The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton
The court was impatient for the preliminaries to be over and wanted to hear the details. The case had all the ingredients of a scandal – sex and politics at the highest level, royal connections, great celebrity, a gorgeous and clever wife, a grumpy and doltish husband and an older richer lounge-lizard of an adulterer – and would not disappoint. The mood was boisterous, high spirits threatening to tip out of control.
Designed by John Soane in the 1820s, the forty-foot-square room was ‘filled to suffocation’ with members of the public and inquisitive junior barristers who had taken the day off and whose attitude Charles Dickens, reporting for the Morning Chronicle, found unbearable. He wrote in his account the following day of their ‘very indecent behaviour’, and thought them guilty of having only ‘a very imperfect understanding of the behaviour of gentlemen’ in court. Dickens wrote to a friend that he was so exhausted by his shorthand recording of the fourteen-hour proceedings that he struggled to get out of bed the next day. The jury of ten merchants, a banker and a retired admiral, and the witnesses had to barge their way in to take their places, buffeted by the clamouring spectators.
Court of Common Pleas
During the proceedings every man in court would leave the building from time to time to answer calls of nature and take refreshment. There were no public lavatories or dining places, nor had there been even before the great fire of 1834, which had destroyed the Houses of Parliament. In the summer of 1836 Westminster Hall stood almost alone in a blitzed landscape of charred ruins, like a giant tooth in an otherwise empty mouth blasted by decay. The officials, barristers and the jury availed themselves of the facilities of Bellamy’s Tavern and Chophouse nearby or Howard’s coffee house, the haunt of Members of Parliament, or sought the cover of bushes or the ruined buildings. With the exception of female witnesses called to give evidence – in this case the Nortons’ servants – such occasions were all-male affairs. Food was available from coffee stalls, pie shops or street vendors.
In George Norton’s formidable legal team was Sir William Follett, a king’s counsel of precocious talent in his early forties. Mr John Bayley, in his sixties, a very experienced master of the common law, who had a ‘clue to its labyrinth,’ would open the pleading, while Mr Richard Crowder assisted. For Lord Melbourne was the attorney general, Sir John Campbell, a man in his fifties whose physical presence made an impression on everyone: ‘he was as thick set as a navvy and as hard as nails and full of vigour’. Mr Serjeant Thomas Noon Talfourd and Mr Frederic Thesiger, a KC and one of the most popular leading counsels of his day, assisted Campbell. Both were in their early forties and well liked. (The congeniality of Talfourd’s home life was much admired by Charles Dickens, who was a frequent guest at his house. The place swarmed with children and cats and crackled with fun, and Dickens made him the model for the idealistic Tommy Traddles in David Copperfield.)
A mix of distinguished experience and eager ambition, these six lawyers were at the height of their powers in 1836, pacing the floor of the Court of Common Pleas in Westminster Hall, where civil cases had been heard for hundreds of years. Both sides anticipated a lengthy and lucrative trial.
The action was the cause célèbre of that year. Not since the trial of Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of George IV, accused of adultery in 1820, had there been such a controversial case. Then the public had rallied round their increasingly eccentric and put-upon queen, believing she was being persecuted by a hypocritical husband who was no better than she was. The bill to divorce her was passed by the House of Lords, but fearing riots if it was ratified by the Commons, it was dropped. Outside in New Palace Yard couriers were waiting to convey news of the Norton vs Melbourne case to British embassies all over Europe and America, where diplomats were anxious to know the prime minister’s fate. The prize was the vindication of a husband’s jealousy and a fortune in damages. The personal cost was potentially immense for both parties: for Caroline, the loss of her children and her reputation; for the prime minister the collapse of the government and the end of his political career.
George Norton, thirty-six, a barrister who did not practise, was the younger brother and heir-in-waiting to the childless third Lord Grantley of Wonersh, Baron of Markenfield in Yorkshire. Norton and his wife Caroline had three sons: Fletcher, aged seven, five-year-old Brinsley and eighteen-month-old William. Norton doubted the paternity of Brinsley, who had been born in 1831, the first year of his wife’s alleged affair, and was also unhappy that his youngest child had the same Christian name as Melbourne. A criminal conversation trial was the first stage in the dismantling of a marriage. Until 1857 divorce could only be granted by an act of Parliament. A trial was an alternative to duelling, which had been outlawed in 1815 but persisted in semi-secrecy for at least another thirty years. The damages awarded could be crippling, and if they were not paid the defendant was liable to arrest and incarceration in a debtors’ prison, only to be freed when the debt was paid.
