This is why I love the 18th century–in terms of scandals the period is full of absurdities and titillating anecdotes. Take, for example, the Duke of Cumberland and his affair with Lady Grosvenor.
In 1770 Cumberland was brought before the Court of the King’s Bench for a “criminal conversation” or rather, a suit wherein a cuckolded husband sues his wife’s lover for monetary damages. Evidence usually consisted of eyewitness testimony from servants or acquaintances and love letters–positively damning in Cumberland’s case. He not only seduced a married lady, he behaved below his station, impersonating a squire in order to visit Lady Grosvenor incognito. After fashioning himself “Squire Morgan”, he proceeded to act like an idiot to fully disguise his improprieties. Given that he was the king’s brother, this behavior was doubly mortifying when proof of the amorous affair came to light.
The “injured” party, Richard, 1st Earl of Grosvenor
Rumored to be involved in his own affaires de coeur, Lord Grosvenor intercepted the couple’s letters and copied them so he could have the pleasure of reading them in Court. Cumberland and Lady Grosvenor were also unlucky enough to have been caught in flagrante delicto, the details of which were cast into the gleeful public eye. The shocking transcripts of the trial were the delight of London and prompted an interest in other high society sex scandals, including the Worsley criminal conversation of 1782.
In the case of Grosvenor v. Cumberland, Lord Grosvenor prevailed, his dignity bruised but his pocketbook amply padded for his troubles. Cumberland ended up paying £10,000, an average sum for debauching a peer’s wife. As a member of the royal family, he did have the unique benefit of the Lord Chamberlain forbidding the subject from being discussed in any public venue. One can imagine this only fueled gossip in private withdrawing rooms though.
Modern Criminal Conversations
To my suprise, my lawyer husband advised me that criminal conversation, a.k.a. alienation of affection, still exists today. In the U.S., it has been abolished in 43 states and the District of Columbia. What’s left: Illinois, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Dakota and Utah. I dipped my toe in legal research and found awards up to 1.4 million! That’s painful for a little bit of bise bise on the side.
In England, the year of 1857 brought an end to formal revenge on rakes with abolishment of the civil action. Criminal conversations were the most common in the late 1700s and early 1800s. If you’re interested, the famous case of Worsley v. Bissett is covered in illuminating detail in Hallie Rubenhold’s Lady’s Worsley’s Whim (UK) /Lady in Red (US). I did a post a while back on the Fleming sisters, Lady Worsley being one of them, with links to the trial transcripts.