Confession: a significant error of interpretation in “The Late Lord”

I’m sure it happens to most biographers, but I must confess to an important error of interpretation in The Late Lord.

marychathamrosenburg

Mary, Countess of Chatham (ca 1800) by Charles Rosenburg of Bath; in the possession of Ron Mills

On pp. 181-2, I describe the death of Mary, Countess of Chatham, on 21 May 1821:

On Monday, 21 May 1821, Chatham, at home in Hill Street, received the visit of Sir William Bellingham [an old friend] … The two men sat down to dinner at 5 o’clock. Lady Chatham did not join them. She had been unwell with a liver complaint since Saturday … She greeted her husband’s guest, then took a glass of barley water and brandy laced with laudanum and retired early to bed. Her maid remained in the room with her as she drifted peacefully off. She was so peaceful, in fact, that it was some time before the maid realised Lady Chatham was no longer sleeping. … What exactly killed her is a mystery, although the signs point to an accidental laudanum overdose.

This passage came from two separate letters in private hands. I can’t reproduce either of them here, but one was written by J C Villiers, a close friend of Chatham’s who saw him on 22 May. The other was written by a third party, reporting a conversation with Sir William Bellingham.

I came across my transcripts of those two letters yesterday, and it immediately struck me that I had completely misinterpreted them. Eighteen months of not thinking too much about it allowed me to see new connections between the two accounts (which I had previously found somewhat contradictory).

Far from being a “mystery”, I think Mary’s death was due, not to any laudanum overdose in the barley water, but to the liver complaint from which she was suffering. It sounds like it was sudden but extremely virulent. According to Villiers’s letter, she was fine on the Friday and dead by the end of Monday. The crucial thing I’d missed is that Bellingham wasn’t there because he happened to be visiting: he had been called in because Lady Chatham’s death was imminently expected to happen, and Chatham didn’t want to be alone when it did.

Hyperacute liver failure it is, then. The only mystery is what might have caused Lady Chatham’s liver to fail so rapidly (under 72 hours).

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“Thank God all is well over”: family reactions to Pitt’s duel, May 1798

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Whitsunday, 27 May 1798. Four men arrive on Putney Heath in hackney carriages. Their meeting is supposed to be secret, but somehow word has got out and a small crowd is already gathering.

The crowds watch as two of the men choose pistols and take their places opposite each other. One of the other gentlemen raises his hand; the other holds the pistol case and chews a thumbnail.

On the first man’s signal the two antagonists fire without effect. After a short deliberation the process is repeated, the taller of the two duellists firing into the air. This time everyone seems satisfied, and the party return to their respective vehicles.

The duellists were none other than the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, and the leader of the parliamentary opposition, George Tierney (Charles James Fox had seceded from Parliament more or less completely in 1797, and would not return until 1800). Pitt had accused Tierney of a deliberate attempt to obstruct the defence of the country during a debate on an emergency bill to secure additional manpower for the Navy; Tierney had demanded an apology, Pitt refused to back down, and the next day Tierney had issued his challenge.

The country was either fascinated or horrified (and possibly a combination of both) at the prospect of the wartime prime minister putting himself deliberately in harm’s way. William Wilberforce, Pitt’s friend, was doubly incensed by the duel’s taking place on a Sunday, and actually gave notice of a motion on duelling in the House of Commons (he later withdrew it on Pitt’s insistence). Wilberforce said “he had felt more solicitude upon it [the duel] than upon almost any other occasion”.[1]

But how did Pitt’s family react to the duel? Pitt’s brother, Lord Chatham, almost certainly disapproved of his brother making a fool of himself, but if he did he kept his opinion to himself. All we know is that Chatham told Henry Addington, the Speaker, that he had been right not to try and stop the duel taking place: “Lord Chatham remarked that I [Addington] could not have taken any step so injurious to his family … my interfering would have looked too much like collusion”.[2]

Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth as Speaker of the House of Commons

Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth as Speaker of the House of Commons

It’s clear from a letter from the King to Pitt, however, that Chatham had (probably quite cheerfully) passed on a stern royal message on the subject of duelling with members of the opposition. “I certainly said nothing to Lord Chatham but what my mind dictated, and I trust what has happened will never be repeated,” the King wrote on 30 May. “… Public characters have no right to weigh alone what they owe to themselves; they must consider also what is due to their country.”[3]

