Born in 1771, Prince Ernest Augustus of Great Britain and Ireland, Duke of Cumberland, was 39 years old. The son of King George III and Queen Charlotte of England, he was, like all the princes of the reigning Hanoverian dynasty, blond, tall, burly, and red-faced. One-eyed, he sheltered his gaze under bushy eyebrows. His beloved, rolled up moustache, made him look somewhat like a boogeyman, but he did not lack appeal. He was more intelligent than his brothers and just as courageous, but even more forward, daring, and ferocious, truth be told.
None of the Royal Princes were as hated as Ernest Augustus. He did not hide his ultraconservative opinions nor the religious intolerance that made him fanatically anti-Catholic. He was tough on ordinary people, and fussy and mean with his army subordinates. He thought himself irresistible to women and acted with them as he would in a battlefield, with sudden violence, followed by rejection. He was also often gripped by uncontrollable and terrifying fits of rage that caused him to fear everyone, and that encouraged public opinion to attribute all vices to him. It was even rumoured that he fathered a child with his sister, Princess Sophie.
“It was the evening of May 31, 1810,” Victor Barns continued to tell Colin, who, consumed by his curiosity and impatience to learn more, could no longer move. The Duke of Cumberland returned to the palace at around 9 o’clock that evening. For years, he had occupied a large apartment adjoining to the ceremonial apartments that he had lavishly redecorated several years prior.
He rang for his head valet, Sellis. This Sardinian hairdresser, after having spent years styling the hair of the ladies of Cagliari, had come to England in search of his fortune. This Italian, discreet and devoted, was very popular with the Royal Family. Queen Charlotte had given numerous pieces of muslin to his wife, and the Duke of Cumberland had agreed to be godfather to his youngest daughter.
“Sellis helped the Duke change, and then the Duke dismissed him, he no longer needed his services that evening.
“It was half-past midnight when his carriage left him at the palace gate. Lackeys and footmen awaited him in his apartments. He managed to insult every one of them and even punched a few before slamming the door of his bedchamber shut behind him. Most then withdrew, with only 5 or 6 servicemen remaining in the antechamber that night, where they would remain until dawn within earshot of the Duke to grant his every wish in the rare event that he was to wake in the middle of the night. They settled into the elegant Regency style armchairs that decorated the room, intending to take a nap. A little time passed. Some drifted in and out of reparative slumber; others produced snores that mingled with the tick-tock of the gilded bronze clocks.
“Suddenly, they were woken by noises coming from his bedchamber. They could hear swearing, grunting, and clashing characteristic of a struggle – precisely the same sounds as you, Colin, heard earlier. Knowing their master, they made sure not to intervene. They knew that if they got involved, they would be in big trouble. The Duke, between the alcohol and his rage, was capable of anything. Still, they were worried and didn’t know what to do. Soon enough, they were relieved that the calm had returned, for only a few moments… And then brusquely, the Duke’s loud voice was heard yelling, “Neale! Neale! I’m being murdered!!!”
“Neale was the Duke’s page who lived in a small adjoining room. Neale awoke with a jolt and knocked on the communication door with a trembling hand. “Come in,” grunted the Duke. Neale opened the door, instantly took in the scene illuminated by the bedside table lamp, and was flabbergasted.
“Amid the yellow satin, mahogany and mirrored decor that he himself had put together, Ernest Augustus stood upright. He was very red, his eyes bulging, his hair ruffled, but he looked entirely in control of himself, cold and composed. He had removed his coat and vest, the front of his shirt smeared with blood, and his sword was lying on the ground for Neale to stumble on. Blood also covered the handle of the door leading to the ceremonial apartments. Neale quickly realized that the assailant, whoever he was, had disappeared. He helped the Duke to his armchair. The room was in disarray, furniture had been pushed aside, chairs overturned, and trinkets broken.
“Before Neale could open his mouth, the Duke, in a calm voice, explained, “I was barely in bed and asleep when I received two blows to the head that obviously woke me up! And then two more, accompanied by a whistling sound that made me think for a moment that a bat had entered through the open window and hit me in its mad rush. Despite the light shed by my bedside table lamp, I didn’t see anyone. I got up, wanting to go to your door to wake you. Right then, I felt a sabre slice my upper-right thigh. That was when I called you for help. Order all the doors shut and not to let anyone leave…Go find me Sir Henry Halford immediately!”
“Sir Henry, the Duke’s personal physician, also lived in the palace. Neale rushed to him. The doctor, who was not asleep, was still wearing his evening attire. Distraught at hearing the Duke had been hurt, he ran behind Neale all the way to his illustrious patient’s bedchamber. He hurriedly laid the Duke on his bed, unclothed him, cleaned him up, and examined him.
“It was then that Neale noticed several clues that struck him. The door that separated the Duke’s bedchamber from the ceremonial apartments, which was always locked, was no longer so. In the dressing room, Neale found a lantern discarded on the ground as well as a pair of slippers marked ‘J. Sellis’…Sellis, as in, the Duke’s Italian valet who had dressed him for his party. Just then, the Duke belched out, “Go fetch me Sellis!”
“The footmen scurried. They ran to the end of the passage where the head valet’s room was, the knocked on the door, yelling: “Wake up! Wake up! The Duke has been assassinated!”. No one answered. They tried opening the door; it was locked. However, the footman knew the room had a second door that could only be accessed through the ceremonial apartments. They turned around and reached the door, which was not locked. They could hear a strange sound coming from the room, a gurgling noise of sorts. It was the palace caretaker – my predecessor – that entered first: “My God!”, he yelled, “Sellis has slit his throat!”. The guards were called, as well as the sergeant who commanded them.
TO BE CONTINUED…