Norton was a dull and unprepossessing husband whose political career had stalled and then ended in 1830 three years into his stormy marriage. He had insisted his vivacious wife use her considerable charms to procure a cushy job for him from Melbourne, who had visited their house three or four times a week for nearly five years. Caroline got Norton not one but two good jobs without much difficulty. In the afternoon, when Melbourne would usually visit, the servants were instructed that Caroline and her visitor were not to be disturbed. Melbourne had everything that Norton had not: he was a lord, wealthy, witty, good-looking and very charming. Hovering in the background was George Norton’s brother, Fletcher, Lord Grantley, in his late thirties, married for eleven years but childless, who had been wounded at Waterloo while serving as a young officer in the Grenadier Guards and was thereafter sarcastically known as Waterloo Grantley. Grantley had a reputation as a malevolent puppeteer determined to bring down Lord Melbourne and the government, and at the same time rid his family of his too-clever-by-half sister-in-law. An important friend of the Nortons was Lord Wynford, a judge whose gout required him to be carried into the House of Lords in an armchair. Wynford was George Norton’s godfather, his father’s executor and trustee of the Grantley estate, and deeply involved in the bringing of the case. He was in court.
None of the named parties was in court. George Norton was with his clan at their London home in Mayfair; Lord Melbourne was going about his prime ministerial business in Downing Street, seeming insouciant but nervous of the outcome; Mrs Norton was in hiding at her mother’s home, a grace-and-favour apartment at Hampton Court Palace where the Sheridans had lived since the death of their father in 1817. Unable to appear in public because of the scandal generated by the case, she had arranged for her elder brother to send a messenger on horseback with news of the proceedings.
Opening the case, George Norton’s leading counsel Sir William Follett went straight on the attack. He reminded the court of the ‘painful task’ that had been imposed upon him and was sure ‘gentlemen that in justice to all parties – the plaintiff, the defendant and the lady herself, you will dismiss as far as you possibly can from your minds the idle rumour and talk to which this case has given rise – that you will approach it as you would a trial between two persons whose names were wholly unknown to you – that you act upon the evidence alone which I shall adduce on the part of the plaintiff; and if that satisfies you of the guilt of the defendant, you will fearlessly so pronounce your verdict’. The Nortons’ marriage had been happy ‘at least on the part of Mr Norton, of the most unbounded affection’. Follett described how quickly the friendship between Lord Melbourne, ‘a man of high rank’, and the ‘unfortunate’ Mrs Norton, a woman of ‘beauty, talents and accomplishments’, had blossomed. He was a ‘constant visitor’ to the Nortons’ home in Storey’s Gate, which looked on to Birdcage Walk, a five-minute walk from Dorset House in Whitehall, where Melbourne had worked as home secretary, and also from 10 Downing Street, to which he moved when he became prime minister in 1834. It was a convenient stopping-off point on his way home across St James’s Park to his house in South Street near Park Lane. Norton’s barrister suggested that Lord Melbourne had insinuated his way into the young couple’s lives by ‘taking advantage of his high position to lull suspicion asleep, to introduce himself into the family of Mr Norton as his benefactor, his patron and his friend, to inflict the deepest injury one man can inflict upon another’.
It had been obvious to everyone who saw them together that Caroline was infatuated with Melbourne and he was flattered by the adoration of the dark-haired beauty. By way of explaining the large amount of time they spent together she would say that Melbourne and her father had been friends, which was true. Both Thomas Sheridan and Melbourne had been born in the 1770s, and he had stories to share with her. Now in her late twenties, Caroline’s memories of her father were fading: he had died in South Africa in 1817, when she was nine, where her parents had gone in search of a cure for his tuberculosis four years before. Melbourne and Caroline conversed about her poetry and prose, and he enjoyed her brilliant mimicry and racy Sheridan wit. Unlike her Tory husband, Caroline, who inherited her Whig politics from her father and grandfather, had been active in the campaign supporting the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) and the Great Reform Act (1832). George Norton and his family had opposed these reforms and had been disgruntled at Caroline’s insistence on taking her own line and expressing her political views in society.
