Ruminations on Mortality

More happy thoughts for a (sort of) sunny Wednesday afternoon, but yesterday (24 September, that is) was the 178th anniversary of John, 2nd Earl of Chatham’s death. I suspect I was the only one who noticed— that is until I posted about it on Facebook, when roughly 200 of my friends were given the chance to be thoroughly uninterested about it— but I thought it might be an appropriate time to write this post.

John, as I have mentioned before, had no children. The heir to the Chatham title was, therefore, his brother William, who would have been mightily brassed off to be swept away to the House of Lords as Third Earl of Chatham. (Not to mention how annoyed John would have been to have his candle snuffed out well before time… although I suppose he wouldn’t have cared much.) The fate of Pitt the Younger’s government pretty much rode on John’s shoulders, and everyone knew it. Under the circumstances John’s career in the army was rather unfortunate. He didn’t serve abroad much during the wars with France but when he participated in the Helder expedition to Holland in 1799 he was whapped in the shoulder by a spent ball. It was deflected by his epaulette and he survived more or less unscathed (although his coat and waistcoat, reportedly, did not). I don’t suppose he would have been very pleased to  know that his risking his life for his country called forth the typical following encomiums from his cousin the Marquis of Buckingham:

“Lord Chatham’s escape has, I trust, decided you [his brother Lord Grenville] and others to whom the public have a right to look, not to suffer yourselves to forego for his very proper feelings as a soldier the dearest interests of the public; and that, in one word, his further service on the Continent will be negatived; a sacrifice which, I must say, he owes to the public.” (Buckingham to Grenville, 15 October 1799, Dropmore MSS V, 473)

Even a number of Pitt’s earlier biographers had a bit of fun with poor John’s narrow squeak. P.W. Wilson, for example, joked that “Pitt’s career was safeguarded  by the fraternal gold lace” (William Pitt, the Younger (1933), p. 278). Forgive me if I remain straight-faced.

It wasn’t just John’s career that put him at risk, of course. Like all the Pitt children his health was delicate, and any prolonged periods of ill health always got the London newspapers into a state of excitement. Lord Rosebery tells the story of how, “while London was illuminating for the King’s recovery [after the Regency Crisis in 1789], Lord Chatham lay mortally ill. So grave was his malady that the hunters after Providence had fixed on Grenville as the new minister” (Pitt (1891), p. 93). I haven’t found any evidence of this actually happening, but it certainly could have done, although not in the spring or summer of 1789 when John’s movements were thoroughly accounted for. What Rosebery is probably referring to (and somewhat inflating) is the accident that happened to John in the summer of 1788 which I have decided to refer to as the Septic Shoebuckle Incident. From the London Chronicle, 14-16 June 1788:

“The Earl of Chatham has been confined to his room these two months, owing to the kicking of his buckle against his ancle [sic] bone, which, though apparently a trifling accident, has hitherto baffled the efforts of his surgeon to effect a cure.”

So apparently John injured his leg on his shoebuckle (how? ……… no idea: answers on a postcard please). Apart from the fact that the above sounds fairly painful (it almost sounds like the buckle got lodged in his leg, although I think that’s unlikely), the wound obviously went septic and in the absence of antibiotics, kept John under the weather for a good long while. Family and friends were also anxious about it, and apparently with good reason because John’s leg injury kept him unwell for months. “I think my brother is now really at the eve of being able to move again,” William wrote to his mother on 29 August (Stanhope I, 382), three days after the World reported John “nearly recovered” from “a very serious confinement”. By September John was recovering at Henry Dundas’s house in Wimbledon, although it was not until 25 October that the Public Advertiser announced that he was “perfectly recovered from his tedious lameness, occasioned by a wound on the shin from his buckles”. Even that wasn’t the last word: as late as 22 March 1789 the former Pitt family tutor Edward Wilson referred to the injury in a letter to John’s mother (PRO 30/8/67 f 115): “I am truly sorry to hear that anything is the matter with my Lord Chatham’s leg again, but I have rested my hope in your Ladyship’s account of it, as I am now unwilling to trouble his Lordship with enquiries”.

