In the years before March 1782 when William’s mother lady Courtenay died, three of her husband’s four sisters had left Powderham to settle elsewhere. Mary, the eldest, had made a home for herself in London at Orchard-street, Portman-square, with mrs. Tarrant as her companion. The two middle sisters had married and each had then moved north to live with her husband at his home: Frances with sir John Wrottesley at Wrottesley Hall in Staffordshire; Lucy with John Cotes at Woodcote in Shropshire. The eldest of lady Courtenay’s daughters, Frances, had married too, starting a family of her own with John Honywood. Only Charlotte, youngest of his sisters, still lived with lord Courtenay and his thirteen unmarried children, the youngest of them just three months old. Born in January 1751, she had reached the age of thirty-one without marrying; it was easy to foresee the roles that a woman in her circumstances would be expected to perform for her brother’s family throughout the next twenty years or so.
We know next to nothing about Charlotte Courtenay’s life in the years before her marriage and not a great deal more about her life in the following forty-four years, firstly as lady Loughborough then from 1801 as the countess and dowager countess of Rosslyn. ‘My aunt‘ as Charlotte Cotes remarked, was ‘in the constant habit of burning all her letters‘. From reports in magazines we do know how she dressed on some occasions. In 1793 at the grand reception held on 18 January at st. James’s palace in Westminster to mark queen Charlotte’s official birthday, she wore ‘A white satin gown and coat. The petticoat richly embroidered with goldstones‘. At the reception in 1795 her dress was ‘A brown and gold stuff body and train; the petticoat very richly embroidered in gold and stripes of coloured chenille.’
Her mother died in 1761 when Charlotte was ten years old. In the following year her brother married Fanny Clack while her father, just a few days before his death, was created viscount Courtenay and she became styled ‘the honorable’ Charlotte Courtenay. In 1772 she reached the age of twenty-one years and was entitled by her father’s will to receive a legacy of £4,000.
In 1773 she and the bride’s father witnessed the wedding between Wilbraham Tollemache and Anna Maria Lewis (earl and countess of Dysart from 1799). In October 1780 William Beckford wrote her a letter from Bologna and in February 1781 drafted another letter while he was at Paris. In the summer of 1782 Charlotte joined a house-party at Elford in Staffordshire where she met a clever and ambitious lawyer and politician, a childless widower eighteen years her senior: Alexander Wedderburn, lord Loughborough, chief justice of the common pleas. The couple met again soon after and speedily reached an agreement to marry, which they did in a quiet way on 12 September, a little short of six months after lady Courtenay’s death. Their marriage lasted until Alexander’s death in 1805.
In December 1788 her brother died in London and her nephew William became the third viscount Courtenay. In the following July William reached the age of twenty-one but, as the family and household were still in mourning, his coming-of-age celebrations were postponed until the summer of 1790. By that time he had already taken his seat in the House of Lords at Westminster.
The historian Edward Gibbon described Charlotte as ‘not handsome, but very pleasant‘; ten years later in 1792 the wit James Hare wrote to Georgiana duchess of Devonshire, ‘As to ill natured or foolish paragraphs in newspapers, you would not have escaped them if you had been as cold as Ly Loughborough‘. In January 1793 her husband was appointed lord chamberlain and in its issue for October of that year The Gentleman’s Magazine, under the heading Births: Lately, noticed: ‘The Lady of the Lord Chamberlain, a son‘. The boy, who seems to have been Charlotte’s only child, died in the following year.
In February 1797 a small French force landed on the coast of Wales at Fishguard, setting off widespread panic across the kingdom. Another small force landed in August 1798 at Killala bay on the coast of Ireland in support of the risings against British rule. Lawyers from the Inns of Court in London began to form themselves into an association of volunteers to defend their country in the event of invasion.
In June 1798 Charlotte, as the lady of the lord chamberlain, presented the Bloomsbury and Inns of Court Association with its ‘colours’ . The colours were consecrated in the chapel of the Foundling hospital where Thomas Willis delivered a sermon on a text from the biblical book of the prophet Isaiah: ‘When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.’ The sermon was printed soon after ‘at the request of Lord Loughborough‘:
‘Bedford-Square, June 11, 1798.
Sir, It is much to be wished that your excellent Discourse, replete with Religion, and so very applicable to the present momentous period, should extend its influence beyond the circle wherein it was pronounced.
I therefore make it my request, that the same be printed, for the edification of those who had not the advantage of hearing it.
