Sex scandals in English history!

sex scandals english history

Nothing too salacious here – let me assure you! But let’s look back at some of the sex scandals that nearly brought the Establishment crashing down in English history. Because there’s certainly no shortage. The only question is where to begin. And I think the 19th century is a rich seam of sleaze. I’ve been reading the contemporary news reports of English sex scandals and it’s left me hot under the collar. So let’s journey back to late Georgian and Victorian England where bedrooms were hotbeds of scandal!

The Duke of Wellington brushes off a sex scandal

There’s almost a touch of the Regency TV drama series Bridgerton in this first scandal. The bluff and charmless Duke of Wellington received a letter in December 1824 that could easily have been written by Bridgerton’s Lady Whistledown. But was actually penned by a publisher, Joseph Stockdale, who warned the duke of impending social disgrace:

“My Lord Duke, in Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, which I am about to publish, are various anecdotes of Your Grace which it would be most desirable to withhold, at least such is my opinion. I have stopped the press for the moment, but as the publication will take place next week, little delay can necessarily take place.”

This certainly looked like blackmail. Harriette Wilson was a high-class courtesan whose clients encompassed the cream of the English aristocracy – including, it appeared, Lord Wellington. Stockdale had agreed to publish her kiss-and-tell memoirs. Now, he wasn’t simply a blackmailer. Stockdale was also motivated by political radicalism. He detested Wellington and Wilson’s other well-heeled clients.

And Wilson’s damning tale was a fitting way to topple the high and might. Hoisted on their own petard as it were…

Wellington angrily dismissed Stockdale’s menacing correspondence with a breezy riposte: “Publish and be damned!” The radical publisher obliged, bringing it out in a drip-drip of instalments that had those named cringing in agony while the public drooled in anticipation of the next slew of sex scandals from Harriette.

I’ve looked back at the newspaper reports in 1824 and it turns out that Stockdale was quite a prolific purveyor of pornography. Under the name Thomas Little, he wrote and published a four volume work entitled The Beauty, Marriage Ceremonies, and Intercourse of the Sexes, in all Nations including “nine plates of male and female beauty”. Also, The New Art of Love – which leaves little to the imagination.

Lord Byron – no stranger to scandal

The poet Lord Byron accounts for several sex scandals in English history. A man whose libido was planetary in size. Appallingly, it may have extended to his own half-sister. It certainly enveloped Harriette Wilson and also Lady Caroline Lamb who described Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”.

Lady Caroline was the wife of the politician Henry William Lamb. He would become Viscount Melbourne after her death and Prime Minister of Britain under Queen Victoria. Caroline was a talented and witty author publishing the bestselling Gothic novel, Glenarvon. Despite this, the Byron PR machine trashed Caroline as unhinged and volatile. But this from a sex-crazed monster conducting an affair with his half-sister plus his well-documented drug-fuelled behaviour is a bit rich.

DISCOVER: The 18th century transgender diplomat!

Viscount Melbourne in hot water

Before you feel sorry for Viscount Melbourne having to deal with Byron chasing after his wife – be aware that he later landed himself in the mother of Victorian sex scandals. In June 1836, as Prime Minister, Melbourne was sued by the husband of Caroline Norton for the crime of “criminal conversation”. Or put more accurately – sex outside marriage. The Prime Minister had allegedly been seeing Mr. Norton’s wife and he wanted a big payout from Britain’s top politician.

Melbourne has often been portrayed as a kindly uncle figure who guided the young Queen Victoria through the early years of her reign. But there was a darker side. Not only was he an avid supporter of slavery – but Melbourne had a penchant for spanking women of his own class and whipping girls from the working class. In short, he was a sadist.

Crowds gathered outside the court to hear the case against Melbourne. The newspapers gleefully reported all the details. Norton’s servants saw Melbourne arriving many times to see his wife. The bedroom was bolted. Kisses passed between them. And this court report from The Observer on June 26, 1836:

“Mrs Norton has been seen lying on the floor of that room with her clothes in a position to expose her person. Lord Melbourne being in the room.”

And then the Monica Lewinsky moment!

“There is another fact, gentlemen, which it is the painful duty of counsel in cases of this kind to lay before the jury: I allude to the marks which are the consequence of intercourse between the sexes. I shall prove those marks to have been observed on the day linen of Mrs. Norton. I shall show them to have existed on her dress.”

So much for the prudish 19th century! Melbourne considered his position as Prime Minister but his political adversary, none other than the Duke of Wellington, told him to forget about it and carry on. Well, the duke could hardly occupy the moral high ground on the issue.

Mr. Norton lost the case. Caroline Norton left him but given the laws of the time, she was denied access to her own children. Her fury at this situation led Caroline to become a very successful campaigner for changes to the laws on divorce and the status of women.

And now for Melbourne’s brother-in-law

Sex scandals in English history were always about the aristocracy and their chronic inability to stop their breeches falling down. It should therefore come as no surprise to know that Melbourne’s brother-in-law, Viscount Palmerston, would provide the next high profile scandal. Incredibly, he was also Prime Minister of Britain from 1855 to 1865 with a short interruption.

This distinguished Victorian statesman was routinely referred to as “Lord Cupid Palmerston” in the newspapers. On June 16, 1863, having held the greatest offices of state and now aged 79, he found himself accused of adultery with the wife of an Irish journalist, Timothy Joseph O’Kane.

Margaret O’Kane and Palmerston had to face the indignity of an accusation of adultery and petition for divorce from the inflamed journalist. Margaret was described by the Birmingham Journal as “a very pleasant-looking, short, and rather stout lady, of Hibernian extraction” who was furthermore “a lady of piquant manners, and of marked vivacity, and intellectual accomplishment”. And in this regard, “resembling, perhaps, most Irish women of the educated classes”.

Palmerston denied the accusation of adultery. Far from damaging him, the case seemed to bolster his reputation among Victorian gentlemen. The Tory politician, and future Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli thought the scandal would make Palmerston more popular than ever. And he was right. Behind his back, there was a cruel joke about his age and possible ability to perform in bed: “She may be Kane, but is Palmerston Abel?”

Mrs. O’Kane denied ever having been legally married to Mr. Kane. He in turn was sketchy on the details of Palmerston’s adultery who in turn accused the journalist of attempted extortion. The case fell apart. Gin palaces and taverns across London raised glasses to toast the old dog.

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