Biographies & Memoirs



The Taming of Bad Wives

Westminster Hall, London, 28 November 1786

Dishevelled and pale, with a scarlet handkerchief bandaging the head wounds he had supposedly received at his capture, Andrew Robinson Bowes staggered into Westminster Hall just after 1 p.m. Limping through the cavernous medieval building, where William Wallace, Guy Fawkes and Charles I had once stood to hear their death sentences pronounced, Bowes was supported under each arm by the two tipstaffs who had finally put an end to his flight. The clamour in the noisy hall rose even louder as journalists, law students and spectators jostled for a view. ‘Mr Bowes was dressed in a drab-coloured great coat, a red silk handkerchief about his head,’ the reporter from The Times noted, while the correspondent for the Gentleman’s Magazine observed that, ‘he frequently appeared on the point of fainting, and his appearance on the whole was the most squalid and emaciated that could possibly be imagined.’1 Depicted by James Gillray as stooping and dejected amid a sea of gawping faces in the caricaturist’s last - and most truthful - contribution to the Bowes divorce saga, he cut a pitiful figure.

But if Bowes hoped to win public sympathy by his usual play-acting, this time he was gravely mistaken. Finally wise to his tricks and disguises, the crowds squashed into the courtroom hissed and jeered as he stumbled towards the bench and the newspaper writers cynically dismissed his sickly pallor. ‘Mr Bowes had dressed his person to draw pity from the multitude,’ the Morning Chronicle wryly informed its readers and added: ‘It is said by some of the persons who attended Mr Bowes into town, that he did not appear to be much in pain from the ill-treatment complained of in his affidavit, till he came into town, and then he began to rehearse his part.’ Indeed, as Jessé Foot would later reveal, Bowes had manufactured his deathly countenance by taking an emetic. Having vomited twice as he was conveyed to Westminster Hall, he had persuaded the ever-willing surgeon to plead that he was unfit to attend. Only the dissent of a second, less corruptible, doctor had prevented Bowes from evading his appointment with justice.

Held firm by the two tipstaffs, Bowes was brought before the notorious Judge Francis Buller. Presiding over the King’s Bench in place of the ailing Lord Mansfield, Justice Buller had made himself as unpopular with the lawyers who argued their cases under his withering gaze as with the cowering defendants who stood before him. Having scaled the legal ladder with unprecedented agility, Buller was the youngest judge ever to be appointed to the King’s Bench at the tender age of thirty-two.2 Arrogant and brash in his manner, stubborn and impetuous in his judgements, at fifty he was now tipped to succeed the mentor he idolised yet made seemingly little attempt to emulate. Where Mansfield had been acclaimed for his liberal stance, Buller had become a laughing stock by suggesting that a husband could lawfully beat his wife as long as he used a stick no thicker than his thumb. Yet even ‘Judge Thumb’ was scandalised at the depraved extremes of Bowes’s conduct which now unfolded before the court.

In an era of public hangings, child labour and routine domestic violence, there was little that shocked Georgian sensibilities. But the extent of Bowes’s sadistic ill-treatment of his own wife, described in the articles of peace read by Mary’s lawyers, appalled reporters and spectators alike. Recording the beatings, floggings, murder threats, attempted murder, attempted rapes and unspeakable deprivations Mary had suffered during her abduction and confinement, the charges were described by The Times as containing ‘a detail of barbarity that shocks humanity and outrages civilisation’, while the Morning Chronicle referred to ‘a scene of the utmost inhumanity and brutality’.

As Bowes swooned from his pretended injuries, his lawyers made a pathetic effort to present him as a wronged man who had only abducted Mary to rescue her from her manipulative servants. Having left Streatlam Castle before the habeas corpus had been served, Bowes had been oblivious to the nationwide quest to rescue her until several days later, they claimed, at which point he had dutifully headed south to deliver her in person. It was while endeavouring to return her to London, his lawyers insisted, that Bowes had been apprehended by a rough band of labourers who had mercilessly bludgeoned him over the head. Producing a sworn statement from a surgeon in Darlington who asserted that Bowes had sustained a serious head wound, his lawyers feared that even now his injuries might prove fatal.

Bowes’s version of events received short shrift from the formidable Buller. Briskly dismissing the concoction of excuses over the habeas corpus, the judge remanded Bowes in custody until a full hearing, with bail set at the colossal sum of £20,000, possibly the largest bail figure to date in such a case.3 When Bowes’s counsel pleaded that a spell in jail might endanger his life, the judge promptly retorted that there were apartments in prison ‘sufficiently commodious’ for Bowes to receive medical treatment, at which point the marshal of the prison confirmed - to uproarious laughter - that he ‘could accommodate him very properly’.

As Bowes was conveyed out of court by the tipstaffs, a vast mob surged forwards, hissing, howling and shouting abuse, while the tipstaffs forced a path to the waiting hackney carriage.4 Bundled inside the waiting coach, Bowes was driven the short distance to the King’s Bench prison in Southwark where he arrived at 3 p.m. At last the captor was captive. The man who had variously imprisoned his wife, his sister, his stepdaughter, his mistress and her child, was himself finally under lock and key. And as The Times drily remarked: ‘It is an uncomfortable reverse of situation, to be forced from the elegant apartments of a noble house in Grosvenor-square, to a room twelve feet by eight in a prison.’

For satirists and cartoonists ever on the lookout for a fresh victim to lampoon, Bowes’s dramatic plunge from preening country gentleman to lowly prison inmate was a gift. Seizing the opportunity to rake over Bowes’s chequered past while milking popular prejudice against the Irish, one anonymous writer turned the drama into a short play, entitled ‘The Irishman in Limbo, or, Stony Batter’s Lamentation for the loss of his Liberty’.5 In an imagined dialogue between Bowes and an Irish jailor, Bowes declares: ‘One wife I ingeniously tormented out of her life, and the other I would have done the same by, but she, with her sage advisers, has proved too many for me, and prevented my scheme from taking.’ Another attack, under the title ‘Who Cries Andrew now?’ recalled Bowes’s horse-racing and political heyday in nine jaunty verses, including the lines: ‘No more at ELECTIONS his Name we repeat,/Like his Galloper jaded, he’s down at each heat;/Tho’ this bold Irish Hero, this Bruiser of Wives,/the Gallows Escapes, like a Cat with Nine Lives.’ A third, called ‘Paddy’s Progress’, described Bowes’s dazzling ascent from army ensign to popular MP and his equally spectacular descent in a rollicking ballad spanning twenty-four pages. Its final verse concluded: ‘Doom’d to a room, twelve feet by eight!/Who could but say - they serv’d him right?/Thus he who cry’d up Freedom’s laws,/His freedom lost in Freedom’s cause!’

