An Introduction to Henrietta Ponsonby, Lady Bessborough

While Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire has become a renowned figure of the eighteenth-century to those studying the period in the twenty-first century, her sister has become lost behind her famous reputation. Born on 16th June 1761, Henrietta Frances Ponsonby, Lady Bessborough was the third child and second daughter of Lord and Lady Spencer.

In 1780, Lady Bessborough married Frederick Ponsonby, later the third Earl of Bessborough, a third cousin of the Duke of Devonshire’s. Earl Bessborough was three years Lady Bessborough’s senior and she entered her marriage with ‘a very high opinion of him’ although she wrote that ‘I wish I could have known him a little better at first.’[1] The marriage had the support of both of her parents, who Lady Bessborough described as being ‘the happiest of creatures’ in 1781 at the news of their youngest daughter’s marriage.[2]

While historians, such as Amanda Foreman, have argued that the Duchess of Devonshire entered her marriage under the belief that she was in love, it is clear from Lady Bessborough’s correspondence that she did not marry under the same belief.[3] Writing to Miss Shipley ahead of her wedding, Lady Bessborough described how he had ‘a better chance of being reasonably happy with him than with most people I know.’ [4]  This detached approach to matrimony presents a clear difference between the two sisters’ attitude.

While the Bessborough marriage has since been viewed as an unhappy relationship, it did result in the birth of four children. John William Ponsonby was born in 1781, followed by another son, Frederick Ponsonby in 1783. Five years after her marriage, Lady Bessborough gave birth to a daughter Caroline Ponsonby, who later became Lady Caroline Lamb after marriage. Their final child, William Ponsonby, was born in 1787.

 

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Portrait of Lady Bessborough with her eldest sons John and Frederick.

 

During her life Lady Bessborough conducted three extra-marital affairs, the first beginning in 1784 with Charles Wyndham. Lasting over a year, the relationship almost concluded in an elopement, which was stopped by the involvement of her mother and brother. By 1787 Lady Bessborough began her second affair with the playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan, with the relationship being discovered by Lord Bessborough in 1789. Lady Bessborough concluded the adulterous relationship following her husband’s detection but started her final and longest affair in 1794 with politician Granville Leveson-Gower. Lasting until Leveson-Gower’s marriage to her niece, Lady Harriet Cavendish, on 24th December 1809, the affair resulted in the birth of two illegitimate children; Harriet and George Arundel Stewart.

Like her sister, Lady Bessborough became involved in political campaigning, becoming heavily involved in the political campaigning for the Whig Party during the Westminster Election in 1784. Referred to as the ‘Kisses for Votes Campaign’ by contemporaries, the campaigning by the Whig political hostesses resulted in both the newspapers and caricaturists of the age targeting the Duchess of Devonshire, with some believed that she had exchanged kisses for votes, with this being used by the Tories to discredit her character. It has, however, since been claimed that Lady Bessborough, as Amanda Foreman terms her, ‘the true culprit’ of the event.[5] While her sister stopped campaigning after the negative publicity, Lady Bessborough continued to publicly campaign in future elections with also providing political advice to both the Whig party and Leveson-Gower for the rest of her life.

‘Her release from great agony was almost a relief at the moment and as for the future I have not dared to look for it,’ wrote William Ponsonby to his sister two days after the death of his mother.[6] The pain Lady Bessborough suffered from during a sudden illness is now believed to have been caused by a serious bowel infection such as cholera or dysentery. Lady Bessborough died on 11th November 1821 in Florence, and was buried in the Cavendish vault in All Saints’ Derby, beside her sister who had died earlier in 1806.

Lady Bessborough was the focus of my undergraduate dissertation and in the next couple of blog posts I will be exploring further aspects of her life, including her marriage, the extra-marital affairs she conducted, and her political involvement.

References

[1] Letter from Lady Harriet Spencer to Miss Shipley, November 1780 In: Bessborough, Earl of ed. Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle, Butler & Tanner, London, 1940 p31

[2] Letter from Lady Harriet Spencer to Miss Shipley, November 1780 In: Bessborough, Earl of ed. Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle, Butler & Tanner, London, 1940 p31

[3] Foreman, Amanda Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Harper Collins Publishers London, 1999, p18.

