Regency Family Disaster: Disinheritance

By the time of the Regency, the family of Chichester had been deprived of the majority of its vast fortune by one generation of spendthrifts. But it convulsed over the dignity it valued most, its English title–the barony of Fisherwick. Although the house that bore this illustrious name and symbol of an Irish family’s entry into the highest society had long since been demolished, the baronial title Fisherwick remained the jewel in the crown, which could not be bought, sold or torn down.

The Countess of Charleville wrote to Lady Morgan in 1819 describing various bits of news to be had ’round London, gossip being the only enlivening thing when what one really wants is to get away from England entirely. She conveyed a variety of things to her ladyship, such as Lord and Lady Westmeath’s separation “for temper” and the outrage over Byron’s impious Don Juan. But the most intriguing of all was the following:

Lord Belfast, when he later become 3rd Marquess Donegal

Lord Belfast, when he later become 3rd Marquess Donegal

“…the overthrow of Lord Belfast’s marriage and fortunes, by Lord Shaftesbury having discovered that the Marquis and Marchioness of Donegal were married under age by licence, and not by banns, which renders it illegal, and bastardizes their children irreparably, is the greatest news of the upper circles at present.”

Lord Shaftesbury was the sixth earl of that name (seventh, according to his contemporaries). He had lately come into the  title upon the death of his older brother and was one of the wealthiest men in England, with a daughter whose dowry could redeem many a debt. While still just the Honorable Cropley-Ashley Cooper, his lordship had been a clerk in His Majesty’s ordinance office. It is not too fanciful to imagine he had developed a healthy dose of skepticism during the course of administering a government function ripe with the potential for corruption.

When Lord Belfast, the heir of the Marquis of Donegall came courting, Shaftesbury had already been primed to sniff out any irregularity and not just because there were rumors about his mama.

It was generally known that Belfast’s mother, the Marchioness of Donegal, had been born a “natural” child. Even the circumstances of her marriage, a parson’s mousetrap baited by a scheming father, were overlooked in view of the high-flown family into which she had been brought in. Only after the birth of seven boys did talk surface that she might have been a minor at the time of her marriage. And according to the Marriage Act of 1753, with the aim of reducing clandestine marriages, a “natural” child had to have the consent of the Lord Chancellor to wed. Neither the couple who adopted her in Wales nor her putative father had standing to give consent for her marriage.

Some say Shaftesbury found out this anomaly via an anonymous letter. However this occurred, the marriage between his daughter and Lord Belfast was called off, a social event that made a family affair into a national one, as Lady Charleville goes on to relate:

Lady Glengall - "that little she-attorney"

Lady Glengall – “that little she-attorney”

“The young lady had said she married only for money; therefore, for her, no pity is shown; but poor Lord Belfast, to lose rank, fortune, and wife at once, at twenty years of age, is a strong and painful catastrophe to bear properly.”

All at once the family fortunes seemed at a standstill. Everywhere Lord Belfast became known as simply Mr. Chichester, for now his cousins, the sons of the Marquis’ deceased brother, Lord Spencer Stanley, were next in line to inherit the marquisate and its venerable barony of Fisherwick.

“I hear Mr. Chichester (rightful heir now) behaves well; but he cannot prevent the entail affecting his heirs, nor the title descending to him from his cousin.”

It wasn’t long afterwards that Belfast cast his eye on the daughter of the Earl of Glengall. According to Regency diarist Henry Edward Fox, Lady Glengall was a “little she-attorney,” determined to get her daughter off her hands even if she had to craft a new title for the Marquis of Donegal’s disinherited scion. Perhaps this was the reason that the indolent Lord Donegal was moved to Act.

What followed was a fascinating, if somewhat lengthy and confusing journey into Regency-era litigation. Far from disputing the lack of the Lord Chancellor’s order, Lady Donegal insisted she was not a minor when her father bamboozled Lord Donegal. Indeed, she scrambled together several aged witnesses and fought jurisdictional barriers to get evidence before the court as to her true birthdate.

The conclusion was a Parliamentary order to regularize the Donegal union that had been made illegitimate by the old Marriage Act.