As for Pitt’s elderly mother, aged 77 and not in the best health, I can’t imagine how she must have felt on receiving the following letter from Pitt written on 28 May (Pitt’s 39th birthday):

You will be glad, I know, to hear from myself on a subject in which I know how much you will feel interested, and I am very happy that I have nothing to tell that is not perfectly agreeable. The newspapers of to-day contain a short but correct account of a meeting which I found it necessary to have with Mr Tierney yesterday, on Putney Heath, in consequence of some words which I had used in the House of Commons, and which I did not think it became me to retract or explain. The business terminated without anything unpleasant to either party, and in a way which left me perfectly satisfied both with myself and my antagonist, who behaved with great propriety. You will, I know, hear from my brother on the subject, but I could not be contented without sending these few lines from myself.[4]

In fact Chatham had already written to the Dowager Countess. He did so on Sunday night, so on the 27th, immediately after the duel, so Pitt was a day behind: his letter was old news. Perhaps he had counted on this to an extent, but he must have wondered what his brother said.

Judging from the following letter from Chatham’s wife Mary to the Dowager Countess’s companion, Mrs Stapleton, the Chatham household was all in a flap:

My Dear Mrs S.,

Not knowing that L[ord] C[hatham] had sent to dear L[ad]y C[hatham] by the Mail Sunday night, I would not, for fear by chance, any Letter should have been opened first, say any thing of what had passed. Thank God all is well over, I knew nothing of it till it was so, & the shock it would be to our dearest Dear friend, was my very first thought. I never wrote a more uncomfortable Letter in my life to you than I did yesterday. I did not dare touch upon what was uppermost in my thoughts, & every other subject appeared so trifling. We all say there must be an Embargo laid upon his ever venturing such a thing again. The lower people all say that the King might as well fight as Mr Pitt. Report says that Sheridan is very angry with Tierney on the subject. But what is more important to me is dear Lady Chathams health, send me one line to let me know how she has borne this business. I heard the King tell Lord Chatham from one card table to another last night that Mr Wilson [Dean of Windsor and Pitt and Chatham’s former tutor] who had just come from Burton gave a good account of her, adding how much pleased he was at knowing that she was just now well enough to bear this excitement.[5]

Mary, Countess of Chatham (ca 1800) by Charles Rosenburg of Bath; in the possession of Ron Mills

Mary, Countess of Chatham (ca 1800) by Charles Rosenburg

Oh to be a fly on the wall at that royal card-playing session… Or indeed a fly on the wall when Chatham told Mary about his brother’s duel.

“Good evening, dear. Had a good day?”

“Uhm. Not really. Er. My brother fought a duel with Mr Tierney.”

“Oh dear, that’s — wait. What?”

_________________

References

[1] Express and Evening Chronicle, 31 May 1798

[2] George Pellew, Life of Lord Sidmouth I, 205

[3] Lord Stanhope, Life of Pitt III, appendix XIV

[4] Lord Stanhope, Life of Pitt III, 132

[5] National Army Museum Combermere MSS 8408-114

“Likely to get frampy”: In which the 2nd Lord Chatham has trouble getting his act together

One of the things I love most about John, 2nd Lord Chatham is how endearingly pathetic he could be sometimes. I know that must sound odd, but I often find myself grinning while reading about him. The Pitt family can, in general, be seen as a little frigid, rather stuffy and full of themselves, and without a normal bone in their overachieving bodies. It’s a false impression that can be easily corrected by reading their private correspondence, but one of the reasons I fastened so happily on John as a research subject is that he is so refreshingly human.

I call them my “oh dear John” moments, mainly because that’s what I say out loud when I stumble across them. You know, the moments were “the late Lord Chatham” just lives up so much to his reputation that I have to suppress the urge to thud my head repeatedly against the desk. John turning up three hours late to the King’s birthday review? Oh dear, John. John never making an appointment to meet with anyone before two o’clock in the afternoon? Oh dear, John. John countersigning contracts for enormous loans during a brief luncheon break while hunting at Newmarket? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear John… you get the picture.

johnprint

But sometimes John surpasses even himself. Like in his courtship of Mary Townshend, in which the twenty-six year old John seems to have displayed all the maturity and backbone of a teenager mustering the courage to ask a girl on a first date.

