Gibside, County Durham, 1757
From the moment that she was tall enough to peep over the windowsills of Gibside Hall, the infant Mary Eleanor had been confronted by the sight of a majestic stone column rising before her eyes. Begun in the year after her birth in 1749 as a potent symbol of her ageing father’s wealth, power and - not least - virility, the Column to Liberty had gained in feet as Mary grew in inches. By her eighth birthday in 1757, it soared a staggering 140 feet, making it the second tallest column in Britain after Wren’s Monument commemorating the Great Fire of London. At last the finishing touches could be added. As Mary laboured over her lessons indoors, a shed was raised to the summit, providing shelter for the sculptor who scaled the wooden scaffolding to carve the figure of Lady Liberty at the top. Finally unveiled later that year, the twelve-foot crowning statue, covered in gold leaf, represented not only an uncompromising belief in individual liberty over state interference but also an inspiring vision of female power and independence. It was a sight that the young Mary Eleanor would not forget.
Long before her birth, great things had been anticipated of Mary Eleanor Bowes. Her father, George Bowes, had unexpectedly inherited his family’s estates in County Durham and Yorkshire, with their extensive coal deposits, at the age of twenty-one, after the sudden deaths of his two elder brothers. The Bowes family had been powerful landowners in the north-east since Sir Adam Bowes, a high-ranking lawyer, was granted land at Streatlam, near Barnard Castle, in southern County Durham in the fourteenth century. Sir Adam’s descendants had increased their property and influence through well-judged marital alliances with wealthy local families and through loyal service to the Crown. Sir George Bowes had escorted Mary Queen of Scots to imprisonment in Bolton Castle, Yorkshire, in 1568 and remained a staunch supporter of Elizabeth I the following year when the Catholic Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland launched their failed Northern Rebellion. Holding Barnard Castle against the rebels for a crucial eleven days, Sir George was ‘the surest pyllore the queen’s majesty had in these parts’ according to Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s chief advisor. His great-grandson, Sir William Bowes, who was elected MP for County Durham five times, brought the family further wealth through his marriage to heiress Elizabeth Blakiston in 1691. When Sir William died in 1706, Lady Bowes was left not only to bring up their four sons and four daughters on her own but also to manage the vast coal-rich estate of Gibside, on the southern bank of the River Derwent, which she inherited from her own father in 1713. She achieved both with aplomb, handling disputes within the local coal trade with shrewd determination while patiently guiding her eldest son, William. Spending most of his time in London, the ungrateful heir neglected his country seat while upbraiding his mother, ‘surely you don’t think me such a fool as to prefer the Charms of a stupid, dull, Country Life, to the pleasures of the Town’.1 When William died unmarried at the age of twenty-four in 1721, and his ill-tempered brother Thomas followed him to the grave within a year, it was the third son George who came into possession of the Bowes-Blakiston estate.
Dynamic, tall and good-looking, George Bowes had run away from home at the age of eighteen to buy himself a commission as a captain in a cavalry regiment using money given to him by his mother for an entirely different purpose.2 Army life did nothing to cool Bowes’s intractable temper or his zest for life. At six feet tall, with expressive grey eyes in an open, oval-shaped face, Bowes presented both a formidable figure and a pleasing countenance. He was, according to his daughter Mary Eleanor, ‘uncommonly handsome’ and a ‘great rake in his youth’. Yet while he shared the fiery temper and forceful temperament of his two elder brothers, unlike them George Bowes shouldered his responsibilities as a landowner, employer and public figure. Abandoning his brief army career, he took up his seat at Gibside Hall, which he preferred to gloomy Streatlam Castle, and grasped the reins of the family’s coal business with customary zeal. His youthful reputation for aggressive business tactics earned him the nickname ‘The Count’ from one rival, while another called him ‘the Csar’. Yet Bowes also demonstrated a keen appreciation of the arts as well as a flair for romance.
Soon after inheriting his estate, at the age of twenty-three Bowes married fourteen-year-old Eleanor Verney following a passionate courtship which began when she was only ten. The posthumous daughter of Thomas Verney, Eleanor was heiress to the considerable wealth of her grandfather, the Dean of Windsor. By the age of thirteen, she was renowned for her beauty and her learning. A tiny book of her poetry, copied out in miniature copperplate handwriting, survives to this day.3 Undoubtedly, the marriage negotiations had initially been prompted by financial motives on the part of Bowes and possibly his mother, in common with the vast majority of marriages between prosperous landed families in the early eighteenth century. By the time the marriage neared settlement, however, Bowes was helplessly in love with the beguiling Eleanor.
Mostly kept apart from the object of his fascination by distance and propriety, Bowes plied her mother with letters that professed his ‘great Respect & love’ for her ‘Beautiful Daughter’.4 Eventually allowed to address the captivating Eleanor directly, Bowes gushed, ‘I conjure you thus to ease a Heart full of You, & tell you with the utmost sincerity I love you above all things’. As thirteen-year-old Eleanor responded with cool formality, describing the trivia of her daily life, Bowes could hardly restrain his impatience: ‘Dear Madam, I am not able to bear the cruel absence from my angel any longer without having recourse to Pen & Paper for relief of my tortur’d heart which can at present find no other way to ease its self.’ At last, with the cumbersome financial details settled, the wedding took place on 1 October 1724, shortly after Eleanor turned fourteen.5 Her youth itself was no bar to the marriage - twelve was the minimum marrying age for girls and fourteen for boys - but the couple had waited until Eleanor was old enough to receive her inheritance. Bowes was finally united with his adored child bride - in every sense. In one loving letter to his ‘Nelly’, when Bowes was away on business, he ended with the jaunty postscript: ‘I assure you that I found my Bed very cold last night for want of my Companion.’
Just two and a half months after the wedding, Eleanor died suddenly, probably from one of the many infectious diseases that stalked eighteenth-century Britain. Bowes was devastated. He poured out his grief in frenzied letters to Mrs Verney confessing that his loss had made him doubt his faith and lose his reason. All his future happiness, he wept, had depended on his young bride, whom he described as ‘the most accomplish’d of her Sex’. Although many promising Georgian relationships ended in premature death, Eleanor’s sudden demise was considered sufficiently tragic to merit the attentions of not one but two acclaimed literary minds. The poet and travel writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu revealed her jaundiced view of marriage in a poem written on the day of Eleanor’s death which began: ‘Hail, happy bride, for thou art truly blest!/Three months of rapture, crown’d with endless rest.’ Fellow writer Mary Astell, who is thought to have penned her response at the same social event, blamed marriage itself - or lust at least - for the young bride’s early death, with the words: ‘Lost when the fatal Nuptial Knot was tie’d,/Your Sun declin’d, when you became a Bride./A soul refin’d, like your’s soar’d above/The gross Amusements of low, Vulgar love.’6 Bereft of his love, vulgar or otherwise, George Bowes escorted his wife’s corpse to its burial at Westminster Abbey, after which he was forced to repay her dowry with interest.7 It took him a full nineteen years to recover sufficiently from his grief to consider remarriage. In the meantime, he threw himself into improving his estate at Gibside and transforming the coal industry.