Sir William Follett promised to produce evidence that shortly after Melbourne and Caroline’s first meeting ‘criminal intercourse commenced between them and was continued for a very considerable time afterwards’. George Norton’s magistrate’s duties in Whitechapel meant he was away from home most of the day, often returning at seven o’clock in the evening to learn that the prime minister had visited that afternoon or was still with his wife in the drawing room. Often Melbourne would stay and join the Nortons for dinner.
Follett reminded the jury that circumstantial evidence could lead to a guilty verdict in cases of adultery, citing the judgment of an earlier case: ‘it is not necessary to prove the direct act of adultery because . . . it is very rarely indeed that the parties are surprised in the act . . . because if it were otherwise, there was not one case in a hundred in which the act had been committed where such proof were attainable’. The rules for circumstantial evidence were not hard and fast, and he reminded the jurors of factors such as ‘the station and character of the parties, the state of general manners, and by many other incidental circumstances apparently slight and delicate in themselves but which may have important bearings in the decision of particular cases’. Follett ended by quoting that the only general rule that could be laid down ‘is that the circumstances must be such as would lead the guarded discretion of a reasonable and just man to come to the conclusion’. Everything would hinge on the jury having the qualities of a reasonable and just man.
Follett made much of the fact that Lord Melbourne would enter 2 Storey’s Gate via the back door and not the front: ‘in what way, I ask, did he come as a visitor when Mr Norton was not at home? It does appear rather extraordinary – the house opens into Birdcage Walk. Was that the visit of a friend, or like any other person coming to the house?’ When Lord Melbourne visited the blinds were drawn and no other visitors – not even the most ‘intimate friends and relations’ were admitted. Mrs Norton told her servants never to enter the room unless she rang or sent for them, and the drawing room in which she saw Melbourne was always locked from the inside. Caroline Norton made elaborate preparations to receive Lord Melbourne, dressing carefully, arranging her hair, pencilling her eyebrows and rouging her face. And ‘while he was in the house she has frequently gone up to her bedroom with her hair and her dress disordered, and having put herself to rights, washed her hands and arranged her dress and hair, she would come downstairs again to Lord Melbourne’. Great importance was given to a handful of brief but essentially uninteresting notes Lord Melbourne had sent to Mrs Norton. ‘How are you?’ one asked. Another announced, ‘I will call about half past four. Yours.’ Another, ‘I shall not be able to call today, but I probably shall tomorrow. Yours.’ They were hardly passionate, but Follett injected into their discovery as much moral outrage as he could summon.
Follett went on to allege that criminal conversation had also taken place elsewhere and promised to produce evidence of Mrs Norton visiting Lord Melbourne’s house in South Street, travelling there in the carriage of a young female friend whom Caroline would then send off for half an hour’s drive round Hyde Park. The lawyer thundered, ‘Where was she in Lord Melbourne’s house? In what room? Who was with her? What was she doing – a ‘young and beautiful woman in such extraordinary and suspicious circumstances?’ There had also been occasions on which Caroline was ill and confined to her bedroom when the prime minister had been admitted and spent hours alone with her with the door bolted. Follett asked the jury to remember the ‘manners of the present day’ when they heard more of this later.
In households like the Nortons’ and Lord Melbourne’s, and indeed wherever servants were employed, maids and footmen knew a lot about their masters and mistresses. Privacy as we understand it now did not exist for people like Caroline Norton. The women who laid her fire in the morning also took away her chamber pot, and made and changed her bedding and personal linen, bathed and dressed her, while men waited on her at table and drove her carriage. They knew when she and George had sex, and when she had her period. At ‘crim con’ trials servants were the star witnesses, and real or imagined grievances could decide a case. Servants who had been dismissed were especially dangerous. Sir William Follett called a string of servants employed by or still working for George Norton, who offered detailed and colourful accounts of the Norton marriage and the damage it had suffered at the hands of the nation’s prime minister.