In reality, however, Bowes’s new life in captivity brought little hardship. Far from being incarcerated in a tiny cell, Bowes ranged around a comfortable house adjacent to the prison which he rented from the obliging marshal. Here he lived in comparative luxury with four-year-old William, the pregnant Mary Gowland and several of his stooges, dining on the Bowes silver plate and entertaining friends. Attended daily for his feigned injuries by Foot, Bowes feverishly attempted to raise the bail necessary to secure his release while masterminding his legal defence. With the abduction case, divorce suit and deeds challenge simultaneously lumbering to their conclusions through the tortuous Georgian legal system he had plenty to keep him busy.

In the meantime, it was Mary who was confined to a single room, forced to remain upstairs in Farrer and Lacey’s house in Bread Street Hill through the ill effects of her ordeal. According to the apothecary who examined her after her rescue, Mary had sustained a ‘great pain’ in her right shoulder from her fall from the horse during her trans-Pennine trek, as well as bruises to her neck, chest and feet, and a severe cough.6 ‘From the severity of the weather and the ill-treatment she had suffered,’ he reported, ‘I thought her life in great danger.’ It would be a full month before she could stand up and six weeks before she could walk across the room with the aid of a stick. On Christmas Day she was carried downstairs for the first time to enjoy Christmas dinner with friends.7 While her physical symptoms slowly improved, her emotional state took longer to recover. Relating to Colpitts the after-effects of the ordeal - in a far-sighted description of post-traumatic stress disorder - Mary explained: ‘I know by experience, that . . . one begins to feel the Effects of Terror, etc, in a manner that the false spirits & activity necessary whilst our exertions were required prevented our being sensible of ’till the storm has subsided.’ Those symptoms might well continue, she speculated, confessing to Colpitts that, ‘I shall not be very willing, I think, ever to go out of Doors again, as I have experienced that there is no personal security in this Kingdom even at noon.’ Since Bowes’s hoodlums remained at large she had every reason to fear for her safety.

Yet if Mary endured lasting anxiety in her liberty, she could at least rejoice in the strength of support she now received from friends and family. Mary Morgan remained her closest friend and staunchest ally, while Colpitts and her other supporters in the north would continue to prove their worth. Putting on record her gratitude to the miners, tenants and farmworkers who had collaborated in her rescue, Mary placed an emotional notice in the Newcastle and Durham newspapers at the end of December. ‘Lady Strathmore returns her most sincere & hearty thanks to her friends in Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland, Westmoreland, Cumberland, & many other counties, for their humane & spirited exertions towards the Restoration of her Liberty, & the Preservation of her Life.’8 Back from the north after playing his own part in the rescue mission, the assiduous Captain Farrer resumed his romantic attentions while well-wishers deluged the house to congratulate Mary on her release.

At the same time, Mary painstakingly began to rebuild relations with her scattered young family. George and Thomas, her Eton boys, were the first to arrive at her bedside in early December. A few days later Mary was overjoyed when her two eldest children, Maria and John, came to visit. It had been six long years since she had last seen her eldest son, the young Lord Strathmore. She had left a nervous boy of eleven in thrall to his tutors and guardians, now she met a tall, handsome and self-confident young man who had just enrolled as a cornet, the cavalry’s equivalent of an ensign, in the Royal Horse Guards.9 Although she would never fully be reconciled with Maria, at one time her favourite child, Mary belatedly forged a strong and loving bond with the son for whom she had once confessed an ‘unnatural dislike’. As she followed his military career with maternal pride, pasting newspaper cuttings on his activities into a scrapbook, so he endeavoured to reunite the dispersed family and revive its disparate fortunes.

This was no simple task. Although their father languished in prison, accused of kidnapping, attempted murder and attempted rape, Mary’s two youngest children remained firmly and legally under his control; young William even shared his father’s captivity while nine-year-old Mary was being held in a secret location on his orders. And there was no record of a visit to her mother from Anna, now sixteen, who continued to behave as precociously as ever despite the hawk-like scrutiny of her governess, the sanctimonious Mrs Parish, who had recently confiscated a book she deemed ‘not fit for the reading of a young Person’.10 In future, Anna would take care to keep her pleasures better hidden. And although Thomas Lyon had mellowed sufficiently to allow Mary at least some access to her children, he remained largely immune to her plight. As Mary commented archly to Colpitts, ‘I must say, that Mr Lyon has not departed from his usual Supineness & Indifference in any particular.’11

Bolstered by the kindness of friends and family, Mary Eleanor moved into a rented house in Holles Street, just off Oxford Street, with Morgan and a few trusted servants in January 1787. A small terraced house, with just one spare room, it was a far cry from the opulence of her former homes, which now lay abandoned and neglected, yet it was ‘very neatly furnished’ and she could now manage the stairs without a stick. With her strength steadily returning, her determination to sever all links with Bowes remained undiminished. ‘I am resolved at all events’, she told Colpitts, ‘to trust alone to a legal & Public Decision, & that I would beg my bread or earn it by sweeping the Crossings of a street, sooner than enter into any amicable Terms with Mr Stoney & I feel that the Resolution wch. supported me in the Highlands wd not desert me upon the Occasion.’ As the appeal against her divorce suit approached, she would need every ounce of her willpower.

Bowes had filed his formal response to Mary’s divorce victory to the Court of Arches, the ecclesiastical appeal court for the province of Canterbury, on 30 November, just two days after his enfeebled appearance in Westminster Hall. But there was nothing feeble about its contents. He had already given a broad hint that he was preparing a robust case in a testimony signed on the day of his capture which referred to certain ‘papers’ with which Mary had presented him soon after their marriage ‘containing such a scene of iniquity as this deponent believes is not to be paralleled in any history on life’.12 Having purchased an interest in The Times, or Daily Universal Register as it was still known, that same month, Bowes made it plain he intended to fight his corner in the full glare of publicity.13 Orchestrating his campaign from his roomy prison quarters, he fed titillating clues about the revelations his forthcoming appeal would furnish to an eager press.

In January, therefore, The World promised its readers that Bowes’s expected allegations against Mary were ‘perhaps, the most extraordinary and unprecedented ever exhibited before a Court of Judicature’. 14 Shortly afterwards The Times tamely observed that although popular prejudice had ‘never run with greater rapidity against any individual’ than it had against Bowes, there was now reason to believe that ‘the stream will turn with the tide, and public opinion change its colour, on the full disclosure of every circumstance under which that Gentleman has acted’. And so when the appeal finally came up for its hearing, on 20 January 1787, the great hall at Doctors’ Commons, where the Court of Arches also met, was packed with excitable journalists and shorthand writers. As the hacks listened, their quills poised, the court deliberations hinged on precisely how much of Bowes’s explosive case could be aired in public.

His own reputation irreparably ruined, having been denounced as an adulterer, rapist and bully, Bowes had determined that his best line of defence lay in traducing Mary’s name to an equal degree. If he could prove that Mary had committed vulgar and unnatural acts at least as shocking as the charges laid against him, then he was convinced her case would founder. And to achieve that end, he knew he possessed the ultimate secret weapon.