With the abundant coal seams running beneath his Durham and Yorkshire estates, Bowes was literally sitting on a fortune. His marriage settlement with Eleanor Verney had named as many as forty collieries owned by the Bowes family in County Durham alone. For the men, and boys as young as seven, who hewed and hauled the coal in precarious, gas-filled tunnels and the women who sorted the coal at the surface, it was hazardous and unpleasant but - for the men at least - well-paid work. For the colliery owners like Bowes coal was big business. In eighteenth-century Britain, with industry mushrooming and urban populations burgeoning, coal was in sharp demand, with Durham coal particularly prized. By the middle of the century, almost two million tons of coal were being produced annually by north-eastern coalfields - nearly half the national output - and most of this was shipped to London, which by now was Europe’s biggest city. The process was highly convoluted. Coal-owners like Bowes, with collieries close to the Tyne and its tributary the Derwent, transported their coal in horse-drawn trucks on wooden rails - forerunners of the railways - to quays or ‘staithes’ which lined the river banks. From here, the coal was loaded on to small boats, known as ‘keels’, then rowed downriver to the mouth of the Tyne where it was hauled on to seagoing colliers for the two-week voyage down the coast to London. Once it arrived in the Thames estuary, the coal was loaded on to river-going vessels called ‘lighters’, and then transferred to members of the Woodmongers Company who enjoyed a monopoly on its sale in London. With each change of transport, the coal changed hands - going through four expensive and closely controlled transactions which hiked up its price each time.
Frustrated at the lack of control over their hard-won product, several of the powerful north-eastern coal-owners seized the initiative. Setting aside for once his disputes with his neighbours, in 1726 Bowes joined forces with four other major coal-owners from the region to forge the Grand Alliance. By co-operating in buying land, limiting supply and sharing profits, the allies formed an effective monopoly which controlled virtually all coal production in the north-east. The cartel would dominate the British coal industry for the rest of the century. When Bowes was elected MP for County Durham in 1727, a seat he would hold for the rest of his life, he used his lobbying power to promote the partners’ interests, spending the five or six months each winter when Parliament met lodging in the capital. With the immense profits his coal produced, supplemented by rents from the many farms on his Durham and Yorkshire estates, Bowes invested in stocks and shares, property, ships, racehorses and art. Any surplus was ploughed into improving his beloved rural retreat of Gibside.
It was not until 1743, at the age of forty-two, that George Bowes felt ready to form a new romantic alliance. In March, he blamed a delay in writing to a friend on a ‘Fair Lady’ whom he hoped to ‘persuade to come into the North this Summer’.8 Still a handsome man though by now somewhat corpulent, Bowes had evidently not lost his courting skills, for in June he married Mary Gilbert, sole heiress to her father Edward Gilbert’s idyllic country estate of St Paul’s Walden Bury in Hertfordshire. Some twenty years Bowes’s junior, Mary brought a sizeable dowry, or marriage ‘portion’, worth £20,000 - equivalent to more than £3m today.9 It is probable that the marriage was largely one of convenience, bringing together two ancient landed families in the hope of providing an heir for both. Although their partnership proved companionable enough, Mary would always stand in the shadow of her formidable husband and the ghost of her adored predecessor - Bowes’s ‘favourite first wife’ in the words of Mary Eleanor. If she were ever tempted to forget her forerunner, there were no less than six portraits of ‘the first Mrs Bowes’ hanging at Gibside, including one in the second Mrs Bowes’s bedroom, to remind her.
Hard-working and pious, Mary Bowes devoted herself to managing the family’s several large households, while steadfastly supporting her husband in his busy public and private life. Proving herself a capable businesswoman, she managed the family’s voluminous accounts and large domestic staff, at Gibside each summer, in London every winter, and at their rented house in Yorkshire which served as a staging point between the two. Settling the numerous bills for food, travel, clothing, medicine, servants’ wages and family entertainment with meticulous efficiency, she gave George Bowes his ‘pocket expenses’ and paid for his barbers’ fees, while dispensing generous sums to charity.
The couple had been married six years, and had doubtless given up all hope of an heir, by the time Mary Bowes gave birth to a daughter on 24 February 1749. Since it was the parliamentary season and the household was ensconced in London, the baby was born at the family’s rented home in affluent Upper Brook Street, delivered by one of society’s favourite ‘man midwives’, Dr Francis Sandys. Baptised a month later in London’s most fashionable church, St George’s in Hanover Square, the baby was named Mary Eleanor, in homage both to her dutiful mother and to her father’s beloved first wife.10 Bowes hoped that she would combine the attributes of both.
Immediately, George Bowes had grand designs for Mary Eleanor’s future. If she was not born literally with a silver spoon in her mouth, her doting father was quick to remedy that absence, purchasing a candlestick and spoon ‘for the Child’ from a London silversmith within weeks of her birth.11After the customary four weeks’ lying-in for Mrs Bowes, during which time Mary Eleanor was breastfed by a wet-nurse, the family packed up the house in London and undertook the arduous two-day journey north by coach. Accompanied by her nurse and proud parents, baby Mary Eleanor was conveyed to her family seat with the pomp normally associated with a royal progress. When the family stopped overnight at Ledstone, their halfway home in Yorkshire, bells were rung to announce her birth. As the entourage continued on to Darlington, Durham, Gateshead and finally Gibside, villagers, servants and neighbours were left in no doubt as to the importance of the tiny girl’s arrival. Church bells pealed and coins tinkled into the hands of the poor at every stop along the route.
If anyone suspected that for all his show of celebration, Bowes might secretly have yearned for a son to continue the family’s ancient name, they could see no signs of disappointment. One friend, Captain William FitzThomas, congratulated Bowes on his daughter’s birth while bluntly expressing the prevailing misogyny of the times. ‘What tho’ it be’nt a Boy, the same materials will produce one,’ he encouraged lustily, adding by way of compensation that ‘at least your Blood, if not your name will be transmitted to Posterity’. Another well-wisher was rather more tactful, remarking that if nothing else, Mary Eleanor’s birth presented the opportunity for an advantageous marriage which might mend the wrangles which continued between coal-owners despite their compact. Such an alliance would be ‘the liklyest way to put an end to all Disputes’ he suggested, adding pointedly: ‘Never did young Lady come into this world with more good wishes from all Ranks and Conditions of Men, Women & Children’.12
Indeed, daughters blessed with large dowries were often deemed more valuable in the competitive Georgian marriage market than sons. Aristocratic mothers fell over themselves to secure a daughter from a wealthy middle-class family for their needy heirs. Describing such arranged marriages as ‘Smithfield bargains’, the writer Hester Chapone exclaimed sardonically, ‘so much ready money for so much land, and my daughter flung in into the bargain!’13 But after decades of waiting for an heir, the prospect of handing over his daughter and his hard-earned profits to another prominent family held little attraction for Bowes. He had no intention of moderating his ambitions for his long-awaited offspring, just because she happened to be the wrong sex. Adamant that his baby girl would not only perpetuate his bloodline but would also continue the family name, he made a new will just before Mary Eleanor’s first birthday. Accordingly, the document named her as the sole heir to his vast estate and stipulated that any future husband must change his name to Bowes.14 Insisting that a man should take his wife’s surname was not completely unprecedented - one of Bowes’s coal partners, Sir Sydney Montagu, had been forced to adopt his bride’s name of Wortley - but it was still highly irregular, and much resented, in Georgian Britain.
