A Chiswick House Longleat and Witley Court story

During the majority of the 19th and 20th century, Britain was reigned by two queens: Victoria and Elizabeth II. Both queens succeeded to the throne at an early age and had extremely long reigns. They rank in first and second place of British monarchs’ longest reigning periods. In both cases, it meant that their heirs have had to wait dozens of years to hold the title; indeed, the Prince of Wales is still waiting.

The big difference between them, though, was that during the 19th century, the royal family was not so engaged in charity work, which meant that the only thing Edward, the son of Victoria, could do was to develop an army career. This option was vetoed by the queen, meaning that he was basically idle until he got to the throne at the age of 61. Edward spent his time hunting, partying and having affairs with numerous women.

It is hard for us coming from a modern-day perspective to understand the Victorian times, but the upper classes had a very casual outlook towards marriage which allowed both sides to pursue extra-marital relations as long as they followed a specific “code” of behaviour. Upon at least one occasion, the Prince of Wales was involved in an affair which did not adhere to these unspoken rules. It was related to Baron Ward of Witley court, or to be precise, to his wife.

When William Ward remarried in 1865, he was 48 years old, and his new wife Georgina was only 19. She was the third of a series of eight daughters of a Scottish baronet who became famous for their beauty. Two years later, her younger sister Harriet was married to another baronet called Sir Charles Mordaunt who was 26 years older than her. Sir Charles Mordaunt was a busy man. He loved hunting, pursuing affairs and fighting his farmers who were trying to unite against him. This meant that his beautiful new wife was lonely and probably felt that she could start her own series of love affairs. There was one problem, however: as I have already mentioned, there was a code in the Victorian upper class and this was that you could have as many love affairs as you liked after you produced an heir to the family. Harriet did become pregnant quite quickly, but Sir Charles was not the father. To be honest, since DNA tests did not exist back then, she could probably have got away with it, but she made a fatal mistake and confessed.

The scandal came to light immediately after the birth of her daughter. The baby was born with an eye defect and Harriet was afraid that it was a result of some sort of sexually transmitted disease she had caught from one of her lovers. When her husband realised that he might not be the father of the baby, he became furious and went to her room looking for information about the lovers she had taken. He discovered her stash of love letters and amongst them, he found letters from the Prince of Wales himself. The outraged husband demanded a divorce. This was a social suicide during Victorian days and could completely destroy the chances of Harriet’s remaining unmarried sisters of finding a good match. Things got even more complicated when her husband decided that he wanted all of his wife’s lovers to become witnesses in the trial, which meant that in the first time in the history of the English/ British Monarchy, a royal member was about to participate in a divorce trial, an unimaginable disaster.

This is probably an ideal time to mention that the Prince was one of the leading members in Witley Court’s famous aristocratic parties and he was a close friend of William Ward, which meant that suddenly the two found themselves in an uncomfortable situation. Harriet’s family had to act quickly. Their solution was as clever as it was cruel: they claimed that Harriet had gone mad and that as mentally unstable people are not responsible for their behaviour, she could not go to court. In 1870, the case came to the court of Lord Penzance.

The trial lasted seven days and the Prince of Wales appeared as a witness. He answered questions for seven minutes and was not even cross-examined by Ward’s lawyers. He did send his private doctor to assess poor Harriet and in some miraculous way, his physician also agreed with the idea that the woman was mad. Harriet was admitted to the Chiswick House asylum and Sir Charles’s petition for divorce was cancelled. A few years later, he sued one of Harriet’s lovers again and in 1875 he got his divorce. Harriet remained in Chiswick House for more than 30 years until her death in 1906.

Harriet’s family did succeed in marrying the rest of the sisters and the Earl of Dudley fixed his relationship with the Prince of Wales, mainly by letting him use Dudley House in London to run his affairs in whenever he needed. And what happened to Harriet’s daughter? Violet Mordaunt grew up at the house of Sir Charles. He did not act as a father to her, but he took on financial responsibility. Eventually, Violet married Viscount Weymouth and her grandson is currently the Marquess of Bath.

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