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Posts Tagged ‘Order of the Garter’

Alice Chaucer: a survivor in hard times

Monday, December 15th, 2014
In the beautiful church of St Mary the Virgin, Ewelme, in Oxfordshire, there is a tomb and alabaster effigy which attracts visitors from all over the world.  Within the tomb lies Alice de la Pole, late duchess of Suffolk (and lady of the Garter), but her posthumous “fame” derives from her maiden name, which was Chaucer. Alice was born c.1404, probably at Ewelme, the only child of Thomas Chaucer (c.1367-1434) and his wife Maud Burghersh (c.1379-1437). Thomas was the son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400), and he was a man who mattered. His marriage had brought him estates throughout southern England, he was MP for Oxfordshire fourteen times, and was chosen to be Speaker of the House of Commons on five occasions, a record which stood for three hundred years. So, Alice’s background was a very comfortable one, and as an only child she could expect parental favour.

Alice lived her seventy and more years during the turbulent 15th century, and her own life reflects something of the political and dynastic upheavals which afflicted England. We know little about her early life, but aged only eleven, she was married to Sir John Phelip (c.1380-1415). It was not unusual for girls of this age to be betrothed or married, but this was to be a very short marriage, for Sir John died within the year. Alice’s second marriage was to a leading nobleman, Thomas de Montacute, 4th earl of Salisbury (1388-1428), but they had no children and he died when she was still in her mid twenties.

Alice’s third marriage, in 1430, was the one which propelled her to prominence, influence and wealth.  Her new husband was William de la Pole, 4th earl of Suffolk (1396-1450), who later became duke of Suffolk and one of the realm’s mightiest subjects. He’d been made a knight of the Garter in 1421, and Alice herself was first granted Garter robes in 1432 and then again in the years 1434-36 and 1448-49. They had one son, John de la Pole (1442-92). In 1445, she was chosen to accompany Margaret of Anjou (1430-82) to England prior to her marriage to Henry VI, and the two women became friends, at least for the time being. Alice became a leading figure at Henry VI’s court, but eminence fosters jealousy and some saw her influence as malign. This led to demands from parliament for her removal from the royal household.

1450 proved to be the crunch year for Alice and William. The latter was the king’s favourite and had been the chief power in the land, but his policies were increasingly unpopular and his authority was crumbling. Associated with defeat in France and corrupt government at home, he was impeached by the Commons, then sent into exile by Henry VI, mainly for his own safety. However, news of his ‘release’ sparked public anger, and his enemies were not going to let him escape final justice. So, as William was sailing across the channel, his boat was intercepted by another, and the hapless duke was seized, given a mock trial, and summarily executed. Later, his body was found washed up on the sands near Dover.

Her husband’s brutal demise put Alice in a potentially perilous position, and for a time there was danger around her. In a chilling echo of William’s downfall, Jack Cade’s rebels arranged a mock trial of her in London in the summer of 1450. Had the rebellion not fizzled out the outlook for her could have been grim. There were also private attacks on her estates in the 1450s. Yet she survived and went on to prosper. She inherited William’s properties (which included the castle and honour of Wallingford), and was now a wealthy landowner with property in twenty-two counties. Five years after William’s death, the Wars of the Roses began. Perhaps sensing which way the wind would veer, Alice abandoned her Lancastrian allegiance, and switched her loyalty to the Yorkists. Having backed the right horse, by a twist of irony she became custodian in 1471 of Margaret of Anjou, her former friend and patron.

As befitted the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, Alice had an interest in the literature of her time. In particular, she was one of a host of patrons of the Benedictine monk and prolific poet, John Lydgate (c.1370-1449). Lydgate was considered to be the equal of Chaucer in his time, but posterity has not been kind towards his output. It seems he was a master of saying nothing very much to excessive length.

Alice de la Pole, duchess of Suffolk, died in 1475, the year in which Edward IV founded the present St George’s Chapel, symbol of the Yorkist ascendancy which she came to embrace. Her life may not be as well documented as we would wish, but we know enough to see her as one of the formidable women of late medieval England.

Simon Harrison  (Archives volunteer)

Removing the banner of James II

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

The documents that are kept in the St George’s Chapel Archives arrive here from a huge variety of sources, both internal and external to the College of St George, and for a huge variety of reasons. In the case of the order given and signed by William of Orange for removing the Garter banner and achievements of the former King James II from St George’s Chapel [SGC M.1142], a copy found its way into the Archives almost by chance.

In 1984 a series of letters were written between the Windsor Castle Librarian and the Dean of Windsor and an academic living in New York. These letters are now kept in the Archives with a photocopy of the document they discuss. In August 1984 the Procedure for Removing the Banner of the Sovereign had been “recently acquired” by the American academic who sent a photocopy of it to the Windsor Castle Library, enquiring if it was of any interest to them, given that it referred to the “Chapel Royall of Windsor”. The librarian passed this on to the Rt. Revd. Michael Mann, then Dean of Windsor, who acknowledged that the document was of some interest to the College of St George because of its connection with the Order of the Garter. The final letter in this series is an offer to sell the document to St George’s for $1250 (then approximately £1000). Scribbled at the foot of this is a handwritten note: “Archivist, Is it worth it? MAM” and as no more is known of the fate of this record than that it is not held in the St George’s Chapel Archives, we can only assume that the archivist’s answer was “No.”

While perhaps not worth an expenditure of £1000, the document in question is quite significant. It represents actions taken at an unusual juncture in the history of the British Monarchy. That is, following the overthrow of King James II by his son-in-law and eventual successor, William of Orange, in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The actions taken by William, a confirmed Protestant, were prompted by English nobles who feared that James II had been going to found a new Roman Catholic dynasty in England. The document is dated 18th April 1689, two months after James II was declared to have abdicated the throne by his attempt to flee the country and only one week after William and James’s daughter, Mary, were crowned joint monarchs at Westminster Abbey. It is signed at the top “William R” (the R stands for Rex, the Latin word for king) and gives orders that “the Banner and other Atcheivements of King James the second late Sovereigne of the Most Noble Order of the Garter are to be taken downe and Ours placed in there Room”. At this date, James II was living in exile in France. According to Peter Begent’s work on the Order of the Garter, he continued to act as Sovereign, or head, of the Garter while over there and even created a number of supposed Garter Knights at his court in St Germain-en-Laye.

However, this document clearly demonstrates that although James II was never officially degraded from the Order, his position was considered terminated from the time that Parliament declared he was no longer king. The “Atcheivements” referred to in this order would have been the helmet, crest, mantling and sword that were set up above the Sovereign’s stall for King James II along with his banner. It is usual for these achievements to be taken down following the death of a Knight of the Garter, as they then cease to be a member of the Order, but in this case the action was taken more than a decade before James II’s death in 1701. The position of Sovereign of the Garter was then surrendered to William of Orange, as were all of the symbols of kingship of England.

It is not known to us what became of the original document after 1984, though it probably now forms part of a private collection. The photocopy has been kept here because it is in itself a useful document from which information can be gained that provides insight into events at a period of change and turmoil in British royal and political history.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

When Samuel met Catherine

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Samuel Pepys, as we know from the pages of his diary, had an eye for attractive young ladies, and was not averse to recording his amorous adventures in London, albeit in coded language.  Perhaps his most strange one to one encounter was with a French queen consort of England, who was also one of the medieval ladies of the Garter.  Impossible?  On the face of it, yes, but as we shall see, it really did happen.  But first, a resume of the life of the lady in question: Catherine of Valois.

Catherine was born at a Parisian royal palace on 27 October 1401.  She was the youngest daughter of Charles VI of France (1368-1422) and his consort Isabella of Bavaria (c.1370-1435).  When she was still a child there was talk of marrying her off to the English King Henry IV’s son, Prince Henry, but the king died, in 1413, before any serious bargaining could begin.  Henry V, however, had his eyes on France in more ways than one; he invaded in 1415 and won a stunning victory against the odds at Agincourt in October.  Shakespeare’s play portrays Henry’s subsequent amorous wooing of Catherine, and theirs seems to have been a genuine love match.  However their wedding did not take place until 2 June 1420 (probably in Troyes Cathedral), nearly five years after Agincourt.  Owing to Henry’s military commitments in France, their “honeymoon” was mainly spent at a succession of sieges.

On 23 February 1421, Catherine was crowned queen consort in Westminster Abbey, and on 6 December 1421 gave birth to Prince Henry (later King Henry VI) at Windsor.  Sadly, her time as queen consort was to be brief.  In August 1422, Henry V fell ill with dysentery, and died short of his thirty-sixth birthday.  Catherine was not quite twenty-one, so would be expected to find another husband.  Surprisingly perhaps (at least to those in court circles), she fell for a young Welsh squire named Owen Tudor (c.1400-1461).  Sometime between 1428 and 1432 she married him, though doubts have been cast on the marriage’s legality.  Yet it was to be a match of huge dynastic importance.  Edmund Tudor, one of their three sons, was to marry Margaret Beaufort, and their son Henry of Richmond was destined to become king in 1485.

Like her first husband, Catherine only lived to be thirty-five.  She passed away at Bermondsey Abbey on 3 January 1437 shortly after childbirth, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.  So she did not live to see her adopted country torn apart by dynastic warfare.  Owen, her second husband, was to be executed by the Yorkists in 1461, and of course her only son Henry VI was murdered in 1471 after a troubled life and reign.

And so to Catherine’s posthumous “fame”.  It seems her body was embalmed before interment, and sometime in the reign of Henry VII her coffin lid was accidentally raised, revealing her intact corpse.  As a result, between the 16th and 18th centuries, she was often put on display for visitors to the abbey. Only in Queen Victoria’s reign were Catherine’s remains properly re-interred.  On Shrove Tuesday 1669, Samuel Pepys, curious about so many things, went along to the Abbey to see the embalmed Catherine.  And as he records in his diary, this is how he paid his respects:

…I to the Abbey went, and by favour did see the body of Queen Catherine of Valois, and had the upper part of the body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it I did kiss a Queen: and this my birthday and I thirty-six years old and I did kiss a Queen.

The display of a body in this way as a tourist attraction seems utterly foreign to our culture, and we may be repelled or shocked by Samuel Pepys’s physical “intimacy” with Catherine’s embalmed corpse.  But then again he was living in an urban society in which early or sudden death was an everyday reality (it was only four years after the great plague of London).  So perhaps we can excuse his fascination with a beautiful medieval princess and queen who passed from the earth in the prime of her life.

Simon Harrison  (Archives volunteer)

Isabella: capricious child and Garter Lady

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

As we know, the Order of the Garter, founded in 1348, remained an exclusive male preserve until the late 20th century.  However, in the 14th and 15th centuries, there were more than seventy ladies who were granted Garter robes and so have come to be known as Ladies of the Garter.  Most were either daughters or wives of Garter knights, and in some cases both.  The last of the medieval ladies to be so honoured was Elizabeth Tudor (died 1495), daughter of Henry VII.  After her death, no more Garter ladies appear in the records until the 20th century, when Queen Alexandra was declared a Lady of the Order by special statute in 1901.

One of the earliest Garter ladies was Isabella, eldest daughter of Edward III (1312-77) and Philippa of Hainault (c.1310-1369).  She was born at Woodstock Palace, Oxfordshire, on 16 June 1332, the second of the ten surviving children of the royal couple.   Isabella was to be her parents’ favourite child and they spoilt her accordingly.  As a baby, she slept in a gilded cradle lined with taffeta and covered with a fur blanket.  Her gowns were made of imported Italian silk embroidered with jewels.   She and her siblings had a whole retinue of servants to attend to all their needs – a personal chaplain, musicians, grooms, clerks, butlers and cooks.  Isabella was later lavished with lands and money.  Such over-indulgence led her to become capricious and extravagant.

To complicate matters, Isabella became a pawn in the dynastic marriage game, going through several failed marriage proposals.  When she was aged just three, her father tried to arrange a marriage for her with Pedro of Castile, the heir to the Castilian throne.  Doubtless he had diplomatic gain in mind, but the negotiations came to nothing.  In 1351, when she was nineteen, Isabella was due to sail to Gascony to marry a Frenchman, but just before the departure time, she changed her mind and the marriage was called off.  Edward III does not appear to have been angry with his favourite daughter though.  Some years later he granted her an annuity of 1000 marks, and in 1359, lent her a further 1000 marks to redeem jewels she had pawned.

