Harriet Mordaunt was beautiful and rich, and once she was old enough, she married a wonderfully wealthy English baronet. But that was only half of her story. The lady also had an insatiable appetite in the bedroom, and she had trouble controlling her desires. For a woman of her time, that was a problem. Eventually, she succumbed to her lust and brushed shoulders with the wrong royal…and she paid a horrible price for it. Read on to find out about her journey from aristocracy to insanity.
1. She Had Fifteen Siblings
Talk about a big family! Before her marriage, Lady Harriet Mordaunt was Harriet Sarah Moncreiffe, and she was the fourth child in a line of 16 children. So she had seven sisters and eight brothers, and her parents certainly couldn’t have devoted much time to her with such a rowdy household afoot. But even though little Harriet may have felt a little lonely from time to time, she wanted for nothing.
2. Her Family Was Affluent
As a kid, Harriet never had to worry about having food on the table or having clothes on her back. Her dad was a baronet, and her mom was an earl’s daughter. As you might imagine, they were as well-off as any Scottish family could be in the 19th century. In fact, her parents spoiled her rotten. She spent most of her childhood romping around Moncreiffe House (the family’s picturesque ancestral home) grounds without a care in the world—well, almost.
3. Her Parents Had High Expectations
Moncreiffe House had the sort of atmosphere others could only describe as “free and easy.” But it still wasn’t exactly a walk in the park to be a Moncreiffe daughter. Beauty, grace, class, fashion, cultural capital—Harriet’s parents had tall expectations for their children and wanted them to have it all and more—not least because of the very elite people they happened to know…
4. She Had Royal Connections
Lady Mordaunt made the acquaintance of Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, when she was just a little girl. Her parents had connections to the royal family, and of course, the prince was always welcome at their residence. They perhaps even harbored hopes that Albert would take an special liking to their daughter. Imagine having a prince as a playmate!
They never could have imagined what kind of man that boy would grow up to be…
5. She Was A Huge Flirt
We don’t know exactly what the young Harriet thought about Albert, or “Bertie” as people called him, but we do know that she grew up as quite the character. Turns out, teenage Harriet had a scandalous side. She loved getting attention from men and flirting heavily with them—especially if they were handsome or wealthy. On top of that, she may have had encouragement rather than correction for this behavior, as her parents desperately wanted her to marry well…and frankly, they had good reason to.
6. Her Family Was Special
Harriet’s family prided themselves on more than just their class. They were a well-kept family, and their girls were extraordinarily beautiful. Indeed, in 1920, a certain Margot Asquith—a British socialite and the family’s contemporary—recounted that “groups of beauties like the Moncreiffes were to be seen in the salons of the ‘eighties. There is nothing at all like this in London today.”
Naturally, Harriet’s parents had to somehow leverage the beauty of her and her sisters…
7. Her Sisters Had Many Suitors
Because of their famed beauty, Harriet and her sisters were very popular amongst men. They had a wide array of suitors. The family could have their pick of the lot—and they did: in due time, all of Harriet’s sisters were “extremely well married.” For the most part, her parents could rest easy knowing that their girls would be comfortable in life and love…but of course, they still had to worry about Harriet. She caused them no end of trouble.
8. She Was Temperamental
After spending her childhood with a royal prince, it made sense for Harriet to be picky with men. She wasn’t as easy to tie down as her sisters were. Even though she was both pretty and flirty, she also had a stubbornness to her that wasn’t all that appealing to the men of her day. On top of her strong personality, she also had a bit of a mean streak that she was by no means afraid to show off.
9. She Hated Her Sister’s Husband
Harriet constantly wanted to be the center of attention, so when her older sister Georgina got married to a wealthy earl, she wasn’t exactly over the moon for her. Harriet especially wasn’t a fan of the earl. He was not only much older than her sister, but also a divorcee whose wife somehow passed six months into their marriage at just 22 years old. And Harriet really wasn’t the kind of person who knew how to disguise her disdain.
10. She Had A Sharp Tongue
Harriet Mordaunt made her feelings towards the earl crystal clear by famously dubbing him “frizzle wig.” Clearly, the lady had a mind of her own and couldn’t care less about social norms. It wouldn’t be the last time she made use of her sharp tongue, either. Usually, men shied away from that sort of woman, but there was someone who found Lady Mordaunt’s particular charm incredibly attractive.
