London, April 1776
Reading her late husband’s last letter, dressed in her widow’s mourning gown, Mary knew that the tell-tale signs of her latest ‘imprudency’ would soon be all too apparent. Lord Strathmore’s savage words, written on his deathbed beneath the rocking deck, were coolly calculated to prompt remorse in all but the most unfeeling of widows. ‘As this is not intended for your perusal till I am dead,’ he began, ‘I hope you will pay a little more attention to it than you ever did to any thing I said to you while alive.’1 In the stern tone of a disappointed father rather than the emotional farewell of a husband and lover, the earl declared, ‘I freely forgive you, all your liberties and follies (however fatal they have been to me) as being thoroughly persuaded they were not the produce of your own mind, but the suggestions of some vile interested monster.’ Continuing in the same cold paternalistic manner, he requested Mary to lay aside her ‘prejudices’ against his family, convinced that these were ‘entirely without foundation’. Urging her to treat their five children fairly, he warned her to avoid indulging in malicious gossip and - perhaps having suffered himself at the expense of her sharp wit - not to be ‘tempted to say an ill natured thing for the sake of sporting a Bon Mot’. Even as he dismissed the ‘futility’ of her literary ambitions, the earl insisted that, ‘no one ever studied with more attention to promote the Happiness of an other, than I have constantly done to promote yours’. Yet his concluding advice - to safeguard her fortune by vesting control of her estate in the hands of a trustworthy agent - was eminently sensible and well-meaning, if chiefly prompted by concern for the future welfare of his young heir rather than for his wife. The earl’s parting words - ‘a dead man can have no interest to mislead, a living man may’ - would surely haunt his widow in years to come.
Finally released from a passionless marriage after nine years of discontent, Mary Eleanor shed few tears over the loss of Lord Strathmore. As soon as she received news of the earl’s death on 6 April, Mary acted with due decorum, immediately ordering mourning suits for the servants in Grosvenor Square and at Glamis with the instruction that ‘all possible respect should be paid to the memory of her deceas’d Lord’, and exchanging her richly adorned gowns and elaborate hairstyles for sombre black dresses and plain accessories.2 A portrait, which is thought to be of Mary, painted by an unknown artist at about this time, depicts her with an appropriately sorrowful expression and downcast eyes in a pale face under grey powdered hair, wearing the traditional black ruff and cap of the later stage of mourning.3 The children likewise, Maria and Anna, aged seven and five, their brothers John, George and Thomas, aged six, four and two, would have been made to wear black clothes. Young John, who was now formally the tenth Earl of Strathmore, reached his seventh birthday just a week after hearing news of his father’s death. Having been sent to boarding school in Neasden - then a small village a few miles north of the capital - shortly before his father had set sail, he had little cause for celebration. While the three youngest children were despatched to their grandmother’s at St Paul’s Walden Bury in the capable care of their governess, Elizabeth Planta, Maria, who turned eight a week after her brother’s birthday, remained with her mother at Grosvenor Square, ostensibly to provide support in her bereavement. Yet while Mary outwardly adopted the sober demeanour and costume of grief, inwardly she was jubilant. Free at last from her husband’s restrictive demands and her brother-in-law’s penny-pinching controls, Mary was finally in command of the immense fortune her father had left her and - more importantly - in charge of her own life.
At a time when divorce was both rare and difficult, and separation spelled social exile, the death of a spouse was frequently the only means of escape from an unhappy marriage. Denied any legal status or ownership of property in marriage, in widowhood many women found a comfortable and rewarding existence. Most eighteenth-century marriage settlements for the wealthy and middle classes made provision for a guaranteed pension or ‘jointure’ - generally between a fifth and a quarter of the husband’s wealth - should the wife survive her husband. Since widows were also legally entitled to own property, even working-class women could earn a decent living - and respect within the community - by taking over a late husband’s business. Furthermore, for most women, under the supervision of a father from birth and a husband during marriage, becoming a widow provided a first taste of independence. The playwright John Gay underlined the attractions of widowhood in his comedy, The Beggar’s Opera, first staged in 1728. ‘The comfortable Estate of Widow-hood, is the only Hope that keeps up a Wife’s Spirits,’ exclaims the villain Peachum, adding: ‘Where is the Woman who would scruple to be a Wife, if she had it in her Power to be a Widow, whenever she pleas’d ?’4 And while audiences guffawed at Gay’s drama throughout the century, many women truly did enjoy the last laugh. Lady Mary Coke suffered two years of brutality and humiliation at the hands of her husband, Edward, Viscount Coke, before he died suddenly in 1753 leaving her, at twenty-six, a merry widow with a handsome jointure of £2,500 a year.
Widowed at twenty-seven, Mary Eleanor was even more comfortable and decidedly more merry. On her husband’s death, she not only became entitled to the independent jointure stipulated in her marriage settlement but also regained her life interest in her father’s estate, including Gibside, Streatlam and the coalmines, farms and other properties attached. Although the Bowes fortune remained in trust, supervised by named trustees who were charged with keeping it intact for her eldest son, during her lifetime at least the profits of the farms and mines now accrued to Mary. Precisely how much this fortune was worth is unclear, although one estimate put Mary’s income after Lord Strathmore’s death at up to £20,000 a year - easily one of the top twenty annual incomes in the country.5 Certainly, she was one of the richest widows in Britain. And in the year that America would sign its declaration of independence, Mary could look up to the statue of Liberty her father had erected as a free woman for the first time in her life. Wealthy and attractive, intelligent and accomplished, she was finally able to pursue her literary and botanical interests without constraint, associate with her intellectual friends at will and spend time with her children. She lost no time in exerting this newfound independence.
Within days of receiving news of the earl’s death, Mary dismissed all his former servants in Grosvenor Square and turned away friends of the Strathmore family when they called.6 There was good sense in this seemingly vindictive move beyond a pent-up desire for liberation. Secretly entertaining her lover by night, she was anxious to conceal his visits - and the growing evidence of their liaison - from the prying eyes of the Strathmores and their allies. In coming months she would dispense with the Strathmore livery and send away the silver plate to have the initial ‘S’ replaced with a ‘B’.7 Having regained the Bowes fortune and retained the Bowes name, she plainly wanted to erase all trace of the Strathmores from her life. Cosseted by her eldest daughter, surrounded by her beloved cats and dogs, surreptitiously visited by her lover, Mary could not help exulting in the Lyon family’s misfortunes. For the tables certainly had turned.
