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The Life of Lady Worsley

Lady Worsley broke all the rules of polite society. The Scandalous Lady W, starring Natalie Dormer, recently told the colourful tale of the 18th century’s most public, tabloid worthy relationship in a BBC drama.

Harewood House has Joshua Reynolds paintings on display

A detailed view of Lady Worsley’s portrait

A beautiful and wealthy heiress, Seymour Dorothy Fleming was one of England’s most eligible bachelorettes. On the 20th September 1775, at the age of 17, she married Sir Richard Worsley. Now known as Lady Worsley, Seymour brought £52,000 to the union which is the equivalent of over £6 million in today’s money.

Lady Worsley was a spirited and independent young woman. She wasn’t afraid to say what she thought and do what she wanted, something that at the time, was not expected of a woman. Wives were expected to do their husband’s bidding and were seen as property in the same way as cattle or land.

In November 1781, Lady Worsley eloped with Captain George Bissett, a friend of her husbands, leaving her 4 month old baby behind. This act of defiance prompted Sir Richard to bring a criminal conversation case (adultery, with one of his officers) for £20,000 against Bissett. Lady Worsley made the courageous decision to support Bissett, publicly humiliating herself and her position in society.

Testimony was provided by a number of Lady Worsley’s 27 lovers and her doctor, William Osborn. He testified that she had suffered from a venereal disease which she had contracted from the Marquess of Graham. This acted as evidence that Bissett had not been alone in committing adultery with Lady Worsley.

Although Sir Richard looked to have a strong case, it was undone by a final piece of evidence. Rather than suppressing their relationship, it was later proven that Sir Richard had displayed his wife naked to George Bissett at the bathhouse in Maidstone encouraging the affair. This evidence destroyed Sir Richard’s suit and the jury awarded him only 1 shilling in damages.

It’s hard to imagine what determination she must of had to leave her husband during that time period. The scandal would be shocking by today’s standards never mind in polite Georgian society! It could be argued that Lady Worsley showed great resolve in the way she approached the case. It was a brave  move to present her romantic encounters so bluntly in defense of Captain Bissett.

Today, the famous Joshua Reynolds painting of Lady Wolsey hangs in the Cinnamon Drawing Room of Harewood House. The portrait depicts the young Lady Worsley in the milita uniform of her husband.

How is Lady Worsley related to the Lascelles family?

Seymour Dorothy Fleming was the younger daughter of Sir John Fleming of Brompton Park and his wife, Lady Jane Coleman. Her father and two of her sisters died when she was just 5 years old and she and her elder sister, Jane Harrington, were raised by their mother. Her mother remarried in 1770 to Edwin Lascelles, 1st Lord Harewood making Lady Worsley the step-daughter of Edwin.

What can I see at Harewood about Lady Worsley?

Harewood House was linked to Lady Worsley

As well as the famous painting, we are showing letters written to “Mr Hewitt” which relay the scandalous exploits of Lady Worlsey and her two companions during a Christmas meeting at Harewood in 1778. The account explains how “Lady Worsley and two Miss Cramers threw most of the gentlemen’s clothes out of the window, particularly their breeches, thinking them I suppose unnecessary.

Can I see the painting?

Yes, visitors to Harewood House can explore the House, grounds and see the painting in the Cinnamon Drawing Room. Call 0113 218 1000 or go to our Visit page for details.