London, December 1776
When the salacious articles first began to appear in the Morning Post in December 1776, Mary could hardly have been surprised. Reporting various sightings of her about town with her rival lovers in tow, such gossip was generally dismissed as an occupational hazard by the celebrities of the day. Revelling in the press fascination with her libertine lifestyle, Mary laughed as she read the articles. But when the first of the letters appeared on 12 December, coldly levelling pernicious accusations at her, Mary felt decidedly uncomfortable. Signed ‘A Conscience-Stinger’, it charged her with insulting her late husband’s memory by prostituting herself and abandoning her children. Also accusing her of infidelity to the earl, the letter bore all the hallmarks of the Strathmore family or the disgruntled Plantas - as was no doubt the intention. Plainly hinting at revelations to come, with a chill blast from beyond the grave, the writer warned her to mend her ways or he would ‘harrow up your soul !’1 Well aware of the need to keep the latest turn in her love-life and her current condition a secret - not least from her two lovers - Mary had good cause to worry.
Two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, an anonymous champion leapt to her defence. Signed by ‘Monitus’, or warning voice, this letter insinuated that the previous attack had emanated from the Planta family, with a veiled reference to Eliza’s hasty elopement with a ‘good-natured clergyman’. But if Mary hoped that the response would put an end to the correspondence she was sadly mistaken. On 3 January 1777, her mysterious critic redoubled the assault. Making its literary allusions more explicit with the moniker ‘Hamlet’, the letter cast the former Lady of Glamis as another of Shakespeare’s scheming women, Queen Gertrude. Ludicrously describing her late husband as ‘fond and doting’, the writer accused her of greeting the earl’s illness with ‘cold indifference’ and of forsaking her eldest son. Inevitably Monitus retaliated, four days later, with a verbose and flowery defence that rather brought Mary into ridicule by its risible exaggeration than vindicating her. The reply insisted that she had been devastated at the late earl’s illness and suffered ‘agonizing, and heart-felt sorrow’ at his death. Knowingly drawing attention to her obvious disregard for widowhood, the writer lamented: ‘She no sooner goes to the Play, or walks in the Park, than there are a thousand eyes upon her, and every step taken to attract her attention!’ With leaden sarcasm - and a revealing insight into the trap closing around her - Monitus continued, ‘how charming, and profitable would it be, were it possible to prey upon her weakness, or delude her into those snares her sex are most subject to!’
Now two months pregnant, and secretly planning her flight abroad with Nabob Gray even as she entertained ‘Captain’ Stoney, Mary plainly hoped for a swift end to the intrusive scrutiny of her affairs. Whether she went so far as to promise to marry the man who would avenge her cause on the editor of the Morning Post - as the newly wed Eliza Planta, now Mrs Stephens, would claim - is uncertain. But when her suave Irish lover announced that he would defend her honour by challenging the turbulent priest to a duel, it was a gesture guaranteed to appeal to her romantic nature.
Swaggering about her Grosvenor Square house in his scarlet jacket, brandishing his steel sword and melodramatically swearing to fight unto death on her behalf, the athletic Stoney cut an imposing figure. With her trusted friend Captain Magra kindly volunteering to act as Stoney’s second, Mary entered into the spirit of the adventure with gusto. Nevertheless, even as Stoney provoked the seemingly reluctant Bate with escalating threats, she continued with her wedding plans to Gray and met her lawyer, Joshua Peele, to sign important legal papers on 9 and 10 January. As the badinage between Stoney and Bate intensified at their coffee-house encounters over the weekend of 11 and 12 January, Mary no doubt relished reports of the unfolding drama. Whether she believed the play-acting would ever come to genuine blows, or that her hero would exact his rashly promised prize, is unknown. But when romance turned to tragedy and she heard that Stoney had been mortally wounded in the engagement at the Adelphi Tavern on Monday 13 January, Mary was understandably distraught.
It was her fiancé, Gray, who was first on the scene, visiting the stricken Stoney in his apartment above the St James’s Coffee House the following day to shake his hand in gratitude for rescuing the honour of his future bride. Later that day Mary despatched her footman, George Walker, to enquire as to Stoney’s condition. And when Walker reported that the ailing soldier was ‘deadly white’ Mary herself dashed to his bedside that evening. The surgeon Jessé Foot, whom Mary met for the first time, assured her that Stoney now lay on the verge of death, and she had no reason to doubt his medical opinion. Even so, when Stoney insisted that he could not die happy unless he married the woman for whom he had sacrificed his life, Mary consented from a ‘misapplied sense of Gratitude and Honour’ and warned him she would go ahead only ‘with Reluctance’.2 Since it was the opinion of no less than three medical men that Stoney was unlikely to live beyond a few days, there seemed no need to inform him that she was already pregnant with his rival’s baby, nor that she had taken a vital legal precaution preparatory to her marriage with Gray. And as Stoney solemnly protested complete lack of interest in her fortune, insisting that he would ‘never consider himself in any other light than as my steward’, she had no reason to doubt that he had any motive for marriage other than the genuine desire of a dying man to marry his true love.
So on Thursday 16 January, as Stoney roused himself sufficiently to apply to the Bishop of London for a marriage licence, circumventing the usual need to read banns in church for the next three weeks, Mary enjoyed a convivial last supper with the unsuspecting Gray. That evening, the eve of her anticipated wedding with Stoney, she apparently spent the night with Gray, ‘in one and the same bed, naked and alone’, as court spectators - used to marital fumblings among nightclothes - would later be astounded to hear.3 The following morning, after despatching Gray in the early hours as usual, Mary dressed for her wedding then walked with Eliza to Stoney’s lodgings in nearby St James’s Street. From here the couple took a chair for the short trip around the corner to St James’s Church in Piccadilly. When the gaunt Stoney clung stubbornly to life as he was carried down the aisle in his makeshift bed, Mary may have tendered misgivings. As Stoney murmured the marriage vows, supported at the altar by his friend and financial advisor William Davis, perhaps she experienced the first cold feelings of foreboding. And when her new husband rallied sufficiently to celebrate the nuptial ceremony with the little gathering that returned to his apartment, she may well have regretted her eagerness to enter wedlock for the second time.
It was not long before her doubts were confirmed. Stoney’s rapid recovery as he welcomed guests to a jubilant levee at his lodgings the following morning was certainly impressive. Dressed in a new scarlet uniform, pampered by his fond great-uncles Generals Armstrong and Robinson, Stoney reclined on a couch - claiming he was still too ill to stand - as visitors flocked by coach and on foot to pay their respects. That evening the bridegroom had revived sufficiently to move his belongings into his luxurious new home in Grosvenor Square. And as the revels continued into the night, with Stoney’s relatives and Irish friends staying to dinner in the sumptuous dining room, Mary was about to discover the true extent of the trap into which she had been lured.