Ensconced at Streatlam Castle, which he knew he would soon have to vacate, Thomas Lyon viewed Mary’s actions as open declarations of war. ‘We need expect nothing from my Lady but all the opposition in her power & every thing that can distress us,’ he warned James Menzies, the steward at Glamis, and added: ‘She has thus soon declared herself as inveterate against every Person that was kind by my Brother.’8 Devastated by his brother’s death, Thomas frantically attempted to put the earl’s papers in order and make the funeral arrangements. As the earl’s body was conveyed slowly by sea from Lisbon to London, where it was loaded on to another ship headed for Dundee, Thomas sent instructions to Glamis for a sober and austere funeral. Urging strict limits on numbers and on alcohol he ordered ‘for Gods sake take care that not a mortal is in liquor for at such a time I should detest the very thoughts of it’.
As the earl’s body was interred in the family vault at Glamis, Thomas searched desperately for the will he assumed his brother must have made before embarking on what was almost certain to be his final voyage. When nothing was found in the earl’s belongings in London, Thomas wrote to Glamis with mounting alarm demanding: ‘Do you know of no papers he has left, have you the key of his draw in the Library or his glass bureau in his dressing room.’ But no will surfaced at Glamis, Gibside or Grosvenor Square making Mary, as his widow, the lawful executor of the earl’s estate. Relishing the confusion this would inevitably cause, Mary could not resist pointing out that ‘the difficulties will be endless’. She had no intention of making them any easier. Only after several meetings with her lawyer, Joshua Peele, and under sustained pressure from Thomas Lyon, did Mary agree to renounce her role as executor in favour of Thomas.9 In truth this was no sacrifice, since she was scarcely more adept at managing money than had been the late earl. Untangling his brother’s financial affairs, Thomas had worse shocks in store.
For all the vast wealth generated by the Bowes coal and despite Thomas’s parsimonious management of the proceeds, the earl had chalked up a colossal backlog of bills as well as numerous bonds for cash borrowed from friends, bankers and money-lenders. Sorting through the jumble of papers, Thomas discovered the debts totalled a staggering £145,000. Even by the standards of the debt-ridden eighteenth century, when aristocrats routinely lived on credit and fortunes were lost or won at the gambling tables in a single night, this was an exorbitant sum - equivalent to roughly £17m in today’s terms. Hardened gamblers had shot themselves for significantly less. Added to this a further £50,000 had to be raised for the children’s maintenance and education, according to a legal deed drawn up by the earl, meaning nearly £200,000 - roughly £24m - had to be found. As lawyers representing Mary and the Strathmores met to assess the damage, it was plain that drastic action was required.
Prevented from selling any of the Bowes properties or heirlooms, since these now belonged to Mary, Thomas was determined at least to save the castle which had been his family’s home for four centuries. All renovation work at Glamis was abruptly halted, leaving the demolished west wing only half rebuilt, the gardens neglected and poor Aunt Mary, now frail and aged, alone in her apartment with only occasional visits from a cleaning woman. The fine furniture and plush furnishings bought with the Bowes fortune just nine years earlier, along with livestock, farm implements and the contents of the late earl’s wine cellar, were all put up for sale. As local gentry flocked to the auction that June, Robert Graham, the Laird of Fintry who had been rejected by the Lady of Glamis, drew some small pleasure in buying the four-poster beds which had once belonged to her lord. Determined to offer the Strathmores no respite, Mary insisted that her personal breakfast table and basin stand be removed from the sale. She could do nothing, however, to prevent Thomas from selling livestock, racing horses, furniture, wine and even greenhouse plants, bought for Gibside since her marriage and therefore legally the late earl’s estate, in another sale later that year. Yet even while she gloried in Thomas Lyon’s downfall, Mary could not remove the Strathmores from her life as easily as she had changed the initials on her silver. Resolved to safeguard the Strathmore legacy for future generations, Thomas devoted his energies to protecting the rights of his young nephew - at the expense of the boy’s mother if necessary. For if Mary was now in command of her own life and income, she was not in charge of her children.
In keeping with eighteenth-century legal attitudes towards women, mothers enjoyed no right of custody over their offspring. When parents separated the courts invariably awarded custody of the children - including breastfeeding infants - to their fathers. The Duchess of Grafton, for example, had to say goodbye to her three children on her divorce from the Duke in 1769 and would not be permitted to see them again until she was on her deathbed thirty years later.10 In a farewell letter to her eight-year-old daughter, enclosing a lock of hair, she described herself as your ‘unhappy mother who dotes on you’. Lady Elizabeth Foster, who married in the year Mary was widowed, would likewise have to give up her sons, aged four and eighteen months, on separation a few years later and would not see them again for fourteen years. Indeed, one resourceful mother, eloping with her lover in 1796, would go so far as to fake the death and funeral of her youngest daughter in a desperate attempt to keep her; after three years she gave the child up and did not see her again until the girl was an adult. Only when specified by prior legal contracts would mothers be granted guardianship - and sometimes not even then. Fortunately for Mary, Lord Strathmore had signed a deed in 1774 naming Mary as one of four guardians to his children on his death.11 Unfortunately for Mary, the other three guardians were Thomas Lyon and his Scottish allies, the agent James Menzies and the lawyer David Erskine. Acting in unison, these three would always be able to outvote Mary on any issue. For the moment, Thomas was willing to leave the children in the care of their mother; maintaining a close scrutiny on her conduct he knew he wielded a potentially powerful weapon.
Blithely oblivious to the future threats Mary entrusted the care of her three youngest children and Maria to the talented Miss Planta; they spent most of their time at their grandmother’s Hertfordshire home, where Mary sometimes visited. Maria, who had changed from the cheerful toddler who giggled with Thomas Gray into a mature and sensible child with a keen sense of decorum, wrote from there to her great aunt Mary at Glamis in May. Plainly identifying with her aunt’s isolation in the empty castle, she confessed herself ‘quite uneasy lest you should have forgotten that there are two such little girls in the world as my Sister, and me, who love you dearly’.12 But if Maria, with her three siblings, her grandmother and her governess for company, felt abandoned this was nothing to the experience of her brother John, now boarding at the little school run by the puritanical Richard Raikes in Neasden. According to Maria, citing a letter from John to Miss Planta, he was ‘in perfect health, and says Mr Raikes commends him’. A thoughtful and diligent boy, who studied hard at his French, writing and music, he would remember the importance of strong family bonds.