Learning to crawl across the thickly carpeted rooms of Gibside Hall, taking her first steps in the thousand-acre gardens, Mary Eleanor Bowes - as she would remain all her life - began to explore the glorious rural retreat she would one day inherit. It was a work still in progress. Bowes had made only cosmetic alterations to the draughty Jacobean mansion, built by his Blakiston great-great-grandfather at the beginning of the seventeenth century, with the arms of James I still emblazoned above the door. Perched on a ledge above the Derwent, the imposing three-storey seventy-roomed house turned its back to the river - the conduit of Bowes’s wealth - and instead faced south across the landscaped parkland which Bowes was slowly transforming. Within the spacious main rooms, lit by tall mullioned windows, the toddling Mary Eleanor negotiated bulky pieces of mahogany and oak furniture while Bowes’s valuable collection of silverware, china, art and books was kept carefully beyond her reach. More than 300 pictures adorned the walls of the house, with 119 lining the staircase alone, including works by Rubens, Raphael and Hogarth. Since both her mother and father were avid readers, the library held more than a thousand volumes, from seventeenth-century classics such as Dryden’s Virgil and Milton’s Works, to contemporary writings on science, law and architecture, as well as novels by Fielding and Smollett. But no sooner had Mary Eleanor learned to walk than she found her explorations thwarted. When she was sixteen months old, her mother bought a pair of ‘leading strings’ - reins - in an effort to harness her wanderings and a year later steel bars were fixed across the nursery fireplace. But if her mother sought to restrain her daughter’s free spirit indoors, outside Mary Eleanor was free to roam. That same summer, one of the estate carpenters fashioned ‘a Set of little Chaise Wheels for Miss Bowes’ - presumably a small cart to be pulled by a pony - in which she could trundle around the gardens.15
Determined to build himself a country seat to rival any in the land, Bowes had started landscaping his estate twenty years earlier. Although he had consulted some of the best known landscape gardeners of the era, the resulting mixture of romantic swathes of woodland and natural-looking contours, made popular by designers such as Capability Brown, combined with formal straight walks and long rides, fashionable from an earlier age, was essentially his own vision. A new driveway, carved out between 1738 and 1740, drew visitors towards the house along a sweeping road that threaded between the trees, affording views of intriguing architectural structures on the way. Bowes had commissioned Daniel Garrett, one of the north-east’s most successful architects, to build a ‘banqueting house’ in his signature Gothic style from 1741 to 1745. First glimpsed through the trees, as visitors navigated the drive, the fanciful one-storey building sat overlooking an octagonal pond and across to the valley beyond. Used for intimate concerts where guests were offered light refreshments, rather than full-blown banquets - since it possessed only a small kitchen - the banqueting house provided an ideal viewing point for Bowes’s improvements.
Continuing down the precipitous drive, visitors arrived at a stately building in the latest Palladian style, which could easily have served as fine accommodation for any country gentleman. This was where Bowes kept his horses. Designed by Garrett to resemble a two-storey villa with five bays, work on the stable block was finished by 1751, when Mary Eleanor was two. She may well have watched as the twenty or so horses were led into their stalls and she doubtless sat in one of the family’s several coaches as it was driven into the central courtyard. Naturally enough, as a former captain in the cavalry, Bowes had a passionate interest in horses. Having introduced fox-hunting into the county in 1738, he had expanded the stud he had inherited from his father at Streatlam. His horse Cato won the Newcastle Races, which were run each year on the city’s Town Moor, in 1753.16
At last, as they swept around a final bend on the tortuous driveway, guests would arrive at a broad grassed terrace in front of Gibside Hall. This impressive avenue, which stretched half a mile in either direction, was known as the Grand or Great Walk. Bordered by young elms, the Grand Walk had taken estate labourers three years to dig, level and turf, working entirely by hand. As soon as the avenue was finished, in the year after Mary Eleanor’s birth, Bowes had set his mind to his grandest project, the Column to Liberty, which would stand at the walk’s north-eastern end to provide his tenants, workers and neighbours with a powerful reminder of his own towering importance over their lives. Workmen had begun boring a hole for the foundations in September 1750. The following month Bowes consulted Capability Brown, who had built a similar edifice at Stowe a few years earlier. After detailing precise measurements of the 115-feet-high octagonal column at Stowe, Brown offered to design a similar model for Gibside and to ‘put you in a way that you will be sure to have your Building stand’.17 Bowes never took up Brown’s proposal but he promptly ordered his own architect, probably Garrett, to design a column which would be taller, grander and sport a bigger statue than the one at Stowe.
Built from local stone, the column rose falteringly over the next seven years. One visitor in 1753, Edward Montagu, who had inherited a relative’s collieries near Newcastle, was suitably impressed after dining at Gibside that summer. Surveying the half-built column, rising on its square pedestal, he informed his wife, the literary hostess Elizabeth Montagu: ‘Mr Bowes is at present upon a work of great magnificence, which is the erecting a column of above 140 feet high. This, as far as I know, may be the largest that ever was erected by a subject in this Island, and may yield to nothing but the Monument in London.’18 When Daniel Garrett died that same year, work on the column halted temporarily but resumed the following June with James Paine, who took over many of Garrett’s contracts, assuming its supervision. The Swedish traveller Reinhold Angerstein, who visited Gibside in 1754 as part of a six-year fact-finding expedition around Europe, watched in awe as the great slabs of stone were winched to the top of the rising column, sheathed in its wooden scaffolding. Having toured Bowes’s mines, railways and staithes, as well as his ‘splendid park’ with its ‘magnificent buildings’, Angerstein was so inspired by the sheer human effort put into building Bowes’s monument, that he sat down to draw it.19 A little too susceptible to his host’s self-aggrandisement, Angerstein noted that the project was expected to cost £4,000. In fact, the final bill would come to an only slightly less remarkable £1,600.
It was only as the great column reached its completion that Bowes settled on the form of the statue that would grace its summit. Angerstein had recorded that the column would be dedicated to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, medicine, commerce, soldiers, art and music - which conveniently encompassed most of Bowes’s interests. Still undecided, in 1756 Bowes visited St Paul’s Cathedral and St George’s Church in Bloomsbury looking for inspiration.20 Whether in a fit of nationalistic fervour or as an expression of his radical Whig sympathies, he settled on the figure of Liberty the following year. At a time when the words of ‘Rule Britannia’ had only recently been set to music as a patriotic anthem, the figure of Liberty was a powerful icon, celebrating as it did the traditional rights of Britons within a constitutional monarchy.
Having approved the final design, depicting Lady Liberty holding the ‘staff of maintenance’ and the ‘cap of liberty’ - traditionally also held aloft by Britannia - Bowes ordered the final stones to be hauled to the top. Labourers watched as Christopher Richardson, a sculptor from Doncaster, climbed the scaffolding to his makeshift shed at the summit, and the figure slowly began to take shape.
Growing up amid the perpetual thrill of concert parties, dinners, hunts, electioneering rallies and a stream of admiring visitors at Gibside - and in the heady social spin of London each winter - Mary Eleanor soon acquired a taste for being the centre of attention. She was already at the hub of her parents’ privileged world. When she caught measles in London just after her third birthday in 1752, both parents were understandably frantic. Measles was only one of a plethora of common childhood killers - along with mumps, scarlet fever, diphtheria, smallpox and whooping cough - which meant that more than half of babies born in London in the mid-1700s never reached their fifth birthdays.21 For nearly two weeks, as Mary feverishly battled the disease, servants took shifts sitting with her night and day while her parents consulted an apothecary and a physician for advice. Despite their attentions - the apothecary bled the three-year-old twice according to medical custom - Mary Eleanor pulled through.
