Monday, February 5, 2024

All sorts of colours

Countess Cowper, Lady of the Bedchamber to Caroline Princess of Wales, the highest ranking lady in Britain at the time, died three centuries ago today. Her much older husband, Earl Cowper, who had served as the first Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, had died a few months earlier. While at Court, the Countess kept a detailed diary - not published for more than a century - full of gossip, intrigue and colour about life in the early years of the newly-established Royal House of Hanover. It also includes a detailed description of the astonishing night when a display of Northern Lights caused all of London to come out onto the streets.

Mary Clavering was born in 1685, the daughter of John Clavering, of Chopwell, County Durham. She married William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper, who had recently been made Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, in 1706, though the marriage was kept secret to begin with (for no reason discernible today). She is said to have been a beautiful and accomplished woman. This was Earl Cowper’s second marriage, although he had also had a mistress before marrying Mary who bore him two illegitimate children.

Earl Cowper took part in negotiating the union of England with Scotland, and was appointed the first Lord Chancellor of the newly-formed Great Britain in 1707. On the death of Queen Anne (in 1714), her successor George I appointed Cowper one of the Lords Justices for governing the country during the king’s absence, and a few weeks later he again became Lord Chancellor.

When Hanover-born George took the throne, his son, George Augustus (who would go on to become King George II) also came to England with his wife Caroline. The two were titled as Prince and Princess of Wales, and, as King George I was estranged from his imprisoned wife, Caroline was thus the highest ranked woman in the land. The same year, 1714, Countess Cowper, who had been corresponding with Caroline in Hanover for some years, was appointed as her Lady to the Bedchamber. The Countess’s language skills are said to have been of great benefit in helping her husband liaise with the new court; and, initially, both the Earl and Countess helped ease the ongoing tensions between King and heir.

Earl Cowper, though, resigned office in 1718, ostensibly on grounds of ill-health, but most likely for being thought to have sided with the Prince of Wales, and having lost the confidence of the King. He retired to his home at Cole Green, Hertford. Mary, however, remained at court for some years. Earl Cowper died in 1723, and Mary died several months later. A little further information is available from Wikipedia or The Peerage.

Mary Cowper is largely remembered today for the lively and informative diary she kept all the time she was at court, although later she destroyed many entries (for 1717-1719), apparently to protect her husband who was suspected of plotting with Jacobites. What remained of the diary was first published by John Murray in 1864 as Diary of Mary Countess Cowper, Lady of the Bedchamber to The Princess of Wales 1714-1720, and is freely available online at Internet Archive. The work is notable for its intimate pictures of court, all the scheming and gossiping, at the beginning of the British monarchy’s House of Hanover (which ended with Queen Victoria).

(Mary Cowper was also responsible for preserving the diary of her friend David Hamilton, physician to Queen Anne, see The Diary Review - The spirit of millipedes.) Here are a few extracts from Countess Cowper’s diary, including one about a spectacular show of the Northern Lights in London.

19 October 1714
‘We went to my Lord Mayor’s Show, four of us in the Duchess of Shrewsbury’s Coach, and two with the Prince’s Lords in one of the King’s Coaches. We stood at a Quaker’s, over against Bow Church. I thought I should have lost the Use of my Ears with the continual Noise of Huzzas, Music, and Drums; and when we got to the Hall the Crowd was inconceivably great. My poor Lady Humphreys made a sad Figure in her black Velvet, and did make a most violent Bawling to her Page to hold up her Train before the Princess being loath to lose the Privilege of her Mayoralty. But the greatest Jest was that the King and the Princess both had been told that my Lord Mayor had borrowed her for that Day only; so I had much ado to convince them of the Contrary, though he by Marriage is a Sort of Relation of my Lord’s first Wife. At last they did agree that if he had borrowed a Wife, it would have been another Sort of One than she was.

This Day was the Prince’s Birthday. I never saw the Court so splendidly fine. The Evening concluded with a Ball, which the Prince and Princess began. She danced in Slippers [i.e. low-heeled shoes which were not the fashion at the time] very well, and the Prince better than Anybody.’

