The Wicked Wanton Ways of the Worsleys: The 18th Century's Sex Scandal
Created | Updated May 30, 2013
Ut Sursum Desuper
- I swoop to rise again, Worsley family motto.
The Tall Tale
Come gather round the campfire and I'll tell you a tale. Of how the lustful Lord Worsley and his licentious lady were tempted into joining the secret Hellfire Club held in Knighton Gorges on the Isle of Wight, far away from the eyes of respectable society. Of the Satanic orgies that took place there, where even the respectable Lady Worsley would copulate with up to 28 lovers in one night. Should any wuzbuds1 result, they would be hidden inside Worsley's workhouse. But once a year, on Halloween, an illegitimate child would be taken to the Worsley Monument on the summit of Stenbury Down and sacrificed.
Yet one night, God in his divine wrath, sent forth a great storm to punish the wicked. A thunderbolt struck down the Worsley Obelisk, Knighton Gorges Manor was destroyed and the roof of the Worsley's home, Appuldurcombe House, burnt. And as a warning harking back to Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's Wife, one of the Needles, came crashing down into the sea. Lord Worsley died, yet to avoid further catastrophe the sarcophagus he had commissioned to contain his mortal remains was hidden behind the church organ. Yet though it was completely destroyed, the site of Knighton Gorges remains to this day terribly haunted...
This campfire story, like most tales around the campfire, has very little basis of truth. The Needle known as Lot's Wife collapsed in 1764, Knighton Gorges Manor was demolished by the owner's choice in 1821, the Grade II Listed Worsley Monument was struck by lightning in 1831, and the Grade I Listed Appuldurcombe House was damaged by a Dornier Do 217 bomber in 1943. Though Sir Richard Worsley was frequently portrayed as having horns in his lifetime, they were the symbolic horns of a cuckold rather than having a satanic connotation.
But the true story is no less dramatic. Recently brought to life in Hallie Rubenhold's 2008 book Lady Worsley's Whim: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce, the story of Sir Richard and his wife Lady Seymour Worsley and their bitter divorce is a tale of sex and scandal, betrayal, revenge, retribution and humiliation.
The Worsleys of the Wight
Since the Norman Conquest, the Worsleys have been one of the most prominent families on the Isle of Wight. Sir James Worsley was Henry VIII's Master of the Robes and stage-managed the Field of the Cloth of Gold. His marriage in 1511 with Anne Leigh, heiress of Sir John Leigh of Appuldurcombe2, founded the Worsleys of Appuldurcombe branch of the Worsley family and his son, Richard Worsley was the first Baronet Worsley. Richard Worsley had been the Captain of the Island and defeated the French when they invaded in 1545. In March 1648 Edward Worsley awaited beneath Carisbrooke Castle's wall with a horse, waiting for Charles I who was imprisoned within to escape, although Charles became stuck between the bars of his window.
Since Tudor times the Worsley family had been largely insular in their outlook, more concerned with their role within the Isle of Wight than national affairs, though the family often represented the Island as Members of Parliament.
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.
Seymour Dorothy Fleming
Born in 1757 and from birth a wild child, Seymour was the second surviving daughter of Jane and Sir John Fleming. Seymour's father had married her 21-year-old mother at the age of 51 in 1753, having inherited a large amount of money. Her father died in 1763, when she was six, leaving much of his wealth to his two surviving daughters, Jane and Seymour.
Seymour's mother Lady Jane Fleming married elderly widower Edwin Lascelles in 1770, an extremely wealthy man who owned Harewood House outside Leeds. Growing up, Seymour was considered headstrong, wilful, with a love of horse riding and cards, and had an enormous inheritance.
In 1772 the 21-year-old Sir Richard Worsley first met the 14-year old Seymour. Three years later in June 1775 they met again at the fashionable York races and, within a week, the two were engaged. They were married in September, and in August 1776 a son, Robert Edwin Worsley, was born.
After their marriage, Sir Richard purchasing vast amounts of land to expand his Appuldurcombe estate. Appuldurcombe House was rebuilt as a baroque masterpiece, the grounds sculpted by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown and the interiors filled with Chippendale furniture and antiques.
As well as improving his home on the Isle of Wight, he used his new-found fortune to improve his social standing. Already Newport, Isle of Wight's Tory MP since 1774, his cousins James Worsley and Edward Meaux Worsley held the Island's other seats, Yarmouth and Newtown, enabling Richard, as head of the family, to command three votes in Parliament. In 1777 he became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries as well as being appointed one of the Clerks Comptroller of the Board of Green Cloth in Lord North's government. In 1778 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1779 he was appointed Comptroller of the King's Household, a position perfectly suited for his keen mathematical mind. In 1780 he was appointed a Privy Counsellor and Governor of the Isle of Wight, salaried positions which greatly increased his wealth. He also spent his time studying history, publishing his History of the Isle of Wight in 1781, which in 2013 is still in print.