The newspapers were agog. (Had John succumbed, a modern newspaper would almost certainly have run the headline: “Ministry scuppered by a shoebuckle!”) I guess it wasn’t unreasonable to suppose that four to six months was a long time to take to recover from an injury. One can only imagine John’s feelings when he openedthe Morning Herald on 2 October 1788 and discovered that at least one journalist had written him off already:

“If the Earl of Chatham, whose health is much impaired, should die, Mr Pitt will succeed [to the Earldom], and of consequence go up to the House of Peers.”

In 1791 almost exactly the same thing happened (no, not his shoebuckle — that sort of injury surely only happens once in a lifetime). This time, apparently, John fell out of his carriage and broke his leg (according to the Geneve Post on 28 July 1791, anyway). Ouchies for sure, but once again it took months for him to recover, and the length of his recovery possibly owed something to another unspecified underlying illness as Reverend Wilson referred to “the palid [sic] hues that were really alarming” (18 November 1791, PRO 30/8/67 f 53). Either way, the newspapers ran amok again. “The Earl of Chatham was prevented from making his return of the navy, on account of his Lordship’s being confined to his room with a wound in his leg, which he received in stepping to his coach,” reported the London Chronicle on 2 July. Three days later the Star reported him “much recovered”, but on 14 July wrote that he continued “much indisposed at his house in the Admiralty”. On the 19th the Geneve Post announced that he was “so very ill, that is is prevented from leaving his room”. They refrained from printing the running odds on Pitt’s succeeding to the earldom within the month, but someone must have been calculating them by then. On the 21st the Morning Herald dashed the hopes of the gambling men by deeming John “so well recovered … as to be able to resume his Presidency at the Board of Admiralty”, but the account was premature. Pitt wrote to his mother on the same day (PRO 30/8/12 f 436) “My Brother as you probably know, is not yet released from his provoking Confinement; but he certainly mends, tho slowly”. Reverend Wilson also hastened to reassure Lady Chatham: “We receive frequent & undoubted assurances that there is no ground of danger or alarm” (22 July 1791, PRO 30/8/67 f 195).

If Lady Chatham had been following the newspapers she would have needed the reassurance. The Star reopened the odds on the succession of a third Earl of Chatham on 23 July with the news that “The Earl of Chatham continues much indisposed … His Lordship has not attended the Admiralty Board this fortnight”. Not until 12 August did the Evening Mail report that Chatham had gone “out in his carriage, for the first time these six weeks”, and it was not till the end of the month that he resumed his official duties. Probably John’s health was followed so closely because he was a member of the cabinet, but some of it almost certainly had to do with curiosity as to what would happen if he keeled over.

Of course after Pitt died in 1806 nobody cared quite so much whether John lived or died, but as he got older the vultures began to cluster around the various honorary positions and emoluments he held for life in the hopes of inheriting them in due course. In 1831 John’s health collapsed and he thought himself close to death. He wasn’t the only one: the Duke of Wellington received a letter, dated 15 March 1831, from General Sir William Clinton, asking for one of John’s official posts since there was a rumour he had died. The Duke had to write back to tell Clinton he had been misinformed. (University of Southampton Wellington Papers, WP1/1178/26)

Poor John, but it does rather put me in mind of Spamalot’s “Not Dead Yet” song… (…..which probably makes me just as bad as all those sniggering historians to be honest)

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“A felicity inexpressible”: The Chatham Vase

The “Chatham Vase” is a sculpture commissioned by Hester, Dowager Countess of Chatham, in 1780-1 to commemorate her husband William Pitt the Elder, First Earl of Chatham. It was sculpted in the shape of a Grecian urn by John Bacon, the same man who designed Chatham’s monument in Westminster Abbey. The urn was erected at Burton Pynsent, Somerset, which Lady Chatham used as her dower house until her death.