11. She Married Young
Like her sister, Harriet married quite young. She was only 18 when she tied the knot with Sir Charles Mordaunt, a charming baronet with a steady job. He wasn’t as wealthy as her sister Georgina’s husband, but it seemed like a good enough match for her…at least at first. They lived a normal life for a long time; people who knew the couple often said they seemed happy with each other.
But not everything is as it seems.
12. She Lived In A Gothic House
Harriet Mordaunt’s new husband enjoyed Gothic architecture a great deal, and their house was accordingly designed in the Gothic Revival style. This would have been very different from Harriet’s old childhood home. She might have even found it a little creepy at first. But the baroness didn’t have much time to worry about that: She quickly came to realize that the architecture of her new lodgings was the least of her concerns.
13. Her Husband Was A Busy Politician
Sir Charles was a Conservative M.P. at the beginning of their marriage. Because of his job, he was constantly working and often had to take overnight trips. Some of these he took without Harriet. This wasn’t the ideal situation for any new wife, but the lady made do with what she had. Actually, her husband’s career didn’t concern her too much. She had a different problem at the forefront of her mind.
14. He Was Twelve Years Her Senior
Sir Mordaunt was already a grown man, while Lady Mordaunt was still just a teenager trying to figure herself out. While getting married young wasn’t out of the ordinary at the time, Harriet struggled to find her own identity within the confines of marriage. She wanted something more—but the young girl never had the chance to find out what that “something more” could be…until a shocking opportunity eventually came to her doorstep.
15. She Relished Solitude
Harriet liked to be alone a lot of the time. Although she took many trips with her husband at the beginning of their marriage, she eventually tired of these excursions. Switzerland and fishing didn’t cut it anymore—she just wanted to be by herself. So when Sir Charles started his preparations for their annual Norway fishing trip in 1868 (two years into their marriage), she was quick to bow out.
She had plans for her own special “holiday.”
16. She Was Rebellious
Lady Mordaunt had always been flirtatious, but as she’d married so young, she didn’t really get the chance to experiment as much as she might’ve liked. After she, for the first time, refused to accompany her husband on one of his fishing expeditions to Norway, Sir Charles arranged for her to stay at home with one of her sisters and a lady friend. She was to have a quiet and restful week with the girls.
But Harriet didn’t like her husband’s plans for her. When he made it back home, he was in for a surprise.
17. She Had A Wandering Eye
Harriet didn’t pass a quiet and restful week at all. Quite the contrary, in fact. When Sir Charles returned home early, she was suspiciously without any female company. She made up a story and felt confident in her lie…but she was betrayed. Her maid was all too happy to inform the baronet that her mistress had entertained a special visitor while he was away: a certain Viscount Cole.
18. She Found A Paramour
Fidelity didn’t come naturally to Lady Mordaunt, and after her first rendezvous with Viscount Cole, she just couldn’t get enough of him. Her maids and servants both testified that the viscount was often “alone with her until a very late hour.” To add insult to injury, while Harriet was avoiding trips with her husband like the plague, she gladly took trip after trip with her new paramour.
Needless to say, many found her behavior seriously offensive.
19. Her Servants Hated Her
The baroness’s personality wasn’t exactly a delight to those around her. Her fiery temper outshone any kindness in her, and what’s more, she was sometimes rather erratic and irrational. Even though she had a house full of maids and servants, none of them showed her much loyalty. She just hadn’t inspired that kind of devotion in them. Truthfully, many of them hated her guts—and she’d pay for it dearly.
20. They Thought She Was Unfit
It was one thing to be a bad mistress, but another thing entirely to constantly humiliate the lord of the house. The servants ultimately didn’t think Harriet was fit to be Sir Charles’ wife. While Harriet was happy to ignore the naysayers, she couldn’t stave off karmic punishment for long. Life with her baronet and viscount was just about to get very, very complicated.
21. She Got Pregnant
Conceiving isn’t usually a stress-free event for someone having an affair, and Harriet was no exception. After finding out that she was going to have a baby, she fretted constantly, and her worry would often keep her awake at night. She couldn’t be certain who the father was—was it her husband, the baronet Sir Charles? Or was it her lover, the Viscount Cole? It was an impossible situation, and it was about to get worse.
