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Seymour, Bisset is looking at you ... Worsley, his wife and Bisset had once attended a bath-house in the town and, while Lady Worsley was getting dressed, her husband had allowed Bisset to climb on his shoulders to ogle her half-naked form through a window.

Seymour, Bisset is looking at you … Worsley, his wife and Bisset had once attended a bath-house in the town and, while Lady Worsley was getting dressed, her husband had allowed Bisset to climb on his shoulders to ogle her half-naked form through a window.

Sex, Scandal and Divorce

?Lady Worsley had 27 lovers and Sir Richard was a Voyeur, a Pervert, a Deviant

The Battle between Sir Richard Worsley and George Bisset

In 1782, the chattering classes of Britain and the United States were held transfixed by the trial of George Bisset for criminal conversation. The transcript had seven printings in the first year–even George Washington requested one.

Lady Worsley ran off with her husband?s best friend, Captain George Bisset and by March 1782, their names and cartoon images were plastered all over London. Sir Richard was a voyeur who used to pimp Lady Worsley out to his friends, and then tried to unsuccessfully sue Bisset for 20,000 pounds in a Criminal Conversation, or adultery trial. The couple took great pains to completely ruin each other ? and the public loved it. They queued outside booksellers shops for copies of the trial transcripts and the newspapers covered the farce for months. Poems and pamphlets of purported exploits were printed and hungrily consumed all that year and in the years to follow.

What legal options were available to the cuckolded husbands of 18th-century England? Divorce was a fantastically costly, excruciatingly public business, and only really viable for those blessed with deep pockets and lofty social rank.

The so-called parliamentary divorce was one possibility, which obliterated the marital union and left the parties free to re-marry.

However, there was also the solution dispensed by the ecclesiastical court of Doctors’ Commons: a legal separation of “bed and board” might be pronounced, but the former husband and wife were not then entitled to find new spouses. This was the vengeful cuckold’s first port of call: a wife who was unable to remarry stood an excellent chance of falling into penury.

What, though, of the scoundrel who had ravished her? Here the concept of “criminal conversation” – a euphemistic way of saying “having adulterous sex” – came to the fore.

It was based on the premise that a wife was one of her husband’s possessions. If someone slept with her, then the husband’s property had been defiled and he was entitled to seek financial reparations.

The amount claimed depended on the degree to which one’s honour had been sullied. If the adulterer was a close friend, for instance, then one deserved heftier damages than the husband betrayed by a passing acquaintance.

These cases of “criminal conversation” were among the most sensational legal events of the 18th century.

The action was brought by Sir Richard Worsley and he claimed damages of ?20,000. In 1775, Worsley had married a very rich heiress, Seymour Dorothy Fleming. At first they were the perfect power couple of Georgian England. Sir Richard became a rising star in Lord North’s government and Lady Worsley was popular in the ton. They had a son, Robert Edwin, within a year or two of the marriage and to the outside word, a daughter born August 1781.

However, all was not happy and Sir Richard buried himself in his work and in the Hampshire Militia. Worsley was also a collector of Roman artifacts and there is a suggestion that such men often preferred not to look at women. Lady Worsley would later say that for the the first three months of her marriage, it was like living with a brother. In any case, there is evidence that he did not pay Seymour much attention and Lady Worsley craved attention.

Sir Richard Worsley, 7th Baronet by Joshua Reynolds (1775/6)

Sir Richard Worsley, 7th Baronet by Joshua Reynolds (1775/6)

Sir Richard Worsley

Born in 1751, in 1768 Sir Richard Worsley became the seventh Baronet Worsley, inheriting Appuldurcombe House’s wealthy 11,500 acre estate. Sir Richard was a man who believed strongly in order, that everything had its place. He unfortunately believed that the place for the local destitute was in the Isle of Wight’s?workhouse, which he was instrumental in founding in 1774, becoming one of the first trustees. This workhouse, the second in the country and first workhouse on a large, almost industrial scale, became the model for workhouses nationwide following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

Sir Richard Worsley was convinced that he had a duty to restore the influence of the Worsley family name back to the highest echelons of society. Although capable of living comfortably, to reach the top he needed something more; money, ideally found in a wealthy marriage.

