Happy 258th birthday John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham

As those who have followed this blog since its beginning will know, I do not follow the majority view that John, 2nd Earl of Chatham was born on 9 October 1756. As far as I can see the only justification for this is that John’s father wrote a letter to William Pitt (John’s brother) on 9 October 1773 in which he talked of it being “the happy day that gave us your brother”.[1] Possibly it was John’s birthday, as certainly John read Tomline’s draft before the book was published and might have been expected to correct the error, but I tend to think Tomline mistranscribed.

This is why:

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham's baptismal record, Hayes, Kent

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham’s baptismal record, Hayes, Kent[2]

Even given this is a partial record, I think it’s fairly obvious that I have good grounds for commemorating John’s birthday on the 10th and not the 9th.

Anyway, moving on… in celebration of John’s 258th (he always looked younger than his years), today’s post is about his childhood. I’ve been posting a lot about his later years recently, so it seems fitting to go right back to the beginning for once.

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, in John Singleton Copley's "The Death of the Earl of Chatham"

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, aged 21/2, in John Singleton Copley’s “The Death of the Earl of Chatham”

John was, like his younger brother William, born at Hayes Place, his father’s country house in Kent. (The other three children were born in London.) “We are all well here … and intend that our little colony shall, God willing, receive its increase in the pure air of our village,” Pitt the Elder wrote to his brother-in-law George Grenville on 20 August 1756.[3]

In accordance with his later reputation, it seems John arrived a little later than expected, but when he did decide to make his appearance he was in a hurry.[4] It was probably the quickest entrance he made in his entire life. A delighted Pitt the Elder gushed to George Grenville on the morning of 10 October 1756 about John’s health and size:

Lady Hester is as well as can be in her situation, after being delivered of a son this morning, who is also well. She had a sharp time, but not longer than two hours and a half. There was enough notice to have [William] Hunter [the fashionable accoucheur] and all comforts about us. … Mrs Grenville, I am sure, and perhaps you, will excuse my talking nursery: the young man meets with general applause for stature and strength … He is, however, as they flatter me, without appearance of heaviness, notwithstanding his size.[5]

Pitt was evidently delighted to have a son at last. “[Lady Hester] and the child are as well as possible,” he reported to his nephew Thomas Pitt, “and the father in the joy of his heart”.[6]

William Pitt the Elder by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder by William Hoare

Most books focus on the childhood of John’s brother William, but there are occasional glimpses of John in the family correspondence. The impression drawn from history is that Lord and Lady Chatham favoured their second son above all the other children, and there is probably some truth in this, but John, too, was much loved. In 1770 Lord Chatham spent some quality time at Burton Pynsent with John, who was going to travel on with his tutor Mr Wilson to Cornwall, while Lady Chatham remained with the four others at Hayes:

Pray tell all at Athens, professors, and scholars, how truly charmed I am with their performances [ie, as correspondents] … They may all rest satisfied that Pitt [John, whose courtesy title as heir was Viscount Pitt] is every thing that can please: he is a sweet, idle boy; he is a sensible, conversable, discreet man: sense or nonsense, verse or prose, Homer, mouse, taste, all shine alike, and draw perpetual applauses from papa and Mr Wilson.[7]

Along with his four siblings Hester, Harriot, William, and James Charles, John was educated at home by a tutor, Reverend Edward Wilson. There were some thoughts of sending him to Eton, where his father had gone, but apparently these came to nothing.[8] He seems to have been a bright boy: he often bested William in his studies, and their tutor Wilson’s comments on the subject can be followed in the Chatham MSS at the National Archives .[9] “John was distinguish’d first for his Mathematicks, and then for his Latin Lesson,” Lady Chatham wrote to her husband in July 1766. “… Mr Wilson imputed their success [John and Hester’s], to the subject, which he told me they took to, with a Taste and an ardour of Application that was quite fine. The subject, was an account of Aristides, and his great Virtues”.[10]

From W.A. Shuffrey, "Some Craven Worthies" (London, 1903)

Rev. Edward Wilson and his brother Thomas, From W.A. Shuffrey, “Some Craven Worthies” (London, 1903)

In terms of his likes and dislikes, John was pure boy. He was never happier than when out riding or shooting, two pastimes he kept up for the rest of his life. In 1777 his mother apologised to a correspondent for John’s not adding his good wishes to a letter, because he was “following the Fox Hounds, for the first day this season”.[11] It seems, however, that he was proficient at drawing, and his tutor Mr Wilson often referred to the vividness of his imagination.[12] Dancing was also a passion: he and his siblings were under the tutelage of the fashionable dancing master Giovanni Gallini, and there are frequent mentions in the correspondence of John staying out late dancing or accepting invitations to Pantheon balls.[13] On at least one occasion Lord Chatham referred to his eldest son as “the powdered beau”, suggesting an early inclination to dressing fashionably and well which he never entirely outgrew.

John was early destined for a career in the army (… which has always struck me as a little unusual as the destination for an older son, but there you go). His future was already determined before he was 14: Lord Chatham joked he was learning “how to live in a March, or bad quarters” when they made a bad journey from London to Somerset in July 1770.[15] John spent the summer of 1773 applying himself assiduously to his studies, Lord Chatham having procured him an ensigncy in the 47th Foot. John was due to go out with General Guy Carleton to Quebec the following year, but in the meantime the sixteen-year-old spent most of a holiday spent at Lyme in Dorset studying with a local military engineer.

Lord Chatham wrote to his wife referring to his eldest son as “young Vauban” and described how he was kept from joining his father and second brother on a ride because “he was generously occupied in learning to defend the happy land we were enjoying. Indeed, my life, the promise of our dear children does me more good than the purest of pure air”.[16] John’s brother James Charles was slightly less generous  when the travellers returned to Burton Pynsent, expressing astonishment “that Pitt has made so amazing a progress in the military art, in so short a time”– but that’s siblings for you.[17]

When he left England for Canada in June 1774 John, theoretically, stopped being a boy and became a man. He was still only 17, though, and he had spent all his childhood at home with his family. Travelling abroad must have been a big shock for a boy who had, essentially, rarely gone much further north than London. Apart from his brother James, he was by far the most well-travelled of the Pitts, travelling with the army to North America, Gibraltar, and the Leeward Islands, as well as in due course the Netherlands.

He was, also, and less positively, the man responsible for selling the house in which he had been born, Hayes Place, and the house in which he spent much of his childhood, Burton Pynsent. Hayes was sold in 1785, Burton Pynsent in 1805, after his mother’s death, both to settle John’s debts– although he had inherited both of them mortgaged to the hilt. John never had children of his own; nor would he, strictly speaking, fulfil the promise his father clearly felt he showed in his youth. But promise he had, and it is well worth remembering that the man who would, in later life and posthumously, be castigated as an idiot, once bested his brother in mathematics.

 

References

[1] Tomline, Life of Pitt I, 15

[2] Thanks to Stephenie Woolterton for the picture

[3] Grenville Papers I, 171

[4] Letters written by the late Earl of Chatham to his nephew Thomas Pitt… (London, 1804), p. 96

[5] Grenville Papers I, 173-4

[6] Letters of Lord Chatham to Thomas Pitt, p. 97

[7] Lord Chatham to Lady Chatham, 3 August 1770, Chatham Correspondence III, 470

[8] Lady Chatham to Lord Temple, 23 September 1769, Grenville Papers 5, 463

[9] PRO 30/8/67

[10] Lady Chatham to Lord Chatham, 11 July 1766, PRO 30/8/9

[11] Lady Chatham to Mrs Thomas Pitt, 25 October 1777, Dropmore Papers, British Library Add Ms 59490, ff 61-2. Thanks to Stephenie Woolterton for the reference

[12] James Charles Pitt to Lord Chatham, 21 June 1773, PRO 30/8/13; Edward Wilson to Lady Chatham, 23 August 1766, PRO 30/8/67

[13] Vere Birdwood, So dearly loved, so much admired (London, 1994), p. 9; Marie Peters, The Elder Pitt (London, 1998), pp. 211-2

[14] Ghita Stanhope and G.P. Gooch, Life of Charles, 3rd Earl Stanhope (London, 1914), p. 10

[15] Lord Chatham to Lady Chatham, 31 July 1770, PRO 30/8/9

[16] Quoted in Tresham Lever, The House of Pitt (London, 1947), pp. 192-3

[17] James Charles Pitt to Lord Chatham, 21 June 1773, PRO 30/8/13

 

Short story: From Day to Day

This is a bit of a departure for me in this blog, but I recently wrote a short story for the Historical Novel Society conference competition. I didn’t make the shortlist, but I’m quite proud of it, so wanted to share it here.

It’s called From Day to Day, and takes place over the disastrous weekend in September 1819 when the Bishop of Lincoln and his wife Eliza Tomline came to visit Lord and Lady Chatham at Abington Hall. If the title seems familiar, it’s because I wrote a post about the historical background to this story back in April.

Without further ado…


From Day to Day

I stand outside Abington Hall and watch for his return from the hunt. He is late and my anxiety rises when John is not beside me. I feel for the locket he gave me on our wedding day with a lock of his black hair inside. My fingers trace the filigree pattern, smoothed by daily wear and warm from the heat of my skin. I know he wants to send me to my family until I am better. I must show him I already am, for if I lose him I never will get well.

John comes home at dusk. Relief courses through me at the sight of his tall, straight form in the saddle, but the moment he sees me his expression changes. Once his heavy-lidded eyes rarely looked upon me with anything but affection. Now they are full of a suspicion I never saw there before I became ill.

‘What are you doing here?’ His voice is low but firm. He turns me away from the sight of the stable-hands. ‘You should be resting.’

I bite back tears of shame, for I know he does not mean to hurt me. Ever since he commanded that infernal expedition to Antwerp he has suffered humiliation upon humiliation: the “late Lord Chatham”, Mr Pitt’s useless elder brother. Even his valet damns him as “the hero of Walcheren” behind his back. If word spreads that Lady Chatham is insane, he will lose his last shreds of dignity. I love him too much to wish for that.

Once I am safely in my room John relaxes. He rings for Sally to undress me, then holds my hand while I take my laudanum. If I close my eyes I can pretend all is as it was before madness came between us.

‘What time do you expect the Bishop tomorrow?’ I ask.

His hand tightens round mine. He knows I hate the self-serving Bishop of Lincoln and his vapid wife. John tolerates them only because of his poor brother, for the Bishop was Mr Pitt’s intimate friend. ‘Are you certain you are equal to their visit?’

As much as I dislike the Tomlines, I want them to come. Receiving them will be a trial, but it will prove to John that I am well again. I will not let him send me away. ‘I will be happy to receive them. I feel better, my love. I am better.’

He smiles and kisses my forehead. The warmth of his love floods through me. For over a year we have lived from day to day, but now we can look forward to the future again. I know it.

***

I open my eyes. Slowly, the fog of misery descends. My husband is not beside me, and today the Tomlines will come.

A stranger stares at me from the mirror. I was beautiful once, but this disease ravages the face as much as the mind. Sally brushes out my hair. She snags at a stubborn knot and I raise my hand. In the mirror I see her shrink back. With effort I quash the instinct to strike her. If I can get through the Bishop’s visit I will show John that I truly am better, and perhaps then he will keep me by his side, where I belong.

The Tomlines arrive in the afternoon. I receive them in the Jacobean drawing room and try to ignore the openness with which they peer about in contempt. Abington must seem a small house for the son of the great Chatham and brother of Mr Pitt.

‘Our thanks for your hospitality, my lady,’ the Bishop says. ‘I am glad to find you so well.’ He is nearly seventy, fat and balding, with a broad face and tiny eyes like black pebbles. His wife is thin and shrivelled.

I want to recoil from them, but I smile politely. ‘Thank you. My health is much improved.’

I raise my eyes to my husband. He watches me anxiously, but his lips curve in response to my smile. In his relief he looks almost young again.

***

Sunday comes. We cross the bridge and walk to church. Rain falls in the long grass with a sound like a sustained sigh.

The villagers gawp at me and I want to sob into my Book of Common Prayer, but John holds my hand and his touch gives me confidence. He is my strength. With him I might conquer anything.

John takes the Bishop riding towards Cambridge. Mrs Tomline and I are alone. The thought of her revolts me, but the old Mary Chatham would not snub a guest.

Sally fetches my workbox. Mrs Tomline brings out her tambour frame. Rain drums against the window like nails.

‘The men will be soaked through,’ Mrs Tomline observes.

‘Lord Chatham is accustomed to riding in all weather.’ I wonder if he prefers being away from his sick wife, but such doubts belong to my malady and not to me.

‘You must speak more of your illness,’ Mrs Tomline says. I straighten. I do not wish to talk about what is past to anyone, least of all a woman for whom I have no regard. She frowns. ‘Keeping it shut up inside will make you worse. I am a friend. Your confidence will go no further.’

I burst into a bitter laugh. I am sure Mrs Tomline would be all too delighted to linger over every last detail. ‘It is of no interest to anyone but Lord Chatham and myself.’

