Category Archives: defamation

Bumbling, Bitchiness and Cruelty at Queen Victoria’s Court

This is dangerously late for my tastes, but a serendipitous choice of podcast to accompany me on a walk the other day (something by Lucy Worsley on Queen Victoria) brought me to a story I had never known. Undoubtedly those who work on the 19th C know all about it, as may others with a better all round general knowledge, but I had not heard of the episode, and, as it happens, it has some relevance to a project I am just finishing (the one on ‘unknowns at the start of life’, inc. bastards and the beginnings of human life).

The episode involved a young(ish) aristocrat, Lady Flora Elizabeth Hastings (b. 1806), who occupied the position of Maid of Honour to the Duchess of Kent (Queen Victoria’s mother). She died in 1839, after something of a scandal, which does not make Queen Victoria and her court look at all good.

Briefly, the problem arose because Flora had a swollen abdomen, and of course it was rumoured that she was pregnant (no doubt euphemistically whilst being – shock – unmarried …. She denied it, but the rumour went round the court, and was enjoyed by those – including the Queen – who were at odds with the faction represented by the Duchess of Kent, and so, by extension, by Flora. A physical examination was insisted upon, and Flora agreed to it, despite the humiliation, because she wished to end the scandal and rumour attached to her name. The examination came back negative (though there is some suggestion that the doctors, despite having certified non-pregnancy, were suggesting to Queen Victoria that Flora might still be pregnant). Flora got very ill and died, however, and public opinion was against Victoria and her doctor. After Flora’s death, it was made clear that she was not pregnant, but had had cancer. The matter was much discussed in the press, and it did nothing for the reputation of court or medical profession.

Using a letter she had written to her uncle, Mr Hamilton Fitzgerald, published in the Morning Post (2) supplemented as to dates from the other sources below, the following timeline can be constructed:

 

  • January 1839. Flora comes to London, and has already ‘been suffering for some weeks from bilious derangement, … pain in the side and swelling of the stomach’
  • 10th January, 1839. she consults Sir James Clark, who, physician to the Duchess of Kent and the Queen. Clark’s treatment is unsuccessful, but Flora’s self-care remedy of ‘walking and porter’ results, she reports, in an increase in strength amd reduction of the abdominal swelling.
  • 16th February 1839. Clark comes to Flora’s room, accuses her of being pregnant and tries to get her to confess that this is the case. His sources are ‘the ladies of the palace’. Flora denies being pregnant. Clark says that the only way Flora can ‘remove the stigma from [her] name’ is to ‘[submit] to a medical examination’. The Queen was in on this plan, and effectively ordered the examination. Flora named some other ladies of the court as having been particularly active in setting this up, though the Duchess of Kent is exonerated.
  • 17th February 1839, the examination went ahead (interestingly, the consent of the Duchess of Kent was required, while Flora ‘submitted’ in order to clear her name.  What followed she described as ‘the most rigid examination’, at the end of which ‘her accuser’, Sir James Clark, and Sir Charles Clark, signed a certificat ‘stating, as strongly as language can state it, that there are no grounds for be[1]lieving that pregnancy does exist, or ever has existed’.
  • 8th March 1839 Flora writes to her uncle, setting out her story.
  • 5th July, 1839. Flora dies. Post mortem examination, at Flora’s request, by Sir Benjamin Brodie and Sir Astley Cooper,  which published its findings officially, and found that she had died of ‘long standing disease of the liver’, and that ‘The uterus and its appendages presented the usual appearance of the healthy virgin state.’ (1)

As the Lancet put it,

 ‘The publication of this post[1]mortem examination is the best reply which could have been given to the slanderers of an illustrious personage, and of a distin]guished physician. No mental emotion could have produced, or even considerably accelerated the progress of the diseaae from which Lady FLORA HASTINGS died ; and if the symptomatic swelling of the abdomen were, by some, mistaken for pregnancy, it could not have been by one who knew that in pregnancy the swelling is developed from below upwards.’ (1)

There were, shall we say, differences of emphasis in terms of whether it was an outrage or a rational scientific thing to insist on examining Flora’s abdomen. Guess which side the Lancet was on … want a clue?