Questions about the veracity of the duel began to circulate within days of the encounter in the Adelphi Tavern as George Gray, furiously discovering that he had been tricked out of both bride and fortune, and the Strathmore family, horrified to hear of the surprise match, raised understandable doubts. As suspicions mounted, Foot and his fellow medic John Scott, and the supposed eyewitness John Hull, had to insert statements in the press attesting to the wounds that they had seen.4 Foot would insist all his life that the duel had been genuine and the injuries he treated life-threatening. Yet the pompous young surgeon, who was ambitious to make his mark on the London medical scene, would later recount numerous deceptions which he had helped Stoney to perpetrate. Ultimately the cringing Foot would describe his lifelong friend and benefactor as ‘an accomplished villain’ possessed of ‘the most savage, contemptable and low mind’ - but only after he was safely dead.5 Scott, the physician who put his name to the testimony describing his patient’s injuries, would likewise prove himself an adept liar on Stoney’s behalf, at one point informing Mrs Bowes that her daughter was dangerously ill in order to lure her into town.6 The so-called ‘fighting parson’ Henry Bate would later maintain under oath that the duel had been genuine, insisting that Stoney had ‘bled like a pig’ - although his graphic description might equally be taken to infer that the pair had faked their wounds with pig’s blood.
In fact Bate and Stoney were already well acquainted before their skirmish in the Adelphi Tavern, having met the previous summer in Bath. It was probably there that the two army veterans had hatched the elaborate scheme to publish the sparring letters in Bate’s journal and stage the sham duel. Certainly the flamboyant journalist was not above a bribe: he was already in the pay of the government to the tune of £200 a year in return for publishing reports in his newspaper favourable to George III.7 A satirical cartoon published two years after the duel, A Baite for the Devil, would describe the preacher as ‘A Canonical Buck, Vociferous Bully/ A Duellist, Boxer, Gambler’ and, significantly, a ‘Cully’ or, in plain words, a dupe.8
As news of Stoney’s seemingly miraculous recovery and surprisingly advantageous marriage gathered pace, so rumours of his skulduggery spread like a nasty rash. The satirical ballad, The Stoniad, published just two months after events in the Adelphi, would make plain its scepticism about the reported details. Employing the customary brand of heavy irony to infer that Bate had helped Stoney stage a mock fight, and that Hull had been bamboozled by the darkness, the anonymous author concluded that the only casualty had been a broken mirror. ‘Furious and wild, as savage beasts for gore, They fight - as HEROES never fought before! Fight and make many a FEINT and many a PASS! Now wound themselves, now kill - A LOOKING GLASS!’ Not long afterwards, doubts about the so-called ‘affair of honour’ in the Adelphi were aired in a quintessentially Georgian arena: on the stage.
When the curtains opened at the Theatre Royal on 8 May, audiences excitedly anticipated the new comedy by Irish theatrical entrepreneur Richard Brinsley Sheridan.9 Having taken over management of the theatre in Drury Lane from David Garrick the previous year, Sheridan had written his play, The School for Scandal, expressly for the new venue. Ironically following hard on the heels of A Trip to Scarborough, which told the tale of a penniless adventurer’s seduction of a wealthy heiress, Sheridan’s latest satire mocked the contemporary obsession with celebrity and gossip. The comedy opens with the journalist Snake assuring his aristocratic patron Lady Sneerwell that her ‘paragraphs’ relating malicious gossip about leading members of London society had been ‘all inserted’ into his newspaper. Lady Sneerwell is thought to have been based on Sheridan’s friend, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. But dressed in clerical black and described as the ‘editor of a morning paper’, Snake was readily identified as the preaching journalist Henry Bate, reinforced by later references to ‘bate’ - meaning to slacken - and ‘be baited’ - or harassed - and, most pointedly, the invocation: ‘May your love for each other never know abatement’. Tellingly, Bate had met with Garrick, Sheridan’s mentor, only a day or two after his encounter with Stoney and may well have been the unwitting source for the laughter later directed against him. Trampling the familiar territory of a loveless marriage, the drama unfolds to describe a duel which is rumoured to have been fought between two love rivals. Himself the combatant in two duels in 1772 over a popular singer whom he later married, Sheridan was well supplied with knowledge of such events. But the confused details which the characters relate - the duellists first said to have fought with pistols then with swords, a stray bullet striking the bust of Pliny on the mantelpiece and, especially, the remark: ‘You seem to differ strangely in your accounts’, would have been well understood in 1777 as lightly veiled references to the recent duel between Bate and Stoney.
Naturally enough Stoney would always profess his innocence of all subterfuge, in public at least. Yet evidence of the fabricated letters and faked fight would accumulate to the point that it was incontrovertible. Stoney’s valet, Thomas Mahon, who had been sent on the fateful day to purchase duelling pistols from Wogdon’s renowned gun shop, would later testify twice, under oath, that the whole escapade had been contrived. 10 Having returned from a fruitless quest to fetch Stoney’s second, Captain Magra, to find his master being tended by Scott and Foot, Mahon was adamant that he saw no blood except where the surgeon was bleeding his patient. Later he noticed several tears in Bate’s breeches which appeared to have been made with a hot poker, and two or three holes in Stoney’s waistcoat but he swore there were neither holes nor bloodstains on his master’s shirt. Plainly Mahon was in a good position to testify since not only was he responsible as Stoney’s valet for his wardrobe but the shirt Stoney wore that day had actually belonged to Mahon and the waistcoat was later given to him. Other witnesses would later reveal that Stoney had painted his face white to provoke a deathly pallor and had been bled by Foot to hoodwink the elderly surgeon Hawkins into believing him faint from his injuries.11 Certainly successive judges in ensuing court contests would have no difficulty in dismissing the Adelphi duel as yet another of Stoney’s twisted stratagems. Weighing up all the evidence, the most likely sequence of events was that Stoney had concocted his plot with Bate in Bath, and that together they had faked the letters published in the Morning Post then bribed Foot and Scott, and possibly Hull, to play supporting roles in their drama. While some manner of skirmish almost certainly took place in the parlour of the Adelphi, the supposed injuries were either superficial cuts which the duellists inflicted on each other or entirely fictitious. But if the truth about the sham duel emerged only slowly to public view, it was only days before Mary herself suspected that she had been the victim of an intricately plotted hoax.
