When an Old Man Elopes

He fled to Gretna Green in a veiled leghorn bonnet, his eldest son in hot pursuit.

Lady Williams Wynn couldn’t resist mentioning an event that scandalized all the ton. An elderly lord, well-known and well-connected, eloped with his housekeeper of much lower station.

“It is a melancholy proof of dotage..”

— Lady W-W to her daughter, Fanny (January 17, 1819)*

Lawyer and Whig politician, Thomas Erskine, 1st Baron Erskine (1750 – 1823), enjoyed considerable influence during the Regency. The Ministry of All Talents appointed him Lord High Chancellor. When the Whigs fell out of power, he retired from politics but remained active in various public causes, among them animal rights and George IV’s attempted divorce.

Lord Erskine’s real bread and butter came from practicing law at the Bar (arguing before judge and jury, as opposed to drawing up contracts). His strong advocacy for the role of the jury secures his place in legal history. So does his defense of Thomas Paine, tried for a variety of offenses stemming from the publication of Rights of Man.

His contemporaries knew him best for his courtroom drama.

Early on in his career, he developed an affinity for the kinds of cases litigating matters of a certain delicacy. He had no trouble presenting the facts as he saw them, sparing no colorful detail. Indeed, he spared none of his own clients with his blunt, yet eloquent speeches supporting their cause.

His appearances at Bar piqued and entertained juries and courtroom audiences for years.

Take, for example, the case of Mr. Fenn’s housekeeper. She sued her employer for breaking his promise to marry her. She was a respectable widow, but he induced her to cohabit with him based on his assurances they would soon be wed. The jury awarded her two thousand pounds for the loss of reputation and other damages she suffered as a result of his breach of promise, an award the court tried to set aside for being excessive.

Erskine took up the woman’s case, arguing it didn’t matter that she was old and ugly, or that the defendant wasn’t worth a farthing. The man enjoyed her society in his bed and the jury was well within its right to tally up his bill for same. As for her damages, these were scrupulously enumerated–being the loss of her reputation, her health, the society of her friends, the comfort of retirement.

For good measure, Erskine played to the gallery when he condemned the defendant’s string of false promises–a charade which continued right up until he married another woman:

“..young enough to be his daughter, and who, I hope, will manifest her affection by furnishing him with a pair of horns..(!)”

Speeches of Lord Erskine: When at the Bar, on Miscellaneous Subjects, ed J. Ridgway (1812)

As Erskine’s reputation grew, his clients became more tonnish, seeking his services in matters that had become his specialty–cases of the crim. con. variety. And he represented both sides of the aisle, cuckolded husbands and the lovers who led wives astray.

The rakehell Sir John Piers won a bet when he seduced the wife of a old school chum. He lost twenty thousand pounds when the old school chum sued him.

Mr. Eston was a naval purser and often away at sea. His wife, an actress and theater manager, was the Duke of Hamilton’s mistress. The bereft husband sued for loss of his wife’s affections. Sentiment was on the side of a man in service to his country. Erskine didn’t cringe, however, from defending His Grace’s seductive depredations, arguing the plaintiff brought this on himself for choosing an occupation that kept him gone for long periods of time.

As if that wasn’t enough, he argued the wife wasn’t really a wife at all:

“..as long as the line is fast to the fish, the fish is yours..but the moment she is a loose fish, any body may strike her….I will show you Mrs. E was a loose fish(!)”

— The Times, 23 Feb. 1797**

In the end, the jury awarded the plaintiff seven thousand pounds in damages. The purser never got his money, however. The duke had fled abroad.

Exactly what he has turned out to be,’ said Freddy. ‘Not a Chevalier at all: deuced loose fish, in fact!’

In another case, Erskine defended the heir of the earl of Lucan, Richard Bingham. Bernard Howard, heir to the Duke of Norfolk, sued for losses amounting to over a thousand pounds when his wife left him for Bingham. Erskine argued that in order to show a loss, there has to be affection in the first place.