Dark-haired and dark-eyed, though of a sallow complexion, Isabella entered her thirties without a husband, which was unusual for a royal princess at this time.  Then she fell in love with a French nobleman, Enguerrand de Coucy (c.1340-1397), who was seven years her junior.  They were married at Windsor on 27 July 1365, and went on to have two daughters, Philippa and Mary (also known as Marie).  Enguerrand, who had formerly been a hostage of the English, was now very much in royal favour, and was created a Knight of the Garter and Earl of Bedford in 1366.  Isabella herself was granted Garter robes in 1376, 1377 and 1377.

As a Frenchman, Enguerrand was conscious of his conflicting national loyalties, and seems to have spent much time away from Isabella, engaged in fighting in Italy and France.  Towards the end of her life, Isabella was living in England with her younger daughter Philippa (who later married the Earl of Oxford).  She died sometime before 4 May 1379, aged forty-six, and was buried in the Greyfriars Church, Newgate, in London.

Simon Harrison  (Archives volunteer)

Henry VI’s Sword

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

In the early years of the reign of King Henry VIII, Nicholas West, Dean of Windsor [1509-1515], sent two letters to the Canons back in Windsor, concerning his visit to the King and the King’s Council [SGC II.J.7/1-2]. Henry VIII had promised to donate some lands in his will to the Dean and Canons for a number of charitable purposes; principally to support the Poor Knights of Windsor. During his absence from Windsor, the Dean spoke with the King and attended the King’s Council in order to obtain a patent establishing a future claim to the properties, to be conveyed to the Dean and Canons after Henry VIII’s death. They were to become known as the lands of the ‘New Dotation’.

In his second letter, Dean West informed the Canons that he had sent them not only the patent concerning the lands but also a sword that had been given to the Dean and Canons. The gift of this sword is of particular interest since it was believed to have belonged to Henry VI, the saintly King whose remains lay buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, having been moved there from Chertsey Abbey in 1484. According to the Dean, the sword had been acquired by a man called ‘Garnyston’ from another man named ‘Stone of Westminster’ who had confirmed it to be the sword of good King Harry. This man Stone had apparently already given to the Dean and Canons a hat and spurs allegedly belonging to Henry VI and appears to have been considered a credible source. In sending the sword to Windsor, Dean West suggested that the Canons cover it with some old velvet or cloth of gold and set it on an altar, presumably beside the burial place of Henry VI:     

‘I have also sent you a sword gevyn us by garnyst[o]n which as he credebely afermyth was King Harys And so on[e] stone off Westmynster that gave us as he sayth the hatte and the spurrs[,] gave hym the same swerd as the swerd off the sayd good kyng Wher for it may lyke you to cov[er] it wt su[m] old velevett or su[m] old cloth off gold and sett it on alt[ar] I suppose it shall be well done.’ [SGC II.J.7/2]

According to contemporary accounts, the hat or cap was made available to pilgrims visiting Henry VI’s shrine at Windsor and was thought, when placed of the head of sufferers, to offer a cure for headaches. Visitors to the shrine also venerated the spurs, to the distress of commentators such as Testwood: ‘who beheld the pilgrims, specially from Devonshire and Cornwall how they came by plumps, with candles and images of waxe in their hands, to offer good King Henry of Windsor, as they called him, it pitied his heart to see such great idolatorie committed, and how vainely the people had spent their goods in coming so far to kiss a spur, and to have an old hat set upon their heads’ [from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs]. Dean West’s letter mentioned that the hat and spurs were obtained from the same man as the sword, suggesting that they were also acquired in the early sixteenth century. King Henry VI’s tomb remains in St George’s Chapel, to the south of the High Altar. However, the associated relics were removed and destroyed or sold during the Reformation.     

