The honeymoon was over. After the lavish wedding ceremony in London in February, followed by two weeks of celebrations at her mother’s home in Hertfordshire, Mary Eleanor set off north beside her new husband for the three-day journey to Gibside. The couple made their first public appearance in County Durham on 29 March at the Sunday service in the parish church of Whickham, where Mary’s father had been buried seven years earlier. As they descended from their coach at the church gates, accompanied by a ‘grand retinue’ of relatives and local worthies, the pair were surrounded by villagers eager to catch a first glimpse of their new master and mistress. ‘The people thronged from the adjacent places on the occasion, so that the church is not remembered to have been so crowded, by the oldest person living,’ reported the Newcastle Chronicle.1 After a busy round of socialising with the neighbourhood gentry over the following two months, Mary took a last look at the figure of Lady Liberty still presiding over her childhood home, before continuing north. Rumbling over the Tyne Bridge on 7 June, less than a month after the King’s Own Regiment had marched across, Mary began the arduous two-hundred-mile journey to Glamis Castle to assume her new role as the Countess of Strathmore.
Nobody set out for Scotland without apprehension. Taking the same route northwards just a year later, the agricultural writer Arthur Young would warn: ‘I would advise all travellers to consider this country as sea, and as soon think of driving into the ocean as venturing into such detestable roads.’2 For Mary, the rigours of the road were the least of her troubles. She had been ill at least twice since her wedding - initially during the honeymoon festivities at St Paul’s Walden Bury when several guests had suffered upsets that were blamed on her mother’s wine, and a second time shortly after when she was thought - wrongly or temporarily - to be pregnant.3 More frustratingly, she had already grown weary of the assorted members of the Strathmore clan who clamoured around the newly married couple wherever they went. Her husband’s younger brother, Thomas, even now accompanied them north, while the brothers’ mother, the dowager countess, was following in hot pursuit. But most worrying of all, she deeply regretted ever marrying Lord Strathmore.
Mary could hardly claim she had not been warned. Her mother had advised against the match - not least on account of the large and needy Strathmore family - while her governess, Elizabeth Planta, had similarly pressed her not to go ahead. During the protracted marriage negotiations, Mary had gradually realised that she and the earl, twelve years her senior, had little in common. She found, she would later say, ‘our tempers, dispositions, and turns different’.4 The earl’s cool, reserved demeanour, which had at first seemed so alluring, had soon spread a chill over Mary’s flirtatious, capricious ways, while his scholarly interest in literary works did not extend to encouraging his young fiancée’s talents in the same direction. But although she had desperately wished to call off the engagement, her pride had prevented her either from voicing her doubts to her intended spouse or from confiding in her mother. Keeping her anxieties to herself, she had therefore gone ahead with vows from which she knew there was probably no escape. Since divorce was both unattainable and unconscionable for the vast majority of married couples in the eighteenth century, matrimony truly was for better or worse, till death do us part. In her own home, free to pursue her literary interests and her botanical studies, she could perhaps have convinced herself that the marriage might work. Certainly many couples brought together in arranged marriages later found mutual affection and even love. But now that she was leaving her familiar surroundings, her social calendar and leisure pursuits dictated by her husband, encircled by his tight-knit family, the prospects for a happy, harmonious partnership seemed remote. Finally she had to concede: ‘I was imprudent in marrying Lord Strathmore, against my mother’s advice.’5 For although John Lyon had been forced to change his name to Bowes by a private bill through the House of Lords, in compliance with George Bowes’s will, he had no intention of letting Bowes’s daughter change him.6
Born and brought up in County Durham, educated by tutors at his mother’s Durham estate before entering Cambridge, John Lyon had seen little of Scotland or his crumbling Scottish seat of Glamis for most of his youth. He probably even spoke with an English accent. Yet with his family’s fortunes long entwined with the turbulent history of Scotland, his ancestors as bound to the Scottish throne as the Bowes forefathers had been to the English, there was little doubt that - in the words of his guardian and relative Lord Chesterfield - he had been ‘born a Jacobite’.7
Descended from Celtic or Norman origins, the Lyon family had first gained prominence in Scotland in the fourteenth century when an earlier John Lyon was created Thane of Glamis by Robert II and soon after married the king’s daughter Joanna.8 The stronghold at Glamis, or Glammis as it was often called, in the marshy land north of Dundee, had originally been built as a royal hunting lodge. King Malcolm II had died there, after being fatally wounded in battle nearby in 1034; six years later his grandson Duncan had been slain by his cousin Macbeth, who seized the crown only to be killed himself some years later by Duncan’s son Malcolm. Although Duncan’s death most probably happened in combat rather than in cold blood, egged on by a majority of Scottish lords rather than committed in self-serving treachery, and took place at Elgin, nearly seventy miles from Glamis, the name of Macbeth would forever be associated with Glamis Castle through Shakespeare’s flight of imagination. Indeed, so ingrained would the myth become that an eighteenth-century architect indicated ‘The Room where King Duncan was murdered by McBeath’ on his plans for the castle, while another room is still named ‘Duncan’s Hall’ as the legendary site of the regicide.
If the tale of Macbeth was fanciful, there was every bit as much tragedy in the bloodshed that dogged the Lyon family in the ensuing centuries. Caught up in the factional struggles that split the Scottish nobility in the sixteenth century, the seventh Lord Glamis was sentenced as a small boy by James V to be executed as soon as he attained his majority, while his mother, Janet Douglas, was burnt at the stake on trumped-up charges of witchcraft. Finally released five years later, the young lord reclaimed his forfeited castle, where his son, the eighth lord, later entertained Mary Queen of Scots. Judiciously switching allegiances, the ninth Lord Glamis accompanied James VI to England when he succeeded to the crown in 1603, and was created First Earl of Kinghorne for his troubles. The family’s influence and affluence were reflected at the time in the extensive rebuilding of Glamis with its imposing fairy-tale towers and tapering turrets. In another deft transfer of loyalty, the third earl - who formally took the title of the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne by royal charter in 1677 - belatedly pledged allegiance to William of Orange.
With the family’s political clout firmly on the wane as the eighteenth century dawned, its support for the doomed Stuart cause would continue - along with the bloodshed. The fourth earl, John Lyon’s grandfather, managed to father the next four holders of the title, who followed him in swift succession. John Lyon’s uncles, the fifth, sixth and seventh earls respectively, all died young - before he was even born - and the first two in particularly gory circumstances. Uncle John, the fifth earl, was killed supporting the first Jacobite rebellion at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715, while Uncle Charles, the sixth earl, died an innocent bystander in a street brawl at the age of twenty-eight. Uncle James, the seventh earl, likewise died young, so that Thomas Lyon, actually the sixth son, unexpectedly found himself installed as the eighth earl in 1735. Shrewdly marrying a County Durham heiress, Jean Nicholson, to shore up the family’s ever-depleted funds, the eighth earl spent much of his married life quietly avoiding trouble on his wife’s estate, leaving Glamis to descend once more into neglect. It was at Hetton-le-Hole, the Nicholson family seat north-east of Durham and just eleven miles south of Gibside, therefore, that their first son, John Lyon, was ‘born a Jacobite’ on 17 July 1737.
