The destination for history

The secret life of the country house


Scandal existed long before celebrity gossip columns, often hidden behind the closed doors of the Georgian aristocracy. But secrets were impossible to keep in a household of servants who listened at walls and spied through keyholes. The early mass media pounced on these juicy tales of adultery, eager to cash in on the public appetite for sensation and expose the shocking moral corruption of the establishment.

It was just after breakfast at nine o’clock on a bleak winter morning when the housemaid Elizabeth Hopping hesitated by the parlour door, torn between apprehension and curiosity. A muffled thudding sound was coming from the adjacent room, echoing through the stillness of the old manor house. She crept towards the oak-panelled door, heart pounding beneath her stays, and swiftly crouched down to peer through the keyhole. There was no mistaking what was going on next door.

With a horrified gasp Elizabeth instinctively drew back. Her hands were shaking, and she pressed both palms flat against the smooth polished wood to steady herself as she bent her head for another look. On the far side of the parlour by the gilded oval mirror, Lady Abergavenny was leaning back against the hall door, her petticoats bunched up as high as the garters on her stockinged legs. Pressed up against her in a passionate embrace was her husband’s friend Mr Lyddel, his coat unbuttoned, doing something that a man ought not to do. Dazed and shaken, Elizabeth scurried away down the back stairs, scarcely daring to think about what she had seen. She whispered her secret only to a laundrymaid, afraid that no one else would believe the shocking discovery.

Richard Lyddel, ‘a very civil, modest, well-bred gentleman’, living only seven miles from Lord Abergavenny’s country estate in West Sussex, was a regular visitor to the house, often riding over to stay for a week at a time as a welcome guest of the family. But as the months passed, suspicion grew among the servants about the unseemly intimacy between him and Lady Abergavenny. The house porter William Smith noticed that every time Mr Lyddel called, he was told by the mistress that she would not be at home to anyone else during his visit. Laundrymaid Mary Hodson saw the couple kissing at the window of an upstairs dressing room, then hurriedly closing the shutters, and on several occasions one of the housemaids was ordered to leave the room with the bed still unmade when Mr Lyddel came to her Lady’s chamber.

By the autumn of 1729, Matthews, who as his lord’s gentleman was entrusted with family business matters, was becoming increasingly worried that the couple were involved in a criminal correspondence. During the week of 13 October he was dealing with the engrossing of tenants’ leases, working in an apartment beneath the White Room where Mr Lyddel was staying. Seated at his usual writing table, he was absorbed in the task when a sudden noise from above made him stop abruptly halfway down a page, quill poised over the inkwell. He could plainly hear a man’s voice and the sound of the bed creaking in the White Room, and rushing out onto the main staircase he saw Mr Lyddel appear and call for his man. Running as hard as he could, Matthews found one of the house servants and told them to send up the valet, then ran up the back stairs through the long gallery just in time to see Lady Abergavenny emerging from the White Room looking very red and disordered. The next morning he again heard noises in the room above and, determined now to find out the truth, dashed up the back stairs, along to the end of the gallery, and removing his wig lay down out of sight to wait. Shortly he heard the bolt drawn in the White Room and Mr Lyddel appeared, looking around furtively, then the mistress came out carefully spreading her petticoats to prevent the silks rustling.

On Thursday of that week he heard similar suspicious noises in the bedchamber and decided to report the matter to Mr Osman, the house steward, as he could not bear to see his lord betrayed in this fashion. On Friday and Saturday morning the two men waited together for the lovers to meet, and both heard the White Room bed creak, the door unbolted and saw her ladyship come out holding up her petticoats as before. With such clear evidence now of a clandestine liaison, they knew Lord Abergavenny had to be told the truth; they initially asked his mother if she would break the terrible news, but she was too upset to confront him. Eventually on 6 November Mr Day, a neighbour and relation who managed the family estates in several counties, agreed to take on the difficult task and asked his lordship to take a walk in the fields with him as he had something to discuss. Clearly alarmed by his grave manner, Lord Abergavenny pressed him to speak out at once, and when he heard what had been going on between his wife and Mr Lyddel was at first too shocked to believe that his close friend could have done such a thing. But faced with the facts of his wife’s blatant infidelity, he agreed that the pair had to be surprised in the very act of adultery as final, incontrovertible proof.

