Back in 1855, a very eligible English aristocrat in the Canadian government was plagued by a scandal that came to a head in Cobourg.
Our town of Cobourg had a small but pivotal role in one of the most notorious sex scandals to have ever sullied the unblemished reputation of Canadian politics (note tongue in cheek here). The incident pales by today’s standards, but back in 1855, when our country was still only a union of the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, it caused a sensation that raised the ire of both the press and the public.
The scandal involved a government minister and a “female of bad character” (don’t they all?). The minister was Lord Bury, aka William Keppel, 7th Earl of Albemarle, who held a senior position in the government of Prime Minister Sir Allan MacNab, the latter better known today as builder of the fabulously lavish Dundurn Castle in Hamilton. Bury was heralded as one of MacNab’s more enlightened ministers and at age 23 was also the most eligible bachelor in Canada.
The woman went unnamed but it was on a boat cruise down the St. Lawrence that Bury is said to have engaged her in his stateroom. Worse, Bury had tried to bring her to dine with him at the captain’s table.
Was Sophia ahead of her time, unfazed by gossip and outdated morals? Or did she simply make her move on Bury when no other woman would dare?
This was enough to spark a scandal, and without missing a beat, the newspapers dove in mercilessly. The woman was there “for a reason,” harrumphed the Brockville Recorder, adding that from then on, “No virtuous woman can meet Lord Bury without damage to her reputation.” The Globe agreed, referring to Bury as “one who has outraged all the laws of propriety.” Bury countered in a gentlemanly way, saying that he did not know the woman at all, but only offered his stateroom because none had been offered to her.
Many in his political circle accepted this version of events but even so, Bury was dogged by the scandal for the rest of the year, and the papers took great delight in resurrecting “the Bury Affair” whenever the opportunity arose.
In October, when he came to Cobourg on an official visit with Prime Minister MacNab, the locals, led by the ladies of the elite, snubbed him.
It was here that events took another interesting twist. Also among the visiting entourage was MacNab’s daughter, Sophia, 23, and just as eligible as Bury. She had met Bury on several social occasions and he appears to have left an impression. It also appears that the gossip meant nothing to her. As if to make her point, she scandalized the Cobourg locals further by taking Bury’s arm, leaning into him as they strolled, while the group was on a tour of the local fairgrounds.
It was a small gesture, one that would hardly raise an eyebrow today, but it spoke volumes. Clearly, Sophia was unfazed by Bury’s reputation, and while the ladies of Cobourg were horrified, her lone subtle move helped to defuse the situation. The gossip seemed to subside and Bury carried on as a part of MacNab’s government.
What, then, accounted for Sophia’s behaviour? Was she ahead of her time, unfazed by gossip and outdated morals? Or did she simply seize an opportunity to make her move on Bury when no other woman would dare? Whatever the case, Sophia and Lord Bury were engaged within a couple of weeks, prompting one wag to remark, “Lord Bury has resolved on a wise course to silence the scandal circulated respecting him… Now he is to be married, and so become respectable again.”
On November 15, the wedding was held at Dundurn and it was the social event of the season, attracting dignitaries from across the province. Among the guests were the governor general, the mayor of Toronto and one John A. Macdonald, who wrote to the Montreal Gazette to officially declare that the Bury Affair was “dead and gone.”
Even though the scandal was behind him, Lord Bury appears to have had enough of Canada, and the newlyweds returned to England in 1856. There, Bury continued his political career, serving as an MP and then in the House of Lords. He died in 1894, while Sophia lived until 1917. They had ten children. Among their great-great-grandchildren is another English aristocrat who has seen her share of scandal, whether justified or not. Her name is Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and wife of Prince Charles. She has yet to visit Cobourg.
Special thanks to the research of Donald B. Smith, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Calgary and the Cobourg and district Historical Society.