In 1744, aspiring politician Thomas Estcourt Cresswell married Anne Warneford, the heiress of Sir Edmund Warneford, of Bibury Court.
The couple appeared happy, and had several children together; but many years later, a woman named Elizabeth Scrope turned up and sued Cresswell for bigamy, scandalising society with her claim that Cresswell had married her in a clandestine Fleet marriage. Further allegations included that Cresswell had married heiress Anne purely because he believed that she was frail and would not live long – making him a rich widower.
Cresswell, rather ungallantly, suggested that he had purposely married Scrope in private, believing that having sex with her would “cure” her of an alleged hysterical illness. Sex had been his motivation for the secret ceremony. Scrope, unsurprisingly, denied this to be the case, and both sides duly published their sides of the story in a series of pamphlets, designed to gain the public’s sympathy. Scrope’s claim was upheld, and poor Anne’s marriage was deemed invalid, making her children illegitimate.
But the story didn’t end there. Fleet records showed that Cresswell appeared to have married prior to either Scrope’s or Anne’s weddings – making both illegal! Cresswell then went on to have other children, also illegitimate, by a mistress in the early 1750s. Even the History of Parliament repeats Lord Ducie’s description of Cresswell as “a very great villain”.
The scandal around Cresswell’s bigamies did not, surprisingly, end his ambition or his success. In 1754, he became MP for Wootton Bassett, a position he held for the next twenty years. And his illegitimate son Estcourt, from his marriage to Anne Warneford, became MP for Cirencester in 1768, and then inherited the family estate in Bibury, being visited by the Prince of Wales – later George IV – on at least one occasion. Bigamy, in the Cresswells’ case, proved a successful enterprise.
The text of the pamphlet A Narrative Of The Affair Between Mr Cresswell And Miss Sc___e, produced by Cresswell, is available from Google Books.