Mary Elizabeth, Countess of Chatham (1762-1821)


(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. 😉

On a lighter note…..

……… look, a letter to William Pitt from his sister-in-law Mary, Countess of Chatham!

(PRO 30/08/122 f. 174)

Yes, yes, yes, it’s a patronage letter about her brother William, but it’s A LETTER FROM MARY. Rare as anything, these are— so much so that the cataloguer didn’t know for sure it was her (see the pencilled note on the top left of the front page, “Lady Chatham?” — but comparing the characteristic capital M and E in her letter with her signature on her marriage settlement makes me 110% certain this IS definitely her).

Those who know me, and know what a central character Mary is turning into in my novel, will know how excited I was when I found this. Not much to be drawn about her relationship with William (although she does seem to be a bit frustrated about his reluctance to give her request full attention), but it is nice to see that she starts the letter “My dear Mr Pitt” and signs off “Yrs most aff[ectionate]ly, MEC”.

More proof that Mary existed! Yay!

The Second Earl of Chatham’s marriage settlement, Bromley Archives 1080/3/1/1/26


I’ve missed the 230th anniversary of John, Second Earl of Chatham’s wedding to Mary Elizabeth Townshend by five days, but never mind. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Bromley Archives and check out the marriage settlement drawn up for them and signed by all parties on 5 July 1783 (the marriage took place five days later).

In a nutshell, the settlement designates various sums of money which, together, make a larger sum intended to purchase of stocks on behalf of any younger children born of the marriage. This was two sums of £1000 (an inheritance left to Mary by a relative, and a similar sum of money left to her sister Georgiana, who signed it over), to form a dowry of £2000; plus a little over £3000 expressly set aside to plump up the sum. Lucky John: that was quite a dowry, although John wasn’t allowed to touch the £2000 as it was intended to be Mary’s “pin money” and therefore belonged to her (in the words of the legal text, “for her own separate and peculiar use in the nature of pin money and exclusively of the said John Earl of Chatham who is not to interfere or intermeddle therewith nor is the same or any part thereof to be exposed subject or liable to his debts controul or interference”: get told John!).

The eldest child of the marriage, obviously, stood to inherit the £4000 pension settled by Parliament on John and his mother for four lives in memory of his father William Pitt (the Elder), First Earl of Chatham. John was second in line to receive the pension after his mother, and his eldest son (had he had one … which he didn’t) would have been third. The £4000 pension was also meant to provide for Mary’s jointure of £1000, to be paid out annually in quarterly instalments should John predecease her.

The contract (all ten whopping vellum pages of it) was signed by the bridegroom, the bride, the prospective father-in-law, and four trustees (two on the bridegroom’s side and two on the bride’s), who agreed to make sure the terms were adhered to, and basically to stop John running off with the money intended to provide for his wife and children in case of his early death. The trustees in question were John’s brother William Pitt the Younger, who had just finished a stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer and was yet to become Prime Minister; John’s first cousin Thomas Pitt, later Lord Camelford; Mary’s uncle Charles Townshend; and Mary’s cousin Thomas Brodrick.


(Above: signature and seal of Pitt the Younger as trustee of his brother’s marriage settlement)


(Above: John, Lord Chatham (bridegroom) and Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney (the father of the bride) sign and seal the contract)


(Above: Mary Elizabeth Townshend (the bride) signs and seals the contract)

We know Mary’s father, Lord Sydney, was a wealthy man (his biographer, Andrew Tink, in Lord Sydney: the life and times of Tommy Townshend (Melbourne, 2011, p. 150). The settlement certainly bears that out. John was … less wealthy, and I imagine the £5000 sum made a sucking sound as it entered his bank account and then, instantly, left it again. :-/

I did wonder if drawing up a marriage settlement contract was, in fact, a reflection of John’s impoverished status— Lord Sydney pretty much saying “OK, you can marry my daughter, but only if you pledge to be sensible with the money I’m giving her!” I was therefore happy to find that marriage settlements were de rigeur in aristocratic families with money and property to pass on.

According to H.J. Habbakuk in “Marriage settlements in the 18th century” (Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th series, 32 (1950), 15), the settlement was intended to limit “the interest in the estate of the father of the husband and, after him, of the husband himself, to that of a life-tenant, and entailing the estate on the eldest son to be born of the marriage”. This is especially interesting because John’s estate is not mentioned at all in the settlement: the only thing that is mentioned is that the title is to descend down the male line, and that the £4000 pension will go with it. In 1783 John had two estates— Hayes Place, in Kent, and Burton Pynsent, in Somerset, which according to the provisions of his father’s will he held jointly with his mother. Neither estate is mentioned in the contract. Hayes and Burton came with very little land, comparatively speaking— although Burton at least had a farm, which brought in some income— but they were both mortgaged (and in the case of Hayes at least, remortgaged) to the hilt, which may be why they were not mentioned. John sold Hayes two years later in any case: perhaps he had already intended to do so in 1783, which is why it is not included in the settlement. This may also be why Sydney stipulated the enormous sum of £1000 to be set aside for Mary’s jointure.

One last interesting fact: Mary was under the age of twenty-one when she married John (her birthday was in September). The contract therefore notes that “the said Mary Elizabeth Townshend is now an Infant under the Age of Twenty one Years (that is to say) of the Age of Twenty years and upwards of the second part”. I’m not sure what I would have thought if I were referred to as an “infant”! (Not to mention the fact it makes John look like an absolute cradle-snatcher!) Sydney, by signing the contract, gave his permission for his daughter to marry even though by law she was under-age.


(Above: the parties of the marriage are named)

All in all, I passed a very pleasant morning in Bromley Archives… even though I very nearly got eaten by the document I was reading. (It took up two desks, and I am not exaggerating.)