Mrs Tomline purses her lips. ‘You cannot burden Lord Chatham with your ill health. Has he not suffered enough?’

The needle lies idle in my hand. She is more right than she knows. I am the reason we sit in Abington Hall’s tiny parlour in a Cambridgeshire exile. Had it not been for me and my wretched mind John might still be in government. He need not have accepted the commission to take Antwerp; his disastrous retreat before Walcheren would never have occurred. He would never have been mortified before army, Parliament and nation. A wave of isolation takes me unawares. ‘I know I must not give Lord Chatham a moment’s pain.’

‘I am glad you recognise his goodness towards you, but you do not fully comprehend the difficulty under which you put Lord Chatham when you are in this state. You must control yourself.’ I stare at her. Does she not see how hard I am trying? Does she not realise this is the best I can do? She leans forward and takes my hand. Her skin is as scaly as a lizard’s. ‘I know you can be well if you choose to be so.’

‘You know nothing of it,’ I snap, and whip my hand back.

‘Of course not, but it is not enough to control yourself for us. You must control yourself for the whole world, for Lord Chatham’s sake. Should your state become general knowledge–’

Does she think she is helping? Perhaps she wishes I would act more like a lunatic. Then she might fill her letters with accounts of a Countess raving and foaming at the mouth. Her gaze moves down and I become aware I am scratching at my hands, drawing blood.

‘Oh my dear Lady Chatham,’ she says, and I know if I remain a moment longer I will scream. My sewing falls to the floor and I flee.

I slam the door to the parlour. I clutch my head to stop it spinning.

‘Mary?’ It is my husband. Rain drips from his coat. He leaves the Bishop in the pillared hallway and rushes to my side, spurs clattering across the stone floor. He takes my hand. His fingers rub the bloodied scratchmarks and I see his dismay. No! I whip my hands out of his and bury them in my skirts.

I must not allow Mrs Tomline to discompose me. I must not let John see that she does, for I might lose him and his proximity is all that sustains me.

***

Dinner is served at six. The strain of pretence is beginning to tell. When I make my appearance I see the concern on my husband’s face. I make an effort so strong I can almost feel the earth shift beneath my feet and give him my arm. He looks doubtful but says nothing.

We dine in the largest room of the house, overlooking the lawn. The footmen lay the dishes on the table: roast beef, Cambridgeshire mutton, a venison pie. The Bishop and John talk about the reform meeting in St Peter’s Field and its terrible aftermath. ‘Mr Pitt would not have allowed matters to reach such an extremity,’ the Bishop says and my husband nods. I pick at my food and try not to listen. The Tomlines leave in the morning, and then I can concentrate on getting better.

I hear the Bishop say my name. ‘I fear we are tiring Lady Chatham with our talk.’

John stops chewing. I see wariness on his face, as though I am a loaded fowling piece on full cock.

The Bishop smiles at me. ‘My wife and I understand if you have not the strength to remain at table.’

‘I am quite equal to company,’ I say, but it is as if I have not spoken. Mrs Tomline looks across at her husband.

‘To tell the truth, my love, I wonder if we have imposed upon Lady Chatham by our visit and set back her convalescence.’

I glance desperately at my husband, willing him to leap to my defence. He still watches me with that strange expression.

The Bishop looks uncomfortable. ‘We are of course fully sensible of the honour you have done us in inviting us to Abington, but my wife is right. A little more rest will set you up, Lady Chatham.’

‘I am well now!’ I insist.

‘With God’s grace your ladyship will be so very soon,’ Mrs Tomline says.
John has not taken his eyes off me for a moment. I scratch at my hands. The pain is distracting and strangely comforting.

Mrs Tomline sees what I am doing. She whispers loudly, ‘Remember what I told you, my dear. You must control yourself.’

She reaches out and holds my arm. I do not know what angers me more, her familiarity or the implication that, once again, I have fallen short of expectations. I will not be scolded like a child. I am not an animal to be manhandled. She thinks I am not in control? Well then, I shall show her what happens when I give full rein to my madness.

I feel as though I am watching myself from a distance. I stand, grasp the gravy bowl in both hands, and throw its contents over Mrs Tomline.

She screams. I want to laugh at her for being so foolish– the gravy isn’t even hot. The Bishop leaps to his feet. The footmen stare.

Someone is shouting. ‘Bitch! You cannot understand! I despise you!’ Suddenly I realise the person shouting is me. I shut my mouth so sharply I feel the impact in the pit of my stomach, but it is too late.

