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Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury

Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, known as Lord Cornbury (November 28, 1661 - March 31, 1723) was Governor of New York and New Jersey and perhaps best known for being that which he never was: America's first transvestite governor.

- Lord Cornbury...not! -

Born to Henry Hyde (1638-1709) and his wife Theodosia Capell (bp. 1640-1662), he matriculated at Oxford January 23, 1674/5 and entered the Royal Regiment of Dragoons, became a Tory Member of Parliament for Wiltshire from 1685-1687 and 1689-96 and for Christchurch 1695-1701. He was Master of the Horse to Prince George of Denmark, and Page of honour to King James II at his Coronation. He was one of the first commanders to desert the king in 1688, taking with him as many troops as he could.

He became Governor of New York and New Jersey from 1701 to 1708, in which position he earned a very foul repute. It is said that his character and conduct were equally abhorred in both hemispheres. He was prisoner for debt at the time of his father's death. He was Envoy Extraordinary to Hannover in 1714. On July 10, 1688, in a clandestine ceremony, he married Catherine, daughter of Henry O'Brien (styled Lord O'Brien) and his wife Catherine, in her own right Baroness Clifton of Leighton Bromswold. His wife, who on her mother's death in 1702 became Baroness Clifton of Leighton Bromswold, died in New York August 11, 1706 and is buried at Trinity Church in New York City.

Lord Cornbury died at Chelsea, in obscurity and debt, and was buried April 5, 1723 in Westminster Abbey. By his daughter Theodosia, who married John Bligh, 1st Earl of Darnley[?], he is ancestor of many alive today, including actor Cary Elwes.

Cornbury came to be regarded in the historical literature as a moral profligate, sunk in corruption: possibly the worst governor Britain ever imposed on an American colony. The early accounts claim he took bribes and plundered the public treasury. Nineteenth century historian George Bancroft said that Cornbury illustrated the worst form of the English aristocracy's "arrogance, joined to intellectual imbecility". Later historians characterize him as a "degenerate and pervert who is said to have spent half of his time dressed in women's clothes", a "fop and a wastrel". He is said to have delivered a "flowery panegyric on his wife's ears" after which he invited every gentleman present to feel precisely how shell-like they were; to have misappropriated 1500 meant for the defense of New York Harbor, and, scandalously, to have dressed in women's clothing and lurked "behind trees to pounce, shrieking with laughter, on his victims".

Patricia U. Bonimi, in her book The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America re-examined these assertions, and found them to be questionable and based on very little evidence. Three colonials, all members of a faction opposed to Cornbury, wrote four letters between 1707 and 1709 discussing a rumor that Governor Cornbury wore women's clothes. There are also some early documents that might be cited to support charges of having taken bribes or misappropriated government funds: but there the contemporary evidence ends.

Some of the other tales (that of the ears, and that Cornbury had vowed to wear women's clothes one month a year), were written fifty years after the supposed events had occurred, and some of the tales that were made to justify them (e.g. that he dressed as a woman because he was the Queen's representative) were simply made up out of whole cloth.

But there is one other rather shocking, seemingly indisputable piece of evidence to consider: a portrait of Lord Cornbury dressed in women's clothes hangs today in the New York Historical Society.

Unfortunately, though the portrait is so labeled, the fact is, its date is unknown, its subject is unknown, its artist is unknown, and its provenance is unknown. But the striking portrait (whomever it may be) ensures that the myth of the transvestite governor will endure.



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