A tribute to the eccentric Henry Cyril Paget - fifth Marquess of Anglesey
It is fitting to remember Henry Cyril Paget - fifth Marquess of Anglesey, in this month of Pride, especially, and to celebrate his life. It may have been short, but memories of him live on, despite the cruel attempts to erase him from history. Paget was and will always be an important part of queer history in general, and British queer history in particular.
It’s Pride Month (Happy Pride!) and I’ve been thinking about all the queer people who have been erased from history, either because their families and society around them couldn’t handle the fact that they were different, or they were ashamed of them in some way. It’s incredibly tragic but unfortunately all too common throughout history, and I found myself thinking of someone whose life has always fascinated me - Henry Cyril Paget - fifth Marquess of Anglesey.
Paget was born on 16th June 1875, the eldest son to his father, the fourth Marquess of Anglesey, and his second wife Blanche Mary Boyd. He attended Eton College, and later received private tuition, before being commissioned as a Lieutenant in the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. In January 1898, he married his cousin Lilian Florence Maud Chetwynd and inherited an enormous fortune from his father when he died in October that same year. He inherited an estate worth £535,000, which is equivalent to about £60m today. Additionally, the family homes and estates generated an annual income of £120,000 - worth some £13m in 2020.
He started to display an obsession for glittering things such as jewels and gemstones and reportedly bought the entire contents of a French jewellery shop to adorn his beloved wife from top to toe. That was only the beginning of his lavish spending habits, however. His spending continued unabated until his wife filed for divorce in 1900. The reason was supposedly that she could no longer tolerate his extravagance, but the real reason, it is believed, is that the marriage remained unconsummated. The divorce proceedings were set to start when Lady Anglesey requested that the annulment be withdrawn. It was, but she never returned to him, and they remained estranged.
Paget was now free from a marriage he probably never wanted, and he threw himself into the loves of his life – spending and theatre. He renamed his family estate, Plas Newydd, which is situated near Llanfairpwll on Anglesey as Anglesey Castle. Then, controversially, he tore down the family chapel on his estates and replaced it with a magnificent theatre named The Gaiety. Here he put on lavish performances of plays and pantomimes in which he always took the lead, dressed in opulent costumes, and even performed Oscar Wilde’s plays and Shakespeare. In the beginning, after putting on performances for his servants, he threw open the doors of the Gaiety to the villagers and locals and gave many free performances. His ‘butterfly dance’ was popular, where he would wear a voluminous robe of translucent white silk and flap his arms like the wings of a butterfly and prance about the stage in sexy, writhing movements. This was reportedly inspired by the renowned American dancer Loie Fuller.
His theatrical performances were legendary. Not only did he hire the top actors of the day from places like London’s West End by paying them enormous wages, he even hired professional actors to go on a European tour with him. It reportedly needed five trucks to carry all the costumes, backdrops, scenery, and other equipment across Europe. An army of musicians and stagehands also travelled with them.
Paget, at the age of 23, had an almost limitless fortune and a love for beauty, fashion, fast cars, and a lifestyle that made people refer to him as an ‘eccentric’. He had no understanding of costume jewellery, for instance, for his theatrical outfits, and bought real jewellery instead. It is estimated that a diamond-encrusted costume for Aladdin was worth at least £10,000 at the time - or £1m at current prices. It was reportedly just left in the dressing room unguarded and someone stole it, so Paget had another one made. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time someone took advantage of Paget’s naivety. In 1901, his French valet was jailed for stealing the equivalent of £2m in jewels, including a pear-shaped pearl that would be worth £1.2m on its own, if it were valued today.
Paget adored cars and was often seen driving about the village and countryside at a terrific speed. It is reported that one of his cars converted its exhaust fumes into a pink cloud that smelled like rose-scented perfume. Another car was modelled on a Pullman train carriage, with revolving armchairs, tables, cabinets and solid silver fittings. It cost Paget £2,500 at the time and would set you back by £265,000 if you wanted to order one today.
Paget also loved dogs and bought an army of poodles, whose fur he dyed pink, and collies – his favourite breeds. He was often spotted walking his dogs around his estate and in the fields surrounding them.
His idyllic life came to a crashing halt when the inevitable happened. He ran out of money. As impossible as it may sound, Paget managed to breeze through the entire fortune that his father had left him. He filed for bankruptcy in the summer of 1904; he owed his creditors the modern-day equivalent of £250,000,000.
After trustees were appointed to run his estates, he was forced to auction off as many of his possessions as he could in order to recover as much money as possible to pay his debts. His beloved dogs – poodles and collies – were sold over a period of a day. Another day was dedicated to selling his silk-lined suits and fur coats – all 900 lots of them. There were treasure chests of pearls, gold cigarette cases studded with rubies, cars, boats, and exotic animals. Paget also owned the world’s largest collection of walking sticks, their handles encrusted with amethysts and emeralds, and they were all auctioned off in lots. His jewellery collection alone was worth over £80,000. Hundreds of silk dressing gowns from Charvet, hundreds of pairs of exquisitely embroidered and hand-crafted shoes made of suede and leather, and even a robe that was lined with squirrel fur were sold off. It must have all been deeply humiliating and distressing for him.
Shortly after this, Paget left for France, a diminished and broken man. His allowance was reduced to a paltry (as it must have felt to him) £2,000 a year. In today’s prices, that would be £210,000 a year. In France, he spoke to a newspaper that interviewed him about the life he had lived in Wales. "In six years, I have run through that fortune, just how - I could not tell you." Unfortunately, looking at his spending habits, it is plain to see just how he managed to do this.
Five months later, tragically, Paget contracted tuberculosis in Monte Carlo. He died at the age of 29 – fittingly, perhaps - in a beautifully furnished room in the lavish Hotel Royale, with his estranged wife Lilian by his side. None of his disapproving family members greeted his coffin when it returned to the UK, or even at the Anglesey station. His funeral was privately held and he was buried in the cemetery at St Edwen's Church, Llanedwen. The Times obituary said: "The news of Lord Anglesey's death was received at Bangor with much regret, as Lord Anglesey, despite his peculiarities, was much liked there." Other obituaries were not so kind and made fun of his lifestyle and his death.
The title and the estate were inherited by his cousin Charles Henry Alexander Paget, who tore down The Gaiety and rebuilt the chapel. Anglesey Castle was once again known as Plas Newydd. And in the worst possible move, his private papers – letters, diaries, books filled with notes – were burnt. It was as though he had never existed.
Paget's outrageous and flamboyant lifestyle, his taste for cross-dressing, and the breakdown of his marriage have led many to assume that he was gay. Writing in 1970, the homosexual reformer H. Montgomery Hyde characterised him as "the most notorious aristocratic homosexual at this period". One journalist wrote, “I am driven to the conclusion from much that I have seen that there are men who ought to have been born women, and women who ought to have been born men … Bearing the form of a man, he yet had all the tastes, something even of the appearance, of not only a woman but, if the phrase is permissible, a very effeminate woman.” Norena Shopland wrote that "there is little doubt that Henry must be included in the history of gender identity."
There is no evidence for or against his having had any lovers of either sex: performance historian Viv Gardner believes rather that he was "a classic narcissist: the only person he could love and make love to was himself, because, for whatever reason, he was 'unlovable'". The deliberate destruction by his family of his papers, letters, and diaries that might have settled this matter has left any assessment speculative.
No matter what, it is fitting to remember Henry Cyril Paget - fifth Marquess of Anglesey, in this month of Pride, especially, and to celebrate his life. It may have been short, but memories of him live on, despite the cruel attempts to erase him from history. Paget was and will always be an important part of queer history in general, and British queer history in particular.