When Prince Harry took the stand earlier this month in his battle with the tabloids, he was the first senior British royal in the witness box in 130 years. For Prince Harry, the case is a noble cause, which he helped initiate, but over a century ago, his great-great-great-grandfather Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), was questioned in a London court for far more embarrassing reasons. While his case, involving an illicit game of baccarat, may seem absurd to modern sensibilities, at the time it was so scandalous that the prince’s long-suffering mother, Queen Victoria, wrote “the Monarchy almost is in danger.”
Born in 1841, Albert Edward (known as Bertie to his family) was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and her beloved husband, Prince Albert. The opposite of his upright, staid parents, the Prince of Wales was a jovial, fun-loving womanizer, whose beautiful (and amazingly understanding) wife, Princess Alexandra, ignored his numerous affairs, including his long liaison with Alice Keppel (the great-grandmother of Queen Camilla).
According to historian Jane Ridley’s excellent biography The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince, it was his incorrigible wandering eye that brought the prince to the witness stand the first time. In 1870, he was dragged into the divorce suit Sir Charles Mordaunt, a Warwickshire MP, waged against his wife, Harriet Sarah Mordaunt.
Allegedly suffering from mental illness, Lady Mordaunt had admitted to her husband that their child was not his, but Lord Cole’s, one of her many lovers. The prince was also known to visit Lady Mordaunt weekly, hiring a cab for supposed afternoon trysts. Later, Sir Charles found 18 rather innocuous letters from the prince to his wife, which were later leaked to the press.
Sir Charles seemed determined to ruin not only his wife but also her alleged lovers. In February 1870, Sir Charles took the stand in Westminster Hall and proceeded to implicate the prince. “He took care to mention my name so often, — & in order to compromise me in every possible way — that I fear I have now no other alternative but to come forward and clear myself,” Bertie wrote to a mortified Queen Victoria.
And so, on February 23, 1870, the heir to the British throne took the stand at the divorce trial to clear his name. According to historian Michael Scott, it was the first time a Prince of Wales had appeared in court since the 1400s. Firm and clear when asked if there had been “any improper familiarity or criminal act” between he and Lady Mordaunt, he answered succinctly, “there has not.” “This declaration was received by the great crowd of spectators with cheers,” The New York Times reported, “which the Court endeavored to repress, but which were renewed.”
Though heavily chided by his family and government officials, the Prince of Wales seemed unchanged by his first appearance in court. “Bertie saw no reason to act differently,” Ridley writes. “He continued to visit ladies, he still wrote letters, and he still saw his ‘fast’ friends.”
Twenty years later, the dissipated prince was still living the sporting life. In September of 1890 he arrived at the estate of Tranby Croft in Yorkshire, owned by shipping industrialist Arthur Wilson and his popular wife, Mary. He was there for a house party that had gathered to attend the nearby Doncaster Races. The rest of the party included aristocrats, Wilson family members and Bertie’s longtime pal Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Gordon-Cumming, a handsome, arrogant big game hunter whose womanizing was almost as legendary as his royal friend.
For the upstart Wilsons, who had charmed their way into the blue-blooded set, the Prince of Wales’s first stay at their home was a big deal, asserting their place in society. So, it is not surprising that they bent over backward to please the prince, even if it collided with their own morals.
According to the definitive Royal Betrayal: The Great Baccarat Scandal of 1890 by Michael Scott, after a day at the races, a 14-course meal and a singing recital by the Wilsons’ daughter Ethel Lycett Green,, the prince suggested a game of baccarat.
The Prince of Wales had long loved gambling and had been swept up in the current baccarat craze, but there was a catch. “Due to its heavy reliance on luck and the huge amounts of money involved, baccarat—a game not dissimilar to blackjack—was not only looked down on in certain polite circles, but was illegal in public, and illegal in private when playing for money,” writes Tara Cobham in The Independent.