I think it’s fair to say John was not a reluctant suitor. As I discovered recently, John and Mary’s names had been paired up as early as May 1779, and probably earlier. The Pitt and Townshend families had been close since at least the 1760s: it’s fair to say that John knew Mary well, and vice versa. At some point, probably prior to John’s going off to Gibraltar in May 1778, friendship blossomed into young lurve.

Mary, Countess of Chatham

Mary, Countess of Chatham

Nothing serious was initially expected to come of the pairing, at least while John was away so frequently on military service. By the summer of 1782, however, he had transferred from the 86th regiment serving in the Leeward Islands to the 3rd Foot Guards, a prestigious royal regiment with flashy gold braid serving in London. As early as 27 June 1782 John’s brother William wrote to their mother, “My brother, I believe, has not informed you of a match of which the world here is certain, but of which he assures me he knows nothing, between himself and the beauty in Albemarle Street” — that is to say Mary Townshend, whose father’s town house was just round the corner from John’s Grafton Street residence.[1]

William wasn’t the only family member gossiping about John’s attachment. Lady Harriot Pitt, John’s younger sister, also told her mother about a conversation she had had with a friend, in which “my Brother Chatham’s intended marriage … [was] brought upon ye Tapis.” By this time John seems to have been thoroughly sick of all the speculation, since Harriot reported him referring sarcastically to such rumours as “Stock Jobbing Reports,” possibly the closest I’ve ever seen John come to an outright joke.[2]

Whatever the truth, the next proper references to the courtship come in April and May 1783, at which point Harriot was confidently expecting her brother to propose at any moment. She wrote to her mother on 1 May 1783 of a jaunt with John to the family property at Hayes: “Hayes is just now in glory, and I think my Brother enjoyed very much ye contemplating his Pretty Place and thinking of ye Pretty Lady he means to give it”.[3]

Lady Harriot Pitt, ca 1779

Lady Harriot Pitt, ca 1779

Certainly John and Mary seemed very snug together at this time. “They were so amicable at ye Dutchess’s [of Buccleugh’s, where there had been a ball the night before] that I really was disappointed when I found ye matter was not settled there,” Harriot reported on 3 May.[4] But two days later Harriot reported in frustration that, despite “opportunities” during a trip to Mary’s father’s country estate at Frognal, John “had only very near done it once”.[5] (…. “Very near”? What on earth did that mean? “Mary?” “Yes?” “I wanted to ask you something…” “Yes?” “Something very important…” “Yeeeeeeeeeees?” “………… Could you please pass the salt?”) On the 6th Harriot described Mary as “not a little fidgetty [sic]”, and William, too, was getting fed up: “The scene in Albemarle Street has been carried on from day to day, till it is full time it should end. I rather hope it will be happily completed very soon, though it has lasted so long already that it may still last longer than seems likely.”[6]

Frognal House, Lord Sydney's country home

Frognal House, Lord Sydney’s country home, where John totally failed to propose to Mary in May 1782

William, apparently, knew John too well. On 19 May Harriot had had enough, and told John to pull himself together: he was mucking Mary Townshend about too much, and she might just kick him in the shins if he ever did manage to screw up the courage. “My Brother and I have been beating over ye same Ground again,” Harriot reported to her mother. “He is very much dissatisfied with their [Lord and Lady Sydney] precluding, as he says, all opportunities by not allowing of Tete a Tetes, and I wish him ye more to take some other sort of opportunity as I think in this sort of way all sides may be likely to get Frampy.“[7]

Whatever “Frampy” meant (… no, don’t Google it … well, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you), John managed to uhmm and aah and blush and shrug for another two weeks before finally diving in and proposing on the 5th of June. The reaction of both families involved can only be summarised as “OMG FINALLY!” As Harriot put it, the declaration “was received as you will imagine by every part of ye family with ye greatest Delight”.[8]

Lord Sydney wrote to John’s mother in sheer relief, apparently the minute John had walked out of his study:

Lord Chatham has today done me the honor to express his desire of proposing himself to my Daughter Mary … It would be an absurd piece of Affectation in me to attempt to conceal my feelings of Satisfaction & Pride in placing a Part of my Family, which deserves & possesses my warmest & most tender Affection, under the Protection of those, whose Alliance, I can truly say, I prefer to that of any Family in England.[9]

The marriage was celebrated on 10 July 1783, and seems (by and large) to have been happy for a very long time. Which was just as well, after John’s long hesitation.

Emotions of a schoolboy, eh?