The lines on the pedestal (largely weathered away now, but still just about legible) read:

“Sacred to pure affection, this simple urn stands a witness of unceasing grief for him who, excelling in whatever is so admirable, and adding to the exercise of the sublimest virtues the sweet charm of refined sentiment and polished wit, by gay social commerce rendered beyond comparison happy the course of domestic life and bestowed a felicity inexpressible on her whose faithful love was blessed in a pure return that raised her above every other joy but the parental one, and that still shared with him. His generous country with public monuments has eternised his fame. This humble tribute is but to soothe the sorrowing breast of private woe.”

This tribute was apparently written by Lady Chatham herself, with a little assistance from her son William Pitt the Younger. Pitt wrote to his mother on the subject on 20 April 1780 (Stanhope I, 39):

“All my feelings with regard to the paper enclosed I need not express. I am sure I should be far indeed from wishing to suggest a syllable of alteration. The language of the heart, of such a heart especially, can never require or admit of correction. May it remain as it deserves, a lasting monument of both the subject and the author.”

After Lady Chatham died in April 1803, her son John, second Earl of Chatham, was forced to sell Burton Pynsent for financial reasons. He made sure, however, to take the Vase away before selling the property. Where it went after Burton I do not know—I have found no record of John having access to any country property between 1805 and 1815, or from 1820 onwards. Presumably the Vase spent the time packed away in John’s attic. It was not forgotten, though. Richard, Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, the son of John’s cousin the Marquis of Buckingham and Hester Chatham’s great-nephew, wrote to John in March 1831:

“My Lord,

I feel that I am taking a great liberty in entering into the subject of this letter and must appeal to your kindness to excuse me for doing so. My veneration for the memory of the great men of the family from which I am descended, must plead my pardon, and I am sure that to no-one can that appeal be more forciby made than to the Son of the grand Earl of Chatham.

The monument erected by your Mother to her lamented Lord at Burton Pynsent has now no resting place where it can stand a memorial to her Piety and of your Father’s greatness. The want of a male heir should any thing happen to you in the uncertainty of human life, will, unless you will that monument away, leave it—or its value—to be divided amongst Co-Heiresses [presumably a reference to John’s then heirs, Lady Harriot Hester Pringle and Lady Lucy Taylor]. It ought to stand in some Scene which your Father visited and took interest in, during his life time. Will you allow me to put it up at Stowe? … Allow me to press the request upon you, and to express my hope that you will prove that you forgive me by coming this next Summer at Stowe, and then view with your own eyes the Urn placed amidst the Scenes in which your Father past so many of his days” [PRO 30/8/365 f 243, 3 March 1831]

I personally found that letter astoundingly cheeky—“You’re old and about to peg it, and have no children, so can I have your urn?”—and I don’t know how much eye-rolling John must have done on reading it, but he agreed:

“I beg that you will accept my very warmest thanks for the kind manner in which you have acquiesced in my request … With your permission I shall put an Inscription upon a side of the Pedestal different from that on which your Mother’s inscription is engraved, stating how it came to be placed at Stowe, and probably you will not be displeased if I request Lord Grenville to write the Inscription for me” [23 March 1831, PRO 30/8/365 f 241]

Lord Grenville’s inscription reads: “In the year 1831, this interesting memorial of a near and highly venerated relative was, by the kindness of his son John Earl of Chatham, presented to the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos by whom it is here placed in remembrance of the early and long attachment of that great man to these tranquil scenes, and of his close connexion with the family of their proprietors.”

The Vase, however, did not long remain at Stowe. It was sold at auction in 1848, and where it was between 1848 and 1857 I do not know. In 1857 it was sold again and purchased by James Banks Stanhope, son of James Hamilton Stanhope, who through various very complicated relationships was related to both the Grenvilles and the Pitts, and placed at Revesby Hall in Lincolnshire:

The Vase moved on one more time, when it was bought by the 7th Earl Stanhope in 1934:

The Vase is now at Chevening (and hopefully won’t go anywhere else as there are no more sides to engrave……). This is as appropriate a place as any given that the Stanhope family was closely bound to the Pitts by blood and marriage, and the first Lord Chatham lived there for a while in 1769 and helped lay out the grounds (nobody ever managed to stop him “improving” any house he stayed in). There is still a copy at Stowe, but the original can still be seen at Chevening, which holds annual garden Open Days if anybody is curious enough to want to see it.