One of the Worsley's traditional duties was to defend the Isle of Wight in time of danger. In 1525 Sir James Worsley had built the first fortification on the Isle of Wight, Worsley's Tower, at what is now known as Round Tower Point in its honour. Sir Richard's ancestor Richard Worsley had commanded the 6,000 men of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight militia that defeated the French Invasion of 1545. As his father had before him, Sir Richard commanded the local South Hampshire Militia, having the rank of Colonel. This was a regiment of volunteer soldiers.
The Isle of Wight and south coast of England was certainly under threat in the late 1770s and early 1780s. During the American War of Independence much of Britain's army was abroad. In February 1778 France declared war on Britain. Both Spain in 1779 and Holland in 1780 followed France in declaring war on Britain. This was a major blow to Lord North's government; as King Louis XV of France had ignored Spain's pleas to ally during the 1770 Falklands Crisis, North had wrongly assumed that France under King Louis XVI would not become involved with the war in America. This mistake endangered the country. In 1779 a vast French-Spanish Armada set sail with 40,000 men intending the capture of the Isle of Wight., only to be defeated by internal conflict, lack of communication and sickness3. Another attack at the time is mentioned in John Hassell's 1790 Tour of the Isle of Wight, when Sandown Castle was ineffectively attacked by privateers. In 1780 the Gordon Riots swept through London and the militia was needed to restore peace.
Seymour felt neglected when Richard was occupied with his duties. Having quite different personalities, Richard preferred the strict order of military life, while his wife was fond of the glamour of the social calendar. His life revolved around politics, defence of the realm, collecting antiques and fulfilling his political ambition.
Seymour was soon seen in Society's fashionable circles, spending time with the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Georgiana Cavendish along with many members of her husband's Whig rivals. It is believed that around this time she had her first affairs. In 1777 Playwright and MP Richard Brinsley Sheridan reportedly loosely based the character of Lady Teazle in his comedy play School for Scandal on Lady Worsley.
George Maurice Bisset
In 1780 the Worsleys' gained a new near-neighbour on the Island; 23-year-old George Maurice Bisset, also known as Maurice George Bisset. His estate of Knighton Gorges4, once considered one of the most picturesque, gothic houses on the Island, was only four miles from Appuldurcombe, outside Newchurch.
Worsley and Bisset, being around the same age and of a similar social standing, soon became firm friends. He appointed Bisset to a captaincy in the South Hampshire Militia in early 1781.
Marching with the Militia to a Miserable Marriage
Since 1778, when France had declared war on England and the threat of invasion loomed, each year the nation's militia assembled in Kent, to prepare to meet any threat. In 1781 the militias again were ordered to Kent between June and November. Rather than stay with his men on a campsite, Richard Worsley hired a large house in Maidstone, allowing Captain George Bisset to have a few rooms within the house.
Around this time, Lady Worsley and George Bisset began a relationship and, rather than prevent it, Sir Richard actively encouraged George to spend time with his wife while he looked on. On 4 August 1781 Lady Worsley gave birth to her second child, named Jane Seymour Worsley, though believed to be Bisset's daughter. Sadly Jane died a few months later.
A bath laugh?
In September 1781 on a hot day, Seymour, Bisset and Richard decided to enjoy a trip to Maidstone's cold baths. These were segregated baths, with male and female bathing in different rooms. There they had the baths to themselves, other than the attendant servants. After bathing quickly, Bisset and Richard found a window high outside the women's bathing room. Richard called out to his wife, Seymour! Seymour! Bisset is going to get up and look at you! He then lifted Bisset onto his shoulders to raise him to the window, where Bisset looked through and spent the next five minutes watching Seymour, who was naked, get dressed, attended by shocked bathing woman Mary Marriott.
In October, the militia was ordered from Kent to winter quarters in Lewes, Sussex. There Seymour and Bisset conspired to elope. As it was impossible for a woman to instigate divorce proceedings against her husband, Seymour hoped that eloping would force Richard to request a divorce. This was a desperate act, as women who committed adultery were severely and irrevocably excluded from polite society.
