The royal Georgian scandal in a St Albans pub
PUBLISHED: 13:09 16 November 2018 | UPDATED: 13:09 16 November 2018
250 years ago this month a baron's servant smashed down a bedroom door in St Albans' White Hart Inn to find a prince in bed with his master's wife. Cue a court case, a delighted press, and much airing of royal underwear
On one of the main roads north out of London, in an era before trains and automobiles, the 70 inns of St Albans were always busy. One of the most important was the White Hart on Holywell Hill. Built in the 15th century on the site of a hospital caring for pilgrims to St Albans Abbey, the inn witnessed the bloody dynastic conflict of the Wars of the Roses that began in the town in 1455, and in the centuries to follow, countless more stories, mostly forgotten in the passage of time. But 250 years ago, an event too scandalous to remain secret thrust this provincial inn on to the front pages of the London press. The tale of the illicit liaison between Prince Henry, younger brother of George III and his lover Lady Henrietta Grosvenor, wife of one of the wealthiest men in England had the country gripped.
Henry, known as Harry, was Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn, sixth child of the Prince of Wales, and a 23-year-old bachelor in the autumn of 1768 when he met Henrietta, the young wife of Baron Grosvenor. Her’s was an unhappy marriage. Her husband, Richard, who owned much of Mayfair had a notorious reputation for gambling and frequenting the seedier parts of London, enjoying the ‘rougher’ types of brothel in Drury Lane.
The society beauty longing for love and affection and the smitten young prince came together, beginning an affair in November 1768. They had few opportunities to be alone together and corresponded through love letters, often in French, written in lemon juice (which became legible with heat).
‘I love you more than life,’ wrote Harry early in 1769. Henrietta replied amid the danger of being caught: ‘He is coming upstairs, so I shall conclude’.
Lady Grosvenor was living her ‘other’ life as a dutiful wife, regularly travelling between the family estates in Cheshire and Mayfair. Enroute, she would meet the prince at the White Hart, always staying in the best room.
Henrietta believed that her husband knew nothing of the affair, but she was wrong. The baron had discovered his wife’s liaison by intercepting letters, copying them, resealing and forwarding them on.
Divorce in Georgian England was difficult and required an act of parliament. But if Richard could obtain ‘in flagrante’ evidence he could pursue a ‘Suit of Separation from Bed and Board’ allowing him legal separation and the ability to sue the prince for ‘Criminal Conversation’ for ‘wounding his property’ through adultery.
In law Henrietta was considered a ‘chattel’ – the legal property of her husband. The courts, however, cared little about a husband’s infidelity, so Henrietta could not use the baron’s brothel visits as grounds to leave the marriage.
On December 15 1769, Prince Harry sent his trusted manservant Robert Giddings to Cheshire to ask Henrietta to meet him at the White Hart. Whichever of them arrived first was to book adjoining bedrooms. Six days later, while her husband stayed in Cheshire, Henrietta made her way to London, arriving in St Albans before the prince and booking two interconnected rooms overlooking Holywell Hill. Having settled in, she dismissed her servants. Meanwhile, Matthew Stephens, the baron’s under-butler and someone Henrietta trusted, sneaked upstairs and quietly drilled two spy holes in her bedroom door. Stephens had been tasked by the baron to get the damning evidence against her that he needed.
Henrietta dined alone and withdrew to her room. Harry in disguise arrived with Giddings, who went upstairs and marked the door of the room adjoining Henrietta’s with chalk. The prince entered from a rear door. The inn’s ostler would later say the man looked furtive.
At nine in the evening Stephens brought Henrietta a drink to check to see if she was alone. Two hours later, he again made his way upstairs, this time bringing with him a hoard of witnesses – his brother Jack, a coachman, six other servants and the inn’s owner Mrs Langford.
Stephens peered through the spy holes, but although he could see most of the room, the corner where the bed was was hidden from view. Frustrated and knowing that his master wanted incontrovertible evidence of adultery, Stephens decided to break down the door. In the attic room above, the prince’s manservant, awoken by the noise, rushed downstairs. Inside the bedroom, Stephens and his crew found Henrietta frantically buttoning her dress. She ran for the broken door but tripped over her skirts, which the witnesses later said were ‘much disturbed’.
The prince, whose own clothing was described ‘in much disarray’, also made for the door, but his way was barred by the group of onlookers. ‘Do you not know who I am?’ the prince roared. The witnesses replied, ‘Yes! Your Royal Highness.’ Thinking on his feet, he told them he had never been in Henrietta’s room but had rushed from the adjoining one to her aide when he heard the door being smashed.
Stephens asked Mrs Langford and servants to examine the bedclothes. The servants later testified that the bed was ‘much tumbled from top to bottom’ and ‘all the bedclothes being much rumpled’. Stephens testified in court that he could hear, ‘rustlings and amorous noises’ and was sure the lovers were in bed together.
Days after Christmas 1769, with the press champing at the bit to report the publicly-known story, the lord chamberlain forbade the reporting of any story involving a member of the royal family on pain of prosecution for libel. The London newspapers, of which there were more than 60 at the time, landed on a solution, reporting ‘A much talked of assignation between the D____of C______ and Lady G______’.
In the spring Baron Grosvenor issued a writ against Prince Henry and sent the anti-monarchy Middlesex Journal all the copies of the love letters he had intercepted. Their publication was a huge embarrassment to the Crown, and was lapped up by everyone else.
Henrietta was not finished, however. When the case came to court she defended herself by exposing her husband’s gambling and womanising. Witnesses from London brothels testified to the baron’s ‘peculiar behaviour’. The newspapers loved it, reporting every word from court (minus names), as the scandal became the talk of London and far beyond. The evidence was hugely revealing – as every detail about the prince’s life was brought to public attention for the first time. It can be argued that today’s public fascination with the royals began then.
The jury found against the prince with a fine of £13,000 in damages (£1.8m today). Harry asked his brother the king for the money, who in turn wrote to Prime Minister Lord North requesting that the funds come from the Civil List (the taxpayer). North agreed, and the amount was paid to Baron Grosevenor.
Harry abandoned Henrietta, but continued his notoriety by subsequently marrying a commoner, against the wishes of the king. This led directly to the passing of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 whereby any marriage of a member of the Royal family requires the consent of the monarch.
Although now much smaller than when the lovers stayed there, Henrietta’s room, overlooking Holywell Hill (bedroom eight) remains today, with its oak panelling and large open fireplace, the light from which allowed Matthew Stephens to peer inside.
Although Baron Grosvenor won damages, the couple were legally separated not divorced – neither could marry until the other died. The baron died in 1802 with debts of over £100,000 (£8m). A month later Henrietta remarried. Sadly she was shunned by ‘polite’ society until her death in 1828 – always haunted by her past as the scarlet woman at the centre of the royal scandal of St Albans.