Keeping out of the public eye, as mourning etiquette conveniently dictated, his mother had more pressing problems on her mind. Mary thought she had been scrupulously careful to avoid becoming pregnant. She had begun having a sexual relationship with George Gray in mid-February, just before Lord Strathmore had left for Portugal, having succumbed to the 38-year-old Scot’s advances ‘one unfortunate evening’ when she was ‘off my guard’.13 Once the earl had left the country, she had welcomed her lover with increasing regularity to her bedchamber in Grosvenor Square. Let in discreetly late at night by her faithful footman George Walker, Gray crept up one of the back staircases unseen by the other servants and usually stayed until four or five the next morning, stealing out before the maids awoke. Naturally anxious to avoid a mishap, Mary asserted that, ‘All the time of my connection with Mr Gray, precautions were taken’. But since eighteenth-century contraception was rudimentary at best, this was far from foolproof.
Although condoms had been invented a century earlier, apocryphally attributed to a physician to Charles II called Dr Condom, these were normally used only as prophylactics against venereal disease rather than as contraceptives. The fact that they were fashioned from sheep’s or pig’s gut and secured with a silk ribbon, and were designed to be washed and reused, did not recommend them for regular encounters. James Boswell, an inveterate brothel visitor, described donning ‘armour’ in a rare effort to prevent another bout of gonorrhoea when engaging with a seventeen-year-old prostitute in 1763. He found the experience, he confided in his diary, ‘a dull satisfaction’.14 Although condoms were on open sale in at least one London shop in 1776, they were advertised as ‘implements of safety which secure the health of my customers’. In common with most couples of the period endeavouring to avoid an unwanted pregnancy rather than an unwanted rash, therefore, Mary and Gray probably adopted the withdrawal method. Certainly her remark that ‘an instant’s neglect always destroyed’ their precautions makes this most likely. It was scarcely surprising, then, that in less than two months Mary had found herself pregnant.
Acutely aware that Thomas Lyon, and his ever-watchful sisters, would welcome any opportunity to discredit her, Mary knew that she needed to avoid all hint of a scandal. For any woman giving birth to a child out of wedlock in Georgian Britain the prospects were bleak; the large numbers of children abandoned on the streets and surrendered to the Foundling Hospital were tragic evidence of this. For a titled, recently widowed heiress to give birth to an illegitimate child in a society obsessed with celebrity gossip would be disastrous. Not only would the newspapers report each detail with glee, she would also be shunned by polite society and almost certainly deprived of her children.
Her options were therefore limited. She could give birth in secret and arrange for the child to be quietly adopted in the manner of several women who found themselves in similar straits. Yet such clandestine births were highly risky and for Mary to disappear for any length of time soon after her husband’s death would surely have raised the Strathmores’ suspicions. Alternatively, she could marry Gray and - given general eighteenth-century ignorance about pregnancy - pretend the ensuing child was born prematurely. Yet there were several overriding objections to the marriage. To wed so soon after becoming widowed would not only offend etiquette but would also inevitably provoke unseemly gossip about her suitor. At the same time Mary knew that Thomas Lyon would do his utmost to protect the Bowes fortune - and its young heir - from the grasping hands of any prospective husband, especially one with such a colourful reputation for getting rich quick. Moreover, Mary had already warned Gray that her miserable experience of matrimony had convinced her ‘never to engage myself indissolubly’ again. The only course left was to attempt an abortion.
There is no doubt that women have known and used a variety of methods to end unwanted pregnancies since earliest times, often with the sanction of Church and State. In early China and Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, various herbs and plants deemed capable of bringing about a miscarriage were well-known and widely used. Aristotle actually recommended abortion for families that had reached an optimum size; Roman law allowed for abortion as long as it was authorised by the woman’s husband. Although rarely written down, folklore knowledge of natural abortifacients was discreetly passed by women from generation to generation. Plants such as rue and savin, which were known for their ability to procure abortions, were often grown by midwives and herbalists, while the fungus ergot was popularly known as ‘Kindesmord’ - child’s death - in Germany. Male medical practitioners, whose faith in the ancient doctrine of balancing bodily ‘humours’ dictated that it was harmful for women to miss menstruation, often prescribed potions to the same purpose and quite probably with the same ingredients. Although early Christians condemned attempts to end pregnancy, English common law permitted the abortion of a foetus as long as it had not been felt to move - up to about four months - and this may well have been interpreted loosely by the female midwives charged with the test. Even when later abortions were suspected, these were exceedingly difficult to distinguish from a natural miscarriage or stillborn delivery and prosecutions were few. Only in 1803 would Parliament pass a law that specifically outlawed abortion and even then only after the baby’s movements could be felt.
Throughout the eighteenth century, therefore, when contraception was little used and unplanned pregnancies could spell disaster, methods of abortion were widely available. One woman seeking a divorce from her adulterous husband in 1774, for example, described to the ecclesiastical courts how he had made her sister pregnant then persuaded her to take some pills which he had obtained from a midwife in Fleet Street.15 Precisely because such practices were legally constrained and took place mostly within women’s circles, very few personal accounts have survived. Lady Caroline Fox, believing herself pregnant for the third time in three years in the 1750s, informed her husband, ‘I took a great deal of physic yesterday in hopes to send it away’ and later added jubilantly: ‘I am not breeding (is that not clever!)’16 Mary Eleanor Bowes’s candid description of attempting an abortion - not just once but four times - is therefore quite unique, although her frank words were never intended for public consumption.
Immediately Mary discovered she was pregnant she asked Gray ‘to bring me a quack medicine he had heard of for miscarriage’. Gray duly obtained the potion which Mary described as a ‘black inky kind of medicine’ that looked and tasted as if it contained copper. Although Gray was reluctant to let Mary drink the substance, rightly fearing that it may have been poisonous, she insisted on knocking it back since she was ‘so frightened and unhappy’ at the prospect of being pregnant. The potion worked, or at least a miscarriage ensued; in early pregnancy it was, of course, difficult to discern which. Yet despite her scare, and the potentially devastating consequences, Mary soon found herself pregnant again - not once but three more times in rapid succession during the summer and autumn of 1776. The second time, probably in May or June, the inky medicine once more did its work but the third time, possibly in July or August, it failed. In desperation, Mary downed an emetic to make her vomit, along with a large glass of brandy and liberal quantities of pepper, which seemingly induced her third abortion or miscarriage. She would number these three abortions among her ‘crimes’ in the ‘Confessions’ which she was later forced to write. Her most damning attempt was still to come.
The fact that Mary fell pregnant with such regularity was little wonder given that Gray had inveigled himself sufficiently to visit her bedchamber every other night. The purpose of this pattern, Mary revealed, was ‘that by the intervention of one night, we might meet the next with more pleasure, and have the less chance of being tired of each other’.17 Moreover, since Gray commonly stayed until nearly dawn and their ‘conversation’ was lasting, she found that ‘a night of sleep was absolutely necessary’. Whenever Mary visited St Paul’s Walden Bury to see the children and her mother - and presumably to enjoy a well-earned rest - she relayed messages via George Walker, or occasionally her housekeeper, arranging future rendezvous.
Having endured her late husband’s inattention for nine years, there can be little doubt that George Gray’s interest and apparent devotion were both flattering and welcome. Whether Gray tendered any genuine affection for Mary, or simply viewed her as his latest route to easy riches, is hard to determine. In all Mary’s relationships - with lovers and friends, servants and acquaintances - money would always cloud a person’s true motives. Certainly, judging by Gray’s previous attempt to marry a wealthy widow in India, his eagerness to pocket an indecently large bribe in Bengal and his indifference to his ailing father in Scotland, he nursed few scruples about making his way in entrepreneurial Georgian Britain.
Having made London his home since returning from Bengal, Gray had seemingly failed to endear himself either to his family or to society. The satirical ballad The Stoniad would employ typical colonial prejudice by suggesting, wrongly, that ‘half-wake orient G*y’ had not only been born in India but was actually a Hindu or ‘tout á fait GENTOO’. But his friends were no more complimentary. It was after dining with Gray and Boswell at the house of Samuel Foote in 1772 that the playwright had been inspired to pen his savage attack on imperialism, The Nabob. The satire, published in 1778, would help establish the contemporary view of East India Company employees like Gray as jumped-up, greedy, arrogant villains. ‘These new gentlemen,’ explains one character, ‘who from the caprice of Fortune, and a strange chain of events, have acquired immoderate wealth and rose to uncontroled power abroad, find it difficult to descend from their dignity, and admit of any equal at home.’18 On the other hand, Gray’s behaviour in India had been no more disreputable than that of Lord Clive who committed suicide in 1774 following sustained censure over his own approbation of significantly larger ‘presents’.
Living in Portman Square, a popular address with overseas entrepreneurs, Nabob Gray could reach Mary’s house on the other side of Oxford Street in a few minutes. Since luxurious Grosvenor Square was as famous for its aristocratic residents as it was notorious for their scandalous lives, it was not long before his visits were noticed. Among the first to tender suspicions was Elizabeth Planta, who initially dismissed Gray’s interest as a harmless flirtation but soon realised his intentions were less than honourable. Fearful that Elizabeth would convey her information to Mrs Bowes, or worse to the Strathmore family, Mary affected a sudden and violent dislike for her former governess, who had effectively lived as a member of the Bowes family for nearly twenty years. Keeping her actions a secret from her mother, Mary borrowed money from her lawyer, Joshua Peele, when he visited St Paul’s Walden Bury soon after the late earl’s death, and offered Miss Planta an irresistible payoff totalling £2,000.19 Furnished with sufficient funds to keep her comfortable for life, that July Miss Planta, or Mrs Parish as she would become on her marriage not long after, left the children she had looked after since they were babies.
Carefully covering her tracks, Mary was at pains to denounce the governess’s behaviour as ‘the most vile, ungrateful, and pernicious that ever was heard of’, insisting that she exhibited an ‘uninterrupted series of ill-temper, deceit, self-interestedness, and ingratitude; with obstinacy, and in many respects a bad method with my children’ and that ‘in short, she was too insufferable, else I would have retained her’. It was plain that the lady did protest too much. There is little doubt that the goodbye gift was hush money to buy the governess’s silence over Mary’s adulterous relationship with Gray, and quite probably her first pregnancy and abortion too. There were generous presents too, in the shape of a watch and some old furniture, for George Walker, the discreet footman. But no amount of skulking up backstairs or offering backhanders could prevent the affair becoming public in the claustrophobic world of London society.
It was Walker who first related the gossip circulating in the capital’s coffee-houses and taverns. Initially the couple encouraged him and laughed together at ‘all the ridiculous stories’ during their nightly encounters. ‘I was always extremely silly, in not minding reports,’ Mary wrote, ‘on the contrary, rather encouraged them; partly, that I might laugh at other people’s absurdities and credulity, and partly, because I left it to time and reason, to shew they were false.’20 Openly displaying their disdain for public opinion, the pair now ventured out together, parading in the public parks and city streets in Mary’s open carriage even though she was still in mourning. The blue-stockings Frances Boscawen and Mary Delany excitedly exchanged news of their sightings that summer: ‘Yesterday I was told by a lady that she had met Lady Strathmore with servts still in mourning, but wearing white favours in their hats (as at a wedding),’ revealed Mrs Boscawen, ‘also that in the chaise with her, sat an ill-looking man, from whence inference was made that she was marry’d to some Italian.’21 According to Jessé Foot, the surgeon, Gray’s ‘visits were constant, and their airings open’.
