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The Mordaunt Divorce Case and the Prince of Wales

I am fascinated by British royal family history and write books and articles about them and European royalty.

Edward, Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark's wedding at St. George's Chapel, Windsor. 10th March 1863.

Edward, Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark's wedding at St. George's Chapel, Windsor. 10th March 1863.

A Cause for Royal Disapproval

Divorce in an English civil court had been possible since 1858 at the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes. Until then divorce had been a matter for the ecclesiastical courts. The cost was exorbitant and the divorce rate was a few hundred cases per year at most by 1870. Divorcees were not accepted by polite society. Petitioners and respondents knew unquestionably that royal family members would not grace an event hosted or attended by them. The monarch was the head of the Church of England which opposed divorce so it was imperative not to be seen to condone it or tolerate the people connected to it. It was more acceptable among the Victorian elite for an heir and spare to be delivered to the couple before separate private lives were carved out and a public façade maintained for appearances sake.

The Mordaunt Divorce

Sir Charles Mordaunt (1836-1897) was a star of the Prince and Princess of Wales’ Marlborough House Set. He petitioned for a divorce because Harriet, (1848-1906) his wife since the 6th December 1866, had confessed to committing adultery with numerous men including the Prince of Wales. Bertie (1841-1910) was not named as a co-respondent in the legal papers and no proof was presented of an affair but his involvement in the case was an outrage in itself. Viscount Lowry Cole (1845-1924) and Sir Frederick Johnstone (1841-1913) were named as co-respondents.

Harriet's Indiscretions

Putting it tactfully Harriet was not the most faithful of wives during her four year marriage. The crisis came in summer 1868 when Charles was in Norway on a fishing trip. Harriet fell pregnant, probably by her lover Viscount Cole. Charles returned home to Walton Hall in Warwickshire several days earlier than planned but he found her alone. A daughter named Violet was born on 28th February 1869 and she was said to be premature.

At first Violet was thought to be blind. Harriet was overwhelmed by the sense that the sight loss was punishment for her affairs and possibly the result of an S.T.I. She confessed. “Charlie, I have deceived you; the child is not yours; it’s Lord Cole’s.” She listed her lovers, “Lord Cole, Sir Frederick Johnstone, the Prince of Wales and others, often and in open day.” Charles found a stack of friendly and unromantic letters from Bertie in her desk drawer.

Harriet Mordaunt

Harriet Mordaunt

Breaking Point

A few days later when Charles returned home to Walton Hall he flew in to a rage when he saw Bertie and Harriet riding around the grounds in a carriage with two ponies that Bertie had given to her as a gift. Confronted, Bertie denied that he and Harriet were involved in anything more than a platonic friendship. Charles was in no mood to believe him. The prince was shown off his property before Charles forced Harriet to watch him shoot the ponies.

Violet had an eye infection and her sight returned.

Mordaunt V. Mordaunt, Cole and Johnstone

The hearing that began on the 23rd February 1870 was to establish if Harriet Mordaunt was mentally incapable of being involved in a divorce case as her family, the Moncrieffe’s, claimed. Harriet was the daughter of Sir Thomas and Lady Louise Moncreiffe, friends and frequent guests of Bertie and his Danish born wife of seven years, Alexandra (1844-1925.) Harriet had known Bertie since childhood and when she was married at eighteen to Member of Parliament Charles Mordaunt, the couple were often in the Wales’ company. Sir Charles was unconvinced that Harriet was suffering from any affliction.

Mordaunt V. Mordaunt, Cole and Johnstone was heard at the public Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes. The sensational trial lasted seven days. The press coverage was extensive and the public appetite was insatiable. The court was presided over by James Wilde, Lord Penzance (1816-1899.) A special jury was selected. Dr. Deane Q.C., Mr. Searle and Mr. Archibald acted on Harriet Mordaunt’s behalf. Sir Charles’ legal team was comprised of Dr. Spinks Q.C., Mr Serjeant Ballantine and Mr. Inderwick.

James Wilde, 1st Lord Penzance Presided Over the Mordaunt's Divorce Case in February 1870.

James Wilde, 1st Lord Penzance Presided Over the Mordaunt's Divorce Case in February 1870.

A Royal First

Seeing a senior royal in a courtroom was, and still is, a rare and dreaded event. The diminutive and demanding Queen Victoria (1819-1901) must have shuddered when she learned that twenty eight year old Bertie had agreed to participate in a divorce case and that he would appear in person. This marked the first ever appearance of a Prince of Wales in an open courtroom in history. Queen Victoria and the Princess of Wales supported Bertie and trusted that he was innocent, although Alix was said to be deeply hurt by the situation. Bertie’s voluntary seven minute appearance in court on 23rd February 1870 to refute allegations of adultery was thoroughly uncomfortable for the establishment.

Case Closed

Experts concluded that Harriet was suffering from puerperal mania as a result of Violet’s birth. The divorce case was dismissed. It’s highly likely that Prime Minister William Gladstone, Dr. Thomas Harrington Tuke and Bertie’s private secretary Francis Knollys worked behind the scenes to protect the prince from further scandal. Republicanism gained support as the Mordaunt case played out and it added to the displeasure felt by the public about a largely invisible queen who refused to return to public duties. Republicanism stalled when Bertie almost died in 1871 and he became loved by the people again. Edward VII died on the 6th May 1910 having ascended to the throne on the 22nd January 1901.

Harriet Incarcerated

Harriet paid a heavy price for her actions. She spent the rest of her life considered as a lunatic, locked away in discreet houses and asylums. When she died in May 1906 she was described as Sir Charles Mordaunt’s widow. This was an error; Charles obtained his divorce in 1875 because Viscount Lowry Cole admitted to his affair with Harriet.

Charles gave Violet an allowance but no attention. She was raised by the Moncrieffe family. Charles and Harriet Mordaunt were absent from Violet’s wedding to Thomas Thynne, Viscount Weymouth in April 1890. They later became the 5th Marquess and Marchioness of Bath. Charles passed away in October 1897 and Violet died in 1928, aged fifty nine.

References

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

Comments

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on May 24, 2021:

Very intresting. Well presented.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on May 24, 2021:

Joanne, great historical article. There sure was a lot of infidelity among the royals! Thanks for your article.

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