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Ernest, Duke of Cumberland: Rapist and Murderer?

The British royal family has seen some characters. I love to write about them.

Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale circa 1823 by Fischer.

Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale circa 1823 by Fischer.

A Typical Hanoverian Prince

A reputation for a thousand years may depend upon the conduct of a single moment. Ernest Bramah (1868-1942)

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.

Military Hero

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 Matilda, the mother of Tommy Garth.

Princess Sophia Matilda, the mother of Tommy Garth.

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 before his upbringing was taken over by Major-General Garth.

Whispers circulated at court that the baby’s father was Ernest after an act of incest and rape had been committed. The rumour was allegedly started by Caroline, Princess of Wales or perhaps Princess Dorothea Lieven, the Russian ambassador to London’s wife. Ernest was known to have an unnatural interest in his sister and he was overly attentive to her. Edward, Duke of Kent warned Sophia to never allow herself to be alone with Ernest again. The rumour did not die. It was printed in the press as late as 1828.

Valet Joseph Sellis: 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?

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The Duke of Cumberland dressed as a Knight of the Order of St. Patrick.

The Duke of Cumberland dressed as a Knight of the Order of St. Patrick.

From One Controversy to Another: Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz

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 with stories that Ernest had been in bed with Mrs. Sellis, that Ernest was Joseph Sellis' lover and that the valet had been blackmailing the duke.

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 refused to receive her niece, a vow which she never wavered from.

Ernest's wife, Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Her aunt Queen Charlotte was opposed to the match.

Ernest's wife, Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Her aunt Queen Charlotte was opposed to the match.

The Kensington System and Adultery Accusations

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.

Ernest Augustus, Ernst August in German, King of Hanover 1837-1851.

Ernest Augustus, Ernst August in German, King of Hanover 1837-1851.

Ernest as 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 in Britain.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 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.

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