My Family’s Royal Scandal

My Family’s Royal Scandal

When I started this blog, I always envisaged using it to share some of the more interesting stories from my family history research. Now, I know everyone’s definition of interesting varies, but trust me this first story is a right juicy one!

Now this story begins with my husband, and I must admit it takes place in an extended branch of his family tree.

Rachel Biddulph Henning (1826 – 1914) was the niece of my husband’s first cousin six times removed. You may have heard of her before – Rachel was an Englishwoman who, in the 1850s with her brother Biddulph Henning and her cousins, emigrated to Australia. She is famous for being a letter-writer – her letters give an invaluable picture of 19th Century colonial life in Australia (and are actually quite a bit bitchy in places).  In these letters her family’s connection to an intriguing royal scandal emerges.

One of her published letters reveal an unusual connection the Henning family had with King George III; specifically through Rachel’s paternal grandparents Edmund and Elizabeth Henning of Poxwell House, near Weymouth, Dorset (below);

It is now widely believed that King George III’s daughter Princess Sophia gave birth in the late summer of 1800 to a child called Thomas Garth, who was raised at Weymouth, Dorset (just four miles from the Henning home at Poxwell). This credible theory has been espoused by several historians, and there are several bits of documentary evidence that Sophia was at Weymouth for a time in the summer of 1800 ‘for her health’ (Legend has it that when King George III noticed that Sophia was gaining weight, he was told it was caused by eating roast beef and was later cured by sea-bathing).

The father was very probably King George III’s chief equerry, Major-General Thomas Garth. Garth was 33 years older than Sophia, was short and had a large birthmark on his face, but Sophia fell head over heels in love with him – although given the closeted nature of her upbringing its not like she had much choice! And a women has needs! It is believed that their baby boy was conceived during the winter of 1799 at Windsor Castle.

A baby boy, listed as a foundling, was christened as Thomas Ward at the parish church in Weymouth on the 11th of August 1800. Thomas Ward was adopted by a local tailor and his wife, Samuel and Charlotte Sharland. When the child was around four, Major-General Garth adopted him (what a coincidence!) and brought him to London. Apparently it was an open secret at court that little Tommy Garth was the love child of Sophia and Garth.

Meanwhile,the son Tommy Garth was educated at Harrow and eventually went into 15th The King’s Hussars, his father’s old regiment, unaware that he was a king’s grandson. Garth learned of his true heritage in 1828, and then tried to clear his extensive debts by blackmailing the royal family with Sophia’s letters to his father.

The royal family offered young Garth £3,000 for his box of evidence; they then took the box but did not pay him so he went to the papers. The press dug up gossip that Garth’s real father was Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and Sophia’s brother. However, the letters Garth had in his possession made it clear that his uncle Cumberland had tried to sexually assault his sister on more than one occasion, but had failed. Nevertheless, many thought that Ernest had an unhealthy obsession with his little sister and knew he was capable – he had been suspected of rape multiple times while serving in the army.

After reading this letter, I think the Henning family provided a source of comfort and support for Princess Sophia during a difficult time, and George III was extremely grateful for it. Have a read and see what you think.

Springfield, near Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia
March 25, 1878

My Dearest Etta, I am afraid I have two letters of yours unanswered,
but I rather delayed replying to the last, in order to make some
inquiries about the old King’s friendship with Grandpapa. From Hannah
Dashwood’s note, which you forwarded to me, however, I suppose you no
longer want the information you asked for. However, for our own
satisfaction, I ascertained beyond a doubt that the intimacy was during
our grandmother’s life and not after Grandpapa had married Mrs Buxton. I
think it was the Princess Sophia, not Amelia, who was thrown from her
horse near Poxwell, and lay ill there for some days, and it was on this
occasion, I suppose, that she presented the silver tea and coffee
service to Mrs Henning.

Amy has the teapot, and I think the Edmund Buxtons have the coffee-pot.
The inscription on the former I got Amy to copy for me; and it is as
follows:

The gift of her Royal Highness the Princess Sophia to Elizabeth
Henning, September 21st 1799.

Grandpapa did not marry Mrs Buxton till 1808 (see Life of Sir Fowell
Buxton), so this inscription settles the question at once. In 1811 the
King was pronounced insane and the Prince of Wales appointed Regent, so
I suppose his trips to Weymouth were over by that time, or a year or two
earlier. The illness of the Princess Sophia was most likely the
beginning of the acquaintance, and it must have continued some time
after our grandmother’s death, for I remember a story of Aunt
Harriet’s–she kept house at Poxwell after Mrs Henning’s death–and she
said that on one occasion the Royal party were lunching there, and she
was handing a tray of something to one of the royal dukes (I think the
Duke of Sussex), and, seeing her standing, he got up and insisted on her
sitting down and waited on her himself. Then there was a story of the
old King taking up our father in his arms, when he was a very small boy,
and asking if he knew who he was, and being very much delighted when the
child replied “Grandpapa King!” And you must remember Grandpapa’s pet
story about his meeting the King out riding shortly after our
grandmother’s death, when he was in great sorrow, and how the King
desired his train to fall back, as “he wanted to speak to Henning
alone”, and then, riding on with him; “he talked to him like a father”
and advised him to marry again, for the sake of his young family: “But
mark my words! Mark my words! Mark my words, Henning! If you ever expect
to find another such woman as your first wife, you will be
disappointed.” I remember exactly how Grandpapa used to move back his
plate and tell that story.

Another of Grandpapa’s stories was that one day the King came from
Weymouth and inquired for Mrs Henning, and was informed by the servant
that she was washing lace. The King had a way of repeating his words:
“Washing lace, washing lace, is she? Then I’ll go and help her.” A
comic-paper published in Weymouth produced an illustration of the King
and Mrs Henning over a wash-tub, washing lace together.

I am certain it was at Poxwell, not at Weymouth, that the King used to
visit, because while at Poxwell Grandpapa was farming the estate
himself, but when he went to Weymouth he was a banker (and, if you
recollect, it was the run on that bank that ruined him), and another of
his stories was that one day he was complaining to the King of the
difficulty of getting sufficient men to make the hay, and the next
morning he found a small detachment of soldiers drawn up before the
door, they having been sent by the King with orders to make Mr Henning’s
hay. I believe they performed more in the way of consuming bread and
cheese and beer than in haymaking.

I have been able to get the inscription on the gold cup, which Biddulph
keeps at his bankers’ and I dare say he will get it out at the new
baby’s christening and fill it with claret cup to drink his health. The
inscription is as follows:

First of all there is the Royal coat-of-arms on the gold cup, then:

Honi soit qui mal y pense. Dieu et Mon Droit. Given September 26th
1800, to Edmund Henning, of Poxwell, in the county of Dorset, esquire,
by his Majesty King George III.

In some of your summer trips you ought to go to Weymouth and visit the
old places. It, is a pretty drive of about four miles to Poxwell. It
must have been a fine old place once, built in a square round a court
and with stone-mullioned windows and a large low hall with oak rafters
and a great oak table where, very likely, “sacred Majesty took his
déjeuner”, and a fine old brick gateway, or, rather, gatehouse, with
a small chamber over it, where there is a legend that some heiress of
the Henning family was shut up for contumacy, and betimely escaped
therefrom with her lover. I used to hear a great deal of family history
from Uncle and Aunt John Henning, but I have forgotten it now. There was
an old place called “Henning’s Crookston” where our great-grand-papa
lived, and where all his family were brought up. Then there is a most
picturesque old manor house, called Radypoll, close to Weymouth, which
also belonged to Grandpapa and afterwards to Uncle John. Wolverton was a
very fine old place with an ivy-covered gatehouse as large as a modern
cottage and the house a sort of castellated building. Biddulph was the
rightful heir to these properties.

I must conclude. Fond love to Mr Boyce and the children and to
yourself. Believe me, dearest Etta, your most affectionate sister,
Rachel [Henning] Taylor

The first question that sprung to mind was why would the Royal Family be so pally with my husband’s Hennings ancestors? What would make them trust the Hennings’ with their dark secret? Then I discovered that Rachel’s father, the Rev. Charles Wansborough Henning was chaplain to Princess Sophia’s brother Prince Adolphus, the Duke of Cambridge. It all makes sense. Who better to trust with a potentially disastrous secret that a man of the cloth?

The story then gets curiouser and curiouser as Alice in Wonderland would say. The Hannah Dashwood mentioned in the first paragraph of the letter is also of interest, and could point to another scandal. It was widely known that Princess Sophia’s illegitimate son Thomas Garth had an illegitimate daughter, Georgiana Rosamund Garth (born in 1835) by Georgiana Caroline Dashwood (pictured below), wife of Sir Jacob Astley, later Lord Hastings.

In a nasty court case Astley was awarded one shilling damages against Garth after it was proved that Astley was an unfaithful husband, and Astley’s attempt to divorce his wife failed because of those revelations (sounds very similar to the plot line of The Scandalous Lady W if you ask me). Thomas Garth and Georgiana Dashwood Astley lived together but never married. The affair was widely satirised in the press and Lord Hastings was humiliated, and unfortunately Georgiana died soon after the birth of the illegitimate child aged 39.

I have yet to pin down who exactly Hannah is and how she was related to Georgiana, but the latter had a sister called Anna – so perhaps a slight mutation of the name has occurred?

If all this sounds a bit far-fetched and you don’t quite believe me, or you just want to find out a bit more about this juicy royal scandal, then I can thoroughly recommend Flora Fraser’s Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III for your reading delight.

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