Our Dear Queen: The Viscount Cornbury Looked Lovely in a Blue Silk Gown


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The Royal Governors of the Province of New York, the men who ruled here in the names of Britain's kings and queens before the Revolutionary War, are forgotten. Place-names recall some. Fort Tryon Park bears the last royal governor's name. Staten Island's Dongan Hills commemorates Col. Thomas Dongan, who granted the Charter of Liberty and Privileges that would have extended religious freedom to non-Anglican Christians.


One more remains on the fringe of popular memory because of an oil portrait, painted by an unknown artist. Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, hangs in the galleries of the New-York Historical Society on Central Park W. at 77th St. The captain general and governor-in-chief of the Province of New York and Territories depending thereon in America and vice admiral of the same from 1702 to 1708 has a faintly arch expression. The face is full, even bloated, with a double chin and heavy jowls, sensual lips and a suggestion of 5 o'clock shadow. The man whose choice of summer residence gave Governor's Island its name toys with a delicate fan and wears, as one commentator observed, a woman's exquisite blue silk "gown, stays, tucker, long ruffles, cap, etc." If nothing else, the noble Lord's taste in clothing adds a new shade of meaning to the closing line of Cornbury's gubernatorial proclamations, proudly set in large type letters below his printed name:


God Save The Queen.


The label affixed to the portrait's frame bears a quotation from Agnes Strickland's Lives of the Queens of England, published in 1847: "Among other apish tricks, Lord Cornbury [the 'half-witted son' of 'Henry, Earl of Clarendon'] is said to have held his state levees at New York, and received the principal Colonists dressed up in complete female court costume, because, truly, he represented the person of a female Sovereign, his cousin... Queen Anne."


Only in the last decade has anyone questioned the identity of the person portrayed (Cornbury was also accused of tyranny, oppression and corruption, but those charges receive less attention). Perhaps there is only scandal rather than substance?if one considers crossdressing grounds for scandal at all. Patricia U. Bonomi's delightful The Lord Cornbury Scandal (1998) notes that throughout Cornbury's life and for some 73 years after, no one suggested the existence of his portrait dressed as a woman. In 1796, Horace Walpole and two literary friends were trading old gossip while visiting a country house. Walpole, a notorious gossip whose father had been prime minister, claimed Cornbury had once opened a session of the New York assembly dressed as a woman, defending his conduct because, as the representative of Queen Anne, a woman, he ought in all respects represent her as faithfully as possible. George James Williams, another guest, described a portrait of Cornbury dressed as a woman, which seems to have been the portrait on display at the Historical Society.


Bonomi argues that Cornbury's historical reputation as a transvestite rests upon four letters written by three political opponents, Robert Livingston, Lewis Morris and Elias Neau, between 1706 and 1709. None claimed to be a firsthand witness or named a single witness of Cornbury's crossdressing. Bonomi further notes that the Grub Street press, the scandalmongers of the day, apparently printed nothing that even hinted Cornbury was a transvestite. She further argues that as the language of politics at that time was defamation (charges of sexual misconduct and perversion were commonplace), exposing the Queen's cousin as a transvestite would have received wild publicity.


Of these three agitators, Lewis Morris, lord of the Manor of Morrisania (now in the Bronx), seems the prime mover. Morris was money-honest. None denied it. He was also ambitious, manipulative, obstructive and vain. He had schemed for years to transform the proprietary colonies of West Jersey and East Jersey?in effect, two huge private developments?into a unified royal colony, directly under the Imperial government in London, with himself as royal governor. He was frustrated when Queen Anne appointed Cornbury governor of New Jersey. Within a short time, Morris began plotting Cornbury's removal, motivated largely by his personal frustration. Yet Morris' assessment of Cornbury, as "a wretch who by the whole conduct of his life has evidenced he has no regard for honor or virtue," has prevailed.


Cornbury has been unkindly handled by American historians who, even today, seem more fascinated by his personal habits than his policies. Perhaps the greatest blot on his name is, as a political opponent claimed, that he dressed "publiqly in womans Cloaths Every day." It might be a matter of self-restraint: the present Mayor, for example, dresses publicly in women's clothes only two or three times a year.


Cornbury was born in 1661. His grandfather, the first earl of Clarendon, had been lord chancellor of England under King Charles II; his father, the second earl, had been lord privy seal under King James II. A paternal aunt was the first wife of James II; two future queens, Mary II and Anne, were his cousins.


After his matriculation at Oxford and his further education at Geneva, Switzerland, he entered the Royal Army and won a seat in Parliament, then an unsalaried post. As his ancestors' extravagance had encumbered the family's estates, he entered politics to obtain salaried offices, which was as common then as now.


In 1688, Cornbury's uncle, King James II, a Catholic, was overthrown in the so-called Glorious Revolution by his Protestant daughter Mary, who was also one of Cornbury's cousins, and his son-in-law, Prince William of Orange, who would become King William III. Cornbury was a colonel commanding the Royal Regiment of Dragoons; he deserted James for William and Mary almost immediately, bringing part of his command with him. In 1701, William appointed Cornbury governor of New York. Shortly thereafter, William's successor, Queen Anne, another Cornbury cousin, with whom Cornbury had always been close, appointed him also governor of New Jersey. Most historians have argued this was mere patronage. Yet New York was too economically and militarily important even then, and neither William (who disliked Cornbury, as he did most people) nor Anne (who was prudish and incorruptible) would have given a responsible post on the fringe of the Empire to an incompetent.


