"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, November 25, 2013

"A Complicated Scene of Art and Treachery": A Georgian Era Domestic Scandal

George Cruikshank, "Valentine's Day"

In this social media-obsessed era of ours, we are accustomed to seeing people share the most intimate, and often most embarrassing, details of their private lives with the world.

It is easy to forget that this is not a new phenomena. The way it is expressed may shift through history, but human exhibitionism is unchanging. One striking example comes from the Georgian-era scandal that is the subject of this post. The four people involved in this private mess involving bigamy, seduction, gold-digging, drugs, domestic violence, and hints of murder plots sought not to hush up their shame, but to share it with the world in a dizzyingly prolix series of letters and pamphlets exposing each and every degrading detail. It makes the blood run cold to think what this quartet could have done with Facebook and Twitter. (If this post seems overly long, I can only say in my defense that I am presenting as concise a version of this tangled tale as possible.)

The whole saga was first revealed to the public by means of an anonymous letter sent to London’s “General Evening Post” on October 3, 1747. The writer explained that “Such a complicated Scene of Art and Treachery” as he had to tell “ought to be exposed to open View, to serve as a Memento for your Fair Readers in particular, and teach them Caution in the Choice of the two most endearing Blessings in Life, a Friend in whom to confide, and a Partner in their Bed and Affections.”

It was a cautionary tale indeed. While leaving the names discreetly blank in the inexpressibly irritating custom of the day, the correspondent told of a “Mr. C” “a young Gentleman of some Fortune in the West of this Kingdom,” who became enamored of a Miss “S.” To avoid offending a wealthy relation from whom he had “expectations,” the couple married secretly. “After a considerable Time spent in the Enjoyment of the Sweets of a gratified Passion,” an extremely rich lady, little knowing of this clandestine marriage, let “C” know she would welcome his attentions. “Flattered with the Hopes of so advantageous a Match,” “C” persuaded “S” to acquiesce in his public marriage to the woman of wealth, with the argument that this other lady’s fortune would be of great benefit to them both. “C” bigamously married the unsuspecting heiress, who eventually bore him two children who were fated to share the disgrace that would inevitably fall upon “the innocent Adultress, their Mother.”

Meanwhile, a “Mr. L,” also ignorant of “S’s” marital state, paid honorable court to her, so successfully that their relationship went so far as to come to “a Contract and Settlement.” When this reached the ears of “C,” this wretched blackguard, “fired with the Thoughts of losing one of his Wives,” told “L” that his fiancĂ©e was his, “C’s,” mistress. When “L” confronted “S” with this disturbing report, she, “losing all Patience at C’s unparallell’d Audaciousness,” revealed to “L” that she was not a harlot, merely a party to bigamy.

The letter-writer closed his harrowing tale with the pious hope that the law could somehow aid “C’s” wronged second “wife” and her offspring.

The modern-day writer of soap operas had nothing on those Georgians when they really rolled their sleeves up and got to work.

The "complicated scene"--which comes off as a parody of one of those lurid thousand-page epistolary novels of the time--dated back to 1737, when Lancelot Lee, who was not only the “Mr. L” of the above letter, but the letter-writer himself--began courting “Miss S,” Elizabeth “Betty” Scrope. Miss Scrope’s grandmother, Mrs. Cresswell, who was the girl’s guardian, objected to the match, as when Elizabeth married, the old lady would lose an unpaid companion. With “direct Rudeness,” she ordered Lee to give up any idea of winning her granddaughter. After this scene, Lee was understandably shocked when he soon learned the girl he loved was engaged to her cousin, Thomas Cresswell. However, rumors Lee had heard of Cresswell’s attentions to other women led him to believe the engagement was doomed, and like a true knight worthy of his first name, he resolved to discreetly bow out and bide his time.

However negative a view Lee may have had about the future of this relationship, even he was shocked when the next news he heard was that Cresswell had married a Miss Anna Warneford. This development caused him to renew his courtship of Elizabeth Scrope, whom he had never ceased to love. Miss Scrope acknowledged that Cresswell was “a most egregious Villain,” who had “abused me monstrously.” However, she admitted to Lee that she was not free to marry him “while that Villain lives.” The unspeakable Cresswell then reappeared on the scene, determined to end any renewal of their romance. With a rather dog-in-mangerish attitude, he told the Scropes that Lee was a Jacobite—the most heinous charge possible to good Whigs such as that family—and ordered Elizabeth to tell Lee that she could never marry him while Cresswell lived. Finally, she told her suitor the truth about her legal ties to Cresswell. Lee then threatened to bring a bigamy suit against his nefarious rival.

Cresswell had a counter-offer: He would send Miss Warneford packing and publicly acknowledge Elizabeth Scrope as his wife. When Cresswell’s attorney found that this offer was greeted “with laughter,” he warned Lee and Miss Scrope that a bigamy suit would hurt the two women involved more than it would hurt Cresswell himself. If convicted, his “Punishment is trifling,” and the “Consequence” would be that Miss Scrope would be forced to take him as her husband. Besides, this man of the law sneered, it was not easy to convict a man of bigamy, “for he had once himself defended a Man that had seven Wives!”