First he set the scene, lodging with the court a series of remarkable ‘allegations’ that accused Mary of brazen and repeated adultery with a succession of male acquaintances.15 Deviously entwining fact with fiction, this document described her adulterous affair with George Gray, subsequent abortions and concealed pregnancy in salacious detail. That these events all predated her marriage to Bowes, and that Gray’s death six years previously prevented any effective challenge, made little difference to their deleterious effect. What followed was a bizarre confection of outrageous claims culled from the furthest reaches of Bowes’s degenerate imagination which would have been comical were they not so destructive to Mary and several of her friends. Of the nine allegations filed by Bowes, the presiding judge Sir Peter Calvert rejected four outright but the five that he allowed to be read in court were more than sufficient to satisfy the appetites of the gathered journalists. Peddling Bowes’s familiar image as the indulgent husband, his allegations asserted that ‘Lady Strathmore is a woman of the most extravagant, lustful, wicked, and abandoned temper, and disposition’ who had treated Bowes with ‘the most insolent contempt and disobedience’. It was this ‘impropriety and indecency’ which had forced Bowes to lay ‘restraints’ upon her behaviour and ‘by argument and gentle remonstrances’ attempt to ‘give her a proper sense and abhorrence of those vices’. Yet despite his heroic efforts to reform his wife’s character, she had embarked on three successive affairs.

Her first lover, Bowes alleged, had been her footman George Walker with whom she had ‘very frequently’ committed adultery during the summer of 1777. Discovering this liaison at the end of the year, Bowes had instantly dismissed the servant, he claimed. The fact that Mary had been on the point of giving birth, by his own contention, that summer and that Walker had actually been dismissed at the end of March, had seemingly escaped his memory. His only evidence for the supposed affair was the testimony of another servant, Eliza Stephens, the former Eliza Planta who had probably been his own mistress at the time. She claimed she had found Walker alone with Mary in her bedchamber. The entire allegation, of course, was pure revenge for Walker’s role in safeguarding Mary’s prenuptial deed. In a vehement denial of any improper relationship, Walker would reveal that Bowes had tried to bribe him to support his cause but declared, ‘I despised his offers! as I despised the Man!’16

Mary’s second lover, the fiction continued, was a house guest named Edward Llewellin who had apparently stayed with the family at St Paul’s Walden Bury in August 1783. The pair had been discovered ‘in the very act of carnal copulation’ on a bench in the garden, Bowes claimed, although he had only learned this shocking revelation after Mary had left him. Scarcely bothering to substantiate this charge, Bowes produced no evidence and no witness. And, of course, there were none since in August 1783, when Bowes was conducting an affair with his son’s wet-nurse Mrs Houghton, Mary was not permitted so much as to walk alone in the garden to view her flowers, let alone cavort there with a lover. In all probability, since nobody in Mary’s acquaintance had any recollection of the name, Llewellin did not exist. But of all the allegations, the most ludicrous, and the most cruel, was the claim that Mary had enjoyed an intrigue with the Gibside gardener Robert Thompson.

According to the charges, Mary had conducted a tempestuous affair with her gardener during the spring of 1784 such that ‘many great and indecent familiarities were seen to pass’ between the pair and they were spotted by two witnesses ‘in the very act of carnal copulation’ in the greenhouse, the garden house and various parts of the garden. Describing this improbable coupling, Joseph Hill, an ostler to the pit ponies, attested that he and his fellow colliery worker, Charles Chapman, had spied on Thompson through a window of the garden house ‘lying upon the body of the said Mary Eleanor Bowes’.

It would have been hard to find a more doting or devoted admirer of Mary than Robert Thompson. Since his appointment in 1782, he had loyally tended her rare botanical specimens, once risking Bowes’s wrath by allowing her to pick a single bloom, and ultimately defying his orders by continuing to nurture her gardens after his dismissal. Equally, it would have been hard to imagine a less likely lover. Wretched with poverty and sickness, infested with lice and racked with rheumatism, Thompson could barely manage to tend the plants let alone engage in athletic couplings between chores. According to fellow servants, Thompson was so unwell in 1784 that he ‘walked almost double’ and was frequently seen to ‘pick the Lice from off his Body and his Cloaths’.17 Utterly in awe of Mary, and having sworn that he would ‘dye on the spott’ in his desperation to rescue her when abducted, Thompson’s highest ambition was simply to serve her by cherishing her garden. Mortified by the accusation, Thompson would attest that he had never once been alone with Mary or even touched her garments except, he poignantly admitted, ‘when her Ladyship might Hand me a pott of Flowers out of her hand which by Chance I might touch her Fingers but never otherwise’.

Transparently, Bowes’s outrageous slander was punishment for Thompson’s unbending loyalty. The conniving Hill had plainly been bribed to make his testimony while Chapman had only recently been captured for his part in Mary’s abduction. Yet unbelievable as the claim was, the humiliation may well have been the last straw for the poor gardener. Thompson died less than two months after the allegations were broadcast and on his deathbed told a fellow ex-servant, James Smith, that the charge ‘had almost broken his Heart’. So impoverished that he left not even enough money for a funeral, the last rites were paid for by Smith.

Notwithstanding this lurid catalogue of vice, Bowes still maintained his insistence that he wished to stay wedded to his errant spouse. Even more staggering, given the criminal trial hanging over him for abduction, he contended that since their separation - during the very ten days of the countrywide hunt to rescue Mary - they had ‘lived and cohabited together’, sharing bed and board, ‘with mutual consent and forgiveness towards each other’.

Yet if Bowes’s allegations seemed incredible, not to mention his undiminished zeal for the institution of matrimony, his lawyers now produced shocking evidence to support their case: Mary’s own ‘Confessions’. Extorted under threat of violence nine years earlier and jealously guarded by Bowes ever since, Mary’s frank account of her youthful flirtations and adulterous affair with Gray, her several abortions and her secret pregnancy, was ample ammunition to condemn her by her own pen. And it was not only Mary Eleanor whom the revelations could harm, for by exposing the illegitimacy of little Mary in public, the document effectively tainted her reputation too. Previously lodged with the court, it was this extraordinary hundred-page testament that Bowes wished to be read verbatim and had primed the assembled hacks to expect. Unparalleled in their honesty, unprecedented in their first-hand description of attempted and successful abortions, the confessions could easily sway public opinion in Bowes’s favour, as Mary and her followers were only too well aware.

Since the confessions were irrefutably in Mary’s handwriting, there was no question but that they were genuine. Precisely how they had come to be written, however, was the question that exercised the court. Mary Eleanor had already dismissed the document as ‘spurious, most false and scandalous’, while Mary Morgan called it ‘that vile paper extracted from her Ladyship by force & partly dictated by his [Bowes’s] own malicious invention’.18 Mary’s steadfast attorney, James Farrer, had no less hesitation in disregarding the document. In an impassioned defence, sent to his partner Thomas Lacey, Farrer argued: ‘The narrative ascribed to be writ by Lady S. is certainly in her own Hand Writing, which was procured from her Ladyship by threats and menaces, and the fear of Death, at a time her Ladyship was regardless of any thing but quietude, and the wish to avoid that severity of treatment she almost daily experienced, or at least to have it mitigated in some measure, when she was worn down in her spirits, depressed in the extreme, and in a state of despondency from an ill state of Health and a succession of cruelty, which occasioned.’19 Most of the paper had been dictated by Bowes, or at least instructions given as to what it must include, Farrer wrote. And its purpose, he said, was plain. It was a ‘pocket pistol’ kept by Bowes ‘to destroy her Ladyship’s fame, and to harden and steel the Hearts of every one against her Ladyship’.

