In recent years the excesses of the royal family have been subtly apparent, but nonetheless, relatively subdued. A series of affairs between old friends and second cousins at equestrian events; occasional romance that crosses over into mainstream celebrity life and entertainment; or pedestrian, money-driven antics, exposed by undercover journalists.
To those readers who are keen Royalty aficionados, you may know to whom those tales belong; but gone, or at least unreported, are the days of the truly eccentric aristocracy, unapologetically living their lives as though it were the last days of the Roman Empire, flaunting absurd affluence in front of an impoverished underclass. This was exemplified by the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, Henry Cyril Paget, who amongst other memorable antics, was known for replacing the family hounds with toy dogs; for his notorious narcissism and sexual ambiguity, and ultimately for the squandering of the family fortune before his untimely death.
An eccentric Marquess
Inheriting his title at the tender age of 23 in the late 1800s, the young Marquess Henry Cyril Paget wasn’t shy about putting his mark on the family name. Fortunate to have an income worth around £60 million in today’s money, coming primarily from Midlands mining ventures that the family owned, he set about using this to replace his father’s hounds with some tiny toy dogs, adorned in silk jackets which he emblazoned with the family crown.
Such absurd use of wealth was just the beginning. Next, he decided that he wanted to explore his love for the legitimate theatre (or perhaps pantomime would be more fitting), converting a church at Plas Newydd into a playhouse, which he named, wonderfully, The Gaiety. His debut production, aptly, was Aladdin. To put it together, he poached professional actors away their ongoing projects in London with huge salaries, and created a winding path of torches to help local villagers find his production, which, to his credit, was free to all! The Marquess, of course, starred in each production, and each one saw him changing in and out of several ostentatious outfits studded with various priceless jewels.
Ultimately, he took the show on the road and put on his productions in various locations around Europe. With a huge entourage of bags and costumes and sets, he also adopted various fey accessories – the Marquess was known for giving out postcards to the audience of himself draped over a chaise-longue, which is as good a representation of the man as anything else you could imagine.
Like his contemporary Oscar Wilde, the Marquess had a similar sexual charm, and shared the same penchant for female qualities, despite being tall and robust in appearance. Portmeirion architect, Clough Williams-Ellis, recalled him as “a tall, elegant and bejewelled creature, with wavering elegant gestures, reminding one rather of an Aubrey Beardsley illustration come to life”. A prominent sexologist, Iwan Bloch, featured the Marquis in a study of 20th-century sexuality, noting that, in the early 1900s, the Marquis was to be found walking around the streets of London, perfumed and carrying his notorious poodle, adorned with pink ribbons, under his arm.
Others who have studied the sexuality of the Marquess have attempted to pigeon-hole him, as Oscar Wilde too had experienced, as homosexual. Montgomery Hyde, an advocate for reform of legislation relating to homosexuality, described him as the “most notorious aristocratic homosexual”. But such a neat statement would be to miss the point – rather The Marquess was an eccentric who just seemed to love the attention, wherever that might come from. Often described simply as narcissistic, he was never actually known to have lain with a woman, and there is speculation that he was even a virgin when he died. This was in spite of typically showy acts such as covering his naked bride in jewels – obviously it failed to ignite his passions sufficiently.
Aside from a love of jewellery, and look-at-me theatre productions, the Marquess spent millions on furs, yachts and his love of the equestrian life, as well as converting his car exhaust to spray perfume. Inevitably, the spending couldn’t continue forever, and in 1904 the Marquess went bankrupt, allegedly owing his debtors what would be £250 million in today’s money. His personal effects were sold, and a lot of people to whom he owed money got reimbursed. The auction of his belongings was reported to have lasted 40 days, with 17,000 lots being sold. Some typically frivolous items on sale, befitting indeed of a Marquess, included gold cigarette cases encrusted with rubies; priceless pearls, and the world’s largest collection of bejewelled walking sticks.
Following bankruptcy, the Marquess died of tuberculosis aged just 29, with his ex-wife Lily at his side. Because they had never consummated the marriage and had no children, his title of Marquess was inherited by Charles Paget, his cousin.
Luckily for those of us who are inspired by Henry’s unusual approach to life, noble titles like this don’t just have to be passed down through generations any more – after all, very few of us have a Marquess as a cousin or father! With royaltitles.net you can purchase all manner of aristocratic titles, which you can have added to official documents like passports and driving licences, to give your hum-drum life a touch of the eccentric. There is no official requirement that you start a European tour of Aladdin, live in a sexless marriage, or invest your money in exhaust-based perfume contraptions, but it may help you blend in.