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Friday, 31 May 2013

The scandalous death of the Duke of Cumberland's valet

On 31 May 1810, the Duke of Cumberland’s valet, Joseph Sellis, was found dead in the Duke’s apartments at St James’ Palace. His throat had been cut. Had he been murdered or was it suicide?

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

On 31 May 1810, the Duke of Cumberland went to bed sometime around midnight but was awoken before three by something or someone attacking him. He claimed that he was hit twice on the head and heard a hissing noise and thought it might be a bat. He received two more blows but could see no one. A letter lay on his night-table, covered with blood. He got up and made for the door, but was cut on the leg by a sabre at which point he called out for help.

Attempted murder

“Neale! Neale! I am murdered!” the Duke cried. By the time Cornelius Neale, one of the Duke’s valets, arrived on the scene, brandishing a poker, the Duke’s assailant had fled, but the door to the yellow room which had been locked before he went to bed, stood open. A naked sword had been dropped. The Duke ordered that the house be secured to prevent his attacker escaping.

He discovered afterwards that the sword was his own and that in the closet at the foot of his bed was a darkened lantern, the key of the closet door and a pair of slippers belonging to Joseph Sellis.

Death of a valet

When the servants went to arouse Sellis, the Duke’s other valet, 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 and were surprised to find the doors unlocked. By the time access to his room had been gained, Sellis was dead; his throat had been cut with a razor.

St James' Palace
from Leigh's New Picture of London (1827)
But why would Sellis attack the Duke?

Several possible motives have been put forward. One is that the Duke may have made advances towards Sellis’ wife. The Duke and Princess Augusta stood as godparents to Sellis’ 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’ wife, but this seems unlikely.

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 baptized 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.

But perhaps the most convincing suggestion is that of a motive of jealousy and theft. Sellis was envious 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 had been 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 chose his weapon to enable him to keep himself at arm’s length from the Duke. However, 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?

Despite the verdict at the trial, popular opinion at the time was so against the Duke that it was generally believed that he had murdered his valet. However, it would have been extremely unlikely that the dozen or so witnesses could have corroborated each other’s testimonies if they were not speaking the truth.

Also, Sellis’ 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.

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.

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)


  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