For the moment, at least, that pistol had misfired. For no sooner had the clerk to the court solemnly read aloud a few pages than the presiding judge ordered him to halt. Decreeing that the document had been obtained under duress and was furthermore unrelated to the facts of the case, Calvert banned any further reporting of its contents. At that point, as the Newcastle Journal related: ‘A little murmur ensued, and three or four short-hand writers, who had seated themselves to take the contents of this choice MS. put up their papers, and marched out of the hall.’20

Yet the bullet still managed to reach its mark. For even the limited details which had emerged and which were greedily repeated in the media were sufficiently scandalous to divide public opinion. ‘A few pages of this extraordinary performance were read in Court,’ the Journal reported, ‘in which her Ladyship confesses she had been guilty of five mortal crimes.’ Leaving its readers to speculate on the precise nature of her sins, the newspaper added: ‘However foreign to the present contest between the Countess and Mr Bowes . . . that part of her narrative, which was recited on Saturday, appeared to be written with a peculiar degree of candour and correctness, and those who have perused it, in general agree, that it is by no means a partial apology for her conduct; but a sincere penitential confession of her transgressions.’ Other newspapers spared their readers no blushes in relating the ‘crimes’ to which Mary had confessed. Inevitably these included The Times which proclaimed: ‘The confession drawn up and signed by Lady Strathmore . . . was perhaps the most extraordinary that ever came before a court of justice.’21 And even though Mary inserted a letter in several newspapers condemning the ‘scandalous paragraphs which have, for a considerable time, daily appeared against me’, the damage was done. The Rover’s Magazine, which published Bowes’s steamy allegations in full, along with a saucy cartoon depicting said countess and gardener in flagrante in the conservatory, sneeringly remarked that Mary had endeavoured to ‘exculpate herself and to intimate that she is almost immaculate’.

Just as Farrer had predicted, airing the confessions succeeded in hardening the hearts of some of Mary’s erstwhile sympathisers. Learning of the latest revelation in his estranged son’s colourful life, George Stoney told a relation that, ‘Lady S. is exerting every possible means to acquit herself of severe charges made against her’ while adding, ‘there certainly has been many faults on both sides’.22 Growing increasingly pious in his advancing infirmity, he argued that divorce was ‘a dangerous Precedent’. Yet when he died the following month, George Stoney’s will divided his sizeable estate among his large family and bequeathed Bowes, his eldest son, a derisory one-ninth share of only £2.

Growing increasingly frustrated by his containment, as he awaited the decision of the Court of Arches, Bowes directed his energies to raising bail. Trying to tap his usually amenable source, he wrote an unctuous letter to the Duke of Norfolk in March. In a cringing attempt to justify his abduction of Mary, he explained: ‘I adopted it, with all the Inconvenience it threatened to myself, merely to remove an Infatuated Woman from the Public Infamy which I knew she must finally suffer, if I did not snatch her from it.’23 Although the scheme had been ‘abhorrent’ to him, he had been persuaded to carry it out by the ‘ardent, persuasive zeal’ of certain friends, he wheedled. Insisting that all Mary’s allegations against him were completely false - ‘sportive dalliance excepted’ he added with an obvious wink to the philandering duke - Bowes implored him to guarantee the necessary sum for his bail. For although he was impatient to prove his innocence at the forthcoming trial, his presence in the north was ‘most essentially necessary in matters of the utmost Importance to my concerns’. Evidently not persuaded by Bowes’s raving protestations of innocence - nor probably by his assurances of a timely return - the duke declined to stump up the cash.

Yet Bowes could still muster wealthy friends with even fewer scruples than the debauched duke. By the end of March he had procured two financiers who were willing to pledge the funds needed to secure his release and, just as he had so ominously declared, he immediately sped north. News that Bowes was once more at liberty came as a severe blow to Mary, already demoralised by her degrading treatment at the hands of the press. ‘The present agitated state of my Mind upon hearing that Mr Stoney has procured Bail, renders me scarce capable of writing coherently,’ she told Colpitts, while Morgan gravely warned him that, ‘you may expect him as soon as horses can bring him to the North’.24

Sure enough, within days Bowes and his cronies had unleashed a new wave of intimidation among Mary’s allies in the north-east, offering bribes to persuade vital witnesses to change their evidence and, if these failed, indicting them for perjury. Thomas Ridgeway, the redoubtable tipstaff, and Gabriel Thornton, the valiant ploughman, were among those Bowes charged with perjury; both held firm. Susannah Church, Mary’s former maid, was less resilient; she swore a testimony that Mary lived in fear of Mary Morgan who had organised Mary’s escape for her own pecuniary ends.25Bowes even pressed perjury charges against Mary Eleanor herself. She only narrowly escaped being arrested to face this allegation by the quick-thinking of James Farrer who hared into court just in time to secure her bail. While the perjury charge further undermined Mary’s credibility in the eyes of the general public, in reality Bowes’s case hinged on the most laughably trivial errors in her testimony. She had accused him of locking her in a ‘dark room’ when Bowes claimed it was a ‘passage’, and of keeping her in a ‘pig sty’ which Bowes insisted was a ‘stable yard’. Ultimately, he would quietly drop the charge.

Swaggering around the north-east flanked by his gang, Bowes convened a bizarre series of hearings - a kind of show trial - which opened on 13 April at the Wheatsheaf Inn in Durham. Over the next ten days he paraded his usual accomplices to swear testimonies invoking his virtues - and Mary’s vices - as evidence both for the divorce case and the abduction trial. Yet the image he strived to create of a loving and faithful husband was somewhat undermined by the fact that his mistress, Mary Gowland, went into labour in the middle of the sessions.26

When Bowes’s legal team won a reduction of his bail term from fourteen years to two in early May it seemed as if the tide had turned his way. Certainly The Times thought so, unable to resist the comment that ‘it appears, that, in spite of public prejudice, the cause of her Ladyship is not so immaculate, as the world at large have been taught to believe’.27 Even when the Court of Arches found in Mary’s favour on 7 May, confirming her divorce and alimony payments, he was undaunted. Determined never to release Mary from her marital shackles if he could possibly avoid it, nor pay her a penny, he immediately launched a further appeal, this time to the High Court of Delegates, the ultimate place of appeal from the ecclesiastical judicial system, on the spurious ground that he had not been allowed time to produce all his witnesses.28 As he headed back to London to face his trial for abduction with bullish self-confidence, Bowes inserted a notice in The Times announcing that a ‘certain society of married Gentlemen’ planned to celebrate his expected victory by erecting a memorial to Bowes ‘in honour of his meritorious services to the enemies of petticoat government, and the friends of matrimonial subordination’.29 Referring to the social reformer John Howard, who had just begun his final tour of the foul conditions endured by the majority of England’s prison population, if not Bowes himself, the article added: ‘It is thought that this subscription will be much larger than that which was made to give a statue to Mr Howard; as the taming of bad wives is a matter of infinitely greater importance to society than a casual improvement in the police [government] of a prison.’ So, by the time Bowes appeared before Judge Buller and a special jury at the King’s Bench on 30 May 1787, he cut a far more jaunty figure than the reviled character of six months earlier.