While her doubts must certainly have been aroused by the rapidity of her champion’s return to health, it was not long before Mary uncovered solid evidence of the conspiracy in overheard conversations and glimpsed correspondence. Eventually a letter which Stoney had carelessly left open on a table convinced her that the daring duel that had won her heart and her hand had been nothing more than ‘an amicable transaction between the soi-disant Heroes’.12 Sent by Bate, within a month or so of the Adelphi encounter, the letter threatened Stoney with ‘a real Duel’ or with exposure unless he stumped up a promised annuity, which had plainly been Bate’s reward for his part in the plot. And as the quarrel between the so-called heroes now intensified in earnest, one of Stoney’s friends reported him to be exercising with pistols every morning. ‘I expect almost certainly to hear of a Duel that will be serious,’ the friend wrote while shrewdly adding, ‘the former, I suspect, was not so’.13 Indeed, as Stoney grew increasingly belligerent, Bate warned him not to attack the man ‘to whom you owe every thing you now possess’. In the event, Stoney deputed another in his legion of willing clerics, the Reverend William Maxwell, to fight Bate - there was no chance that he would seriously put his own life at risk for as Foot astutely noted, ‘he was by nature a coward’. The dispute was finally settled that spring in arbitration arranged by friends with Stoney being forced to make an apology.
That Mary, highly intelligent and well educated, should have been so easily fooled by the charade has in itself raised eyebrows. Indeed, one writer has postulated that smitten by Stoney she was a willing accomplice in a scheme designed to extricate her from marriage to Gray.14 If true - and there is no direct evidence to support this, but much to contradict it - then she was as much a victim of Stoney’s cunning and manipulation as she would have been if she had known nothing in advance. In her own testament she would answer such suggestions with the apt observation that Stoney was ‘master of the most consummate arts that can be displayed’. She added: ‘I am not therefore, ashamed to confess myself amongst the large number of those whom his Cunning, and unparalleled Villanies have deceived. How should an unsuspicious young Woman, accustomed to study Books more than the World; whose knowledge of it was partially collected from living with the most Worthy, and whose sex did not permit her those opportunities for experience, which are beyond all Theory; expect to escape the snares of a Wretch, who suffered neither truth, nor even common Honesty, to interfere with his Interest, and whose consummate art has deceived Men long conversant with public life and of acknowledged abilities?’15 And in that she was, of course, only one in a long line of people - men and women, of all ages, ranks and stations in life - who had been and would be duped by Stoney’s unparalleled talent for invention and subterfuge. From army generals to journalists, barristers to maidservants, aristocrats to prostitutes, few would be immune to the compelling charms of this master of deception. But long before her realisation about the duel, on the very day that she brought her new spouse back to her home in Grosvenor Square and heard the front door shut behind them, Mary discovered that her husband was anything but the charming, gallant and mortally wounded champion she had supposed.
Inviting his great-uncles to his splendid new abode to dine that evening, Stoney no doubt hoped to impress. When he called for champagne and discovered there was none in the house, he flew into a rage and angrily despatched servants to a nearby tavern.16 It was only the beginning. No sooner had the wedding guests disappeared than the fond, attentive and generous lover Mary had known for the past six months changed before her eyes into a sneering, rude, aggressive bully who ‘began to treat me with the utmost indignity’.17 Just three days after the wedding, when some trimming Mary had ordered for a dress arrived, Stoney erupted in fury. Without offering any explanation, he immediately countermanded her order and sent the adornment back. Later that week, when an Irish friend joined them for dinner and Mary indulged in the chance to converse in French and Italian, Stoney sent Walker to the other end of the table with a terse note ordering her to speak only English. A short while later Stoney took a dislike to a bonnet Mary had donned in readiness for going out. With his strength now obviously restored, he ripped it from her head, cut off the ribbons and forbade her from leaving the house.
After these initial outbursts, which Mary tried to dismiss as uncharacteristic lapses, Stoney began to set rigid curbs on her activities and her freedom. At first he ordered his valet, Mahon, to follow Mary’s carriage whenever she went out and report back on her outings but before long he told the servants that her coach could only be used with his express consent. Having initially instructed Mary’s footman, Walker, to bring him all the letters that his mistress sent or received, after a short while Stoney himself dictated all her correspondence to family and friends, forcing Mary to sound cold and high-handed. In one typical letter, sent to her new father-in-law George Stoney a few days after the wedding, Mary was made to adopt a hectoring tone. Writing at Stoney’s command, ostensibly because his arm was still wounded from his fracas, she added a secret postscript: ‘Tho’ I am conscious of the ill-usage Mr Stoney has received, I must confess I should have wish’d to address you in a different stile. I am writing by Mr Stoney’s Bedside, and add this without his Knowledge.’18 There was very little Mary could now accomplish without her husband’s knowledge and consent.
Watching her every movement, Stoney exerted control over the clothes Mary wore, the visitors she received, the conversations she held, the food that she ate, the journeys she undertook and every aspect of her daily life from morning until night with a pathological eye for detail. Planned outings were cancelled at the last minute if Stoney disliked Mary’s costume; visitors to the house were turned away unless he approved. She was forbidden from visiting her gardens and hothouses in Chelsea except on rare occasions when accompanied by Stoney and was prevented from enjoying the company of her scientific friends. For all the feigned interest he had professed in Mary’s literary and botanical pursuits, she now discovered: ‘He had an invincible aversion to every species of rational, scientific, or elegant conversation by which knowledge is mutually communicated and acquired.’19
If Mary had strained at the strictures on her favourite pastimes and her friendships imposed by Lord Strathmore, they now seemed like an indulgence. Although her three youngest children and Maria were staying with the newly weds in Grosvenor Square, while the young earl remained at boarding school in Neasden, Mary was forbidden from visiting her mother and was forced to refuse her mother’s anxious appeal for a private conversation. Angered by Mary’s last-minute switch of suitor and hurt by her subsequent refusals to visit, an aggrieved Mrs Bowes wrote, ‘it is rather extraordinary that in such early days, you have not influence enough to prevail, nor power sufficient to put that desire in execution, & at the same time comply with a mother’s request.’20 Deterred by pride from confiding in her mother over her disappointment in her first marriage, Mary was now prevented by force from revealing her misery in the second. According to Foot, who only a few days earlier had helped coax Mary into his friend’s trap, her house had now undergone a transformation from ‘folly to tyranny’ and Mary herself, the surgeon blithely declared, ‘may truly be pronounced to be DEAD ALIVE’.21
The violence began almost immediately. If Mary said or did anything to annoy him, Stoney would respond by pinching, kicking or slapping her while warning her not to reveal the abuse to friends or servants. ‘He very soon began to beat and pinch me,’ wrote Mary, ‘threatening me at the same time to kill me if I did not tell my Maid, or any person who observed my bruises, that I had fallen down, or run my head against something’.22 Like so many victims of domestic violence before and since, Mary was reduced to blaming her cuts and bruises on walking into doors and falling down stairs. Since it was virtually impossible for masters and mistresses in wealthy Georgian households to say or do anything without the knowledge of the army of maids, footmen, butlers and valets who did their bidding, inevitably the servants witnessed the tell-tale signs of Mary’s mistreatment. But as they were all answerable to Stoney, and in his pay, there was little any of them dared do. Mary’s maid Ann was the first to spot the signs of abuse. Having helped her mistress dress to go out, she saw Mary enter Stoney’s dressing room - presumably for his perusal - but return minutes later ‘very much dejected, and biting her lips’ with her hat torn, the ribbons cut and Mary’s eye ‘swelled and red’.23 Powerless to help, Ann observed and bided her time.
