The Royal Baccarat Scandal
The word libertine could have been created specifically to describe Queen Victoria’s eldest son. Here’s Dictionary.com, a libertine is “a person, especially a man, who behaves without moral principles or a sense of responsibility, especially in sexual matters.” Edward, known to everyone as Bertie and to some as Edward the Caressor, had appetites for food, alcohol, and gambling that were as uncontrolled as his enthusiasm for bedding women. He did nothing of any value unless you count employing an army of servants to cater to his every whim.
A Man of Vast Appetites
The future King Edward VII was a man who took his pleasures seriously. He ate such huge meals and drank so heavily that his girth swelled to 48 inches by middle age.
A BBC profile of him says “He became a leader of London society, spending his time eating, drinking, gambling, shooting, watching racing, and sailing.”
The British news organization discreetly fails to mention his prodigious appetite for the company of women, which took the married prince into the loving embrace of more than four dozen mistresses. In addition, there were frequent visits to an up-market brothel in Paris where he enjoyed the services of what were known as the grandes horizontales; whore being such an ugly word.
Several of these liaisons got the future monarch into hot water, but his biggest problem came over a game of baccarat.
House Party at Tranby Croft
In June 1890, a thick slice of Britain’s upper crust was invited to a weekend gathering at Tranby Croft, the home of shipping millionaire Sir Arthur Wilson. The Prince of Wales was there along with his long-time friend Lieutenant Colonel Sir William Gordon-Cumming, of whom it was said no man’s wife was safe in his company.
In the evening, six male members of the house party sat down for a session of baccarat, a game of which the Prince of Wales was particularly fond but that had the inconvenient status of being illegal.
During the course of the game some people observing the play claimed that Gordon-Cumming was cheating. However, none of the actual players spotted anything untoward.
The observers said that Gordon-Cumming appeared to be altering the amount of his bets; reducing them when he lost, raising them when he won. He vehemently denied the accusations.
Writing in The New Statesman, Kathryn Hughes notes that the next day “The five other men around the table, including the Prince, drew up a document that Gordon-Cumming was obliged to sign. It amounted to a confession and a promise that he would never play cards again, in return for the other men’s silence.”
The Prince of Wales could have stopped the whole unpleasant business by saying he saw nothing wrong and everybody else would have agreed with him.
However, all six signed the document that was more about protecting the Prince of Wales from another scandal. He had already been forced to give court testimony in a rather sordid divorce case.
Gossip Spread in High Society
But, news of the affair leaked out, probably via Daisy, Lady Brooke, Edward’s mistress at the time. (Daisy had such a reputation for passing on tittle-tattle that she earned the nickname “Babbling Brooke”).
Now that Sir William’s reputation was besmirched within Britain’s high society he felt compelled to do all he could to restore his good name. He sued those who had signed his confession for slander. That brought the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne of Britain and its empire back into a courtroom witness box.
“At the time, it was acceptable for the rich and privileged to behave in a way which, if made public, would lead to scandal and social ostracism. Vast meals and excessive drinking, gambling and assignations with other men’s wives was normal as long as it was kept reasonably discreet.”
Michael Scott, author of Royal Betrayal
High Society Trial
BBC Humberside relates that, “The trial was an international sensation …” To start with leading members of the British elite, including the heir to the throne, were identified as criminals because they took part in an illegal game. The authorities pretended not to notice this infraction of the law and none of the players was charged.
Sir William protested his innocence and said he only signed the confession to protect the Prince of Wales from being drawn into a scandal. The Lord Chief Justice Lord Coleridge, a man inclined to fall asleep during trials, presided. Several observers noted that his Lordship seemed to be biased against Gordon-Cumming.
The jury didn’t buy Sir William’s argument; it took just ten minutes to find in favour of the defendants. He retired in disgrace to his Scottish estate although much of the public believed that the Guards officer was innocent.
Another casualty was the royal family, as explained by Channel 4: “Public opinion turned against the prince. One cartoon showed the Prince of Wales’ emblem, but instead of the motto ‘Ich dien,’ (I serve) it said ‘Ich deal.’ Queen Victoria stood beside her son publicly, but was furious with him in private.”
Was Gordon-Cumming Set up?
Daisy Brooke was an enthusiastic participant in the high-jinks of the nobility. Shortly before the Tranby Croft party, the Prince of Wales arrived at Gordon-Cumming’s London townhouse expecting a tryst with Daisy.
How angry might he have become when he discovered that the lady was in the passionate embrace of Gordon-Cumming? Was he in need of revenge? Did he cook up the cheating charge to destroy his rival by planting a stooge in the house party to make the accusation?
These are questions speculated upon by Michael Scott in his 2017 book Royal Betrayal. Of course, we'll never know the answer. But, if you hang around with scoundrels don't expect loyalty.
Edward VII Enjoying His Country Pursuits
Gordon-Cumming was shunned by the upper levels of society. He is reported to have told his daughter “among a host of acquaintances I thought I had perhaps twenty friends. Not one of them ever spoke to me again.” He ran into financial trouble and had to sell his Scottish estate and become a member of the middle class he detested. He took to heavy drinking and his marriage was a shambles. He died in 1930 at the age of 81.
Frances Evelyn “Daisy” Greville, Countess of Warwick (aka Daisy Brooke) also fell on hard times. When Edward VII died in 1910 she approached the royal court and tried to sell love letters he had written to her. They were, said Daisy, filled with salacious details about Edward’s infidelities and were deemed definitely not for public consumption. Eventually, a rich man named Arthur Du Cros paid Daisy’s debts in return for the letters. For his service in defence of the Crown’s reputation he was granted a baronetcy. The letters eventually surfaced and turned out to be quite innocuous.
Queen Victoria had a low opinion of the son destined to follow her on the throne. She wrote in her diary “The poor country, with such a terribly unfit, totally unreflecting successor! Oh! That is awful. He does nothing!… Bertie (I grieve to say) shows more and more how totally unfit he is for ever becoming King.”
- “Edward VII (1841 - 1910).” BBC History, undated.
- “The Unhappy Prince.” Kathryn Hughes, The New Statesman, October 16, 2000.
- “Royal Baccarat Scandal.” Channel 4, undated.
- “House of Cards.” BBC Humberside, December 2008.
- “How a Card ‘cheat’ and his Best Friend the Future King of England fell Out in a Scandal That Ended up in Court.” Michael Scott, The Mirror, June 5, 2017.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor