The British royal family has seen some characters. I love to write about them. Ernest, Duke of Cumberland was rarely held in high esteem.
A reputation for a thousand years may depend upon the conduct of a single moment. — Ernest Bramah (1868-1942)
A Typical Hanoverian Prince
Prince Ernest Augustus was born on 5th June 1771 at The Queen's House, now called Buckingham Palace, to King George III of Britain and Hanover (1738-1820) and his wife Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818.) He was their fifth son and ninth child. He was prepared for a life in the military.
Ernest, unlike his brothers, did not become corpulent. He was tall, elegant and had a mass of blond hair. In common with his brothers, he soon fell into debt and took lovers. He had an illegitimate son—George FitzErnest—with an actress named Nicole Knissel between 1793 and 1795. George lived until 1828.
Ernest was an adept horseman and he shot well. In Hanover, he was made a captain in the cavalry where he earned a reputation as a harsh disciplinarian. At the Battle of Tourcoing on the 18th May 1794 a cannonball hit Ernest’s arm as it flew past him and four days later at the Battle of Tournai he suffered a sabre injury that left him scarred. The sight in one of his eyes was weakened and within a year or so he was blind in that eye. To cover the facial scar he grew a drooping moustache.
In April 1799 George III created Ernest the Duke of Cumberland and Tevoitdale and Earl of Armagh. His annuity from parliament was raised to £12000. He decided to live in Britain and sat in the House of Lords. His extreme political views secured him enemies.
The new century brought with it scandals and an enduring negative image of Ernest, Duke of Cumberland.
Princess Sophia's Secret Pregnancy
Ernest’s second-youngest sister Princess Sophia Matilda (1777-1848) bore an illegitimate son in 1800 when she was twenty-three. Late in her pregnancy, she was taken to Weymouth in Dorset so that the king remained ignorant of her liaison with his equerry Major-General Thomas Garth and about the birth of Thomas, “Tommy” on the 5th August 1800. The king had accepted happily that Sophia’s weight gain was from eating beef and that she needed some restorative (and presumably slimming) sea air for her health. Tommy was adopted by a trusted local couple and then his upbringing was taken over by Major-General Garth.
Whispers circulated in polite society that Sophia’s secret baby’s father was Ernest after an act of incest and rape had been committed. The rumour was allegedly started by Princess Caroline of Brunswick, the outrageous Princess of Wales or Princess Dorothea Lieven, the Russian ambassador to London’s wife. It was believed by a great number of people because Ernest held a noticeable unnatural interest in his sister and he was overly attentive to her, rather like a lover, not a brother. Some members of his family were disposed to believe the worst; Edward, Duke of Kent warned Sophia to never allow herself to be alone with Ernest again. Although the rumour was printed in the press as late as 1828, it seems likely that there was no truth to it but he was easy to cast as a villain.
Murder or Suicide?
On 31st May 1810, an event occurred that cemented the negativity felt towards Ernest.
The Duke of Cumberland claimed that he was awoken by an unknown attacker who struck blow after blow to his head. Ernest leapt out of bed and ran to the door to escape, whilst there he sustained a sabre cut to his leg from his own sabre which the attacker had taken out of a drawer in the room. He shouted for help and several of his household staff appeared.
Joseph Sellis was suspected of being the attacker primarily because he did not join the other staff when Ernest cried out. A few members of the household went to Sellis’ room, broke the lock on the door and within was Sellis’ lifeless body. His throat had been cut in an apparent suicide. Ernest spent a month recovering from his significant injuries and the rumour-mill started once again. Was it suicide or murder?
At the inquest into Sellis’ death, two witnesses swore on oath that Ernest, Duke of Cumberland had murdered Joseph Sellis. Despite this, suicide was cited as the cause of death. This felt wrong to the people. They were not convinced that Ernest was innocent and suggested a cover-up. Several of the newspapers of the day fuelled the fire of suspicion and even created sensational tales of Ernest having been in bed with Mrs. Sellis, that Ernest was Joseph Sellis' lover and that the valet had been murdered for blackmailing the duke.
Even today, there are mixed opinions on Ernest’s part in Sellis’ demise.
The Controversies Continue
In mid-1813 Ernest met his first cousin Duchess Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and married her with the Prince Regent's permission. Frederica was deemed immoral by her aunt Queen Charlotte, Ernest’s mother. Frederica’s second husband, who she had married when already carrying his child, was an alcoholic and when he died unexpectedly which saved the need for the lengthy divorce process to remarry, suspicions of a convenient murder abounded. Charlotte questioned Ernest’s commitment to duty and family peace and she refused to receive her niece, a vow which she never wavered from.
The Kensington system which Queen Victoria endured during her childhood so that no harm came to her was ostensibly created to thwart the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland, both rumoured murderers, from dispensing with her and placing their son George, born three days after Victoria, on the throne.
In the summer of 1830, Ernest was accused of assaulting Lady Sarah Lyndhurst and of being thrown out of the house by Lord Lyndhurst. Scandalous rumours in 1842 that he was having an affair with a Lady Graves were brought to the forefront when Lord Graves, after expressing his belief in his wife’s innocence, slit his own throat a short while later. The duke was blamed for Graves’ death.
King of Hanover
Only male royals could rule in Hanover under the Salic Law so when Queen Victoria ascended the throne in June 1837 she gave the uncle who made her feel uncomfortable the role of King of Hanover so that he would be too busy to attend her court.
He died in Hanover on the 18th November 1851, having achieved more popularity in Hanover than he’d enjoyed in Britain by granting reforms.
The duke’s reputation has never been restored. It seems probable that he’ll forever be a tarnished royal.
- Princess Sophia of the United Kingdom | Unofficial Royalty
- Ernest Augustus | king of Hanover | Britannica
- Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover, Duke of Cumberland | Unofficial Royalty
- A Life of Scandal: Ernest, Duke of Cumberland | Royal Central
© 2021 Joanne Hayle
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on August 06, 2021:
Joanne loved your article. I hope you never run out of these articles on royals.