Returning to the fresh country air of Gibside, Mary Bowes gave thanks for her daughter’s recovery with gifts to the poor while her husband lavished a chair, silver buckles and ‘playthings’ on his precious only child. Having nearly lost their daughter to one virulent disease, it was not surprising that they took precautions against an even more deadly one a few years later. At six, Mary Eleanor was inoculated against smallpox by a surgeon in London using the contemporary technique of jabbing her arm with some live smallpox virus taken from the pustules of an infected patient. The method had been imported to Britain in the 1720s by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu - in the face of initially strong medical opposition - after she had observed the practice in Turkey. Although still highly risky, both for the patient and for anyone they came into contact with, the inoculation did confer future immunity and had become highly popular by the mid-eighteenth century. Immediately after her inoculation, Mary Eleanor was whisked into quarantine for four weeks; there were further alms for the poor on her recovery.
Cosseted from disease, indulged with toys and treats, clothed in the finest fashions and fed on the choicest foods, it is little wonder that Mary Eleanor grew up headstrong and precocious. Waited on by a fleet of servants from the moment she awoke in her nursery bed until the second her eyelids drooped at night, she quickly learned how to attain whatever she wanted. While her mother attempted to inculcate a sense of humility and charity into her growing daughter, giving her money to distribute to the poor on their journeys north, her father would slip her a guinea pocket money - equivalent to a quarter of their kitchen maid’s annual wage. If her reserved, thrifty mother demonstrated the attributes of the ideal female in eighteenth-century Britain, this made little impact on the impulsive Mary Eleanor. Far more compelling was the example of her flamboyant and brash father with his talent for the grand gesture and determination to accomplish whatever he set his mind to. One contemporary would later insist that Mary had been ‘spoiled by overindulgence, ruined by overkindness, and corrupted by over caresses’.22 Yet her childhood was by no means a life of unending indolence. For just as much as his beloved Gibside, George Bowes regarded his daughter as a project for improvement.
From the beginning, Bowes was determined that his only daughter should receive the education normally enjoyed by the most privileged sons of the aristocracy. Mary Eleanor would later recall that ‘he brought me up with a view to my being as accomplished at thirteen, as his favourite first wife was at that age, in every kind of learning, except Latin.’23 Initially under the guiding eye of a governess, closely supervised by Bowes, Mary learned to read and write. By the age of four she could read fluently and was proudly paraded at social gatherings to recite by heart passages from the Bible, verse by Milton and elegies from Ovid. ‘At four years old I could read uncommonly well,’ Mary later wrote, ‘and was kept tight to it, made to get many things off by heart.’ With her father encouraging ‘an insatiable thirst for all kinds of knowledge’, Mary Eleanor was well on her way to becoming what she later described as ‘a prodigy of learning’.
At a time when the education of girls, even in wealthy families, was restricted to the acquisition of social graces and accomplishments such as dancing, needlework, painting and music, Bowes’s approach was a rare and enlightened one. Children’s education had become a popular topic for debate, with children being considered as individuals in their own right, with specific needs, for the first time. But discussion centred mainly on the appropriate education for boys, fuelling the growth of public boarding schools, the popularity of universities and enthusiasm for sending sons on the ‘grand tour’ of Europe.
Since no respectable profession was open to upper-class girls, and they were essentially being groomed for marriage, few parents saw any point in wasting time and money on improving their daughters’ minds. Indeed, learned women were often viewed as objects of ridicule, if not scorn, since they offended the idealised image of the acquiescent, passive female. ‘Nothing, I think, is more disagreeable than Learning in a Female,’ declared Thomas Sherlock, the Bishop of London, while Lord Bath blamed the headaches suffered by the poet and classicist Elizabeth Carter on her devotion to learning.24 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu confessed to ‘stealing’ her education, by surreptitiously studying Latin when her family believed she was reading ‘nothing but romances’. Writing to her own daughter, Lady Bute, in 1753 she urged that her granddaughter should enjoy a similarly advanced education since ‘learning (if she has a real taste for it) will not only make her contented but happy in it’.25 But, equally, she took pains to urge that her granddaughter should ‘conceal whatever learning she attains, with as much solicitude as she would hide crookedness or lameness’ since revealing her knowledge would engender envy and hatred. Certainly, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu suffered her fair share of contempt, for all her literary accomplishments and her vital legacy to health. Other well-educated women, such as Elizabeth Carter and Catharine Macaulay, who defied convention by producing scholarly work, did achieve some recognition for their skills. Yet even one of the most strident founding members of the intellectual blue-stocking movement, Hannah More, concurred with the popular view that women had inferior intellects and were incapable of serious study.26
George Bowes believed otherwise. Having felt the lack of education in his own youth, and admired the precocious talents of his first wife, he had read widely on the subject. As well as novels and plays by the feminist writer Aphra Behn, his library contained several books on education including Instructions for the Education of a Daughter, by François Fenélon, Archbishop of Cambray, published in English in 1713. More famous for his scathing condemnation of the French monarchy in his novel Telemachus, Fenélon adhered to the view that women had weaker minds but nonetheless urged that their education should not be neglected, nor left to ‘ignorant’ mothers. While there was no point in teaching girls language, law or science, since ‘it’s not their business to govern, make wars, sit in courts of justice, or read philosophical lectures’, he advocated that girls should learn reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic and bible studies from a ‘tender age’.27
Having launched his daughter on her programme of learning at the requisite tender age, Bowes proceeded to engage the best tutors in French, writing and dancing before she turned six, and in music by the age of eight. As she bent her head, with its thick chestnut curls, over her French verbs and English compositions, Mary Eleanor revelled in her father’s praise. Enjoying her studies, she became an expert linguist and soon aspired to literary talent in her own right. Her schoolbooks, which still survive, are crammed with neatly copied extracts of poetry and prose in English, French, Spanish and Italian.28 When she was eight, shortly after the family moved to a rented house at London’s most desirable address, Grosvenor Square, her French tutor was dismissed and his place taken by a Swiss pastor, the Reverend Andreas Planta. A brilliant linguist and scholar who had immigrated to London with his young family five years earlier, Planta would shortly take up a post as assistant librarian at the fledgling British Museum. He would later be engaged to teach Italian, his native language, to Queen Charlotte when she arrived in Britain in 1761 as George III’s bride, while two of his daughters, Frederica and Margaret, would become teachers of English to the future royal princesses. A third daughter, Elizabeth Planta, was taken into the Bowes household as a governess to eight-year-old Mary Eleanor in 1757.29 Elizabeth Planta would become her constant companion - not only supervising her lessons but also accompanying the family on outings to the opera and theatre - as well as her chaperone and confidante. The loyalty and ultimate betrayal of the Planta family would be crucial in Mary Eleanor’s future fortunes.
Just as he sought to improve his daughter’s mind, George Bowes laid as much emphasis on strengthening her body, endeavouring to ‘harden’ her constitution through field sports such as riding and hunting. It was an intense and rigorous exercise regime, producing a physical strength and resilience which would prove vital in later life. Unfortunately, George Bowes’s own health was failing as fast as he sought to improve his daughter’s. Now in his late fifties, Bowes suffered a serious illness in the winter of 1758, necessitating almost daily visits from his surgeon and physician. He survived their attentions sufficiently to recuperate at his father-in-law’s Hertfordshire estate the following spring, but as Mary Eleanor continued with her lessons, practised her dance steps and learned to play the harpsichord, her father declined.
