The Mystery of Governor Cornbury
Edward Hyde, Earl of Cornbury, was Governor of New York and New Jersey from 1702-1708. He is known for his role in the creation of King’s College (known today as Columbia University). Governor Cornbury is one of the early founders of the University, and there is still debate today over whether he is the original founder or if that role should be accredited to Colonel Lewis Morris. While Colonel Morris came up with the idea of starting a college in New York, Governor Cornbury had the tools to start one, and was able to award 6 acres of land to the college (McCaughey 3).
Governor Cornbury, however, is quite a controversial character in British-American History. He was accused of corruption by “squandering public funds and tax revenues for private purposes” by New York and New Jersey residents (McCaughey 3). He was also accused of bribing members of the New York and New Jersey assembly. Additionally, there were widespread rumors that that the Governor wore women’s clothing on a frequent basis, which remains to be one of his most disputed characteristics. In 1708, he was recalled due to these accusations (McCaughey 3).
Today, some historians still maintain that he was a cross-dresser and a possible transvestite. The greatest evidence of this accusation is a portrait in the New York Historical Society of the earl of Cornbury, clearly dressed in women’s clothing and wearing a women’s wig. For an easier comparison, I have attached both the portrait of Governor Cornbury and a painting of Colonel Lewis Morris, who is dressed in the typical male attire of an elite British-American during that time period. The Governor is clearly wearing a women’s dress as illustrated by its corset top, flowy sleeves , highlighted waist, and pulled back hair. Colonel Lewis Morris wears a curly, white-haired, male wig on his head. He has on a simple, structured jacket, and a scarf. Morris sits up, back straightened, with one arm stiff and the other one slightly bent. His body is at an angle and faces away from the painter, with his head turned and only his chest showing. Comparatively, Cornbury’s stance is quite feminine. He sits on a chair, fully-facing the painter, with both arms casually draped over the chair and on his lap.
In “Lord Cornbury Redressed: The Governor and the Problem Portrait,” Patricia Bonomi claims that Lord Cornbury wasn’t actually a cross-dresser and consequently questions whether the subject in the portrait described is really of Lord Cornbury. She believes that these accusations and rumors were created and kept alive by Colonel Lewis Morris (Bonomi 106).
Bonomi argues that the tales of Lord Cornbury have simply been recycled down from author to author, with no one actually checking their sources. She asserts that while the subject in the portrait is most certainly wearing women’s attire she questions whether the subject is actually that of a man, specifically, Lord Cornbury (106).
The author cites a conversation in 1796 between three elite Englishmen; Lord Glenbervie, Lord Orford, and George James “ Gilly” Williams, as the original time when Lord Cornbury’s name was first attached to that portrait. Lord Glenbervie recorded the conversation in his diary, which was published in 1928. The three men are discussing the eccentric Lord Cornbury and Lord Glenbervie writes, “Mr. Williams has seen a picture of him at Sir Herbert Packington’s in Worcestire, in a gown, stays, tucker, long ruffles, cap, etc.” (Bickley, 77). While the painting referenced is almost certainly the one discussed here (the description matches and it was purchased from the Packington family in 1952), it is still unclear if it is Lord Cornbury in the image.
This recorded conversation is one of the very few sources we have linking this painting to Lord Cornbury, and it is a secondary source at best. This conversation took place 70 years after Lord Cornbury’s death, so none of these men knew him personally and therefore they couldn’t truly attest to his tendency to cross-dress. Additionally, these men were known to be “gossipy,” so much so that the editor of Glenbervie’s diaries said that “his stories should be viewed with a “reservation of judgement’” (Bonomi 109).
The portrait was “officially” labeled as Lord Cornbury in 1867, when it was displayed at the South Kensington Museum in London. The description accompanying the portrait mentioned Lord Cornbury’s affection for donning women’s clothes, and cited historian Agnes Strickland as the source. Strickland’s sole basis for this description was a letter written in 1714 when the sender, a German diplomat, mentions a rumor he heard about Lord Cornbury as a cross-dresser. While this isn’t a very accepted source, once the name was paired with the painting in 1867, the story began to circulate itself, despite its lack of legitimate evidence (Bonomi 111).
Robert Gibson, from the National Portrait Gallery in London and an expert on the Claredon Collection (which includes this painting), said that he was “certain, that the so-called portrait of Lord Cornbury” was actually of a, “perfectly straightforward British provincial portraits of a rather plain woman c. 1710” (Bonomi 113).
There is also some debate as to how a portrait of Cornbury would’ve ended up at the Pakington estate when there is no known close link between the Hyde and Pakington families. In fact, there is a recorded inventory of the Packington Household taken in 1786, which makes no mention of this particularly unusual painting but does list multiple paintings of unidentified women (Bonomi 116).
The mystery of Governor Cornbury, the cross-dresser, may remain truly unsolved forever. But as evidenced by multiple examples in this paper, I do not believe that the portrait hanging the New York Historical Society is of Governor Cornbury. I agree with Robert Gibson, and I think the painting is actually of some plain looking woman who has unfortunately been mistaken for a man for three centuries. Hopefully this mistake will be corrected soon, and that painting will stop serving as “evidence” of Lord Cornbury’s supposed affinity for cross-dressing.
Colonel Lewis Morris: Supposedly Governor Cornbury:
Bonomi, Patricia U. “Lord Cornbury Redressed: The Governor and the Problem Portrait.” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Volume 51, Issue 1 (Jan. 1994). Pp. 106 -108
McCaughey, Robert A. “Stand, Columbia.”
Oct. 9, 1796, the Diaries of Sylvester Doublas (Lord Glenbervie), ed. Francis Bickley, 2 vols. (London, 1938), I, 76-77.