Sir Richard, as a young lad, twice went on the traditional Grand Tour of Europe, stopping to see many of the finest sites of France and Italy. Enjoyed by many of England’s richest young men, naturally the steady flow of wealthy young men to areas favoured by the Grand Tour had attracted attention. Various services to appeal to wealthy young men sprung up close to fashionable areas. While travelling in France, Richard by all accounts stayed in a hotel overlooking a brothel and the view from his window allowing him to see into the neighbouring establishment. One night, when determined to visit the brothel, he was discovered and detained. The following morning he learnt that a wealthy young man had been murdered and robbed in the brothel, and was convinced that if he had not been detained, then he himself would have been killed. The experience also reportedly convinced him that sex with women was inherently dangerous and best enjoyed at a distance.

Today, the famous Joshua Reynolds painting of Lady Wolsey hangs in the Cinnamon Drawing Room of Harewood House. The portrait depicts the young Lady Worsley in the milita uniform of her husband.

Today, the famous Joshua Reynolds painting of Lady Wolsey hangs in the Cinnamon Drawing Room of Harewood House. The portrait depicts the young Lady Worsley in the milita uniform of her husband.

Seymour Dorothy Fleming

Growing up, Seymour was considered headstrong, wilful, with a love of horse riding and cards, and had an enormous inheritance. Born in 1757 and from birth a wild child, Seymour Dorothy Fleming was the fourth of five children of Irish career soldier, Sir John Fleming and his wife, Jane Colman, granddaughter of the Duke of Somerset. Seymour was the surname of the Somerset dynasty and she was named to reflect this familial connection. ?By the time she was twelve, she had lost her father, brother and two sisters, and found herself heiress, along with her elder sister Jane, to her father?s fortune. Her mother remarried to the wealthy MP Edward Lascelles, whose family had made a fortune through sugar and slavery in Barbados, and she spent her teenage years in his household. By the time, she was of marriageable age, she was personally entitled to a massive ?52,000, a figure inflated to ?70,000 in the gossip columns that monitored the doings of the British aristocracy. As wealthy women, Seymour and Jane were prized items on the marriage market. Jane was pretty and intelligent, keen to learn, and later developed a reputation for ?virtue?. Seymour was conventionally attractive, but more headstrong and less inclined to read or attend to her schoolwork.

With good familial connections and outstanding personal wealth, both sisters should have married well. As daughters of a baronet, this should have meant capturing an Earl or maybe even Duke. And in this Jane was successful, marrying Charles Stanhope, 3rd?Earl of Harrington.

Seymour first met Sir Richard Worsley, baronet of Appuldurcombe House, Isle of Wight, when he came to court her elder sister, Jane. Attracted by their wealth and of similar social standing, Richard was looking to consolidate his social position in London society. The young Seymour flirted with the man who had come to court her sister, but at fourteen was deemed still too young for marriage. She met him again three years later at the York Races, after which they were inseparable. For Seymour at least, this was likely to have been a love match.?Even her marriage contract benefited Richard more than might have been expected given her wealth, leaving herself only ?400 a year pin money and tying up her property until after his death.

Appuldurcombe House tennis courts

Appuldurcombe House tennis courts

Although most women didn?t have dowries or only possessed small ones, heiresses like Lady Worsley had to relinquish their entire fortune to their husband upon marriage.?As women weren?t legally allowed to own property in their own names, they had to defer to their husbands if they wanted access to their assets. In most cases, a woman was granted pin money by her husband but if he chose to withhold it there was little she could do.

Technically a woman wasn?t free to choose the husband she wanted, she could only refuse those who approached her and who she (or her parents) didn?t deem suitable. If she didn?t fancy any of them, she would have been under a lot of pressure to choose among the least offensive of the lot. Marriage and mothering were considered a woman?s sole purpose in the 18th century, and if she had failed to marry, she had failed in life.

There were no laws in place that prevented a husband from physically or emotionally abusing his wife. Although society frowned on this behaviour, an angry and violent husband was within his rights to lock his wife in a room and to beat and torment her. Many women had no recourse other than to leave their marriages. Even then, the law did not prevent their husbands from stalking them.

