It was the 22nd  of February 1782. The war was not going well.  General Cornwallis had surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown the previous October.  King George III had been determined to fight on, but now parliament was clamouring for an immediate withdrawal.  The Whigs, sensing how vulnerable the government was, tabled a motion ‘that the war on the continent of North America may no longer be pursued for the impractical purpose of reducing the inhabitants of that country to obedience by force’. 

 

The Tory prime minister,  Lord North, who felt obliged to support the King, was in trouble.  The motion was essentially a vote of no confidence in him.  Many of his own party had crossed the floor to vote with the Whigs.  The outcome was going to be close.  If he lost, the government would fall and America would be abandoned.  He looked around desperately for the few members he knew he could count on to garner support.  Prominent among these was Sir Richard Worsley bt,  privy counsellor and accountant to the government.  But Sir Richard was absent. He was hiding.

 

The previous day, Lord Justice Mansfield, presiding on the King’s Bench in Westminster Hall, had delivered his verdict on the lawsuit for criminal conversation that Worsley had brought against his erstwhile friend and fellow officer, Captain Maurice Bisset of the Royal Hampshire Militia.  The reason for Sir Richard’s grievance was that Bisset had eloped with his wife and they were now living together as man and wife in London.  Not only had Captain Bisset committed adultery with his wife, but he had most flagrantly breached his gentleman’s code of honour.  Sir Richard wanted satisfaction and claimed damages of £20,000,  a huge sum that would be worth £25 million today and would have condemned Bisset to debtor’s prison for the rest of his life. 

 

The circumstances of the case were unusual.  Lady Worsley was the lively and attractive stepdaughter of the Edwin Lascelles, Earl of Harewood, and had brought a dowry of £70,000 into the marriage.  Sir Richard was a member of the government. While many titled ladies enjoyed adulterous liaisons with other gentlemen, there was a tacit agreement that these affairs should be conducted with discretion. Bisset and Lady Worsley had not only flouted these conventions, but Bisset had also abused his friendship with Worsley.  The wounded baronet was out for revenge.   

 

The facts of the elopement were clear. The couple had been living in the Royal Hotel in Pall Mall. Servants had been interviewed, the bed linen examined and witnesses had contrived to see them in bed together. There was no doubt of culpability. Seymour, Lady Worsley was Sir Richard’s chattel and Captain Bisset had made off with her. How was the aggrieved husband to be compensated?  What value could be placed on a privy councillor’s matrimonial honour? 

 

The defence adopted a unique strategy.  They attempted, with Lady Worsley’s assistance, to prove that she had not only behaved in a manner that was inappropriate for the wife of a nobleman, but she had done this with the active collusion of her husband.  A procession of aristocratic lovers were brought before the bench to testify that Sir Richard had contrived to display his unclothed wife before them and encouraged sexual liaisons which he had  observed from the concealment of her dressing room.  

 

Sir Richard, it would appear, was inhibited with the practical aspects of sex.  The lampoonists of the time certainly believed so. Perhaps witnessing the murder of a client in the Parisian brothel opposite his hotel window when he was just 18 had impressed him with the dangers of sex.  Perhaps he was homosexual.  Whatever, his interest in Seymour was more a possession than a wife.  He admired her beauty and he liked his well connected acquaintances to admire her as well.  Sir Richard was a collector of fine art and Seymour was the chief exhibit.  He even had a darkened cabinet constructed so she could be displayed.

 

Bisset had lodged with the Worsley’s when the militia were on manoeuvres at Coxheath in Kent.  He had free access to Seymour and they had fallen in love. She had even borne his child, which Sir Richard accepted as his own.  Sir Richard was fond of Bisset and seemed to enjoy their open triangular relationship his wife. But it was the events at the Maidstone Bathhouse that had clinched the case for the defence and the downfall of the baronet.

 

The day was unusually hot.  Sir Richard suggested that the three of them go to the bathhouse on the edge of the town.  This consisted of two private rooms, one for men and the other for women each equipped with a simple pool that they could wash in and a dressing area.  Worsley and Bisset finished their ablutions before Seymour when Sir Richard proposed they go round to the ladies side and take a peek at her while she was dressing.  According to the testimony of he attendant,  Sir Richard knocked at the door and cried, ‘Seymour, Seymour, Bisset is going to look at you.’ He then hoisted Bisset onto his shoulders so he could look through the window above the door. Bisset remained there for a full five minutes while Seymour exhibited her charms. 

 

The jury awarded damages of one shilling, the price of a pound of soap, a muslin neckcloth or a roast beef dinner.  Sir Richard had been totally humiliated.  He had been complicit in his wife’s degredation.  She was spoiled goods.  This was a public hearing and the next day pamphlets containing the more lurid details of the case were available on the streets.  Subject to such public humiliation, how could he take his seat in the House?

 

In the event that didn’t matter.  The motion was defeated by a single vote and the government limped on for just five more days until a further division on February 27th., when not even Sir Richard’s presence could have saved the prime minister. North tendered his resignation, but the King refused it.  He finally left office on March 20th  and the British came to recognise the United States of America, signing the first Anglo-American trade agreement the following year. 

 

 

The material for this blog was taken from Hallie Rubenhold’s fascinating new book,  ‘Lady Worsley’s Whim; an eighteenth century tale of sex, scandal and divorce.’    

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