The servants, who had been interviewed by clerks and agents paid for by Norton’s brother Lord Grantley, supplied plenty of circumstantial evidence which George’s team expected to win the case for them. Follett titillated the jury with a few tales of servants going to Mrs Norton’s bedroom, finding the door bolted and hearing Lord Melbourne’s voice. They had seen ‘kisses passing between the parties’, noticed his arm draped round her neck, her hand on his knee, found her kneeling on the floor at his feet, and many more ‘familiarities and such things as would make you wonder’. Mrs Norton had even been seen lying on the floor, ‘and her clothes in a position to expose her person’ alone with Lord Melbourne.
Bodily fluids were regularly brought up at such proceedings as evidence of adultery. It was his ‘painful duty’, said Follett, to produce witnesses who had seen ‘those marks which are the consequence of intercourse between the sexes. We shall show those marks existed on the day linen which will be shown to have existed on her gown; from which, and the other facts I have stated, there can, I apprehend, be no doubt of the guilty connection of these parties.’
Follett now called a string of witnesses – a Norton cousin and a motley crew of male and female servants who had worked for the couple during the period of the alleged affair – who were questioned and cross-examined by both legal teams. Trinette Elliot, a lady’s maid who had served her mistress for two years from 1831, supplied details of Caroline’s rouging and heavy use of pocket handkerchiefs whenever Melbourne visited. Ellen Monk, who had been a nurse to the three boys for six months in 1834, described seeing Lord Melbourne with Mrs Norton in her bedroom when she was unwell. Looking faint when she was called, Eliza Gibson, a housemaid, was allowed to sit down to be questioned. During the six months she worked at Storey’s Gate in 1833 she had also sometimes acted as Mrs Norton’s lady’s maid and noted how often she rouged and re-rouged and needed to tidy her ‘dishevelled appearance and tumbled hair’.
Thomas Bulliman, a footman who had worked for George Norton for only a month in the summer of 1833, told the court about Caroline’s carriage rides with her friend Sophia Armstrong. Bulliman had worked for Colonel Armstrong, Sophia’s father, for nearly two years before going to the Nortons. His duties included accompanying Miss Armstrong, who was driven round the park for thirty minutes after taking Caroline to Melbourne. Mrs Norton was then picked up and taken back to Storey’s Gate. Thomas Tucker succeeded Bulliman as the Nortons’ footman at Christmas 1833 and stayed for eight months. He told of turning visitors away when Lord Melbourne was with Caroline, delivering notes to him at Downing Street and letting him into the house shortly after being summoned by notes from his mistress.
John Fluke, coachman and groom to the Nortons from 1830 to 1834, was the most entertaining and certainly the slipperiest witness to be called. He had also worked in the house, answering the door and running errands. Initially his evidence was the most damning for Mrs Norton, but under careful cross-examination by Melbourne’s team Fluke came apart at the seams. He preferred to play to the public in the gallery rather than answer questions clearly. One story has the tone of a bodice-ripper novel. Returning from an errand to buy theatre tickets, Fluke knocked twice on the door of the drawing room to deliver them to his mistress. Receiving no answer and thinking no one was there, he walked into the room and found the prime minister ‘sitting in a chair on the left [hand side of the room] at the fire with his elbows on his knees, his head reclining on his hands, and his face turned towards Mrs Norton. She was lying down on the right side with her feet towards the door, and her head upon the hearth rug. Mrs Norton, the moment I got into the middle of the room, when I was going to deliver the message, shifted herself with her hands, and rose up a little. Lord Melbourne looked at her and she looked again at his lordship, she then turned round, and never said anything, but gave me a bow as much as to say, “That is enough,” after I had delivered my message. Mrs Norton’s clothes were up and I saw the thick part of her thigh.’ No words were spoken and Fluke turned round and left the room, scuttling downstairs to tell the rest of the servants what he had seen.