On Sunday 18 November 1781, when Sir Richard Worsley was ill in bed,
a social gathering was hosted by the regiment's surgeon. Lady Seymour and George Bisset attended, after which Lady Worsley was escorted 'home' by George Bisset after midnight. In fact Seymour followed her lover to his lodgings. There Seymour wrote a letter to her maid, Mary Sotheby, requesting that Mary bring her wardrobe to London, as the only possessions that she had with her were the clothes on her back5. Around 5am the couple fled to London in a carriage while the rest of Lewes slept. On their arrival, they booked themselves into a hotel as husband and wife. The attention of the hotel staff was raised when the couple spent almost all their time in their bedroom, as if afraid to go out, and frequently requesting the services of the housemaids to re-make their bed...
In Lewes that morning Sir Richard noticed his wife's absence. Although at first both anxious and confused, at 7am Bisset's valet gave Sir Richard's butler two letters, one from Bisset addressed to him in which Bisset resigned his commission, and one in Lady Seymour's handwriting, addressed to her maid. Recognising the handwriting, he uttered, Oh, my lady is found. He then left for London, hoping to find Lady Worsley.
Courses for Divorces
After receiving a message that Lady Worsley had absconded with George Bisset and wished for a divorce, Sir Worsley hired a divorce lawyer. For a while he hoped that his wife would realise the error of her ways and return to him, especially as women who committed adultery had no legal right to see their children. However he eventually realised that Seymour was determined, and their marriage was over.
At the time there were two forms of divorce:
- A Parliamentary Divorce
This was expensive, but allowed both parties to separate and be free to marry again.
- A Suit of Separation from Bed and Board
Ecclesiastical divorces used by husbands to divorce adulterous wives, although neither the husband nor wife could marry again while their partner lived.
In order to both punish his wife for running away and prevent her from marrying Bisset, Sir Worsley chose to pursue a Separation from Bed and Board. He also planned his revenge against George Bisset.
A Little Less Criminal Conversation, A Little More Action Please
Worsley wished to punish George Bisset, the friend who had betrayed him. Sir Worsley therefore chose to sue him for Criminal Conversation at the Court of the King's Bench. This was a charge which a husband could bring on a man who had betrayed his trust by committing adultery with his wife. The richer and more noble the cuckolded husband, the more damage was considered to have been done and the more money the victim could expect to receive. The man who had an affair with another man's wife had to know the husband, as no betrayal could take place between strangers. The closer the loyalty between the men, the greater the betrayal of both the spousal relationship and male bond of friendship, and therefore the more money the victim could expect to receive.
Sir Richard decided to sue for £20,000, an unprecedented sum. This amount would surely force Bisset to sell all his property, especially on the Island (where Worsley could buy it) and potentially even spend the remainder of his life in a debtor's prison. Worsley felt he had enough evidence to pursue a Criminal Conversation trial, as the hotel staff could confirm that Lady Worsley and Bisset had stayed in a room which had only one bed.
On Thursday 21 February, 1782 the case of Worsley v Bisset took place at the Court of the King's Bench. Sir Richard's prosecution case was simple. Lady Seymour was worth £70,000. George Bisset had betrayed Worlsey's trust, Worsley being both a friend and his superior officer, by damaging his wife through having sex with her. Bisset had absconded with her, witnesses proved that the two of them spent time alone in the same bed, and so therefore he was entitled to £20,000 compensation.
George Bisset's defence was twofold. First he claimed that he could not possibly have damaged Lady Worsley as he was not her first lover outside wedlock (rumours, still spread today, suggested he was her 28th conquest). He found it difficult to find any man to confirm that they had enjoyed a physical relationship with Lady Worsley, in case Sir Richard would later sue them for £20,000 for Criminal Conversation. One, Viscount Deerhurst, admitted that he had stayed at Appuldurcombe House on the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1779, and had been discovered by Sir Richard in Lady Worsley's dressing room at 4am. Despite this, Sir Richard allowed him to solely accompany Lady Seymour on a three day trip to Southampton and London.
The second half of Bisset's defence centred on Worlsey's act at the Maidstone bathhouse. Mary Marriott, the bath's attendant, confirmed that Sir Worsley had not only allowed but actually assisted Bisset in seeing Lady Worsley in a state of undress by raising him on his shoulders. This proved that Sir Richard acted to cuckold himself.
The judge concluded that, [Lady Seymour], for three or four years, has been prostituted with a variety of people; that is extremely clear, and extremely plain. The jury were asked to consider their verdict and what sum of money should be paid in damages to Sir Worsley. After deliberation, in which they acknowledged that Bisset had undoubtedly dishonourably absconded with another man's wife, they reached a verdict. Instead of the £20,000 asked for, Sir Richard Worsley was awarded a shilling.