It was inevitable then that reports of Mary’s excursions flaunting her new lover would reach the ears of Thomas Lyon in Streatlam. Still discovering his brother’s unpaid debts and grimly selling off land and chattels to balance the books, he knew that a second marriage by his brother’s widow could compromise the future fortunes of Lord Strathmore’s children. A new heir, for example, could certainly confuse the inheritance. For the moment he scrutinised the reports and kept his powder dry. The gossip piqued the interest of others with a pecuniary interest too. Coquettishly playing the field, Mary exchanged locks of hair with a suitor she enigmatically called ‘Mr C. W.’ and sent a short but flirtatious refusal to a certain ‘Mr MacCallaster’.22
Less easy to dismiss with a keepsake or a brusque rebuff was James Graham, who arrived unexpectedly on her doorstep in London that summer, having heard of her husband’s demise. Now a lieutenant, although at twenty still only just out of boyhood, Graham hoped to revive their carefree youthful passion. Still stung by his neglect, Mary refused to see him, even when he attempted to throw himself in her way on further occasions. For all his youth, he was the only man she would ever truly care for, yet her pride and a justifiable fear of further heartache prevented her from admitting her feelings. She would later say that ‘having, at the risk of my life, conquered my headstrong passion, I was determined not to expose myself to another conflict, with one whom I had so much reason to be afraid of.’23 She did indeed preserve herself from the pain of future loss. Less than three years later, in January 1779, James Graham would die, of unknown causes, in Naples.
By July 1776, even as the American colonies declared their independence from the British Crown, Mary had resigned herself to wedlock once again. While she would never feel more for Gray than lust and friendship, she had convinced herself that he would make a dependable husband, a dutiful stepfather and - since she was probably pregnant again - a loving natural father. Certainly they shared common interests in poetry and drama while Gray slotted in well with the ever-expanding social circle that congregated in the drawing room of 40 Grosvenor Square. For regardless of the fact that she was still officially in mourning, Mary’s gatherings in the splendid four-storey house in the south-west corner of the square had become popular and animated events within London’s tight-knit scientific fraternity.
Conversation at Mary’s salons in the summer of 1776 would almost certainly have focused on the treasure trove of botanical delights which had recently been shipped back from the Cape by Francis Masson; the Kew gardener had submitted an account of his explorations to the Royal Society which had been read during three meetings in February. Having linked up with the Swedish naturalist, Carl Peter Thunberg, for one of his expeditions, Masson informed the society that they ‘like true lovers of science thought themselves richly overpaid, by the ample collection of curious & new plants, as well as animals which they found in their way’.24 Since Masson had just set sail again, this time headed for the Canary Islands, the prospect of further discoveries waiting to be plucked in the enticing Cape region naturally enthralled those he left behind. Among the Royal Society fellows who enlivened Mary’s scientific discussions, Daniel Solander, the Swedish botanist, was impatient for further plant specimens while his friend, John Hunter, was always in the market for exotic new animal species, like the long-necked, spotted ‘camelopard’ which was fabled to live in southern Africa.
The fact that Mary was denied entrance to the exclusively male Royal Society, despite her extensive knowledge and devotion to botany, did nothing to quell her interest in reports from Africa nor her desire to further scientific enlightenment as a patron. Inspired by tales of Masson’s voyage, and probably encouraged by Hunter and Solander, she now laid plans to finance an ambitious mission to send an explorer into uncharted parts of the Cape in search of new flora for her own burgeoning collection. It may well have been Solander who introduced her to William Paterson, a genial twenty-year-old Scottish gardener with little formal education but a huge sense of adventure who agreed to undertake her expedition the following spring. Certainly Solander had escorted Paterson to a Royal Society meeting in May that year and the pair would remain friends.25 Other scientific enthusiasts within Mary’s orbit included Richard Penneck, superintendent of the British Museum’s reading room, and Joseph Planta, younger brother to Mrs Parish, who had taken over as librarian at the museum upon his father’s death in 1773. Having just been appointed one of the two secretaries to the Royal Society, the ambitious 32-year-old Planta was rather more immune to Mary’s attractions than many of his fellow guests - and had no doubt been kept abreast of her nocturnal activities by the ousted Mrs Parish.
Alongside Mary’s earnest discussions on botany there were jovial breakfasts, languid dinners and musical suppers, frequent opera and theatre trips, and frivolous excursions about town on any number of pretexts with a host of less illustrious guests. These included James Mario Matra, a thirty-year-old naval officer who had sailed around the world with Banks and Solander in the cramped cabins of the Endeavour. Born Magra - he later changed his name - and originally from New York, he was suspected by Captain Cook of slicing off parts of the ears of a drunken shipmate. Despite the fact that Matra was subsequently cleared of the brutal deed, the affable Cook nevertheless described his midshipman as ‘one of those gentlemen, frequently found on board Kings Ships, that can very well be spared, or to speak more planer good for nothing’.26 The bespectacled Matra had been introduced into Mary’s set by his fellow voyager Solander and his own brother, a decidedly more shadowy character, Captain Perkins Magra. Having enlisted with the army as an ensign in 1761, Magra had fought for British forces in America but was on leave in London in the summer of 1776. One more constant companion who could not be left out of any social outing was the children’s new governess, Eliza Planta. No sooner had Elizabeth Planta packed her bags and bade the children farewell than Mary had employed her younger sister - for the Planta family had a seemingly endless supply of talented daughters - in her stead.27 Wily, flighty and promiscuous, in stark contrast to her prim elder sister, nineteen-year-old Eliza - baptised Ann Eliza - quickly established herself as an indispensable ally and eager confidante of her mistress.
Intoxicated by her liberty, whether it was to debate the finer points of science with fellows of the Royal Society, practise her skill for languages with her intellectual equals or flirt outrageously with the stream of sycophants who clamoured to her door, Mary was living life to the full. It was her year of behaving badly. Carelessly courting scandal, she flaunted her lover, abused her body, spent extravagantly and jeopardised her relationship with her children, especially the neglected young earl. She would be judged forever on the reckless excesses of this one year - in reality little more than nine months - and come to regret bitterly her waywardness. According to Foot, who would become one of Mary’s harshest critics: ‘Her judgement was weak, her prudence almost none, and her prejudice unbounded.’28 In a view that would stand as a lasting image of the Countess of Strathmore, the surgeon described Mary’s house as a ‘temple of folly’ and declared that her undoubted talents and intellect were ‘that sort which required to be under the controul of some other’. That Foot regarded the control Mary apparently needed to be male went without saying; that he also, as an avowed enemy of his professional rival John Hunter, was never likely to gain access to Mary’s ‘temple’ was equally left unsaid. Later, mostly male, writers would dispense similarly severe criticism and suggest that Mary’s future trials were simply just desserts for her licentious behaviour. Even Mary would subscribe to the view that the miseries in store were all divine punishment for her adulterous affair with Gray. For even as she appeared to be in charge of her life for the first time, in reality she was edging closer to an ever-tightening trap. ‘God blinded my judgement,’ she later explained, ‘that I could not discern, in any case, what was for my children’s and my own advantage; but in every thing where there were two expedients, I chose the worst.’29 The worst, however, was still to come.