Eager to avoid another of the violent ends which his forefathers had met, the eighth earl established his young family at Hetton-le-Hole, with rare forays to Glamis, and fraternised chiefly with the coal-owning gentry of the north-east, including George Bowes. When Newcastle defended its medieval walls against the second Jacobite uprising in 1745, the eighth earl kept his head down and his family out of harm’s way in their County Durham home. As the local supporters of the rebel army were rounded up and hanged the following winter, his fiercely capable wife spent Christmas in Bath where she sent for nine-year-old John, the little Lord Glamis, to join her. And when the earl died in January 1753, before John had reached his sixteenth birthday, the formidable dowager countess was determined to keep her eldest son firmly within her orbit and her influence.
Although she now had to compete for dominance against fourteen other guardians or ‘curators’ named by the late earl - including the Earls of Chesterfield, Panmure and Aboyne - the dowager countess was a fair match. Travelling to Glamis with her son in tow to discuss the young earl’s future education in 1754, she listened politely as ‘all the Curators declared in the strongest terms, that it was their opinion, that my Lord should go to an university in Scotland’.9 Apart from the desire to keep the ninth earl close to his Scottish seat - and, of course, to his Scottish guardians - the curators voiced their concerns at the steep costs an English university would impose on the family’s limited resources. Indeed, not only were tuition fees higher at Oxford or Cambridge, the curators persisted, but since the earl was likely to mix there with English aristocrats possessing considerably larger riches ‘he might thereby acquire a habit of living at an expense which his fortune was not able to bear’. But Lady Strathmore plainly did not wish to send her son out of her dominion, no matter that the Scottish universities far outperformed their English counterparts academically. Squared up against the united ranks at Glamis, she insisted that as the young earl had expressed his preference for an English university - which concurred happily with her own opinion - ‘she could not think of not giving him his own choice’.
After borrowing an impressive stack of books from the castle library - in English, French, Latin and Greek - Lord Strathmore enrolled on 3 March 1755, at the relatively advanced age of seventeen, at Pembroke College, Cambridge.10 His brothers James, a year his junior, and Thomas, four years younger, would follow. But if the dowager countess seriously believed that she could keep a close check on her son’s activities and expenditure once he left her side, she was sadly mistaken. For no sooner had the earl escaped his mother’s iron rule than he began to flex his muscles, quickly acquiring the extravagant English tastes his guardians had feared.
With Pembroke having languished moribund for years, unable to attract students or funds and riven by discord, the fellows eagerly looked forward to the arrival of the ‘beautiful Lord Strathmore’ and his admission fees. Entered as a ‘nobleman’, these were almost double the usual rates. ‘Pray is the Thane of Glamis come?’ enquired William Mason, the former don, of his friend the poet Thomas Gray, at the beginning of March. Gray, who was on the point of moving from Peterhouse to Pembroke, having earned acclaim for works such as his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, announced the earl’s arrival with a flourish a few days later. Writing to his close friend, and former Pembroke fellow, Thomas Wharton, he declared: ‘Ld S: is come, & makes a tall genteel figure in our eyes. His Tutors & He appear to like one another mighty well.’11
Indeed, the earl and his tutors got along famously - maybe even a little too well. Lord Strathmore forged strong bonds with his personal tutors Henry Tuthill and the Reverend James Brown, later Master of Pembroke, as well as with the affable Gray. His cosy college connections almost embroiled the earl in scandal, however. In early 1757, college authorities abruptly dismissed Tuthill and stripped him of his fellowship amid sensational but mysterious charges of misconduct. Originally a friend of Gray’s from Eton, and possibly Gray’s lover at some point, Tuthill is thought to have been sacked over allegations of homosexuality, perhaps with Gray, but conceivably with Lord Strathmore or his brother James, who had been admitted to Pembroke the previous year.12 The college register for February records enigmatically that: ‘Since Mr Tuthill’s absence fame has laid him under violent suspicion of having been guilty of great enormities, to clear himself of which he has not made his appearance and there is good reason to believe he never will.’ Letters between Gray and his friends at the time are thought to have been destroyed or censored to hush up details of the incident. Lord Strathmore’s bills include fees to Tuthill for private tuition until December 1756 but the earl and his brother James left Pembroke at the beginning of January - about the time Tuthill made himself absent - and only returned on 10 February. Gray expressed obvious relief at their return, which had plainly been in doubt, writing to Wharton: ‘Ld S: & his brother are come back, & in some measure rid me of my apprehensions for the College.’13 Whatever happened that January in Cambridge was taken to a watery grave: Tuthill drowned himself shortly after.
No whiff of the scandal appeared to reach Durham, however, where the dowager countess continued to worry about her three sons’ hefty college expenses as well as her eldest son’s health, prone as he was to recurrent chest complaints. While Lord Strathmore dismissed her concerns with characteristic disdain, it was Gray who overcame the countess’s objections and persuaded her to allow the earl to visit Europe as part of a diplomatic mission to Portugal with Thomas Pitt, a fellow Cambridge student and nephew of the former prime minister, William Pitt the Elder. Relating news of the young pair’s plans to his friend Wharton in early 1760, Gray urged that the details should remain secret ‘for fear my Lady should be frighted at so much Sea’.14
A grand tour of Europe was an obligatory requirement in the curriculum vitae of all self-respecting aristocrats and gentlemen in the eighteenth century. Embarking by sea at the height of the Seven Years’ War may not have seemed the most sensible plan, especially to an anxious mother, but Lord Strathmore assured her that the Mediterranean climate would prove ‘a sovereign Remedy’ for ‘any lurking Complaint in my Breast from Colds’. Before leaving he also wrote to George Bowes, expressing concern for Bowes’s declining health and sending respects to ten-year-old ‘Miss Bowes’.15 Having peremptorily discharged his guardians immediately he had come of age in 1758, the 22-year-old earl was now firmly in charge of his own finances. Making up for lost time under his mother’s parsimonious regime, over the next three years he would leave a trail of bills across southern Europe, drawn on the Scottish peer Lord Gray’s account with Coutts in London, in a frantic spending spree of epic proportions. Faithfully recording their impressions in a travel journal, ‘Observations in a Tour to Portugal & Spain 1760’, the two friends meandered across the Iberian peninsula denigrating the food, transport, fashions and women in the manner of typical British tourists.16
Buffeted across the Bay of Biscay, the pair arrived in Lisbon in March. First impressions set the tenor for the expedition. Very few of the Portuguese women had ‘any pretensions to Beauty’ the earl wrote to younger brother Tom, now nineteen and at Cambridge, so that ‘you may assure my Country women I shall bring home my Heart safe & sound’.17 Embarking on a sightseeing tour by mule-drawn cart, the travellers were disappointed in the food - ‘garlic, saffron & bad oil’; the transport - ‘a miserable calash’; the roads - ‘very poor and barren’; and the accommodation - ‘full of fleas and vermin’; although the architecture passed muster. Spain offered little reprieve. Only Barcelona won grudging approval and then chiefly for its bullfighting which drew the praise: ‘The spectacle is certainly one of the finest in the world.’
