In her lovely memoir Daughter of Empire, due out in US next month, Lady Pamela Hicks spills the dirt on the British aristocracy in the refined and proper way you’d expect from a writer of her station, without trying to hide her mother Edwina Mountbatten, Countess Mountbatten of Burma’s, alleged “wild promiscuity.” The Countess’ many affairs, especially one with Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, took an obvious toll on the Mountbatten children, and remain a popular topic of gossip to this day.
Since the life and times of titled Brits is a popular topic in the United States again, thanks mostly to the huge success of Downton Abbey and now the #royalbaby, Americans in financially unstable 2013 seem to like to find comfort in the ways rich English people used to live and screw up. But it is more than just pure escapism; there is something undeniably fascinating about the historical scandals of English high society. Along with Countess Mountbatten, here are a few more of the aristocracy’s most (deservedly or otherwise) notorious women.
One of Lord Byron’s lovers, Lady Oxford produced a number of children over the course of her marriage to the Fifth Earl of Oxford, but no one was ever sure which, if any, belonged to the Earl.
Langtry became the royal mistress of the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (“Bertie,” later Edward VII), in 1877. In July of 1879, Langtry began another affair with the Earl of Shrewsbury, which put her out of the royalty’s good graces and at the mercy of the creditors who repossessed the trappings of her aristocratic lifestyle.
Lady Colin Campbell (or, probably, her husband)
A few short years after her marriage to Lord Colin Campbell, fifth son of the Eighth Duke of Argyll, in 1880, Lady Colin Campbell discovered that her husband had infected her with venereal disease and filed for divorce. Hoping to save face, her husband countersued for divorce, stating that his wife had cheated on him with a handful of noblemen.
Her husband was granted the divorce.
Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick
The Countess of Warwick has what might be one of the best aristocratic affair stories on all of Wikipedia:
Lady Warwick began an affair with Lord Charles Beresford, and was outraged to discover Lady Charles Beresford was pregnant by her husband. She suddenly dispatched a violent letter to Lady Charles, who read the letter contents with dawning horror. Others who read it, including Charles’s brother, Lord Marcus Beresford agreed it “ought to have never seen the light of day.”
You feel bad for her, but…
The Prince of Wales was now involved in the matter, roped in by the Countess of Warwick’s pretty tears, with her eventually becoming the Prince’s semi-official mistress.
The Countess caused a good deal of friction between the two other men in her life (I say “other” because she was married to Francis Greville, Lord Brooke while these affairs were taking place) to the point where things got physical:
[A]ngered Lord Charles enough to push the Prince of Wales against a sofa. The Prince forgave Lord Charles for his actions, but the scandal placed a definite strain on the friendship of the two men.
Eventually things would fizzle out between all three parties, and:
Following the death of Edward VII, and having large debts, she tried to blackmail his son, the new King George V. She threatened to make public a series of love letters written by Edward VII. It was the cunning expertise of Lord Stamfordham that managed to stop publication by arguing that the copyright belonged to the King.
Alice de Janzé
The American-born noblewoman, a member of the hedonistic Happy Valley set and friend of Marcel Proust’s, was accused of the attempted murder of her lover in 1927, and then again of the 1941 murder of The 22nd Earl of Erroll in Kenya. She was found not guilty of the murder, but the crime and trial are still subject of talk to this day.