After the trial, nearly everyone knew just how bad Lady Elizabeth’s marriage was.

Erskine brought several servants to testify to the “sorry state of marriage” that existed between her ladyship and Norfolk’s successor. The maid spoke of Lady Elizabeth’s great unhappiness with her marriage, that her parents forced her to marry Mr. Howard when she loved Mr. Bingham, the flood of tears the night after the wedding, her avoidance of the marriage bed, her walks in Kensington Gardens with the defendant.

A neighbor, probably glowing bright red with embarrassment, testified the angry husband once told him that Lady Elizabeth ‘would not allow him to have any connexions with her.’

” ‘There she goes,’ said Mr. Howard, ‘God damn her–I wish she may break her neck..’ ”

Speeches of Lord Erskine: When at the Bar, on Miscellaneous Subjects, ed J. Ridgway (1812)

 

The jury’s award of five hundred pounds for Mr. Howard was considered negligible, a triumph for Erskine. His client, Mr. Bingham, married Lady Elizabeth and had several children with her before they separated.

Their son, George, Lord Bingham, as painted by his sister. He later became known as ‘The Exterminator’ for evicting large numbers of his tenants in Ireland.

One cannot be surprised that Lord Erskine should conduct his own marital affairs with a bit of theater. There are many versions of the story of his elopement and a lot of speculation on just why he did it. He already had a family from a previous marriage, his finances were in bad shape, and he had to don a disguise to do it.

Lady W. W. surmised he was senile. Others have been more charitable, attributing his hasty trip to Gretna Green as a means to legitimize, at least under Scottish law, his two children by his mistress. That his eldest son tried to prevent the marriage must have chafed the old man and he rebelled.

His descendant wrote a time slip novel about his life, blaming the whole on the supernatural.

The devil made him do it.

 

*Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Williams Wynn, and her three sons, Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, bart, et al,1785 – 1832 (1920)

**This and other interesting quotes from Lord Erskine’s legal career can be found reproduced in Sarah Pearsall’s Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century (2008)

Regency Era Servants – Details, Details Part 2

This post is a continuation of the previous one, concentrating on the character of Regency-era servants when working under duress. I think these details are quite illuminating.

The following anecdotes, unless otherwise noted, come from the letters of Lady Williams-Wynn, (Correspondence of Charlotte Grenville, Lady Williams Wynn; edited by Rachel Frances Marion Leighton, 1920 – my copy is from archive.org).

In 1820, her ladyship wrote in horrified tones to her daughter-in-law concerning the destruction of Wotton House. This fine Queen Anne mansion in Buckinghamshire was the ancestral home of the politically powerful Grenville family.

Built in the English Baroque style, with square apartments and high ceilings, Wotton’s design readily explains its destruction, although that circumstance was not apparent right away. A fire started in the room next to the nursery and soon flames were shooting straight up through the ceiling. Unfortunately, the copper roof confined the heat and flames to the attic, which ran the length of the mansion, and so the fire spread outwards from end to end of Wotton. The fire then traveled back down into the house by the only avenues of escape–the wooden staircases at either end and down the center of Wotton.

A fire that might have damaged one part of the house ended up burning the whole to the ground.

Wotton House, rebuilt by noted architect John Soane, neo-classical architect to the Regency
photo by By Mark Edwards, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia

Lady Williams-Wynn grew up at Wotton. She witnessed many poignant events there, including the untimely deaths of her parents.

“You will easily believe what a pang it has given me to think that all which was associated with my earliest and tenderest recollections should be wiped off from the face of the earth..”

— Lady W.W. to Fanny W.W. Nov. 5th, 1820

Wotton was the home of Lord Temple, son and heir to the duke of Buckingham and Chandos. He, along with his wife and baby daughter, Lady Anna, were in residence at the time of the fire. Their child was only nine months old, having been born earlier in the year in February. Lady W.W. expressed great astonishment that Lady Anna might have died in the fire but for the efforts of his lordship’s valet.