Anticipating this potentially disastrous tale, Melbourne’s team had done their homework and proceeded to lead the witness into destroying his own credibility. It became apparent Fluke was a man who was fond of a drink – cheerfully admitting he had a few before he came into court set off shrieks of laughter in the public gallery. He was manoeuvred into divulging that he had been beset with financial problems and his family life was in chaos. While he was working for the Nortons part time, he also owned a small livery stable hiring out horses and gigs by the day, but the business collapsed and he was saddled with debts. In 1834 Fluke was dismissed by the Nortons for drunkenness after the last in a string of incidents. On what turned out to be his last day in their employment he drove George Norton to his work in court, and unusually Caroline accompanied her husband. It was usual for the coachmen to have a drink together while they waited, but Fluke cheerfully admitted, ‘to tell the truth I got a drop too much. Mr and Mrs Norton fell out [on the way home] and of course they put the spite on me and I was discharged.’ Caroline was angry because he almost lost control of the carriage: ‘you could not please her very easily . . . the black horse threatened to gallop, and I could not get him into a trot; horses will break sometimes, you can’t help it’. Fluke was exposed as a disgruntled servant who had been nursing a grudge for the past two years. Melbourne’s team had spoken to people who had heard him blame Mrs Norton for his dismissal and call her ‘a d----d b---h’ [damned bitch].
A depressing picture emerged of Fluke’s circumstances after leaving the Nortons. He revealed that his fortunes had taken a slide and he had been living in a cellar in Covent Garden with his pregnant wife and three surviving children of ten, selling old clothes and cobbling shoes. Born in Worcestershire in 1795, he joined the 73rd Regiment of Foot when he was eighteen and served in the East Indies and fought at Waterloo. He told the court he was a veteran injured in action, slashed in the hip, but Fluke had actually been wounded in India in 1817 – almost ‘unmanned’ – leaving him incontinent, and was discharged from the army in 1819 with a pension of sixpence a day. He had enlisted for an indefinite period, hoping to make the army his life, but at twenty-four, the young man was left on his own suffering from an untreatable and embarrassing condition.
At the time of the trial Fluke was looking after the horses of Captain Charles Francis Norton of the 52nd Regiment of Foot while he was posted to the East Indies. Charles had put in a good word for Fluke with his brother George, and that is how Fluke came to be a witness in court that day. His cockiness, his behaviour while he was employed by George Norton and the fact that he had worked for the family for several years suggest a man ripe to be groomed to give evidence against the woman who had dismissed him.
But he was no match for Melbourne’s lawyers. Under cross-examination Fluke cheerfully revealed that he and other servants had been put up by Lord Grantley at the Grantley Arms and other lodgings in Wonersh, the village owned by him near his country seat. Frequently tipsy, Fluke had been heard to boast that he was ‘the principal witness against the Premier of England’ and was expecting to receive five or six hundred pounds when the trial was over (now between forty and fiftythousand pounds). John Fluke denied having made such remarks, but the damage was done and all present could see that he had been coached by Lord Grantley’s lawyers and also encouraged to ‘fish up evidence’ to support Norton’s case by looking for other disgruntled servants.
One of the servants he fished up and spent time with at Wonersh was Ann Cummins. She was recently widowed with three children when she went to work for the Nortons as a nurse and sometimes lady’s maid in the autumn of 1831. She left Storey’s Gate at the end of 1834. During her time there the Nortons’ second son Brinsley was born in 1831 and William two years later. Questioned by Mr Crowder, she told the court of a conversation she had overheard between her mistress and Lord Melbourne, who paid a call on Mrs Norton some days after Brinsley’s birth. This was intended to plant the idea in the minds of the jury that Melbourne might have been the father of the child. ‘Mrs Norton took the baby and kissed him and asked Lord Melbourne if it were not a handsome baby; and he patted it on the head and kissed it, and said it was not like Norton.’