Arthur Wilson, like many law-abiding citizens, was morally opposed to the game. But unwilling to tell his illustrious house guest no, he told his son Jack to prepare makeshift gambling tables in the smoking lodge, while Arthur tactfully retired to bed. The enthusiastic prince was undaunted, and announced he would be the banker, supplying his own set of custom-made counters (chips) to be used in the game.
According to Michael Scott, during the game Jack Wilson began to suspect that the rascally William Gordon-Cumming was cheating. Scott writes: “Horrified, he whispered his suspicions to Berkeley Levett, sitting on his other side. ‘This is too hot. The man next to me is cheating.’ Levett replied, ‘Impossible.’ ‘Well, look for yourself.’ Levett agreed, ‘This is too hot.’”
After the game, a scandalized Wilson told his mother, Mary, who was appalled. The next evening, the game was played again, with those in the know keeping a close eye on Gordon-Cumming’s movements. Once again they believed they saw him cheating. According to Scott, the Prince of Wales was oblivious, congratulating the winning Gordon-Cumming on his great luck.
By the third day, almost every member of the house party knew of the suspicions except the prince and Gordon-Cumming. When finally confronted, Gordon-Cumming vehemently denied cheating at baccarat. Interestingly, when the prince was informed of the accusations, he immediately believed them. According to Scott, when Gordon-Cumming tried to convince his friend he was innocent, the prince refused to listen, stating it was five witnesses against one.
Why had the prince been so eager to believe in his old friends’ duplicity? Scott surmises it may have been because the Prince of Wales had recently caught his latest mistress, Daisy Brooke, having sex with none other than Gordon-Cumming himself.
Desperate to avoid a scandal involving the Prince of Wales, some of the house party convinced Gordon-Cumming to sign the following declaration:
In consideration of the promise, made by the gentlemen whose names are subscribed, to preserve silence with reference to an accusation which has been made in regard to my conduct at baccarat on the nights of Monday and Tuesday 8th and 9th September 1890, at Tranby Croft, I will on my part solemnly undertake never to play cards again as long as I live.
Underneath Gordon-Cumming’s signature were the signatures of the other men involved in the baccarat game including the Prince of Wales. Thus, sworn to secrecy, this whirlwind in a teacup—or in this case a brandy snifter—seemed resolved.
But it was too good a story to keep quiet. The tale of “the great baccarat scandal” was the talk of aristocratic England. Some blamed the prince’s mistress Daisy Brooke, (nicknamed “Babbling Brooke” for her love of gossip) for spreading the rumor.
Whatever the case, this seemingly silly incident was deadly serious for Gordon-Cumming who faced expulsion from the Army and social ruin. Feeling forced to clear his name, Gordon-Cumming took drastic measures. He sued for slander Mary Wilson, her son, Jack, her daughter, Ethel, her husband Edward Lycett Green, and Berkeley Levett.
The headline-making suit was an embarrassment not only for the social-climbing Wilsons, but also the Prince of Wales. “Everybody is speculating as to how much of the rottenness of the English aristocracy will be exposed,” the Pall Mall Gazette reported. “It is believed that Sir Gordon-Cummings (sic) will expose a stream of corruption and deluge with infamy many of the best names in the English aristocratic circles.”
On June 1, 1891, the trial began in London, presided over by the eccentric Lord John Coleridge, whose pet ferret could be found scurrying under his robes. The courthouse was packed, as spectators awaited their chance to see the infamous Prince of Wales take the stand as a witness. According to Scott, for his mother Queen Victoria it was a “fearful humiliation”—her son was being dragged “through the dirt” just like a commoner!
On the afternoon of June 2, the Prince of Wales was called to the stand. Unlike his first round in the witness box 20 years earlier, he seemed ruffled and unsure.
“Though it only lasted twenty minutes, the examination of the Prince evidently wearing him exceedingly and made him extremely nervous,” the Associated Press reported. “He kept changing his position and did not seem able to keep his hands still. When a question more pressing…was put to him, the Prince’s face was observed to flush considerably and then turn pale again, showing the state of nervousness in which he found himself.”