References

[1] Lord Stanhope, Life of Pitt I, 81 (Pitt to Lady Chatham, 27 June 1782)

[2] Lady Harriot Pitt to Lady Chatham, undated, Manchester University Archives GB 133 Eng MS 1272 f 45

[3] Lady Harriot Pitt to Lady Chatham, [1 May 1783], Manchester University Archives GB 133 Eng MS 1272 f 32

[4] Lady Harriot Pitt to Lady Chatham, [3 May 1783], Manchester University Archives GB 133 Eng MS 1272 f 33

[5] Lady Harriot Pitt to Lady Chatham, [5 May 1783], Manchester University Archives GB 133 Eng MS 1272 f 34

[6] Lady Harriot Pitt to Lady Chatham, [6 May 1783], Manchester University Archives GB 133 Eng MS 1272 f 35; Pitt to Lady Chatham, 15 May 1783, Stanhope I, 121-2

[7] Lady Harriot Pitt to Lady Chatham, [19 May 1783], Manchester University Archives GB 133 Eng MS 1272 f 38

[8] Lady Harriot Pitt to Lady Chatham, [23 June 1783], Manchester University Archives GB 133 Eng MS 1272 f 43

[9] Lord Sydney to Lady Chatham, 5 June 1783, National Archives PRO 30/8/60 f 205

“A most precious Jewel”

Another super quick blog post, since I’ve finally received the last piece of a little puzzle that has been needling at me since I got hold of a batch of photocopied correspondence between Lord Grantham and his brother Frederick Robinson from Bedford & Luton Archives. I am still ever so slightly mystified, although I think I know what it means. If anyone else can help shed some light on the mystery, though, I’d be grateful.

The Robinson brothers were prominent movers in Whig political circles, and their letters are full of references to the big names of political life. One of the families they were close to was the Townshend family, including Thomas Townshend, the future Lord Sydney, his wife Elizabeth Powys, and their growing family. Frederick and Anne Robinson, Lord Grantham’s siblings, frequently dined and socialised with the Townshends. On 4 May 1778 Frederick Robinson wrote to Lord Grantham: “I was at the Opera at night & supped at Mrs Townshends[.] Georgiana [Thomas Townshend’s eldest daughter, born April 1761] is much grown though little alter’d[.] The second daughter [Mary Elizabeth, later Countess of Chatham, then fifteen] will be pretty”.[1]

Mary, Countess of Chatham

Mary, Countess of Chatham

Almost exactly a year later, Mary’s future husband John, Earl of Chatham paid the visit to Grantham in Spain that I blogged about in a previous post. After John had left Madrid, Grantham wrote to Frederick Robinson with further thoughts about the three “English” who had been his guests for over a fortnight: “I believe he [Captain Colt] & Conway found out new Acquaintances at Madrid, but Lord Chatham never went with them, & I would not swear that he is not in possession of a most precious Jewel”.[2]

One thing is for sure about this curious turn of phrase: it was not meant literally. This “precious Jewel” was a euphemism for something, and something that made Chatham forego the pleasure of sharing Conway and Colt’s “new Acquaintances”. What was the nature of this jewel? Frederick Robinson’s response gives a clue:

I believe L[or]d Chatham is not in town, Nanny [Anne Robinson] met him at Tommy Townshend’s who gave him a dinner [upon Chatham’s return from abroad], I think it very probable that his Father recommended T[homas] T[ownshend] to him; if he has a mind to set that Jewel which you suppose him possess’d of very beautifully, he might consult Miss Mary Townshend.[3]

From which I gather that Lord Grantham guessed Chatham’s reluctance to visit Colt and Conway’s “Acquaintances” derived from some sort of attachment, and Robinson connected that attachment to Miss Mary Townshend, Tommy Townshend’s “pretty” second daughter. He certainly wasn’t wide of the mark, for four years later John and Mary were indeed married.

Could it be that John already had a thing for Mary in May 1779, when he was 22 and she was 16? Could it be that he had had a crush on her even before he left for Gibraltar, since Lord Grantham seems to have picked up on it even before John’s return to England? And if so, isn’t that kind of sweet?

Do you agree, or do you think Grantham was talking about something else?


References

[1] Frederick Robinson to Lord Grantham, 4 May 1778, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/14/333/91

[2] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 2 May 1779, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/15/54/139

[3] Frederick Robinson to Lord Grantham, 25 May 1779, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS, Bedford and Luton Archives, L30/14/333/211