Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury is perhaps the most infamous of all New Jersey’s governors. He was the first royal governor appointed directly by the crown and is presumed to have had an affinity to wear women’s clothing. Or maybe that was all a smear campaign.
Cornbury was considered one of the “lesser nobility” in England. Men of this class struggled “to feed their families and pay their debts.” He was even arrested on his way to New York for failure to pay his debt. (New Jersey shared its governor with New York for the early part of the 18th Century.) The proprietors who used to selected governors for the previously split East and West Jersey still claimed ultimate ownership of all the land and fought local inhabitants on this account. The proprietors were able to bribe Cornbury with £200 and so he supported their cause.
In addition to his propensity to take bribes, Cornbury, an Anglican, sold tracts of land and gave money to his friends all the while discriminating against the Quakers. Political corruption and religious discrimination! Fun times!
The assembly finally convinced Queen Anne to remove him and he lived the rest of life struggling with debt in England. Marc Mappen writes, “Cornbury has been regarded as the quintessential arrogant, corrupt, and incompetent royal governor.”
Mappen doesn’t delve too deeply into the allegations of wearing women’s clothing that Cornbury is most well known for and rightly so since there is little evidence from anyone other than his contemporary enemies that he did so. Still, this section from Wikipedia is too great not to share:
Later historians characterise 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 defence 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”.
Cornbury is reported to have opened the 1702 New York Assembly clad in a hooped gown and an elaborate headdress and carrying a fan, imitative of the style of Queen Anne. When his choice of clothing was questioned, he replied, “You are all very stupid people not to see the propriety of it all. In this place and occasion, I represent a woman (the Queen), and in all respects I ought to represent her as faithfully as I can.” It is also said that in August 1707, when his wife Lady Cornbury died, His High Mightiness (as he preferred to be called) attended the funeral again dressed as a woman. It was shortly after this that mounting complaints from colonists prompted the Queen to remove Cornbury from office.
This is the eighth in a series of brief summaries from The Governors of New Jersey. These posts are not meant to be comprehensive and I urge you to pick up a copy of the book if you have any interest in New Jersey history