Well aware the end was in sight, in the winter of 1759 Bowes ordered his workmen to begin quarrying stone to build his final great project: an imposing Palladian-style chapel incorporating a mausoleum which would contain his tomb. Designed by James Paine, by now a highly successful architect, the chapel was to stand at the opposite end of the Grand Walk, a sombre and mature counterbalance to the thrusting exuberance of the column. Workmen had only just begun digging the foundations when George Bowes died on 17 September 1760, aged 59.30 His chapel being far from ready, nine days later Bowes’s body was transported from Gibside Hall in a hearse pulled by six horses at the head of a long funeral procession which snaked along the drive past the chapel building site, the stables, the column and the banqueting house, and through the Gibside gates to halt outside Whickham Church just beyond the estate boundaries. The coffin was borne into church by eight of the most prominent dignitaries of the region, several of them Bowes’s coal-owning allies, and placed in the vault, where it would remain until his chapel was finally finished in the following century.31 At a stroke, eleven-year-old Mary Eleanor had been deprived of the single most influential force in her life.
No sooner had the mourners’ coaches clattered away, leaving the house and gardens eerily quiet, than word began to spread. As the only heir to her father’s vast estate, conservatively estimated at £600,000 (more than £80m today) and possibly as high as £1,040,000 (around £150m), Mary Eleanor had become the richest heiress in Britain, perhaps even in Europe. Reporting her father’s death, the Annual Register informed its readers that: ‘His immense fortune, 600,000 l. devolves on his only daughter, about 13 years of age.’ Given that the newspaper added two years to Mary’s age, the figure may have been inaccurate, although it was reported with similar authority in the London Magazine. A few years later, the Complete English Peerage would put her fortune at more than £1m.32 Whatever the true value of the collieries, lead mines, ironworks, farms, houses, fine art, jewels, stocks and racehorses that George Bowes had assiduously accumulated and maintained throughout his life, there was no doubt that Mary Eleanor was now the wealthiest eleven-year-old in the country. Well aware that this anticipated fortune would attract keen interest from far and wide, her father had shrewdly placed his estate in trust. His will named his wife, his father-in-law and two of his sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, as trustees to ensure that while Mary Eleanor could enjoy her fortune during her lifetime, it would then be handed down intact to his grandchildren.33 In this wise precaution, Bowes was following the example of many landowners, anxious to prevent profligate heirs - or in the case of daughters, their spouses - from squandering the family’s ancient possessions in the space of one short lifetime. Since Mary Eleanor was to receive a £1,000 yearly allowance until the age of fourteen, and £1,300 from then until she was twenty-one, she was unlikely to feel impoverished.
Approaching her teens, precociously intelligent and with the largest fortune in Britain held waiting for her, Mary Eleanor needed more than ever the firm, loving guidance that her father had so ably provided. Yet with her mother inconsolable in her grief, her grandfather ageing and infirm, and her elderly aunts unused to shouldering responsibility for minors, she was suddenly devoid both of sensible supervision and emotional support. Shutting herself away at Gibside for the next two years, unable to face the giddy entertainments of London or the social round of Durham, Mary Bowes virtually abandoned any interest in her daughter’s education and welfare. Her immaculately kept account books stopped abruptly with her husband’s funeral expenses; her social life ended just as suddenly with his death. After two years, still incapacitated by grief, Mrs Bowes packed the Gibside valuables, left the estate in the capable hands of an agent and took out a lease on a new house, a few yards from their previous London home, at 40 Grosvenor Square.34 But London’s diversions did no more to console her than Gibside’s tranquillity and she remained, in her daughter’s words, ‘in such affliction, as to be incapable of attending either to my education or morals’. So at a time when the thirteen-year-old daughter probably needed her mother’s support most of all, Mary Eleanor was left in London in the charge of ageing Aunt Jane, her governess Elizabeth Planta and an assortment of tutors. Her mother meanwhile retreated to her childhood home of St Paul’s Walden Bury, where her own father had recently died.
Having been dominated all her childhood by her formidable father, Mary Eleanor’s adolescence was now guided almost solely by women. Living in the sumptuous mansion in the south-west corner of Grosvenor Square, surrounded on all sides by the richest members of the aristocracy, she was introduced into London society by her aunt. A ‘celebrated beauty’ in her youth, Jane Bowes, now nearly sixty, had since become ‘extremely vain’, Mary Eleanor would write, although chiefly through ‘having a niece who was one of the greatest fortunes in England’. Although the Bowes family could not boast aristocratic roots, the teenage Mary’s opulent lifestyle afforded her easy entry into an elite circle of rich, privileged and pampered youngsters who devoted themselves to a life of hedonistic leisure. So while her mother eschewed city life, Mary threw herself into the Georgian social, intellectual and scientific scene with a passion.
Persevering with her lessons, Mary’s scholarly accomplishments brought her to the notice of Elizabeth Montagu, whose literary parties at her house in Hill Street, a few minutes’ sedan-chair ride from Grosvenor Square, had become highly celebrated. Modelled on the French conversational salons, Mrs Montagu’s large mixed-sex assemblies were known as the Blue-Stocking Club, apparently on account of the legwear sported by her flamboyant friend, the botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet. Famed as much for their lavish catering as their sparkling conversation, the literary evenings attracted the brightest intellectuals of the day, including Samuel Johnson, his friend Hester Thrale, the writer Elizabeth Carter and the gossip Horace Walpole. But for all the competition to coin the wittiest quips, the parties could be staid affairs. Guests were seated in formal circles or semi-circles of twenty to twenty-five people, according to Lady Louisa Stuart, the granddaughter of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Having taken a chair ‘between two grave faces unknown to me’ Lady Louisa had stifled a yawn and wondered at the apparent exclusion of any male guests. At that point a door opened from the dining room and the male contingent walked in. ‘They looked wistfully over our shoulders at a good fire, which the barrier we presented left them no means of approaching; then drawing chairs from the wall, seated themselves around us in an outer crescent, silent and solemn as our own.’35
Having become acquainted with the Bowes family in the north-east, where her husband had inherited a colliery near Newcastle, Mrs Montagu became a friend and patron to the young Mary Eleanor. ‘Mrs Montague honoured me with her friendship, approbation and correspondence,’ Mary later wrote, recalling Sunday gatherings at Mrs Montagu’s house.36 Although Mary insisted that she kept ‘several of her letters’ only one example of their correspondence has survived. In a letter written by eleven-year-old Mary from her Grosvenor Square home in March 1760, she thanks Mrs Montagu for sending her a book and in the adulatory tone of the period professes that even a moment in Mrs Montagu’s thoughts must ‘make her the envy of many’.37 For her part, Mrs Montagu expressed high esteem for the young Mary Eleanor, telling a friend in 1763 that ‘she is realy [sic] a fine girl, lively, sensible, and very civil and good natured’.38
Surrounded by the exquisite gardens her father had carved out of the Derwent Valley, and encouraged in her childhood to take an interest in plants and animals by her mother, Mary Eleanor had also developed an early fascination for natural history. She already had her own small garden at Gibside, which had been laid out at some point before she reached the age of twelve. In May 1761, estate accounts record one of the workmen ‘Palissading Miss Bowes’s Garden in the Green-Close’. Her mother had frequently purchased plants and seeds, as well as exotic wild birds - including a parrot when her daughter was eight, and two swans, two guinea fowl and four wild turkeys the following year - before her withdrawal from society. Mrs Bowes’s account books record the purchase of ‘2 Chelsea Lemons’ and ‘two Auriculas in China potts for the Child’ in February 1760. In her mother’s absence, Mary’s growing interest in plants may well have been encouraged by her governess, Elizabeth Planta, and her father, Mary’s French tutor, Andreas Planta, who had now taken up his post as assistant librarian at the British Museum. Certainly she began to turn her childhood fondness for gardening into a serious study of botany. It was to become a lifelong passion.