Charged with five counts of conspiracy that essentially accused him of seizing, assaulting and imprisoning Mary in order to compel her to drop her divorce suit, Bowes appeared with eight of his partners in crime.30 These were the corrupt constable Edward Lucas, the hackney coach driver John Bickley, the pitworkers Charles Chapman and William Pigg, the coal merchant Francis Peacock, Bowes’s valet Mark Prevot, his steward Henry Bourn and his attorney Thomas Bowes. Doubtless feeling secure in the knowledge that numerous husbands had previously stood on that very same spot and successfully defended their ancient right to chastise and confine their wayward wives, Bowes listened impassively as the charges were read. And since he had engaged probably the best criminal defence barrister of the Georgian era, Bowes had every reason to feel confident.

At thirty-seven, Thomas Erskine was a rapidly rising star in the legal profession whose services were heavily in demand among those unfortunate or uncouth enough to find themselves before the King’s Bench.31 The youngest son of a straitened Scottish earl, Erskine had joined the navy and then the army before trying his hand at the law at which point he had enrolled as a pupil with Francis Buller. Having finally found his metier, he immediately proved himself an audacious advocate and sparkling orator by winning a string of acclaimed legal victories. A lifelong radical and fervent advocate of free speech, Erskine was briefly elected an MP during the Fox-North coalition in 1783-4; in future years he would defend Thomas Paine, unsuccessfully, in the state trial over publication of The Rights of Man and secure the acquittal of the radicals Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall in their dramatic trial for high treason in 1794. Ultimately, in 1806, he would become Lord Chancellor. Defending political agitators from charges of treason notwithstanding, his brief to defend Bowes would prove one of the toughest challenges of his career.

Faced with the bar’s most popular and esteemed advocate, Mary’s barrister James Mingay had every excuse to feel apprehensive as he rose to open the case for the prosecution. The son of a country surgeon from Norfolk, raised in ‘the most humble obscurity’ as one contemporary would term it, Mingay had lost his right hand in an accident in his youth and subsequently sported an iron hook. Stymied from following his father’s profession, the young Mingay was given financial help by the Duke of Grafton to enter Cambridge and subsequently join the bar. Rising rapidly, Mingay had soon found himself pitched against Erskine in the King’s Bench where their fiery sparring matches provided entertainment for law students comparing their oratory styles. Concise, bold and forceful where his adversary was polished, flowery and verbose, 35-year-old Mingay was widely regarded as ‘the second person in professional estimation’ to Erskine himself. Strident rivals in court, the two had become firm friends at leisure.

In a court packed with students, journalists and spectators, as eager to hear the expected duel of words between the two advocates as to witness the long-awaited battle between Mary and Bowes, Mingay began by addressing the jury. Adopting the grave tone which the alleged crimes certainly merited, he solemnly warned the jurors that it ‘will be necessary for me to state to you a transaction that I hope never, or any thing like it, existed before in a Christian country’. And as he proceeded to outline the details of Mary’s kidnap and subsequent ordeal with the clarity and verve for which he was renowned, he did not disappoint them.

With studied restraint, Mingay described how Mary had fled her marital home and instituted divorce proceedings after ‘eight long and miserable years’ following ‘treatment that I should have thought no man could possibly have adopted against any woman, and that no woman, thank God, is bound to bear in this country from any man’. Fully cognisant that Bowes was likely to argue his right reasonably to chastise and confine his wife, Mingay concentrated on demonstrating that Bowes’s conduct had been neither reasonable nor justifiable. Having seized Mary from a public street in the middle of the day, Bowes had dragged her ‘near three hundred miles, through the heart of this kingdom’ and attempted to force her to drop her divorce ‘by means as savage as they were uncommon and unheard of’. Met at Streatlam Castle by her husband’s pregnant mistress, who had since ‘been brought to bed of a bastard child by the husband’, Mary had been ordered to sign a paper revoking her divorce suit with a pistol at her head. Yet still she had refused to drop her case and even ordered Bowes to fire with, Mingay proclaimed, ‘a courage that to me is astonishing!’ Subsequently bundled up the stairs by Chapman and Pigg - ‘people that were accustomed to deeds of darkness by living in a mine’ - Mary had resisted Bowes’s attempts to rape her. At this point Mingay felt compelled to advise the jurors, no doubt to their incredulity, that there were indeed cases where ‘a husband is liable to be tried for a rape even on his own wife’ - although in this respect his legal history was optimistic at best, since rape within marriage would not finally be recognised as a crime until 1991.

Detailing Mary’s torment over the next eight days as she was compelled to trek over mountains covered in snow, Mingay told the jury ‘she was very near dead, she was very near frozen’. Yet far from hanging his head in shame at the treatment he had meted out to his own wife, Bowes had since had the audacity to accuse her of perjury by disputing whether she had been kept captive in a dark room or a dark passage. Rising now to a crescendo, Mingay asked the jury: ‘I will, for a moment, suppose her the most abandoned prostitute that the earth ever produced, but for a man to treat a woman thus, what must be every honest man’s sensations?’ Leaving unsaid the obvious fact that the victim of this crime was not a resident of a brothel, but rather the only daughter of an ancient landed family, Mingay left the jurors in no doubt as to what he considered should be the response of an ‘honest man’ with his simple question: ‘Gentlemen, I ask whether she is not the most persecuted woman that ever was?’ Finally inviting the jury to identify with the simple but courageous country folk who had rescued Mary from such abominable maltreatment, Mingay concluded with a virtuoso flourish, declaring that, ‘a straw in the hands of an honest countryman is equal to all the fire arms in the hands of Bowes’.

Having brilliantly set the scene of Bowes’s outrage, Mingay produced a succession of turnpike keepers, tavern landlords and servants who testified to Mary’s suffering at every stage of her journey north and subsequent cross-country expedition. They included the innkeeper of the Red Lion at Barnet who thought that Mary looked such a ‘subject of pity’ on her return homewards that she reminded him of ‘a woman that was sifting cinders in Gray’s Inn Lane’. None of them could have been more stolid in their support than Mary Morgan who said when she was reunited with Mary Eleanor: ‘I can scarcely describe her condition, she was so altered, so full of mud, and dressed in an old bed gown.’ Producing in court those very clothes - a red petticoat, bed gown and old bonnet - Morgan described the bruises Mary had revealed on her breast and at her temples. Asked whether her mistress had full command of her reason, in anticipation of Bowes’s defence, Morgan retorted adamantly: ‘I do not know any Lady that has so much possession of her mind.’