Not long afterwards it was Stoney’s valet, Thomas Mahon, who witnessed his master’s conduct. Enraged because he could not find his cane for an outing, Stoney followed Mary into his dressing room from which Mahon soon heard a scream. Running to help, he was ordered away by an enraged Stoney who stood with his sword drawn. The erstwhile duelling hero who had apparently fenced so courageously in defence of his lover, now chased her around the room with his sword. Driving her into a corner, Stoney imprisoned Mary for half an hour ‘beating me incessantly all the time with the hilt of his sword, and an heavy silver candlestick over the head, arms and shoulders’.24 Although Mary was forced to keep to her bed the following day, to hide the swellings and bruises on her face and body, Mahon was quick to spot the black eye when she next appeared in company. It was not long before Mahon left, fed up with his master’s increasingly belligerent behaviour, and eloped with Mary’s maid Ann. They were the first of many to leave Stoney’s employ in disgust at his autocratic manner.
Their mistress, of course, had no choice but to stay. Yet whatever excesses of misery, cruelty and humiliation Mary might now be enduring she could expect no sympathy from her contemporaries. Her free-living lifestyle of the past year had made her fair game for every gossip, satirist and opinion-former and, without exception, they took the moral position that she had brought all her woes on herself. So the MP George Selwyn referred his friend Lord Carlisle to ‘This match of that lunatic’s, Lady Strathmore, with Mr Stoney’.25 Satirical ballads followed the same line. Addressed to her friend, the surgeon John Hunter, in a limp homage to his anatomical interest in electric eels and torpedo fish, ‘The Torpedo, a poem to the electrical eel’, ranged over the latest scandals to beset the nobility and inevitably one verse homed in on Mary’s love life:
Though oft electrified before,
Still pants the Countess of ST--THM--E
For one more stout and boney:
Long has she tasted, some folks say,
Each different sort from Black to GRAY
But fixt on that of ST-N-Y.26
In a similar vein, a bawdy ballad entitled ‘The Diabo-Lady’ imagined the devil’s quest for a suitable mate amongst the most notorious women of the day. Accusing Mary of breaking a ‘too fond husband’s heart’ by embarking on affairs with two suitors before his death, it lampooned her for jilting her first lover as ‘too tame’ in favour of ‘the Bully of her ticklish fame’.27
If the true character of Andrew Robinson Stoney was a revelation, however, Mary had kept back a few surprises for her new husband too. Firstly, there was the small matter of the debts she had accumulated. Stoney would later claim that these amounted to a startling £32,000.28 Given her recent purchase of Stanley House, the impending expedition to the Cape - William Paterson set sail as planned on 9 February 1777 - and her weakness for rich gowns, elaborate hats and other finery, this was not impossible. Secondly, there was the fact that she was at least two months pregnant. Stoney would later protest his ‘great astonishment and grief’ when he discovered soon after the wedding night that his new wife was ‘five months’ pregnant, exaggerating her condition in order to eliminate any suggestion that Stoney himself might have been the father. In reality, it is highly likely Stoney already knew or suspected Mary was pregnant and even possible that the baby was indeed his own. Whether two months or five months, there was no denying that Mary’s swelling belly would soon be evident to servants, visitors and the entire gossip machine of London’s high society. Keen to avoid further scandal, Stoney scouted around for a suitable hideaway for a secret birth while telling his friends the couple were going abroad for his health. This sacrifice, he no doubt reasoned, was a small price to pay for the spectacular fortune he now possessed. The third surprise was infinitely more shocking.
Strutting about as the new lord and master at 40 Grosvenor Square, Stoney was eager to lay claim to the vast wealth he had greedily anticipated during his campaign of seduction. To his horror, within one week of his triumphant marriage, he now discovered that all the property and profit he had schemed so cleverly to obtain were entirely beyond his reach. A week before the wedding, on 9 and 10 January, even as Stoney stoked his fake argument with Bate, Mary had signed a prenuptial deed which vested all the estates, assets and income in which she enjoyed a life interest under her father’s will, into the hands of two trustees: her solicitor Joshua Peele and the brother of her chaplain, Captain George Stephens. All proceeds from the Bowes fortune, the deed specified, could only be paid to Mary ‘for her separate and peculiar use and disposal, exclusive of any husband she should thereafter marry’.29
Signing such a deed was an unusual but not unprecedented step at the time. Ordinarily, of course, Georgian law stipulated that upon marriage the husband gained possession of all his wife’s property, income and belongings, as Stoney well knew. Prenuptial deeds were occasionally drawn up, however, usually at the behest of a bride’s parents keen to safeguard the family fortune from a potentially profligate or untrustworthy husband. In Mary’s case, she had asked her solicitor to prepare the deed in anticipation of her marriage to Gray, with her fiancé’s agreement and probably at the urging of the Strathmores determined to protect the children’s future inheritance. After making her last-minute switch of grooms, Mary had seen no reason to alter the document. This was not through any mistrust of Stoney, she would later insist, but that ‘it struck me, that having taken such precautions on my children’s account, (for whom I was answerable, though not for myself ) with a man who I knew I could trust; I ought not to be less cautious with one whom I could not be so strongly assured of.’30 Even so, she had kept the deed a secret from Stoney until several days after their wedding for fear, she later claimed, that the document suggested a distrust of him - although fear of her new spouse may very well have contributed. When she confessed the truth he was apoplectic. Not only was he personally penniless and faced with a baying horde of his own creditors, but as her husband he was now accountable for Mary’s debts too. All along, he now felt, it was he who had been the victim of a hoax.
Stoney responded with characteristic resolve. As the creditors circled, and Gray threatened to sue Mary for breach of contract for jilting him at the altar, Stoney knew he had to raise a substantial amount of money quickly. Immediately he ordered Mary to write to Peele demanding he surrender the deed and despatched Walker to deliver the letter.31 When Walker returned empty-handed, as Peele refused to comply with the request, Stoney was furious but undefeated. Little did he know that Mary retained one further secret which would ultimately prove vital. Just before her marriage she had entrusted her own copy of the deed to Walker, asking him to keep it safe. Cowed as she now was by Stoney’s bullying behaviour, she kept her head sufficiently to beg Walker to keep the deed hidden with the insightful comment that ‘I did not know whether I should be able to lead my life with Mr Stoney.’
