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.

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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


  1. The noted anatomist Joseph Carpue, one of the surgeons who saw Sellis's body, was of the opinion that the wounds on the back of Sellis's neck and the lack of blood on his hands meant that he couldn't possibly have attempted his own decollation.

    Incidentally, has Josiah Phillips' account of his trial for libel in their texts section, and Charles E. Pearce's "Unsolved Murder Mysteries" also covers this frustrating two hundred year old mystery.

    1. I read that the Duke's wounds could not have been self-inflicted but it is always possible that there was a royal cover up operation to distort the evidence. I guess there are some things we will never know...

  2. Makes the scandals of the present Royals seem very small. Screening staff seems to be at the same high standard.
    Reading about the Georgian princesses -Van Der Kiste - barking the lot of them.

    1. The Duke of Cumberland certainly had more than his fair share of scandal. I wonder how he would have coped with 21st century media coverage!

      There are a lot of interesting characters amongst the Georgian Princesses, but I would not say that the ones I am familiar with are mad.

  3. Hi Rachel,
    I am working on my website and I hope I can make some links to your specific blog articles? I think they are great!

    1. Thanks, Constance, I'm glad you like my blog.

  4. Thank you for citing sources on your blog. They help other people wanting to research things so much! I read other historical blogs where one just has to take their word for it all. No citations!

    1. I'm glad you find the list of sources helpful. I like my readers to know where I have got my information from, especially when the sources clash and I have to decide which I trust the most!

  5. What about Cumberland's confession to his ADC Jones in December 1815. That sounds like game , set and match to me

    1. Exactly - but see how Aspinall Editor of the Royal letters rubishes it

  6. Hi everyone,

    Joseph Sellis is my 6th Great Grandfather and have been researching into him for awhile since I came across him on Ancestry .com. I like all these websites about him. They was a Youtube video saying he still haunts the chambers to this day where he was killed. I am sure wanting a tour there once this Corona Virus crap is over.

    Anyone know any information on the writer John Edward Wardroper he talked to many relatives linked to Joseph Sellis and spoken to a woman who passed the British meusum his dorm key and relics. They is also a painting there of him.

    What books are they on there that mention him, Joseph Sellis? Anyone know???

    Kind Regards,
    Josh Whitmore