The law at the time granted a man absolute paternal control over his children. This meant that if a woman left her husband he had the right to prevent her from ever seeing her children again. If adultery was involved, the law stripped her of all of her maternal rights and forbade visitation. A woman like Lady Worsley, who could no longer bear the misery of her marriage and wished to escape with a man she loved, was forced to make a terrible choice between starting a new life and seeing her children.

Even if the husband in question was a notorious rake. Men alone could bring legal suits, as the law considered women possessions, with no recognised rights. A woman could not vote, attend university or – heaven forbid – enter any of the professions: politics, law, the military or the church. The cards were stacked against women who sought to go-it-alone, and often those who were cut off from their families and lacking the resources to sustain themselves had no other choice but to become the mistress of another man ? or to a succession of them.

While the process of losing their place in respectable society, their homes and their families would have been excruciating, many such as Lady Worsley, were able to forge new, freer existences outside of their marriages.

Lady Worsley was a spirited and independent young woman. She wasn?t afraid to say what she thought and do what she wanted, something that at the time, was not expected of a woman. Wives were expected to do their husband?s bidding and were seen as property in the same way as cattle or land.

Lady Worsley was rumoured to have had 27 lovers. In November 1781, Lady Worsley ran off with George Bisset, a captain in the South Hampshire militia. Photo: National Portrait Gallery London

Lady Worsley was rumoured to have had 27 lovers. In November 1781, Lady Worsley ran off with George Bisset, a captain in the South Hampshire militia. Photo: National Portrait Gallery London

A career politician, Richard was establishing himself as stalwart Tory. He would later hold a variety of governmental and diplomatic roles that added to his estate income of between ?2000 and ?3000 a year, through pay and bribes. He was also an avid collector of ancient art, spending parts of his life travelling through Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey and beyond. Spending considerable time in London, despite Richard?s politics, Seymour became a part of the ?Devonshire set?. While not in the inner cadre of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire?s friendship group, she regularly attended her parties, renowned for their gambling, drinking, high fashion, and sexual libertinism.

Richard and? Lady Worsley were badly suited to each other and so the couple’s marriage began to fall apart shortly after it began. The couple had one legitimate child, a son, Robert Edwin who died young. Seymour bore a second child, Jane Seymour Worsley in August 1781, fathered by Maurice George Bisset but whom Sir Richard claimed as his own to avoid scandal.

Sir Richard Worsley inherited Appuldurcombe in 1768. Four years later he met Seymour Fleming, a wealthy heiress with a reputation for being a bit of a wild child, and by 1776 they were married with a son. Unfortunately, Sir Richard was too busy with his duties defending the Isle of Wight from France, Spain and Holland, to pay much attention to his energetic wife, and she sought solace in fashionable society, hanging out with the Duchess of Devonshire and enjoying an affair or two.

Sir Richard Worsley inherited Appuldurcombe in 1768. Four years later he met Seymour Fleming, a wealthy heiress with a reputation for being a bit of a wild child, and by 1776 they were married with a son. Unfortunately, Sir Richard was too busy with his duties defending the Isle of Wight from France, Spain and Holland, to pay much attention to his energetic wife, and she sought solace in fashionable society, hanging out with the Duchess of Devonshire and enjoying an affair or two.

In November 1781, Seymour eloped with George Maurice Bissett, a Captain in the South Hampshire Militia, next door neighbour and close friend of the family. Richard was furious. While discreet sexual liaisons were a common part of their social circle, eloping with a lover opened up the couple?s marriage to public scrutiny, ruining Seymour?s reputation as a respectable woman, and shaming Richard, by challenging his presentation as a strong patriarch with control over his household. Why the couple eloped is an open question. Richard had already accepted Jane as his own daughter, clearly willing to accept his wife?s affair. Perhaps the couple hoped that Richard would similarly offer little resistance, providing his wife with her desired divorce. Or perhaps, her marriage was so miserable that she was willing to take the risk of scandal.

Richard, however, was not willing to concede to this public humiliation. Instead, he sued George for Criminal Conversation with his wife. This lawsuit was a way of receiving financial compensation for the seduction of your wife, and was a fairly standard prelude to divorce proceedings. But, rather than asking for standard damages, that would have allowed Richard to restore his reputation but not overly hurt George, Richard demanded ?20,000 in damages. If Richard was awarded the full amount, George would have been bankrupted. Moreover, instead of suing for divorce, Richard asked only for a legal separation. This meant that his wife would never be free to remarry until Richard died.

