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:
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.
I have been looking for an eyewitness account of the first Earl of Chatham’s spectacular collapse in the House of Lords in April 1778 for some time, and have finally found this account from Lord Camden to his daughter Elizabeth (“dear Betsey”, as the letter begins). I know there is a longer account from Camden to Grafton elsewhere, but I have not seen it so this is as close as I get right now.
The letter is dated 9 April 1778, so two days after Chatham collapsed. Camden starts with some inconsequential gossip and platitudes (“the plumbs were excellent”) then moves on to the meaty stuff. Camden was present on the occasion: Chatham went to the House of Lords to oppose the Duke of Richmond’s motion for peace with America, and suffered from a stroke halfway through.
“All our hopes of any material Change of Ministry are checked at once by the fatal Accidt. that happen’d on Tuesday Last in the House of Lords by a sudden fit that seiz’d the E. Chatham just as he was rising to reply to the D. of Richmond. You may conceive better than I can describe the Hurry & Confusion the Expressions of Grieff & astonishment that broke out & actuated the whole Assembly. Every man seemed affected more or less except ye E. of M[ansfield] who kept his seat & remained as much unmoved as the Poor Man himself who was stretch’d Senseless across a Bench. He continued some time in that posture till he was removed into the Painted Chamber. Assistance was sent for in an instant, & Dr Brocklesby was the first Physician that cd be got. In about an hour Addington [Dr Anthony Addington, Chatham’s personal physician] came, & soon after the Earl [revived?] the first Symptom of life being an Endeavour to reach, wch at last had its effect by discharging a Load from his Stomach wch probably was the Occasion of the fit, for it was actually no Apoplexy, but in truth very similar to that Seizure wch took him the beginning of last Summer, for all the Appearances were the same in both. He recover’d, if you remember, from the first very soon; & was better afterwds than we had seen him for many years. I pray to God this may have no worse Consequence. He was carry’d that Eveng to Mr Strutt’s in Palace Yard, where he still remains & is this day to be removed to Serjeant’s in Downing Street. He recover’d his Senses perfectly that Eveng & slept remarkably well. He continued well all yesterday & I hear he slept this morng till ½ past 6 o’clock. I hope the best, but according to my desponding temper, I fear the worst.”
Camden was right to “fear the worst”: Chatham never fully recovered and died on 11 May 1778.
I’ve just come back from a weekend at my parents’ in Somerset. We travelled there in part on the A303, and it seems this was more or less the same route that Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham and his family would take to travel to their house at Burton Pynsent in Curry Rivel (there was, of course, no dual carriageway in those days…) The following is an account of part of a journey from Burton Pynsent to London written by Chatham’s wife, Hester, to her husband. I don’t think I have the date, but the letter is quoted in Brian Tunstall’s William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (London, 1938), pp. 435-6.
I’m happy to say our journey in Somerset was less eventful than Hester’s was!
The road from King’s Weston to Aynsford Inn, greatest part narrow causeway, like the Ilminster Way, requires careful driving; we performed it very well. The chaise horses broke two rotten traces, not from any fault of theirs, but it is all for the better, they cannot serve again. Wheel of said Chaise broke as it got to Aynsford Inn. Road very well from hence till within two miles of Hindon. Then very heavy, not being made, but safe. At Hindon find our horses. The landlord does us the honour to ride as postillion at wheel himself, because nobody could ride the horse he did, but himself. Went very safe, the road for the next couple of miles very bad indeed, broke only one trace this post. After the two mile on to Deptford, good enough. House at Deptford very bad. Put us in mind of our Chard dinner. From hence to Amesbury, road very good, but fortune did not favour Bradshaw and the damsels [the servants followed in another coach]. About 3 miles from Deptford the wheel horse fell down, the postillion under him, but the admirable care and dexterity of William Footman whose cleverness in travelling I cannot enough praise, extricated him from this perilous situation without his receiving much hurt. We set forward again. Within a quarter of a mile short in two breaks the perch of their chaise. We took our party immediately, brought our two maids into our coach, with trunk, band boxes etc., put on one pair of the unfortunate chaise horses to our four in consideration of the additional weight, send William forward to fetch a fresh chaise from Amesbury to meet Bradshaw, who was to march on foot till they came to him with his favourite grippine. We continued our way with our three postillions most happily to Amesbury, taking a view of Stonehenge in our way. We went directly then to Andover with excellent horses and got in about seven.
John was still in Quebec when war broke out between Britain and revolutionary America in April 1775. He remained there for most of the first year of the war, but it gradually became clear that his presence so close to the theatre of war was undesirable on political grounds. Lord Chatham was a prominent political figure and there was some fear that John might be captured and used as a pawn to extract concessions from Britain—a fear that was nearly realised when John and General Carleton narrowly escaped capture by Canadian sympathisers with the Americans in the autumn of 1775. John’s presence in Canada was certainly well known to the American military commanders: General Washington wrote in Benedict Arnold’s instructions for invading Canada that “if Lord Chatham’s son should [still] be in Canada, and in any way should fall into your power, you are enjoined to treat him with all possible deference and respect.”