Given the enormity of the allegations so fluently described by his old adversary, even the renowned Thomas Erskine faced an uphill struggle to defend his client’s actions. Just four years earlier in a libel case, Erskine had famously upstaged Judge Buller, his former teacher, when he had refused to concede that Buller could overrule the jury. Now, it appeared, positions were reversed as the renegade pupil rose before his erstwhile master to plead a virtually impossible case. Indeed, it almost seemed that Erskine had concluded that the allegations were indefensible when he began by admitting that, ‘a man must be lost, not only to all Christians, but, I should apprehend, to all human feelings, who does not feel infinitely hurt by everything that has been stated this day.’

Having effectively confirmed his client’s guilt - and quite possibly betraying his true feelings - Erskine made no attempt to deny the acts alleged beyond suggesting that many statements were ‘fabrications of Lady Strathmore’. Neither did he endeavour to argue the usual abusive husband’s justification, despite the fact that it would remain a stock defence for a further century, when he gamely asserted that a ‘wife has a right to the protection of the law to keep herself from violence even against her husband’ and that although the husband enjoyed the right to the ‘possession of her body’ this did not permit him to seize or detain her by force. In an uncharacteristically lacklustre oration, Erskine merely claimed that Bowes’s actions stemmed from ‘just and pure motives’ in his determination to remove Mary from the hands of people ‘conspiring to ruin her with fortune-tellers, to widen the breach with her husband’. Instead, with Bowes seemingly a lost cause, Erskine concentrated his legal aplomb on attempting to exculpate his fellow accused by insisting that they were innocent of conspiracy since they had had no knowledge of Bowes’s aims. Channelling his energies in particular into absolving his colleague, Thomas ‘Hungry’ Bowes, Erskine called as a character witness the former attorney general ‘Honest’ Jack Lee who earnestly swore that: ‘I never did know a man of his profession, bear a fairer or more honourable character in my life.’ As Erskine sat down after one of the least inspiring speeches of his career there was little doubt that Bowes’s fate had been sealed.

Summing up the case for the jury, Judge Buller made no effort to disguise his disgust for the nine defendants or their misdemeanours. Taking particular exception to their exploitation of fundamental planks of the law for their criminal ends, by trumping up a charge against Mary’s servants, pretending to carry her to Lord Mansfield and even abusing the role of a constable, Buller had no hesitation in declaring that all nine had ‘knowingly engaged in criminal acts’. After seven hours of testimony, it took the all-male jury just minutes to decide that Bowes and his entire gang were guilty of every charge.

With sentencing deferred to a future date Bowes and his confederates remained on bail and at liberty. Inevitably, the entire pack absconded so that two weeks later writs had to be issued to bring them back for sentencing. When Bowes was seized, on 16 June, he claimed, of course, that he was on his way to court. All charges having been dropped against Thomas Bowes - there being as much honour among lawyers as thieves - and with Chapman, Pigg and Bickley still on the run, only Bowes and four of his accomplices now appeared at the King’s Bench on 26 June 1787 for judgement before Buller, Sir William Ashhurst and Sir Nash Grose.32

Although nearly two hundred crimes, from stealing a handkerchief to cold-blooded murder, carried the death penalty in eighteenth-century Britain, conspiracy was not among them. Nonetheless, while Bowes might escape the rope for his various acts of attempted murder, attempted rape and repeated assaults, he finally had to face the very real prospect of a lengthy imprisonment. Desperate to retain the liberty he had denied so many others, he now pulled out all the stops in his bid to mitigate his sentence. Maintaining the tired fiction of the tender husband trying to rein in his sinful wife, he had collected stacks of affidavits from the usual dubious suspects to justify his actions. Several of the testimonies even claimed that Mary had enjoyed boisterous sexual relations with Bowes throughout her abduction. So Bowes’s mistress Mary Gowland swore that she had heard them ‘whispering and laughing’ in bed, while the gamekeeper Matthew Shields attested that Mary ‘went to bed very willingly’. Yet even as he portrayed Mary as his devoted bed-mate, Bowes continued to accuse her of wanton and lewd behaviour. The judges were having none of it. Tersely, Grose remarked that rather than explain why Bowes wished to halt his divorce his evidence ‘would seem to make it rather a desirable thing’. His key evidence rejected, Thomas Erskine was forced to fall back on the argument that Bowes had been exercising his power, indeed his duty, as a husband to protect his wife when she was incapable of governing herself.

Fully prepared for this age-old defence, James Mingay called on the justices to make an example of Bowes in order to deter similarly abusive husbands by issuing a ‘heavy sentence’. Finally losing his temper with his legal colleagues, he exploded: ‘How the Gentlemen can reconcile the evidence of the trial with the duties of a husband, seems to me to be a paradox!’ And in a bravura performance which went to the heart of the debate on husband’s rights, Mingay asked: ‘Are the powers of a husband in this country such, that women that are ill-used are not to complain?’ Women who had left their husbands to pursue divorce suits through the ecclesiastical courts required the protection of the law from such men who tried to seize them, not its connivance, he insisted. And in a clear swipe at the stereotype of the Irish fortune hunter, he added: ‘Is this the way Mr Bowes thinks English husbands are to protect their wives?’

Certainly the judges thought not. In a stinging indictment, Justice Ashhurst branded Bowes’s crimes ‘as atrocious and daring a nature as ever appeared in a Court of Justice’. Had not the facts been incontestably proven it would scarcely have seemed credible that ‘in a civilized country, governed by such laws, any set of men would have been found hardy enough to take away a Lady of rank and fortune, from one of the most publick streets of this great town, at mid-day, in defiance of all law, order, and government, and to drag her through the heart of the kingdom 240 miles’. What was worse, the judge added, was that Bowes’s intent had been to pervert the course of justice by preventing the progress of a properly instituted lawsuit. Bowes was fined £300 and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, at the end of which he would be required to find securities totalling £20,000 for the ensuing fourteen years. His fellow conspirators were likewise sentenced to prison with heavy fines.

Widely reported in the press, the Bowes trial was a landmark case which signalled a warning to violent husbands everywhere that the powers they might have assumed were absolute over their wives were actually curtailed by law. It gave hope to abused wives throughout the country that they could expect the protection of the courts when pursuing divorce claims. At the same time, Bowes’s conviction and sentence were symbolic of a subtle shift in society’s perceptions of the balance of marital power and represented another step in the slow march towards the outlawing of domestic abuse and wrongful confinement. Sadly, however, it would be more than a century before the defence of reasonable confinement was finally declared obsolete. In a case remarkably similar to Mary’s, Emily Jackson was kidnapped in 1891 by the fortune-hunter husband she had fled yet her family’s application for a writ of habeas corpus was refused by the High Court on the usual basis of the husband’s right to detain his wife. The Court of Appeal, however, firmly rejected this defence as stemming from ‘quaint and absurd dicta’ which no longer applied in a civilised country.