I have the Honour to be, Sir, With great Esteem, Your obedient humble Servant, Loughborough.‘
The occasion also prompted Charlotte’s second cousin Willoughby Bertie, earl of Abingdon, to publish what a reviewer in The Gentleman’s Magazine termed ‘a rhapsodical effusion‘. ‘A Letter to Lady Loughborough’ begins: “Your Ladyship having, in the most public and awful Manner, consigned Colours to the Charge of Men of the most laudable Profession, whom you are pleased to compliment for those arduous Exertions in the Service of their Country, which evince their Determination to defend (under Heaven!) our glorious Constitution;” &c.
A year later, on 21 June 1799, king George III made an inspection of ‘the different Volunteer Corps in and about the Metropolis‘. The Loughboroughs had by this time moved from Bedford-square to Bolton-house in Russell-square where they laid on ‘an elegant entertainment‘ for the royal family.
‘His Majesty arrived there about one o’clock. About an hour afterwards, her Majesty and the five Princesses, accompanied by the Duke of Clarence, came to the Lord Chancellor’s; and the Royal Family then sat down to their collation. About 3, his Majesty again mounted, and proceeded down Guildford-street to the Foundling-hospital.‘ The queen and princesses came in their carriages soon after, then ‘the whole Royal Family alighted, and viewed the children’s apartments, &c. which occupied nearly an hour.’
In 1801 Loughborough lost his position as lord chancellor but in compensation was created earl of Rosslyn and awarded an annual pension of £4,000. The new earl and countess had soon changed both their town and country residences, moving from Bolton-house to number 12 St. James’s-square and from Hampstead to Baylis, a house at Salt Hill near Windsor, where the royal family passed a good deal of their time at the castle.
When Alexander died at Baylis in 1805, the earldom passed to his sister Janet’s eldest son, sir James St. Clair Erskine. By her husband’s will, Charlotte was given an annuity of £1,200 and entrusted with a legacy of £2,000 for the benefit of Lucy and Charlotte Cotes, ‘as a small Retribution for their Constant kindness and Duty to me‘. Born in 1783 and 1784, the two young women were the only children of lady Rosslyn’s sister Lucy Cotes. Their mother had died in 1786 when the girls were still infants and their father married again in 1794, starting a second family.
As part of the entailed estate, the freehold house in St. James’s-square descended to the new earl ‘but with this Condition that Ly. Rosslyn if she Chuses to reside in it shall have the use of it with all the Furniture Books Linen China Pictures Plate during her life and the House to be kept in repair for her‘. If she chose not to live there, ‘she shall receive in addition to the Annuity given by my Will three hundred pounds Pr. Anm [per annum = annually] and shall have and take to her own use all such Articles of Furniture Books Linen China Pictures Plate in that or any other House of mine as she shall Chuse‘.
Charlotte chose not. The second earl of Rosslyn was soon in residence at number 12 St. James’s-square while the countess-dowager took up the lease of a house in London at Bolton Street, Piccadilly – number 3 where the writer Henry James took lodgings for several years later in the century. Now the dowager countess of Rosslyn, Charlotte lived there with the two Cotes sisters. She mentions her nephew William in her will but we do not know when they last met: in 1811 he was indicted for buggery and began the period of exile from England which lasted until his death.
In 1814 the prince regent recruited lady Rosslyn and her nieces to assist lady Ilchester in supervising the conduct of his unruly daughter, the eighteen-year old princess Charlotte. She nicknamed the countess ‘old Cross Bones‘, referring to the trio as ‘famine & the consequences‘. Lady Rosslyn ‘never seems good humored or pleased, & is always listening to what is going on, & proposing, but seldom agrees, & generally contradicts’. Writing about their winter journey from London to Windsor, the princess complained that ‘her eternal fidgets & frights nearly drove me distracted.’ She came to acknowledge that the three women had been ‘set on, & that it was not their own inclination’, but she still wanted ‘old famine &c. out of the house’. This was not to happen until the princess was able to form a new household after her marriage on 2 May 1816 with prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg.
The prince regent presented Charlotte and her nieces with jewellery to wear at the wedding: a locket with a cypher in diamonds for lady Rosslyn; one set of amethysts for the Cotes sisters with another of chrysolites (peridots). It seems that Charlotte still maintained her long-standing reputation as a woman who dressed with distinction. ‘I wish it was over‘ wrote the dowager countess of Ilchester, who was also expected to attend the wedding; ‘Lady Rosslyn’s attire I hear, is to be magnifique so I must do my best not to be outdone’.