Things looked up considerably once they had arrived in Italy, however. By far the most fashionable destination of any grand tourist, Italy - actually an assortment of kingdoms, duchies and republics - played host to travellers including James Boswell, Adam Smith and Robert Adam who came to sample the opera, art and architecture. Having parted company with Pitt in Spain, where Lord Strathmore had fallen ill, the paperchase of bills reveals the earl to have arrived at Genoa by October 1760.18 Evidently the warm winter - as well as the uplifting art and architecture - provided a boost to the earl’s health and vigour. Touring the cities on the customary itinerary he reported that the women of Milan were ‘greatly inferior’ to those in Turin, although what the former lacked in beauty they ‘make up in Good Will towards Men’.19 But it was Parma, where he arrived in March 1761, that held the greatest fascination, for there he embarked on a passionate affair with the Countess Sanvitale, 25-year-old Costanza Scotti, which would detain him in Italy long beyond his planned return. When the earl briefly escaped to Florence in August, Horace Mann, who looked after British interests in the city, reported that Lord Strathmore had ‘broken the chain that held him so long at Parma’.20 It was a durable chain, however. For although the earl spent much of the winter in Rome, he was back in the arms of the contessa the following year. His portrait, painted in Rome by the English artist Nathaniel Dance in February 1762, shows a self-assured, elegantly handsome young man with delicate long fingers, a knowing look and a hint of a smile. Although the earl had obtained a passport to travel through France by April, Mann doubted that he would be leaving Parma any time soon. He was right. After escorting the contessa to Florence and Lucca, it would be another year before the earl finally severed the chains that bound him. Mann wrote to his friend Horace Walpole, who was impatiently awaiting letters entrusted to Lord Strathmore a year previously, in May 1763 with the arch comment: ‘I have often told you that your letters were in the hands of Lord Strathmore, and he in the hands of the Countess San Vital.’ Finally, by the end of June, the earl returned to England.
Aristocratic and attractive, cultured and bronzed, at nearly twenty-six the earl was immediately counted among the eligible bachelors on the vibrant London scene. Although Horace Walpole took an instant dislike to the young man who had detained his mail, branding him insipid and rustic - ‘too doucereux and Celadonian’ - Lord Strathmore proved popular enough among the bon ton frequenting the clubs and assemblies of the West End.21 ‘A sincere friend, a hearty Scotch-man, and a good bottle companion, were parts of his character,’ declared Jessé Foot, even if the earl’s pursuits ‘were not those of science’.22 Continuing the hedonistic lifestyle he had tasted on the continent, the earl’s costly hobbies included horse-racing, cock-fighting and collecting fine wines - large quantities of which had been shipped back from France and Portugal during his absence - as well as reckless gambling. The club, Almack’s, which he co-founded as a meeting point for fellow travellers to Italy, became notorious for its eccentric dress code and high betting stakes.
With his debts mounting and Glamis falling into disrepair, the earl was belatedly forced to face up to his family responsibilities when news arrived from India that his brother James had been murdered in a massacre at Patna in October 1763. Having joined the East India Company as an officer in 1760, James was among sixty or so prisoners who were slaughtered on the orders of the Nawab Mir Kasim in retaliation for defeats at the hands of the British. The loss of James in such brutal circumstances brought the earl closer to Thomas, who had just left Cambridge, aged twenty-two, while understandably heightening the anxiety of their mother. The brothers developed an intense, protective relationship in which neither could do any wrong. In one letter, the earl confessed that his worries over Thomas’s health and prospects ‘render me little capable of knowing what I write’.23 Quite opposite in character, the financially astute Thomas indulged his elder brother’s flamboyant lifestyle, while the earl defended his younger brother’s stern, stiff demeanour. Finally appraising his draughty castle and its marshy estate in 1763, Lord Strathmore drew up elaborate plans for improvements and renovations. All he needed now was the money to fund them.
Just as Irish fortune hunters sought a ‘worthy little woman’ to provide financial security, so English and Scottish aristocrats would cast about for a wealthy heiress to help finance their expensive estates and further the bloodline. The only difference was that the latter pursuit was deemed entirely respectable. John Lyon did not have to look far before alighting on the obvious candidate, although it is possible that his mother, the shrewd dowager countess, helped direct his gaze. Since the earl had last seen Mary Eleanor, daughter of his old friend George Bowes, she had been transformed from a precocious ten-year-old, reciting poetry at evening soirees, into an accomplished, vivacious and witty sixteen-year-old. Although she had not grown much taller, reaching only five feet two inches, she had certainly grown more curvaceous. With her abundant brown hair and buxom figure she was considered charmingly pretty by some - according to Foot she possessed a ‘very pleasing embonpoint’ - even if the earl’s erstwhile guardian, Lord Chesterfield, thought her ‘the greatest heiress, perhaps, in Europe, and ugly in proportion’.24 Although she plainly displayed a lively streak of independence, the earl seemed sure that she was young and malleable enough to be tamed, while he also hoped to cure her of her naive literary and scientific ambitions. He lost no time in conveying his interest through a mutual family friend.
By late 1765, the engagement had been agreed. The following summer Lord Strathmore was sufficiently confident of the expected boost to his income to place a colossal order for furniture and furnishings with upholsterers in Edinburgh in a bid to render Glamis habitable again. The eventual bill, for four-poster beds, flock wallpaper, Wilton carpets, mahogany furniture, vast quantities of fabric for curtains and assorted materials for bedding - including feathers weighing thirty-nine stones - would amount to more than £1,000.25 But there was no longer any concern about payment, since on 24 February 1767, when he placed the ring on Mary Eleanor’s finger, Lord Strathmore took possession of one of the largest fortunes in Europe.