Lee then sent Anna Warneford’s mother a letter telling her in no uncertain terms what a gem of a son-in-law she had acquired—a letter Cresswell scornfully dismissed as “one continued Lye.”

At this point, “A By-Stander” sent his own letter to the “General Evening Post.” He told Lee that, despite what he had said about Miss Scrope’s innocence in Cresswell’s bigamy, it was well known in the neighborhood that Elizabeth herself had suggested Cresswell marry Miss Warneford. If there had been a previous marriage, why didn’t Miss Scrope herself disclose it before this second one took place? This heckler in the audience added, “Since Miss Scrope is in Possession of a handsome Fortune of her own, and has one Brother who is possessed of a very large Estate and another Brother who is bred up to the Law, why do you concern yourself so much in this Cause, if you are to receive no particular Benefit from it?”

Why, indeed?

Lee responded in the pages of the “Post” by asking why, if “By-Stander” spoke the truth, he was hiding behind a pseudonym? “What honest Reason can you give for concealing your Name? If you speak Truth, can you be too publickly known? If you speak falsely (being deceived,) will it be a Discredit if, upon Conviction, you acknowledge your Error.” He deprecated the slurs against Miss Scrope, describing her as “a Woman of real Merit…oppressed with most grievous Misfortunes.”

The other principals in the matter now decided to speak up. Cresswell published a seventy-eight page pamphlet aimed at taking off “that Load of Infamy that has been laid upon me.” His version of the affair was that although Elizabeth Scrope had been in love with him, he had no notion of marrying her, particularly as her fortune was not sufficient for his needs. However, when the lady fell deathly ill, he decided, in the interests of giving her something to live for, “to tell her I would marry her; and when she was recovered, to assure her it was impossible and advise her never to see me more.” This, he assured his readers, was all agreeable to the damsel. When he heard that Lee was courting Miss Scrope, he did everything he could to encourage her to accept this suitor, but she rebelled, stating “that if he was the last of Man and she of Woman, the Human Race should fail; that of all Men she ever saw she hated him the worst; that his Hands and Feet resembled those of a Baboon; and that it hurt her Eyes and gave her Pain to look at him.”

There things stood until the following year, when they were again thrown together at their grandmother’s house. Elizabeth so pestered Cresswell with talk of her love for him, that, at length, he finally consented that she should become his mistress. According to Cresswell, they agreed that if she became pregnant, he would marry her; if she did not, he would be free to marry elsewhere.

This liaison continued until he was advised that a certain wealthy young woman was undoubtedly his for the asking. When he conveyed this information to his mistress, she fell into “perpetual and eternal Convulsions.” She finally offered him a deal: He would marry another woman, but settle part of his estate on her, and continue to “live sometimes with the one and sometimes with the other.” The next day, for the sake of Elizabeth’s conscience, they read over the marriage service together, which by the laws of the day was enough to constitute a legal, if irregular, union.

Cresswell was then free to turn his attentions to Miss Warneford and her money—definitely not in that order. “I was not at all enamored with her Person,” this gentlemanly fellow informed us. However, a fortune of thirty thousand pounds a year provided a good deal of compensatory beauty.

Their marriage, he sighed, was not a success. His bride proved to be a cold, ill-natured nag. “I heartily repented my having married her,” and Cresswell found himself thinking nostalgically of the good-natured and complaisant Elizabeth. His marital relations reached the point where he was forced to pour cold water upon his wife in order to keep her quiet. When Lee sent his mother-in-law “a Letter full of Lyes,” claiming that Cresswell had married Anna without Miss Scrope’s knowledge, he told Mrs. Warneford that he was indeed married to Elizabeth, “but they could not prove it.” Mrs. Warneford, after consulting with a clergyman, retired from the fray in utter confusion, announcing that her daughter must do as she liked in the matter.

However, Cresswell had decided that there just wasn’t enough money in the world for him to continue living with Anna and her “provoking and constantly employed Tongue,” which was robbing him of “all Ease and Comfort in Life.” Articles of separation were signed, and the couple parted—doubtless with equal relief on the part of the lady.

Elizabeth Scrope did not take all this quietly. In a publication of no less than two hundred and thirty-two pages, she set out to demolish Cresswell’s “defense,” as “the most unmanly Libel,” written by a man who was doubtless under the “immediate Possession of the Devil.”

According to this manifesto, she had been indifferent to Cresswell, but he pursued her incessantly. When Lancelot Lee began his decidedly protracted courtship, Cresswell urged her to refuse him. Cresswell told her that he was too poor to marry her, and begged her to maintain a secret engagement until he was able to get money from the family estate. She indignantly called his claims that she had been his mistress “of so infamous a Nature, and so extremely indecent, that by my Sex I am denied the Privilege of expatiating upon them.  I can only most sacredly declare they are absolutely false.” Cresswell had indeed tried to make their relationship a physical one, but when she virtuously rejected such a wicked thing, he apologized, and, as a peace offering, suggested they read over the marriage service, with a public ceremony to subsequently take place in London. A rather sinister touch was added when he began pressing her to take laudanum every night—so much of it that her maid told him “I do believe you will never be easy till you have laudanum’d her into her Grave!”