Moral of the story: some families are too high up on the social ladder to fail–er, fall.

Harriet, Marchioness of Donegal

Harriet, Marchioness of Donegal

Postscript: What financial and legal ruin the Chichesters may have survived, their physical evidence has been erased. During the Victorian period, the mausoleum containing the bodies of the family, built near the vanished Fisherwick Hall, had become infested with rabbits and was destroyed.



Regency Family Disaster: Debtors’ Prison

The heir to Fisherwick Hall was George Augustus Chichester (1769 – 1844). The oldest son of the Marquis of Donegall, Viscount Chichester was generally known as Lord Belfast, even in debtors’ prison, to his father’s chagrin.

"It's hard to be strict with a man who loses money so placidly," said a Yankee guard of his prisoner, one Rhett Butler

“It’s hard to be strict with a man who loses money so placidly,” said a Yankee guard of his prisoner, one Rhett Butler

For awhile, the marquis had covered his heir’s debts, which sprang primarily from gaming. He had ambition that his son, like himself, might marry well. Unfortunately, rumors of Lord Belfast’s profligacy reached the ballrooms of London, finally saturating them to such a degree that no willing candidate for his hand could be found.

Then success seemed probable when Lord Belfast took a fancy to the fifteen-year-old daughter of the Duchess of Leinster, “still in her frock.” But not even the schoolroom was proof against the news of mounting debts and the match was called off:

“..our dear Cecilia might have been made by it unhappy for life, as it is dear creature she has only to be thankful she has escaped so happily being married to a dissipated bad man..”

letter of Mrs. Anne Finch to Lucy Fitz-Gerald reprinted in — Living Like a Lord, the Second Marquis of Donegall, 1769-1844, W. A. McGuire 1984

By this time the harassed father had bailed his son out to the tune of 80,000 pounds and exhausted, bade him to go his own way, which was to prison. At times in Marshalsea and at others in Fleet, it appears Belfast preferred the latter. The beauty of life in this particular debtors’ prison allowed his lordship, according to one disgruntled creditor, the opportunity:

“of going to all public places and all races and fox hunting which were within forty or fifty miles of London for several years that his lordship was prisoner.” — Living Like a Lord, McGuire

Not all prisoners enjoyed such flexible “day rules” as Lord Belfast. It’s just that he made it so lucrative for guards and others alike to give him free rein and continue his poor performance at gambling. He seems not to have exercised any more judgment than before; indeed, prison seemed to encourage his bad habits, shielding him from the harassment of those to whom he owed many thousands of pounds.

Lord Belfast's illegitimate wife

Lord Belfast’s illegitimate wife

Eventually even this velvet restraint, however lenient, had become tiresome.

And when in need, Chichester tended to turn to those who did not have his best interests at heart.

One such fellow was Edward May, worse than a cardsharp and a good deal smarter. He looked past the worthless vouchers that could be wrung from Belfast’s cardplay toward a glittering horizon filled with political promise, in faraway Ireland. Belfast’s father, the marquis, was a great landowner in County Donegall and had in his patronage a good deal of government appointments and the like. Presumably these benevolences would be inherited, along with the marquis’ titles, and could be exercised on behalf of those who held them (or their dependents).

But the old man was still alive and who knew how long he might live?

A tie of a permanent sort was required, one that would last longer than some scribbled agreement. In exchange for his freedom, May offered his lordship the hand of his illegitimate daughter, Anna, in marriage. She, like her other siblings, was the issue from a union May entered into with the still-married wife of a Liverpool merchant.  Lord Belfast agreed.

The marquis was beside himself.  His son’s behavior had quite cut up the family peace but there was nothing that could be done to void such an lowering union.

It was then that the old man took stock in all that he held dear. The swine his son consorted with would soon hunger for more. So the marquis divided his estate between what he could not save–the marquisate and all the entailed properties–and gathered close to him what he could.

His beloved Fisherwick, its contents, even the Gainsborough portraits were inventoried meticulously and drawn up in a new will. None of which he loved the most would ever be wasted, sold or even touched by a son so unworthy. Lord Belfast was as good as dead to him.

And what remains lost, can never be found again.