If impressionable young Mary was inspired by romantic notions of beauty and a vision, there is little doubt that her 29-year-old beau was spurred to marry by the age-old imperative of hard cash. Certainly Lord Chesterfield had no illusions when he related news of the impending wedding: ‘The men marry for money, and I believe you guess what the women marry for.’26 The marriage settlement guaranteed Mary an independent annual income of £500 up to the age of twenty-one and £1,000 thereafter for her ‘sole and separate use and benefit’; if she were widowed it ensured a generous ‘jointure’ and there was provision for future children too.27 But beyond this, all the property, land, collieries and other riches Mary had inherited from her father now belonged exclusively to her husband. Except where specified in a legal contract, married women in Georgian England were barred by law from owning land and property or enjoying a private source of income. Indeed, upon marriage a woman effectively lost her legal status entirely since in law her entity was merged with that of her spouse. William Blackstone, the pre-eminent eighteenth-century law writer, put it succinctly: ‘By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.’28 It followed, therefore, that ‘whatever personal property belonged to the wife, before marriage, is by marriage absolutely vested in the husband’. Even more pithily, in her unfinished novel Maria, Mary Wollstonecraft would lament: ‘But a wife being as much a man’s property as his horse, or his ass, she has nothing she can call her own.’ Indeed, it was in response to this very principle that Dickens’s corrupt beadle Mr Bumble infamously quipped: ‘If the law supposes that . . . the law is an ass.’ Thus stripped of her legal status, deprived of her fortune and disappointed in her spouse, the new Countess of Strathmore headed towards Glamis with understandable trepidation.
Travelling the same route just two years earlier with the earl, Thomas Gray had described the journey with characteristic exuberance. After two days travelling by coach to Edinburgh, Gray had crossed the Firth of Forth in a ‘four-oar’d yawl without a sail’ and confessed that he had been ‘toss’d about rather more than I should wish to hazard again’.29 Staying overnight at Perth, the party had been ferried next morning across the Tay to reach Glamis by dinner. Gray was enthralled with the scene, lyrically describing the broad Strathmore valley swathed with broom and heather, the extensive farm lands dotted with labourers’ huts and the majestic castle ‘rising proudly out of what seems a great & thick wood of tall trees with a cluster of hanging towers on the top’. Approaching the castle along its mile-long avenue, Gray admired the walled gardens planted by the third earl before entering the courtyard with its statues of the four Stuart kings of the United Kingdom. As enamoured of Glamis as he seemed to be of its thane, Gray enthused, ‘the house from the height of it, the greatness of its mass, the many towers atop, & the spread of its wings, has really a very singular and striking appearance, like nothing I ever saw.’ Although he spent six weeks at the castle, where the Scottish poet James Beattie came to meet him, Gray said nothing of the internal accommodation. Another guest, Thomas Lyttelton - the future ‘wicked Lord Lyttelton’ - took a rather less romantic view when he visited declaring that Glamis was ‘a very old castle, but has not a tolerable apartment, and can never be altered for the better’.30
Rattling down the tree-lined drive as the forbidding hulk of the pink sandstone castle loomed before her, dwarfed by the effigies of the Jacobite kings as she dismounted in the courtyard, the differences between Mary and her Scottish husband were more apparent than ever. While the earl had gone to commendable lengths to furnish the castle, insulating floors, walls and windows with the best carpets, papers and fabrics, the rooms were still draughty, the paint peeling, the plaster crumbling and the kitchens ill-equipped. Rather like her vision of the beautiful earl, the fairy-tale castle proved cold and inhospitable at closer quarters. With the ghost of Janet Douglas said to haunt the corridors, the spectre of Lady Macbeth wringing her hands in the chambers, and the legend of a secret room known only to the presiding earl, Mary must have found her newly decorated bedroom an eerie refuge. Her in-laws - the over-protective dowager countess, humourless brother Thomas and elderly Aunt Mary who lived at Glamis - did little to make her feel at home. Happy to take advantage of her funds - Thomas had won an expensive election to become MP of Aberdeen Burghs in 1766 in anticipation of his brother’s marital windfall - they were unfriendly and vindictive to her face. Mary described their behaviour as ‘disagreeable’.31
The earl, meanwhile, provided little in the way of compensation. Much of his time was spent supervising the seemingly endless renovations to the castle and improvements to the surrounding land. That summer, the castle teemed with workmen all generating the inevitable mess, noise and upheaval. While carpenters fitted windows, erected library shelves and hung doors, masons were building new hearths and laying stone floors. As painters whitewashed walls and varnished woodwork, upholsterers laid carpets, pasted wallpaper and fitted curtains. So chaotic was the renovation programme that Thomas’s room had to be painted a fourth time because the ‘work folks spold it’.32 Beyond the castle walls, the activity was just as intense as labourers built an icehouse, laid roads, dug ditches and drained the swampy grounds. It was only the start of the extensive improvements required, which would eventually include demolition of the west wing and draining of Loch Forfar. When not overseeing the workmen, dealing with estate business or enjoying his brother’s company, the earl was distant and aloof with his wife. For all his concern with his grounds, he disparaged Mary’s passion for gardening; despite his scholarly bent for literature, he derided her writing ambitions. Nevertheless, amid the dust, rubble and grime, Mary performed her expected duty in the earl’s new mahogany four-poster bed. By July, as the family prepared to return south of the border, she was pregnant.
Back at Gibside by August, as the King’s Own regiment was enjoying Newcastle’s summer revels, Mary could almost have seen the path of her marriage foretold in the scenes from Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode still hanging in the hall of her childhood home. Locked in a loveless marriage of convenience, just like Hogarth’s ill-matched couple, she and the earl shared neither romantic commitment nor common interests to prevent them from sliding into acrimony and contempt. Just like Hogarth’s Earl Squander, Lord Strathmore would run up ruinous debts through gambling and carousing; and while no evidence points to him being unfaithful, it is likely that he had syphilis too - perhaps contracted in Italy - since medical bills included copious doses of mercury, the traditional remedy.33 Similarly, like Hogarth’s countess, Mary would pursue a life of leisure, drifting into half-hearted dalliances and ultimately embarking on an affair. Like many couples marrying in hope, they had simply found themselves to be incompatible.
Preferring the expensive temptations of Durham and London to the simpler life in Scotland, the couple divided their time between Gibside and their London house at 40 Grosvenor Square, whose lease had been passed to Lord Strathmore by Mary’s mother, with occasional excursions to Glamis. Frequently, brother Thomas tagged along; he had his own room at Gibside as well as at Glamis. There would always be three people in this marriage. With the earl incapable of managing his financial affairs, it was Thomas who took charge of the vital mining and farming businesses, approving pocket money for his brother and sister-in-law as he saw fit. Lord Strathmore’s old college chums remained frequent visitors too. Gray came to stay at Gibside in August, informing his old friend William Mason, ‘tomorrow I go vizzing to Gibside to see the new-married Countess, whom (bless my eyes!) I have seen here already’.34 With him he took the Reverend Brown, who had officiated at the wedding and now accompanied the couple to Scotland when they returned in September, crossing the turbulent rivers in the early months of Mary’s pregnancy. The visit was most probably timed to coincide with Lord Strathmore’s election as one of Scotland’s representative peers that October. They were back in Durham before long, since in February 1768 Lord Strathmore had settled sufficiently into his role as master of Gibside to continue George Bowes’s passion for foxhunting. His hounds chased a fox which took refuge - sensibly enough - in a pit shaft within the Gibside grounds. He would continue to run the stud that George Bowes had established at Streatlam as well as pursuing his love of gambling on the horses.