[4] Letter from Lady Harriet Spencer to Miss Shipley, November 1780 In: Bessborough, Earl of ed. Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle, Butler & Tanner, London, 1940 p31

[5] Gleeson, Janet An Aristocratic Affair, p489

 

[6] Letter from William Ponsonby to Lady Caroline Lamb, 13th November 1821 (CS6/559)

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Anxiety

If I’m honest, I don’t remember much of 2014 to 2016. During my second year of uni and into my third year, I was suffering from severe anxiety and depression, which wasn’t diagnosed until late 2015. I remember enough of it to know that I was extremely unwell, something that I don’t think I realised properly at the time, and that I was in an extremely negative place.

I have now learnt that my anxiety derives from my extreme perfectionism. I’m a workaholic, 150% dedicated to anything I do and failure is my biggest fear. For some reason in 2014, I decided I was failing at everything to do with my degree (I wasn’t!) and this anxious, terrified person came into existence. Suddenly, the person who was passionate about history and loving their degree vanished and this shell was left. I remember one day before a seminar spending an hour and a half sat outside on a bench in the middle of February because I was too scared to go inside for lecture I was supposed to be in. I got it into my head that I didn’t deserve to be there, that everyone would be deeming me to be a failure and so I didn’t go in, even when I couldn’t feel my hands anymore. I was so cold by the time I gained the courage to go inside for my Georgians seminar that I spent the entire two hours wearing Liv’s hoodie and falling asleep when I was supposed to be completing an assignment in exam conditions.

There were days when sitting up in bed was all I could do and there were some days when I was so terrified of seeing people, I hid underneath my bed so no one could find me. Thinking about it I’m amazed I fitted under there because of all the junk that was thrown under there. I don’t think I ate a proper meal sometimes for a week because I feared being forced to talk to people in the kitchen and I had the best housemates in the world. Sometimes I’d think that I was okay and then I’d find myself volunteering and during a conversation with a visitor suddenly having a panic attack, thinking that I wasn’t good enough to be talking to these people who had paid money to visit the property I was in. It was like being on a rollercoaster and I hate rollercoasters!

I guess everything became very real to me when, after a discussion with a lecturer where I admitted that I didn’t want to do my degree anymore, I stood at the side of the road and considered walking out in front of a car. I didn’t want to kill myself but I was so terrified that I was failing the degree that I loved so much that I thought that seriously injuring myself would stop me from the humiliation of failure. I scared myself so much in that moment that I went back to see another doctor. This was the third doctor I’d seen about feeling so down and she immediately understood what was going on. I was put on anti-depressants, which I took for a year before deciding that I wanted to try without them (I’m happy to say I’ve now been off them for a year). It was, however, people who got me through all of this.

I was very lucky to have fantastic housemates who were extremely understanding, a great friend who put up with so many messages from me at random times of the day, and lecturers who were willing to their sacrifice their time to listened to me while I sobbed, gave up on numerous occasions, and then tried to help me rebuild my confidence. It’s because of these people that I came away from uni last year with a 2:1 History degree and managed to complete my MA in September with a 68 in my dissertation on Holocaust interpretation.

I strongly believe that talking is so important for your physical and mental health. I understand how terrifying it is to feel like you’re a stranger, to find getting out of bed in the morning the biggest challenge and for that to be only the first task of the day, and how difficult it is to force yourself to start a conversation with someone when you just want to hide. Talking to people saved me though. It saved my sanity. You don’t even need to discuss how you’re feeling, just talk. Talk about complete rubbish, I had so many conversations that weren’t even about me.

Today my anxiety can still be a challenge but it’s only occasionally, rather than most days of the week. I look back at those two years and I’m extremely proud of what I managed to do and so thankful for the people who had helped me through it.

Arbella and The Main Plot

The interpretation of Arbella as the rightful heir to Elizabeth I can be seen to have resulted in people plotting to place her on the throne after James was crowned. This, therefore, resulted in Stuart being viewed as a threat to James I because she was seen as an alternative for those who were discontent with him as King.

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Conspator Sir Walter Raleigh

 

This concept can be seen particularly in the motivation behind the 1603 Main Plot, which involved figures such as Lord Cobham and Sir Walter Raleigh. The plotters were charged ‘that [they] did conspire and goe about [to] deprive the King of his government’ and that they ‘intended the intitling of the Lady Arabella Steward to the Crowne.’[1] Argued to be the ‘more serious’ of the two 1603 plot’s by Gristwood, this particular conspiracy presented how Arbella Stuart became a rallying point for those discontent with James’ reign.[2] By plotting to remove the King and ‘intitling… Lady Arabella Steward’, the conspirators made Arbella a potential threat to James; using her position as a potential claimant to present a substitute for the King if they had been successful in their assassination plot. However Arbella’s letters suggest that she was discontent with the conspirators plan to place her on the throne, corresponding in 1603 to Mary Talbot, Arbella wrote about how ‘the vanity of wicked mens vaine designes, have made my name passe through a grosse and suttle lawyers lippes of late.’[3] Describing the plotters as ‘wicked men’ with ‘vaine designes,’ Arbella clearly presents her disapproval of the plot to place her on the throne, viewing those involved negatively. This is reinforced by the comment in relation to her name passing ‘through a grosse and suttle lawyers lippes of late.’ This further supports Arbella’s discontent with her name being associated with a plot against the King and, therefore, can be seen to support that she posed no threat to James but instead her claim was used by those who were dissatisfied with his reign.

Sources

[1] Raleigh, Walter The Arraignment and Conviction of Sir Walter Raleigh, William Wilson, London, 1648

[2] Gristwood, Sarah Arbella, England’s Lost Queen, Bantam Books, London, 2004 p267

[3] Arbella Stuart to Mary Talbot, 8th December 1603 In: Steen, Sara Jayne, The Letters of Arbella Stuart, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994, p194

Arbella During The Reign of Queen Elizabeth

Arbella can firstly be seen as a threat to James’ claim to the English throne before he was crowned King in 1603 because of how Queen Elizabeth treated the two potential successors. Sara Jayne Steen argues that if Arbella’s claim had not been ‘nearly equal to his, James might have been more insisted in his demands’ towards Elizabeth.[1] Writing in 1598, Peter Wentworth focused on the concern of Elizabeth’s ‘good and kind subjects’ in connection to her refusal to name a successor.[2] Focusing on how ‘we do greatlie feare, that your grace shall, then finde such a troubled soule and conscience,’ Wentworth describes the country’s awareness and fear towards Elizabeth’s refusal to name her heir.[3] Steen’s argument that ‘James might have been more [insistent]’ in demanding to be named Elizabeth’s successor if it had not been for Arbella’s potential claim can therefore be supported by the country’s awareness that Elizabeth was not content to name her heir. Steen further supports this by suggesting that ‘Elizabeth could pressure James by favoring Arbella,’ again suggesting that Elizabeth favoured alternative successors to force James to not be insistent in being named heir. [4] However, Elizabeth’s favouring of Arbella when James was applying too much pressure upon her to be named successor does not suggest that Stuart was a threat to James. This concept proposes that Arbella was used by Elizabeth to intimidate James but Stuart herself did not pose the threat to his position. Instead Elizabeth’s expectations could be seen as the threat to James being named heir, with the Queen purely using Arbella to force him to conform to her wishes.

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Elizabeth I.

 

Furthermore, Arbella presented a threat to James during Elizabeth’s reign as some wished her to be named as Elizabeth’s successor, furthering the threat posed by the Queen using Arbella to intimidate James. During Elizabeth’s reign, some of the population deemed James to be of a foreign nationality, resulting in them not wishing for him to be named Elizabeth’s heir as they did not want a foreign King. Described as the ‘lawful inheritress’ by the French ambassador as a result of being an English descendant, Arbella was deemed to be a suitable alternative in the succession in comparison to the Scottish James.[5] Writing that as ‘a native-born claimant, Arbella Stuart was a more attractive contender’ to some members of the population, Mazzola supports the concept that Arbella posed a threat to James’ position because she was ‘native-born’ while James was born in Scotland to a Scottish queen, who herself had posed a significant threat to the Queen.[6]

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Mary, Queen of Scots. Mother of James I.

 

Although this notion supports that Arbella did pose a threat to James’ position as Elizabeth’s potential heir, it also reflects how Arbella herself was not the one threatening James. Instead, the danger posed to James’ position was by those who were discontent with the idea of a foreigner as King, who instead substituted his claim with the ‘native-born’ Arbella, of an equal standing.

[1] Steen, Sara Jayne The Letters of Arbella Stuart, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994, p19

[2] Wentworth, Peter A Pithiie Exhortation of her Majestie for Establishing Her Successor to the Crowne, 1598,  p34

[3] Wentworth, Peter A Pithiee Exhortation of her Majestie for Establishing Her Successor to the Crowne, 1598,  p100

[4] Steen, Sara Jayne, The Letters of Arbella Stuart, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994, p19

[5] Gristwood, Sarah Arbella, England’s Lost Queen, Bantam Books, London, 2004,  p91

[6] Mazzola, Elizabeth Women’s Wealth and Women’s Writing in Early Modern England, Ashgate, Farnham, 2009, p74

Was Arbella Stuart a threat to James I?

Described as ‘a leading contender for the English throne and throughout her life the focus of plot and intrigue’ by her biographer, Sarah Gristwood, Arbella Stuart presented a potential threat to her cousin, James I’s, claim to the English throne.[1] A relative of Elizabeth I through her maternal line and to the Scottish monarchy paternally, Arbella Stuart clearly posed a significant threat to James VI’s position as heir to the English throne and then later to him when he was crowned King of England after Elizabeth’s death in 1603.

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Portrait of Arbella Stuart.

 

 Born in 1575, Arbella Stuart was the daughter of Charles Stuart, 1st Earl of Lennox and Elizabeth Cavendish, Countess of Lennox. After the death of her parents, Arbella became the ward of Elizabeth ‘Bess’ of Hardwick and spent most of her childhood at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire; isolated from the court of Elizabeth I. While Arbella did visit the court of the Queen, she spent most of her childhood in Derbyshire under the strict supervision of her grandmother. In 1588, Arbella became a Lady in Waiting to Elizabeth but was dismissed and sent back to Derbyshire after being seen to be too familiar with the Queen’s favourite, the Earl of Essex. During her life, Arbella can be seen to have plotted various escape plans; her first an attempt to leave the confines of her grandmother but later as a more serious attempt to break free from the Tower of London, where she was imprisoned by James I for her marriage to William Seymour in 1610. Arbella Stuart died in the Tower in 1615, because of complications from her refusal to eat, and was buried in Westminster Abbey two days later.

Over the next few blog entries, I will be focusing on the arguments of how Arbella Stuart was perceived to be a threat to James I.

[1] Gristwood, Sarah Arbella, England’s Lost Queen, Bantam Books, London 2004, p18

The Women of 18th Century Bath

Throughout the eighteenth century, Bath was the most popular city other than London for the aristocracy to visit. While famously associated with the life and works of Jane Austen, the city has been the home of numerous iconic women of the period. Below are four of Bath’s iconic female residents.

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Caroline Herschel

Sister of William Herschel, Caroline Herschel joined her brother in his New King Street home from Hanover; speaking very little English when she first arrived. During her time in Bath, Caroline received singing lessons from her brother as well as lessons in English and was soon performing soprano roles in the city. Like her brother Caroline was both talented in music and astronomy, acknowledged as her brother’s ‘astronomical assistant.’ As well as acting as William Herschel’s assistant, Caroline discovered eight comets (one of which is named after her) and was awarded with the gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828.

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Elizabeth Linley

Born in 1754 in Bath, Elizabeth Linley is believed to have started her singing career in 1763, performing in numerous Bath concerts. However many believed that her father exploited her talents, commenting that he made her sing too much. Linley famously eloped in 1772 from her family home in the Royal Crescent with Richard Sheridan before marrying in April 1773. After their marriage, Sheridan stopped Linley’s public career and when he bought the Drury Lane Theatre in London she was involved in auditioning singers and keeping the accounts. The couple eventually separated in 1790 and Linley died in Bristol two years later, being buried in Wells Cathedral beside her sister in 1792.

