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His Most Detestable High Mightiness

July 2024
7min read

Besides being a bigot, a fop, and a thief, the British governor Lord Cornbury, had some peculiar fetishes

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.

No word of Cornbury’s bizarre doings seems to have reached London—or if it did, it was not taken seriously —for at the end of 1702 Queen Anne signified her confidence in his stewardship by naming him governor of New Jersey as well as New York. (New Jersey, previously ruled by proprietary lords, had recently been returned to the Crown.)

The English colonies were then at war with the French in Canada, and the following spring the people of both New York and New Jersey were alarmed by the appearance off their coasts of a French privateer bristling with guns. The privateer stationed itself off Sandy Hook and began to harass ships entering and leaving New York’s outer harbor. In April, Cornbury announced that he had received, from private sources, information that the French intended to attack the city by sea that summer, and he urged the assembly to appropriate £1,500 for the erection of batteries on both sides of the Narrows, the mile-wide strait between Staten Island and Long Island that leads to the inner harbor. The legislators obediently levied special taxes, the receipts of which were to be turned over to Cornbury, and went home satisfied that they had done their patriotic duty.

The ensuing months were anticlimactic, however; the French men-of-war failed to appear, but so did the batteries; and by August, when Cornbury finally took his oath as governor of New Jersey, New Yorkers were mystified as to where their money could have gone. The sharpereyed among them, however, had noticed a house going up on Governor’s Island, Cornbury’s private retreat off the tip of Manhattan. Three years later, addressing the council on the matter, Cornbury coolly alleged that the funds had never been collected: “I am sensible,” he went on in a wounded tone, “that some malicious, ill-minded people have reported that I have taken that money into my hands. …” But the New Yorkers—malicious and ill-minded or not —knew perfectly well that they had paid the taxes and that Cornbury had built his island sanctuary with them; no one was deceived.

In August of that year, 1706, Lady Cornbury suddenly died, aged thirty-four, and was buried with pomp in Trinity Church. His High Mightiness was undone with grief. Among the mourners were a number of cronies he had enriched with grants of land in return for ready cash—men like Peter Fauconier, his secretary. On Fauconier and eight others Cornbury conferred a large and fertile tract up the Hudson, which the partners, invoking his family name, dubbed Hyde Park—unwittingly linking for future generations the memories of New York’s worst governor and one of its best, Hyde Park’s most famous son, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Notwithstanding his defects of character Cornbury was a staunch upholder of established religion—i.e., the Church of England—and a merciless scourge of its foes, to wit, any competing brand of Protestantism. (Catholics were so scarce in his domains as to be practically invisible.) In New York his favorite targets were Presbyterians; at Jamaica on Long Island, for instance, where he fled one summer from the smallpox and yellow fever raging in the city, he seized their church and handed it over to the Anglicans. On another occasion he arrested Francis Makemie, the chief founder of Presbyterianism in America, and jailed him for six weeks, claiming that a clause in his instructions forbade him to allow any minister to preach without either a certificate from the Bishop of London or permission from himself. (This clause later proved to be entirely spurious, having been forged by—who else?—His High Mightiness.)

In New Jersey, Cornbury was particularly relentless toward the Quakers, who were prominent in the western part of that province bordering Pennsylvania. He tried to disenfranchise them on the grounds that in obedience to the teachings of their faith they would neither swear allegiance to the Crown nor—unpardonably in time of war —bear arms. When the voters of West Jersey elected three Quakers to the provincial assembly, Cornbury refused to let them take their seats. This enraged the Quakers’ powerful allies in East Jersey, who were indignant enough already about the governor’s practice of rewarding his supporters with public land and government favors in exchange for bribes. One of their number, the redoubtable Lewis Morris, wrote the queen’s secretary of state to complain of Cornbury’s corruption and mismanagement and of “his dressing publicly in woman’s cloaths every day, and putting a stop to all publique business while he is pleaseing himself wth y’ [that] peculiar and detestable magot.” (A maggot or magot is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary , “a whimsical or perverse fancy; a crotchet.”)

In May, 1707, the New Jersey assembly adopted a remonstrance against Cornbury’s policy that its speaker read aloud, pausing dramatically between counts of the indictment to stare at the governor. In his critical role as initiator of royal rule in the province of New Jersey, Cornbury had been a total failure. Perhaps because they had known royal governors before, including some pretty bad ones, the New Yorkers were slower to rebel, but in September, 1708, their assembly, too, adopted resolutions condemning his misrule in uncompromising terms.

But the queen had already concluded that Cornbury’s “near relation to her … should not Protect him in Oppressing her Subjects” and ordered his removal. In December, 1708, his replacement, Lord Lovelace, arrived in New York; Cornbury tried to slip away and board a ship, but his creditors seized him and turned him over to the sheriff, who clapped him in debtors’ prison. He remained a prisoner for about a year, when the news of his father’s death changed everything; as Earl of Clarendon he was able to pay off the most pressing of his debts and embark for that beloved land where his fondness for wearing women’s clothes was not decried as a public disgrace but indulged as a nobleman’s harmless caprice. Nor did his political disasters in America count against him; in 1711 his cousin the queen raised him to the Privy Council; in 1714 he served as Envoy Extraordinary (!) in Hanover; and in 1723 he died, covered with honors.

Posterity, however, has not dealt so kindly with Lord Cornbury. Thus the nineteenth-century historian John Romeyn Brodhead called him “a mean liar, a vulgar profligate, a frivolous spendthrift, an impudent cheat, a fraudulent bankrupt, and a detestable bigot”—and went on to show that he was a forger as well. And a Tory historian of New York wrote that “we never had a governor so universally detested.” A fine sweeping statement, which in some mythical world of perfect justice and honesty would make a fitting epitaph for Lord Cornbury’s grave.

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