Despite this temporary hitch to his well-laid scheme and his spending plans, Stoney entertained lavishly at Grosvenor Square and now turned his attention to promoting his own rise in public life. Less than one month after the wedding, Stoney saw the chance for advancement that he had been waiting for. After changing his name to Bowes at the beginning of February, in accordance with George Bowes’s will, he now sought to use the respected family name to change his fortunes. The death of the Newcastle MP Sir Walter Blackett on 14 February provided the opportunity.32After representing the city unopposed as one of its two MPs for nearly half a century, Blackett had been shaken but survived when radical campaigners had opposed him at the general election in 1774. The by-election now triggered by the 69-year-old Tory MP’s demise presented the radicals with their second chance to mount a challenge. Having first marched through the city gates just ten years earlier as a lowly ensign, Andrew Robinson Bowes - as he would in future be known - now aspired to represent the people of Newcastle in Parliament by hitching his fortunes to the populist platform.
Dashing off a letter to the mayor three days later, Bowes formally presented himself as a candidate while pleading that ‘the present state of my indisposition’ sadly prevented him arriving in person.33 Although his injuries, if they ever existed, had certainly healed by this stage - a letter from his cousin Isaac to Bowes’s brother Thomas a week earlier reported that ‘Robinson is quite well of his wounds’ - the delay gave Bowes time to plot his assault and borrow the cash he needed to finance it.
George Greive, the son of a local lawyer and friend of the popular radical John Wilkes, stepped forward to spearhead Bowes’s campaign against Blackett’s nephew and heir, the Somerset country gentleman Sir John Trevelyan, who fully expected an easy ride. But while Greive mobilised support from the tradesmen and up and coming professionals who were entitled, as freemen of the city, to vote, Bowes idled in London. Although the prospective candidate was ‘hourly expected’ on 18 February, Greive assured the voters, it was eight more days before Bowes finally crossed the Tyne Bridge with Mary at his side on the day before the polls opened on 27 February.34 Having left four of the children in the dubious care of the Reverend Henry Stephens in Grosvenor Square, while the young earl remained in Neasden, the couple’s thirty-two-hour dash north was a grim counterpoint to the stately northern progress which had followed Mary’s first marriage. Charming and manipulative by turns Bowes fully expected that Mary would play a central role in his audacious campaign.
Although votes for women were not to happen for nearly 150 years, several aristocratic women helped muster votes for their menfolk during election campaigns in the latter half of the eighteenth century. In a society which placed a high value on female modesty and passivity, this was rarely without public opprobrium. Lady Spencer had decorously lent her support in Nottingham in 1774, but when her daughter, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, canvassed zealously for Fox in the controversial Westminster election ten years later, she would be roundly lambasted, with lewd caricatures in the press and snobbish retorts from society. ‘What a pity that any of our sex should ever forget what is due to female delicacy,’ lamented the blue-stocking Mary Hamilton while female solidarity similarly went out of the window with Elizabeth Montagu’s observation that the duchess had been ‘canvassing in a most masculine manner’.35
Despite standing on a populist ticket exhorting free elections and parliamentary reform for honest tradesmen and aspiring professionals in the face of the property-owning gentry, Bowes knew that Mary’s esteemed family name would give him the gravitas he needed to stand a chance in the Newcastle by-election. During the two weeks in which the polls were open daily, Mary was therefore called upon to dispense charity and woo the electors as the perfect political consort smiling benignly at her husband’s side. Accordingly, on 6 March she gave orders for an ox to be slaughtered and distributed among the poor of the city while the following day she hosted her own belated birthday party with open house at Gibside.36 On other days Elizabeth Montagu’s husband Edward, a Trevelyan supporter, was aghast to see the daughter of his old friend and partner George Bowes blatantly distributing cash handouts to passers-by in the city centre. ‘Her Ladyship sits all day in the window of a public house,’ he wrote, ‘from whence she sometimes lets fall some jewels or trinkets, which voters pick up, and then she gives them money for returning them - a new kind of offering bribes.’37
Staying at Gibside, where she was forbidden from visiting the gardens or greenhouse without her husband’s consent, and only allowed a glass of wine at dinner with his permission, Mary was now totally subject to Bowes’s commands.38 Passing the Column to Liberty her father had erected on her way to the hustings each day, it must have been with supreme irony that Mary plied voters with handbills headed ‘Bowes and Freedom!’ and poems which hailed her as the ‘Queen of Liberty!’ Meanwhile, the jibes of her husband’s opponents as they drew attention to his humble background as an ‘Irish ensign’, the allegations of cruelty to his first wife and his predilection for the gaming houses and brothels near the Keyside must have given her pause for thought.
When Bowes lost to Trevelyan in the final count by a slim ninety-five votes, he bullishly appealed to Parliament against the result with the somewhat rich charge of bribery levelled against the opposing camp. John Scott, the 25-year-old son of a Newcastle coal agent, cut his teeth as a lawyer attempting to argue Bowes’s cause. A future Lord Chancellor, he would gain a peerage as Lord Eldon, while his elder brother William, another vocal supporter of Bowes, would go on to become Lord Stowell and a prominent divorce lawyer. Eight-year-old Maria, taking a precocious interest in current affairs back in London, relayed details of her new ‘papa’s’ parliamentary challenge to great aunt Mary at Glamis with more than a touch of her mother’s naivety. ‘It is believed Sir John Trevylian got the Election by bribery, and Papa has petioned [sic] the House of Commons,’ she wrote.39 Although the appeal was in vain, Bowes had hoodwinked Newcastle’s radicals sufficiently to promise a return match. But if Bowes’s smooth political wiles had attracted both personal and political slurs, Mary’s apparently compliant devotion brought her equal condemnation. The anonymous author of The Stoniad, published during the by-election campaign, not only accused Bowes of sending his first wife to her grave but presciently predicted that he would beat his second wife ‘black and blue’. Yet the satirist expressed no sympathy for her plight, instead proclaiming that the pair were well-matched as ‘the greatest R**** [rogue] and W**** [whore]’. Likewise Edward Montagu would grimly predict: ‘I believe this gentleman will revenge the wrongs Lord Strathmore suffered from her Ladyship.’40
Having expended colossal amounts fighting the by-election - he would later put the total at more than £15,000 - and with his creditors pressing in, Bowes set off with Mary on the return journey to London at the end of March with renewed determination to seize the fortune so long in his sights. ‘The very large sums I have been obliged to pay here, on Act. of the Election etc etc has destroyed me for the present not a little,’ he told one friend.41
Before leaving Gibside he sacked George Walker, telling servants and friends that the footman had ‘taken familiarities’ with his mistress and had boasted that he was ‘too well acquainted with her secrets ever to be dismissed’.42 Bowes would later allege that Walker had slept with Mary both before and after her second marriage, a claim backed by Eliza Stephens née Planta, who had accompanied the couple to Newcastle ostensibly as Mary’s companion but in reality as Bowes’s spy and probably his mistress; Bowes was spotted leaving Eliza’s room at five o’clock one morning while at Gibside after the election.43 Testifying that Mary had had sex with Walker even as Bowes lay wounded after the duel and that they had resumed their affair soon after the wedding, Eliza’s only evidence was having heard the pair laughing together in Mary’s locked bedchamber. In reality Bowes had obviously dismissed the footman after learning that he had been given a copy of the trust deed, as a letter which Bowes sent to the Reverend Stephens indicated. ‘I have discharged trusty George this morning in great disgrace,’ he cryptically informed Stephens, while instructing him to allow Walker to collect from Grosvenor Square ‘anything that is really his Property’.44 An accompanying letter from Mary, almost certainly dictated by Bowes, urged Stephens to search the footman’s boxes and drawers, remove any papers bearing her handwriting and fasten the locks as if nothing had been disturbed. Packing his trunk, which naturally Bowes had searched, Walker left the family - with the deed safely concealed in a false bottom.
