The Art of the Resignation Letter

If you’re feeling like you’re ready for a career change, it might just be the perfect time to scout the job market. Perhaps you can see yourself as our next Prime Minister, or maybe even fancy a stint presenting Top Gear? There are certainly plenty of vacancies emerging as the steady stream of resignations gathers momentum. Just don’t be too hasty! Before you put pen to paper telling your boss that you’ve had enough, remember that there’s an art to writing a resignation letter.

We can all learn a thing or two from Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey (1753-1821) about how not to handle a resignation. The mistress of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) was truly a master of the snide put-down. When she wrote to her lover’s wife to resign from her position as Lady of the Bedchamber (no pun intended) The Times reported that the letter was ‘one of the most disrespectful we ever recollect to have read.’* Curious? Well, the next day they printed the offending letter in full. Dated 29th June 1796 it reads:

‘I seLady J 2ize the earliest opportunity in my power to have the honour of informing your Royal Highness that I have this day obtained the permission of H.R.H the Prince of Wales to resign into his hands the situation of Lady of the Bedchamber in yr R.H.’s Family, a situation which I had the honour of being appointed to by him at the same time with the rest of those who compose  yr Royal Highness’s Household.

‘The same duty & attachment which I shall ever be proud to profess for H.R.H. & which induced me to accept of that appointment, urged me to obey his commands in retaining it long after the infamous & unjustifiable paragraphs in the public papers rendered it impossible for a person of the rank & situation which I hold in this country (indeed for anyone possessing the honest pride & spirit of an Englishwoman) to submit to hold a situation which was to make her the object of deep & designing calumny.

‘The Prince of Wales represented to me upon my mentioning my earnest request to H.R.H.  for my instant resignation that such a step would not only be regarded as a confirmation of every absurd & abominable falsehood that had been so industriously fabricated for the present purpose, but that it would be farther promoting the views of those who had been so wickedly labouring to injure H.R.H. in the public mind & and through him to degrade the rest of the Royal Family. But the moment is now come when I can with propriety withdraw myself from such persecution & injustice, with the conscious satisfaction of knowing that I have by my silence & forbearance on my part given the strongest proofs of my duty to the Royal Family, & of that respectful attachment & gratitude to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales which never can end but with my life.’*

This is not so much a resignation letter as a declaration of war. Lady Jersey insinuates that Caroline has been circulating reports to damage the reputation of the Royal Family, and puts her in her place by making it quite clear to her who’s boss. When it comes to the hiring and firing she sees the Princess as having absolutely no authority, and so informs her that she has offered her resignation to the Prince instead.

Lady Jersey could be the most charming woman in the world when she wanted to be, but she also had a fast wit and a sharp tongue which could make life decidedly uncomfortable for her rivals. When Caroline of Brunswick arrived in England to marry the Prince of Wales in 1795 she was met at Greenwich by Lady Jersey, who had been appointed as her Lady of the Bedchamber. It was an impossible situation from the off, with Caroline humiliated by being attended by the woman she knew to be her husband’s mistress – even if he denied the connection. Frances herself was not known for keeping quiet about her conquests and on one occasion took delight in flaunting her short-lived affair with the 5th Duke of Devonshire in front of his wife, Georgiana. Reports spread that Lady Jersey was cruel to Caroline, and the Prince of Wales was hardly discreet in his preference for Frances. He had even given his wife some pearl bracelets when they married, only to take them back and present to his mistress.

by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, hand-coloured etching, published 24 May 1796

The Jersey Smuggler Detected by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey 24th May 1796

By April 1796 the injured princess had had enough and angrily petitioned her husband to remove Lady Jersey from her private household. However, the Prince’s stated that: ‘Her removal would confirm every slander which has been so industriously propagated to her conduct towards you as well as to the nature of her intimacy with me.’ Frances held on to her position, but eventually resignation became the most dignified option to put an end to the situation. Hanging on to her position whilst rumours circulated about both her relationship with the Prince and her disrespectful conduct towards the Princess had done little to help her reputation – and her resignation letter (presumably leaked to the press by the Princess herself) only fuelled the fire as regards to her supposedly cruel treatment of Caroline.

As the wronged wife the Princess of Wales had the support of her people, whilst the mistress was vilified. ‘No Lady Jersey’ was scrawled on walls across London, and amidst fear of mob attacks she fled to Brighton to pass the summer quietly (so she hoped) but no such luck for Lady Jersey! Public disapproval was displayed by parading an effigy of her through the town. Needless to say this was not Lady Jersey’s finest hour and she has gone down in history as the most notorious of the Prince’s many mistresses because of the negative reports circulated about her at this time. However, there are two sides to every story and the more research I do, the more fascinated I become by this beguiling woman. The fact that she is alternately described as a charming creature and an infernal Jezebel has drawn me into the complex web of her character and inspired me to write her biography, which is currently a work in progress.

*See A. Aspinall, The Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales 1770-112, Vol. III: 1795-1798 (London: Cassell, 1965), p. 246.

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