My husband’s face is as hard and grey as stone, his mouth thin with dismay. He looks me in the eye and pushes his chair back. He pins my arms to my side and hurries me past the servants gathering outside the dining room, attracted by Mrs Tomline’s cry.

He enters the bedroom, rips back the hangings and throws me onto the bed. My head bounces off the bolster. When I open my eyes I see him leaning heavily against the bedpost. I can see every line on his face, scored deeply into his skin by strain, humiliation and disappointment.

Tears fill my eyes. ‘I am sorry. So sorry.’ I have failed him and I have failed myself. My limbs feel heavy, as though my self-hatred has turned them to lead.

‘Our guests,’ he says. He is too distraught to form a sentence. ‘Our guests. In front of the servants.’

‘I am trying,’ I manage. ‘I am trying so very hard to be well.’

‘I am beginning to doubt you will ever be well again,’ he says. I stare at him over my bent knees. His mouth curves downward and his hand against the bedpost tightens into a fist. ‘I will write to your brother next week. You must go to him at Frognal.’

‘No!’ I leap off the bed. He jumps back and I see, clearly, the fear in his eyes. Like Sally, he thinks I will strike him. I wonder how he can believe he is in the slightest danger from me, then I look down at my clenched fist and realise I am not fully in control of my own body. I want to laugh. How could I ever think I could conquer this malady? It knows me better than I know myself.

‘The change of air will make you better,’ he says.

I throw myself to the floor. He flinches. I grasp his knees and press my face against his fine cotton stockings. ‘Do you not understand, John? I can only get better if I am with you.’

He disengages himself and steps back. There is no response in his face to my plea. He knows he will be better off without me. He will send me away for his sake, not mine.

All my attempts to keep him by me have been useless. I might as well go to Frognal, for I see now that I lost my husband years ago.

The door closes behind him. For a moment I sit on the floor in uncomprehending silence, then panic spreads through me like a poison. My breath chokes in my throat. I claw at my neck and my fingers catch the chain of my locket. It flies through the air and bounces under the bed.

I pick it up with trembling fingers. It falls open in my hands. I see his black hair and our initials written in his hand. JC MEC. The locket slips through my fingers to the floor.

I fall back, put my hands to my face, and weep.

Marriage of the 2nd Earl of Chatham and Mary Elizabeth Townshend, 10 July 1783

Mary, Countess of Chatham and John, 2nd Earl of Chatham by Charles Rosenburg (ca 1800)

Mary, Countess of Chatham and John, 2nd Earl of Chatham by Charles Rosenburg (ca 1800)

I know it’s a day early, but I’d like to post in honour of the 231st wedding anniversary of John, 2nd Earl of Chatham and his wife Mary Elizabeth Townshend and I can’t guarantee I’ll manage tomorrow. They are obviously the main characters of my WIP and I have done a lot of research on their lives in the past year. Not all my discoveries have been pleasant, but I have learned a lot about them and I feel much closer to them now than I did this time last year. (You can read last year’s post about their marriage settlement here.)

John and Mary were married by special licence at the house of Mary’s father, Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, on 10 July 1783. John was twenty-six, Mary twenty. They had known each other since they were children and it was a love match between longtime sweethearts. Despite rumours that John had a mistress I have not been able to substantiate them, and on the contrary all the evidence points to the closeness of their relationship. The marriage was destined to last nearly thirty-eight years, coming to an end when Mary died on 21 May 1821 at the age of fifty-eight.

As husband and wife the pair suffered more than their fair share of trials and tribulations. Mary’s health was always poor. She suffered from some sort of premature-onset arthritis in her hip that left her permanently lame, and never managed to carry a child to term, although she miscarried at least once. She shared in all her husband’s twists and turns of fortune, accompanying him as much as she could on his military postings throughout Britain, and retiring with him into political obscurity after he commanded the disastrous Walcheren expedition in 1809. In 1807 Mary suffered a prolonged mental breakdown, and although she recovered she relapsed more or less permanently in 1818. You can read more about John and Mary in my guest posts for “Madame Gilflurt’s” excellent blog.

I’d like to leave you with a short excerpt from my WIP in which I describe John and Mary’s wedding. Please join me in raising a glass of claret to the happy couple!

