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:
“…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:
“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.
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.