When Mary went into labour towards the end of April, probably at Grosvenor Square, her mother was at her side. It was an agonising, long and, consequently, dangerous labour lasting almost twenty-four hours. Finally, on the evening of 21 April, a weary Mrs Bowes scrawled a note to staff at Streatlam Castle: ‘I have the happiness to inform you that this Evening, at half an hour after six, my dear child was deliver’d of a Daughter, after a most painful, & tedious Labour. She & the child are as well as can be expected. I can say no more having been up all last night, & my spirits quite exhausted.’35 The baby was named Maria Jane and baptised in St George’s in Hanover Square, where her parents had married and Mary herself had been christened.
Pregnant again within three months, Mary sought diversion in a trip to Paris that winter with Lord Strathmore’s sister, Lady Susan Lambton. Just a year after her daughter’s birth, on 13 April 1769, she gave birth in London to her first son, heir to both his parents’ estates, after a considerably easier delivery. Named John, after his father - his surname Bowes according to his late grandfather’s will - the new Lord Glamis was pronounced ‘a strong, healthy child’ by his relieved grandmother, who informed staff at Streatlam that her daughter was ‘Thank God, perfectly recover’d’.36According to the housekeeper at Grosvenor Square, relaying the news to Gibside, the little boy was ‘a most delightful sweet Babe’ who had ‘made all our hearts over flow with joy’. Both the heir and his sister were inoculated for smallpox later that year when Lady Maria, who was also teething, ‘had the worst of it’. She was happy enough the following spring, when Gray called on the family in London. ‘I saw my Ld & Tom the other day at breakfast in good health,’ he told Brown, ‘& Lady Maria did not beat me, but giggled a little.’37
Mary Eleanor would pride herself on the fact that all five of her children during her marriage to Lord Strathmore were his.38 A second daughter, named Anna Maria, was born on 3 June 1770, followed by two more boys, George on 17 November 1771, and Thomas on 3 May 1773. The legitimacy of her children was no modest claim. It was not uncommon for aristocratic couples in Georgian times to condone infidelity rather than suffer the unspeakable scandal of a divorce, usually after a legitimate heir - and preferably one or two spares - had been produced. Some husbands, and many more wives, allowed their partners freedom to take lovers as long as any illegitimate children were delivered discreetly and kept out of sight. Lord and Lady Melbourne, who married in 1769, were a typical example. After their son was born a year after the marriage, Lord Melbourne took a well-known courtesan as his lover while his ambitious wife began affairs with several powerful figures, including the Prince of Wales.39 At least three of her five children were believed to have been fathered by her lovers. Other husbands were less forgiving. While Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, welcomed her husband’s illegitimate offspring into the nursery, when she became pregnant by her lover she was forced to give birth abroad and have her daughter adopted. Lady Sarah Bunbury was notable for bucking the trend. Childless by her husband after many years, she became pregnant by her lover and in 1769 eloped with him rather than pass the child off as the legitimate heir, prompting Princess Amelia, George III’s aunt, to remark that the idea of not imposing an illegitimate son on a husband was ‘quite new’.40
Yet despite Mary’s unfashionable fidelity early in the marriage, the swift arrival of her young family failed to cement her relationship with the earl or to inspire maternal fulfilment. Of their five children, she took an inexplicable dislike to her three sons - especially the eldest - giving obvious preference to her daughters. Lord Strathmore would later condemn her for ‘that most unnatural prejudice you have against your eldest innocent son’ while accusing her of ‘foolish partiality for your daughters’. Reasonably enough he would argue: ‘All children should rank equally in a parent’s mind, at least untill they have forfeited that regard which was due to them from their Birth, favour is commonly more hurtful to the child than the contrary, but either without reason, is an infallible mark of the badness of the Parents heart.’41 Far from denying any bias, Mary would admit that she harboured an ‘unnatural dislike to my eldest son, for faults which, at most, he could only be the innocent cause and not the author of’.42 Enemies would later suggest she preferred her pet cats and dogs - on which she lavished attention - to her children and claim she had described her eldest son as ‘that odious & detested little Lord’.
In fact, in line with typical parenting practices among the landed classes in eighteenth-century Britain, Mary probably spent more time and enjoyed a more physical relationship with her pets than with her children, especially her sons. From birth, her children would have been nursed, petted, dressed and groomed by all manner of different hands except those of their parents. Like Mary herself, her babies were undoubtedly handed to a wet-nurse to be breastfed from the moment they were born. Although wet-nursing had been criticised by a few enlightened voices, it was still routine among upper- and middle-class families in the 1770s. A decade later, when Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, would defiantly breastfeed her daughter, the decision was still so remarkable that the Rambler’s Magazine commented: ‘Her grace deserves commendation for this, but it is rather a reflection on the sex, that females in high life, should generally be such strangers to the duty of a mother, as to render one instance to the contrary so singular a phenomenon.’43 Having lost the opportunity to bond with her babies during feeding, there would be little chance for Mary to grow close to them later on. As they grew up, the children would be cared for by nursemaids and a battalion of other servants - little Maria had her own footman by the age of three - and taught by governesses and private tutors. The children had their own nurseries at Gibside, Grosvenor Square and - after further renovations began in 1773 - at Glamis, where the wet-nurses and nursery maids slept alongside their charges. From the age of seven the boys would be sent to private boarding school and the girls would follow soon after. It was little wonder, therefore, that many parents felt remote from their children and that some actively disliked their offspring. Indeed, both George II and George III, along with Queen Charlotte, expressed extreme distaste for their eldest sons.
Yet despite such obstacles, many Georgian parents still enjoyed fond relationships with their children. Indeed Mary would later sincerely repent her aversion to her son John, describing it as the first of her ‘crimes’.44 And there may well have been other reasons for her difficulties. It is possible that, in favouring her daughters, Mary was attempting to compensate for their second-class status in Georgian society just as her own father had done. For all that Lord Strathmore had urged that children should ‘rank equally’ with their parents, there is no doubt that his sons - the natural heirs - were held in higher esteem than his daughters. When Georgiana gave birth to her first daughter, the Morning Herald reflected contemporary reactions by reporting that the ‘happy occasion’ was ‘perhaps a little impaired by the sex of the infant’.45 Celebrations to mark the birth of Lord Glamis, the heir, included extravagant revels at Glamis - when nineteen bottles of port, eight bottles of rum and copious other beverages were consumed and several ‘Brocken Glasses’ ensued - as well as a poem commissioned by Uncle Thomas.46 Nothing comparable had marked the birth of the first-born Maria. To make matters worse, Mary was ill soon after her second or third pregnancy - later she could not remember which - with what she described as ‘convulsions’. These attacks, which she would suffer all her life, may have been epileptic fits although - given the inexact science of contemporary medical diagnosis - they could equally have been any number of complaints. It is quite conceivable too that she suffered from postnatal depression. She was, after all, just twenty-four by the time she had had five children, having been pregnant almost continually since she was eighteen.