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Sarah Siddons

Originally born in Brecon, Sarah Siddons was a famous actress of the eighteenth century, particularly connected to her successful tragic roles. In 1778, Siddons started performing in Bath’s Theatre Royal and during her time at the theatre established herself as one of the most popular actresses of the period. During her first season, Siddons performed thirty different roles in Bath and Bristol theatres before taking on her iconic roles of Lady Macbeth, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII and Constance in King John during her second season at Bath’s Theatre Royal in 1779. It seems that Siddons intended to remain in Bath but due to financial instability she decided to move to London, leaving the city in September 1782.

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Elizabeth Montagu

Unlike the other women discussed, Elizabeth Montagu was not a full time resident of Bath, instead she rented a house in the Royal Crescent for the season. Elizabeth Montagu was a bluestocking hostess, using her Bath residence to hold various social events in the 1770’s. During these invitation only parties, her guests were encouraged to discuss literary and philosophical subjects and Montagu became known as the Queen of the Blue Stockings.

Who Are The Iconic Men of Georgian Bath?

It’s Jane Austen week here in Bath and everyone here is talking about Pride and Prejudice’s iconic writer.

Over the last few days, Austen has become an even larger conversation starter than usual and is continually referred to as Bath’s most famous resident. However, I do not feel that this is a correct statement! There are many residents of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Bath, who are as iconic, or more so, than Jane Austen but have not received the same attention as the celebrated novelist. Over my next two blog posts, I will be focusing on some of the most well known male and female residents of this famous Georgian city, who deserve to be celebrated as much as Jane Austen.

Today I will be focusing on four of Bath’s most famous male residents during these two centuries.

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Beau Nash

Between 1704 and 1761, Beau Nash was the Master of Ceremonies in Bath and had the greatest influence over the manners and conduct of eighteenth century Bath. Creating rules such as how people were to dress when attending balls to what sorts of entertainment were allowed in Bath, Nash had one of the largest impacts on Georgian Bath as an social setting for both the aristocracy and the gentry. Nash’s position as Master of Ceremonies was so crucial that after his death, in 1761,a competition developed between the potential candidates for the role and a fight broke out in the Assembly Rooms- resulting in the Riot Act being read three times!

Nash resided in Saw Close, now next to the entrance to Bath’s Theatre Royal.

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Richard Sheridan

Politician and playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan is a character I’ve studied in great detail for my dissertation; especially his relationship with Henrietta Ponsonby, Lady Bessborough.His works include dramas such as The Rivals, which is about to be performed again in Bristol’s Old Vic.  Richard Sheridan lived in New King Street and famously eloped with Elizabeth Linley, who became his first wife, from her home in the Royal Crescent in 1772. While courting Elizabeth Linley, Sheridan was involved in two duels with a Captain Thomas Matthews, who had written a negative article about Linley- the first duel was fought in London while the second was fought in Kingsdown, near Bath, in 1772. Both men were injured during the final duel, with Sheridan being declared as out of danger eight days later.

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William Herschel

William Herschel was a man of many talents and moved to Bath from Hanover in 1766 to pursue a career as a musician. However, Herschel is better known for his astronomical discoveries. In the garden of his house on New King Street, William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus as well as increasing the dimensions of the Milky Way. In 1782 Herschel received the title of King’s Astronomer and continued to work on the development of large telescopes until his death in 1822. He was assisted by his sister Caroline, who will be discussed in the future.

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William Beckford

Beckford is arguably one of Bath’s more unique characters. Moving to Lansdown Crescent in 1822, after he had sold Fonthill Abbey (an architectural nightmare in my opinion), William Beckford was a novelist and collector, as well an inheritor of his father’s large fortune. Beckford’s largest, or tallest, endeavour while living in Bath was to create Lansdown Tower, more commonly known today as Beckford’s Tower. The 120 foot tower, which still dominates the Bath skyline, reflects Beckford’s love of architecture and interior design with the writer himself stating ‘I am growing rich, and mean to build towers’ earlier in his life. Beckford died in 1844 and is buried in Lansdown cemetery.

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William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, before and after the collapse of the spire.

 

Do these men deserve to be celebrated like Jane Austen? Are there any other male Bath residents you believe should be celebrated as iconic Bathonians? And what are your opinions on William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey?