I mentioned in the author’s notes in Undoing that I was inspired by a scandalous story of the Duke of Cumberland. I’d toyed with the idea of calling him the Duke of Cumberland in the book, but due to a real life Darcy connection to the Duke of Leeds, I swapped over to that title. I did not use the Duke’s story per se, but a situation in the story gave me an idea that created Thomas. I thought you might find him as interesting as I do.
SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read Undoing yet, the following might be a spoiler of sorts, so you might want to decide whether you read this now or after you read Undoing.
Prince Ernest Augustus, The Duke of Cumberland (and later the King of Hanover) was the fifth child of George III and Charlotte of Mecklenberg. He fought against France in the Hanoverian army, which caused him to have disfiguring scars on his face as well as the loss of his sight in one eye. In time, he also gained a rather notorious reputation.
The duke’s most famous scandal was the 1810 death of his valet, Joseph Sellis. In the early morning of 31 May, cries of “Murder! Murder!” came from the bedchamber of the Duke of Cumberland.
Supposedly, between 2 and 3am, someone intruded in the duke’s bedchamber, picked up the duke’s sabre, struck the duke multiple times while he slumbered. When his page, Neale, entered the room, the duke had 4 wounds from the attack, including one to the head, which was said to have split through his skull, using the flat side of the blade. The room was empty and a door left open, giving an escape route to the murderer.
After obtaining a physician to help the duke, the staff searched St. James Palace only to discover Sellis, the duke’s valet, was missing. He was found in his locked room, his throat slashed. Oddly, they’d found Sellis’s slippers in the Duke of Cumberland’s closet.
Several stories of Sellis’s past were revealed during an investigation into the events, including that Sellis had left Corsica years ago a thief. In the end, it was decided that Sellis, in a fit of madness, was the one who attempted to murder the Duke of Cumberland and then slit his own throat.
With the determination being suicide, why would it be scandalous? There are a number of reasons historians and society of that time had other suspicions. One reason, aside from the slippers, was the nature of Sellis’s wound, which was so deep, his spine had been the only thing keeping his neck from being completely severed. The razor used to kill Sellis was also across the room, but was claimed to have been moved from its original position. Regardless, how did one slit their own throat so severely with a razor?
A companion to Princess Charlotte wrote in her journal that “there were some circumstances that threw doubt upon his guilt. The slippers were old, and the name written in them appeared to be in French whereas Sellis was a Piedmontese, and there were reasons for supposing it was a greater person who had counselled the crime.“ According to the companion, Sellis was left-handed, and the physician who examined Sellis after his death, claimed the wound could not have been made by someone who was left-handed.
“The wash basin was in the stand, but was half full of bloody water! Upon examining Sellis’s cravat, it was found to be cut. The padding which he usually wore was covered with silk and quilted; but what was most remarkable, both the padding and the cravat were cut as if some person had made an attempt to cut the throat with the cravat on, then, finding the woollen or cotton stuffing to impede the razor, took it off in order more readily to effect the purpose.” – from the newspaper
In an odd and morbid turn of events, Sellis’s room and body became fodder for the public, and the palace allowed a few people at a time to come view the room like it was a drawing room in a National Trust home.
After that fateful morning, theories abounded as to what actually happened that night. Sellis’s wife claimed Neale (the duke’s page) had been messing with the duke’s expenses. One paper hypothesised that the Duke of Cumberland and Sellis were lovers until Neale arrived and replaced Sellis. When Sellis discovered the duke and Neale together (Excerpt from paper -“A short period before this dreadful catastrophe, the Duke had been surprised in an improper and unnatural situation with this Neale by the other servant, Sellis, and an exposure was expected.”) Sellis wounded the duke in a rage, and the duke retaliated by having Sellis killed. In another variation of this theory, Sellis discovered the duke and Neale together so Cumberland killed Sellis to keep him quiet and wounded himself so he could claim Sellis attacked him. Neal was bribed to disappear. The queen’s companion wrote in her journal, “The duke gave a pension to his Irish page, and dismissed him. This man had a brother who had a good appointment in Windsor Castle, and a family, but he resigned, and went away.”
Cumberland sued the journalist who printed the rumour of the love triangle for libel and won, jailing the man for fifteen months. The rumours, however, persisted and were dragged back into the limelight after the husband of one of Cumberland’s lovers died in much the same manner as Sellis, only adding further fuel to the rumour mill.
Undoing is out on Kindle, Kindle Unlimited, and audiobook! Check out what the duke’s story inspired.