 ‘Had Lady Flora Hastings permitted her physician to have made an accurate external examination of the abdomen, at an eurly stage of her complaint, she would probably have been spared the pain and humttiation to which she was subsequently exposed. Many a female has undermined heutth and compro[1]mised existence, through similar feelings of mistaken delicacy’ (3)

(translation: ‘The ladies, eh – what are they like! It was her own silly fault!’]

 

The resonances this episode has for me, and my projects, concerns detection of pregnancy and the role of medical expertise in this. One of the things which comes out of an examination of the history of pregnancy detection in the more strictly legal context (for deferral of execution, or for the purposes of succession disputes) is that there was quite a difference between England and Wales on the one hand, and the rest of western Europe, on the other, in terms of who was given the task of saying whether a woman was, or was not pregnant. In England and Wales, the use of women – the jury of matrons, or jury de ventre inspiciendo – continued long after it was phased out in other jurisdictions, in favour of (male) medical professionals. Instinctively, we may see the medical professional model as preferable. This case troubles those waters somewhat – since it seems to bring home the questionable nature of medical expertise (and ethics?). It certainly damaged the reputation of Sir James Clark himself. It does make me wonder whether, at that stage in the history of medical research and education, there might have been some over-claiming of expertise.

To somebody coming from a modern Law School, the case also, of course, raises the hackles, in that it seems to amount to the forcing upon a (very sick) woman of an unpleasant and humiliating examination. For all that Flora agreed to the procedure, after her initial horror, this appears very much to have been something she thought she had no real option not to suffer: the rumours and scandal were bad enough, but she was also told that she would not be allowed to attend court functions if not ‘cleared’ of being pregnant (and thus a total, hopeless, sinner …) Neither Flora nor contemporaries seem to have gone down a ‘coerced consent’ line in their objections, but there was certainly outrage at the gossip and the persecution of this poor woman, and the rough, questionably competent and generally unpleasant conduct of the doctor.

Queen Victoria not at all nice – official.

GS

1/1/2022

 

Image – Flora, from source 4, below. Not a very good drawing, I must say.

 

Sources:

  • ‘Lady Flora Hastings’, Lancet, 32, no. 828, 1839, pp. 587–587
  • ‘The Late Lady Flora Hastings’, Lancet, vol. 32, no. 833, 1839, pp. 762–763.
  • ‘Sir James Clark’s Statement of the Case of the Late Lady Flora Hastings’, Lancet, vol. 33, no. 842, 1839, pp. 126–126.
  • Horace Wyndham, The Mayfair Calendar : Some Society Causes Célèbres. (Hutchinson, 1925).
  • D. Reynolds, ‘Hastings, Lady Flora Elizabeth (1806-1839) courtier, ODNB.

Defamation with a Welsh accent?

‘Oh my country, my country! Her Majesty’s Commissioners say we are a drunken, lying and dishonest race – men without honour, women without chastity …’[i]

 

One of the projects I want to take off the back-burner in the next year deals with defamation in relation to Welsh, and the Welsh people. My initial interest was in the early period of common law actions on the case for defamation – which come to prominence, and show rapid development, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at a most interesting period for both Welsh governance and the Welsh language, and, as far as I am aware, there has not yet been a full consideration of the way in which actions on the case for defamation dealt with the bilingual reality of Wales. This is something of a stretch for me, in that this is not a period in which I would claim any great expertise, and there may be a need for a bit of hand-holding from those who know it better, but I am not sure that any individual has all of the various skills and knowledge relevant to this, so it does not seem totally out of order for me to have a go at it. At the moment, of course, it is difficult to make any progress, given the inaccessibility of archives. I decided to do a little exploration of such sources as are available to me, and am currently searching through the excellent Welsh Newspapers Online – Home (library.wales). This is proving interesting both in terms of what I have thought of as the ‘core’ of the project – the doctrinal development of defamation law in relation to Wales, Welsh and the Welsh – and also in terms of wider ways in which defamation might have had a distinct role, a distinct accent, for the Welsh, over a much longer period.

