The scan­dal of the Ge­or­gians

A prince, a lady and a St Al­bans inn – the love af­fair that rocked the age

Hertfordshire Life - - CONTENTS - WORDS: Michael Long

250 years ago this month a baron’s ser­vant smashed down a bed­room door in St Al­bans’ White Hart Inn to find a prince in bed with his master’s wife. Cue a court case, a de­lighted press, and much air­ing of royal un­der­wear

On one of the main roads north out of Lon­don, in an era be­fore trains and au­to­mo­biles, the 70 inns of St Al­bans were al­ways busy. One of the most im­por­tant was the White Hart on Holy­well Hill. Built in the 15th cen­tury on the site of a hos­pi­tal car­ing for pil­grims to St Al­bans Abbey, the inn wit­nessed the bloody dy­nas­tic con­flict of the Wars of the Roses that be­gan in the town in 1455, and in the cen­turies to fol­low, countless more sto­ries, mostly for­got­ten in the pas­sage of time. But 250 years ago, an event too scan­dalous to re­main se­cret thrust this pro­vin­cial inn on to the front pages of the Lon­don press. The tale of the il­licit li­ai­son be­tween Prince Henry, younger brother of Ge­orge III and his lover Lady Hen­ri­etta Grosvenor, wife of one of the wealth­i­est men in Eng­land had the coun­try gripped.

Henry, known as Harry, was Duke of Cum­ber­land and Strat­hearn, sixth child of the Prince of Wales, and a 23-yearold bach­e­lor in the au­tumn of 1768 when he met Hen­ri­etta, the young wife of Baron Grosvenor. Her’s was an un­happy mar­riage. Her hus­band, Richard, who owned much of May­fair had a no­to­ri­ous rep­u­ta­tion for gam­bling and fre­quent­ing the seed­ier parts of Lon­don, en­joy­ing the ‘rougher’ types of brothel in Drury Lane.

The so­ci­ety beauty long­ing for love and af­fec­tion and the smit­ten young prince came

‘THE PRINCE, WHOSE CLOTH­ING WAS IN MUCH DIS­AR­RAY, MADE FOR THE DOOR’

to­gether, be­gin­ning an af­fair in Novem­ber 1768. They had few op­por­tu­ni­ties to be alone to­gether and cor­re­sponded through love let­ters, of­ten in French, writ­ten in lemon juice (which be­came leg­i­ble with heat).

‘I love you more than life,’ wrote Harry early in 1769. Hen­ri­etta replied amid the dan­ger of be­ing caught: ‘He is com­ing up­stairs, so I shall con­clude’.

Lady Grosvenor was liv­ing her ‘other’ life as a du­ti­ful wife, reg­u­larly trav­el­ling be­tween the fam­ily es­tates in Cheshire and May­fair. Enroute, she would meet the prince at the White Hart, al­ways stay­ing in the best room.

Hen­ri­etta be­lieved that her hus­band knew noth­ing of the af­fair, but she was wrong. The baron had dis­cov­ered his wife’s li­ai­son by in­ter­cept­ing let­ters, copy­ing them, re­seal­ing and for­ward­ing them on.

Di­vorce in Ge­or­gian Eng­land was dif­fi­cult and re­quired an act of par­lia­ment. But if Richard could ob­tain ‘in fla­grante’ ev­i­dence he could pur­sue a ‘Suit of Sep­a­ra­tion from Bed and Board’ al­low­ing him le­gal sep­a­ra­tion and the abil­ity to sue the prince for ‘Crim­i­nal Con­ver­sa­tion’ for ‘wound­ing his prop­erty’ through adul­tery.

In law Hen­ri­etta was con­sid­ered a ‘chat­tel’ – the le­gal prop­erty of her hus­band. The courts, how­ever, cared lit­tle about a hus­band’s in­fi­delity, so Hen­ri­etta could not use the baron’s brothel vis­its as grounds to leave the mar­riage.

On De­cem­ber 15 1769, Prince Harry sent his trusted manser­vant Robert Gid­dings to Cheshire to ask Hen­ri­etta to meet him at the White Hart. Which­ever of them ar­rived first was to book ad­join­ing bed­rooms. Six days later, while her hus­band stayed in Cheshire, Hen­ri­etta made her way to Lon­don, ar­riv­ing in St Al­bans be­fore the prince and book­ing two in­ter­con­nected rooms over­look­ing Holy­well Hill. Hav­ing set­tled in, she dis­missed her ser­vants. Mean­while, Matthew Stephens, the baron’s un­der-but­ler and some­one Hen­ri­etta trusted, sneaked up­stairs and qui­etly drilled two spy holes in her bed­room door. Stephens had been tasked by the baron to get the damn­ing ev­i­dence against her that he needed.

Hen­ri­etta dined alone and with­drew to her room. Harry in dis­guise ar­rived with Gid­dings, who went up­stairs and marked the door of the room ad­join­ing Hen­ri­etta’s with chalk. The prince en­tered from a rear door. The inn’s ostler would later say the man looked furtive.