Appuldurcombe House as it used to look

Appuldurcombe House as it used to look

The trial that followed, however, was wilder that anyone imagined. In order to ensure that George did not have to pay full damages, Seymour decided to open up her marriage to the scrutiny of the world. What emerged scandalised eighteenth-century society. Perhaps unsurprisingly given her social circle, George had not been Seymour?s first lover. In what was an almost unheard of defence, five of Seymour?s previous lovers testified of their relationships on George?s behalf, noting that Richard was often complicit through not questioning what his wife was doing. Her doctor also testified that he had treated her for a sexually transmitted disease. The press, in turn, heightened this scandal linking her with a total of 27 men, often basing their claims
on little more than relative proximity.

Worsley was determined to destroy the lives of his wife and her lover. Even while a separation hearing before Doctors’ Commons was pending, he was pursuing Bisset for no less than ?20,000: an astronomical sum that Bisset had no hope of paying off.

These cases were held in public courts that anyone could attend,including the popular press. Worsely was certain that his wife?s reputation would be in tatters and that Bisset would be ruined financially. One factor that the court took into account was how badly the plaintiff had been deceived which inspired Worsley to sue.

Bisset had been his friend and neighbour therefore his ?crime? was seen as being even greater than it would have been if his wife had taken a stranger as a lover ? the deceit and disloyalty involved were far greater. And there ?was no doubt that the couple had runaway together and, at the time of the court case, were living together as man and wife. Worsley believed it was an open and shut case

There were also plenty of people who had known about the affair between Seymour and George Bisset and were also prepared to testify. But just as Worsley?was determined to ruin the pair, so Seymour was determined that he would not.

She didn?t care about her reputation ? she knew that it was in tatters anyway. So she urged some of her former lovers to appear in court to show that George Bisset was just one of many. She had her doctor explain that he had treated her for a sexually transmitted disease. Yes, it did her reputation no good at all but these testimonies were beginning to show that Worsley was not just a cuckold and that he had known about her affairs.

Detail from ?Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, exposing his wife?s bottom; ? o fye!? by James Gillray, 14 March 1782. ? National Portrait Gallery, London, creative commons license

Detail from ?Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, exposing his wife?s bottom; ? o fye!? by James Gillray, 14 March 1782. ? National Portrait Gallery, London, creative commons license

On the face of things, Worsley’s case was excellent. Bisset and Lady Worsley had eloped, they had holed up in a London hotel, and a biddable stream of servants-turned-spies were able to provide evidence of the couple’s shenanigans.

Once the details began to emerge, however, things started to fall apart for Worsley. The defence informed the jurors of the string of lovers whom Lady Worsley had allegedly enjoyed through the years.

Her reputation was already in tatters before Bisset entered her boudoir, so how much financial compensation could her husband expect?

Worse yet, Lord Worsley was portrayed as knowing all about, even relishing, such liaisons. One Viscount Deerhurst claimed that Worsley had once discovered him in Lady Worsley’s dressing room at four in the morning.

Rather than casting Deerhurst out of the house, Worsley obligingly entertained him for another four days. Perhaps, the jury was supposed to infer, such goings-on pandered to Lord Worsley’s voyeuristic perversions: perhaps he had even been at the keyhole.

The coup de gr?ce came with the Maidstone story. Worsley, his wife and Bisset had once attended a bath-house in the town and, while Lady Worsley was getting dressed, her husband had allowed Bisset to climb on his shoulders to ogle her half-naked form through a window.

Hardly the behaviour of a solicitous husband concerned with his own, or his wife’s, honour. Such, at any rate, was the conclusion reached by the jury, who, instead of awarding Worsley ?20,000, gave him a shilling.

A number of Lady Worsley?s lovers were called to the stand to give evidence of their relationships, but a clinching piece of evidence came from a woman who worked at a bathhouse in Maidstone. She claimed that Sir Richard had helped Captain Bissett spy on Lady Worsley whilst undressing in the bathhouse, allowing him to climb onto his shoulders and peer through a window. The Jury awarded Sir Richard only one shilling.

