This Day in History 11/28: The Birth of Lord—or Lady—Cornbury

Lord Cornbury

Painting of a woman alleged to be Lord Cornbury. New-York Historical Society. Image via Wikipedia

History is primarily the business of debunking popular myths.

Yet some myths are so scandalous, so outrageous and so off-the-wall that you sincerely wish they were true—even if you know they’re probably not.

Such is the case with Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, Viscount Cornbury. Historians know Lord Cornbury as among the worst colonial governors in American history. According to 19th century historian George Bancroft, Cornbury illustrated the worst form of the English aristocracy’s “arrogance, joined to intellectual imbecility”.

Yet his popular reputation rests in a painting.

In the New-York Historical Society hangs a painting of a woman. She is a rather ugly woman wearing a nice blue period dress…and a distinct five-o’clock shadow. For many years, this painting, which is unsigned and unattributed, was believed to be Lord Cornbury himself, sparking the popular myth that he was America’s first transvestite political leader.

Yet looking back, the claim of cross-dressing just doesn’t add up.

To be fair, the transvestitism isn’t what made Cornbury such a dickhead. Apparently his whole life was an exercise in profligate douchebaggery. During an unremarkable spell as a Tory member of Parliament, Cornbury served as a Page of Honour during James II’s coronation. Yet when William and Mary came ashore in 1688, Cornbury was one of the first officers to dump James off—and take a massive load of soldiers with him.

His later career only gets worse. As governor of New York and New Jersey from 1701 to 1708, he earned a foul reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. He favored Anglican churches with vast amounts of real estate, in open defiance of New York’s longstanding religious toleration. £1500 meant for the defense of New York harbor suddenly went missing. Bribes and corrupt payoffs became commonplace. His critics described him as a “fop”, a “wastrel” a “degenerate” and a “pervert.”

Even the little lady at home got in the act. According to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace in their work Gotham, Cornbury ‘s wife was known as a petty thief, swiping clothes and jewels from New York society ladies: “the sound of her carriage at the door, people said, was a warning to hide anything of value.”

The British didn’t much care for him, either. After his removal in 1708, Cornbury landed in debtor’s prison, where he received the not so welcome news that his father died and he would be the new Lord Clarendon. The title came with some serious money. It allowed him to get out of jail and pay his debts only to piss his fortune away again with the creditors knocking a second time. He finally dies alone and in debt in 1723, to be buried in Westminster Abbey (in what kinds of clothes I’m not sure.)

Yet the story of the cross-dressing governor persists. It has taken on a life of its own: Ric Burns’ documentary on New York states Cornbury’s sartorial transgressions almost as fact. I’ve even heard teachers showing the aforementioned painting as an actual portrait of Cornbury.

Yet as fun as the story is, the historian in me thinks the evidence to support it is not only thin, but woefully one-sided. Patricia Bonomi, Professor emeriti of history at New York University, agrees.

In 1998, Bonomi wrote The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America, among the few scholarly works addressing Cornbury’s tenure as New York’s governor. In this work, she debunks the transvestite myth as a rumor started by his colonial opponents in New York.

First, transvestitism was, according to Bonomi, considered a heinous act in the 18th century. The painting purported to be Cornbury would probably not have been him, since such a public display was usually meted out by political cartoons and the like. It would be almost as if a pedophile sat with his/her victim for a portrait at Sears: ballsy, obscene, irrational…but probably unlikely.

Second, the evidence of the cross-dressing comes from four letters dated 1707-1709, all from three colonists bent on removing Cornbury from office. According to the letters, Cornbury opened the 1702 New York Assembly in an elaborate gown reminiscent of Queen Anne, claiming that as the Queen’s power in the colony he needed to represent her in every way possible. During Lady Cornbury’s funeral in 1707 (when the shoplifting was done), Cornbury also supposedly attended in female dress.

However, according to Bonomi, none of his officers, ministers or colonial agents ever mentioned these tendencies. None of the authors of the letters even claim to have seen this, either. It appears it was an attempt to get him out of office by any means necessary—and it worked.

Bonomi also claims (and I’m not totally convinced of this) that Cornbury was not as corrupt and profligate as is claimed. She claims that he was welcomed warmly in England on his return in 1709, and served high offices. I’m not as convinced at this—especially since fiscal malfeasance tends to leave a more verifiable paper trail than sexual transgressions.

What is important in looking at this episode—and what Bonomi gets right—is how sex was used as a political tool even in the early 18th century. The cross-dressing scandal, more than anything else, is what drove Queen Anne to replace Cornbury in 1708. Sexual misconduct, even as a rumor, is still a powerful tool, now as it was in Cornbury’s time.

However, even as one can probably put the transvestite myth of Lord Cornbury in doubt, there is some sense of loss. Without the hoop skirts and corsets, Cornbury becomes just another greedy colonial governor.

Sometimes the myths really do add to the history—even if it isn’t really true.

 

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