Following the trial, Sir Richard Worsley was humiliated and went into seclusion. He did not attend the vital Parliamentary session the following day, Friday 22 February, 1782. Prime Minister Lord North's Tory government had lost almost all of its supporters since General Cornwallis had surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown in October, with the exception of King George III, who refused to allow Lord North to resign. The day after the trial, the Whigs called for a vote that the war on the continent of North America may no longer be pursued for the impractical purpose of reducing the inhabitants of that country to obedience by force. Lord North, seeing the absence of Sir Richard Worsley, one of his last loyal supporters, exclaimed, Oh! If all my Cuckolds desert, I shall be beaten indeed!
In the end, the Whigs motion failed by one vote; had it succeeded, the war in America would have been ended not by George Washington on the battlefields of America, but by Lady Seymour Worsely and her lover in the bedrooms and courtrooms of London.
Lord North, the first Prime Minister to lose a Vote of No Confidence, resigned on 20 March, 1782. The Tories were defeated in Parliament by the Whigs, and consequently, Sir Richard Worsley lost many of his influential Parliamentary positions and appointments with the exception of being Newport's MP.
Outside Parliament, the trial's sex scandal of Sir Richard Worsley, the man who had cuckolding himself by encouraging his friend George Bisset to pursue his wife, caught the public imagination like no other. It was covered in immense details in the newspapers and cartoons about it were published. At the trial was a court reporter who recorded the testimonies of the trial. Within two days The Trial with the Whole of the Evidence between the Right Hon. Sir Richard Worsley, Bart. And George Maurice Bisset Esq, Defendant, for Criminal Conversation with the Plaintiff's Wife – Price, 1 shilling was published in London. This became an international best-seller, even George Washington owned a copy.
This was followed by anonymous, often mocking publications of the Worsley's lives. These included The Genuine Anecdotes and Amorous Adventures of Sir Richard Easy and Lady Wagtail and The Memoirs of Sir Finical Whimsy and His Lady. There were even erotic poems published, including The Whim!!! Or the Maidstone Bath and Variety, or Which is the Man?, about Lady Worsley's love life.
In April 1782, with the Separation from Bed and Board divorce case underway, An Epistle from Lady W-y to Sir R-d W-y was published. This erotic poem was the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day, in which her thoughts and feelings were expressed by a hired professional writer in 16 pages of scandalously sexual rhyming couplets.
Although society was outraged by its content, which attempted to justify the actions of a woman who left her husband and children, it sold outrageously well. Dr Samuel Johnson, author of the dictionary, described it with the words, it is without exception the best written poem that has made its appearance these many years. Sir Richard wrote a poem in response, The Answer of Sir R-d W-y to the Epistle of Lady W-y, however this was only sold in three bookshops in London.
Their Later Lives
Sir Richard Worsley
Sir Richard, unable to cope at home with the continued hounding and mocking of the press, spent 1783-1785 on a long voyage. His expedition led as far as the Ottoman Empire, Greece, Egypt and Turkey and Russia at a time when it was virtually unknown for any European to set foot there. Before Napoleon's 'rediscovery' of the Pyramids or Lord Elgin's collection of the marbles from the Parthenon in 1801, Sir Richard began one of England's first fine collection of Ancient Greek and other classical antiques.
He became a person of note in Europe for his collection, and with Ennio Quirino Visconti, would write The Museum Worsleyanum in both English and Italian, a book describing the priceless works of art in his collection. He was rewarded by being appointed British Minister-Resident to Venice when William Pitt the Younger was in power for the Tories in 1793, and from there was able to expand his collection and influence.
Sadly in April 1795 his only son and heir, Robert Edwin Worsley, died. Another loss was suffered in 1797 the Venetian Republic was invaded by Napoleon, and Worsley was still in the city when the French troops arrived. Though he fled back to the Isle of Wight, he left behind his priceless collection of Renaissance art treasures and paintings, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio. Back on the Island he planted a vineyard on his estate and, rather than living in the grand Appuldurcombe House, which now resembled a museum, lived in a smaller house on the estate named Sea Cottage.
He died on 5 August, 1805.
