Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Lord Cornbury's Dress


Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon and Viscount Cornbury is perhaps the most maligned royal governor that the colony of New York ever had. His reign from 1702 to 1708 was marked with greed, bribery and rampant misuse of public funds. Yet the thing he is most remembered for is this:

That’s right. If one was to believe the rumors then Lord Cornbury really liked to dress in women’s clothes. Some historians believe that Cornbury truly did parade around New York in full gowns. Other historians believe this was a started to discredit the governor by his political rivals in New York, chief among them Robert Livingston, 1st Lord of Livingston Manor.
Lord Cornbury as he would like to be remembered

Livingston had been a fan of Cornbury’s when he first arrived in the colony, writing “My Lord is Extrem hearty to redresse all grievances, we must reckon it a duble mercy that God has been pleased to send him at this juncture.”[i]

Cornbury soon lost Livingston’s support though. After a harrowing trip to England that involved being briefly seized by French privateers and set adrift, Livingston spent about three years getting his accounts settled and getting his offices confirmed by the Queen. When he returned home in 1706 he found that the colonists were united against Cornbury who had been badly mismanaging the colony. When Livingston presented his commission as Secretary for Indian Affairs to Cornbury, Cornbury refused to recognize it despite Queen Anne’s signature. Cornbury apparently preferred to keep the money due to Livingston for his own use.[ii]

Robert Livingston: Started from the bottom now he's here
In June of 1707 Robert Livingston wrote to William Lowndes of the Treasury;

William Lowndes of the Treasury.
Nothing to do with the story but he had 25 legitimate kids.
So good for him.
“Tis said he is wholly addicted to his pleasure…his dressing himself in womens cloths commonly [every] morning is so unaccountable that if hundreds of spectators did not daily see him it would be incredible.”[iii]

Livingston's letter was the first in a series of letters to officials in England describing Cornbury’s odd habit. Later that year Lewis

Morris, ancestor of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston’s good friend Gouverneur Morris and owner of the Morrisania estate in the Bronx wrote his own letter. It said:

“The scandal of his life is…he rarely fails at being dresst in Women’s cloaths every day, and almost half his time is spent that way, and seldome misses it on Sacrament day, was in that garb when his dead Lady was carried out of the Fort, and this not privately but in face of the sun and in sight of the Town. But I’ll not enter into his Privacies, his Publick Vices are scandalous enough.”

Lewis Morris
A real big wig in colonial New York.
See what I did there?
In 1709 Morris wrote about Cornbury again:

“...that is his dressing publiqly in womans cloaths Every day and putting a stop to all publique business while he is pleasing himself with that peculiar but detestable magot.”[iv]

It should be noted that Morris was also an opponent of Cornbury’s. Cornbury had suspended Morris from the New Jersey provincial council. Morris was not reinstated until Cornbury was done as governor.

The last about the governor’s dressing habits came from the pen of Elias Neau, a Huguenot refugee turned merchant and catechist. Neau wrote:

“My Lord Cornbury has and dos still make use of an unfortunate Custom of dressing himself in womens cloaths and of exposing himself in that Garb on the Ramparts to the view of the public; in that dress he draws a world of Spectators about him and consequently as many Censures, especially for the exposing himself in such a manner all the great Holy days and even in an hour or two after going to the communion.”

Neau went one step further than the other writers and commented on Cornbury’s style as well:

“I am assured that he continues to dress himself in women’s cloths, but now tis after the Dutch Manner.”[v]

Not only was Cornbury dressing like a woman but he was dressing like a Dutch woman, not even a good English woman!

            Historian Patricia Bonomi assures us that the rumor of Cornbury’s cross dressing did not gain much traction in England or elsewhere in the colonies, yet some people did hear of it. A merchant from Boston wrote to an associate in New York;


Baron von Bothmer
Very interested in how certain English people dressed.
Muliebri Veste uti (women’s clothing), is instanced in as against the Law of Nature. It has been reported that a certain Gentleman at N. York used to practice that abomination. I should be glad to know the certainty of it.”[vi]

Several years later Hanoverian diplomat Baron von Bothmer wrote that he had heard that Cornbury “thought it was necessary for him, in order to represent her Majesty, to dress himself as a woman.”[vii]

            So it is at least possible that a royal governor of New York dressed like a woman. Perhaps he enjoyed it or, as Bothmer suggested, perhaps he took his job representing Queen Anne in the colonies a little too seriously. It is also possible that he was just an unpleasant man brought down in part by the combined efforts of Robert Livingston and a few other colonists whom he had offended. Either way Cornbury was replaced by John Lovelace, 4th Baron Lovelace in 1708. Cornbury returned to England, spent some time in debtors’ prison and was briefly an envoy to the court of Hanover. He died in 1723.

As you wish
Frequent Clermont Blog reader Cary Elwes is apparently descended from Lord Cornbury


[i] Bonomi, Patricia U. The Lord Cornbury Scandal p59
[ii] Leder, Lawrence H. Robert Livingston p 200-202
[iii] Bonomi The Lord Cornbury Scandal p 158
[iv] Bonomi The Lord Cornbury Scandal p160
[v] Bonomi The Lord Cornbury Scandal p 161.
[vi] Bonomi The Lord Cornbury Scandal p 162
[vii] Bonomi The Lord Cornbury Scandal p 17

1 comment:

  1. Upon reading her book I found Dr. Bonomi's argument more compelling, though modern folks (not necessarily here, just in general) seem to prefer the rumor.

    On another note, it's nice to be able to see who the author of a blog post is, preferably at the top, but at least listed in the 'Labels', as has been common practice on this blog. Or am I just not seeing it somewhere?

    ReplyDelete