Spending little time with her infants, Mary threw herself into her twin passions of writing and botany, despite her husband’s disparagement. Lord Strathmore would later criticise her ‘extreme rage for litrary fame’ in the hope of convincing her of the ‘futility of the pursuit’.47 Soon after her marriage, the scholarly earl forbade her from attending Elizabeth Montagu’s blue-stocking gatherings, making her break with her friend in what Mary described as ‘a very rude and abrupt manner’.48 Although Mrs Montagu’s company was plainly good enough for Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole and David Garrick, the earl branded her ‘a wild, light, silly woman, of bad character’ who was ‘not fit’ for his wife’s acquaintance. ‘Sadly against my inclination,’ she said, ‘I was forced to comply, and give her up, with many others’.
Compelled to abandon her literary mentor, Mary refused to abandon her literary ambitions and in 1771, while pregnant with George, she put the finishing touches to a five-act poetical drama entitled The Siege of Jerusalem.49 Having been started in 1769, only two years after her wedding, its subject was unlikely to have proved popular with her husband. A tragedy in blank verse, it laments its heroine’s unrequited love and arranged marriage. The drama is set at the time of the actual siege of Jerusalem in 1187 when the Muslim warrior Saladin captured the city and triggered the third Crusade. Mary’s poem tells the fictional story of a Muslim princess, Erminia, who is betrothed to Saladin but loves the Crusader Tancred, who in turn is in love with an Amazon-like warrior princess called Clorinda. Disguised as a soldier in armour Clorinda is killed by Tancred, who then dies in a duel with Erminia’s brother, Argantes, whereupon Erminia converts to Christianity and consigns herself to a nunnery. At one point bemoaning her noble birth and the ‘detested nuptials’ set to go ahead, the heroine longs for a simple pastoral life where true love is allowed free rein.
Would we have been some neighbouring shepherd’s babes,
Together bred in equal humble state:-
We then had frequent met at rural sports,
In sweeter converse oft beguil’d the day,
’Till love insensibly had crept into our hearts,
And our glad parents had with rustic joy
Join’d willing hands and heard our nuptial vows.
Although not a literary masterpiece, the narrative is moving and the poetry accomplished. It certainly drew enthusiasm from friends who later persuaded her to publish it privately. Hearing that Mary had completed the work in May 1771, her former governess Elizabeth Planta, now living with Mrs Bowes in Hertfordshire, wrote to congratulate her. The following month, having read the drama, she wrote to praise her efforts and suggest a few amendments, declaring the first speech by Saladin ‘very fine’ but the words of Argantes to his sister ‘too warm for a brother’. Locked in her own loveless marriage, Mary would continue to write poetry - in tragic, comic and satirical veins - throughout her life although no more would be published.
If Lord Strathmore took no interest in his wife’s literary talents, Elizabeth Planta and her clever family continued to encourage Mary’s intellectual pursuits. Andreas Planta, Elizabeth’s father, still corresponded with his former pupil in French and Italian. Having been elected to the Royal Society in 1770, he wrote the following year asking Mary to use her influence to help further his prospects at the British Museum, where he had been assistant librarian since 1758. Elizabeth, who also wrote to Mary in Italian and French - not least to conceal their gossip from Mrs Bowes’s prying eyes - was approached in 1771 to become English teacher to the royal princesses. Well aware that her financial interests were better served by remaining with Mary, for whom she hoped to become the children’s governess, Elizabeth diplomatically declined. The royal family had to settle for her sister Frederica, reportedly fluent in seven languages, who was recruited to teach the little princesses at a salary - scornfully dismissed by Elizabeth as ‘mediocre’ - of £100 a year (£13,000 today). Meanwhile Elizabeth and Mary exchanged news about Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, who had just returned from their three-year expedition to the southern hemisphere with James Cook laden with new flora and fauna.
Inspired by the exquisite surroundings of Gibside where she had cultivated her own garden since the age of twelve, and encouraged by Elizabeth Planta, who tended her plants at St Paul’s Walden Bury, Mary had become a serious student of botany. Naturally, Lord Strathmore had nothing but disdain for this enlightened spirit of enquiry. Yet since he was increasingly absorbed by his own consuming interests of drinking, gambling, cock-fighting and horse-racing, the earl appeared willing to tolerate his wife’s botanical fascination.
Botany had developed a wide and enthusiastic following in Britain in the mid-1700s, especially among intelligent, educated and wealthy women. George III’s mother, Princess Augusta, had established Kew Gardens in 1759 and his wife, Queen Charlotte, had continued her patronage. Several aristocratic women devoted their spare time and riches to amassing impressive stocks of plants - most notably the Duchess of Portland who established a collection to rival Kew at her seat of Bulstrode Park. The introduction into Britain in the 1760s of the binomial classification of species, created by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, helped popularise botanical studies. Consequently, increasing numbers of women collected and studied, cultivated and painted domestic and exotic flora - despite concerns in some quarters over the sexual connotations of the Linnaean system based, as it was, on the male and female reproductive organs. Charles Alston, professor of medicine and botany in Edinburgh, for example, thought Linnaean classifications ‘too smutty for British ears’ while even towards the end of the century the Cornish poet, Richard Polwhele, would voice alarm at the prospect of ‘girls and boys botanizing together’. But although women were excluded from formal scientific study - banned from universities and all-male organisations such as the Royal Society - botany became regarded as a socially acceptable and largely harmless female pastime.
Like the Duchess of Portland, Mary plunged her surplus funds into buying rare seeds and plants to be cultivated at Gibside and St Paul’s Walden Bury. In 1772, she commissioned workmen to begin building a magnificent greenhouse in the grounds of Gibside, with seven spectacular arched windows divided by stone columns, to provide a suitable habitat for the exotic specimens she was accumulating. Carefully positioned and designed to provide optimum light and warmth for the collection, the greenhouse may have been the work of James Paine who had completed so many of her father’s architectural projects. As with her father’s works, materials for the building were obtained from within or near the estate and the craftsmanship was provided by local labour. Work quarrying stone began in July 1772, slates were laid on the roof that winter and the great tall windows glazed the following summer. In 1774, eight ornamental urns were carved to top the façade and at the end of the year seven tubs for orange trees were placed in front of each window. Two lobbies at either end kept draughts out, a furnace beneath the floor provided a steady temperature and a wooden ‘stage’ elevated the plants to maximise the light. A hothouse, to nurture seeds and seedlings, was built nearby. Mary stocked her greenhouse with botanical rarities from specialist nurseries, like the world-famous Vineyard Nursery run by James Lee in Hammersmith, and employed a gardener to tend her specimens. The greenhouse would provide her with some of her most fulfilling moments - as well as furnishing the setting for one of her infamous court-case scenes.
Unlike other female botanists, content to cultivate and catalogue their growing collections, Mary wanted to go further. As explorers and adventurers penetrated previously unknown parts of the globe, they brought back to Europe botanical discoveries to the delight of amateur naturalists. Banks and Solander had returned from Australasia in 1771 with more than a thousand new plant species. Calling briefly at Cape Town on the way home, Banks had found to his wonder and frustration a veritable botanical paradise waiting to be explored. The following year he persuaded George III to finance an expedition to the Cape expressly to harvest new plants for Kew. Francis Masson, a Scottish gardener at Kew, arrived in Cape Town in October 1772 and promptly began sending home a bounty of exotic flora, including the vibrant bird of paradise, named Strelitzia regina after Kew’s royal patron, Queen Charlotte.
Mixing in predominantly male scientific circles, who were attracted to her London home by the abundance of her knowledge and her wealth, Mary aspired to become a scientific patron in her own right and perhaps even to have her own name ascribed to a new botanical marvel. Probably through her links to the British Museum, she became friendly with the affable and portly Solander, a favourite pupil of Linnaeus, who had settled in London and was busy cataloguing the museum’s natural history specimens. She was friendly too with James Lee, the Vineyard Nursery owner, who had first translated the Linnaean system into English in 1760. Once, admiring some of the ‘scarce and valuable plants’ at his nursery, Mary said, ‘Mr Lee told me, if I would allow him the honour to salute a Countess, he would give me the most curious; which I did, and had the plant.’50Although now in his fifties, Lee could obviously still be persuaded to part with a rare flower in return for a kiss from an attractive and wealthy customer. And in 1774 or 1775, when he treated her for another of her unexplained fits, Mary came to know John Hunter, the maverick surgeon and anatomist who was busy accumulating one of the biggest natural history collections in the country.51 Fraternising with these glittering stars of the Royal Society, all central figures in the Enlightenment, the seeds were sown for Mary to contemplate funding an ambitious expedition of her own.
There were other male admirers too, interested in more than a chaste peck on the cheek in a hothouse. For in 1772, five years after her wedding and not long after the birth of George, Mary met James Graham, the younger brother of David and Robert Graham, twelfth Laird of Fintry. The Grahams stemmed from an ancient Scottish family with a history as chequered as that of the Strathmores and owned a house and lands just fourteen miles south of Glamis.52 Like Lord Strathmore, the twelfth Laird had lost his father when young - at the age of seven - and had had to assume responsibility for his large family, of two brothers and five sisters, early on and under straitened circumstances. Unlike the earl, Robert Graham had remained close to his Scottish roots, going to school in Edinburgh then enrolling at St Andrew’s University, where he had studied the classics and - it being St Andrew’s - learned golf. He would later become a patron and friend of Robert Burns. Exactly the same age as Mary Eleanor, the laird had been appointed ‘gamekeeper’ or factor to Lord Strathmore’s hunting grounds in 1771 and the two families had forged close ties. All three Graham brothers developed an infatuation for the lively, young countess who occasionally graced Glamis with a visit but it was the youngest, James, who inflamed an enduring passion in Mary. She would describe their relationship as the first of ‘my imprudencies’.53
From the moment she saw James, visiting his mother in 1772, Mary was captivated by the youth - who was as many as seven years her junior - saying ‘he was quite a boy, but a very extraordinary one, and I must confess, much too forward for his years’. Two more years passed before she saw him again, in which time the laird himself had pressed his attentions on Mary. All too easily flattered by male attention, Mary had flirted freely with Robert so that when she finally rebuffed his obvious intentions, he was so furious - according to Mary - that he immediately proposed to a cousin, Margaret Mylne. Whether Robert was quite as mortified as Mary suggested is open to conjecture; after marrying in 1773 he and Margaret went on to have sixteen children.
James, however, was a different matter. Having frequently begged his elder brother to take him to Glamis for a second glimpse of its mistress, he finally persuaded one of his sisters to let him escort her there in 1774, where he contrived to stay for a fortnight. It was probably late summer, when the family stayed through August and September, with Thomas Lyon - just married - in tow as usual. What began as childish horseplay and innocent friendship between Mary and James quickly developed into an intense and heady mutual desire. While Lord Strathmore and his brother were occupied in planning the continuing renovations to the castle and its grounds, 25-year-old Mary wandered the rooms and gardens with 18-year-old James - and his sister - constantly at her side. One morning, with nothing better to do, the three walked round and round the perimeter of the Great Hall marking each turn with a pencil. When they stopped, James pocketed the pencil and pledged to guard it with his life. Whispering in the gloomy corridors, giggling in the lofty rooms, James and Mary exchanged deeper and deeper expressions of affection - despite their supposedly watchful chaperone. Looking back, Mary would admit that she gave James ‘very improper encouragement’ and won from him ‘many improper declarations, not only without anger, but even with satisfaction’. By the end of the fortnight, when he pressed her for a response she admitted he had won her heart.
With her marriage increasingly rocky, Mary was a willing victim. Although she was still, she insisted, scrupulously faithful to her husband, relations with the earl and his family had soured significantly. Staying in Edinburgh for two weeks that August, along with Thomas and his new wife, Mary claimed that Thomas insulted her in public, although she failed to specify precisely how. Perhaps aware of Mary’s flirtation, Thomas ‘behaved in such a manner, as scandalized the whole town of Edinburgh; who, at that time, hated him as much as they liked and pitied me’.54 Although she complained of his conduct to the earl, Lord Strathmore refused to concede any fault since ‘it was an unfortunate and most prejudiced rule with him, that Mr Lyon could not err’. With antipathy between Mary and her brother-in-law an open secret, and her husband unsympathetic or indifferent, Mary fell back on the tenacious interest of her young admirer. Once Mary returned to London, the pair exchanged letters which were apparently so incriminating that Mary not only burnt them but drank the diluted ashes. Anxious to keep their love a secret - not only from the earl but also from the jealous laird - they proceeded by swapping coded messages in letters sent between Mary and James’s obliging sister. In the goldfish bowl of aristocratic Georgian life - never allowed a private moment without servants watching every move - Mary confided her passion to Elizabeth Planta, now governess to the children, and a footman who conveyed the letters. When James enlisted as an ensign with the army, Mary met him one last time in London before he sailed for Minorca in early 1775. Although Mary was bereft at his departure, she found her lover suddenly ‘much altered towards me’ and so forced herself to ‘treat him with the indifference I ought, though it almost broke my heart’. Although James, still only nineteen, had evidently decided to forget his boyish fantasies and direct his attentions elsewhere, Mary continued to beg his sister for news. For the next year she pined for him, despite receiving only two messages from the young soldier, until finally she wrote a fuming letter to his sister with the message that James could ‘go hang himself’.