22. Her Baby Could Have Been Blind
Harriet’s baby came prematurely. Unfortunately, it was not an easy birth. The doctors took one look at her daughter and pronounced that the newly named Violet Caroline was likely to be blind. Harriet immediately became hysterical: She raved about a possible hereditary venereal disease and sobbed for her baby. Luckily, it was a false alarm and the baroness’s daughter made a full recovery from her eye infection. The couple’s relief was instant.
But a happy ending still wasn’t in the cards.
23. She Claimed Her Baby Was Illegitimate
Many people already suspected that Violet was illegitimate because the timing of her birth was suspect, considering Sir Charles’ absence in the previous year. What they didn’t expect, however, was that Lady Mordaunt would blatantly confirm it herself. After it was clear that her baby wouldn’t be permanently blind, the baroness reportedly turned to her husband and declared, “Charlie, I have deceived you; the child is not yours; it’s Lord Cole’s.” At least she was honest?
24. She Had More Than One Lover
Harriet Mordaunt wasn’t done dropping bombshells. On top of admitting that Violet was illegitimate, she also confessed to having multiple lovers. Way to ruin your daughter’s birth, Harriet! It wasn’t just Viscount Cole—the lady proudly claimed to have had affairs with “Sir Frederick Johnstone, the Prince of Wales and others, often and in open day.” As you might expect, the resulting scandal was extremely juicy.
25. She May Have Hooked Up With The Prince
It was no secret that Harriet had a longstanding friendship with the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), but it was a complete shock to many that she may have had an affair with him, as well. Both were married at the time of the alleged affair; Edward had married a Danish princess, no less! Now, how does an ordinary man come to terms with his wife hooking up with royalty? Charles, for one, didn’t take it particularly well.
26. Her Husband Hated The Prince
Lady Mordaunt’s husband knew that she tended to roam, and he hated that his wife couldn’t behave. Once, perhaps to find proof of her cheating, he broke into her desk and discovered she had been penning long letters to the prince—and he to her. Harriet assured Charles it was innocent, and that the prince wrote letters to a wide array of women he admired, but Charles had his eye on Edward…
27. She Continued To Have Lovers
Despite her husband’s bitterness, Lady Mordaunt was unstoppable. She was a woman ahead of her time and she knew that she couldn’t be happy with Sir Charles alone. Clearly, Harriet wasn’t a fan of monogamy; the baroness continued to commit adultery with scores of men, and continued to see her previous lovers (including the royal prince) as well.
This couldn’t last forever, though. Finally, one day, her husband decided enough was enough.
28. Her Husband Filed For Divorce
The baroness’s husband filed for divorce in 1869, a mere three years after they had first married. Her numerous letters and affairs had pushed him to this breaking point. You would think that Harriet would be quick to jump on the opportunity for a divorce, given her previous misconduct, but that wasn’t the case.
It was a different time, and being a divorcee still carried with it a certain stigma most women wanted to avoid. So what was she to do?
29. She Could Have Been Innocent
It was true that Harriet and the Prince of Wales enjoyed writing each other, but the content of their letters wasn’t particularly raunchy or romantic in nature. The prince seemed fond of writing letters in general, and he had, after all, been the baroness’s dear childhood friend. They had history. The Times and other newspapers argued that the letters were “simple, gossipy, everyday letters.”
But that didn’t deter her spurned husband.
30. She Contested The Divorce
Harriet Mordaunt wanted to have her cake and eat it too. She wanted the security of her marriage and the fun of her affairs. What’s more, her family was staunchly against the divorce. They even tried to excuse her from pleading in open court and claimed that she was suffering from insanity. And this wasn’t exactly a reach…
31. Charles Said She Was Faking It
Harriet’s husband didn’t buy her insanity defense. Despite her previous fits of rage and a general pattern of unstable behavior, he accused her of lying out of self-interest and faking her insanity. The pair had obviously had a tumultuous marriage, and it was clear that he wanted to be rid of her as soon as possible—and at whatever cost. But Lady Mordaunt was hurting, too.
32. She Became A Ward
Out of fear for Harriet’s mental health, she became a ward under the care of her father, Sir Thomas Moncreiffe. Thomas had to manage all her personal and property interests as well as act as her guardian in court. He testified on her behalf that she was “not of sound mind.” But for a woman who loved her freedom so much that she rebelled against the constraints of marriage, having her father control all aspects of her care was far from a dream situation.