Incarcerated but unrepentant, Bowes pursued his remaining legal challenges with undiminished zeal, determined at all costs to hang on to his fortune whether by scuppering the divorce or affirming his deed. Still a wealthy man, by virtue of the income from Mary’s estate, he continued to live in the marshal’s best apartments where he entertained his friends and mistresses. His decadent lifestyle prompted the Morning Post to observe: ‘To some people . . . a commitment to BANCO REGIS [the King’s Bench] is no great punishment. A certain delinquent daily eats, drinks, and gets merry, and though surrounded by as many wives and children as MACHEATH, keeps them all in good order.’33 In the meantime, Mary remained penniless, dependent on the goodwill of friends and powerless to prevent the once grand homes of her childhood from sliding into decay. At Streatlam, Colpitts’s son reported that October, the meadows were overgrown, the deer had not been culled and ‘the Castle is uninhabited except by pigeons and jackdaws’.34 At Gibside, where the snooping ostler Joseph Hill had set up quarters, James Smith lamented that ‘the Chapell, Greenhouse, Banquiting House, Bath, Gardens, and Walks, [and] pleasure Grounds are all gone to Ruin’.

Pressing on resolutely with her legal cases from her house in Holles Street, Mary was distraught in December when Morgan fell sick with a fever. Afraid the illness might carry off her friend, she told Colpitts: ‘You will easily imagine what I must have suffered; indeed it has cast a desponding Languor upon my spirits & a tremor upon my nerves.’35 As Morgan recovered, Mary’s nerves remained on edge. Still watched and harassed by Bowes’s hoodlums, who had recently tried to abduct two of her servants, she wrote: ‘I believe really that, instead of being tamed, Stoney will grow more & more desperate, I am therefore doubly cautious.’

There was fresh anxiety in the New Year but from an unexpected quarter. Despite the waspish vigilance of Elizabeth Parish, her seventeen-year-old charge Anna had been secretly exchanging love letters for almost a year with a debt-ridden young lawyer called Henry Jessop who lived opposite their house in Fludyer Street, a narrow thoroughfare parallel to Downing Street.36 Growing impatient to consummate her clandestine passion, at the end of January 1788 resourceful Anna placed a plank from her bedroom window to that of Jessop’s and crawled across to his waiting arms. Heading straight for Gretna Green the couple married on 28 January.

News of the daring elopement reverberated around the capital. A few days later Mrs Parish’s embarrassment was compounded when the gossip reached the north and the Newcastle Journal revealed: ‘It appears that a correspondence has been carried on for near a twelvemonth past, by means of the servants in each family, yet not the least suspicion was ever entertained by Mrs P.’ With Anna still a ward of Chancery due to inherit a substantial fortune when she came of age - put at £13,000 by one newspaper and £20,000 by another - the scandal brought renewed frustration for Thomas Lyon which for once he could not lay at the feet of his sister-in-law. Forced to make the best of a bad match, he negotiated a generous marriage settlement to help clear young Jessop’s debts.

As Anna rushed blindly into wedlock with a man she scarcely knew, her mother was still struggling to undo the damage wreaked by her own impetuous marriage. It was 8 March, as the spring bulbs pushed defiantly through the overgrown lawns at Gibside and Streatlam, when the fate of the Bowes estate finally came up in Chancery. No stranger to the family’s wrangles, Lord Chancellor Thurlow had previously ordered the couple to return Anna from France; four years later he was faced with their competing claims to the Bowes fortune. Unable to launch a petition in her own name, since wives of course were not normally entitled to own property, Mary had lodged a bill in the name of her trustee, George Stephens, seeking to restore her prenuptial deed of 9 and 10 January 1777. Countering this, Bowes had filed a cross bill claiming that the document was fraudulent since it had been kept secret from him before their marriage and instead asked to confirm the deed of 1 May. Evidently eager to evade the thorny problem, Thurlow referred the case to the Court of Common Pleas for a jury decision - a not uncommon move - on whether the later deed had been extracted under duress.

Two months later, on 19 May, the dispute came before a jury in Westminster Hall. Providing further entertainment for the assembled journalists, Mary’s lawyers rehearsed the sorry story of her marriage and its immediate aftermath. As the hacks scribbled furiously, a succession of witnesses described how Bowes had tricked Mary down the aisle by pretending he was mortally wounded in a ‘sham duel’ then as soon as they were married had subjected her to brutal abuse, forced her to endure the company of prostitutes and curtailed her freedom with tyrannical control.37 Bowes’s former valet, Thomas Mahon, revealed how his erstwhile master had faked his wounds while past servants from the Bowes household described the tell-tale signs of domestic abuse that they had witnessed from the earliest days of the marriage.

By comparison, Bowes’s case was flimsy. Scarcely bothering even to sustain the pretence that the duel had been genuine, Bowes’s lawyer shrugged that since he had been competing for Mary’s hand with his rival Gray then ‘stratagem was fair in love, as well as in war’. Effectively admitting the marital brutality, he argued that even if ‘one or two blows had been given’ that did not prove the deed had been obtained under duress. And resorting again to the medieval principle of the husband’s exclusive power over his wife’s property the lawyer insisted that by Mary’s prenuptial deed Bowes had been ‘defrauded of that absolute power which the law gives the husband over the personal estate of his wife’. But the argument was wearing thin. Any sympathy Bowes might once have evoked for his patriarchal privileges from the all-male jury had long since evaporated in the black cloud of infamy over his well-publicised conduct. His downfall was plainly cast when Lord Loughborough, the Lord Chief Justice, weighed up the two sides united on the fateful day of the marriage: ‘On one side, was a lady, family, and great estates; on the other, a half-pay lieutenant, without fame or fortune.’ He left the jurors in little doubt of the verdict they should bring in when he added: ‘It was a marriage brought about by a fraud; a fraud of such a kind, that had it been practised to obtain a hundred pounds from Lady Strathmore, Mr Bowes must have answered for it criminally.’ Sure enough, without pausing to retire, the jury delivered its verdict that Bowes’s deed of 1 May had been obtained under duress. At that point, the Gentleman’s Magazine related, the entire court erupted in cheers.38 It only remained for Chancery to receive and confirm the verdict, which it did on 19 June, with the ubiquitous Buller standing in for Lord Thurlow. Bowes’s case was dismissed and costs were levied against him.