Living with Gray effectively ‘as his wife’, scandalising strait-laced society as a merry widow and a neglectful mother, her home had become an open house to a growing band of unwholesome characters bent on selfish ends. Whenever a trip to the opera or a supper party was planned, the attentive Captain Magra would always be on hand as a ready escort. Whenever she desired a friendly ear for whispered confidences, Eliza Planta was at her side. And when the debonair Irish soldier arrived in London that July, Mary welcomed him into the fold with open arms.
Since Hannah Newton’s death on 11 March, conveniently just four days after that of the Earl of Strathmore, Andrew Robinson Stoney had wasted little time grieving. Pocketing the £5,000 which he had inherited through his wife’s will, while attempting to hang on to Cole Pike Hill in the face of furious protests from the rightful heir, Sam Newton, the merry widower headed south for the top entertainment spots of Georgian England. As the busy summer season approached, Stoney squandered his money and his idle hours at the gaming tables, race courses and cockpits with disreputable hard-drinking friends from his army past. With his bounty slipping rapidly through his fingers, supplemented only by his paltry army half-pay of about £40 a year, the former lieutenant was becoming anxious to secure a more reliable source of income to maintain his indulgent lifestyle.30Accompanied by his valet, Thomas Mahon, the self-promoted ‘Captain’ Stoney made for Scarborough, the fashionable Yorkshire seaside and spa town to which wealthy and well-bred families repaired during the summer months. Eyeing up the gentry enjoying the sea-bathing and the horse-racing along the sandy beach, Stoney hunted for another gullible heiress to lure down the aisle. It was not long before he chanced upon Anne Massingberd, the 28-year-old daughter of William Burrell Massingberd, a cultured and respected gentleman who lived in South Ormsby in Lincolnshire where he fulfilled the post of sheriff.31
Having lost her mother when she was young, Anne had helped to bring up her five younger sisters and two brothers in the family home of Ormsby Hall. Her industrious but sheltered life had scarcely prepared her to withstand the dazzling charms of the tall and genial army officer who now plied her with gifts and flattery at every opportunity. Convinced that Anne’s father would offer a substantial portion to speed his eldest daughter to the altar, Stoney worked his customary magic. Swayed by his promises of marriage, Anne was quickly infatuated, and almost certainly bedded - judging by her later remorse - by her impatient suitor in the early summer months. Anne’s poignant letters to Stoney, which have survived despite her appeals for him to return them, provide a highly revelatory picture of the irresistible allure which the Irish soldier exerted on women. In one typically desperate letter Anne proclaims, ‘to describe the feelings of my heart is impossible, & I should think the attempt unnecessary, for you have known me too long not to be assured that my Love & Regard for you is beyond any thing to me’.32 Yet even as he fuelled countryside chatter by appearing as Anne’s constant escort - and by the rigid rules of eighteenth-century courtship ruining her chances of forming an alternative match - Stoney realised his expectations of her fortune had been overly optimistic. With two sons and six daughters to provide for, Anne’s father was in no position to offer Stoney anything but the most meagre of marital enhancements. So as the sheriff and his eldest son, Charles, grew increasingly alarmed at reports of the Irish officer’s predilections for bad company, Stoney shrewdly gauged that it was time to move on. Employing the well-worn delaying tactic, that his father was reluctant to settle sufficient fortune on him, Captain Stoney cooled his ardour. By July he was heading for London with an altogether more promising prey in his sights.
Stoney would have heard of Lord Strathmore’s death - and the availability of his wealthy young widow - soon after the news had reached England. A death notice in the Newcastle Chronicle on 13 April helpfully pointed out that the deceased earl had married into ‘one of the most opulent fortunes in this Country’. Having already snared one Durham heiress, the prospect of capturing another endowed with even greater riches was too tempting to resist. Yet since coffee-house gossip asserted that the countess was already being pursued by an ardent nabob and was carefully watched by the vigilant Strathmores, Stoney knew that capturing this prize would demand all the guile and wit in his power. Courting Anne Massingberd was a useful fallback plan - and he continued to maintain her interest through wheedling letters and the occasional visit - but by early July, the gains from his first marriage were fast disappearing. Although he would later maintain that he possessed £7,500 in ready cash on top of £4,000 annual income in 1776, a more reliable source would suggest that the ‘half-pay lieutenant’ was ‘great distressed in his Circumstances, and possessed of little or no Property’.33 Other reports would even claim that he was bankrupt although this was almost certainly untrue. Straitened but ebullient as ever, Stoney now set out for London purely - Foot would later attest - with the aim of seducing the Countess of Strathmore. Plainly he was not the first, nor would he be the last, to make this attempt. Yet the sheer intricacy of Stoney’s scheming would mark him out as quite extraordinary.
Moving into lodgings in St James’s Coffee House, a short stroll from Mary’s home in Grosvenor Square, Stoney established himself as a well-heeled, up-and-coming man about town, charming everyone he met with his good-humoured repartee and gambling for impressive stakes at the Cocoa Tree Club. Tall, lean and impeccably presented - his valet would say he owned ninety shirts at the time - Stoney was fully conscious of his magnetic appeal to women.34 Aware that time was short, he quickly engineered an introduction into Mary’s circle, most probably through Captain Magra, who happened to be an old army friend. It was Magra, in fact, who had picked out the scarlet uniform and a frocksuit from a tailors in the Strand and had them sent up to his friend in Newcastle the previous year.35 Having gained entry into the Grosvenor Square sanctum, Stoney skilfully laid siege to its mistress. With Captain Magra already working as his undercover ally, Stoney recruited Eliza Planta, the new governess, as his spy within the household. There is little doubt that Stoney achieved this conquest with his usual oleaginous flattery, and it is likely that she became his lover too, although he could always fall back on simple bribery when required. It was Eliza’s job to report on her mistress’s activities, divulge Mary’s weaknesses and her interests, praise her secret master’s attributes and help deploy his plans. So as Stoney dined and supped with the guests in Mary’s set that July, he was well primed to fawn over her beloved cats and speak kindly of her children, especially her favoured daughters.