“We are all wonder at hearing from all sides of the peril of the poor Baby without one word being said of its Nurse..”

Imagine the chagrin of poor Nanny. Of all persons present in the house, she should have been the one to rescue her charge. Instead, the business had been left to the valet. One must wonder at Lady Temple’s domestic arrangements for the valet to be present at that particular moment in that part of the house (!)

Moseley, my favorite valet. He had other occupations as well, and now he returns to Downton Abbey to serve the King and Queen.
photo from fandom.com

Such a destructive fire bore investigation and Nanny provided an important clue. It was she, and not the valet, who was the first to see the smoke traveling across the wooden beams of the nursery ceiling. It was she, and not the valet, who picked up Baby and fled. I surmise she delivered her charge into the care of his lordship’s man in order to race back to the nursery to save irreplaceable mementos, such as the child’s christening gown.

Holding the Lady Anna in his arms, the valet could not refuse the hero’s mantle.

Several years earlier, in 1814,* Lady W.W. described the following incident concerning the eccentric daughter-in-law of fellow Whigs, Lord and Lady Melbourne. Apparently, this unfortunate occurrence was all the ton could talk about–the on-dit of that autumn.

The ‘wretched’ Lady Caroline Lamb, as Lady W.W. called her, was already a figure of scandal by the time this latest outrage occurred. Earlier in the year she’d embarked on a well-publicized affair with Lord Byron, having met him in that Whig stronghold, Holland House.

Lady Caroline Lamb by Phillips
She had a thing for pages.

After the affair ended, a surgeon was called to Lady Caroline’s house. One of her pages had suffered a serious injury. Apparently the lad refused to make proper obeisance to her ladyship and received a blow to the head. The offender insisted her instrument of correction was a broomstick and not the poker lying nearby.

In any case, all doubted the boy’s survival.

“It is certainly an extraordinary test of the good humour and kindness of Lord and Lady Melbourne to endure such an inmate, but it is said they do now profess they can bear it no longer.”

It appears Caro’s abusive behavior toward her servants, particularly her pages, was well-known among the ton. Her fellow novelist and confidante, Sydney, Lady Morgan recorded as much in her diary. Caroline did nothing to dispel this, admitting that when she and her page played with squibs, (little firecrackers shaped into balls), the horseplay was often quite boisterous.

On one occasion, the boy threw his squib in the fire. Scolding him, Lady Caroline threw hers at his head.

“It hit him on the temple, and he bled. He cried out, ‘O my Lady, you have killed me!’ Out of my senses, I flew into the hall and screamed, ‘Oh God, I have murdered the page!’ ”

Lady Morgan’s Memoirs: Autobiography, diaries and correspondence by Sydney, Lady Morgan, ed. W. H. Dixon

Vol II (1863)

“The Page Affair,” as Lady Caroline called it, is very well explained here. Some scholars believe these tales of abuse were really a metaphor to describe Caro’s relationship with Lord Byron–that the “pages,” hers and Byron’s, were their literary creations.

Lady W.W. was not impressed, but Lady Cork, famous for her salons and conversation, was.

“..she has persuaded the ton she is a second Lady Cork, to whose salons it is an honor to be invited..She sounds very disagreeable.”

She told Lady Morgan, perhaps teasingly, that she meant to send one of her own naughty pages to Lady Caroline to be reformed. She heard the Melbournes’ daughter-in-law was well-qualified in this regard:

“..’tis said she broke her page’s head with a teapot the other day.”

Loyal to dear Caro, Lady Morgan protested the whole thing was quite untrue–a Tory rumor.

Lady Cork didn’t care if the tale was true or not.

“..all pages are better for having their heads sometimes broken.”

 

*This letter describing the poker incident is undated. The editor placed it among the writer’s correspondence in the fall of 1814.