The Story of the Royal Baccarat Scandal of 1890 – Part 1

November 28, 2017

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The Royal Baccarat scandal is a fabled tale involving the future King of England which threatened to tear a hole right through the heart of British Monarchy.

1890 was a precarious time for the Monarchy. Fresh off the back of the Franco-Prussian war, the Republican movement was sweeping across Europe with vigour and had already assisted in helping to overthrow Emperor Napoleon III and the Second Empire in France in 1871. The radicalism that followed the French Monarchy’s downfall across the English channel threatened to envelop Britain with it.

In the late 1870’s, unprecedented demonstrations against the Kingdom and the government were organised across the major cities and towns of Britain, and when Prince Edward of Wales was spotted gambling a few months later in Hamburg, Germany – a pastime which was then illegal in England – it only added more fuel to the Republican movement’s fire. The fact that his mother, Queen Victoria, had become a recluse since the death of her beloved husband in 1861 didn’t help matters either.

The press reported the Prince of Wales’ debts totalled £600,000 (the equivalent of £57 million in today’s money), and though the accusations were unfounded, the Prince’s playboy lifestyle existed as an open secret.

The Playboy Prince
Prince Edward Baccarat Scandal

Prince Edward had a difficult upbringing. Just like the archetypal parents of the Victorian Era; Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were repressive, authoritative figures who endeavoured to dampen down any kind of infantile and youthful behaviour exhibited by the young Prince.

During his schooling years, Edward was put was put on a strict schedule of six hourly lessons, six days a week. The Prince rebelled, called his tutor names, became rude and aggressive, and struggled to make friends as he was given little free time outside of working hours.

Upon finishing school Edward’s repressed life was given little more liberation. The Prince favoured the life of the army, but as he was next in the line to the throne, Queen Victoria forbade it and instead sent him to first Oxford, and then Cambridge University.

Edward wasn’t a very academic child and struggled with his studies, but once the shackles were off after initially being incarcerated by Colonel Bruce at Oxford, the Prince became a different man.

After years of suppression and inhibition, the Prince craved companionship and friends after failing to make any in his early years. In 1861, on a gentle military service trip to Ireland, the Prince secretly spent three nights with the actress Nellie Clifden. His father, Prince Albert, soon found out about the news and travelled to reprimand him despite being ill, and died two weeks later.

Though not intrinsically linked, Queen Victoria never forgave Edward for that and blamed him for Albert’s death. The Queen became more embittered with her son than ever before and dreaded the day her “backward” and “frivolous” son would take over as King.

Prince Edward Baccarat Scandal

Edward, unperturbed, would go on to make a name for himself as a partyer and a womaniser. Despite marrying Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863, the Prince would go on to have relationships with countless women. The Prince was exhilarated by conversation with intelligent women, and though he had such a harsh and isolated upbringing, women loved to sit next to him for his conference and charisma.

His female tales would become legendary: there was Lady Susan Pelham-Clinton who he told to leave London after fathering his child, Giulla Barucci – “the greatest whore in the world” – who blackmailed Edward for £240 (£20,000 in today’s money) to keep quiet, the Green family who the Prince had to pay off and send to New Zealand, and the infamous divorce trial in 1870 when Edward would become the first Prince of Wales to attend court since the 15th Century.

In the court case, Edward was just a witness, but it led to him becoming deeply unpopular with the general public after his love letters were displayed in the national newspapers. The Queen’s resentment only grew and went on to entrust him with even less responsibility. As a result, Edward filled his life with women, shooting, racing, and gambling.

The Prince was a big cards player. He played high stakes against both the rich and people who couldn’t afford to lose, and though he was seen as an easy target for ordinary people, Edward was a fine player in his own right.

By 48, the Prince still had a juvenile personality. His womanising hadn’t stopped, his playboy lifestyle hadn’t stopped, and due to his continued limited influence and duty, Edward only found a real lust for life when partying.

But in September 1890, at an evening house party after watching the St. Leger Stakes Cup at Doncaster Races, the Prince’s life, and the life of the Monarchy, would change immeasurably, forever.

Colonel Gordon-Cumming, The Debauchee
william gordon cumming baccarat scandal

The Prince was joined at the party by no real exciting figures or friends, and even his mistress of a year, Daisy Brooke, had to pull out at the last minute. Edward, as a last-minute rallying call, invited an old friend, Lieutenant Colonel William Gordon-Cumming to liven up the event.

Gordon-Cumming was part of the Scots Fusillier Guards who fought in Sudan, India, South Africa, and Egypt receiving four medals for his courageous and extensive service.

Upon returning from Egypt in 1882, Gordon-Cumming became part of the British secret service where he became friends with the Prince of Wales. Like the Prince, Gordon-Cumming was a fellow womaniser. In 1890, the Sporting Times called him, “Possibly the handsomest man in London, and certainly the rudest.”

Gordon-Cumming was irresistible to women, but his misogyny ran straight through the centre of his being. His persistence, brazenness, and rakish style was lauded by his contemporaries and seemed to appeal to the female gentry too, but his dark side was often on show if things didn’t go his way. He aspired to “perforate” large numbers of the opposite sex, and when Lady Randolph Churchill’s sister once rebuffed him at a party, he spat, “silly little fool.”

Prince Edward and William Gordon-Cumming’s desires for the ladies was arguably what brought them together, but it would soon turn out to be the undoing of a typically masculine, upper-class friendship of the 19th century.

The story of the game of baccarat and the ensuing scandal continues in part two…

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