Lady Seymour Worsley
After the trial Lady Worsley became pregnant with her lover's baby, however soon after, George Bisset left her for a younger woman6. Lady Worsley would give birth in May 1783, but the baby was either stillborn or died soon after. The standards of the time called for polite society to completely shun Lady Seymour, a confirmed adulteress, with even the members of her family expected to no longer communicate with her. Lady Worsley was expected to withdraw from public life and feel the shame for her lost respectability for the rest of her life. Instead, for a time she joined England's impolite society, known as the 'Demi-monde', of fashionable fallen women. She became the mistress of various men, especially in France, and had a daughter, who she named Charlotte Dorothy Worsley, who was given to a French family to be adopted.
Unlike the prudish, rigid England where adultery was considered a crime against society, Seymour found French society of the 1780s to socially accept and indeed encourage fashionable extra-marital sex. When the divorce terms were finally settled in 1788, Lady Seymour readily agreed to Sir Worsley's terms that Lady Worsley 'absent herself and withdraw herself from the Kingdom of Great Britain for the space of four years'.
Within a year of her move to France, revolution had broken out. She fled to northern France and Lille. Unable to flee to England and with France soon at war with her neighbours, Lady Seymour found herself trapped in northern France during the Reign of Terror, a time when anyone in France could be sent to the guillotine for any reason. Lady Worsley survived and managed to return to England in 1797, though extremely ill and heavily indebted.
As soon as Sir Richard died, Lady Worsley married Frenchman Jean Louis Hummell, who changed his name to John Lewis Fleming, after her maiden name. They returned to France in 1816 after the royal monarchy was restored after the defeat of the imperial monarch Napoleon. She died outside Paris, on 9 September, 1818 at the age of 61, and is buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery.
Sir Richard Worsley's intention was to restore his family name to where he felt it belonged, restore Tory prestige on the Isle of Wight and leave a lasting family legacy. In this, he failed. As his son sadly predeceased him, he was the last Worsley of Appuldurcombe and on his death, his niece Henrietta Anna Maria Charlotte Bridgeman Simpson, who later married Charles Pelham, First Earl of Yarborough, Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, inherited. He used the Worsley's political influence for the Whigs. Worlsey had aimed to gather the greatest art collection in England, yet even before he died in 1805 he was eclipsed; Lord Elgin began bringing the collection known as Elgin's Marbles to England in 1801. When Yarborough7 died in 1859, Worsley's collection was simply sold off.
Lord Worsley was buried in All Saints Church in Godshill, where in the picture-perfect church he was buried within a 30-ton sarcophagus with lion's feet. This vast monument was considered such an annoying nuisance that in 1905 it was hidden behind the church organ.
In 1774, Sir Richard had erected a 70-foot obelisk, ostensibly in honour of Sir Robert Worsley, but as a celebration of his own prestige. This was struck by lightning in 1831 and is now all-but demolished. His vineyards near Ventnor failed and his home, Appuldurcombe House, has been a roofless shell since the Second World War, although English Heritage have recently restored part of it.
One of his first acts on receiving his title was to erect a milestone at Bow Bridge, about halfway between the Island's capital of Newport and his home seat of Appuldurcombe House. This has been all-but buried beneath the A3020's modern road surface, and thought it once informed passers-by of the distance to both Newport and Appuldurcombe, now only the words 'To Newport Quay' are legible.
Perhaps Sir Richard's longest lasting legacy was his workhouse. The Isle of Wight House of Industry became the template for other workhouses nationwide following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, bringing untold pain and misery to millions until the workhouses were finally closed in 1929.
- Though Appuldurcombe House was badly damaged by a bomber during the Second World War, it is open to the public in the care of English Heritage. They have previously hosted Murder Mystery nights inspired by the Worsleys, who are also mentioned in their guidebook.
- Cindy McCreery analysed the Worsley affair in her article Breaking All the Rules: The Worsley Affair in Late-Eighteenth-Century Britain, published in Orthodoxy and Heresy in Eighteenth Century Society.
- Parliament Online describes Sir Richard Worsley's Parliamentary Career
- The Library of Congress contains copies of many cartoon images of the Worsley affair, including A Bath of the Moderns.
- In 2008 Hallie Rubenhold published the most thorough study of the scandal to date, Lady Worsley's Whim: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce, about the lives of both Sir Richard and Lady Worsley.
Other similar scandals of the time include that of the Duchess of Devonshire, whose life has been portrayed in the film The Duchess. Similarly, the story of the Countess of Strathmore has recently been told in Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match by Wendy Moore.
Sophie Dawes went from Worlsey's workhouse on the Isle of Wight to reach the very highest echelon of French society through being the mistress of the Prince de Condé, who many believe she later murdered. Horatio Nelson would also have a much-published affair with Lady Hamilton.