2 November 1714
‘I brought the Princess a Book that Madame Kielmanfegge had sent me to give her, and after presenting it I understood by Mrs. Howard that there was a mortal Hatred between them, and that the Princess thought her a wicked Woman. She also told me that her sending it to me was a Design to persuade the Princess that she was very well with me, in order to ruin my Credit with her; ‘For,’ added she, ‘if it had not been so, she would have sent it either by the Duchess of Bolton or Shrewsbury, that are so well with her; but she never stuck a Pin into her Gown without a Design.’ Piloti told me that she was the Daughter of the old Countess of Platen, who was Mistress to the King’s Father, and had caused the Separation.’

15 November 1714
‘I came into Waiting. I was ill when I came in, and continued so the whole Week. The Princess told me she had seen the Treatise on the State of Parties, already mentioned, and complimented me mightily upon it. In the Evening I played at Basset as low as I could, which they rallied me for; but I told my Mistress I played out of Duty, not Inclination, and having four Children, Nobody would think ill of me if for their Sakes I desired to save my Money, when I did not do Anything that was mean, dishonest, or dishonourable; for which she commended me, and said she thought the principal Duty of a Woman was to take care of her Children.’

17 November 1714
‘Dr. Clarke came in this Morning and presented the Princess with his Books. This Day she expressed a Dislike to my Lady Bristol’s Project of attacking the Duchess of Shrewsbury in the House of Commons about her being a Foreigner, and consequently incapable of having any Place about the Princess.

The Duchess of Bolton asked me to go to her House to meet the Prince and play at Cards with all the Ladies of the Bedchamber. But I was in Waiting: the Duchess of St. Albans supped out also that Night where the King was. She had been made Groom of the Stole the Week before, and so the Duchess of Shrewsbury had come into her Place; and now Lady Bristol laboured to get in, in the same Manner that the Duchess of Shrewsbury had been before. But she has since had a direct Denial.’

21 November 1714
‘I went to Chapel, which concluded the Service of my Week. I received a thousand Marks of my Mistress’s Favour, as embracing me, kissing me, saying the kindest Things, and telling me that she was truly sorry for my Week of Waiting was so near out. I am so charmed with her good Nature and good Qualities, that I shall never think I can do enough to please her. I am sure, if being sincerely true and just to her will be any Means to merit Favour, I shall have it, for I am come into the Court with Resolution never to tell a Lie; and I hope I find the good Effects of it, for she reposes more Confidence in what I say than in any others, upon that very Account.’

25 February 1716
‘Sir D. Hamilton cannot get into the Tower to Lord Carnwath. They are more strictly kept since the Escape. I was with the Princess, who had just received a Letter from Madame d’OrlĂ©ans stuffed with Lies of the Jacobites, which they wrote from England just before the Pretender got to Lorraine. The Princess says the King and Prince are much displeased with Lord Nottingham. She thinks Monsieur Robetbon a Knave, and Baron Bothmar another. Company came in and stopped our Conversation.’

6 March 1716
‘At Court. An extraordinary Light in the Sky, described to me since by Dr. Clarke, who saw it from the Beginning. First appeared a black Cloud, from whence Smoke and Light issued forth at once on every Side, and then the Cloud opened, and there was a great Body of pale Fire, that rolled up and down, and sent forth all Sorts of Colours like the Rainbow on every Side; but this did not last above two or three Minutes. After that it was like pale elementary Fire issuing out on all sides of the Horizon, but most especially at the North and North-west, where it fixed last. The Motion of it was extremely swift and rapid, like Clouds in their swiftest Rack. Sometimes it discontinued for a While, at other Times it was but as Streaks of Light in the Sky, but moving always with Swiftness. About one o’Clock this Phenomenon was so strong, that the whole Face of the Heavens was entirely covered with it, moving as swiftly as before, but extremely low. It lasted till past Four, but decreased till it was quite gone. At One the Light was so great that I could, out of my Window, see People walk across Lincoln’s Inn Fields, though there was no Moon. Both Parties turned it on their Enemies. The Whigs said it was God’s Judgement on the horrid Rebellion, and the Tories said that it came for the Whigs taking off the two Lords [see below] that were executed. I could hardly make my Chairmen come Home with me, they were so frightened, and I was forced to let my Glass down, and to preach to them as I went along, to comfort them. I’m sure Anybody that had overheard the Dialogue would have laughed heartily. All the People were drawn out into the Streets, which were so full of people One could hardly pass, and all frighted to Death.’ [This was a display of the Northern Lights, once dubbed Lord Derwentwater’s Lights because the coffin of Lord Derwentwater, a young Jacobite executed for treason, had been brought to London that night.]

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 5 February 2014.

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