At the same time, under the lax attentions of Aunt Jane, Mary was free to embark on more playful diversions. At thirteen years old, the age at which her father’s first wife had been engaged, Mary Eleanor was fast becoming a magnet for eligible young men. Intelligent, accomplished and self-confident, and engagingly pretty with her curling brown hair and blue-grey eyes, she quickly attracted a swarm of suitors. But while the unparalleled scale of her inheritance made her an equally attractive prospect to their parents, not all of them regarded her intellectual talents as an asset. Lord Lyttelton, who considered himself something of a scholar, remarked on George Bowes’s death that, ‘as his vanity descends with his estate to his daughter, I don’t wish to see her my daughter-in-law, though she would make my son one of the richest and consequently, in our present ideas of greatness, one of the great peers of the Realm.’ Saving Mary Eleanor from a match with his libertine son, who would acquire the sobriquet ‘the wicked Lord Lyttelton’, he added presciently: ‘But she will probably be the prize of some needy Duke, who will want her estate to repair the disasters of New-market and Arthur’s, or if she marries for love, of some ensign of the Guards, or smart Militia captain.’39 He could scarcely have expected that both predictions might almost exactly come true.
Living mainly with her aunt in leafy Grosvenor Square, apart from occasional trips to Hertfordshire or Gibside, Mary Eleanor launched herself into London society with gusto. Dressed in the tightly corseted, heavily pleated gowns and silk stockings worn by young and adolescent girls in imitation of their mothers, she would set forth in the family’s stylish coach. Accompanied by inattentive Aunt Jane, the carriage would rumble slowly along the loose-cobbled streets, impeded by the sheer press of other coaches, carts, sedan chairs, pedestrians and livestock that choked the city’s thoroughfares. Visiting in the 1760s, the French tourist Pierre Jean Grosley was shocked at the congestion both on the roads and the river which was as crammed with boats as the streets were with traffic.40 While Grosley gaped at the luxurious display of goods in the brightly lit shop windows of the Strand and Fleet Street, which were ‘greatly superior’ to anything Paris could offer, he complained that the foul mud littering the streets and the thick smog cloaking the sky meant that ‘New London is as much buried in dirt as the old’. So dense was this smog that at times walkers in St James’s Park could scarcely see four steps in front of them. That the thick pungent smog which obscured the sun was caused by the coal from her own collieries being burned in the capital’s homes and small industries made little impression on Mary Eleanor.
Heading west to parade around Hyde Park in a jam of similar coaches, or trundling south to visit the exclusive shops of The Strand, the chief purpose of these daytime ‘airings’ was to see and be seen. While the ambling progress rarely exceeded walking pace, the carriages at least afforded their privileged occupants a barrier against the stench, clamour and bustle of London’s streets. By night, when the city became even more boisterous and dangerous, the pampered members of the landed classes stuck all the more closely to their protective coaches and exclusive venues. Clothed in rich satins and silks, adorned in the jewels her father had bequeathed her, and accompanied by the ever-present Aunt Jane, Mary Eleanor turned heads at the balls, assemblies and levees which took place nightly throughout the hectic winter season. One socialite, complaining of the incessant treadmill of the social calendar in the 1760s, exclaimed: ‘The hurry of this town is inconceivable, for I declare I have been only once to the Play, Opera, & Orotorio, to very few assemblies, & yet I can’t find a moment’s time to myself’.41 Mary Eleanor had no such objections. Demonstrating the dance steps she had mastered in her lessons and practising the clever repartee for which she would become well-known, she flirted and laughed with a crush of admirers, noting rather archly that Aunt Jane was so indulgent a chaperone that, ‘I must say, if I had not been more prudent than most young girls of my age, I might have been less so.’42 Her object was plain: to capture the ideal future husband.
As Lord Lyttelton had observed so succinctly, the question of whether to marry for money or for love had become one of the chief dilemmas of the age. The eighteenth century saw an unprecedented shift in society’s attitude towards marriage.43 While people in working-class and agricultural communities had always been more or less at liberty to choose their partners for life, albeit from within the same narrow economic stratum and geographical area, the vast majority of marriages in aristocratic and landed families were arranged by parents with the prospective bride and bridegroom having little or no say until at least the early 1700s.
Marriage was regarded essentially as a means to cement powerful partnerships between important families, to continue ancestral lines and to transfer or acquire land and property. Children were often betrothed in infancy to be married in their teens, while adolescent girls with generous dowries, or ‘portions’, were matched with elderly, diseased and often impoverished members of the aristocracy. One seventeenth-century heiress, Mary Davies, was betrothed at the age of seven to marry the 23-year-old Honourable Charles Berkeley as soon as she reached her twelfth birthday; that wedding never took place but a few months after she reached the age of twelve she was married to the 21-year-old baronet Sir Thomas Grosvenor. It was perhaps not surprising that she later suffered mental instability.44 Sir William Temple, whose family thwarted his marriage plans for many years, lamented in 1680 that marriages were dictated by ‘men’s avarice and greediness of portions’ which had increased to such a degree that ‘our marriages are made just like other common bargains and sales by the mere consideration of interest or gain, without any of love or esteem, of birth or of beauty itself.’45 Since marriage truly was a partnership for life - and almost impossible to dissolve - many relationships were marked by misery, infidelity and even violence. Lord Halifax made the prospects grimly plain when considering marriage in his Advice to a Daughter in 1688: ‘It is one of the Disadvantages belonging to your Sex, that young Women are seldom permitted to make their own Choice’.46 The only remedy, he suggested, was to endure whatever faults a husband might possess, lest dislike turn to aversion.
It was little wonder that Mary Astell, herself the daughter of a Newcastle coal merchant, advocated spinsterhood in her Reflections upon Marriage published in 1700. ‘If Marriage be such a blessed State, how comes it, may you say, that there are so few happy marriages?’, she lamented, although she had no more optimism about partnerships based on love rather than money.47 For Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, betrothed by her father at the age of twenty-three to the improbably named Clotworthy Skeffington, arrangements for the impending wedding day in 1712 were seen as ‘daily preparations for my journey to Hell’.48 Rather than descend into eternal torment, she eloped and married Edward Wortley Montagu just days before her planned wedding. Living to regret her hasty decision, like so many impetuous lovers who fled one potentially disastrous partnership only to embark on another, she took a dim view when her niece and then her daughter followed her example.
As increasing numbers of young couples expressed their objections to parental control by voting with their feet, disillusion with forced marriages spread. William Hogarth depicted the growing unease in his popular series of prints Marriage A-la-Mode, published in 1745. The six scenes portray the tragic story of an arranged marriage between the daughter of a rich city merchant and a foppish earl desperate to refurbish his estate. As both descend into debauchery, the wife drinks laudanum to commit suicide when she hears her lover is to be executed for killing her husband in a duel. George Bowes was among many who bought the series; he hung the pictures in the entrance hall at Gibside in 1746, though he could have had little idea how prophetic the scenes would prove for his daughter.
Increasing criticism of arranged marriages combined with a rising interest in the notion of romantic love - sometimes blamed on the early eighteenth-century development of the novel - fuelled a slow but steady shift from the idea of marriage as a financial agreement to the modern ideal of a companionate partnership. Pressure for change built up gradually, so that while at the beginning of the eighteenth century well-heeled parents almost always retained a veto over their children’s choice of partner, by the middle and later 1700s it was generally their children who had the final say. Some landowning parents gave up their control with extreme reluctance, however, perhaps mindful of their own sacrifices and efforts to make an arranged marriage work. It was chiefly concern over thwarted young lovers absconding to marry secretly that prompted the 1753 Marriage Act.
