When Prince Harry took the stand earlier this month in his battle with the tabloids, he was the first senior British royal in the witness box in 130 years. For Prince Harry, the case is a noble cause, which he helped initiate, but over a century ago, his great-great-great-grandfather Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), was questioned in a London court for far more embarrassing reasons. While his case, involving an illicit game of baccarat, may seem absurd to modern sensibilities, at the time it was so scandalous that the prince’s long-suffering mother, Queen Victoria, wrote “the Monarchy almost is in danger.”
Born in 1841, Albert Edward (known as Bertie to his family) was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and her beloved husband, Prince Albert. The opposite of his upright, staid parents, the Prince of Wales was a jovial, fun-loving womanizer, whose beautiful (and amazingly understanding) wife, Princess Alexandra, ignored his numerous affairs, including his long liaison with Alice Keppel (the great-grandmother of Queen Camilla).
According to historian Jane Ridley’s excellent biography The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince, it was his incorrigible wandering eye that brought the prince to the witness stand the first time. In 1870, he was dragged into the divorce suit Sir Charles Mordaunt, a Warwickshire MP, waged against his wife, Harriet Sarah Mordaunt.
Allegedly suffering from mental illness, Lady Mordaunt had admitted to her husband that their child was not his, but Lord Cole’s, one of her many Lovers. The prince was also known to visit Lady Mordaunt weekly, hiring a cab for supposed afternoon trysts. Later, Sir Charles found 18 rather innocuous letters from the prince to his wife, which were later leaked to the press.
Sir Charles seemed determined to ruin not only his wife but also her alleged lovers. In February 1870, Sir Charles took the stand in Westminster Hall and proceeded to implicate the prince. “He took care to mention my name so often, — & in order to compromise me in every possible way — that I fear I have now no other alternative but to come forward and clear myself,” Bertie wrote to a mortified Queen Victoria.
And so, on February 23, 1870, the heir to the British throne took the stand at the divorce trial to clear his name. According to historian Michael Scott, it was the first time a Prince of Wales had appeared in court since the 1400s. Firm and clear when asked if there had been “any improper familiarity or criminal act” between he and Lady Mordaunt, he answered succinctly, “there has not.” “This declaration was received by the great crowd of spectators with cheers,” The New York Times reported, “which the Court endeavored to repress, but which were renewed.”
Though heavily chided by his family and government officials, the Prince of Wales seemed unchanged by his first appearance in court. “Bertie saw no reason to act differently,” Ridley writes. “He continued to visit ladies, he still wrote letters, and he still saw his ‘fast’ friends.”
Twenty years later, the dissipated prince was still living the sporting life. In September of 1890 he arrived at the estate of Tranby Croft in Yorkshire, owned by shipping industrialist Arthur Wilson and his popular wife, Mary. He was there for a house party that had gathered to attend the nearby Doncaster Races. The rest of the party included aristocrats, Wilson family members and Bertie’s longtime pal Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Gordon-Cumming, a handsome, arrogant big game hunter whose womanizing was almost as legendary as his royal friend.
For the upstart Wilsons, who had charmed their way into the blue-blooded set, the Prince of Wales’s first stay at their home was a big deal, asserting their place in society. So, it is not surprising that they bent over backward to please the prince, even if it collided with their own morals.
According to the definitive Royal Betrayal: The Great Baccarat Scandal of 1890 by Michael Scott, after a day at the races, a 14-course meal and a singing recital by the Wilsons’ daughter Ethel Lycett Green,, the prince suggested a game of baccarat.
The Prince of Wales had long loved gambling and had been swept up in the current baccarat craze, but there was a catch. “Due to its heavy reliance on luck and the huge amounts of money involved, baccarat—a game not dissimilar to blackjack—was not only looked down on in certain polite circles, but was illegal in public, and illegal in private when playing for money,” writes Tara Cobham in The Independent.
Arthur Wilson, like many law-abiding citizens, was morally opposed to the game. But unwilling to tell his illustrious house guest no, he told his son Jack to prepare makeshift gambling tables in the smoking lodge, while Arthur tactfully retired to bed. The enthusiastic prince was undaunted, and announced he would be the banker, supplying his own set of custom-made counters (chips) to be used in the game.