Cummins’ personal life was also in something of a muddle. Out of work since leaving the Nortons, Fluke had found her living in a lodging house in Tottenham Court Road with her children. A man by the name of Owen, a tailor, was the father of the child she was carrying when she left the Norton household. He had promised to marry her, but they were broke and would not do so ‘until trade gets good’. As a widowed Roman Catholic with an illegitimate baby who had asked to swear on the Cross before she gave her evidence, she may not have made a good impression on the jury. She came across as an evasive witness whose memory seemed vague when she was asked to recall conversations with her landlady at Wonersh. Probed by Frederic Thesiger, she said that she had been driven out of London, ‘teased’ by visits from an agent working for Lord Melbourne and a messenger from Mrs Norton, and was forced to admit that she had been staying at Wonersh at Lord Grantley’s expense. Awkwardly for Norton’s legal team, Thesiger got her to admit she had also been ‘tormented’ by their own clerks and threatened by Norton (a magistrate) that he would send a policeman to take her to the country. Terrified, she fled to Lord Grantley at Wonersh, where she was paid five pounds for her trouble, received a pound a week for the month she was there, and got three pounds to pay for the carriage that took her back to London. Ann Cummins took her three children and young baby with her but left Mr Owen behind. Under Thesiger’s cross-examination she admitted that at Wonersh she had discussed details of the case with John Fluke and his wife, and had been ‘examined’ five times for her appearance in court.
Even Norton’s legal team did not have it all their own way with their well-rehearsed witness. Despite Follett coaxing her several times to believe the ‘marks’ on Mrs Norton’s linen evidence of her ‘connexion’ with Lord Melbourne, Ann Cummins stubbornly refused to admit that she had been suspicious of an affair. And though she had seen Mrs Norton’s hand on his knee, when her mistress made a point of explaining to her that ‘the freedom between them was owing to Lord Melbourne’s having been so well-acquainted with her father’, she had believed Caroline.
Several hours into the trial the jury was told of a row between George Norton and his brother-in-law Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who lived in magnificent style at Frampton House in Dorset. The two did not get on, and George Norton was not invited to join his wife and children and all the Sheridan family for Easter 1836 at Frampton a couple of months before the trial. To her husband’s outrage, Caroline was determined to go with the children and leave him behind. Martha Morris, a nurse to the three Norton children, painted a picture of the tension in her employers’ marriage. As far as she knew, up to the time of the row her master and mistress had been living ‘in the usual terms of matrimonial affection and perfect harmony’, a decorous way of saying they still shared a bed and were having sex. On the evening of 28 March 1836, the night before Caroline and the boys were due to leave for Frampton, she and George went out to dinner; the row about the visit continued in the carriage home and until the early hours of the morning. At 3 a.m. Norton went up to the nursery and woke Morris to say that the children would not be going to Dorset the next day and that his ‘orders were not to be disobeyed’. A short time later, still in her evening finery, Caroline visited the nursery and asked Morris what her husband had said.
At 7 a.m., when George left the house to go to his office in Whitechapel, Caroline walked the short distance to her sister Lady Georgiana Seymour’s house in nearby Spring Gardens to tell her what had happened and that the children were not allowed to visit Frampton. What Caroline did not know was that George Norton had arranged for Martha Morris to take the boys to a lodging house in Upper Berkeley Street that morning. When Caroline returned home she was shocked to find her children and their nurse gone. Interrogating the servants for the address, she found the place, arriving in ‘a state of the greatest affliction’ and went into a ‘state of the deepest agony’ when she was told that her husband had left orders that no one be allowed to see the children. She begged to see them for an hour, but his wishes were obeyed and she reluctantly left in ‘great distress’. She spent the night with her sister Georgiana not knowing that the boys had gone back to their home in Storey’s Gate that evening before being taken to Wonersh the next morning. From that day on Caroline Norton had never seen her children.
Eight and a half hours in a stuffy and crowded court were taking their toll on Sir John Campbell, who asked the judge to adjourn the proceedings until the next morning. He was ‘quite exhausted, so much so, that it was impracticable that he should be in such a state of exhaustion to do justice to his client which the importance of the case demanded, or that the jury could listen with that degree of attention to the arguments he should feel himself bound to address to them’.
Follett may have felt he had his opponent on the ropes and objected. The jurors said they wanted to continue, and the judge adjourned the court for fifteen minutes so that the attorney general ‘might refresh himself’. There was no closing statement from the prosecution. Getting to his feet, Campbell, whose words would be the last that the jury would hear, apart from the judge’s summing-up, said he was ‘sure . . . his client would be delivered from the unfounded charge that had been brought against him’. He had called no witnesses, he explained, because no case had been made against his client – there was ‘no proof whatever in the evidence which had been submitted’. He agreed that the offence Lord Melbourne was accused of was ‘a high crime . . . the violation of the marriage vow was one of the greatest crimes’, but warned the jury that because of the gravity of the accusation ‘the proof ought to be clear and convincing’.
Campbell went to the heart of his defence by urging the jury to look at the character of each of the witnesses and assess the credibility of their accounts: ‘they must believe that the adulterous act was really committed and completed between the parties, for nothing short of that proof could entitle the plaintiff to a verdict’. The attorney general agreed that his client and Mrs Norton had an ‘intimacy’, but insisted that it was ‘of innocent friendship’, had been sanctioned by Mr Norton, and that there were many examples of him encouraging his wife’s friendship with the powerful man who had exercised his right of patronage more than once in Norton’s favour. He attacked the prosecution’s case as entirely politically motivated: ‘Mr Norton was evidently under some delusion, and had been made a tool of by others for political motives . . . It has been put into the plaintiff’s mind by some insinuating rogue by whom he had been played upon. Someone had laid hold of him, and for indirect purposes advised him to bring forward this charge, of which he had never dreamed before.’
Campbell referred to the presence of Lord Grantley in court just a few yards from him. He wondered aloud why Grantley had not been called as a witness and why he had chosen to ‘remain mute on the bench’ and asked if he was there from curiosity or was there ‘to grace the cause’. The head of the family and paymaster to all, he said, was the man directing and coordinating the attack on Lord Melbourne. A man of ultra- Tory views but with little ability as a politician, he was surely there to remind the witnesses that he would be paying them, but only if his brother’s case was won. Campbell pointed out that the leader of the Tory party, Sir Robert Peel, was also in court, proving that politics was at the heart of the drama.
The evidence against the prime minister was a string of stories told by ‘discarded servants – a race most dangerous in all cases, but particularly in cases of this sort’. What they said they had seen and heard related to the period from 1831 to the end of 1834 during which time some of them had been dismissed by the Nortons for being drunk or ‘in the family way’. No evidence was offered of any moments of criminal conversation in 1835 and 1836 by anyone who still worked for them or had left for a better position. Campbell reminded the jury of the questionable value of testimony given by servants years after the alleged events: ‘In a discovery made by a servant, it was important to show that it was promptly communicated to the party injured. If it is not made until after a quarrel or dismissal from the service, or after a long interval, the evidence labours under great suspicion.’
If George Norton had known of the intimate moments when they had happened in the early 1830s, Campbell asked, why had he done nothing about the heinous crime which had been committed against him before now? He also asked why the servants had not reported the matter to their master at the time, and why they had waited in some cases five years to report it to him and the agents acting for his brother. Campbell pointed out that of the string of witnesses Sir William Follett had called only two were ‘respectable gentlemen’ – a Norton uncle and a family friend and barrister, who both described the happy early years of the marriage. The rest were a ragtag bunch, some of whom had been fished up by Lord Grantley’s agents and paid to give evidence. Their stories were garbled, had been coached and ‘were wholly unworthy of belief, or . . . spoke to facts utterly immaterial’.
Campbell reiterated John Fluke’s evidence and blasted it with his attorney general’s scorn: ‘this man said that he . . . saw Mrs Norton lying on the rug, like a Spartan virgin, exposing her thigh without making any effort to adjust her dress and they looked at each other, and he delivered his message and she nodded to him and he went away. Was this credible? Was it to be supposed that the act of adultery had taken place, and that when Fluke came in she should continue in that posture and make him a bow, or that she should lie like a statue, without any effort to recompose her dress, for the mere purpose of allowing Mr Fluke to gratify his curiosity? The most profligate woman could not have behaved in such a manner.’
The attorney general thanked the jury for asking whether the Nortons were sleeping together at the time of the alleged adultery, to which the answer was yes. This proved that a ‘depravity’ between her and Melbourne could not have taken place: ‘everyone knew that after a woman surrendered her person to a paramour, she looked down upon her husband with loathing and abhorrence’. He said that Mrs Norton ‘continued to the last fond of her husband’, and he declared to God that for him this was the most convincing proof of her innocence.