For married women everywhere, the Chancery decision marked a significant victory in the lengthy progress towards wives’ rights to retain their own property, although it would take almost another century before they could automatically keep any money they had earned during marriage, when the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act was passed, amended twelve years later to encompass all property. 39 For Mary, of course, the verdict was monumental, restoring to her and her heirs the vast and valuable estate which she had inherited from her father at the age of eleven. Finally able to begin paying the substantial accumulated debt due to her lawyers and friends, Mary now enjoyed an independent income for the first time since her widowhood - although naturally Bowes would fight over every penny he owed. And for the tenants, pitworkers and other families so long dependent on the Bowes estate, the outcome was equally vital, bringing security of employment and tenure as well as freedom from intimidation for generations to come. It was little wonder that the verdict was greeted in County Durham with ‘great Rejoycing’, as one of Mary’s supporters, William Watson, gleefully reported.40 No sooner had they heard the news than Watson and his friends marched up to Gibside Hall and threw Joseph Hill out of the house. Taking possession of the mansion in Mary’s name, Watson wrote, ‘we clapd on 15 or 16 Locks’. Turning next to the unpaid pitworkers at the abandoned collieries, Watson set the wagons rolling to transport coal towards the Tyne once again.

Her fortune restored, her safety assured, if not altogether certain, Mary was still legally tethered to Bowes. As the final appeal in the divorce suit loomed, Bowes summoned his usual talents for media manipulation by luring into his power Mary Farrer, the estranged wife of Mary’s sea captain. Having been forced to fend for herself during the captain’s two-year sojourn at sea, Mary Farrer had scarcely seen more of her husband since his return in October 1785. Just as he had spent much of his time with the new object of his affections, Mary Eleanor, so Mrs Farrer had apparently filled her days with admirers of her own. In November 1787, possibly encouraged by Mary Eleanor’s recent legal successes, the captain had persuaded his inconvenient wife to sign a private separation arranged by Thomas Lacey which guaranteed her £100 a year provided she kept at least a hundred miles from London. Realising belatedly that she had been paid off rather too easily, Mrs Farrer had now thrown in her lot with Bowes.

Tirelessly marshalling his affairs from his prison suite, in October 1788 Bowes helped Mrs Farrer publish a pamphlet entitled, with breathtaking irony, The Appeal of an Injured Wife against a Cruel Husband.41 Bearing every hallmark of Bowes’s shameless hand and dedicated ‘To the right Honourable the Countess Dowager of Strathmore’, the sixty-six-page tract spins the story of an innocent wife made wretched by her penny-pinching, violent and philandering husband. Clearly drawing heavily on Bowes’s considerable experience, the pamphlet described the cold-hearted captain striking his wife, threatening her with his pistol and attempting to rape her three sisters while gaily conducting a rapturous affair with his countess. Laughably, at one point, the document even related that Captain Farrer had wished his wife married to Bowes, ‘that I might know the difference between the good treatment I received from him, and the cruel usage, the poor dear woman, meaning Lady Strathmore, had experienced from Captain Stoney’. Blaming Mary as the ‘principal cause’ of all her anguish, Mrs Farrer ended by swearing that she would prevent any union between the couple. Two months later, on 22 December 1788, Bowes staged a benefit performance for his protégée at the Theatre Royal in Haymarket of Nicholas Rowe’s Tamerlane in which Mrs Farrer herself played the leading role of the stoical heroine Arpasia who chooses death rather than yield to the tyrannical Turkish emperor Bajazet.42 No doubt audiences relished the unintended farcical elements of Rowe’s tragedy as the captive Arpasia addresses her jailor as ‘brutal ravisher’ and the ‘king of terrors’. Fittingly, the evening concluded with the comedy Who’s the Dupe?

While Bowes championed Mrs Farrer’s cause against her supposedly cruel and adulterous husband, he was also busy limbering up for his last stand against Mary’s case for divorce on grounds of his cruelty and adultery in the Court of Delegates. Established in the aftermath of Henry VIII’s marriage annulments to provide a final point of appeal for ecclesiastical cases once the route to Rome had been severed, the Court of Delegates was an ad-hoc system usually consisting of six judges from both common law and ecclesiastical courts who were appointed to hear each specific case.43 Expensive and rarely used, the delegates court heard only eleven divorce appeals during a thirty-year period in the mid-eighteenth century and few more in later years. Inevitably, Bowes had determined to avail himself of this last-chance opportunity to contest his divorce and, accordingly, six judges had been appointed soon after he had lodged his appeal in 1787. But since the delegates’ system was at least as labyrinthine and laborious as the ecclesiastical courts, it took more than a year for the various witnesses on each side to be interviewed and cross-questioned before finally the case came up for its hearing before the chosen justices on 13 February 1789.

For all Bowes’s excuse that he had previously been denied sufficient time to produce all his witnesses, it was, of course, the familiar line-up of bribed and degenerate characters spouting the usual litany of half-baked claims and outrageous smears that appeared before the judges on the appointed day. Making no attempt to defend himself against the charges of serial adultery and life-threatening abuse, Bowes focused his attack on undermining Mary’s witnesses by branding them prostitutes or alleging that they had been bribed. At the same time he produced the weary round of allegations of extravagance and promiscuity levelled against Mary. In the face of an even longer queue of witnesses for Mary, including servants, estate staff, rape victims as well as several of Bowes’s former friends, such as William Davis, who had grown understandably tired of his incessant cheating and debts, Bowes’s case looked feeble. If even Mary’s own lawyer remarked that ‘broken heads and bloody noses are rather the common consequences of the marriage state’,44 it was no longer deemed reasonable for women to live in a state of abject terror of their husbands. When they reconvened on 2 March, it took the six judges only half an hour to agree that Bowes had committed ‘several acts of cruelty’ as well as ‘the heinous crime of adultery’. And the court duly issued the now incontestable decree that, ‘Andrew Robinson Bowes and Lady Strathmore be divorced, and live separate from each other: but that neither of the parties marry during the natural life of the other of them.’

Still Bowes clung to the last straw of hope having demanded that his Chancery case be reheard under his statutory right of appeal. But the very next day, 3 March, the decision to reinstate the prenuptial deed was confirmed by Lord Chancellor Thurlow. ‘Thus,’ reported the Gentleman’s Magazine, ‘is Lady Strathmore, at length, fully restored to the large possessions of her family, and divorced from a marriage contracted in an evil hour’.45 Blankly refusing to pay the accumulated alimony, legal costs and backdated rents that he now owed, Bowes clung grimly to the Bowes family plate as he sank into a slough of drink and depression. With his debts steadily mounting, he was finally forced to exchange his comfortable and spacious rented house for a room inside the King’s Bench prison.

As news of the double victory reached the village of St Paul’s Walden, the scene of some of Mary’s worst abuses, villagers rang the church bells and struck up music.46 Released at last from the bonds of wedlock, Mary sent an epitaph to Bowes in prison. ‘He was the very enemy of Mankind;/Deceitful to his friends, ungrateful to his benefactors,/ Cringing to his superiors and tyrannical to his dependents.’47 Twelve years after she had been hoodwinked into marrying her charming captain, four years after fleeing her marital home and just a week after her fortieth birthday, Mary was finally free to live as she pleased. Only one challenge remained.

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