Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Royal Mistress at 16, A Cougar at 58

The Story Behind the Photo: “Patsy” Cornwallis West.

I can’t remember when or where I bought this photo (I must have paid a dollar for it) but I was intrigued by the coy beauty draped in fox tails (so un-PC today!) On the back of the photo, advertising “Photographers by Special Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen,” someone had scrawled “Mme. Cornwallis West, June 27th ’83.”

After a little research, I learned that this beautiful woman was not only one of the celebrities of her day—she was the daughter of a British king’s mistress and herself mistress to Edward, Prince of Wales, when she was just 16—but later her passionate affair with a wounded 23-year-old sergeant when she was 58 years old nearly brought down the British government!

(It’s stories like this that make collecting old photos so much fun.)

Born into an upper-class Irish family, Mary Cornwallis-West (always known as “Patsy”) became a mistress to the Prince of Wales at the age of sixteen in 1872. She was quickly married to the accommodating Colonel Cornwallis-West, approximately twice her age. They had three children.

Patsy moved in society and was good friends with other famous beauties who became royal mistresses, like Lillie Langtry, the actress.

Patrick Barrett was a young sergeant with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers during the First World War when he was wounded and shell-shocked. He was convalescing in the home of employees of Cornwallis-West when Patsy, in her late fifties by now, fell in love with him.

Here is a summary of the scandal that followed:

“When the noble-born Mary Cornwallis West, known as Patsy, started a secret affair with a wounded soldier billeted at her family's estate, neither of them dreamed that their relationship would throw the reputation of the entire British Parliament into question. But as Patsy's attempts to get her lover promoted to an officership were uncovered, the case came to symbolize all the ways in which the aristocracy toyed with the lives and deaths of British commoners. Patsy's own life of luxury and often reckless disregard for manners and morals were called into question, and she and her War Office consorts were shamed in front of Parliament and the press. And finally a dramatic Act of Parliament, especially introduced by David Lloyd George because of the affair, resulted in Patsy herself being questioned by a secret military tribunal.”

When she was questioned, she replied defiantly: “Why are you asking me this? Do you want me to explain to you about feelings? Do you not know about caring for someone?”

If you want to know more of her story, read “Patsy: the Story of Mary Cornwallis-West” by Tim Coates.

Mary Cornwallis-West died in 1920 at the age of 64. For defying the British government and defiantly declaring her love for the lower-class soldier who was less than half her age, I think she deserves to be the “Crone of the Week” as well as the “Story behind the Photo.”


CJ Kennedy said...

Interesting coincidence. Edward VIII had an affair with Wallis Simpson and and later abdicated the throne to marry her.

mzg said...

you have always been my favorite storyteller

Yiayia Vicky said...

when it comes to affairs of the heart, nothing much has changed. Great story, Joanie. I love reading your blog.

John Hylas said...

Interesting take on a most complicated issue. An affair of the heart, hmmmmm, much more than that. Tom Coats should have researched much deeper, but then, discretion by those in the know may have led him to settle for a little less than the...... ah, never mind.

John Fitz-Patrick Smith

snarx said...

I just found your blog & I love it! This is a very compelling story, I found a bit more here about her "love" for the poor soldier. read to the end for the NYT obit. She certainly was an interesting woman.

StellaTennantFreak said...

I read the book. Lloyd-George used the scandal to divert attention away from the fact that the British government had virtually no more money to fight the war. Patsy's answers to other questions seem comical now but probably served to censure her further.

Russell Kane said...

Funnily there is an old photograph of her in our family bible, loosely kept among other period photographs of ancestors dating from 1878. Wonder how it got there.And I am talking about the 1880s in Secunderabad, India!