A number of Lady Worsley?s lovers were called to the stand to give evidence of their relationships, but a clinching piece of evidence came from a woman who worked at a bathhouse in Maidstone. She claimed that Sir Richard had helped Captain Bissett spy on Lady Worsley whilst undressing in the bathhouse, allowing him to climb onto his shoulders and peer through a window. The Jury awarded Sir Richard only one shilling.

In her attempt to save her lover, Seymour had given up every shred of respectability. After the trial, she was a social outcast, disowned by friends and family alike. Her son remained with Richard, as was the law, while the baby Jane had died during the trial, not having seen her mother since she eloped. Respectable eighteenth-century society shunned divorcees; ?respectable? women could not risk having their own reputations ruined through association. This was even more the case for a woman like Seymour, who had not only eloped with another man but admitted to multiple lovers. At the same time, Seymour was not the first divorcee in London high society, and she found herself welcomed into a circle of elite women, who were either divorced or known courtesans. Amongst this group, she not only found companionship, but an active social life of parties and gambling (often with the same men, whose reputations were less vulnerable, as before).

Her relationship with George lasted another eighteen months, but without the opportunity to marry and provide him a legitimate heir, the relationship was doomed.

Appuldurcombe House is the shell of a large 18th-century baroque country house of the Worsley family. The house is situated near to Wroxall on the Isle of Wight, England.

Appuldurcombe House is the shell of a large 18th-century baroque country house of the Worsley family. The house is situated near to Wroxall on the Isle of Wight, England.

George Bisset left Lady Worsley when it became clear that Sir Richard was seeking separation rather than divorce (meaning Seymour could not re-marry until Richard’s death). He moved on and later married, rejoining respectable society and living a thoroughly conventional life. Seymour was forced to become a professional mistress or demimondaine and live off the donations of rich men in order to survive, joining other upper-class women in a similar position in The New Female Coterie. She had two more children; another by Bisset after he left her in 1783 whose fate is unknown, and a fourth, Charlotte Dorothy Hammond (n?e Cochard) whom she sent to be raised by a family in the Ardennes. Lady Worsley was later forced to leave for Paris in order to avoid her debts.

In 1788 she and her new lover the Chevalier de Saint-Georges returned to England and her estranged husband entered into articles of separation, on the condition she spend four years in exile in France. Eight months before the expiration of this exile, she was trapped in France by the events of the French Revolution and so she was probably imprisoned during the Reign of Terror, meaning she was abroad on the death of her and Sir Richard’s son in 1793.

Seymour finally returned to England in 1797. She was desperately ill, with little money, and growing doctor?s bills. The seriousness of her illness brought her family to her bedside and a reconciliation of sorts was formed, with her parents paying for her to travel to the coast to recuperate. She established herself at Brompton, where she tried to live quietly, at least with the appearance of decorum. At the same time, her next door neighbours during these years involved many of the women and men she had partied with in the years following the Crim Con trial. It seems that if Seymour had learned a lesson, it was discretion.

During this time, she met the 26 year old, Swiss musician, Jean Louis Hummell. With a twenty-year age gap, he may have been attracted by the money she would eventually receive when her husband died, but they also cared for each other. When Richard died in 1805, they finally tied the knot and she settled her returned fortune on him. In return, Hummell changed his name to John Lewis Fleming. Shortly after their marriage, a couple showed up on her doorstep. The woman claimed to be her and Richard?s daughter, adopted by a French couple, and so entitled to inherit Richard?s estate.

While they had tracked Seymour down, they were not aware of the scandal that had caused the couple?s separation five years before the woman?s birth. Legal proceedings were started, but in 1808, Seymour chose to settle. Whether she believed this was her daughter or just did not have the energy for another trial is unknown. The daughter was provided with ?1000 and ?3000 to be settled on any issue of her marriage. John Lewis and Seymour lived together until her death in 1818 from an unknown illness. He appeared to genuinely care for her, perhaps recognizing that she had turned him from a lowly musician into a landed gentleman. Despite remarrying, John requested that he was buried alongside his first wife after his death in 1836.

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