With her self-confessed partiality for Celtic men, her weakness for flattery and her perpetually disastrous judgement of character, Mary was intrigued by the urbane Irish officer who was only two years her senior. Although rumours alleging that Stoney had cruelly mistreated his late wife had percolated down to Grosvenor Square, Mary briskly dismissed these as ‘only county of Durham malice’ and encouraged - or at least did not discourage - the officer’s advances.36 By the end of July, Stoney was sufficiently emboldened to send Mary a daring declaration of his interest - the first surviving correspondence between the pair - which entirely dispensed with the usual formal address and obsequious homage due to a countess. Bluntly labelled ‘It is for you’, and evidently hand-delivered, the note was a masterpiece of Stoney’s art:
I have taken some liberties for which your Ladyship can find no excuse unless you apply to the powerful pleading of Inclination - for such freedom I wish to make every apology, but I cannot get the better of a passion which has taken the intense possession of my Heart.
I presume to flatter myself that I am deserving your confidence & my future conduct shall be directed [to] you, for whatever my suffering may be your pleasure only shall direct the conduct of him who can be nothing less than
Whatever Mary’s reply it is likely to have been equally indiscreet, for soon afterwards Stoney was heard bragging about his conquest and sharing Mary’s letters with a gaggle of friends in a coffee-house in Bath.38
Nevertheless, Stoney’s brash confidence was premature. Although she was obviously attracted to the hot-headed ‘captain’, by the late summer - pregnant by Gray for the third time - Mary had resigned herself to marrying her Scottish suitor. Despite having previously declared that she would never again ‘engage myself indissolubly’, in August or September she became formally betrothed to Gray in St Paul’s Cathedral with Eliza Planta and Richard Penneck as witnesses.39 Although an impromptu ceremony, this was no casual undertaking since such an engagement - actually referred to by Mary as ‘marriage’ - was regarded as legally binding. Indeed, one jilted fiancée in 1747 successfully sued a vicar for ‘breach of promise’ after he reneged on his pledge to marry her, winning £7,000 damages for her pains. Now wearing Gray’s ring, Mary hastily set off for Hertfordshire to break the news to her mother. Meanwhile, she laid plans to marry Gray the following spring before leaving for the Continent - or even to marry abroad - so that she could give birth in secret if necessary and stay in Europe until all hint of a scandal had faded. She even tendered ambitions to visit France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary and Bohemia - in a Bohemian version of the grand tour - before returning with her new husband and child.
While most rivals would have gamely abandoned the chase at news of such an engagement, and perhaps moved on to an easier subject, this was not in the nature of Andrew Robinson Stoney. Obstacles and opposition merely sharpened his determination to succeed. As Foot shrewdly commented: ‘There was no antiquated, dissipated, impudent, and profligate nabob a match for him.’40 Briskly severing all ties with Anne Massingberd, who enjoyed her last liaison with her errant lover at the beginning of September, Stoney now focused all his energies, intelligence and remaining funds on ensnaring his prize quarry in a breathtakingly convoluted series of schemes. As the anti-hero of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon, would argue: ‘Who can say that I had not a right to use any stratagem in this matter of love? Or, why say love? I wanted the wealth of the lady.’41
That October, when Eliza Planta proposed a trip to visit a fortune-teller in one of the seamier parts of town, Mary responded with delight. Well-known for her love of romance as well as her susceptibility to the occult - she had visited gipsies when they encamped near St Paul’s Walden Bury - Mary formed a party of friends. After breakfast with Eliza, Penneck and Matra, the group met up with the ubiquitous Captain Magra and proceeded to walk towards the Old Bailey, close by the notorious Newgate Prison. As they neared the court, a young boy approached and offered to escort the group to see the man ‘so many people came after’. Mary eagerly agreed, following the lad through the ‘blind allies’ to a house in Pear Street. Here the little troupe waited for almost seven hours in a cold, bare room crowded with people from all walks of life seemingly intent on discovering their fortunes. Sustained only by bread and water, and warmed by a feeble fire they had concocted from a few green logs, the party passed the hours by composing poems which they inscribed on the walls with a lead pencil. While Penneck amused the group with his ditty on their adventure, Mary - despite her engagement - wrote some lines denouncing matrimony. Conversing with the assortment of characters who emerged from the cellar below, she passed herself off as a grocer’s widow with ten children, unimaginatively named Mrs Smith, who had come to divine ‘whether I should marry a Brewer, or Sugar-boiler, who proposed to me amongst others’.
When finally the party was vouchsafed an audience with the mysterious soothsayer, Captain Magra descended the stairs first, declaring himself a perfect sceptic, and returned convinced, of course, of the mystic’s astonishing skills. Plainly Mary enjoyed a similar epiphany. Although she did not record her consultation, there can be little doubt that she sought enlightenment over her future spouse and that the many merits of a tall Irish soldier featured prominently in the divinations. Needless to say, as Foot would later confirm, the entire escapade had been orchestrated by Stoney, the conjuror tutored by him and the witnesses instructed by him. Yet although he would later flourish copies of the very verses she had written on the bare walls, Mary never suspected him of involvement in the ‘silly affair’.
Now that the hand of fate had advanced his cause, the next logical step was for Stoney to discredit his rival. This he achieved with a characteristic degree of insight and subtlety. Shortly after the fortune-telling expedition, Mary received a curious letter purporting to be a copy of one sent to Stoney from a jilted lover in Durham. Distraught at news that her ‘captain’ had abandoned her for a countess, the forsaken woman urged Mary to reject Stoney and marry Gray. Cleverly, the letter recommended Gray on the basis that he had secretly reached an accommodation with the Strathmore family, thereby healing the family rift. It is quite possible that Gray had indeed negotiated a deal with Thomas Lyon, probably with financial inducements, smoothing the way for his impending marriage in return for guarantees about the future of the Bowes fortune and its young heirs. But with the Strathmore family still firmly banished from her home, nothing could have been judged more likely to set Mary against her fiancé. Of course no Durham lover existed; the letter - followed by another in a similar vein - had been forged by Stoney.