Regulating marriage by the state for the first time, the act laid down that weddings were only valid if performed by a priest in orders within a church. Banns were normally required to be read three times beforehand unless a special licence was obtained. And the act also stipulated that parental consent was required for couples wishing to marry under the age of twenty-one. Overnight the scandal of unscrupulous parsons marrying reckless, and sometimes drunk, runaways in taverns and brothels was brought to an end. Often called ‘Fleet marriages’, after the London debtors’ prison, the environs of which were notorious for quickie ceremonies, such matches were blamed for entrapping numerous feckless sailors, intemperate soldiers and - on occasion - unwilling heiresses. The Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant recalled walking along Fleet Street in his youth when he had ‘often been tempted by the question, “Sir, will you be pleased to walk in and be married ?” ’49 Once the 1753 Act took effect, crossed young lovers were forced to trek to Scotland, where its regulations did not apply, if they wanted to evade their parents’ commands. The little village of Gretna Green, just over the border on the main road into Scotland, quickly acquired a reputation as the nearest wedding venue.
Not surprisingly, by the 1760s the whole subject of marriage had become more confusing than ever. Relatively few parents now attempted to force their sons or daughters into marriages they patently did not want. When nineteen-year-old Lady Harriet Spencer was married in 1780 at her parents’ behest to Lord Duncannon, a man she had barely met, her lack of involvement was highly unusual. ‘I wish I could have known him a little better first,’ she protested meekly, living to regret her compliance.50 Most parents were now sensitive at least to the ideal of marital bliss, even if a financially astute match still remained their chief consideration.
For the young hopefuls themselves, aspirations to romantic love and concerns for a comfortable future had become inextricably entangled in the notion of what made a successful marriage. Whereas marriage negotiations had previously been conducted mainly via letters and lawyers with little cause for couples or families to meet, now teenage aristocrats and their pushy parents thronged London ballrooms and assemblies on the prowl for a suitable match. Competition could be fierce. Without the benefit of parental guidance or adult aid, and highly influenced by the romantic novels and poetry she adored, thirteen-year-old Mary Eleanor believed she was more than capable of arranging her own perfect match.
Her first conquest happened to be one of the most eligible bachelors in town. Nineteen-year-old Prince Ernst of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had become a familiar figure in London since the marriage of his younger sister Charlotte to George III in 1761. While seventeen-year-old Charlotte was summarily dismissed as ‘certainly not a beauty’, her tall, slim-shouldered brother was described as ‘a very pretty sort of man, with an agreeable person’, by the novelist Sarah Scott, sister of Elizabeth Montagu. By March 1762, Mrs Scott informed her sister, the prince had ‘fallen desperately in love with Miss Bowes’. Describing the prince’s interest as a ‘prudent passion’, Mrs Scott believed that, ‘the girl has no ambition if she does not choose to be a princess’ and added, ‘I fancy, should she become such, he would be richer than the duke, his elder brother’. But therein partly lay the problem. George III vetoed the match, apparently on the grounds of the Prince ‘being united to a subject’ - an objection Mary’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, would later overcome in marrying Prince Albert, the future George VI - but also because it would have made Prince Ernst wealthier than his brother, the Duke, back home. Charlotte Papendiek, wardrobe keeper to Queen Charlotte, explained in her journal some years later that, ‘Prince Ernest [sic] had wished to marry the great heiress of the North, Miss Bowes, whose fortune exceeded that of the heiress of the South, Miss Tilney Long’. She added: ‘Most certainly such a fortune in Germany would have made him a Prince indeed; but as he was a younger brother, it might have disturbed the harmony of the house of Mecklenburgh-Strelitz, of which the reigning Duke was not married.’51
It is unlikely that Mary Eleanor seriously considered the prince since she never mentioned him in her writings. Certainly, that same year she was far more interested in another beau who was closer to home, and closer in years. Campbell Scott, younger brother of the third Duke of Buccleuch, was fourteen or fifteen years old when they first met. Mary was attracted to him at a ‘children’s ball’ organised by the Duchess of Northumberland. Whether the dance took place at the duchess’s palatial London mansion, Northumberland House, which had recently been refurbished by George Bowes’s favourite architects Garrett and Paine, or her riverside retreat at Syon Park, only just redecorated by Robert Adam, or indeed at her Northumberland pile of Alnwick Castle, in the throes of being restored by both Adam and Paine, Mary Eleanor did not record. Evidently, she took little interest in the architecture as she danced with the quick-witted and self-assured young Scott who had a distinct flair for flattery. ‘He liked my conversation, and as he was smart and clever, I liked his,’ Mary later wrote.52 The innocent banter would have gone no further, she insisted, had not her cousin Thomas Liddell, who was a schoolmate of Scott’s at Eton, ‘teazed us into a belief that we were in love with each other’. The young sweethearts exchanged rings, and tender words, until Scott joined the army and left for mainland Europe twelve months later. Although Mary kept Scott’s ring, the thrill of her first romance did not deter her from embarking on further flirtations, but when Scott died of smallpox in Paris in October 1766, Mary was gravely upset. Her grief was only exacerbated by Scott’s mother, Lady Dalkeith, who had already lost three of her six children but seemed scarcely perturbed to have lost a fourth. According to Mary, Lady Dalkeith ‘hurt me much by her unfeelingness’, a view supported by Lady Sarah Lennox, who recorded that while the Duke, Scott’s brother, suffered ‘in vast affliction’, his ‘odious mother I supose don’t care, for she never loved her children’.53
Playing the field while Scott was still away with his regiment in 1763, Mary dallied half-heartedly with a young Venetian marquis who wooed her for almost a year. Since he spoke little English they exchanged small talk in Italian, one of several languages in which Mary was already proficient. When he finally abandoned his courtship to continue his travels, the marquis sent Mary a present from Paris of two small dogs. The pets fared significantly better in Mary’s affections than their donor. Less forthright was the young Charles James Fox, future leader of the Whig party, who was Mary’s exact contemporary. Another of the Eton set Mary favoured, Fox had been spoiled by his doting father to such a degree that as a toddler he was allowed to sit astride a joint of meat during a dinner party. Now old enough to enjoy dinner parties from a more conventional position, he cast longing glances at the teenage Mary but had ‘too much pride’, she later wrote, to divulge his passion. Presumably this shy crush, if true, took hold of Fox before his father had dragged him out of school on a rabble-rousing trip to Paris, where he arranged for his son to lose his virginity with a prostitute, as well as a substantial amount of money at the gaming tables.54 Certainly, Fox showed little reticence with women in later years.
Abandoning London’s giddy lifestyle for a rare visit north that winter, fourteen-year-old Mary found the attentions of her next suitor decidedly less welcome. Staying with her mother at Gibside in October 1763, she narrowly escaped a plot to kidnap her and force her into marriage with an MP. The unknown politician had offered £20,000 via a shifty go-between to a footman in the family, who was the lover of Mary’s former nurse. The plan was to lure her to a remote part of the grounds where she would be captured and then whisked abroad to marry the unscrupulous MP, according to Elizabeth Montagu who reported the scam with horror to her friend Lord Bath.55 Luckily, the two servants got cold feet and divulged the plan to Mrs Bowes who quickly put a stop to the scheme and had the go-between arrested. Convinced that Mary would have resisted all efforts to force her into such a marriage, as she ‘is a girl of sense and spirit’, Mrs Montagu was certain that the MP, if discovered, would have been ‘hanged for his pains’.