Despite all this, the pair eventually traveled to London, where on April 23, 1742, Elizabeth Scrope “was married to my sure most bitter Enemy.” They kept this ceremony a secret, although her husband visited her bedroom once a week. Some weeks later, she—erroneously, as it happened—believed she was pregnant. When she told Cresswell the news, he, to her horror, tried to persuade her to abort the child. When she confronted him with gossip about his interest in Miss Warneford, he dismissed her fears. Even if he were free, he said, he could never marry “a Creature so immensely ugly.” Scrope declared that she never had any idea he would actually marry this other woman. The first she heard of his perfidy was when one morning, her maid announced to her that Cresswell and Miss Warneford had been seen coming out of the local church. The news caused her to take to her bed and weep for three hours straight.

Cresswell soon returned to her, excusing his behavior on the grounds that he really, really needed that money. And, in any case, he told her, “the disagreeable Wretch” was in poor health, and she would surely die within the year. When Elizabeth threatened to reveal that she was his wife, Cresswell retorted that she could not prove it, and if she tried to expose him, he would tell everyone that she was merely his mistress.

Thus deadlocked, they parted company, but Cresswell continually pestered her with letters “full of Repentance for what he had done, and dreadful Accounts of his extreme Misery.” She wrote that “He could not bear the Thought of owning himself a Villain, nor I the Infamy of living as his Mistress. He was the former; but I was not the latter.” One letter mentioned his disappointment that his bride had not died in childbirth, “if she has another I will see no great Care shall be taken of her.” Elizabeth shrewdly noted that even if Miss Warneford died what was ruled a natural death, she would “suspect some unfair Dealing.”

In the meantime, the ever-patient Lancelot Lee tried to take up their courtship where it left off. She was forced to tell him that she had troubles “of a very uncommon Sort” that prevented her from accepting him as long as Cresswell lived. When she finally confessed the truth about the impossible position she was in, Lee could only counsel patience, assuring her that he would be waiting to marry her if she should ever be free.

Lee went to London, where he discovered that—evidently through Cresswell’s skullduggery—there was no record of Elizabeth’s marriage. He did, however, discover that the amazing Mr. Cresswell had been married to yet another woman before he married Elizabeth Scrope! By this point, she did not even wish to show she was bound to a man she now “detested and despised.” Alas, Scrope could not bring herself to marry Lee “while Mr. Cresswell, by a Set of foolish Lies, obliged me in my own Justification to make publick my Marriage with him.”

The long-suffering Elizabeth concluded her narrative by sighing that “Few Women meet with so compleat a Villain as Mr. Cresswell, and still fewer with so amazingly sincere a Friend as Mr. Lee. He must not condemn me for being cautious in Regard to his Proposal of Marriage. In Publick I will acknowledge what, in my own Opinion only, I would marry him. But I have been too wretchedly unfortunate to depend on that only; therefore will govern my Resolution by better Judgments.”

This was the last public word on this singular domestic drama, but we know at least a little of the later lives of the dramatis personae. Elizabeth Scrope was able to prove in court that thanks to the prior wedding Lee had discovered, Cresswell’s marriages to both her and Anne Warneford were bigamous, and these unhappy unions were annulled. In 1751, Lancelot finally won his Guinevere, when Lee and Elizabeth Scrope were wed. Sadly, she died less than a year after their marriage. Lee subsequently married an Ann Elizabeth Michel, and, after her death, Catherine Danvers. Lee himself died in 1775.

Thomas Cressford, who all of England agreed was a “very great villain,” went on to have an undistinguished Parliamentary career. He finally gave up on matrimony—or perhaps it gave up on him—but he had a number of illegitimate children by a mistress. Although his offspring with Anna Warneford were technically bastardized, their eldest son inherited the family property and eventually served in Parliament.  Cresswell died in 1788.

As for poor Anna, the only one of the four who failed to leave a public record of her miseries, she wound up, in a sense, having the last word.  She died while on a visit to Bath in 1791.


  1. Quite a tale, that its principals felt had to be displayed in public. I don't know that Lee was particularly fortunate in winning Miss Scrope /Mrs Cresswell in the end, as she seemed not to have been too constant in her motives and actions. Still, one hopes that she was settled and happy for the short time she was with Lee. It does sound like something that might happen - and be broadcast - today but, gladly, it took much longer to write and publish letters then than it does to post something on the internet now, so people were probably more reluctant to go to all that trouble...

  2. Discovered your blog and following you as A Bit About Britain. Above tale is fascinating - though I do believe a relationship diagram might have helped...joking aside, fabulous stuff! Are there any surviving portraits of these people, I wonder?

    1. You know, when I was writing this post, I found myself thinking, "Are readers going to be able to follow all this without a diagram?!" "Complicated," indeed.

      These were all fairly prominent people, so there may well be portraits of them still in existence, but I've been unable to find any record of them on the internet.


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