Home » Uncategorized » Mary Elizabeth, Countess of Chatham (1762-1821)

Mary Elizabeth, Countess of Chatham (1762-1821)

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(Picture from here — looks like it might be by Cosway but I couldn’t tell you for sure)

I think it’s high time I devoted a whole post to Mary, Countess of Chatham, because she’s basically invisible in the history books and I think people need to know more about her. It’s no secret that I have a total crush on her husband, but I’m kind of half in love with Mary as well.

She was born Mary Elizabeth Townshend on 2 September 1762, second daughter of Thomas Townshend (later Lord Sydney, the man who gave his name to the Australian city) and his wife Elizabeth Powys. Townshend had early on linked his political fortunes to the career of William Pitt the Elder, and although the two men were not especially close they were good friends. Their country homes (Frognall for the Townshends, Hayes for the Pitts) were quite close by and the Pitt and older Townshend children almost certainly saw a great deal of each other. Mary and her elder sister Georgiana remained close friends with Lady Harriot Pitt, who was described in 1782 by Elizabeth Townshend as “my third daughter” (PRO 30/8/60 f 235, 11 July 1782).

Sometime over the summer of 1782 John, Second Earl of Chatham became romantically linked with Miss Mary Townshend and there were of course rumours that they would marry. The Townshends appear to have been delighted about this, as well they might given the long-standing friendship between the two families, but for reasons that are unclear John did not actually propose until June 1783. (John Ehrman in The Years of Acclaim (1969, p 110) describes it as “a characteristically lethargic courtship”, but then Ehrman doesn’t seem to like John much). The wedding took place by special licence on 10 July at the Townshends’ townhouse of Albemarle Street. All involved thought it particularly fitting that the couple should have known each other since childhood. “We feel at present the full Value of the Vicinity of Hayes & Frognall, which I have indeed long been used to look upon as one of the most fortunate Circumstances of my Life,” Lord Sydney wrote to Lady Chatham (PRO 30/8/60, f 207, 17 July 1783).

Apart from this, not a great deal is known about Mary. What little there is has to be extracted from the sources available, and often what is not said is as important as what is said. The fact that Mary did not become a prominent political hostess, for example—despite being the Prime Minister’s sister-in-law— suggests that she was far from the sort of person who courted publicity or celebrity. And yet she was not completely off the scene. She usually accompanied her husband to Court events, and became friendly with the older daughters of George III, particularly Sophia and Elizabeth. She was active in canvassing for Lord Hood in the 1788 Westminster by-election and took a central part in the 1789 celebrations for the King’s recovery from his mental illness. When the news of the Glorious First of June naval battle arrived in 1794, it was Mary who made the first public announcement at the theatre. Reticent, then, but not completely self-effacing, and she seems to have been something of a trend-setter: she often appears in newspaper accounts of court dress (as does her husband, who seems to have been a much nattier dresser than his brother).

Perhaps part of the reason that Mary did not take such a prominent political role was her health. Family correspondence is scattered with references to her “rheumatism” as early as 1782, and she seems occasionally to have been virtually crippled by it. Part of her treatment for it sounds rather alarming. Her sister Georgiana wrote in March 1785 to the Dowager Lady Chatham that Mary “has been twice at Mr Partingdon’s to be Electrified & finds great benefit from being Electrified with his large Machine [….. now now, don’t laugh, gentle reader]; it is much efficacious” (PRO 30/8/64). Between April 1784 and the summer of 1786 she seems to have been ill almost constantly, and John postponed a visit to Ireland in the summer of 1785 for her sake.

Whether this ill health had any connection with Mary’s lack of fertility is an interesting question. She never carried a child to term, although it’s not entirely clear whether or not she had any miscarriages. I’ve found at least one instance in which she seems to have been referred to in correspondence as pregnant, so it seems quite likely that there was at least one, and probably more, missed opportunities to continue the Chatham line.

One thing is for sure, the reason for Mary not having a child was not due to any lack of affection between her and her husband. Lady Hester Stanhope, his niece, told her doctor that “Lord Chatham never travelled without a mistress” (Memoirs II, 69), but Lady Hester had a bit of an axe to grind and if she was telling the truth I can’t work out when he would have managed. Mary and John literally went everywhere together. Maybe Mary was very suspicious and didn’t want to let him out of her sight; maybe (and here’s a shock) they were actually fond of each other. The newspapers are always full of “Lord and Lady Chatham” this and “Lord and Lady Chatham” that. As far as I can see the longest periods they were apart during the period I have studied in detail (up to 1806) was the three week period in 1786 when John was in Ireland, and the six weeks when John was in Holland during the 1799 Helder Campaign (and even then Mary spent the entire time waiting for him in Ramsgate… sweet or what?). She seems to have followed him to the various military districts to which he was appointed commander, and even appears by his side at dinners at which no other woman was present. Honestly, it’s really sweet to see. No letters between them survive (and I know some were written … waaaaah, what I wouldn’t give to see them!) but otherwise they definitely came as a pair.

So that’s Mary for you— my Mary, anyway. Shy, fragile, resourceful and devoted. I can’t see her biography being written any time soon, but I hope I have been able to shed some light on a figure who is otherwise nothing but a shadow. And you’ll have to wait for the novel to find out more. 😉

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