The Cheveley mystery … solved!

Jan Siberechts:Cheveley Park, near Newmarket

(Cheveley Park in the 17th century by Jan Siberechts, from here)

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(From Public Advertiser, 18 January 1790)

I have mentioned a few times on here the mystery that was John, Earl of Chatham’s “seat” of “Cheveley Park/Hall/House/Whatever”. This was first flagged up to me when searching for references to John in the Burney Newspaper Collection. From the summer of 1787 John and his wife could regularly be found at this “Cheveley” over the sporting season, up until John “disposed” of the estate in July of 1797 (Times, 2 July 1797, although the Morning Post recorded him as being at Cheveley as late as 6 October 1797). 

What confused me was this. The Cheveley in question (named “Hall” or “Park” interchangeably) was always stated to be “near Newmarket”, as in the snippet above; it was always mentioned as being John’s “seat”; it never seems to be mentioned in context with anybody else. Why would I be confused about this? Because Cheveley Park, Newmarket, was a hunting lodge belonging to the Duke of Rutland.

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(From the Gazette and New Daily Advertiser, 22 January 1791)

So what was going on here? Did the Duke of Rutland rent out, or lend, his Cheveley Park, Newmarket, to the Earl of Chatham? They were after all very good friends— see my post on the subject the other day). Moreover, although John first started using Cheveley in the autumn of 1787, his bosom buddy the 4th Duke was at that point still alive and in Ireland, so no doubt might well have given John permission to use one of his estates for a bit. After the Duke died in October of that year, his son the 5th Duke was all of nine years old and, no doubt, a bit young to need a hunting lodge all to himself. It could very possibly have been the Cheveley Park, Newmarket.

But surely there would be some record of it? And I couldn’t find anything—nothing at all. A Google search for “Cheveley Hall” (on the supposition that the Hall and the Park were two different places) came up with nothing but a small half-timbered house in the centre of Cheveley village that John would have looked down his (very impressive and well-formed) nose at, and had no land attached whatsoever to hunt in. An email to the Newmarket Local History Society turned up nothing. ardentpittite very helpfully assisted me in finding some references to Cheveley Park in the Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire, but although the history stated that the house “stood empty” between 1784 and 1799 the evidence given for this statement was a couple of newspapers published over late 1786 and early 1787 (before John moved in) and a letter of 20 August 1799 from William Windham in the Dropmore MSS (after John moved out). By that reckoning John could certainly have been using Cheveley between 1787 and 1797—but I still had no proof.

My latest visit to the Archives made me more certain than ever that I was definitely looking at the Cheveley Park. Apart from John and Rutland’s gushy manlove letters, I found several references to John being at Cheveley Park, Newmarket:

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Surely there being two Cheveley Parks in Newmarket would give rise to confusion at the Post Office? And let’s not forget this letter from Pitt the Younger to his mother, from PRO 30/8/12 f 389, dated 13 September 1787, as usual very modest about his abilities in the sporting field: “I returned yesterday from Chevely [sic] which I reached on the preceding Monday, and had the pleasure of finding my Brother and Lady Chatham established very much to their Satisfaction. My visit was not a long one but afforded me a good deal of Riding in the way there and back, and as good a Day’s Sport of Shooting as could be had without ever killing.” (Interestingly John Ehrman, who refers to this letter in The Younger Pitt: The Years of Acclaim p. 590, does not seem to have cottoned on to the fact that John was using Cheveley independently of Rutland.)

So was it the same Cheveley? “All I need,” I cried, “is a newspaper article saying something like “Lord Chatham has taken over the Duke of Rutland’s seat at Cheveley”. So a thousand thanks to my fellow Pittster and sister-in-research Steph, who within minutes came back with the following: “The Duke of Rutland’s house at Cheveley Park is taken by Lord Chatham during the sporting season” (From Norfolk Chronicle 7 July 1787).

Many, many thanks to Steph are due, therefore, for putting me out of my misery. And now I really must write a lengthy email to Newmarket Local History Society. 😉