With an American invasion of Canada imminent, the decision was made to withdraw John from Canada. John seems not to have had any say in the decision: it was his mother, Hester, Countess of Chatham, who came to the conclusion that John was better out of the army. Lord Chatham was at the time suffering from one of his periodic fits of depression complicated by gout.
The following letters on the subject were written by Hester to her husband’s cousin, Lord Camelford, and are in the British Library (BL Add Mss 59490).
Hayes, 7 February 1776
“I am just come from having put the question to my Lord on what his opinion was as to his Sons continuance or not in the Army. This touch’d so many tender strings that it was impossible it shou’d not agitate Him. However he gave me his decided opinion that his quitting was indispensable, and that in the present circumstances an Exchange was not a desirable Thing, as there were strong objections to his remaining in the Army, and declining to serve.” Lady Chatham therefore asks Thomas Pitt to tell Lord Barrington of “Pitt’s Resignation, in the following Words, `That the continuance of the Unhappy War in America makes it necessary humbly to request Permission of HM for Lord Pitt to resign his Commission’”.
Hayes, 8 February 1776
Lady Chatham is not pleased that “our Son shou’d sacrifice a Profession that is agreeable to Him, and in which we might flatter ourselves He might have some success”. The decision was “very unpleasant”, but she is “compensated only by the Persuasion that there is a Propriety and Fitness in the doing it”.
Poor John, who was never really able to pursue a career of his own independently from his father or brother…
Here’s a gem I discovered in the Hoare MSS (a kind of add-on to the Chatham Papers at the National Archives) a while back: a glimpse of John’s military life while he was stationed in Quebec from 1774 until early 1776. John was a lieutenant in the 47th Foot and served as one of the aides-de-camp of the governor, Sir Guy Carleton. The letter is written to Lord and Lady Chatham (John’s parents) by J. Wood, presumably John’s valet. I’ve left the English largely as spelled by Wood, so bits may have to be read aloud! (Preferably with a Zomerzet accent!)
Quebec, 13 November 1774
Pleas to acquaint My Lord & Lady my Lord Pitt, is perfectly well, and has been so ever since he left England, his Lordship is not grown much in high, but is spread much thicker which I think his Lordship looks better for, the only inconvenience attends it, is his Cloaths being to little, and have no remedy but letting them out, as thair is no new Regimentals to be got at Quebec, & I will Venter to take the liberty of acquainten my Lord & Lady how my Lord Pitt passes his time in America, as I think it will not be disagreeable, for them, to hear, tho was Lord Pitt to no I had taken such a liberty he might be angery with me, His Lordship is up every morning and Dresst by seven o’clock, reads till nine, then to Breakfast with General Carleton ware his Lordship intirely Boards, attainds the Parade every Day at Eleven as that is the sure of the gard mountain, tho his Lordship his not a great deal to do thair, as the 47 regiment is not here, only som small imployments as being Addecamp to General Carleton. After his Lordship has attainded the Parade he rides or walkes if the wather will permit, if not, Reads fences or exercises with the firelock as he is learning the Exercise of the regiment that is here, as it is different from the Twentyth. His Lordship has been drest and at the Chateau, every day by a Quarter of hour before Dinner time, thare has been generally every week two large entertainments at the Chateau so that his Lordship sees a great deal of different Company. But Quebec is rather dul for his Lordship at present as greatest part of the Military Gentleman is gon to Boston, His Lordship has frequently dined with Major Calwell who lives two Miles from this town, General Carleton and Lady Marria’s [Carleton’s wife] politeness to my Lord Pitt when on board of Ship, and here, is very Great, as they never think they have all their family when my Lord Pitt is not there, I am afeard I shall take to great a liberty in given so long account of my Lord, so that I will conclude with begin leaf to offer my Duty to my Lord and Lady, Lady Hester Lady Harriot, Mr Pitt & Mr James Pitt, pleas to acquaint Mr James Pitt I have not seen any Soldier, in America, that is able to Exercise any Thing like so well as Serjeant Rogers [? I have NO idea what this is about], The wether upon the whole has been very fine ever since we landed here, but know growes rather cold, Heavy rains and a great deal of snow is daily expectd, notwithstanding the severity of the whether every body here perfers winter before Summer, after the snow is down and the frost thoroughly Seting. My Lord Pitt Desires to have sent by the first Ship that Sails for Quebec, Cloath & Buttons & other trimmins for two sutes of Regimentals, with two Epaulettes to each Coat, doe or buckskin to make two pair of Rideing Breeches a new saddle and bridle with bit and Burdoon the same as what his Lordship youst to ride Serjeant in, to send 20th of Pipe Clay, for cleaning of Cloaths.
Pleas to make my best Complits. to Mrs Sparry [the Pitt children’s nurse] Mr Willbeir [former colleague of Lord Chatham and tenant on the Hayes estate] & to all friends at Hayes from your affectionate friend