At nine in the evening Stephens brought Hen­ri­etta a drink to check to see if she was alone. Two hours later, he again made his way up­stairs, this time bring­ing with him a hoard of wit­nesses – his brother Jack, a coach­man, six other ser­vants and the inn’s owner Mrs Lang­ford.

Stephens peered through the spy holes, but although he could see most of the room, the cor­ner where the bed was was hid­den from view. Frus­trated and know­ing that his master wanted in­con­tro­vert­ible ev­i­dence of adul­tery, Stephens de­cided to break down the door. In the at­tic room above, the prince’s manser­vant, awo­ken by the noise, rushed down­stairs. Inside the bed­room, Stephens and his crew found Hen­ri­etta fran­ti­cally but­ton­ing her dress. She ran for the bro­ken door but tripped over her skirts, which the wit­nesses later said were ‘much dis­turbed’.

The prince, whose own cloth­ing was de­scribed ‘in much dis­ar­ray’, also made for the door, but his way was barred by the group of on­look­ers. ‘Do you not know who I am?’ the prince roared. The wit­nesses replied, ‘Yes! Your Royal High­ness.’ Think­ing on his feet, he told them he had never been in Hen­ri­etta’s room but had rushed from the ad­join­ing one to her aide when he heard the door be­ing smashed.

Stephens asked Mrs Lang­ford and ser­vants to ex­am­ine the bed­clothes. The ser­vants later tes­ti­fied that the bed was ‘much tum­bled from top to bot­tom’ and ‘all the bed­clothes be­ing much rum­pled’. Stephens tes­ti­fied in court that he could hear, ‘rustlings and amorous noises’ and was sure the lovers were in bed to­gether.

Days af­ter Christ­mas 1769, with the press champ­ing at the bit to re­port the pub­licly-known story, the lord cham­ber­lain for­bade the re­port­ing of any story in­volv­ing a mem­ber of the royal fam­ily on pain of pros­e­cu­tion for li­bel. The Lon­don news­pa­pers, of which there were more than 60 at the time, landed on a so­lu­tion, re­port­ing ‘A much talked of assig­na­tion be­tween the D____of C______ and Lady G______’.

In the spring Baron Grosvenor is­sued a writ against Prince Henry and sent the anti-monar­chy Mid­dle­sex Jour­nal all the copies of the love let­ters he had in­ter­cepted. Their pub­li­ca­tion was a huge em­bar­rass­ment to the Crown, and was lapped up by ev­ery­one else.

Hen­ri­etta was not fin­ished, how­ever. When the case came to court she de­fended her­self by ex­pos­ing her hus­band’s gam­bling and wom­an­is­ing. Wit­nesses from Lon­don broth­els tes­ti­fied to the baron’s ‘pe­cu­liar be­hav­iour’. The news­pa­pers loved it, re­port­ing ev­ery word from court (mi­nus names), as the scan­dal be­came the talk of Lon­don and far be­yond. The ev­i­dence was hugely re­veal­ing – as ev­ery de­tail about the prince’s life was brought to pub­lic at­ten­tion for the first time. It can be ar­gued that to­day’s pub­lic fas­ci­na­tion with the roy­als be­gan then.

The jury found against the prince with a fine of £13,000 in dam­ages (£1.8m to­day). Harry asked his brother the king for the money, who in turn wrote to Prime Min­is­ter Lord North re­quest­ing that the funds come from the Civil List (the tax­payer). North agreed, and the amount was paid to Baron Gro­sevenor.

Harry aban­doned Hen­ri­etta, but con­tin­ued his no­to­ri­ety by sub­se­quently mar­ry­ing a com­moner, against the wishes of the king. This led di­rectly to the pass­ing of the Royal Mar­riages Act of 1772 whereby any mar­riage of a mem­ber of the Royal fam­ily re­quires the con­sent of the monarch.

Although now much smaller than when the lovers stayed there, Hen­ri­etta’s room, over­look­ing Holy­well Hill (bed­room eight) re­mains to­day, with its oak pan­elling and large open fire­place, the light from which al­lowed Matthew Stephens to peer inside.

Although Baron Grosvenor won dam­ages, the cou­ple were legally sep­a­rated not di­vorced – nei­ther could marry un­til the other died. The baron died in 1802 with debts of over £100,000 (£8m). A month later Hen­ri­etta re­mar­ried. Sadly she was shunned by ‘po­lite’ so­ci­ety un­til her death in 1828 – al­ways haunted by her past as the scar­let woman at the cen­tre of the royal scan­dal of St Al­bans.

‘THE PUB­LI­CA­TION WAS A HUGE EMBARRASMENT TO THE CROWN AND LAPPED UP BY EV­ERY­ONE ELSE’

Henry, Duke of Cum­ber­land – sued in pub­lic for ‘crim­i­nal con­ver­sa­tion’ with an­other man’s wife. Royal scan­dal writ large

ABOVE:The White Hart on Holy­well Hill in St Al­bans. The room where the prince and Lady Grosvenor were found is still there

The inn dates to the 15th cen­tury and has wit­nessed the Wars of the Roses as well as royal scan­dal

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