33. The Princess Got Involved In Her Case
Lady Mordaunt ended up becoming a bit of a celebrity. Her insanity plea forced a LOT of people to participate in her case, however unwilling they might be. Princess Alexandra—yes, the one married to the Prince of Wales, one of the baroness’s main alleged lovers—had written this in her diary on August 6, 1869: “A commission has been ordered to investigate and report if Harriet Mordaunt is truly mad.”
And Princess Alexandra wasn’t even the only royal to get involved in Harriet’s case.
34. The Court Summoned The Prince
Harriet Mordaunt made history: Her case marked the first time ever that a court had summoned a Prince of Wales to give evidence. Edward VII had to come to court, in all his regalia, to be a witness for what the royal family saw as a scandalous and reputation-damaging case. The baroness’s counsel examined the prince for a whole seven minutes, but Harriet’s ex-lover certainly wasn’t about to confess to anything big…or was he?
35. Harriet’s Paramour Denied Everything
In Mordaunt v. Mordaunt (the divorce case between Lady Mordaunt and her husband), Harriet’s royal lover categorically denied having any sort of affair with her. The most he admitted to was spending time with her when Sir Charles was away. In response to accusations of “improper familiarity,” he shouted, “Never!” This was quite different from what Harriet had told her husband as well as her friends.
The baroness wasn’t very good at keeping secrets, but luckily for her old lover, the court didn’t push it any further with the prince. Instead, they turned their eyes on her.
36. She Became Insane
At the end of her trial, the jury declared that Lady Mordaunt had a disease known as “puerperal mania”—in other words, they found her to be insane. They also established that because of her diagnosis, she was not mentally capable of retaining a defense lawyer. So poor Harriet ended up having no one to really defend her or her rights in court…except for her family. But as we know, her family was pushing for the courts to find her insane in the first place.
There’s clearly more to this than meets the eye.
37. She Moved Into An Asylum
Because of her alleged “insanity,” Harriet Mordaunt’s husband couldn’t legally divorce her. The courts accordingly dismissed his petition for divorce and Harriet, while still being a married woman under the law, moved into an asylum. While she hated losing her freedom, it was nice to know she still had her meal ticket if she ever got out—the keyword here being “if.” People suspected foul play.
38. The Public Worried About Her
For a time, Lady Harriet Mordaunt was on everyone’s lips in England. She was, after all, a prolific figure for both her beauty and her affairs. After she retired to an asylum, people wondered if there was something more going on below the surface. In fact, there was a spicy conspiracy going around town.
Rumors swirled about powerful people wanting to silence the baroness to cover their own tracks and to protect one person in particular: the Prince of Wales.
39. They Questioned Her Ex-Lover
There were several details about Harriet’s case that the public didn’t find convincing at all. One of them involved the Prince’s testimony that there was nothing suspicious going on between them. If there was nothing to hide, why did she only receive visits from him when her husband was away? What’s more, would he really stop by to see her every week if they weren’t knocking boots?
It just didn’t add up—and the political state of the country seemed to favor the conspiracy.
40. The Royals Needed to Silence Harriet
At the time of the trial, it was in the royals’ best interests to hide Lady Mordaunt away and prevent her from speaking on her alleged relationship with the Prince of Wales. The prince, known to the public as “Dirty Bertie,” was already infamous for his rowdy behavior. Adding his affair with the baroness to the mix wouldn’t have helped matters much.
People figured the wicked royals ended up discarding the poor baroness and leaving her to rot in asylums and rental homes. Were they wrong?
41. Her Insanity Was A Mystery
Everyone knew that Harriet Mordaunt had a pattern of unstable behavior, but no one could say for certain whether she was truly insane. Some historians thought her supposed insanity a punishment for her acts of adultery. Others thought she was “quite obviously insane,” and there was no doubt about it. Elizabeth Hamilton, a historical biographer in the 1960s, offered a different interpretation of the events.
42. She May Have Faked Madness
According to Hamilton, Lady Mordaunt probably feigned madness at first to avoid a divorce that she didn’t want. She was comfortable and had a home to host her lovers in, after all. However, during the trial, madness probably became a habit for her—one that she couldn’t escape. Whatever the case, Harriet’s fall from grace was devastating.