For all her apparent fury, and although the relationship never evolved beyond smuggled letters and fervent declarations, he would always remain the true love of Mary’s life. She would later concede that had he persevered, James might have seduced her but insisted that ‘violent as my passion was for him, I do still sincerely think it was pure’. Secret passions notwithstanding, she could not resist noting that the middle brother, David, who was ‘still handsomer’ than his brothers, was likewise ‘a great admirer of mine’ and that even the go-between sister professed such a ‘violent’ friendship that ‘had she been a man . . . I should have called it love’.
By the summer of 1775, with her love for James Graham spurned, her eight-year marriage nothing but a facade and her husband showing signs of serious illness, Mary was growing emotionally vulnerable and increasingly reckless. Lord Strathmore had already suffered a repeat of the chest complaint of his youth - now undeniably tuberculosis - at the end of 1774 when he was so ill that Horace Walpole had prematurely reported his death.55 After visiting Bath in the vain hope that the waters might cure his condition, the earl joined Mary and his young family at St Paul’s Walden Bury in August 1775. While his mother-in-law confidently hoped that the wholesome country air would restore him ‘to perfect health’, there was little doubt that the illness was terminal. Certainly the earl was continuing to run up debts - for horses, fighting cocks, new coaches, building works and the inevitable shipments of wine from abroad - as if there was no tomorrow. Even as builders demolished the west wing of Glamis that summer, the earl’s financial agent in London was attempting to keep his creditors at bay.56 Sufficiently recovered to visit William Palgrave, a former university chum, at his rectory in Suffolk, the earl left Mary in London to follow her own pursuits. With time on her hands for her literary and botanic interests, Mary was attracting an ever larger circle of visitors to her Grosvenor Square home. While some were honest and straightforward fellow enthusiasts, keen to direct Mary’s patronage to worthy ends, others had more self-interested reasons for their constant attention and flattery. In the latter group was George Gray, an unscrupulous entrepreneur who had returned from India with an enviable fortune, largely accrued through bribes.57
A friend of James Boswell and the playwright Samuel Foote, whose 1772 comedy The Nabob is thought to have been informed by their friendship, Gray shared Mary’s literary zeal. Born in Calcutta in 1737, where his Scottish father worked as a surgeon for the East India Company, Gray had been sent at the age of seven to boarding school in Edinburgh where he had met Boswell. At seventeen, he had returned to India as a clerk for the rapidly expanding trading company, stationed in Bengal, while his father retired to Scotland, where he spent much of his time lamenting his son’s neglect. Clever and well-read, Gray ingratiated himself with his fellow officers and the local nawabs or nabobs, the puppet rulers of the region, and prospered in the lax regime. ‘I can now converse familiarly with a parcel of ragged squalid weavers,’ he proudly informed a friend soon after arriving, ‘who tho’ they make clothes to be worn by the Kings of the earth, have scarce a rag to cover their own nakedness’.58 Keen to exploit his chances further, he almost succeeded in marrying a wealthy widow before he was beaten to the altar by an army captain. Undeterred, Gray secured a seat on the company’s Bengal Council in 1765 and soon after pocketed a ‘gift’ from the new nawab sufficient, he assured his father, to provide him with an ‘independent fortune’. When Lord Clive arrived from England a few months later in a belated effort to clean up the mounting disorder and corruption, Gray resigned in apparent - or contrived - protest at Clive’s autocratic manner. Gathering up his ill-gotten rupees, and leaving behind some mischievous verses about Clive, he departed briskly for London where he arrived in 1766.
At what point ‘Nabob Gray’ - as Boswell dubbed him - met Mary is unknown. It is possible that they became acquainted in the early 1770s through Gray’s Scottish relatives - his mother was related to the Grahams of Fintry and his niece was the Margaret Mylne who married Robert Graham. Certainly he had become a feature of her life, and a regular visitor to Grosvenor Square, by 1775. Gray smuggled some verses declaring his ardour to Mary just before she left for Hertfordshire that summer and they exchanged letters until her return. Never a good judge of character, or indeed of her own true feelings, Mary encouraged Gray’s attentions despite feeling ‘nothing for Mr G, that exceeded friendship’.59 When Lord Strathmore set off for Suffolk, Gray made his move, propositioning Mary in a letter delivered to Grosvenor Square one evening. Fortuitously, for Gray if not for Mary, the proposal arrived at the same time as a letter from James Graham’s sister, bringing news of his interest in a woman in Minorca, and a brusque refusal from Thomas Lyon to send her a small sum of money which she had requested on the orders of the earl. Believing she was revenging herself on others - though she later conceded she only hurt herself - she began meeting Gray in secret using her footman, George Walker, as go-between.
Initially the pair had to be satisfied with snatched conversations at ‘chance’ meetings in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, with all the eyes of the promenading bon ton alert for any hint of scandal. But as they became more daring - and Gray more insistent - the couple met surreptitiously at her house when her faithful footman let Gray in by a back door. When the earl returned to London in November, Mary persuaded Gray to repair to Bath - out of harm’s way - but agreed to meet him before he left early one frosty morning in St James’s Park. Slipping on the ice in the freezing conditions, Mary returned home with her shoes and skirts soaked but being unable to change them immediately without causing suspicion she caught a fever. Indeed, most of the household, including the footman George Walker and Elizabeth Planta, succumbed to fever that December.60 As the New Year began there were few celebrations in Grosvenor Square since the house had become a sick ward, with physicians and apothecaries arriving daily with their meddling advice and ineffectual potions. Mary’s indeterminate fever had turned into the same complaint she had suffered after her wedding, which she described as ‘an ague, in my face’ - perhaps migraine - complaining that ‘my head swelled so, yet without easing my pain that I was blind’. For Mary, the laudanum prescribed may at least have provided some relief. For Lord Strathmore, in the final stages of tuberculosis, there was no hope. At the end of January 1776, accompanied by his physician, the earl set sail for Lisbon in one last desperate effort to overcome his illness - and perhaps one last attempt to recall his carefree youth.
As Mary languished in her darkened chamber, Gray saw his chance. Scurrying back from Bath, he visited her daily, wrote her long, flattering letters and sat at her bedside every evening. Candidly, Mary told him that she had been ‘so unhappy in matrimony’ that she was determined never to marry again and that her heart belonged to another but that Gray had won her ‘friendship and esteem’ and if Lord Strathmore should die she promised to give herself fully to him. Seizing his opportunity, the moment Mary was recovered, he seduced her one evening in mid-February and from that point on they lived as lovers. She would later count this infidelity as her second ‘crime’.
Lord Strathmore never reached Lisbon. On 7 March, within sight of the Portuguese coast, he died, aged thirty-eight, in the arms of his physician.61 It would be another month before news of his death reached Mary in London. By that time she was pregnant with Gray’s child.