- Historic Sites
His Most Detestable High Mightiness
Besides being a bigot, a fop, and a thief, the British governor Lord Cornbury, had some peculiar fetishes
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Despite their many differences, Queen Anne’s North American colonies all shared a decent respect for propriety—or at least the appearance thereof. Why, then, did the early-eighteenth-century inhabitants of New York and New Jersey put up for years with a governor who paraded about in women’s clothes? One reason, no doubt, was that they were impressed by the governor’s royal connections and hoped to derive some benefit from them. For Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, eldest son of the Earl of Clarendon and grandson of Charles n’s lord chancellor, was a first cousin of the queen—whom he resembled, it was said, to a marked degree.
To the English and Dutch New Yorkers awaiting his arrival in the spring of 1702, moreover, there was much in Cornbury’s past in addition to his sterling family connections that inspired confidence. Born in 1661, he had served in Parliament for sixteen years. In 1688 he had been among the first army officers to desert his uncle, James n, an act that commended him to James’s successor, “Dutch William,” and to all good Protestants. And he was, finally, a family man, the husband of a peer’s daughter and the father of several children. The colonials may, to be sure, have heard that he was also something of a fop and a wastrel, but they could hardly have guessed that his motive in seeking his new job had been to increase his income by any and all means while putting an ocean between himself and his creditors.
On May 3 Lord Cornbury stepped ashore in the little city at the foot of Manhattan Island, where the rector, wardens, and vestrymen of Trinity Church bade him welcome; then the newcomer was conducted to the walled complex—formerly Fort James, at that time Fort William, and soon to be renamed Fort Anne—that was the center of municipal and provincial administration, containing the governor’s residence, among other buildings. Officially captaingeneral, governor-in-chief, and vice admiral, Cornbury was now styled His High Mightiness, a Dutch form of address that successive English governors had seen no reason to change. The local “aristocrats” who ran things —big landowners and prosperous merchants—hastened to do him honor. They granted him the freedom of the city (he was the first to receive this distinction), and the provincial assembly, responding to broad hints from His High Mightiness, voted him a special allowance of two thousand pounds. According to one account, the money was presented at a banquet; when the feasting was over, the guest of honor rose to speak, but instead of talking, as expected, about his plans for New York, he astonished his listeners by delivering a flowery panegyric on his wife’s ears—the most beautiful, he asserted, in Christendom. Then, to the further bemusement of the company, he called on every gentleman present to file past Lady Cornbury and feel for himself the shell-like conformation of those ears.
Not long after this the city’s society leaders were again nonplussed, on arriving at the governor’s residence for a grand ball, to be told they must pay admission; some declined and went home, whereupon the governor tried to get his council to bill them anyway. He failed, but the town continued to buzz with news of his eccentricities. One day he rode on horseback into the King’s Arms Tavern, on Broadway just above Wall Street, and up to the bar, where he ordered a drink for himself and water for his mount; then, draining his glass, he wheeled around and rode out. But the most titillating story was that told by the night watchman: spying what he took to be a drunken prostitute tottering about the ramparts of the fort, he discovered, on approaching nearer, that “she” was none other than His High Mightiness—who rushed at him, giggling, and pulled his ears. Before long other male citizens underwent the same painful experience at the strong hands of the governor, who delighted in lurking behind trees to pounce, shrieking with laughter, on his victims.
Ears, it would seem, were Cornbury’s abiding obsession; and when, as was perhaps inevitable, he grew disenchanted with his wife’s exquisite aural appendages, he neglected the lady herself, to the extent of leaving her without pocket money. But Lady Cornbury was equal to the challenge; prevented from shopping, she simply sought what she wanted in the homes of affluent New Yorkers. Many years afterward a memoir writer recalled what happened: “As hers was the only carriage in the city, the rolling of the wheels was easily distinguished, and then the cry in the house was There comes my lady; hide this, hide that, take that away.’ Whatever she admired in her visit she was sure to send for next day.” As for clothing, her husband’s frequent raids on her wardrobe to outfit himself for his nocturnal (and, increasingly, diurnal) masquerades had long since habituated her to borrowing gowns and coats —as Cornbury borrowed money—from anyone and everyone, with never a thought of returning them.
But why did the governor go about in drag? Few people, if any, then understood the nature of the compulsions that give rise to transvestite behavior, and the explanations advanced sound delightfully naive today. Cornbury did it, some said, the better to display his facial resemblance to the sovereign. Others opined that he was interpreting his mission—to represent the queen—in a particularly literal manner. A third theory—promoted by Cornbury himself —hinted at some mysterious and unexplained vow he was compelled by honor to fulfill.