After the wedding Charlotte returned to Bolton-street, later moving the short distance to Chesterfield-street and a newer house. In May 1817 she set up a trust for Jane and James Campbell and their daughter Charlotte (probably a god-daughter of the dowager countess). In her will of 1818 she requested that her funeral be ‘decent only‘ with ‘no hatchment over my door‘ (hatchments were wooden boards, lozenge-shaped and painted with the heraldic arms of a deceased person, for display on the outside of a house during the period of mourning). She named two of her nephews, the brothers sir John and Henry Wrottesley, as trustees and executors but Henry, who was also named as residuary legatee, was to die before his aunt’s death at the age of 75 years in 1826.
The two Cotes sisters then lived in Mayfair for a while, in Brook-street (number 22). During his frequent visits to London – he was a member of parliament for Shropshire – their father John Cotes stayed nearby at Kirkman’s Hotel (number 43 Brook-street). When Lucy died in 1835, leaving her younger sister as residuary legatee, all three of the prince regent’s gifts probably passed into the possession of Charlotte Cotes. In her will lady Rosslyn declared that she had ‘long since‘ given all her jewels to her two nieces, borrowing them back whenever she wanted to wear them.
A codicil to this will is dated 17 September 1823 at Blackheath (then in the county of Kent) where the princess Sophia Matilda lived in the Ranger’s House. Charlotte Cotes had become bedchamber-woman to the princess and was named as an executor in her will, receiving a legacy of £1,000 when the princess died in 1844. She returned to her native county of Shropshire where she took up residence at Bicton near Shrewsbury with two of her unmarried, younger half-sisters, children of her father’s second marriage: Sophia and Emily Cotes. Her effects were assessed as worth less than £45,000 when she died at the age of 74 in 1859.
No formal portrait of Charlotte seems to have survived but the British Museum does hold a satirical sketch which is said to depict her; it has the title of The Calash. A calèche or calash was a light, horse-drawn carriage with a folding, retractable hood that provided shelter for passengers, though not for the driver. Calash bonnets, worn by women, featured the same kind of hood, offering some protection from rain and wind while its stiff hoops prevented the fabric from disarranging any elaborate wig or hairstyle that was coiled and piled beneath.
The museum’s catalogue gives this description: Caricature of a thin lady, walking or standing in profile to the right, wearing one of the enormous hoods known as calashes from their resemblance to the hood of a gig. This entirely obscures her face; the wearer holds the edge of it with a claw-like hand. A slight and amateurish sketch. Beneath it, the collector, R. Bull, has written, ‘Ly Loughborough by ye late Visct Courtney’. 1782? Etching
Like many members of his class, Charlotte’s brother William, the second viscount Courtenay, was an amateur artist. Some of his works survive in prints from engravings and the British Museum also holds a few of these, depicting Westminster College and dated 1760 when he was still a pupil there, as well as the original drawing of one: ‘The north east view of the Old Dormitory in 1758 when the new buildings were begun in Deans Yard, Westminster (copied from a scarce print of [?] date‘.
A good deal of mystery surrounds Charlotte’s relationship with William Beckford. Nothing survives to show us her perspective or give her account of matters, and only a few disconnected fragments on his side. The letter he sent her from Bologna in December 1780 indicates that they shared some tastes in music, while the letter he seems to have drafted at Paris in February 1781 is long, intimate and confidential. Later that year, when lady Courtenay was pregnant with her last child, Charlotte accompanied her brother to Beckford’s coming-of-age festivities at Fonthill where she was ‘much admired by the men‘. Perhaps she had assisted the clandestine correspondence between Beckford and her nephew William but there seems to have been a serious falling-out not long after September 1781.
The two may have met over dinner at the Courtenays’ London house in the spring of 1784 and in September both were staying at Powderham, Beckford with his wife lady Margaret and Charlotte with her husband. This caused Samuel Henley to exclaim ‘What, Lady L, that termagant of decorum &c. &c., under the same roof with you, and that roof her brother’s? Verily, wonders are not yet ended.‘ She is most likely to be the unnamed ‘aunt‘ and ‘devil‘ who sought to obstruct the relationship between Beckford and her nephew William.
