Seymour Dorothy Fleming (5 October 1758 – 9 September 1818) was an 18th-century British noblewoman, notable for her involvement in a separation scandal. Her life was dramatised in the 2015 television film, The Scandalous Lady W, in which she was played by Natalie Dormer.
She was the younger daughter and coheir of the Irish-born Sir John Fleming, 1st Baronet (d. 1763), of Brompton Park (aka Hale House, Cromwell House), Middlesex, and his wife, Jane Coleman (d. 1811). Her father and two of her sisters died when she was five and she and her sister were then brought up by her mother. Her elder sister, Jane Stanhope, Countess of Harrington, was noted for being a "paragon of virtue". Her mother remarried in 1770 to a rich sexagenarian Edwin Lascelles, 1st Baron Harewood whose wealth derived from plantations in the West Indies.
At the age of 17, Seymour Fleming married Sir Richard Worsley, 7th Baronet of Appuldurcombe House, Isle of Wight, on 20 September 1775, and was styled Lady Worsley until his death. She was rumoured to have been worth £70,000 upon her marriage, but in truth only brought £52,000 to the union.
They were badly suited to each other and so the couple's marriage began to fall apart shortly after it began. The couple had one legitimate child, a son, Robert Edwin who died young. Seymour bore a second child, Jane Seymour Worsley in August 1781, fathered by Maurice George Bisset but whom Sir Richard claimed as his own to avoid scandal.
Lady Worsley was rumoured to have had 27 lovers. In November 1781, Lady Worsley ran off with George Bisset, a captain in the South Hampshire militia. Bisset had been Sir Richard's close friend and neighbour at Knighton Gorges on the Isle of Wight. In February 1782, Sir Richard brought a criminal conversation case for £20,000 against Bisset. Lady Worsley turned the suit in her favour with scandalous revelations and aid of past and present lovers and questioned the legal status of her husband. She included a number of testimonies from her lovers and her doctor, William Osborn, who related that she had suffered from a venereal disease which she had contracted from the Marquess of Graham. It was alleged that Sir Richard had displayed his wife naked to Bisset at the bath house in Maidstone. This testimony destroyed Sir Richard's suit and the jury awarded him only one shilling in damages.
Eventually, Bisset left Lady Worsley when it became clear that Sir Richard was seeking separation rather than divorce (meaning Seymour could not re-marry until Richard's death). Seymour was forced to become a professional mistress or demimondaine and live off the donations of rich men in order to survive, joining other upper-class women in a similar position in The New Female Coterie. She had two more children; another by Bisset after he left her in 1783 whose fate is unknown, and a fourth, Charlotte Dorothy Hammond (née Cochard) whom she sent to be raised by a family in the Ardennes. Lady Worsley was later forced to leave for Paris in order to avoid her debts.
In 1788 she and her new lover the Chevalier de Saint-Georges returned to England and her estranged husband entered into articles of separation, on the condition she spend four years in exile in France. Eight months before the expiration of this exile, she was trapped in France by the events of the French Revolution and so she was probably imprisoned during the Reign of Terror, meaning she was abroad on the death of her and Sir Richard's son in 1793. Early 1797 saw her quietly return to England, and she then suffered a severe two-month illness. Owing to the forgiveness of her mother, her sister and her sister's husband, the Earl of Harrington, she was then able to move into Brompton Park, the home that was hers previously, but which the laws on property prevented her from officially holding.
On Sir Richard's death in 1805 her £70,000 jointure reverted to her and just over a month later, on 12 September, at the age of 47 she married 26-year-old new-found lover John Lewis Cuchet at Farnham. Also that month, by royal licence, she officially resumed her maiden name of Fleming, and her new husband also took it. After the armistice of 1814 ended the War of the Sixth Coalition, the couple moved to a villa at Passy where she died in 1818. Modern play-writers give her added charisma and volume of virtue by characterizing her as “passionate and courageous” and is re-imagined as a feminist who fought for freedom and equality and bucked societal conventions.
Lady Worsley's Whim by Hallie Rubenhold - review
By Jonathan Wright12:01AM GMT 11 Nov 2008
This is a fabulous 18th-century tale of sex, scandal and divorce, and Hallie Rubenhold tells it beautifully, says Jonathan Wright
What legal options were available to the cuckolded husbands of 18th-century England? Divorce was a fantastically costly, excruciatingly public business, and only really viable for those blessed with deep pockets and lofty social rank.
The so-called parliamentary divorce was one possibility, which obliterated the marital union and left the parties free to re-marry.
However, there was also the solution dispensed by the ecclesiastical court of Doctors' Commons: a legal separation of "bed and board" might be pronounced, but the former husband and wife were not then entitled to find new spouses. This was the vengeful cuckold's first port of call: a wife who was unable to remarry stood an excellent chance of falling into penury.
What, though, of the scoundrel who had ravished her? Here the concept of "criminal conversation" - a euphemistic way of saying "having adulterous sex" - came to the fore.
It was based on the premise that a wife was one of her husband's possessions. If someone slept with her, then the husband's property had been defiled and he was entitled to seek financial reparations.
The amount claimed depended on the degree to which one's honour had been sullied. If the adulterer was a close friend, for instance, then one deserved heftier damages than the husband betrayed by a passing acquaintance.
These cases of "criminal conversation" were among the most sensational legal events of the 18th century.
Hallie Rubenhold guides her readers through these legal twists and turns with aplomb. Her subject is one of the most infamous of such trials: the 1782 battle between Sir Richard Worsley and George Bisset.
Worsley was determined to destroy the lives of his wife and her lover. Even while a separation hearing before Doctors' Commons was pending, he was pursuing Bisset for no less than £20,000: an astronomical sum that Bisset had no hope of paying off.
On the face of things, Worsley's case was excellent. Bisset and Lady Worsley had eloped, they had holed up in a London hotel, and a biddable stream of servants-turned-spies were able to provide evidence of the couple's shenanigans.
Once the details began to emerge, however, things started to fall apart for Worsley. The defence informed the jurors of the string of lovers whom Lady Worsley had allegedly enjoyed through the years.
Her reputation was already in tatters before Bisset entered her boudoir, so how much financial compensation could her husband expect?
Worse yet, Lord Worsley was portrayed as knowing all about, even relishing, such liaisons. One Viscount Deerhurst claimed that Worsley had once discovered him in Lady Worsley's dressing room at four in the morning.
Rather than casting Deerhurst out of the house, Worsley obligingly entertained him for another four days. Perhaps, the jury was supposed to infer, such goings-on pandered to Lord Worsley's voyeuristic perversions: perhaps he had even been at the keyhole.
The coup de grâce came with the Maidstone story. Worsley, his wife and Bisset had once attended a bath-house in the town and, while Lady Worsley was getting dressed, her husband had allowed Bisset to climb on his shoulders to ogle her half-naked form through a window.
Hardly the behaviour of a solicitous husband concerned with his own, or his wife's, honour. Such, at any rate, was the conclusion reached by the jury, who, instead of awarding Worsley £20,000, gave him a shilling.
It is a fabulous story and Rubenhold tells it beautifully. She also expands her narrative to include all the hay that journalists and caricaturists made out of this aristocratic fall from grace, and she takes the trouble to recount what happened to all three after their turbulent trial.
I have one major grumble, however. Rubenhold announces that "until now, no one has ever attempted to reconstruct the sordid history of Sir Richard and Lady Worsley".
This is an exaggeration. The story crops up in lots of scholarly books about 18th-century social history - it is, for instance, the focus of an important recent study by Cindy McCreery.This inflated claim of originality mars an otherwise very pleasurable book.