Sunday, December 30, 2018

DAY 23: Scandal--The Aylesford Affair

Jennie Churchill was 22 years old in 1876 and had only been married two years when her husband, Lord Randolph Churchill, committed his first political suicide. 

Known forever after as the Aylesford Affair, it involved the entire Churchill family in a scandal so mortifying and inescapable that Queen Victoria ordered the Duke of Marlborough, Randolph's formidable father, to get the Churchills out of the country.

And yet, it was Randolph's brother, George--Marquess of Blandford and heir to the dukedom--who was the source of the trouble.

Bertie, Prince of Wales, embarked on a lavish trip to India in the autumn of 1875, and among the gentlemen pressed into accompanying him was Heneage Finch, 7th Earl of Aylesford. Sportin' Joe, as he was known in the Marlborough House Set, was the accommodating husband of Edith, Countess of Aylesford--with whom the Prince had enjoyed an illicit liaison, facilitated by the splendid houseparties the Aylesfords threw at their country seat, Packington Hall, in Warwickshire. 
Packington Hall, Warwickshire, seat of the Earls of Aylesford

While the Prince and the Earl were away, the Countess decided to play--and chose as her paramour George, Marquess of Blandford. He was known throughout Society as a devilish, spendthrift rake without a single moral scruple, and for whatever reason, Edith was obsessed with him. Both were married; Edith the mother of  two young daughters, Blandford the father of two daughters and a son. He moved his horses and valet to an inn close to Packington Hall that winter and by spring, Edith was pregnant.

George, Marquess of Blandford,
later 8th Duke of Marlborough
Edith Finch, Countess of Aylesford
Word reached her husband, as word of such things often does.

Both the Prince of Wales and Sportin' Joe were outraged at the Marquess's behavior. Bertie called Blandford "a blackguard," that most vicious of Victorian insults. He insisted that the Earl of Aylesford should divorce his unfaithful (to them both) wife, and that Blandford must then marry her. The collateral damage to Blandford's wife Goosie was apparently immaterial.

Enter Randolph Churchill, determined to support his brother and furious at his Prince and Sovereign.

Randolph was then the Conservative Member of Parliament for Woodstock. He drove to Marlborough House, the Prince's London home, and demanded to see the Princess of Wales. With him, he carried a packet of Edith Aylesford's love letters--written by Bertie, not Blandford.

Not simply content with destroying what shreds of faith Alix might still have had in her philandering husband, Randolph threatened to publish the Prince's letters in the London papers if his brother George were forced to the public humiliation and scandal of a divorce. Divorce was the one sin no English peer could yet survive; and no English lady, once divorced, was ever tolerated in Society thereafter. Imposing divorce on both George and Edith was to ruin them equally, and Randolph had no intention of letting the Prince of Wales do that to his brother.

"I have the Crown of England in my pocket," Randolph later told his political colleague, Sir Charles Dilke.

Stunned, Princess Alix went immediately to Queen Victoria--who, though she had never approved of her son, did not hesitate to protect the Crown. She met soon thereafter with the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and told them exactly what Randolph had done. The humiliated Duke accepted Prime Minister Disraeli's appointment as Lord-Lieutenant or Viceroy of Ireland, and prepared for exile in Dublin. It was an expensive move for the Churchill family that ended the Duke's career in the House of Lords. Randolph was required to accompany him to Dublin as the Viceroy's secretary.

Meanwhile, Bertie, Prince of Wales, learned the entire history of Randolph's threats and his painful revelations to Princess Alix. Outraged, he challenged Randolph to apologize, or meet him in Rotterdam during the Prince's return voyage to England--with pistols, at dawn.

It was impossible, of course, for Randolph to aim a gun at the Prince of Wales without being charged with treason. Randolph refused to apologize, but offered to face the Prince's Second (a designated stand-in) at any time or place of Bertie's choosing.

At this point, Hartington intervened. 
Hart, later 8th Duke of Devonshire

Spencer Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, or Hart as he was known to his friends, was a towering figure in Victorian social and political life. Older than Randolph and a member of the Liberal Party, he was close to the Prince of Wales and a member of the Marlborough House Set himself, as was his lifelong love, Lottie, Duchess of Manchester. Hart would one day be Duke of Devonshire, but in 1876 he was a man devoted to public service, an obvious future prime minister (although in fact he refused the office three times), and a negotiator of unquestioned integrity and power.

He asked to see Randolph's packet of letters. When Randolph turned them over, Hart allegedly threw them on the fire. Or, by another account, he pocketed them and later returned them anonymously to the Prince. Regardless, Edith's correspondence was no longer available to Randolph Churchill as a weapon.

The Aylesford Affair did not end there, however. Sportin' Joe proved to be less than sporting, in the Victorian sense of the word. He ordered his mother to remove his daughters from Edith's care and decreed that she was never to see them again. Neither was she permitted to remain in his home, and he refused to give her a penny. He left England for a ranch in Texas, where he died at the age of 36, of alcoholism.

Edith fled to Paris with Blandford, where a few years later she was later delivered of a son she named Guy Bertrand. 

The Marchioness of Blandford initiated divorce proceedings against George, as did Sportin' Joe against his Countess. But Blandford had no intention of marrying Edith--she was, he declared, good enough for a mistress, but not for a Duchess of Marlborough.

Jennie, Randolph, Winston and his grandparents went into exile in Ireland for the next four years. (More about life in Ireland in a later post.) Randolph crossed the North Sea often for parliamentary debates, as he was still an MP, but the Prince of Wales refused to enter any room he inhabited, or to attend any event where Randolph might appear, forcing the Churchills' social circle to choose sides. The ostracism of Society was severe. Under the repeated persuasion of his father, the Duke, Randolph finally agreed to sign a letter of full and formal apology to the Prince of Wales.

Notably, nothing was required of brother George. He was thoroughly disgraced by his own actions, but he had never committed the atrocity of threatening his Prince. Public opinion began to thaw; the whole mess, it was agreed, might have been avoided if only Aylesford had done the sporting thing, and stood by his wife. Never mind that Heneage would have had to accept the Marquess of Blandford's son as his heir to the earldom, cutting out his brother from the line of succession. Tainting a woman with divorce violated the code of a gentleman. No wonder he had fled to Texas! 

When the Conservative government fell in 1880 and the Liberals appointed a new Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland to succeed the Duke, Jennie returned to a London that had missed her. Randolph had new ambition--he was marked out as a rising member of the Opposition. Society could not afford to ignore either Churchill; as a power couple, they were sought after by every hostess. Even Bertie was glad to see Jennie, and invited her to Sandringham.

It would be years, however, before the Prince agreed to acknowledge the existence of Randolph Churchill, either in public or private.

For more images from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel.  

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