Tuesday, May 31, 2016

1810, What a Year It Was Part 3: The Duke and the Valet

True crime fans, take note. This post is for you...and is probably the strangest of the events of 1810 we’ll be looking at. Ready?

George III’s fifth son Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, was one of the least popular of the king’s unpopular sons. Unlike most of his brothers who were on the plump side, Ernest took after his mother and was rail-thin; a saber cut down one side of his face, received when he fought the French in Holland at the Battle of Tournai, gave him a rather sinister appearance despite his handsome features. And unlike all his brothers, he was an avowed Tory and never dabbled in Whiggism or any liberal causes, being particularly opposed to Catholic Emancipation. He had an unpleasant reputation from his Army days as being a savage disciplinarian, and rumors about his personal life were rife.

But those rumors were nothing compared to the gossip that ricocheted around London after the wee hours of May 31, 1810--206 years ago this very day.

According to the Duke, he went to bed around one a.m. in his apartments at St. James Palace after attending a concert earlier in the evening. He stated that he was awakened by two blows to his head, then quickly received four other blows and a saber cut to his thigh as he tried to flee to the room of one of his valets, Neale, calling out that he had been murdered. Though a small lamp burned in his room, he said he saw no one.  The valet dashed to his master’s defense, waving a poker about, until he tripped over a sword—the Duke’s own, covered with a considerable amount of blood. While Neale tended to his master, the Duke requested that his other valet, Joseph Sellis, a native of Corsica, be summoned as well. When the servants went to Sellis’s room, they found the door was locked. After various backing and forthing involving doors that should have been locked but weren’t, Sellis’s room was finally gained—and Sellis himself found with his throat slit by a razor. There was no sign of a struggle.


So what had actually happened?

The jury called to hear the incident's inquest found, on weighing the extensive testimony and physical evidence, that Sellis had attacked his master and then committed suicide. Based on the accounts given by all the servants, that was probably what happened, though we’ll never know what inspired the attack.

But public opinion whispered otherwise—remember how disliked the Duke was? It was rumored that the Duke had seduced Sellis’s wife, and murdered Sellis when the valet threatened to go public with his knowledge, then arranged matters to look as though he had been attacked instead. Other rumors postulated an affair between the Duke and Sellis, and that the Duke had murdered him when he threatened blackmail, while others favored the theory that Sellis had discovered an affair between the Duke and his other valet, and was murdered by the Duke in order to keep the affair secret. Some who accepted that Sellis had indeed attempted to murder his master suggested that he had done so in revenge for the Duke’s seduction of his wife. Others guessed that he was tired of the Duke’s constant stream of anti-Catholic jokes and mockery (Sellis was Catholic) and had simply had enough.

The Duke survived, though it took months for him to recover (his brain could actually be seen through one of the wounds in his head, and his thumb had nearly been severed by the sabre.) His reputation, however, never recovered, and he would go on to be accused of even worse things, such as being the father of his own sister’s illegitimate child and of scheming to bring about the death of his niece Victoria, who until she had children was all that stood between the Duke and the crown.

Makes the royal scandals of today look pretty tame, doesn’t it?

(Image "SELLIS/ The Italian Assassin Attempting to Murder H.R.H. The Duke of Cumberland" by George Cruikshank, from the Rosenbach Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia)


QNPoohBear said...

"received when he fought the French in Holland at the Battle of Tournai" Is that was actually happened? I wondered about that scar. The Duke has all the makings of a Julian Fellows drama!

Marissa Doyle said...

Yes, that's what actually happened. Both the Duke of Cumberland and Queen Victoria's father, the Duke of Kent, were career army officers (until Cumberland retired after that battle--he got pretty bashed up.)