23rd January 2023
February… Not a month known for its wonderful weather but perhaps there is some compensation in the fact that it plays host to St Valentine’s Day, that annual celebration of love and lovers. So here, writes Caroline Aston, is a bouquet of historic romance culled from our counties to get us in the mood for that special day
James Thomas Brudenell
Arrogant and bumptious, James Thomas Brudenell (1797–1868) was controversial to say the least. Only son of the 6th Earl of Cardigan, he was spoilt by his seven sisters, expelled from Harrow after a fist fight, home-educated at the family’s Northamptonshire seat Deene Park, was an MP twice and eventually bought his way into the British Army. He will be forever remembered as the man who led the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 during the Crimean War, having succeeded his father as 7th Earl of Cardigan in 1837. Prior to that he was titled Lord Brudenell and enjoyed a colourful reputation as a lady’s man: by 1824 he was embroiled in a scandalous divorce action brought by his childhood friend Lt Col Christian Johnstone.
Brudenell had seduced his friend’s wife Elizabeth early in their marriage, and a divorce was finalised early in 1826, with Brudenell marrying his mistress the following June. However, things soured, and in the year Brudenell became Earl of Cardigan the two separated. Elizabeth died in 1858, leaving her errant husband free to marry his then-mistress Adeline de Horsey, 27 years his junior. Their passionate affair had been openly conducted as Elizabeth lay dying.
This second marriage seems to have worked: the new Lady Cardigan, ostracised by fashionable society, settled in to country life at Deene and proved remarkably tolerant of her aging husband’s continuing love affairs, most notably with the Marchioness of Ailesbury. Eccentric Adeline lived on till 1915, dying 47 years after her infamous husband. Northamptonshire society long remembered her oddities such as cycling round Deene Park in her husband’s very tight uniform trousers, smoking and occasionally lying in her pre-prepared coffin to check fit and appearance! This fading femme fatale also racked up another marriage as well: after apparently turning down Benjamin Disraeli due to his bad breath, she married a Portugese nobleman and lived happily and largely apart from him till his death in 1898!
Sir John Fludyer
Sir John Fludyer (1803–96) of Ayston Hall near Oakham was cut from very different cloth. He was both a baronet and a clergyman, serving as Rector of Ayston and Thistleton. In 1832 he married Augusta Borough, an aristocratic young lady, whose grandfather Viscount Lake had been Commander in Chief of the army in India. Seven children were born to them, though 1842 was a tragic year, with three of them dying. Thistleton church was subsequently renovated by Fludyer as a memorial to his lost son and two daughters. There are no scandals to reveal here, rather a most devoted husband who adored his wife: never once did she leave a room without him rising to open the door for her, and every year he would cut the first rose to bloom in their garden and place it in a vase in her boudoir.
John Spencer, Viscount Althorp
In April 1814 two thousand people witnessed the London wedding of John Spencer, Viscount Althorp and future 3rd Earl Spencer, to Esther Acklom, a Nottinghamshire heiress described as ‘a stout and somewhat plain lady’. She had a very chequered romantic past and was considered to be a flirt and tease who’d broken off several engagements before ‘Honest Jack’ Spencer came into her sights. Gossip had it that his parents pushed him into marriage, while some maintained Esther had to do the proposing: actually Althorp did the deed but he went for a two-hour walk first to work up the courage! But from this unpromising start a genuine love grew, and it was said that ‘his devotion after marriage amply compensated for his lack of ardour before!’ Sadly, Esther died giving birth to a stillborn child in 1818. Althorp was devastated and vowed never to marry again, a vow he kept. He also gave up his other great love, hunting, as a mark of his grief over the loss of his darling Esther, who before her marriage had ‘….a way of encouraging men without meaning to have them’. Now there’s a thought for St Valentine’s Day!