Clare Rider, Archivist and Chapter Librarian

Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk

Friday, February 1st, 2013

Monument to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk

It is easy to fail to notice in the floor of the south quire aisle of St Georges Chapel the ledger stone marking the burial place of Charles Brandon, Duke of  Suffolk, one of the most flamboyant and influential personalities of Henry VIII’s reign.

Brandon’s father, standard bearer for Henry Tudor, was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field. Brandon was bought up at Henry VII’s court, a great favourite of the king and a childhood friend of the king’s second son.  In 1515 Henry VIII sent Brandon to France to escort back to England the king’s sister, Mary, whose husband Louis XII had died. Henry wanted the return of the huge sum of money plus the jewels and plate given to Mary as her dowry and Thomas Wolsey had negotiated that all the dowry be delivered to Brandon. Brandon carried out this task but, by the time of his return to England, he had married the young widow, a month after the French king’s death.

Once Henry’s anger had subsided Brandon’s star was again in the ascendant. In 1513 he had become Master of Horse and took part in Henry’s successful French campaign. He was present at the meeting of Henry and Francois I of France at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. In 1523 Brandon commanded English forces in an attack on Calais and in 1544 he led another invasion of France. At home, he was High Steward at the wedding of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in 1533 and several years later acquired a large amount of land at the Dissolution.

When Brandon died in 1544 he was buried in St George’s Chapel at the king’s expense. The historian Pote (d. 1715) wrote of Brandon’s burial that “nothing remains to distinguish the Grave of this noble Duke but a rude brick pavement and the remainder of his Atchievements affixed to the Pillar above”.  In fact, the helm now mounted on the 4th bay of the south quire aisle has been identified as a jousting helm,  not a funerary helm and since between c 1790 and c 1840 many helms were removed from the Chapel, a connection of this helm with Brandon is unlikely.

An 1787 entry in Chapter Acts states:  “Ordered that leave be given to lay a stone above the grave of Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk, according to His Majesties directions”. The resulting ledger was put in place by Henry Emlyn during his repaving of the quire aisles and nave. The inscription on the ledger states that Charles Brandon “married Mary, daughter of Henry VII,  widow of Louis XII of France”.  (She was the third of Brandon’s 4 wives).  It is recorded in Chapter Acts 1947-8 that the arms of Charles Brandon and his wife Mary Tudor were added to the inscriptions on the ledger stone.

Jill Hume, Archives Volunteer

Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Richard Beauchamp was a younger son of Sir Walter de Beauchamp, a distinguished soldier and lawyer, and Elizabeth daughter of Sir John Roche.

He was Archdeacon of Suffolk in 1448 and installed as Bishop of Hereford in 1449 finally being translated by papal Bull in 1450 to the See of Salisbury.

From 1452 he appears to have acted upon occasions as Chaplain to the Order of the Garter and in 1475 was appointed by Edward IV as the first Chancellor of the Order with official lodgings in the precincts of Windsor Castle.  Beauchamp was made Master and Surveyor of ‘works to be newly constructed’, and by October 1475 work had begun and careful accounts for years 1477-9 kept by the Bishop on the building of the new Chapel for the Order of the Garter.   He was installed as Dean of Windsor in March 1478 and obtained a Bull from Sixtus IV authorising the removal of the body of John Schorn, Rector of Great Marsden, to the new Chapel.

The snails of Bishop Beauchamp

The arms of Bishop Beauchamp can be seen below a recess in the south wall of the south aisle, together with the arms of Beauchamp of Warwick and Beauchamp of Holt. The wood carving in the quire of St George’s Chapel also contains the arms and badge, a snail, of Richard Beauchamp.  The snail appears on numerous misericords and also desk fronts with mitres and Garter motto. 

Opposite the recess in the south aisle is an inscription which refers to Bishop Beauchamp and prayers to be said next to the Holy Cross, represented by the Cross Gneth overhead.  The carved stone ceiling boss at the eastern end of the south aisle, King Edward IV and the Bishop are kneeling on either side of a Cross.  This represents the Cross Gneth which was believed to contain a fragment of the true Cross. 

Richard Beauchamp was Bishop of Salisbury for over 30 years and is buried in Salisbury Cathedral.  He was succeeded by Lionel Woodville, brother of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen Consort of Edward IV.

Enid Davies, Assistant Archivist

Clemency Canning: forgotten servant of empire

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

This December sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles John Canning, first viceroy of India, and all too briefly a Knight of the Garter. Charles was born on 14 December 1812 at Gloucester Lodge, an Italian-style villa situated between Kensington and Brompton, and was one of four children of the politician George Canning (1770-1827) and his wife, Joan, nee Scott (c.1776-1837).  His father was twice foreign secretary, and then prime minister for just four months in 1827 before dying in office.  George and William, his elder brothers, both died as young men, one from consumption, the other by drowning.

Charles began his education at a private school in Putney then spent four years at Eton College.  After several months at another private school, he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, where his contemporaries included the future prime minister William Ewart Gladstone.  Unlike some young men from privileged backgrounds who went up to Oxford, he actually worked hard, achieving a first in classics and a second in mathematics, an interesting combination of subjects.  In 1835, two years after graduating, he married Charlotte Stuart (1817-61), elder daughter of Lord Stuart de Rothesay.  Their marriage was to be happy, but childless.

In 1836, he entered the Commons as tory MP for Warwick, but in 1837 had to move to the Lords having succeeded to the title Viscount Canning of Kilbrahan, county Kilkenny.  As an intelligent, well-connected young man from a political family, he had every prospect of a successful career in British politics.  His first big break came in 1841 when Sir Robert Peel formed a tory government and appointed him under-secretary of state for foreign affairs.  After Peel’s ministry collapsed in 1846 he was without political office for nearly seven years, but in 1853, joined Lord Aberdeen’s coalition government as postmaster-general.  By all accounts he made a great success of the job and further promotion seemed likely.  Then, Aberdeen’s coalition fell in 1855 during the Crimean War, and the more tough-minded Viscount Palmerston became prime minister.  Impressed by Charles Canning’s administrative qualities and his judicious, reflective nature, he nominated him to be the next governor-general of India in succession to Lord Dalhousie.

At this time, India was still run, to a large extent, by the East India Company, not directly by the British government, though this was soon to change.  Before embarking on the long voyage out, Charles attended a banquet at which the Company’s directors were present.  It seems he had a premonition of the explosive events to come as he spoke these words to those present:

  …in the sky of India, serene as it is, a cloud may arise, at first no
  bigger than a man’s hand, but which growing larger and larger, may      
  at last threaten to burst, and overwhelm us with ruin.

After a leisurely three-month voyage, Charles arrived in Calcutta (then the seat of government) in February 1856.  During his first year in office, rumbling discontent was growing amongst the sepoys of the Bengal army over a range of issues, and in the spring of 1857, the storm broke.  The garrison at Meerut rose up and murdered its officers then marched on Delhi and massacred the city’s European residents.  Within weeks most of the Bengal army had joined the mutiny.  This was a full-scale challenge to  British authority, made worse by a general state of anarchy in the affected areas, which allowed princes, peasants and landholders to settle old scores and grievances by violent means.

How was Charles Canning to respond to the grave situation?  India’s British residents, gripped by fear and near panic, demanded swift and savage action  to crush the rebels, especially after the Cawnpore massacre in which English women were slaughtered.  But Charles favoured a more measured response to the crisis, one which tempered firmness with mercy.  Bloody revenge, he felt, would only make it harder to restore order, and was likely to sow seeds of further trouble.  This did not go down well with the British press (especially The Times and Punch), who dubbed him “Clemency” Canning for his leniency towards the rebel Indian soldiers.

Eventually, the tide turned in favour of the British, the mutiny ended in the summer of 1858, and Charles Canning’s calm handling of the crisis was seen to be vindicated.  His nickname “Clemency”, once negative and derisory, now assumed a more positive aura.  But the way India was run had to change, so out went the East India Company, and the country was placed under the direct governance of the British crown.  Charles now became the first viceroy of British India and was raised to an earldom in 1859.  Two years later, the Star of India, a new order of knighthood, was created to strengthen ties between the queen and her Indian subjects.

