University of Rochester Library Bulletin: "My dearest sonne," Letters from the Countess of Rochester to the Earl of Lichfield

Volume XXVIII · Number 1 · Summer 1974
"My dearest sonne": Letters from the Countess of Rochester to the Earl of Lichfield

With the purchase of twenty-one holograph letters by Anne St. John Wilmot, Countess of Rochester, to her grandson, Edward Henry Lee, first Earl of Lichfield, Rush Rhees Library has become one of only four owners of the known correspondence of this extraordinary woman. Previously, the countess' letters were held publicly by the Verney Collection at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire; the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the British Museum. Since the letters in the British Museum are scribal copies and number only six, and since the Clarendon State Papers in the Bodleian contain less than a dozen of Lady Rochester's letters, the University of Rochester Library is not merely the only known archive of the countess' letters in the United States but also the holder of the second largest single collection of her letters, giving place only to the Verney papers. The letters provide a unique insight into the private and public lives of some of England's most prominent seventeenth century families while displaying characteristic facets of their composer, a lady previously best known as the wife of Henry Wilmot, the Royalist soldier and diplomat, and mother of John Wilmot, the scandalous rake and poet of the Restoration era.

Anne St. John was born on 5 November 1614, one of ten children of Sir John St. John of Lydiard Tregose, Wiltshire. The second child and oldest daughter, Anne was a favorite of her father's, though she disliked Lydiard Tregose ("that dull place"), much preferring the St. John estate at Battersea, just outside London and near to the Court of Whitehall. It was at Battersea that she married Sir Francis Henry Lee  (1616-1639), the sixteen-year-old Baron of Ditchley, in October 1632, much to the distaste of her future mother-in-law. The widowed Lady Lee did not care for the St. Johns, criticizing them openly; and though she eventually became a close friend and ally of Anne St. John Lee's during the Cromwell period, she infuriated her son by marrying a Parliamentarian leader (the Lees were all Royalists) in 1633 and permanently taking a sizeable portion of the Lee family income with her. In spite of the bad beginning, the marriage of Anne St. John and Harry Lee was a happy one, lasting for seven years and producing at least three children: two sons and a daughter. Unfortunately, like many others in the seventeenth century, Harry Lee died young. After following the king, Charles I, to York in 1639, he contracted smallpox and died after his return to Chelsea, refusing to let his wife near him for fear she might be struck too.

As a young widow, Anne Lee was named executrice of the Lee estate, which included not only the manor and grounds at Ditchley, Oxfordshire, but manors in Bucks and elsewhere. She often stated her "mony feares" at her lack of experience; but she had a number of "friends" to rely upon, including John Cary, Esq., of Woodstock (who nursed Harry in his last illness), George Pickering, Gent. (who served the Lees for thirty years), Sir Ralph Verney of Claydon, and Edward Hyde, the future Earl of Clarendon and a kissing cousin to the St. Johns by marriage through the Villiers family. Her ill-spelled letters to Hyde in the early 1640s reveal a will of iron under her professions of innocence and gratitude, and her womanly wiles showed plainly that she knew how to succeed in a man's world:

I have ventured too prove my self a clowne too let you tast a country veneson pye if you like it command more when you please.

An unknown suitor proposed to her, making "brave condissions for a joyter & a fortun for children if she hath any by him," but she refused him. If she remarried, by terms of Francis Henry's will, she lost control of her Lee properties; and though they were entangled in the legal process of sequestration, she was unwilling to risk anything for a marriage jointure or settlement.

In 1644, however, when the Lee estates had emerged from sequestration with a £2,000 penalty and England had erupted into civil war after the king raised his standard at Nottingham, Anne Lee did marry again. Her second husband was Henry Wilmot of Adderbury, Oxon., a professional military man and a Royalist hero of the battles of Newcastle (1640) and Edgehill (1642). The Widow Lee had supplied arms for the king's forces at Edgehill, a battle fought within earshot of Ditchley; and when Edward Hyde, the king's loyal counsellor, had to flee from Royalist headquarters in 1642, she hid him at Ditchley and provided horses to spirit him way from the Parliamentary army. Not long after their marriage, Henry Wilmot was captured by the Parliamentary Army and exiled to the Continent, where he largely stayed until his death in 1658. Only three or four occasions can be documented when Lord and Lady Wilmot were together. In fact, so constant was their separation that when John Wilmot was born in April 1647, gossip said he was the son of Allen Apsley, the husband of Anne St. John's youngest sister. Gossip was, however, wrong, as a letter from the Clarendon Papers proves.

During her husband's long exile, Lady Wilmot had to battle constantly to prevent the Parliamentarians from seizing the Lees' and Wilmots' property. