Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey (16 June 1875 – 14 March 1905), styled Lord Paget until 1880 and Earl of Uxbridge between 1880 and 1898, and also known as "Toppy", was a British Peer who was notable during his short life for squandering his inheritance on a lavish social life and accumulating massive debts. Regarded as the "black sheep" of the family, he was nicknamed "the dancing marquess" for his habit of performing "sinuous, sexy, snake-like dances".
The Complete Peerage says that he "seems only to have existed for the purpose of giving a melancholy and unneeded illustration of the truth that a man with the finest prospects, may, by the wildest folly and extravagance, as Sir Thomas Browne says, 'foully miscarry in the advantage of humanity, play away an uniterable life, and have lived in vain.
Paget was the eldest son of the 4th Marquess by his father's second wife, Blanche Mary Boyd. Rumours persisted, however, that his biological father was the French actor Benoît-Constant Coquelin, a rumour that gained currency when, after the death of his mother in 1877, when he was two years old, Paget was raised by Coquelin's sister in Paris until he was eight. His stepmother, from 1880, was an American, Mary Livingston King, the widow of the Hon Henry Wodehouse.
He attended Eton College, later receiving private tuition, and enlisted as a Lieutenant in the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers; on 20 January 1898 he married his cousin Lilian Florence Maud Chetwynd (1876—1962). Upon the death of his father on 13 October 1898, he inherited his title and the family estates with about 30,000 acres (120 km²) in Staffordshire, Dorset, Anglesey and Derbyshire, providing an annual income of £110,000.
Paget swiftly acquired a reputation for a lavish and spendthrift manner of living. He used his money to buy jewellery and furs, and to throw extravagant parties and flamboyant theatrical performances. He converted the chapel at the family's country seat of Plas Newydd, Anglesey, into a 150-seat theatre, named the Gaiety Theatre. Here he took the lead role, opulently costumed, in productions ranging from pantomime and comedy to performances of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband and Shakespeare's Henry V. For three years he took his company on tour around Britain and Europe. His wife disapproved of his lifestyle and obtained a decree nisi of divorce on 7 November 1900; it was later annulled due to nonconsummation, according to Lady Anglesey's grandson by her second marriage, the historian Christopher Simon Sykes. The breakdown of his marriage effectively gave Paget more freedom to enjoy his self-indulgent lifestyle. By this stage he had already begun to mortgage his estates to raise money.
On 10 September 1901, Paget's French valet Julian Gault took the opportunity of his employer's absence at the theatre to steal jewellery to the value of £50,000. At the time, Paget was living in the Walsingham House Hotel in London. Gault, who was later arrested at Dover, testified in court that he had been instructed to steal the jewels by a French woman of his acquaintance called Mathilde (who had taken the jewels to France and was never found). Although Gault's testimony was believed to be true, he pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey on 22 October and was sentenced to five years imprisonment.
Paget's outrageous and flamboyant lifestyle, combined with the breakdown of his marriage, have led many (including the homosexual reformer H. Montgomery Hyde) to assume that he was gay. The performance historian Viv Gardner, however, believes that he was "a classic narcissist: the only person he could love and make love to was himself, because, for whatever reason, he was 'unlovable'".
By 1904, despite his inheritance and income, Paget had accumulated debts of £544,000 and on 11 June was declared bankrupt. His lavish wardrobe, particularly his dressing gowns from Charvet, and jewels were sold to pay creditors, the jewels alone realising £80,000.
In 1905, Paget died in Monte Carlo following a long illness, with his ex-wife by his side, and his remains were returned to St Edwen's Church, Llanedwen, for burial. The Times reported that despite all that was known of him, he remained much liked by the people of Bangor who regretted to hear of his death. Lilian, Marchioness of Anglesey, married, in 1909, John Francis Grey Gilliat, a banker, by whom she had three children.
The title passed to his cousin Charles Henry Alexander Paget, who destroyed all the papers of the 5th Marquess and converted the Gaiety Theatre back into a chapel. It was at least in part owing to the debts left by the 5th Marquess that the family's principal English estate at Beaudesert, Staffordshire, had to be broken up and sold in the 1930s.
Eat your heart out Elton, here's the most eccentric English aristocrat ever.
He blew half-a-billion pounds billion on jewelled costumes, pink poodles and a car with perfumed exhaust. But Henry Paget was no rock prima donna. Anewstage showbrings to life the most eccentric English aristocrat ever.
With his flowing peacock robes and jewelled highlights in his long, silky hair, Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, adored attention.
Dressed in outlandish clothes, his willowy figure could be spotted walking along fashionable Piccadilly in central London with a snow white, pink-ribboned poodle under his arm.
Despite his wealth and lavish lifestyle, Henry Paget died aged just 30
And he was so rich and self-indulgent that he had his motor cars modified to spout exhaust gases perfumed with patchouli and 'l'eau d'Espagne.'
Most outrageous of all, he loved to perform sinuous, sexy, snake-like dances in front of astonished audiences around Europe, earning him the sobriquet, the Dancing Marquess.
Now his extraordinary life is the subject of a dance extravaganza, called Gloria Days, to be premiered at the end of the month before going on national tour.
What emerges is the tale of an aristocrat whose sheer flamboyance, extravagance and love of the limelight made him not only the most colourful figure of his age, but of any era - a man who makes Elton John look the height of modesty and restraint.
In just a few years, the Dancing Marquess blew the equivalent of almost half a billion pounds on his eccentric lifestyle, acquiring gems by the fistful and a wardrobe of such opulence that it included 260 pairs of kidskin gloves, 200 gold scarf pins and 100 tailored dressing gowns.
Yet he died aged just 30 "pathetically alone", as one obituary put it, leaving debts so high that his family destroyed all record of his life to try to erase the stain on their name.
That the Dancing Marquess was the scion of a military family made his lifestyle even more extraordinary: his great-grandfather, the 1st Marquess, earned his title after his right leg was blown off at the Battle of Waterloo.
But what would this battle-scarred soldier have made of the tender lad who, a few generations later, came into the title and preferred dancing and dressing up to fighting?
There was a lot about the 5th Marquess to raise eyebrows, right from the start of his life in 1875.
Rumours abounded that his mother had strayed from the marital bed and his father was not a British milord but a flamboyant French classical actor, Benoit-Constant Coquelin.
The fact that, for six years after his mother's sudden death, the young Henry Cyril was brought up in Paris by the actor's sister made the stories all the more plausible.
That he had grown up in France at all, prey to all those "foreign" influences, was explanation enough (for his many detractors) for his subsequent behaviour.
Aged eight, Henry was brought back to live at his father's Gothic-style mansion in Anglesey, north Wales, with just an elderly nanny and an army of pets as companions.
He was an isolated child, highly-strung and rich - stinking rich.
The family's estates stretched to 30,000 acres, not that vast among the aristocracy of 19th-century Britain.
But much of it was in the Midlands and had an abundance of sought-after minerals to be mined.
The income each year was £110,000, equivalent to £55million today.
And it was this that the 23-year-old ingenue inherited when his father died in 1898.
In terms of earnings, he was four David Beckhams or six Kate Mosses.
He could have paid the wages of his own Premier League football team, substitutes and all, if such a thing had existed.
Instead, he poured his fortune into Van Kleef and Arpels and other high-class jewellers - and kept on pouring obsessively until all his money (and much more) was gone.
Historian Christopher Simon Sykes observes: "Soon there was not a jeweller in Europe who did not know that if he acquired some rare and fine gem, he would find a buyer in the Marquess of Anglesey."
He was now married, having wed his cousin Lily in what was probably a marriage of convenience that unlocked restrictions on the family money.
The romantic version is that he wooed her with his soft nature.
If so, she was in for more softness than she bargained for.
Lily was beautiful with pale green eyes and red-gold Titian hair, as if she had just stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting.
She may have been everything the Marquess wanted to be himself.
Effeminate, he wore dozens of rings on his long, dainty fingers and used powder to blanche his face.
As a wedding present, he bought his new wife a galaxy of gems.
Then, on their honeymoon, when she stopped and gazed at a jeweller's window display in Paris, he went inside and bought the whole lot for her.
He then made her wear them to the races, which embarrassed her. She did not like such public shows of opulence.
In private, too, she was embarrassed.
Her husband liked to view his emeralds, his rubies, his diamonds displayed on her naked body. But he didn't lay a finger on her.
There was no sex.
"He just stared," says Sykes.
The marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation.
Many contemporaries thought of Henry as homosexual, a dangerous reputation to have at a time when the playwright Oscar Wilde's spirit and health were being broken on the convicts' treadmill in Reading jail.
A German sex almanac of Europe listed the Marquess as such, and gay campaigners have since laid claim to him.
Some see him as a brave man who challenged and subverted Edwardian notions of class, gender and decorum, but his true sexuality is still a mystery.
There were no known lovers, and Viv Gardner, professor of theatre studies at Manchester University and a researcher behind the new stage production of his life, sees him as "a classic narcissist: the only person he could love and make love to was himself".
She thinks he may well have died a virgin.
The Marquess saw himself as a man of the theatre.
He had grown up in that milieu in Paris and he attempted to re-create something similar in Wales. At vast expense, the chapel at the family home was converted into his very own theatre, The Gaiety, with seats for 150.
It was modelled on the Opera House at Dresden.
Performances were, at first, in front of the servants, but then he hired a professional theatre company from London to bring Aladdin to Anglesey, tempting star actors with vastly inflated salaries.
He reserved a small but colourful part for himself, which required constant changes into different silk costumes, all sparkling with turquoise jewels and diamonds, and a head-dress of ostrich feathers.
A platoon of dressers was needed for each performance.
In other shows he was Little Boy Blue, aglow with diamonds from head to foot.
And in most performances he would have the stage to himself at some point to flit and fly as he performed his "Butterfly Dance".
Later, he took the company on tour, with scenery and an orchestra.
Fifty people and five truckloads of luggage, costumes and theatre paraphernalia set off around Europe, the Dancing Marquess sitting proudly in his own car surrounded by baggage and hugging his jewel case containing £30,000 (£15million now) of rocks.
The car was built to resemble a Pullman railway carriage, with four leather armchairs in each corner. Polished mahogany woodwork and Louis XV-style decorations on the ceiling.
They were on the road for three years, playing pantomimes, some Shakespeare and, daringly, an Oscar Wilde play.
Afterwards, the Marquess, for whom photography was another obsession, would hand out expensive personal postcards to his audiences.
One had him stretched out on a chaise longue with his pet Pekinese.
But the spending could not last.
The moment he had come into his inheritance he had raised ready cash by mortgaging his estates. That gave him £250,000 (£125million in today's terms).
It was soon gone, but instead of stopping, he went on spending, piling up debts before, in 1904, tipping over into bankruptcy.
He owed £544,000 (equivalent to more than a quarter of a billion pounds today). Jewellers headed the list of creditors - £26,651 (£13 million) to Morris Wartski, £21,300 (£10 million) to Dobson's, and so on.
There was booty to repay some of them.
At the castle, trustees appointed by his creditors found treasure chests of pearls, gold cigarette cases studded with rubies and the world's biggest collection of walking sticks, the handles thickly encrusted with amethysts and emeralds.
It all went on sale in what was the auction of the century, lasting 40 days and with 17,000 lots going under the hammer.
Even the Marquess's dogs were sold - his chows, pugs, collies and terriers. "Gentlemen, I am selling at a shilling dogs for which pounds were paid," the auctioneer announced.
One little toy-breed stood shivering as if in dread of a future without a scented lap to lie on while being stroked by soft, jewelled fingers.
And once the dogs had gone, their special silk coats, embroidered in silver with the Paget family crest, went, too.
So did the horses, the cars, the carriages and the yachts.
The Marquess's boots were laid out - leather ones, crocodile-skin, skating boots, suede shoes and silk tapestry slippers - "a complete collection of everything that could be strapped, buckled or laced upon the foot of man", as a local newspaper put it.
The list rolled on.
Thirty of the finest silk pyjamas, 100 dressing gowns, suits of every colour and kind (most unworn), smoking jackets, florid waistcoats, 260 pairs of white kid gloves, 280 sets of socks and 100 overcoats.
A nation of newspaper readers giggled at the revelations of mad, aristocratic excess, but Anglesey Castle was left empty except for a few old servants, and their future was not guaranteed. The Marquess's was, however.
A deal with his creditors left him with a still generous £3,000 (£150,000) a year to live on, and he moved to France and stayed there for the rest of his life.
It was there, in the Grand Hotel of the northern resort of Dinard, that the Daily Mail of the time found him and reported its discovery under the heading Splendid Pauper.
The Marquess "lives a retired life amid perfumes, hair tonics and cheap jewellery".
He was dressed in a tweed suit, which he claimed he always preferred to the exotic way he was described in the papers.
Peering through his pince-nez glasses, he complained about how the Press always got him wrong.
"I never received anyone in my life attired in a purple dressing gown and sipping a liqueur.
"I may have a hobby for collecting pins and rings, but I never wore more than one of the former and four of the latter at the same time. And if I do use scent, I am not the only living person who does, am I?"
He maintained his fall from grace (his "eclipse") was temporary.
He was considering "the usual offers" from America.
He expected to get his theatre back in two or three years' time. He was thinking of writing a book.
But five months later the Marquess was dead, carried off by pneumonia at the Hotel Royale in Monte Carlo.
Lily, still his wife since their divorce had been rescinded, was at his side.
The obituaries were savage.
"Sad end of a wasted life," was this paper's verdict.
His dressing-up for theatre performances was "simply nauseous", his spending "wanton folly".
Other papers emphasised how un-English his behaviour was, and put this down to his childhood in France.
The Daily Dispatch felt he was the victim of a disturbed upbringing that left him feeling inadequate and unloved. It made him "a strange, repellent spirit, opaquely incomprehensible and pathetically alone".
In six years he had run through the equivalent of £400million today, and left little behind.
But the significance of the Dancing Marquess is that he was one of the last of his kind.
The Britain in which he lived was the fiefdom of an elite of rich aristocratic landowners who believed in their own "superior fitness" to rule.
Patrician, privileged and pleased with themselves, they spent freely on houses and entertainment, living in supreme, selfish comfort.
The Marquess was the epitome of this, taken to an absurd degree. But the era was ending.
Death duties were introduced in 1894, and though the rates seem low by today's standards - starting at 1per cent on estates of £500 (£250,000 today) and rising to 8 per cent - the taxing of inherited wealth for the first time was a marker.
What taxation began, World War I finished, changing the dynamics of society for ever.
A new aristocracy would emerge, one based on wealth from business rather than land, on achievement rather than bloodline.
In time, there would be a new social order, in which plain Reg Dwight from Watford could make it to the top to become Sir Elton John.
The Dancing Marquess may be seen as the last bright spark of the age of unrestrained privilege among the old landed aristocracy, but his spirit of narcissism and excess lives on in our own era of showbusiness hedonism.
in Mail online 27 October 2007
Would you trust this man with your fortune?
Eccentric, extravagant and outrageous, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey was a jewel among aristocrats. Viv Gardner on recreating the short life of a troubled outsider
The Guardian, Wednesday 10 October 2007
"I must apologise for not appearing before you in peacock-blue plush wearing a diamond and sapphire tiara, a turquoise dog-collar, ropes of pearls and slippers studded with Burma rubies; but I prefer, and always have preferred, Scotch tweed."
This is how Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquis of Anglesey, presented himself in an interview with the Daily Mail, shortly after his bankruptcy, and six months before his death in Monte Carlo at the age of 29. The reporter was "astonished" to find a man "so extraordinarily as other men are ... whose tastes and lack of intellect have been enormously exaggerated".
Astonishment was a common reaction to the Marquis. The public couldn't get enough of him. This was a man who frittered away a huge family fortune, mainly on costumes and jewels; who paraded through London with a poodle dressed in pink ribbons tucked under his arm; who amazed his audiences with his sinuous "butterfly dance"; who modified his car so that the exhaust pipe sprayed perfume.
Most of the Marquis's effects were sold from his family estates soon after he was declared bankrupt, and all his personal papers were destroyed by the Paget family after his death. Even today, the family are reticent about their forebear, who brought devastation and distress not just to the Pagets and their property, but to their servants, tenants, neighbours and tradesmen.
Not surprisingly, the 5th Marquis fascinated his contemporaries. A Mrs Anne Jones of Bangor kept an album of photographic postcards of him, which she eventually donated to the museum at Bangor. Clough Williams-Ellis, architect and founder of the village of Portmeirion, remembered him as "a sort of apparition - a tall, elegant and bejewelled creature, with wavering elegant gestures, reminding one rather of an Aubrey Beardsley illustration come to life". Music hall performer Vesta Tilley, meanwhile, recalled wearing, in one of her performances as the glass-eye-sporting character Algy, "a vest of delicately flowered silk, one of the dozens which I bought at the sale of the effects of the late Marquis of Anglesey". The sexologist Iwan Bloch included Paget in his study of 20th-century sexuality, noting that, in the early 1900s, the Marquis was to be found walking the streets of Mayfair, perfumed and beringed, carrying the aforementioned poodle under his arm.
My interest in the Marquis began with a family visit to Plas Newydd, the Anglesey home of the Paget family, now partly owned by the National Trust. At the end of the tour of the house, with its stunning views of the Menai Straits and exhibits dedicated to the first Marquis, who lost his leg at the battle of Waterloo, we came across a series of black-and-white photographs of a willowy, moustachioed man covered with jewellery, in a variety of elegant and extravagant poses - a man known as the Dancing Marquis. This was the starting point of a journey that has taken me all the way from Anglesey, via numerous archives (my natural habitat as a performance historian), to a dance studio in Berlin.
A black glass floor, criss-crossed like paving stones. A posed figure. A hand held out, finger pointed as if to earth. Water, mirror, Narcissus's pool. A void.
Here in Berlin, I have been working on a solo performance piece based on the figure of the Dancing Marquis, with the performance artist Marc Rees and German choreographers Jutta Hell and Dieter Baumann.
The process of transformation from fact to artwork - from past to present tense - is challenging. The recorded facts about Paget are fragmentary and elusive; the suppositions are numberless. What we do know is that Henry Cyril Paget was born in Paris on June 16 1875 to Henry Paget, Earl of Uxbridge, later 4th Marquis of Anglesey, and his wife, Blanche Mary Curwen Boyd. They had married in 1874, and Paget's mother died when he was scarcely two years old. On her death, he went to live with the French actor Benoît-Constant Coquelin - who was rumoured to be his real father. Paget referred to Coquelin's sister as his aunt throughout his life, and she was with him when he died.
At the age of eight, Paget left Paris and was taken to live at Plas Newydd, his father having married for a third time, to an American heiress. His childhood in north Wales seems to have been particularly isolated. One Welsh friend wrote after Paget's death that he remembered the young earl's arrival at the house: "He was then about eight years of age and of delicate appearance. Having at the age of two lost his mother, Toppy, as he was called by his intimate friends, never enjoyed that influence so prized by and so valuable to all, that of one's unselfish loving mother. An aged Scotch nurse of pious life was the first person I remember to have been his companion, and often they would be seen walking or driving in a pony carriage."
This "friend" then goes on to a theme common to all the Marquis's obituaries, laying the blame for his notorious "difference" from other men on his foreign upbringing. "Little time was spent with British boys of his own age," he writes. "Unfortunate surroundings in youth tended to make him perhaps a little un-English."
Paget missed his own lavish, week-long 21st birthday celebrations due to ill health, and a cold could put him to bed for weeks. He learned painting and singing in Germany and spoke fluent French, good Russian and grammatical Welsh. At some time, rather incredibly, he also served as a lieutenant in the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
In 1898, Paget married his cousin, Lilian Chetwynd. The marriage was annulled two years later - stories abound as to why - but the annulment was changed to a legal separation in 1901. He succeeded to the title of 5th Marquis in 1898, and inherited substantial property on Anglesey and in Staffordshire, with an annual income of over £110,000 a year (roughly £8m in today's money).
By 1904, however, the Marquis had bankrupted the estate, spending thousands of pounds on jewels, furs, cars, boats, perfumes and potions, toys, medicines, dogs, horses and theatricals on a scale unimagined even among the profligate Edwardian aristocracy. Everything was sold to meet his debts, down to the contents of the potting shed and a parrot in a brass cage.