After 1784 Beckford and Charlotte probably did not meet again, except perhaps in dreams. In September 1787 he had ‘strange dreams‘ in Lisbon: ‘I was riding with Lady Loughborough on hills which overlooked my plantations at Fonthill, and then was transported to a house of old Lady Ilchester, who showed me herself the apartments‘. His journal suggests some surprise at dreaming of a house that he had not visited since he was a boy but none at the ride with Charlotte.
The Loughboroughs’ house in Hampstead was not far from Maria Beckford’s home at West End, which may explain how Charlotte came to be asking mrs. Beckford to pass a message to her son. In November 1796 Beckford responded in a letter addressed to his mother but clearly intended for the ears or eyes of some third party: ‘I must not forget to tell you on the subject of Lady Loughborough’s Note, and Mr. Livingstone’s Letter, that the Non-payment of Miss Cameron’s pension was wholly owing to my late Agent’s Neglect, that regularity shall be enforced for the future and the Arrears immediately remitted. […] Lady Loughborough, who has always been partial to the family of the Stills, will not be displeased to hear that the Living of Fonthill which I have given John Still is made to him worth 350 a year.‘
The reference to the Stills is intriguing: the origin and character of Charlotte’s partiality are not obvious. John’s family home was at Clouds, not far from Fonthill, in the Wiltshire parish of East Knoyle. He had several siblings, including his brother James who acted as land agent for two Beckford cousins: Peter at Steepleton and William at Fonthill.
Perhaps Charlotte was not aware that Beckford’s mother had devised her own story to account for the events leading up to the scandal of 1784. To fit with this twisted fiction she had to shift the scene from Fonthill to Powderham at the time when her son and Charlotte were both staying there. Maria Beckford recounted this tale to the painter Benjamin West who some years later relayed it to his colleague Joseph Farington.
‘West said, that Mr. Beckford’s mother never believed Her Son to have been criminal. She wished Him, she told West, not to visit at Powderham Castle as she was convinced there were persons who wished to injure His reputation & lower His importance. She said the fact was, that Lady Loughborough, aunt to Lord Courtenay, was in love with Beckford, and had a correspondence with Him by letter, while on this visit at Powderham Castle, & Lord Courtenay then a Boy, carried the letters, one of which He so mismanaged that it fell into wrong hands, which Beckford discovering & being very passionate, He went to Lord Courtenay’s room, while He was in bed, it being morning, & locking the door, He horsewhipped Him, which causing the Boy to scream out, His Tutor came to the door & found it locked. This gave cause for the suspicion & the reports which were soon after circulated. —‘
No evidence survives to support any part of Maria Beckford’s story. It is inconceivable that Beckford would not have mentioned this episode, if it had occurred while he and lady Margaret were staying at Powderham, in his blithe letter of 13 October 1784 to Samuel Henley.
Farington recorded the conversation with West in his diary for 14 December 1807, adding at the end: ‘I listened to this relation which with many other circumstances was given to Him by Mr. Beckford’s [mother] when at Her desire He visited Her alone at Her House at Hampstead; but I could not but feel the improbability of much of the story, it not at all agreeing with many other well authenticated circumstances, & being in itself difficult to give credit to; and from all I have heard the stories told to clear Mr. Beckford have not been well considered; though on the other hand, it does not appear that there is any proof actually to support the charge against Him.’
Images (from the top)
- Published by Carington Bowles: ‘A morning visit – or the fashionable dresses for the year 1777‘. © The Trustees of the British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_J-5-108.
- Published by William Richardson: Drawn by Miss Calash 1778. © The Trustees of the British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_J-5-116.
- Published by S.W. Fores, 1798, Guard-Room Tactics; Bugs in Danger; or A Volunteer Corps in Action. © The Trustees of the British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1948-0214-443.
- Rundell, Bridge and Rundell: peridot and gold suite of jewellery, 1816. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1263560/set-of-jewels-rundell-bridge-and/.
The peridots are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. An admirable report on the jewels can be viewed online: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/ea_statement_jewellery.pdf
- William Courtenay (1742-1788), The Calash. © The Trustees of the British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1931-0413-194.
- William Courtenay (1742-1788), 1760, The old dormitory at Westminster School. © The Trustees of the British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1880-1113-2528.
The draughtsman and antiquary John Carter referred to this drawing in his article on ‘architectural proceedings at Westminster Abbey’ for The Gentleman’s Magazine (vol. 85, part 2, September 1815, p.202).
- Benjamin West (1738-1820), 1799, Maria Beckford. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington. https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.34071.html.