Have you ever been told that you are related to royalty? Many Canadians have, including my family. This is such a story.
It is very well known that Edward Augustus Hanover, Duke of Kent, (the father of Queen Victoria) and his mistress of 26 years Madame Julie St. Laurent, lived together at Quebec City from about 1791-1794 and according to most historians had several children. These illegitimate children were taken in and cared for by various families in the area. Given this fact, there are now likely to be many thousands of descendants and thus the stories of royal connection still persist in many Canadian families. In a book published circa 1970 entitled “The Prince and His Lady”, the author Mollie Gillen, in addition to providing a detailed account about the lives of Edward and Julie, explores several families whose history, like mine include such tales of a royal connection. These are families Wood, Whyte, Goodhall, Green, de Mestre, Rees and others. Ms. Gillen’s book however does not mention my ancestor John St Alban Sewell as a possible royal descendant.
In my family, the tale begins with Jonathan Sewell (1766-1839) who was later to become Chief Justice Lower Canada. Jonathan, a bachelor, and a woman named Elizabeth Cornfield brought a male child to the Church of England to be baptized. The child had been born some unknown time prior to the date of his baptism on September 22nd 1793. He was named John St Alban Sewell. Subsequently John grew up as the oldest child of 13 known children in the family of Jonathan and his wife (of three years later) Henrietta Smith at Quebec. Because John was illegitimate and born at about the time as royal offspring and Jonathan and Edward were acquaintances and shared a love of music, John’s paternity has been the subject of much speculation.
The following is an example of the sort of reasoning that has been related over the centuries to possibly show that John St. Alban Sewell was a son of Edward and Julie. The following text was written by my cousin Robert Sewell and can be found on his web site.
“When Jonathan Sewell married in 1796, John St. Alban remained in the home and was brought up as an elder brother of the family. Then, as now, it was completely and totally socially unacceptable for a child from a previous relationship that didn’t have the blessing of the church to even be referred to, let alone remain in the family. This suggests that Jonathan had perhaps made some sort of a promise or had some sort of a deal with someone important.
When Jonathan Sewell clashed with the obnoxious and tyrannical governor Lord Dalhousie, nothing really happened except that Dalhousie was eventually recalled and censured. In normal circumstances, Jonathan would have been dismissed. His brother Stephen Sewell lost his position of Solicitor General when he disagreed with Sir George Provost. It seems that perhaps someone higher up was indebted to Jonathan Sewell.
According to the Directory of Royal Genealogical Data courtesy of Brian Tompsett, University of Hull, the Duke of Kent and Mdm. Julie St. Laurent had a son who was “said to have been adopted at birth in Canada”.
Henry Charles DeQuincy Sewell (1888-1959) told his son Robert George Sewell that they "were descendants of the Duke of Kent". While this is not true, it does suggest that a story involving a connection with the Royal Family had been passed down and had perhaps been misinterpreted over time.
While stationed in Scotland during the Second World War, Robert George Sewell volunteered to act as navigator for a pilot who wanted to fly down to London on personal business. This pilot questioned Robert George at considerable length about his descent from Chief Justice Jonathan Sewell and also told Robert George "he was going to London to visit the King". Robert George thought he was joking, but on returning to Scotland, other officers told him that the pilot was indeed a "cousin" of King George VI. We don’t know who the pilot actually was, but once again there is the suggestion of a connection with Chief Justice Jonathan Sewell and the Royal Family. It is to be noted, however, that Colonel John St. Alban Sewell was not specifically mentioned.
John St. Alban Sewell joined the military at an early age and his rise through the ranks was nothing less than meteoric. Only very well connected persons experienced success such as his.
However, in March 2000, the diligent research of Ms. Deborah Carroll revealed that Elizabeth Cornfield not only existed, but that she was present, along with Jonathan Sewell, at the baptism of John St. Alban on September 22, 1793. Thus, we are left with a choice of two fathers (Jonathan and Edward Augustus) and two mothers (Julie St. Laurent and Elizabeth Cornfield) for one child (John St. Alban).”
These are interesting items but none prove paternity, but believing there is often some grain of truth in tales passed down, I researched further. Here is what I found to be relevant.
A church document states that on September 22nd 1793 John St. Alban a “natural child” (the meaning is illegitimate) was christened in the Anglican Church at Quebec City. The document shows the name Jonathan Sewell Advocato in the father’s column, Elizabeth Cornfield in the mother’s column, John Coffin Junior, John Taylor Assistant Paymaster General and The Mother in the Godparent’s column.
There is evidence that Jonathan was planning to marry some seven months before the baptism of John. In a letter dated 23 February 1793 at Fredericton Mr. Chipman wrote to Jonathan Sewell. "I am rejoiced most sincerely my dear Jack at your uncommon success in business…. I consider your situation now as fixed by your income permanent & certain; I therefore most highly approve your matrimonial scheme. Life at best is but short & I don't see why we should trifle it away. For myself I can truly say I never knew what real happiness was till I was married and am sure from this knowledge I have of your disposition & habits think that you will say so too. Your idea on the subject confirms my persuasion."
But by June it appears the bride-to-be is out of favour. In a letter dated June 18th 1793, Ester Sewell wrote to her son Jonathan in a PS "nothing affords us so much happiness as to know you are well and in health - remember me to all you incline to - what you are about. That you don't tell us a little about Miss P C is wonderful."
Miss P. C. I take to be Elizabeth Cornfield. The P in P.C., I take to refer to her nickname, such as Polly. Indeed she was out of favour with Jonathan, for on November 19th 1793 Elizabeth Cornfield married Sergeant John Finch musician of the Royal Fusiliers. So it appears that Elizabeth jilted Jonathan and just two months after the baptism of John St Alban, she married. We do not know where the infant John St Alban lived at this time.
Three years later on the 24th of September 1796 Jonathan Sewell married Henrietta Smith (1766-1849), daughter of The Hon. William Smith, and a succession of children followed, the first-born July 18 1797 who died shortly thereafter and the second William in May 1798. When William was just four months old there was a smallpox epidemic and on September 5th 1798 Jonathan wrote to Henrietta (known as Harriett) his wife. “I thank you much for your attention to poor John. You rightly distinguish between him and me. His birth was faulty, but it is not on him the blame should fall. For myself, I am silent and attempt to exculpate my conduct will now be made by me, for I am too conscious of my own folly and guilt. Believe me ever with unalterable affection and sincerity, your fond and devoted husband. J Sewell.”
John, now aged about five, is perhaps ill with smallpox. Harriett’s attention to John for which Jonathan thanks her, appears to be an unusual occurrence that implies that John was living elsewhere and given his possible illness it is removed from the infant William. The letter also implies that Jonathan has responded to something Harriett said namely that she appears to regard John’s illness as a chastisement and implies the chastisement is not rightly John’s but Jonathan’s. Jonathan clearly takes the blame for his “faulty birth”. If Jonathan were referring to the illegitimacy of John’s birth by Madame Julie and the Prince, why would Jonathan be to blame, for his adoption of him? I think not.
Again in February1799 Jonathan wrote to Harriett “give my love to little John if you see him,” this suggests that John still lives elsewhere. And in a letter dated September 6th 1800 written by Harriet 3 days after the birth of her son Edmund Willoughby she states “John and William at my side.” Perhaps John is now living with the family or rejoined the family after the smallpox scare.
A letter from the adult John St Alban Sewell dated 2nd of May 1818, sheds more light on the subject. “Dear Father, I have written to you twice respecting my mother who is now in London and I now write that my letters may have miscarried. My first was requesting you to allow as much as would support her. (She … is having now to maintain herself) not being worse than you had hitherto …. My second was that you would continue your kindness allowing the money to be d….? for her by me and this my dear father is the sum of the …..? as to my …. on this subject. Your affectionate son J Sewell. Here John, is definitely not referring to Harriett Sewell, who lived comfortably to a ripe old age at Quebec and inherited a fortune.
Of course it is possible that John, never knew the true identity of his birth parents, so this is less conclusive, but it seems logical that if his father were the Prince, he would write the Prince for support of his mother.
These letters and documents do not prove the paternity of John St. Alban, and no doubt can and will be interpreted in many ways, but to my mind satisfy my curiosity. I believe John St Alban Sewell is the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Cornfield and Jonathan Sewell. I also am open to the idea that when John being approximately the same age as the royal offspring and first came to live with the Sewell family, his paternity unknown, was speculated about and thus the rumour that he was the son of the Prince began. It is also possible that the Royal offspring may have resided with the Sewell family for a time and later the child confused with John, being approximately the same age.
When doing family history research it is important to remember that a baptismal record does not prove parentage, paternity or the age of the child. A child may be brought to the church to be baptized by anyone, a guardian, a Godparent, an uncle etc. but we only assume it to be the parent. In the case of John it does state however that he was a “natural child”, which is a polite and common way of describing an illegitimate birth, ie. the parents were not married.
In the book A Prince and His Lady, Ms Gillen generally assumes the record of baptism declares the birth parentage, that the child is an infant and she does not acknowledge the correct meaning of “a natural child” for she states “It is necessary here to remark that the term “natural child” does not necessarily imply illegitimacy, although it tends to be used in this sense. It does mean “real” child, not son-in-law, stepson or adopted child.”
It is also interesting to note that all baptisms records were not written in the same way and open to interpretation. For example the register for William Sewell’s baptism reads “William Smith, son of Jonathan Sewell Esq. Attorney General for the Province of Lower Canada and of Henrietta his wife, was born May the twenty eighth and baptized June the seventeenth in the year of our Lord One thousand seven hundred and ninety eight by me Salter Jehoshaphat Mountain, Rector of the English Church at Quebec.
Present J. Sewell father, Henrietta Sewell mother, Mary Smith Godmother, Thos. Aston Coffin God Father, George Germaine Sackville Franklin proxy for Stephen Sewell Godfather.”
This is very different from the register of John’s baptismal record. It does not declare the birth parentage, date and place of birth. It simply states that on September 22nd 1793 John St. Alban a “natural child” was baptized in the Anglican Church at Quebec City. The document shows the name Jonathan Sewell Advocato in the father’s column, Elizabeth Cornfield in the mother’s column, John Coffin Junior, John Taylor Assistant Paymaster General and The Mother in the Godparent’s column. In fact Elizabeth Cornfield is written in the mother’s column and “Mother” written in the Godparent’s column, which one could interpret as another person, but in this case I think Elizabeth Cornfield was both birth mother and Godmother.
In conclusion, I do think that had the illegitimate Royal offspring births or baptisms had been recorded, they have long since been destroyed to prevent any claim to the throne other than the legitimate offspring, namely Victoria. After all it was clearly a very important matter. But this fact and others mentioned should not be a deterrent for those interested in researching their own family histories, for in my experience, you never know what can be found, given the example above.
The quoted parts are from the Sewell Family Fonds MG23-GII 10 National Archives of Canada.