43. Her Testimony Was Stricken From The Record
At the asylum, Mordaunt’s clinical director Thomas Harrington Tuke controlled her every move. Not only had Lady Mordaunt lost her freedom at this point, she also lost her voice. Even though she had previously confessed to taking several lovers before her daughter’s birth, Tuke and other medical “professionals” chalked her confessions up to “typical delusions associated with [the] condition.”
44. She Lived In Absolute Anonymity
We hardly know anything at all about Lady Mordaunt’s life after she took up residence at the asylum. She lived a rather quiet existence in there, which, as we know, may not have been by choice. Everyone around her concealed her from the public, including her husband, her parents, and the royal family. Perhaps Harriet could’ve come to appreciate her new life—if her husband didn’t try to stir things up yet again.
45. Her Husband Tried To Divorce Her—Again
Sir Charles was NOT happy staying married to Harriet Mordaunt, especially while she was stuck in an asylum. He hadn’t banked on people wanting to protect the prince when he initially filed for divorce, and this was a tricky situation to be in. The baroness’s husband was persistent and appealed the divorce case decision more than once. He was typically unsuccessful…until he went after another one of the lady’s lovers.
46. Her Adultery Came Up Again In Court
Harriet’s husband argued fervently that he deserved a divorce from her because of her adultery with Lord Cole, who made no protest. By this point, with Lady Mordaunt locked in an asylum because of her royal connections, Lord Mordaunt realized the prince was untouchable and that Lord Cole was an easier target. He was right. The Mordaunt pair were legally married for at least five more years until a judge finally granted them a divorce.
47. Her Husband Remarried
Lady Mordaunt had to bid adieu to her old life of luxury and lust, but her pitiful state didn’t stop her husband from moving on with his life. A couple of years after their official divorce, Sir Charles married Mary Louisa Cholmondeley. His new wife was the opposite of his ex in every way—probably a good call on Charles’s part. And while the baron was out enjoying life, Harriet found herself increasingly trapped.
48. They Changed Her Name
An 1891 census recorded her as “HSM” instead of “Harriet Sarah Mordaunt.” The 1901 census incorrectly recorded her place of birth. At the time, they would make these abbreviations for anyone who suffered from insanity. Moreover, they didn’t really care about getting the facts straight. Madwomen evidently had no claim to their own autonomy. The baroness couldn’t even keep her full name or her birth history.
Because of her unfortunate brush with the prince, she became an invalid for the rest of her life.
49. Her Daughter Suffered
Lady Harriet Mordaunt was not the only one who experienced hardship on account of her actions. Her daughter Violet was unfairly punished for her mother’s bad decisions. Even though he did set aside some money for her maintenance later in her life, Sir Charles largely ignored his ex-wife’s daughter and liked to pretend she didn’t exist at all. Harriet had once claimed that Violet was Lord Cole’s child, after all.
50. She Passed Alone
Few people wanted anything to do with the baroness after her fall from grace. She neither had her youthful beauty nor her riches, and thus had nothing to offer her old aristocratic friends. Sir Charles certainly wasn’t going to visit her much after all she’d done to him, and Violet was too busy with her own life to think much about her ailing mother. Harriet passed alone in 1906 at the age of 58.
51. Polygamy Ran In Her Family
Lady Mordaunt was a woman ahead of her time—she embraced sexual liberty and enjoyed lust in a way no other woman of her era would’ve been comfortable admitting to. Her great-great-grandson, the 7th Marquess of Bath, would later become renowned for his polyamorous relationships. Clearly, he took a leaf out of old Harriet’s book.
So even though she lived out her days in asylums, Harriet still managed to become a great of the Mordaunt line.
52. Charles Punished Her
Even before it ruined her life, Harriet paid a chilling price for her infidelity. Her husband resented her—and he wanted revenge. On one occasion, Harriet was hosting the prince in her Walton Hall home. They were having a grand old time, and Edward had even made a gift of two beautiful white ponies to her. While she was more than happy to accept these gifts, her husband unfortunately returned home early.
Sir Charles was incredibly upset to see the two together yet again. His reaction was utterly disturbing. As soon as the prince departed, he reportedly shot Harriet’s new pets and forced her to watch the gruesome scene.