The mutiny was a stern test of Charles Canning’s mettle and henceforth much of his time as viceroy was spent grappling with financial issues.  Typically, he worked a fifteen-hour day, which reinforced an impression of natural aloofness.  Unlike later viceroys, he was unable to make regular trips to the cooling hills of Simla in the summer months and most of his time was spent in the hot plains.  This took a severe toll on his health, and in November 1861 Lady Canning died of malaria.  Towards the end of his viceroyalty in March 1862, he was a broken, sick man, “pale, wan, toilworn, and grief-stricken” according to an observer at the time.

Soon after returning to London he fell ill with an abscess of the liver.  In May 1862, he was installed a Knight of the Garter by dispensation, but enjoyed the honour for a mere few weeks.  On 17 June he died at his home in Grosvenor Square, aged just forty-nine.  As befitted an unswerving servant of the empire he was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to his father George. His statue in the Abbey’s north transept bears an inscription, which refers to his once derogatory nickname:

     …during the perilous crisis of the Sepoy mutiny, he displayed
     with entire success such fortitude, judgment and wise
     clemency as proved him worthy of his illustrious father,
     and justly entitled him to the lasting gratitude of his country.

Had Lord Palmerston not sent him to India in 1855, Charles Canning would probably have risen to the top in British politics and would surely have lived much longer.  As it was, he spent six gruelling years running a country of dazzling complexity and mighty challenges.  Few men can have done more to earn the award of the Garter.

Simon Harrison (Archives volunteer)

Evelyn Pierrepont: spend, spend, spend…

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Many of the Garter knights have performed noble deeds and service, but not all of them have led exemplary and well-regulated lives. One of the most colourful of the 18th century knights was Evelyn Pierrepont (1711-1773), the second Duke of Kingston upon Hull. His father, William Pierrepont, died the year after his birth, so he grew up without what might have been a restraining paternal influence. His early education seems to have been deplorable, and after some kind of schooling at Eton College, he took off on the grand tour of Europe in 1726, aged only about fourteen. The same year, he succeeded his grandfather as Duke of Kingston upon Hull, an inheritance which was to have a major bearing on his lifestyle.

The ‘grand tour’ was an almost obligatory initiation for young men from aristocratic families.  In most cases, the tour would last a few years, usually taking in France, Italy, and possibly the Germanic lands. Evelyn Pierrepont chose to stay away for ten years, during which he acquired a scandalous reputation, a French mistress (already married with three children), and a love of sport and gambling. Whilst abroad, he came of age, which meant he inherited Thoresby Park and Holme Pierrepont Hall in Nottinghamshire, plus estates in seven other counties, stretching from Yorkshire to Somerset.

And so in 1736, the young duke arrived back from France with his mistress, Marie-Therese de Fontaine de la Touche, in tow. She later became a British subject and joined the Church of England. Their relationship lasted about fourteen years, though at one time he may have dallied with Frances Anne Vane (1715-88), the memoirist and serial sexual adventurer. On the domestic economy front, his lucrative estates were just what he needed to finance his extravagant and rakish lifestyle, and so he spent without restraint. By 1745, his debts were four times his income.

His grandfather, the first duke, had been a Garter knight, and this may have been the reason why he also received the Garter, in April 1741. On the day of his installation, he folded back the front of his coat to hide the star, perhaps feeling slightly embarrassed by the honour.  Politics was of scant interest to him, but he did hold several local offices, such as head ranger of Sherwood Forest, and master of the staghounds north of the Trent. In 1745, though heavily in debt, he raised a regiment of light cavalry in response to the Jacobite threat, and his troops saw action at the decisive battle of Culloden in 1746. Afterwards they burnt every house they could find and seized cattle. He actually reached the rank of general in 1772, though could hardly be termed an active soldier.

Around 1750, he broke up with Marie-Therese and found a new mistress, Elizabeth Chudleigh (c.1720-1788). She was a notorious society figure and unbeknown to him, had secretly married the future earl of Bristol in 1744. There seemed to be some doubt about the marriage’s validity and it was eventually declared unlawful by the courts. So, on 8 March 1769, he was at last able to marry Elizabeth.  By this time, she had become seriously overweight, a result of excessive eating combined with fondness for the bottle. The duke’s valet claimed he was never to have a week’s happiness again.