Paget "retired" to France on an income of £3,000 a year, accompanied only by a manservant, his adopted child (a dark-skinned baby who was later returned to her birth parents) and her nurse. They went first to Dinan in Brittany, and finally to Monte Carlo, where Paget died in 1905, his former wife and Mme Coquelin at his bedside.
We have been reading the catalogues from the bankruptcy sales and wondering at the endless list of items the Marquis had accumulated: hundreds of walking sticks, baubles and gewgaws. Marc is reading the list out loud as he paces the glass floor, when suddenly the strike of his heel emerges as the auctioneer's gavel. The catalogues become the musical text to which he moves.
The Marquis had, among other extravagant acts, converted the family chapel into a theatre where he held free performances for tenants, servants, neighbours and visitors - shows by amateurs or touring professional companies, in which he himself often took part. However, in 1901 he went further, "stealing" a professional company that had been visiting neighbouring Llandudno, appropriating their star players and paying them salaries beyond their wildest dreams.
The Marquis spent the next three years touring with his company around Britain and Europe. Photographs show him in a number of roles - mostly pantomime and musical comedy, though he did once play a convict. He also played Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband, at a time when, five years after Oscar Wilde's trial and imprisonment, many refused to perform Wilde's plays. According to Alex Keith, Paget's actor-manager, "the part might have been written for him, he went through it so naturally".
Paget was, according to one obituary, an actor "of some real merit". The obituary goes on to relate how "upon tour he travelled in great state and at considerable expense". Historian Christopher Simon Sykes describes how the company "travelled with specially painted scenery and their own orchestra, and many of their props were exact copies of furniture from Anglesey Castle [the renamed Plas Newydd]." The company - which was, at its largest, some 50 strong - required five trucks for the baggage and scenery. The Marquis travelled in a powerful Pullman motor car with a personal staff of four. When at Anglesey Castle, he kept actors in lodgings in the neighbouring village of Llanfair.
Each of Paget's costumes was specially designed and made to order, either by couturiers or by the London costumiers Morris Angel. One jewel-encrusted costume for a part in Aladdin was reportedly worth at least £100,000; another, for Henry V, at least £40,000. Alex Keith recalled that his changes of costume were so frequent that he required "a small army of dressers".
In many of his shows, the Marquis would entertain the audience in the interval with his performance of a "Butterfly Dance after the manner of Miss Loie Fuller" - a dancer known for her serpentine movements. This vignette earned the Dancing Marquis his nickname.
None of us are quite sure what Fuller's serpentine dance was. We watch snatches of original footage from the early 1900s on YouTube. The eye and mind widen as we watch what might be Fuller herself in an extraordinary fluid and muscular manipulation of yards of silk, using flexible wands to extend her reach. Marc imitates the movements, which are all in the arms, shoulders and upper body.
The Marquis was obsessed with photographing himself. He owned a number of cameras and an early domestic film viewer, a Kinora "mutoscope", which was later sold along with 17 boxes of films, including some depicting the Marquis doing his butterfly dance. He would hand out postcards of himself to his audiences; Mrs Jones's collection of these include many of him posing in costume or in his dressing room, and others of him on a chaise-longue with his pet Pekingese, or at the wheel of one of his five cars (complete with perfume-spraying exhaust).
Each picture is a carefully composed image, a miniature performance. Yet they show the Marquis apparently at his most relaxed. The photographs of him in performance are, by contrast, rather awkward. It seems that in these posed pictures, Paget transformed himself into an image, mediated either through the photograph or through an audience's eyes, that was more pleasurable to him than his real self.
The almost uniformly negative obituaries describe a physically inadequate, emotionally and socially isolated figure. Although Paget was hugely generous, and inspired genuine affection in many of his tenants and servants, he transgressed almost all the norms of the aristocratic world. Even the most perceptive and sympathetic of the obituaries, from the Daily Dispatch, points to "the appalling fact that from his earliest recollection he had been one of those extraordinarily isolated creatures who have never known affection. From boyhood to death no one had ever loved him ... [from which he developed] a strange and repellent spirit opaquely incomprehensible and pathetically alone ... Over all was the self-conscious, half-haughty timidity of the man who knows he is not as other men."