I had imagined that my main questions for the doctrinal core would be:

  • in what ways might calling somebody Welsh (alone, or in combination with something else) be defamatory?
  • when might an insult in Welsh be actionable?
  • how would such an insult be evaluated?

I have found some good material on some of these points in the archive in the past, and today turned up a nice quote relevant to the last point, from a letter in a newspaper in 1821:

‘ In cases of libel or defamation, which originated in the Welsh, and are now brought into Court to be tried in the English language, the parties are frequently foiled, and the ends of justice defeated. No language will admit of a literal translation, or is always capable of giving every word its full force and meaning in another.  The Judges are totally ignorant of the Welsh, the Barristers equally so, and the Attornies, not uncommonly without any knowledge of it. The issue of the whole matter then rests on the fidelity of the Interpreter, who is not, at all times, the most competent for his office. And how, I would ask, can justice and equity be administered in such a case?’[ii]

After starting to look at the newspaper archive, however, I have an additional question: how would it be ascertained whether a person alleged to have uttered an insult in Welsh could in fact speak Welsh? This came up in a report of 1808 from North Wales.[iii] The case was Williams (an infant) v. Read and his wife. How much of an ‘infant’ Williams was is not clear – and nor, sadly, though unsurprisingly, are the words, the nature of the alleged insult is not set out. We are told that Mrs Read tried to plead justification, and failed, and that then there was the issue of whether she could have said the words in question (those pleas seem rather contradictory to me, but perhaps I am missing something!). The point was made that Mrs Read came from Cheshire, and that, despite living for 30 years in what was a seriously Welsh-speaking part of the country she had not learned any Welsh, or at least not enough to speak the words in question (were they particularly challenging to a non-native speaker? Lots of Ll and Ch? Had she allegedly described young Williams as the worst thief in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch?). The jury didn’t accept this anyway, and Mrs Read was found to have defamed the infant Williams. (I am definitely going to have a poke about to see if there are other, more informative, reports: nothing so far!)

There are a number of leads like this to follow up, but also some wider contexts and trends to consider. I do wonder whether there is a particular vehemence to the condemnation of defamation in a community condemned in the way suggested by the quote at the head of this post, but which emphasises, in one of its central cultural institutions, the Eisteddfod, its own heroically truthful tradition: Y Gwir yn Erbyn y Byd (‘[The duty to uphold] the truth against the world’). It is interesting to note how regularly the Welsh language papers seem to leave ‘defamation of character’ in English – a nasty Saxon practice? Also, my superficial perusing has me musing (going a little bardic there?) about the regular mentioning of slander and defamation in relation to the bitter fighting over the position of the Anglican church, and native dissent, in the later nineteenth century and early twentieth century. From a modern, secular, viewpoint, this sometimes looks like a battle over trivial differences, but the feelings were very deep and real, and accusing the Tory/high church powers of defamation against the Welsh in general, and their dissenting churches and their ministers in particular, was a complaint which seems to have been something of a rallying cry.  One example gives a flavour – ‘The Church Times has out-Heroded HEROD in its superfluity of libellous traducement. We have occasinally noticed the sluice of persistent slander against the Welsh people which this High Church paper keeps continually open’.[iv]

Much to ponder, and to investigate further, when it becomes possible. I am encouraged, though, that there is something here. It just might be less the one painless article I had looked forward to, after more or less escaping the long pressure of the Women and the Medieval Common Law book, and more a set of linked pieces of a rather amorphous blobby nature. Ah well – Wales, Welsh and the Welsh never have been straightforward. Croeso i Gymru.