At six in the morning on 8 November, Matthews, Mr Osman and Mr Day all squashed into a closet adjoining the White Room where Mr Lyddel slept and settled down to wait. Suddenly at nine o’clock they heard a noise, and peering through the keyhole Mr Osman saw her ladyship enter the room, slip over to the bed and say in a low voice, ‘I cannot stay with you now.’ Uncertain if she had left the bedchamber, they waited impatiently for a few more minutes to see what would happen next. Then, hearing sounds within, Matthews cautiously opened the door, and the three men tiptoed softly to the bedside and flung back the curtains. Startled by the sudden intrusion, Mr Lyddel, wearing only a shirt, froze and cried out, ‘Oh God!’ Lady Abergavenny lay there beside him on her back in a very indecent posture, with her naked legs exposed. Even more shocking, she was heavily pregnant. ‘Dear Matthews, do not ruin me. Do not ruin me,’ she begged, hastily trying to cover herself. Matthews told her they had been sent at her husband’s direction, and to Mr Lyddel said in disgust, ‘Sir, I thought you would not have been guilty of so foul an act.’ Mr Osman said, ‘For you Sir, to come so frequently, in such a shew of friendship, and to wrong his Lordship after such a manner as you have done, is a crime for which you can make him no satisfaction.’ Mr Lyddel replied, ‘It is very true, I can make no satisfaction,’ and offered to take his horse and ride away, and never return to the house again. But they locked him in the room alone, and when Lady Abergavenny sent a servant to check on him later that morning he was full of remorse and greatly agitated, exclaiming, ‘I am a vile wretch; for God's sake do not speak to me.’ Matthews set off immediately for London to instruct the family lawyer Mr Staples, and he swore an affidavit so that legal proceedings could be started against Mr Lyddel for criminal conversation.

At three o’clock that afternoon Lady Abergavenny was sent away in disgrace to her father General Tatton’s house in London. Less than a month later she was dead.

The shocking tale of Lady Abergavenny had all the right ingredients of a juicy scandal - illicit sex among the upper classes, betrayal, remorse and punishment of the guilty couple. It revealed a tantalising glimpse into the secret existence of the aristocracy, which was usually safely hidden from public gaze behind the forbidding stone walls of their country houses. The compelling story went on to be printed and reprinted for more than a century in newspapers, periodicals, books and pamphlets, to the delight of generations of readers who could enjoy the vicarious thrill of peeping through the keyhole at the personal lives of the rich and powerful. Even better, they could relish all the titillating details of a sexual intrigue presented in the guise of a morality tale.

It was Lady Abergavenny’s sudden death on 4 December 1729, shortly after childbirth, which gave the story extra dramatic resonance because it seemed like divine retribution for her sins. Despite his wife’s death, Lord Abergavenny went ahead and sued her seducer in a civil action for criminal conversation (popularly known as ‘crim. con.’). Whether Lord Abergavenny was aware of his friend’s bad reputation is uncertain, but there was plenty of gossip that he knew about and had actually encouraged his wife’s extramarital affair with the intent of suing for financial gain. He was clearly a man quick to avenge any perceived slight to his honour, as the previous year he had actually sued his own aunt, Anne, the Dowager Lady Abergavenny ‘for scandalous words spoken’. The action for Scandalum Magnatum, an ancient offence of slandering the nobility, was heard by Lord Chief Justice Eyre at the Court of Common Pleas in May 1729. He claimed £10,000 damages but was awarded the still considerable sum of £2,000 by the jury. The ‘remarkable trial’ was widely reported in the London press including the Daily Post, Fog’s Weekly Journal, London Evening Post and London Gazette. Whether the defamatory words concerned his wife’s infidelity or the legitimacy of their children we cannot be certain, though it would seem highly likely because only charges of this seriousness would be deemed to warrant legal damages of such a punitive nature.

As ever, it was not so much the actual sexual indiscretion of a public figure but being found out that created the scandal and provided a lucrative target for publishers. The potent allure of sex, money and power has always created a keen public interest in gossip and speculation about the hidden private lives of the English aristocracy. A complex mixture of envy, derision and curiosity seems to be at the heart of an enduring fascination with a glamorous world far removed from our own. Today it is the private lives of show business celebrities, politicians and wealthy public figures that fill our modern media of print, television, film and digital sources. But the origin of this public appetite for sensational tales of high-profile scandal lies at the birth of the commercial mass market for print in Georgian England.

Printed literature appeared in many different guises in Georgian England and proliferated so quickly that it seeped into the fabric of daily life. This rapid development of large-scale commercial publishing and the press meant that it soon became a powerful agent of social change, playing an active part in manipulating public opinion on important topics of the day. The fuel which fed this growing entity was of course cash, and publishers were constantly searching for new topics which would increase their readership. Stories of sex and power revealing the secret private lives of the aristocracy were guaranteed to be popular and saleable, so it was not surprising that their potential as a profitable commodity was quickly realised. Although only a small proportion of peers were involved in trials for crim. con., adultery within the upper echelons of society developed into a prominent public issue as publishers effectively exploited the market demand for nobility by presenting salacious details of their personal lives as entertaining morality tales, often deliberately distorting reality by magnifying those aspects which would appeal to their readers.. The publication of adultery cases as titillating entertainment magnified what was actually a minority activity into a perceived epidemic of immorality, and the scandalous private lives of a small number of peers came to be seen as emblematic of a morally corrupt class as a whole. This flood of print gradually helped to change perceptions of the aristocracy and acted as a catalyst for widespread public debate on their previously unquestioned status as leaders of society.

The public seems to prefer its aristocrats as entertaining stereotypes, presented as easily recognisable figures such as the scandalous duchess, the lecherous lord, the Regency rake and the eccentric earl. But what lies behind the lurid newspaper headlines and the bare facts of published exposés?

By Susan C. Law 


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