Contemporary letters and journals indicate Cornbury was highly intelligent, literate and urbane; affable in public, with something of the common touch; a generous host; a good husband; a brave and competent soldier; and an Imperialist, which is to say he favored strong rule from London in the interests of the Empire as a whole, rather than the interests of the colonies themselves. He was passionate about political and religious questions. He was brusque with persons he believed dishonest or incompetent.


When Cornbury arrived in New York in 1702, the colony was still divided by Leisler's Rebellion. Jacob Leisler had briefly seized power from the aristocracy in New York during the unrest stemming from the Glorious Revolution. The British government regained control, tried him for treason and he was hanged and beheaded before a howling mob in 1691. His adherents, the Leislerians, were one of the two dominant parties in colonial politics. Although Cornbury found the Anglophile anti-Leislerians more sympathetic, as had most royal governors, he was conciliatory to all factions in distributing both public appointments and invitations to his receptions and dinners (no one denied Cornbury was a gracious and generous host).


In Cornbury's time, religious toleration in New York meant merely tolerating religions other than the established churches, the Church of England and the Dutch Reformed Church. Cornbury freely entertained non-Anglican ministers at table. However, the law required that all preachers obtain a license from the governor before preaching to public assemblies and, while he granted a license to anyone who applied, he strictly enforced the law against all who did not, nor did he permit the use of churches and chapels built with public money by unlicensed preachers. One Presbyterian minister, Francis Makemie, who had enjoyed Cornbury's hospitality, refused to obey the law and was prosecuted for it: Cornbury's enemies called his enforcement of the law an act of tyranny.


His record as governor was ordinary. He built a new fort at Albany and planned harbor defenses for the Narrows, which were left incomplete due to lack of funds. Local defense was locally financed, and in common with most royal governors in British America, as Cornbury's term continued, he had progressively harder relations with the popularly elected provincial assemblies, who were unwilling to raise revenues for colonial defense against the French or the Indians.


Cornbury built a summer house on the high ground at the northeast corner of Nutten Island, several hundred yards off the Battery in Lower Manhattan. The cost of labor and materials was approximately 100, according to the records checked by Bonomi; Morris and his allies claimed that Cornbury had appropriated 1500, all the money set aside for harbor defense, to build it.


In April 1707, the New Jersey assembly, controlled by Morrisites, opened an investigation of Cornbury's conduct and drew up a list of grievances. The speaker of the house, Samuel Jennings, read the list in Cornbury's presence, and the assembly sent a copy with supporting affidavits to London, petitioning for relief from "the oppressions they groan under by the arbitrary and Illegal Practices of his said Excellencie." Cornbury presented substantial written evidence in opposition to the charges, which eventually were not sustained. However, they provided ammunition to Cornbury's political opponents in London, who had gained power through a shift in the balance of parties in Parliament. Cornbury was relieved in 1708.


In common with most governors of New York until the early 19th century, Cornbury incurred personal debt to pay public expenses, such as military supplies. After 1706, the New Jersey assembly refused to pay Cornbury's salary, and the New York provincial treasurer delayed payment of his salary and warrants. Accordingly, once news of his relief arrived in New York, his creditors had the New York sheriff arrest Cornbury for debt. This was fairly ordinary, too: Cornbury's predecessor had also been arrested for such debt and his successor was threatened with debtors' prison because he had borrowed money to feed refugees. However, the county sheriff permitted Cornbury to depart before discharging the debts he had incurred on behalf of the government.


Cornbury returned to London in July 1710. Queen Anne formally addressed him as her "Right Trusty and Entirely Beloved Cousin." She granted him a residence; named him a privy councilor in 1711, first commissioner of the Admiralty in 1712 and envoy extraordinary to Hanover in 1714. He died on March 31, 1723, and was interred in Westminster Abbey. The media reported his death without comment on his character or reputation.


As noted above, Bonomi found only four contemporary documents attributing transvestitism to Cornbury, all written by political opponents, and no suggestions in contemporary journals or newspapers that the Queen's cousin wore drag. The charges of corruption were vague and never proven.


Cornbury's enduring reputation, then, indicts the laziness of historians over the last two centuries. Neither George Bancroft nor Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, ever thoroughly examined the original sources in describing Cornbury?the work historians are expected to do. Thus, the label on the portrait became the unquestioned truth and the received knowledge?that Cornbury was a transvestite and a corrupt, incompetent governor?accepted at face value.


In 1995, the New-York Historical Society placed a second descriptive label by the portrait, admitting, "Recent research done on the painting has called the identity of the sitter into question." The noble Lord is also commemorated in the Cornbury Society, of Vancouver, British Columbia, an organization of heterosexual crossdressers. Obviously, some of us still print the legend.


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