The prince tersely answered the questions of the lawyers. Yes, he believed the charges; no, the oath was not his idea; no, he did not want to see Gordon-Cumming again.
According to the Los Angeles Times, once his cross-examination was over, the court was shocked when a Cockney member of the jury stood up and shouted out a question to the prince:
“Are the jury to understand that you were banking on these two occasions and saw nothing of the alleged malpractices?”
The prince hesitated for a moment, finally he said, with a half smile: “It is very easy for bankers when dealing cards not to see anything, especially when in company with friends in a country house. You do not for a moment suppose that anyone will play unfairly.”
The juror then asked the prince his opinion of the charges. He answered that “the charges made against him were so unanimous that I had not any other course open to me than to believe them.”
There was more embarrassment in store for the Prince of Wales. Sir Edward Clarke, Gordon-Cumming’s lawyer, dared to ask how his client could be expelled from the Army, but the prince (also an admitted gambler) could stay on the rolls.
Clarke also accused the house guests of sacrificing Gordon-Cumming for the sake of the prince’s reputation. “There is a strong and subtle influence of royalty,” he stated, “a personal influence—which has adorned our history with chivalrous deeds; and has perplexed the historian with unknightly and dishonouring deeds done by men of character, and done by them…to save the interests of a dynasty or to conceal the foibles of a prince.”
Court spectators applauded this democratic summary. Queen Victoria was less amused. “This Trial is indeed dreadful,” she wrote to her daughter Vicky. “I hope & think there is no doubt that the verdict will be given agst. Sir Wm G Cumming as the evidence is perfectly clear – but even if it is not – he will be turned out of the Army & society…….The whole thing must do Bertie harm I only pray it may be a warning… He must give up gambling & high play or the result may be most dangerous.”
The queen’s prediction proved accurate in one respect. On June 9, after only 13 minutes of deliberation, the jury found against Gordon-Cumming. The proud lieutenant’s disgrace complete, he was dismissed from the Army the next day. He married an heiress and moved to Scotland. Was he guilty? We will never know.
Gordon-Cumming’s ex-friend the Prince of Wales faced his own kind of disgrace. Having missed the last day of the trial to attend yet another racing event, this time the world-famous Ascot, he faced a shocking “lese majeste.”
“The Prince of Wales was groaned and hissed at Ascot today,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. “It seems that as the Prince was driving up with a party of his friends, a crowd in the vicinity, composed mostly of well-dressed people, but with a sprinkling of the rougher element, hooted and jeered at his royal highness, making sarcastic allusions to the baccarat scandal. Some cried out: ‘Have you brought your counters with you.’ Others indulged in more offensive allusions.”
“Pale with anger,” the prince shot angry glances at the hecklers. But even worse for the crown was the gathering public outcry against the future monarch’s louche behavior, with several religious denominations publicly condemning him. “The storm rising around the Prince of Wales is fast gaining intensity, endangering his chances of succession to the throne if not the existence of the English monarchy,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “No class appears to be stirred so deeply as the great middle class, the real strength of the country and hitherto solid prop of the monarchy.”
To some, this furor seemed absurd. “Anybody would think that he had broken all the ten commandments at once,” one observer wrote, “and murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
In fact, at the urging of his mother, a chastised Bertie sent a private apologia to the Archbishop of Canterbury, complaining that he was “defenseless” against the “torrent of abuse” heaped on him by the press and the church. “I have a horror of gambling,” he wrote laughably, “and should always do my utmost to discourage others who have an inclination for it, as I consider gambling, like impertinence, is one of the greatest curses which a country could be afflicted with.”
In reality, the scandal—like most—eventually died. Too charming to hate, the future King Edward VII regained his popularity and became a beloved monarch. He never stopped gambling, though he did quit baccarat, trading it for whist.