Back in London at the beginning of April, Mary - now truly five months pregnant - was reunited with her eldest daughter who turned nine that month. While the three youngest children had been despatched for the Easter holidays to their grandmother’s, where eight-year-old John was to join them as a rare treat, Mary kept Maria close. ‘She is now so far advanced & so much improved as to be a most pleasant & entertaining companion to her mother, who could not possibly spare her,’ Bowes informed a friend.45 Dictating when Mary was allowed to see her children, Bowes was careful to portray himself the doting stepfather.
When the departure of her faithful footman was followed by that of the Reverend Stephens and his wife Eliza a few days later, Mary felt more alone than ever. Having given the couple £1,000 on the night of her wedding, most probably in the spirit of a bribe to conceal her pregnancy, Mary little suspected that Eliza’s own expected confinement was not all it seemed. After staying in France for ten days the couple headed north to Cole Pike Hill, the estate Bowes had wrested from the heirs of his first wife Hannah, whose mother had only just died there. Here Eliza gave birth to the child she had been expecting when she married her compliant chaplain. Whether Stephens initially believed the child was his is unclear; he would later admit he had married Eliza only ten days after their first meeting although she would deny having placed an advertisement seeking a husband.46Plainly Bowes had masterminded the match - the £1,000 gift a thoughtful honeymoon present - and doubtless the child was his, judging from the later reaction of the Reverend Stephens. George Walker, who visited the couple at their hideaway that spring when Eliza was ‘big with child’, later recalled that ‘the Parson damn’d Stoney very much to me’.47 Unaware of their complicity in Bowes’s deceits, Mary grieved at losing the couple she thought were her ‘sincere and faithful friends’. Yet within a year, her views poisoned by Bowes, Mary would fume, ‘had I known her as I do now, I should not only have intreated you to turn her out of the house directly [but] have confessed, that such a wretch was not fit to live on the earth’ while of Eliza’s husband she stormed, ‘I should have thought only with horror of his ever being near my sons, or in my house.’48How the couple had offended Bowes at that point was unclear but after a reconciliation some years later they would prove vital to his cause.
By now desperate to lay his hands on Mary’s tantalising riches, on 1 May Bowes threw a dinner party in Grosvenor Square to which he invited a few trusted friends, including Mary’s surgeon John Hunter, a cleric named the Reverend Dr John Scott, and a pliable lawyer from Newcastle called William Gibson. Retiring to the drawing room after a generous dinner, where he continued to ply his guests with copious quantities of alcohol, the genial host casually asked his fellow diners to witness himself and Mary signing a legal document. Hunter, quite probably chosen for his acknowledged distaste for reading - he was dyslexic - would later admit that he never read the document. Mary herself would swear that she had no recollection of signing her name but admitted that she frequently signed papers at Bowes’s command and often when befuddled by beatings. Signed in the dim light of candles, the five-page parchment revoked Mary’s prenuptial deed and gave Bowes control, during his lifetime at least, over all income and profits from his wife’s entire estate.49 Once again Mary found herself devoid of all possessions, income and rights. Nearly a year after Bowes had first devised his tortuous moneymaking scheme he had finally got his hands on the Bowes family fortune.
There was much call on the funds. Forcing Mary to lace her corsets tightly to conceal her blooming figure as they visited moneylenders in the City, Bowes raised £24,000 by selling annuities - a popular way for cash-poor life tenants to obtain capital - which assigned future rents from the Gibside estate to various brokers.50 With the proceeds he appeased the most urgent of his own and Mary’s creditors - Bowes always detested settling debts unless it was absolutely unavoidable - then paid a hefty £12,000 in compensation to George Gray. Seemingly satisfied with his windfall, the once ardent suitor embarked for Bengal the following year only to die there two years later.51 Having despatched Mary’s erstwhile lover, Bowes now faced the delicate problem of his illegitimate child.
Even the most constricting of corsets and generous of gowns could no longer disguise Mary’s condition to the ever-vigilant scrutiny of servants and acquaintances. So as the bon ton fled the hot and pungent capital in their annual exodus for the countryside that May, Bowes and Mary packed their belongings and rattled out of Grosvenor Square on the pretext of a holiday on the Continent. Informing one of his political allies in Newcastle that he was embarking on ‘a Journey to the South of France’ on the advice of his physicians to treat a ‘cough & pain in my side’, Bowes promised he would soon be returning to ‘my friends in the north’.52 But instead of heading east towards Dover, the couple’s carriage turned west along the King’s Road towards the quiet pastoral retreat of Hammersmith.
With contraception unreliable and unpopular, and attempts at abortion both precarious and taboo, many women had no alternative but to go ahead with unexpected pregnancies. Just as Eliza had scurried into the wilds of County Durham to give birth to her illegitimate child, so women of all classes, from prostitutes to duchesses, were forced to arrange clandestine deliveries for their unplanned babies. Among the medical fraternity, several ‘man-midwives’ were well-known for their circumspection in attending secret births. William Hunter, the physician brother of the surgeon John Hunter, was as infamous for his discretion in delivering the offspring of illicit aristocratic liaisons as he was famous for supervising the births of the fifteen royal princes and princesses. So William had helped Lady Diana Spencer give birth secretly in 1767 to the daughter of her affair with Topham Beauclerk and with the couple’s collusion the following year he gave evidence of the event to enable her husband, Viscount Bolingbroke, to secure a divorce.53 A year later William similarly attended Anne, Duchess of Grafton, the daughter of Bowes’s coal-owning partner Henry Liddell, when she gave birth to the child of her affair with John Fitzpatrick, the Earl of Upper Ossory. And although he was generally the soul of discretion, at dinner parties William would boast of having once delivered twins to the daughter of a well-known peer in the basement of her family home while her parents maintained complete ignorance upstairs. He even arranged for the unwanted babes to be deposited in the Foundling Hospital. Yet such clandestine births were highly risky - not least for the medical men involved. One man-midwife who was called to a birth in Bristol in 1755, was escorted blindfolded to a luxurious mansion where he was asked to deliver a woman whose face was kept covered throughout. Three weeks later the hapless practitioner was found dead.