Evelyn Pierrepont died at his home in Bath on 23 September 1773, and was buried at the family seat, Holme Pierrepont. In default of a male heir, his titles became extinct. Three years later, his widow was declared a bigamist by the House of Lords. The writer Horace Walpole summed him up as a very weak man, but also one of great beauty and the finest man in England – a suitably ambiguous verdict upon an extravagant grandee.

Simon Harrison  (Archives volunteer)

John Montagu: A noble aristocrat

Monday, December 19th, 2011

Stall plate of John, 2nd Duke of Montagu

John Montagu, the second Duke of Montagu (1690-1749), who became a Knight of the Garter in 1718, deserves remembrance not for his achievements, but for his range of interests and for the kind of man he was. He was born at Boughton in Northamptonshire, the county of “spires and squires” into a fairly conventional aristocratic family. We don’t know much about his early years, but he had a private tutor and went on the tour of France and Italy which was almost obligatory for young men of his social background.

In 1705, aged only fifteen, he married into one of the grandest families in England. His bride was the teenage Mary Churchill (1689-1751), who was the fourth and youngest daughter of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Their marriage was to last more than forty years until Montagu’s death, but was tinged with sadness. Their two sons both died young, and one of their three daughters died in infancy.

Montagu’s father-in-law was one of the great military leaders of his time, so he went off to Flanders with him on campaign in 1706. However he soon returned home to England having little taste for the arts of warfare. He was much more suited to the life of a courtier. When his father died in 1709, he inherited the dukedom as well as the office of master of the great wardrobe, which he held until his death.

Aside from his life at court, Montagu was something of a scholar with a keen interest in the advancement of scientific knowledge. He was very pleased therefore to be made a fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians and, in 1717, he was admitted a doctor of physic at Cambridge. Colonial enterprise was another area of his interests and in 1722 he was granted the West Indian islands of St Lucia and St Vincent. Having been appointed governor of the islands he set about establishing British settlements there, and dug into his own pocket to finance the venture. It was a total failure, partly because of opposition from the French who regarded the islands as neutral under treaty.  He lost over £40,000, a huge sum at the time.

Despite his colonial failure, the duke remained in favour under both George I and George II. He was created a Knight of the Bath in 1725, was made captain of the gentlemen pensioners (the monarch’s personal bodyguard) in 1734 and, in 1740, was appointed master-general of ordnance. Notwithstanding his lack of military prowess, he was made a major-general in the army in 1735, and in 1745 (the year of the Jacobite rebellion) was promoted to general.

In character, Montagu was a generous and kindly man, who also loved fun, practical jokes and hoaxes, which led more sober spirits (his mother-in-law included) to see him as frivolous. According to an 18th century source, he funded the education at grammar school and Cambridge of a black Jamaican, Francis Williams (c.1690-1762). This is an intriguing story, but the facts are doubtful. Francis was the son of freed slaves, but his parents did well financially so it seems unlikely he needed patronage, and also his name does not appear in the records of Cambridge University. But Montagu certainly helped another black man called Ignatius Sancho (1729?-1780). Ignatius was born on an Atlantic slave ship, his father took his own life, and aged two he came into the care of three maiden sisters living in Greenwich. They named him Sancho after Don Quixote’s companion, but had no regard for his education. One day, Montagu, who had a house at Blackheath, met Ignatius by chance, invited him home, and went on to lend him books. Ignatius later became an author, had his portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough, and may have been the only Afro-Britain to have voted in an 18th century parliamentary election.

The duke’s country seat, Boughton House, had gardens laid out in the style of Versailles (the work of his father), and he continued the work of developing these. Boughton later came into the possession of the Buccleuch family. He also had a London residence called Montagu House, later the site of the British Museum, which opened to the public in 1759.

He died of a violent fever at a house in Whitehall on 6 July 1749, leaving his widow and two daughters. He’d been a man of many parts, who, in the words of the Oxford DNB, was “the proponent of a gentler way of life, all hidden under a devil-may-care attitude and style of life.”

Simon Harrison (Archives volunteer)