Harriet Sarah Moncreiffe was just 18 when she wed the older and very wealthy Sir Charles Mordaunt, 10th Baronet, with the understanding that their marriage would proceed in a fashion typical of their class—viz, non-monogamously. It was 1866. A few years later, Harriet’s baby Violet was born prematurely with a sight-threatening eye infection. Fearing she had passed a case of gonorrhea on to the child, Harriet sobbed to her husband in panic: “Charlie, I have been very wicked. I have done very wrong. With Lord Cole, Sir Frederic Johnstone, and the Prince of Wales and with others—often, and in open day.”
Well. She may have been exercising her droit de dame rather liberally, and certainly, it was far more the done thing to wait until you’d popped out an heir and a spare before introducing other chaps’ genes into the baronial bloodline. Still, Harriet’s cardinal error was blabbing. Absolute discretion was the code governing the cinq à sept—the idle gentry’s habit of an early evening adulterous liaison—and by and large, that code was scrupulously observed, making public scandals rare and divorce, which was expensive and highly stigmatizing, very much a last resort.
Such discretion eventually shriveled, as the tabloid media became arbiters of polyamorous scandal. Aristocratic adultery eventually left Britain’s elite bedchambers for the common chatter of its Twitter streams. As for Harriet, the plaintive entreaty “Who’s my baby’s daddy?” sparked as much drama back in the late 19th century as it does now in a Maury green room, in the age of DNA tests and polygraphs. Paternity dilemmas precisely illumine entanglements of social class, succession and power.
The lid was sensationally blown off Lady Mordaunt’s sex life at a time when Victorian mores largely portrayed women as pure and innocent moral guardians. Pulse-racing details were raked over in the newspapers and in the law courts. Lord Cole and Sir Frederic were named as co-respondents in Charles’s divorce petition, and he furiously threatened to also name the heir to the throne, Prince Edward Albert of Wales. In the end, Bertie was subpoenaed as a witness—this being enough to titillate the enthralled public, especially when his letters to Harriet were produced for the court’s consideration. It was the first time that a Prince of Wales had given evidence in open court, and by all accounts he comported himself in a manner befitting a dissolute future monarch, steadfastly denying any impropriety, as per the advice of his friend the Lord Chief Justice: “One to whom a woman has given herself up is bound, even at the cost of committing perjury, to protect her honour.”
The case dragged on for years. Harriet’s family, loathe to lose her £2,000 a year from Charles—the equivalent of about £150,000 today—did their best to thwart his divorce attempts by having her declared psychotic. Her confessions of promiscuity were passed off as nonsense ravings.
Eventually, Lord Cole—doubtless in exchange for a compensatory sum—gallantly claimed paternity of Violet in order to save the Prince from further disrepute. Charles was then granted his divorce, while poor Harriet languished in the lunatic asylum, where she’d remain for the rest of her days.
At least young Violet’s fate was better than may have been expected: Certified vd-free and with sight restored, she rose above the scandal that inaugurated her existence to marry a viscount. (Her grandson, the current Marquess of Bath, has proudly carried on the family custom of polyamory with literally dozens of concurrent extramarital relationships. Now 80, he still claims to enjoy the company of 75 mistresses—“wifelets,” in his charming parlance—many of whom live with him in a ghastly, but mercifully untelevised, English aristo version of the Playboy Mansion.)
A rollicking media-fueled sex scandal at a time when they barely existed, l’affaire Mordaunt gave the hoi polloi an unprecedented glimpse into the libertine milieu of the Marlborough House Set. Named for the Prince of Wales’s London dwelling, this notorious clique included Lord Randolph Churchill, various Rothschild brothers and cousins, Conservative MP Sir Christopher Sykes (ancestor of contemporary socialite siblings Plum, Lucy, and Tom Sykes), and many other prominent young aristocrats, plutocrats, and politicians. The parties thrown at Bertie’s country estate, Sandringham House, were legendary for their policy of free love, or “corridor creeping,” which generally took place after the last dance at 2am, plus a short interval to allow the ladies’ maids time to reverse-engineer hairstyles and frocks. Vita Sackville-West, in her satirical novel The Edwardians, explained how matters were further facilitated:
The name of each guest would be neatly written on a card slipped into a tiny brass frame on the bedroom door. The question of the disposition of bedrooms always gave the duchess and her fellow-hostesses cause for anxious thought. It was so necessary to be tactful, and at the same time discreet. The professional Lothario would be furious if he found himself in a room surrounded by ladies who were all accompanied by their husbands.
Inevitably, there was the odd snafu, such as when Bertie and George Spencer-Churchill physically collided at the bedroom door of Edith, the wife of the Earl of Aylesford. Clearly outranked, George bid the Prince a polite “Sir,” and made himself scarce.
By so insouciantly conducting an open marriage, Bertie set the tone for others to follow suit. “She is my brood mare,” he said of his wife, Alexandra. “The others are my hacks.” (Hacks being horses kept for common hire.)
Among innumerable lesser-known women, he romanced daisy Brooke, the Countess of Warwick; society starlet Lillie Langtry; Winston Churchill’s American mother, Jennie; and perhaps most notably, Alice Keppel, an Admiral’s daughter, who married the Honorable George Keppel, an Earl’s son. The Keppels were not wealthy, and Alice’s extramarital relationships with rich men provided a useful supplementary income. George naturally had his own amorous diversions, and was perfectly comfortable with Alice and Bertie’s affair—which, despite a nearly 30-year age gap, endured from before he acceded to the throne in 1901 to his death in 1910.
Alice mourned the loss of her lover, and her exalted status as his mistress, but would never soften her unsentimental view that for people of her background, wedlock had nothing to do with romance. “Things were done much better in my day,” was her lofty reaction to Edward vIII’s abdication as King to marry Wallis Simpson, and she bullied her lesbian daughter, Violet, into a sham marriage. (Violet was the documented lover of Sackville-West.) Toute vérité n’est pas bonne à dire was the proverb Alice lived by: The truth is sometimes better left unsaid, a philosophy conveniently negating the need to mention that Violet was conceived not by George Keppel, but by Ernest William Beckett, 2nd Baron Grimthorpe and Alice’s paramour before Bertie.
In 1947, when Alice died, her granddaughter Camilla was born. Twenty-five years later, destiny ordained an encounter with the current Prince of Wales, Charles, on the polo field at Windsor Great Park. “My great-grandmother was your great-great-grandfather’s mistress,” Camilla offered as an icebreaker. “So how about it?”
Charles needed little persuasion. For a long time, it seemed as if their relationship would conform to the paradigm set by their ancestors. A hearty non-virgin, Camilla was not deemed wife material by the Royals. She instead embarked upon a marriage to Andrew Parker Bowles, an Army Officer from an old Berkshire family. Meanwhile, she helped choose a suitable bride for Charles.
The young, timid, and not very bright Diana Spencer seemed an ideal candidate to Camilla, who wanted someone nonthreatening and easy to manipulate. Alas, to her and Charles’s mutual chagrin, that plan didn’t work out quite as expected. Once they’d resumed their affair, having dutifully provided their respective spouses with a couple of sprogs, it soon became apparent that Diana had somehow failed to grasp the rudiments of upper-class matrimony. Her unseemly tantrums and public woes over Charles’s involvement with “the Rottweiler,” as she called Camilla, would have appalled her forebears, who viewed displays of jealousy and sexual possessiveness as utterly gauche breaches of etiquette. As did many contemporaries including Andrew Parker Bowles: while his wife consorted with the Prince of Wales, he calmly pursued his own relationships.
Of course, it wasn’t only Diana’s rampage of protocol-breaking that marked the decline of a long and hallowed tradition of institutionalized infidelity: She was aided by the mass media and its manifold technologies. Phone-hacking, long lens-wielding paparazzi, and concealed recording devices would put a disastrous crimp in the hijinks of the modern-day Marlborough House Set.
The case of dynastic gazillion-heirs Kate Rothschild and Ben Goldsmith’s recent public implosion made for startlingly expensive dirty linen. Repudiating their illustrious predecessors’ unwavering dedication to keeping up appearances, yet unwilling to settle for the unspeakably bourgeois condition of unhappy monogamy, 29-year-old Kate and 31-year-old Ben duked it out on Twitter this summer over Kate’s trysts with a hip-hop star. Her naughtiness was preceded, it emerged, by Ben cheating “several times” (including with Pippa Middleton, if tittle-tattle is to be believed). The fascination with which the English-speaking world greeted Kate and Ben’s deranged tweeting was all the greater, given their ilk’s usual ethos of “not in front of the servants.” Indeed, Rothschild family members have otherwise invariably shunned the limelight: in a rare 2010 newspaper interview, Kate’s uncle Jacob beseeched the journalist: “If you decide to write anything, I’d rather it wasn’t about me.” And Ben’s late father, litigious billionaire financier James Goldsmith, was once so outraged by a reporter’s personal question that he performed a citizen’s arrest.
Zac, Ben’s older brother, has inherited both his father’s privacy concerns, and his predilection for behavior that might call for privacy. Last year, Conservative MP Zac, 37, called for parliament to “design proper privacy laws” so that the media can’t “invade people’s privacy unless there’s good reason.” Whether snapping photos of Zac visiting Kate’s younger sister, Alice Rothschild, for an “afternoon of passion” constitutes good reason is a conundrum for sharper minds to ponder; suffice it to say that without the media glare directed on Zac’s extramarital activities, he may well not have divorced his wife, Sheherazade, but rather continued to exercise his genetic entitlement to sexual carte blanche.
If every instance of Anglo-French billionaire financier Jimmy Goldsmith’s infidelity had occasioned reams of news coverage, there would barely have been time, let alone manpower, to report on wars, or augur economic disasters, or monitor actresses’ fluctuating BMIs. In his 64 years on earth, Jimmy sired eight acknowledged children with four women, and his irrepressible rakishness renders it unfeasible that even more of his progeny aren’t walking around. One can only hope that none of them inadvertently get together and breed—a situation not outside the realm of likelihood in light of the, um, incestuous nature of British high society.
Jimmy’s third wife, Lady Annabel, the Anglo-Irish daughter of the 8th Marquess of Londonderry, took an appropriately sanguine approach to her husband’s philandering: “I can never understand the wives who really mind, the wives who set such store by fidelity,” she once airily averred. “How extraordinary, and how mad they are. Because, surely, if the man goes out and he comes back, it’s not actually doing any harm.” That attitude would account for her close friendship with Princess Diana, believed by many to be Jimmy’s biological daughter due to the affair he supposedly had with her mother, Frances—together with Diana’s truly remarkable resemblance to Zac, Ben, and Jemima Goldsmith.
Luckily for all concerned, most of their circle still tactfully defer to the adage of Lady Louisa, Harriet Mordaunt’s pragmatic mother: “Never comment on a likeness!”