Campbell argued that the frequency of Lord Melbourne’s visits and the fact that he used the back rather than the front door – quite reasonable considering how well known he was – did not add up to adultery. Mrs Norton’s beauty, literary accomplishments and conversation were widely known, and when Lord Melbourne had no domestic engagements why should he not ‘cultivate friendship without being suspected to abuse confidence’? He reiterated that the matter was not a personal one; that Mr Norton had willingly been duped for party-political purposes. The attorney general concluded by saying that Lord Melbourne had instructed him to make clear in the ‘most emphatic and solemn manner, that he had never had any criminal intercourse’ with Mrs Norton, nor had he done anything ‘in the slightest degree to abuse the confidence of Mr Norton’.
By the time Judge Tindal began his summing-up, urging the jury not to give a guilty verdict if they only suspected guilt, but consider the case as ‘men of sense and discrimination’, the midsummer light which had flooded into the top-lit room was starting to fade and the candles and oil and gas lamps had been lit. Tindal asked the jurors to ‘apply to the evidence the same degree of guarded and temperate discrimination as they would to the ordinary transactions of life’. With regard to the amount of damages demanded he declined to guide them, believing they were ‘men of the world and of good sense’. It had been a long day: by half-past eleven everyone in the room was exhausted by the battle that had been waged before them, and just wanted it to end. The place blazed with a muggy light and reeked of the fug of stale bodies.
The foreman of the jury, Robert Stafford, a merchant who lived nearby in Smith Square, gave the verdict immediately. ‘My Lord, we are agreed. It is my duty to say that we have agreed to a verdict for the defendant.’ It was twenty minutes before midnight. There were shouts of ‘Bravo’ from one end of the court and ‘loud cheers and hisses from a different part of the room’. Tindal got to his feet angered by this ‘disgraceful conduct’ and asked the police to seize anyone in contempt of court. Silence prevailed for a short time, but when the verdict reached the crowd gathered outside in New Palace Yard there was uproar.
For Lord Grantley and the expensive legal team he had taken to Westminster Hall this was a disaster, while Lord Melbourne’s lawyers must have been stunned and relieved. It was clear to everyone in court that the most damning evidence had been supplied by servants hired by George, some dismissed on Caroline’s orders, then bought and paid for by Grantley. John Fluke, a cheeky swindler, had enjoyed his day in court but had undermined his paymaster’s efforts. His tipsy casualness had enlivened the proceedings and pricked the pomposity of Follett’s line of questioning. The jury had listened to his saucy evidence and not been shocked by it; sometimes they laughed.
The verdict could have gone in Norton’s favour, but the jury was clearly convinced that Norton’s feelings had been manipulated by his family in an attempt to bring down Lord Melbourne and his government. The jury saw the bringing of the case and the demand for damages as politics and extortion. The fact that George Norton had not resigned his well-paid job as a magistrate, obtained for him by Melbourne, seemed significant. The Honourable George Norton had been shown to be a man lacking in honour. The day after the trial and for many days that followed the newspapers featured transcripts of the proceedings, and the ‘Unfortunate George Norton’ became a laughing-stock, a ‘noodle’ with only a questionable right to call himself a gentleman. However, although Lord Melbourne and Caroline Norton had been found not guilty of adultery, Caroline’s reputation was ruined. Polite society and the wider public made their own decisions: the trial itself, regardless of the outcome, had branded the Honourable Mrs Norton a dishonourable and scandalous woman. It was a label she would never quite shake off for the rest of her life.
IFollowing the trial Caroline consulted lawyers to see if she could divorce George Norton. She learned to her dismay that he could not sue her for adultery as she had been proved innocent, and that the only way she could divorce George was to sue him for adultery, which would be difficult to prove. There was also the added complication of the time in 1835 when Caroline had left George after a row. By returning to him she had apparently condoned his behaviour, which meant that she was unable to seek a divorce from him ever after. They were stuck with each other until one of them died. Estranged and living apart from her husband, Caroline had no automatic right to see her children, and he was immovable on the point. Caroline would not be able to change his mind, so she set about changing the law.