Laden with their scant belongings, accompanied by a few, if any, servants, Bowes and Mary drew up outside a remote cottage on the north bank of the Thames beyond Chelsea. Bowes would later describe this simply as ‘a house in Hammersmith’ which he had rented as a secret hideaway for Mary’s expected delivery. His surgeon Jessé Foot, in his usual grandiloquent style, referred to it as ‘a house the Margravine of Ansbach had left, quite secluded from the busy prying eye of curiosity’. Here, Foot added, in a snide allusion to husbands being cuckolded, ‘Bowes might hear the cuckoo . . . without its being unwelcome to the married ear’.54 The most probable candidate for the isolated riverside abode was Craven Cottage, a simple two-storey thatched villa which had recently been built as a pastoral retreat by Lady Elizabeth Craven, the future Margavine of Brandenburg-Ansbach-Bayreuth.55 Just a year younger than Mary, Lady Craven had already established a reputation that was at least as scandalous. The daughter of the Earl of Berkeley, she had married William Craven in 1767 whereupon both indulged in flagrant extra-marital liaisons. After winning the lottery in 1776 or 1777, Lady Craven had bought or built her secluded villa with the proceeds and invited friends such as Boswell and Walpole to visit. With its six bedrooms plus servants’ quarters, and ‘fine view of the river’, it would be described by another visitor, Lady Mary Coke in 1781, as ‘pretty as everything upon the Thames must be’.
Bounded by the river to the south, meadows to the east and high walls on the remaining two sides, the riverside retreat provided the perfect location for Mary’s clandestine delivery. Concealed from inquisitive city eyes, Mary spent the summer days in her arcadian isolation awaiting her first contractions while Bowes tormented her with his petty restrictions and violent outbursts. When she went into labour in August, it was not William Hunter but his brother John who was called upon to assist the birth, along with Dr James Ford, a physician with a lucrative West End obstetrics practice.56 Both were sworn to secrecy. Unplanned and unwanted, kept hidden from society and from her siblings, the baby, Mary’s third daughter, was also named Mary and took the Bowes surname. Her only child conceived out of wedlock, this bubbly, mischievous, cheeky infant would become Mary’s most precious child as well as a favourite with her siblings.
The following month, with the newborn baby probably despatched to a well-bribed wet-nurse, the couple travelled north to Gibside where Mary pretended she was a respectable seven months pregnant. The pair attended church at Whickham two Sundays running in October, doubtless to create the impression that the birth was imminent and very likely with Mary’s gown padded to suggest a bulge, for there was nothing Bowes enjoyed better than play-acting. In a characteristically abusive letter to his father on 14 November, Bowes claimed that his physician friend John Scott was close at hand since Mary was ‘so very near her time’.57 When the supposed time arrived, Bowes despatched an urgent request to two physicians who arrived breathless at Gibside Hall - just a little too late. Assured that the baby had been born healthy and that the mother was now asleep, the medics accepted their fees and left.58 The bouncing baby, now almost three months old, was duly baptised in a private ceremony in Whickham Church on 25 November, her birthday given as 16 November 1777, and her arrival announced in the London magazines the same month.59
Mary would always vehemently deny any suggestion that her beloved third daughter was illegitimate for to make such an admission would almost certainly condemn the child to a lifetime of social stigma and tarnish her prospects of a decent marriage. With its characteristically unenlightened approach, eighteenth-century law regarded illegitimate children as nonentities, so that they were unable either to inherit or to bequeath property.60 Straitened parishes, which were obliged to support illegitimate offspring, might force their parents to marry and the father to provide maintenance, sometimes after whipping the errant couple through the village streets. Mothers, who were inevitably regarded as the chief bearers of guilt, could be sent to houses of correction to atone for their crime. Usually dismissed from their employment and unable to find further work - even when their employer was the father of the expected child - many working-class mothers were unable to support their illegitimate children and were therefore forced to surrender them to the Foundling Hospital or work-house. Children born out of wedlock to the aristocracy and gentry fared considerably better. Following the example of successive monarchs, many wealthy parents acknowledged their ‘natural’ children; some of them rose to positions of significant power. Yet as social attitudes to marital infidelity hardened towards the end of the eighteenth century, even high-born illegitimate children found themselves struggling against a tide of prejudice.
Little Mary’s birthday would therefore always be celebrated within the Bowes family in November. At one point her mother anxiously begged the Gibside agent to check the parish register and was relieved to hear that ‘Miss Bowes his [sic] properly registerd in Whickham Church Books’.61 Yet there was really no doubt that the baby had been secretly delivered that summer, as rumours were quick to suggest. The following year a typically vindictive satire detailing the latest society intrigues would accuse Mary of enduring a ‘ten months pregnancy at least’ before giving birth ‘without the Midwife’s vulgar aid’. A year later a political ballad would allege that Bowes ‘contrives also to have his children brought into the world with teeth, after the manner of Richard III’.62 Bowes himself would have none of Mary’s compunction about the child’s welfare. For all that he had accepted the baby as his daughter he would later maintain that she had been born six months into the marriage and her Gibside delivery had been a concoction. John Hunter would reluctantly admit under oath that he had delivered Mary’s child six or seven months after her marriage but refused to speculate on whether the father was Bowes, Gray or even George Walker. Her maid Isabella Fenton would likewise confirm that the child had been born in August and said it was ‘common conversation’ among the servants that the father was Gray or Walker.63
Yet as she doted on the latest addition to her family at Gibside, Mary now faced the real threat that she would lose her other five children. Evidently alarmed that Bowes had seized the family fortune and might likewise exercise control over its young heirs, the children’s uncle, Thomas Lyon, had begun court proceedings to remove the youngsters from the care of their mother and stepfather. Applying to the Court of Chancery in June, Lyon had lodged a petition demanding that custody of all five children be granted to himself and his fellow guardians David Erskine and James Menzies.64 Since the bill was put forward in the names of the eight-year-old earl, his brothers George, five, and Thomas, four, and sisters Maria, nine and Anna, seven, the children themselves were effectively asking the court to remove them from their mother’s care. With rights for children an alien concept in eighteenth-century legal circles, they were almost certainly not consulted. Tenuously arguing that Mary’s right to guardianship of the children had been rendered void by her second marriage, Lyon - as the children’s ‘next friend’ in customary court language - insisted that the children be delivered into the care of the three remaining guardians. Giving full vent to years of resentment, Lyon blustered that Mary had now married ‘improvidently and much below her dignity and fortune’ a man who possessed ‘very small and Inconsiderable Estate or fortune in his own Right’. By reason of her second marriage among ‘many other accounts’ Mary had therefore proved herself ‘improper and not fit to have the Care and Management of the persons and fortunes’ of her five children. That Lyon’s principal concern was the children’s future inheritance and the £50,000 now due for their education and maintenance was plain from his repeated references to their entitlement to the Gibside estate.