 


 

Albemarle Street, July 1783

`My lord Chatham, if you will repeat after me…’

Mary’s heart beat a hectic rhythm in her chest as Dr Courtenay, the parish rector, took the ring off the Bible and slipped it onto her finger. She did not take her eyes off John for a moment. He wore a cream silk suit trimmed with silver to match her gown. His hair was immaculately curled and powdered and his eyes held hers with an intensity that made her heart beat faster. He echoed Courtenay’s words, precisely and with great concentration.

`With this ring I thee wed. With my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.’

`Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder,’ Courtenay said. John put his hand over Mary’s; the sensation of his warm flesh pressing the cold band of the ring into her finger sent a shiver of excitement through her. `I pronounce that they be man and wife together. My lord, you may kiss your bride.’

The wedding guests applauded as John leaned down to bestow a chaste kiss on his wife’s lips. Mary saw his eyes dart towards the chairs arranged before the windows of her parents’ drawing-room. Her father, created Viscount Sydney in one of Lord Shelburne’s parting acts as minister, sat beaming a few feet away. Arrayed beside him were his wife and Mary’s six siblings, from Georgiana to three-year-old Horatio, sucking his thumb on his eldest sister’s lap. Behind were William and Harriot, both grinning broadly.

Mary knew how self-conscious John could be in front of an audience, but she had no intention of letting him get away with that kiss. She wrapped her arms around her husband’s neck and murmured into his ear. `Does Mary, Countess of Chatham not return your kisses so sweetly as Miss Mary Townshend?’

His face cleared instantly. `I do not know. Perhaps we should put it to the test?’

He cupped her chin and kissed her again. In an instant her world narrowed down to the sensation of his lips against hers and Lord Sydney’s elegant drawing-room, with all its inhabitants, was lost to her.

Mary kept her hand in John’s as the guests came over to congratulate them. Her father and mother led the way, enormous smiles on their faces. Lady Sydney kissed John on each cheek. Lord Sydney pumped John’s hand up and down, unable to say anything other than `Well done, Chatham, well done indeed,’ for all the world as though John had just won Mary in single combat.  Last came William and Harriot. Harriot slipped her hand through her new sister-in-law’s arm and William clasped John’s hand with genuine pleasure.

`You look fine, John, very fine,’ William said.

`Marriage suits you,’ Harriot observed. Her eyes were like John’s: they had the same heavy-lidded, almond shape, the same shade of greyish-blue flecked with brown, fringed with the same dark lashes, but Harriot’s were full of a mischief Mary had never seen in her husband’s. `Why, you nearly look handsome.’

`Only nearly?’

`You know Harriot,’ William said. `She never flatters. But as far as I am concerned you look splendid. Lady Chatham too.’ Mary glanced over her shoulder, half-expecting to see that John’s mother had just entered the room, then realised William was talking about her and felt the blood rush to her cheeks. `Congratulations, my lady. Welcome to our family.’

`Too late to change your mind I’m afraid,’ Harriot put in.

`I don’t think I want to,’ Mary said. She could not help slanting a mischievous look up at her husband. John smiled back and dropped a brief kiss on her lips.

`I am glad to hear it!’

He spoke flippantly and Harriot and William laughed, but Mary detected strain in his voice. When he was not paying attention she looked at him more carefully, peeling away the silver-lined coat, the pomaded, curled hair, and the aura of quiet gentility and pride he wore like a cloak. She saw the pallor of his skin and the tightness around his eyes and thought: He is as nervous as I am. She wondered if she was the only one to notice, for even William and Harriot continued to jest at him as though they did not see his jaw tighten further with each joke.

It was as though she could see him better than anyone else in the room, as though her love were a filter stripping away everything but the raw thoughts and emotions that made him John. She took his arm and he turned to her with a smile she was beginning to recognise belonged only to her. The connection between them felt more than physical, as though if Mary withdrew her arm she would still be holding him, even if they were hundreds of miles apart.

Guest post for Madame Guilflurt on Mary, Countess of Chatham

A few days ago I guest blogged again for Madame Gilflurt. The subject of my post was Mary, Countess of Chatham, and the post went up on the 193rd anniversary of her death:

http://www.madamegilflurt.com/2014/05/a-salon-guest-mary-elizabeth-countess.html

Image

As regular readers know, I am very fond of Mary, the more so given my recent discoveries about her later life. She is a totally underrated and ignored historical figure: you will not find this much about her anywhere else, I guarantee it.

 

Mary Elizabeth, Countess of Chatham (1762-1821)

image

(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. 😉