The Gay History Series – Lesson #4
Governor In Drag
Lord Cornbury, Royal Governor of the Colony of New York (1701)
One of the oddest things about the British is the fact
that they seem to find something hysterically funny about men dressing up in
women’s clothes. As you will see, this has been going on for a while.
Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon (28 November 1661 – 31
March 1723), styled Viscount Cornbury between 1674 and 1709, was Royal Governor
of New York and New Jersey between 1701 and 1708, and is perhaps best known for
the claims of his cross-dressing while in office.
Born the Hon. Edward Hyde,
the only child of Henry, Viscount Cornbury (1638–1709), eldest son of the 1st
Earl of Clarendon, and the former Theodosia Capell (1640–1662), he was the
nephew of Lady Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, wife of the future King James II.
From the age of nine, since his father has just remarried to the heiress Flower
Backhouse, he lived at Swallowfield in Berkshire and he matriculated at Oxford on 23 January
1675, a month after his father had succeeded as 2nd Earl of Clarendon, making
him Viscount Cornbury.
He entered the Royal Regiment of Dragoons, and became a
Tory Member of Parliament for Wiltshire from 1685–1696 and for Christchurch 1695–1701. He was Master of the
Horse to Prince George of Denmark, and a Page of Honour to King James II at his
Coronation. He was one of the first commanders to desert the King in 1688,
taking with him as many troops as he could.
Also in 1688, Lord Cornbury
married, in a clandestine ceremony, Katherine O'Brien, daughter of Henry, Lord
Ibrackan, eldest son of the 7th Earl of Thomond, who succeeded her mother in
1702 as 8th Baroness Clifton. Lady Cornbury died in New
York on 11 August 1706 (in the middle of the scandal) and is
buried at Trinity Church, New York.
He became Governor of New York and New Jersey from 1701 to 1708, “in which
position he earned a very foul repute. It is said that his character and
conduct were equally abhorred in both hemispheres,” as Wikipedia states.
He was viewed by his contemporaries as “a moral profligate, sunk in
corruption: possibly the worst governor Britain ever imposed on an American
He took bribes and plundered the public treasury.
Nineteenth century historian George Bancroft said that Cornbury illustrated the
worst form of the English aristocracy's "arrogance, joined to intellectual
imbecility." Later historians characterize him as a "degenerate and
pervert who is said to have spent half of his time dressed in women's
clothes", a "fop and a wastrel".
He also seems to have been more than a little nuts. He is
said to have delivered a "flowery panegyric on his wife's ears" after
which he invited every gentleman present to feel precisely how shell-like they
were. He misappropriated £1500, an immense amount of money in those days, meant
for the defence of New York
Harbor. He also dressed
in women's clothing and lurked behind trees to pounce, shrieking with laughter,
on his victims. (This is the governor, now.)
The high point,
or low point, of his political career came when Cornbury opened the 1702 New
York Assembly, his first as governor, clad in a hooped gown and an elaborate
headdress and carrying a fan, imitative of the style of Queen Anne. When his
choice of clothing was questioned by the stunned legislators, he replied,
"You are all very stupid people not to see the propriety of it all. In
this place and occasion, I represent a woman (the Queen), and in all respects I
ought to represent her as faithfully as I can." I know, this is
starting to sound like something out of Monty Python. Well, now we may know how
Monty Python got started.
It is also said that in August 1706, when his wife Lady
Cornbury died, His High Mightiness (as he preferred to be called) attended the
funeral again dressed as a woman. With typical British understatement it is
written that “Shortly after this, mounting complaints from colonists prompted
the Queen to remove Cornbury from office.”
Try a flood of protest and outrage that weighed down
every vessel headed for London, as well as the refusal of eventually every
substantial official or businessman in New York to work with or obey this lunatic,
culminating in outright rebellion. If London
hadn’t wised up and relieved Cornbury of his post on the urgent petition of
just about every reputable and responsible man in the colony, the American
Revolution might have begun 70 years earlier than it did, they were that fed
By the time his replacement finally arrived in 1708, Cornbury was in jail,
arrested for debt, a subject of contempt and bitter mockery, and subject to a
number of local legal and legislative inquiries trying to figure out where
thousands of pounds missing from the treasury had gone. We tend to lose sight
of the fact that our ancestors were a lot more serious about things than we
are, and they just plain did not put up with the crap that we do.
The British government of Queen Anne, unlike the stubborn
and arrogant asses under the later George the Third, hauled Cornbury back to London under arrest and
placed him on trial for corruption. They seized his estates in payment for
moneys he had allegedly embezzled from the taxpayers of New
York, although how much of those funds ever found their way back
across the Atlantic is open to question.
Although he became Lord Clarendon on his father’s death,
Cornbury died at Chelsea,
in obscurity and debt, still without his estates and income restored, and was
buried on 5 April 1723 in Westminster Abbey.