of Jane Austen. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.

If you have enjoyed this blog and want to encourage me and help me to keep making my research freely available, please buy me a virtual cup of coffee by clicking the button below.


1. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (1998).
2. A looking-glass for London – no. XI – the Court from The Penny Magazine (April 1837).
3. Debrett's website visited in 2013 - the page about the history of the season no longer exists.

Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1-3 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
Chancellor, E. Beresford, Memorials of St. James’s Street and Chronicles of Almack’s (1922)
Foreman, Amanda, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (HarperCollins, 1998, London)
Gronow, Captain RH, The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1889)
Groves, E, The Weymouth and Melcombe Regis New Guide (E Groves, 1835, Weymouth)
Leigh, Samuel, Leigh's New Picture of London (London, 1827)
The Penny Magazine (1837)

History of Parliament online

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Double assassination attempt on George III 15 May 1800

George III from The Public & Domestic Life of his late, most gracious majesty E Holt (1820)
George III from The Public & Domestic Life of his late,
most gracious majesty
E Holt (1820)
A narrow miss

On 15 May 1800, George III went to Hyde Park to review the 1st Foot Guards. During the review, a shot was fired which narrowly missed the King. Mr Ongley, a clerk in the Navy Office, who was standing only a few paces away, was struck, and it was said that “had the wound been two inches higher it must have been mortal.”1

Hyde Park on Sunday from Modern London by R Phillips (1804)
Hyde Park on Sunday from Modern London by R Phillips (1804)
Drama at Drury Lane

Unperturbed, the King visited the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in the evening with the Queen and other members of the royal family.

Michael Kelly, the musical director of the theatre at the time recorded:
When the arrival of the King was announced, the band, as usual, played 'God save the King'. I was standing at the stage-door, opposite the royal box, to see His Majesty. The moment he entered the box, a man in the pit, next the orchestra, on the right hand, stood up on the bench, and discharged a pistol at our august Monarch, as he came to the front of the box.

Never shall I forget His Majesty’s coolness - the whole audience was in an uproar. The King, on hearing the report of the pistol, retired a pace or two, stopped, and stood firmly for an instant; then came forward to the very front of the box, put his opera-glass to his eye, and looked round the house, without the smallest appearance of alarm or discomposure.1
The culprit is secured

The orchestral performers seized the perpetrator - an ex-soldier named James Hadfield who was later judged insane - and dragged him into the music room under the stage, where he was examined by the Duke of York; Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the theatre’s manager; and Sir William Addington, a Bow Street magistrate. The audience demanded that Hadfield should be brought on the stage, but Kelly succeeded in calming them with the assurance that he was in safe custody and that, if he were brought forward, he might have the chance to escape.

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
Let the play go on!

Despite the Lord Chamberlain urging him to retire, George III determined to remain and see the performance. There was some suggestion that the bullet was “only a squib” but after the narrow miss of the morning, it seems unlikely.2

Kelly wrote:
'God save the King' was then called for, and received with shouts of applause, waving of hats, &c. During the whole of the play, the Queen and Princesses were absorbed in tears; - it was a sight never to be forgotten by those present.1
The play was a comedy by Colley Cibber, She would, and she would not. Kelly wrote:
Never was a piece so hurried over, for the performers were all in the greatest agitation and confusion.1
God save the King

At the end of the play, the audience demanded 'God save the King' again. Kelly sung an extra verse that had been written “on the spur of the moment” by Mr Sheridan, which was met with “the most rapturous approbation.”1

The extra verse was as follows:
From every latent foe,
From the assassin’s blow.
God save the King.
O’er him thine arm extend,
For Britain’s sake defend
Our father, prince, and friend,
God save the King.
(1) From Reminiscences of Michael Kelly (1826)
(2) From George III by Christopher Hibbert (1998)

Sources used include:
Hibbert, Christopher, George III (1998, Viking, Great Britain)
Kelly, Michael, Reminiscences of Michael Kelly of the King's Theatre and Theatre Royal Drury Lane (1826)

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Jane Gordon, Duchess of Gordon (c1748-1812)

Jane, Duchess of Gordon
from NW Wraxall's Posthumous memoirs (1836)

Family background

Jane Maxwell was born in Edinburgh in about 1748(1), the daughter of Sir William Maxwell, 3rd Baronet of Monreith(2), and his wife Magdalene.

As a girl, she lived in Hyndford’s Close, Edinburgh, with her mother and sisters. She was somewhat wild and reportedly rode down Edinburgh High Street on the back of a pig.

“The Flower of Galloway”

Jane was an extremely beautiful girl and the song, “Jenny of Monreith”(2) was written in honour of her charms, which also earned her the sobriquet, “The Flower of Galloway”.

She had a lively wit and seemingly limitless energy, but her tendency to speak her mind did not always ingratiate her to others.

An illustrious marriage

Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon
from The Gordon Book (1902)
On 23 October 1767(3), Jane married Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon, in Edinburgh. They had seven children: Charlotte (1768), George (1770), Madeleine (1772), Susan (1774), Louisa (1776), Georgiana (1781) and Alexander (1785).

Sadly, the marriage was not a happy one and the couple became permanently estranged. The Duke had a long-term mistress, Jane Christie, whom he married after Jane’s death. After their separation, Jane lived at Kinrara, a house on the River Spey in Inverness-shire.