More traditional if equally unsuccessful was John Stuart, the eldest son of Lord Bute, who had recently resigned as prime minister. Five years older than Mary, Stuart had attended Harrow and Winchester schools before setting off on an extensive grand tour, during which he met Voltaire and travelled in Italy with James Boswell. Returning bronzed and good-looking, the self-styled Lord Mountstuart created something of a flutter among the excitable young debutantes when he hit London’s party scene in the winter season of 1765-66. Announcing him as the ‘new importation’ of the year, Lady Sarah Lennox gushed: ‘Ld Mount [sic] is tall, well made, & very handsome’. It had become the fashion to ‘cry him up’ and although he was ‘very proud & vain’, she thought he ‘does vastly well for a beau’.56 Preening himself at Almack’s assembly rooms, which had rapidly become the match-making venue of choice since its opening the previous year, Lord Mountstuart fixed his sights on sixteen-year-old Mary Eleanor. He was not alone. Among a growing band of hopefuls, Stuart had to battle for Mary’s attentions with William Chaloner, another of her cousins who belonged to the Eton crowd. Gleefully playing one off against the other, Mary partnered them both until one evening rival passions spilled over into a furious quarrel over who should sit beside her at supper. Tempers inflamed, the two youths stormed outside where they were at the point of fighting a duel before one of them grudgingly backed down.
Plainly enjoying the excitement of finding herself at the centre of such intense competition, Mary deliberately encouraged Stuart’s mother, Lady Bute, to believe that her son was in favour by extending ‘great civility’ towards her and her daughters on an ensuing Almack’s evening. Taking the bait, Lady Bute rushed round confidently the following morning to press her son’s suit, only for Mary glibly to refuse the offer she had never contemplated accepting. With hindsight, she would later admit, this was ‘downright girlishness, mischievousness, and vanity’.57 Poor Lady Bute was mortified by the rebuff while her son was so distraught he took to bed for a week before pursuing another heiress, described by Walpole as the ‘rich ugly’ Charlotte Windsor, whom he married later the same year.58
There was no shortage of suitors waiting to take his place in the scrum for the hand of Britain’s wealthiest heiress. Mary referred each of the many offers she received to her mother, who by now had sufficiently recovered her composure at least to reject her daughter’s marriage proposals. Gleefully totting up the score, Mary revelled in the satisfaction of refusing ‘a great many people of rank’. In truth, she knew that none of the young rakes she partnered on Almack’s dance floor or flirted with at Vauxhall’s concerts could measure up to the dynamic father she had lost. Looking back in later years she would admit quite candidly: ‘I had no partiality for any man in the world.’ And yet at the age of sixteen, even while she encouraged Lord Mountstuart, cousin Chaloner and a host of other unfortunate hopefuls, Mary had already decided on her future husband.
Beside the scrapping and jostling young bucks who were vying for Mary’s attention at Almack’s assemblies, John Lyon, the 28-year-old ninth Earl of Strathmore, presented a mature and sophisticated contrast. Reserved and taciturn, Lord Strathmore had little patience for the flattery and witticisms which peppered conversation in the salons of Georgian London. More comfortable with his hard-drinking, hard-gambling male chums at the club he had helped to set up in the original Almack’s than among the giggling dance-floor debutantes, he cut an aloof and proud figure. Having grown up as neighbours, since the Strathmore clan preferred their hospitable Durham estate to their dilapidated Glamis Castle near Dundee, Mary and John had rubbed shoulders at social engagements since her childhood. Her father, significantly, had high regard for the personable young earl, who succeeded to his title at sixteen, before distinguishing himself at Cambridge where he became a favourite of his tutor, the poet Thomas Gray. Now that the tall, elegant and good-looking peer - who would become known as ‘the beautiful Lord Strathmore’ - had returned from the customary grand tour of Europe, he graced London’s entertainment venues with a dignified disdain.59 Mary was intrigued. Renewing their youthful acquaintance, she subtly encouraged the earl’s interest to the point where at last he sent her a proposal of marriage, conveyed by a mutual family friend. Insisting, as with all her suitors, that he approach her mother first, sixteen-year-old Mary waited patiently.
When Mrs Bowes instantly dismissed the earl’s declaration, pointing to his large family’s sizeable financial problems, their meddlesome reputation and - not least - the fact that they were Scottish, Mary’s keenness was only heightened. She would always, she later confessed, have a soft spot for Celtic men. Knowing that she needed her mother’s consent for marriage until the age of twenty-one, Mary declared that she would make Lord Strathmore her husband or nobody. Already captivated by ‘Lord Strathmore’s beauty, which was then very great’, she was further convinced he was her destined life partner by a dream or ‘vision’ in which he appeared to her. Her mother, never a forceful influence or a reliable guide, relented and in autumn 1765 the engagement was agreed.
It took a full eighteen months of legal negotiations to finalise the marriage contract, partly due to the complexity of transferring Mary’s vast fortune into the Strathmore family’s waiting hands, partly to guarantee some future financial security for herself and any children, and partly to confirm the stipulation that her prospective husband, and their children, must adopt the Bowes name. For all the protestations of the Lyons, forced to surrender a name they had honoured since at least the Norman conquest, the Bowes dynasty would continue. As the lawyers haggled, the forthcoming wedding became the topic of the season. The ever-vigilant Sarah Osborn observed the lean Lord Strathmore towering over his petite fiancée at Almack’s, along with two more betrothed couples, in March 1766. ‘These three Weddings are to be celebrated as soon as the Lawyers can finish,’ she wrote. But two months later the lawyers were still wrangling and Thomas Gray informed his friend James Brown: ‘The great match will not be till after Christmas.’60 Throughout the wet summer of 1766, as the lawyers scratched the draft settlement, crowds were thronging to the latest comedy by David Garrick and George Colman, The Clandestine Marriage , with its well-timed swipe at mercenary matches and their legal machinations. ‘Here we are - hard at it - paving the road to matrimony, ’ declares the wealthy patriarch Sterling, whose daughter was to bring a handsome dowry to her debt-ridden aristocratic bridegroom, before adding, ‘First the lawyers, then comes the doctor.’61 At last, in September, the ink was dry on the twenty massive pages of parchment and the wedding preparations could begin.
Dressmakers set to work on the gowns, nightgowns, petticoats and cloaks which would make up Mary Eleanor’s extravagant trousseau. As well as six dresses, in assorted combinations of silver, white and gold decorated with silver or blond lace, which were designed to be worn over hoops according to the latest fashion, there were six satin petticoats and eight quilted calico petticoats. In all, her wardrobe was valued at £3,000. In addition, Mary’s mother gave her a diamondstudded stomacher - a stiffened bodice to fit over the front of a dress - worth £10,000, along with further diamonds to the tune of £7,000. Finally, to complete the ensemble for the wedding of the year, Mrs Bowes donated three carriages - a green landau, a blue post coach and a stone-coloured post chaise - which were brought down from Gibside to London.
It should have proved a memorable occasion, summoning up reminiscences of the royal wedding just six years earlier. Yet by the time that Mary walked down the aisle of St George’s Church in Hanover Square, splendidly robed in her silver and white wedding dress glinting with diamonds, on her eighteenth birthday on 24 February 1767, her teenage infatuation was over.62 She knew she was marrying the wrong man.