Viscount Cornbury: The Crossdressing Consul

Lord_CornburyJust being true to his Queen.

In colonial days in the British-occupied Americas, each colony had its own assembly to discuss and oversee the crown’s business (i.e. raping resources, subjugating indigenous people, taxing settlers, etc) in the colonies.  These unelected bodies of British landed gentry met frequently and opened with all the pomp and circumstance of the opening of a parliament.  Each was presided over by a governor.

The Honourable Edward Hyde, titled Viscount Cornbury and Third Earl of Clarendon, was appointed Governor of New Jersey and New York in 1701, and when he opened the New York Assembly of 1702, he certainly made sure it was a colourful occasion.  For in walked Viscount Cornbury – wearing a beautiful hooped gown, an elaborate headdress atop a female wig, and carrying a ladies fan, in the same style that Queen Anne carried.

Despite the infamous English “stiff upper lip” and the gentry’s usual politeness of saying nothing, there was open consternation at his choice of dress, and some lords told Cornbury straight to his face that they were far from happy with him.  Their words were met with derisory laughter from Cornbury, who replied “You are all very stupid people not to see the propriety of it all. In this place and occasion, I represent a woman, and in all respects I ought to represent her as faithfully as I can.”

Cornbury had already made many enemies brown-nosing and bribing his way up the ladder, and was widely regarded as a cad.  He certainly had delusions of grandeur, as he liked to be referred to as His High Mightiness.  Quite bold for a man who had been in debtors prison when he inherited the Earldom of Clarendon upon his father’s death.  In 1688 he had married Lady Katherine O’Brien, daughter of Lord Ibracken in a clandestine ceremony and apparently very much against her father’s wishes.  There is evidence he bribed his way into his governorship.  During his tenure he was accused by his detractors of misappropriating £1500 meant for the defence of New York Harbour.  It was also bizarrely claimed to have invited guests to feel his wife’s ears, to discern just how “shell-like” they were.

Now that he had appeared publicly in female attire, he merely supplied his enemies with more ammunition.  He was described as “a fop and a wastrel”, a “pervert” who “spent half his time in women’s clothes”, and with unsubstantiated sensationalism which modern red top newspaper reporters would be envious today, some claimed that he lurked behind trees, dressed as a woman and would “pounce, shrieking with laughter, on his victims”.

Lady Katherine died in 1707 and Viscount Cornbury apparently attended his wife’s funeral dressed as a woman.  That was the final straw for the colonists.  Many had already complained about Cornbury, and now petitions to Queen Anne came flooding in.  She promptly removed him from office, ordering him back to England.

In 2000, author Patricia U Bonomi claimed in The Politics of Reputation in British America that there was no proof Cornbury had ever dressed as a woman and all the claims were based upon rumour.  However, were that true, just how did such a rumour get started?  Are we to doubt the word of those who attended the opening of the New York Assembly of 1702 and saw the proof with their own eyes?  Or those who were so angered at Cornbury attending his wife’s funeral dressed as a woman that they were moved to petition Queen Anne?  Add to this the portrait (above) of Lord Cornbury in female attire, which hangs in the New York Historical Society to this day.  Phillip Davenport-Hines, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, insists that the portrait of Cornbury is a true likeness of the time, and has dismissed Bunomi’s claims as “inconclusive”.

I think we can all agree therefore that Viscount Cornbury was indeed fond of celebrating ‘his queen’; and I’m not talking about Anne here.  You know what I mean, doncha, girls.

One of the greatest ironies is that as manly as Cornbury looks in that portrait, if you’ve ever seen a painting of Queen Anne, you’ll realise that he was quite a looker compared to her.  Anne was one of the most unattractive queens to ever grace the British throne.

And were all the above not enough, get ready for the postscript.  The title of the man who was appointed to replace Cornbury was – Baron Lovelace.

Oooh, but then, don’t we all, dears?