Having blithely left four of the children in the care of their grandmother and the dubious Stephenses for most of the past year, and taken little interest in her eldest son, it was only now that Mary began to realise how much she valued her young family. Perhaps softened by her recent experience of maternity, perhaps frightened at her enforced loneliness, or simply attaining the maturity she had previously lacked, she now embarked on a desperate battle to keep them. Bowes, of course, had his own reasons for valuing the children, well aware that unless he produced his own heir to the Gibside estate his best hope of maintaining control over its profits was by controlling its present heirs. But it was already too late. Refusing Lyon’s immediate demand to deliver the youngsters into his care and relinquish all rights to them, Mary and Bowes stalled the repeated requests of Lyon’s lawyers for a response to the Chancery bill. Playing for time, which was always a generous commodity in Chancery suits, Mary could have had little doubt that ultimately the courts would tender no sympathy for a mother’s rights.
Of course, as Lyon so pertinently alleged, and Mary was acutely aware, in reality Bowes was neither a responsible steward of Gibside nor a respectable stepfather to its heirs. Virtually a captive in her own home, with only her baby daughter and watchful servants for company, she was powerless to prevent Bowes neglecting the magnificent gardens and woodland. Equally, as the rumours over the likely father of her baby swirled around the Durham countryside, Mary knew that it was Bowes who had already been unfaithful on at least two occasions - and probably more - in their first year of marriage.
Bowes’s reputation as a Lothario was already well established in the north-east, as the snide asides about his familiarity with Newcastle’s brothels demonstrated. How much Mary had gleaned of her husband’s previous dalliances is unsure. Certainly she had learned of his involvement with Anne Massingberd - if not the full extent of their relationship - soon after her marriage, since which time Mary had exchanged letters with Bowes’s former mistress. Distraught to hear of her ex-lover’s reported injuries, and even more so of his subsequent marriage, Anne had continued to bombard Bowes, and later Mary, with her pitifully tragic letters. Guilelessly revealing her infatuation, as well as her credulity, she assured Mary: ‘You are my dear Madam possess’d of a Treasure, the heart of the most amiable of Men, which may you ever retain unmolested.’65 By the summer, however, even the gullible Anne had begun to doubt Bowes’s honesty, wretchedly telling him that ‘my Eyes now begin to be opened, the dream is almost over & wth. it my sad life must end, for to outlive the idea that you have some truth & sincerity in you is impossible.’ It was not long before Anne was fully woken from her dream - or nightmare - for a friend who met her in Scarborough in August reported with satisfaction that, ‘Miss Massingberd is here, & seems to have pretty well recovered the loss of Captain Stoney.’ A few months later thirty-year-old Anne was married - to the forty-six-year-old Reverend William Maxwell, the Irish friend that Bowes had deputed to duel on his behalf that summer - and soon after she left her family home to begin married life in Ireland. If Mary’s suspicions had not been aroused by Anne’s gushing correspondence, clear evidence of her husband’s voracious sexual appetite arrived by letter that same summer.
As she had awaited the first birth pangs beside the river in Hammersmith that July, Mary had been asked by Bowes to read his post while he was temporarily absent. Eight months pregnant, Mary had accordingly opened a letter to Bowes from a young woman begging to see him. Obviously a kept mistress who had recently been abandoned by Bowes, the poorly educated woman complained that, ‘none but the Almighty can tell of my secret sufrings of hart and calamity of mind’.66 Describing Bowes as a ‘man of honour’, the writer signed herself Elizabeth Dock, with an address near the Haymarket, a short stroll from their Grosvenor Square house. Most probably desperate for money, if not for her errant lover, Elizabeth added the postscript: ‘I have been very often in the Gardens But was not so fortunate as to see the much desired object of my Desire.’ When Mary angrily confronted Bowes with the letter he fervently denied all knowledge of the writer and insisted there had been a terrible mistake. Finally alive to her husband’s trail of deceit, Mary feigned belief out of ‘delicacy and humanity’. It was the first and only time, she later said, that she ever saw contrition from him.
There was no mistake about his next indiscretion. That August Bowes had shown Mary a letter from a young woman, a certain ‘Mrs G’, whom he had entertained alone at Grosvenor Square. Now he insisted that Mary return the favour by visiting the woman who, he candidly told her, had previously been his mistress and given birth to his stillborn child. It was only the beginning of a succession of young women, most of them poor servants, destitute working girls or prostitutes, whom Mary was expected to entertain and befriend as her equals. As a respectable, wealthy married woman in the highest ranks of Georgian society, this was demeaning and distasteful. Yet in reality these vulnerable women, many just teenage girls, were her equals in misfortune. From now on, Mary decided there was no need to pretend ignorance of her husband’s philandering.
It was a cold and gloomy winter in the north. As the year drew to a close, and Bowes caroused on his bawdy nights on the town while Mary cradled her little daughter alone in Gibside Hall, she came to realise that her husband was nothing but a cheat, a fraud and a serial adulterer. Gazing from the windows at the forbidden walks and mocking column, Mary waited in fear for the crunch of gravel which signalled the return of her husband’s carriage. If Bowes had been disappointed at the betting table, thwarted in a sexual conquest or enraged by any obstacle to his schemes, Mary knew she would bear the brunt of his temper. Frequently, she later wrote, he was ‘out of humour with his Mistresses or money matters; and always on those occasions came home and beat, pinched, kicked or pulled me by the ears and nose, often thrusting his nails into my ears, which he made stream with blood; spitting also in my face, and telling me, that he only married to torment me’.67
The New Year brought no resolutions for change. On the first anniversary of their wedding, 17 January 1778, Bowes coldly informed Mary that he intended to make every day of her life more miserable than the last - a pledge which, unlike his marriage vows, he intended to keep. Yet even as Mary looked back on her first year with the man who had become her jailor, tormentor and abuser, she managed to convince herself that he might still change for the better.