Scottish society leader

Jane was a leading figure in Edinburgh society and entertained on a grand scale, first at Gordon Castle, and later at Kinrara.

She was a patron of the Northern Meeting, established in 1788 to promote social intercourse in the Highlands, and sponsored the Scottish poet, Robert Burns.

Robert Burns
from The Complete Works of Robert Burns (1865)
Agricultural reformer

Jane took an active interest in the management of the Gordon estates in Badenoch and Strathspey. She was a proponent of agricultural reform and introduced the growing of flax and the industry of linen manufacture, establishing a lint mill in Kingussie.

Political hostess

Jane was very ambitious and sought to become for the Tory party what Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was for the Whigs. She became a leading political hostess and held lavish assemblies at her Pall Mall home in London.

She was a devoted supporter of William Pitt and was intimate with both him and his best friend and closest advisor, Henry Dundas, who was reputedly also her lover. Sometimes she attended the House of Commons to hear a debate and even acted as a “whipper-in” of ministers.

William Pitt
from Memoirs of George IV
by Robert Huish (1830)
The Duchess of Devonshire’s rival

Nathaniel Wraxall described her as: “Far inferior to her rival [Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire] in feminine graces, in accomplishments of the mind, and in elegance of manners, the last-mentioned duchess [Jane, Duchess of Gordon] possessed qualities not less useful, - pertinacity which no obstacles could shake, masculine importunity, emancipation from ordinary forms, - propelled by the hope of place, and by views of interest.”(4)
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
from NW Wraxall's
Posthumous memoirs (1836)
But some saw her in a less favourable light. Lady Mary Coke wrote in 1787: “It will not be the first time that a man of great understanding [William Pitt] has been the dupe of a designing woman.”

She continued: “The Duchess of Gordon resembles my Lady Bristol [Lady Elizabeth Foster’s mother], is like her in person, manner, contrivances, and like her, scruples nothing to gain her end, such a person must always be dangerous.”(5)

Fashion leader

In 1808, La Belle Assemblée declared: “It would be impossible to select any living female character who has made a more distinguished figure in the fashionable world than the Duchess of Gordon.”
Jane, Duchess of Gordon
from La Belle Assemblée (1808)
Jane was not as successful as the Duchess of Devonshire at setting fashion, but she did make tartan popular in 1791 after she wore a Gordon tartan dress to a Drawing Room. Horace Walpole called her “one of the Empresses of Fashion”(6).

She introduced Scottish dancing to the ton. Nathaniel Wraxall wrote: “She first introduced the custom of dancing at routs, an agreeable innovation on the interminable carding, and moreover, with patriotic zeal, she introduced Scotch dancing, till then unheard of in the fashionable world.”(4)

The Gordon Highlanders

In 1794, Jane helped to recruit soldiers for a new infantry regiment to join the war against France - the 100th Highlanders. Dressed in a military uniform and wearing a large black feathered hat, Jane toured the Duke’s lands, offering the King’s shilling – the payment for joining up – from between her lips. The regiment was renumbered the 92nd in 1798.

Family ambitions

Jane’s ambitions were not just political. She was extremely proud of the marriages she arranged for her five daughters whose husbands included three dukes and a marquis. Charlotte married Colonel Charles Lennox, later 4th Duke of Richmond; Madeleine married Sir Robert Sinclair, 7th Baronet and then Charles Fysche Palmer; Susan married William Montagu, 5th Duke of Manchester; Louisa married Lord Brome, later Marquis Cornwallis; and Georgiana married John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford.

Charlotte Lennox,
Duchess of Richmond
from La Belle Assemblée (1807)

Jane died on 14 April 1812(7) at the Pulteney Hotel in London and was buried at Kinrara on 11 May.

(1) I have found inconsistent details for Jane’s birth and different sources give various dates and places. She was born between 1748 and 1750, probably in Edinburgh, but possibly in Monreith.
(2) Sometimes referred to as Monteith.
(3) The date of Jane's wedding varies across different sources: 18 October (La Belle Assemblée; Debrett's Complete Peerage), 23 October (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) and 28 October (An autobiographical chapter in the life of Jane, Duchess of Gordon).
(4) From Wraxall's Posthumous memoirs of his own time (1836).
(5) From Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
(6) In a letter by Horace Walpole to Miss Berry in 1791 recorded in Three generations of fascinating women.
(7) The date of Jane's death is sometimes recorded as 11 April (Debrett's Complete Peerage; Three generations of fascinating women).

Sources used include:
Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée (1807-8)
Bulloch, John Malcolm, editor, The Gordon Book (1902)
Courthope, William, editor, Debrett's Complete Peerage of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1838)
Foreman, Amanda, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (HarperCollins, 1998, London)
Gordon, Jane, Duchess of, An autobiographical chapter in the life of Jane, Duchess of Gordon (1864)
Lodge, Christine, Gordon, Jane, Duchess of Gordon (1748/9-1812) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn Oct 2007, accessed 8 Apr 2013)
Russell, Lady, Three generations of fascinating women and other sketches from family history (1905)
Wraxall, Sir Nathaniel William, Posthumous memoirs of his own time (1836)