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

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.