 

GS

7/2/2021

 

 

[i] North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality, 22nd February, 1848, p.2. Letter from ‘A Loyal Welshman’.

[ii] D.W., The Cambrian, 16th June, 1821, Letter, ‘The Welsh Language’, p.3,

[iii] North Wales Gazette, 24th November, 1808, p. 3, dealing with proceedings in ‘Carnarvonshire’ County Court.

[iv] South Wales Daily News, 22nd December, 1896, p. 4.

Early modern attitudes: was ‘hermaphrodite’ defamatory?

I am preparing a lecture on the history of common law ‘tortious’ defamation, and have, once again, come across references to the case of Wetherhead v Armitage (1678) 2 Lev 233; 1 Freeman 277; 2 Show KB 18. According to the accounts in the English Reports, this was a case in the King’s Bench in Michaelmas 30 Charles II (= 1678 – we pass over the whole Commonwealth business without counting those years). It was an ‘action on the case’ (i.e. a ‘tort’ claim for compensation) in respect of words. There are some variations in reports and discussions of the case. All agree that the plaintiff was a dancing teacher to ‘young gentlewomen’, and she had, apparently been insulted by the defendant, but his words are given in slightly different forms. He may have said “she is no more a woman than I am; [or possibly ‘she is as much a man as I am’]’ and ‘she had a bastard on J. S. [or possibly ‘she got JS with child’’. There is agreement that he rounded off with ‘she is an hermaphrodite [or a hermaphrodite].” The plaintiff claimed that the words had caused her to lose some of her students, causing her £40 of loss.

There may have been mistakes in the way P’s case was pleaded – reports suggest that perhaps it should have been more exact about when P had been a dancing-mistress, and about which students left as the result of D’s words. What is intriguing to me, however, is what the case could tell us about contemporary attitudes to ‘hermaphrodites’ (which must be taken to be a rough, if problematic, equivalent to ‘intersex person’). There are statements to the effect that this does not count as necessarily defamatory in itself, and that the statement as a whole does not obviously damage a dancing-mistress in her profession ‘for young women are taught to dance more frequently by men than women‘. In one version (2 Show. 19), counsel for D, Mr. Levinz and Mr. Saunders moved … ‘that “hermaphrodite” is no word of turpitude or crime, but only an imbecility’. The last term may seem insulting today, but should be seen as akin to ‘weakness’ – so, somewhat milder, if still troubling.

A slightly different view of the matter was apparently taken by Wylde J, who seemed to doubt the idea of ‘hermaphroditism’, and insisted, presumably following Coke, Bracton and older sources, that one sex must predominate. He is also reported as seeing ‘the matter’ (but which part!) as ‘scandalous’ in and of itself. But the agreed ratio of the case seems to be that ‘hermaphrodite’ was not actionable without special damage (2 Lev. 233).

The case is referred to in later works as authority for the proposition that calling a school-mistress or dancing-mistress an hermaphrodite is not actionable without pleading by P of particular damage. The bit about being a man and having fathered an illegitimate child is sometimes left out, making a simpler story, and there seems a little doubt about what the case actually decided.

Assuming that the ‘not necessarily defamatory and actionable’ view is correct, it does seem interesting that, while P clearly regarded it as insulting to be so designated, being a ‘hermaphrodite’ is not clearly treated by the court as if it would obviously damage the reputation of somebody dependent on public acceptance for her livelihood. Would we expect people of the seventeenth century to blame the ‘hermaphrodite’ for being so? I can’t claim an expertise in 17th C attitudes in this area, but it is worth bearing in mind that the common law did treat allegations of certain physical conditions (syphillis, leprosy…) as being obviously defamatory. (I also like thinking through the logic of the ‘insult’: if P is ‘as much of a man’ as D, and P is an hermaphrodite … what does that say about D?)

Because of the murkiness around the decision and also just because I would very much like to know a bit more about the people involved, it would be excellent to find the KB record for this one, and see what more can be gleaned from it.