By November, Stoney was feeling cautiously confident. That month Charles Massingberd, in London with two of his sisters, warned the wretched Anne not to expect any further word from her former lover since, Anne wrote to Stoney, ‘he believ’d you wd. marry Lady S’. Although Charles assured his sister that she had had a ‘lucky escape’ from ‘a man of such abandon’d character’, this did nothing to console poor Anne who pledged that she would never appear in public again unless Stoney returned to her.42 Her threats and pleadings were to no avail, for by the onset of winter, Stoney was ready to spring his trap.
It was a more than usually hectic time in the Grosvenor Square household. Anticipating the departure the following spring of her botanical expedition to the Cape, in November or December Mary purchased a villa, with substantial grounds, in what was known as Little Chelsea.43 Fronting the King’s Road, and therefore convenient for Kew Gardens, Chelsea Physic Garden and James Lee’s renowned nursery, Stanley House had been built at the end of the seventeenth century on an estate originally laid out in Elizabethan times. A symmetrical two-storey house with three dormer windows in a hipped roof, it was ‘a fine old mansion with large grounds, walled in’, according to Foot. Appointing George Walker’s wife as housekeeper, Mary set about constructing hothouses and greenhouses in the grounds in readiness for the exotic plants she hoped to nurture there.
Blithely running up debts through her scientific pursuits as well as her unflagging social life, that November Mary engaged a chaplain to help tutor the younger children. A widower in his late twenties who was down on his luck and in debt, the Reverend Henry Stephens was introduced through the Magra brothers, almost certainly at Stoney’s behest. Ambitious, grasping and unprincipled, in the manner of innumerable eighteenth-century clergy, Stephens rapidly established himself as a regular participant in the giddy round of theatre parties and musical suppers. Flirting with Eliza Planta, he also took a number of familiarities with his mistress, winning kisses and inducing her to sit on his knee. The chaplain’s brother, Captain George Stephens, who had formerly worked for the East India Company, likewise inveigled himself into the merry band at Grosvenor Square. Even less inhibited by rules of piety than his brother, the captain was ‘free in his way of thinking and acting’ even by Mary’s lax standards.
When the penniless chaplain eloped to Gretna Green with the young governess just ten days after their first meeting, the Planta family was understandably outraged - not least with Eliza’s mistress.44 Mary freely admitted she had actively encouraged the pair to abscond, partly in an act of revenge against Mrs Parish, partly in the knowledge that Eliza was pregnant at the time - although Mary little suspected the probable identity of the father.45 An enigmatic letter written jointly by Mary and Eliza to Reverend Stephens in Winchester, probably just before the elopement, reveals that Mary even encouraged Eliza to follow her own example and attempt an abortion. ‘Dear Eliza is thank God greatly better, & if she will follow my advice & quack herself (without hurting) she will be still better,’ hints Mary, while Eliza adds a note urging her fiancé not to be ‘alarm’d at my indisposition T’is the first experiment’. Mary would later admit that she had advised Eliza ‘to take a vomit, thinking she was with child; as I had taken a ridiculous notion into my head, that having children, made a man like his wife less’.46 Sensibly Mary herself now fled London to escape the wrath of the Planta family, although she could not resist instructing George Walker to report every detail of their rage.
By November Mary knew that she too was pregnant once again - the fourth time - by Gray. This time, however, neither the black inky medicine, nor prodigious amounts of pepper, brandy or emetics would induce the desired miscarriage. In desperation, she even resorted to the services of her surgeon and friend, John Hunter. An oblique reference in the letter to Stephens declares: ‘I am not able to assure you that either my Soul or Body are at your Service, for to confess the truth I have at present neither in my Possession - J. Hunter having torn to pieces my Body & the D-l having taken a Lease on my Soul.’47 Asked later about the reference, Hunter would confirm that he had supplied Mary with medicines but when pressed refused to say if he knew she was pregnant or wanted an abortion. Admitting to procuring an abortion would have meant almost certain prosecution for the eminent surgeon as well as his patient. In any event, Hunter’s best efforts were in vain and Mary now resigned herself to giving birth to her sixth child in the coming summer.
As the eventful year drew to its close, Mary’s future seemed mapped out. Betrothed to George Gray, pregnant with his child, she finalised her plans to marry and spend the next few years abroad putting her linguistic talents to good use. Her sour feud with the Strathmore family seemed finally to have been resolved and she could now look forward to a secure future for herself, her fiancé and her children. With her gardener poised to set sail for the Cape and her hothouses rising steadily at Stanley House, she had been granted a unique opportunity to pursue her ambitions and perhaps make a name for herself in international scientific circles. With the indulgent and educated Gray at her side, she would even have the chance to fulfil her literary aims. It seemed she could not fail. Yet fatally, at the last moment, she wavered. Then Stoney made his move.
Away from the city’s prying eyes in the tranquil countryside surrounding St Paul’s Walden Bury, in late November Mary received a letter with its familiar spidery handwriting. Ostensibly writing to express surprise at Eliza’s elopement and her choice of spouse - although plainly he had been involved in, if not masterminded, both - Stoney pressed home his advantage. Cleverly praising Eliza for not being swayed by the opinions of ‘guardians, relations or pretended friends’, he reminded Mary that a ‘free choice is happiness’.48 Feigning interest in her ‘good mother’ and her beloved cats, Stoney silkily professed that he wished he could adopt feline form so that he could be ‘stroked and caressed, like them, by you’. And under the pretence that he could no longer contain his passion, he declared: ‘I am all impatience to see your ladyship; I really cannot wait till Saturday; I must have five minutes chat with you before that time.’ Proposing an assignation, beside a ‘leaden statue’ in her mother’s formal gardens, it was patently not a ‘chat’ that Stoney had in mind. The statue, a classical figure of a Greek discus thrower known as the ‘running footman’, survives still beside an ornamental pond within an enclosed garden, close to the woods where Mary’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, would consent to marry the Duke of York, the future George VI, in 1923.49 Whether Mary accepted Stoney’s proposal and met him covertly behind the tall hedges, shielded from the view of the house in that unseasonably warm December, is unknown. But certainly by Christmas they had become lovers.
At last Stoney could set in motion the final stages of his elaborate plot.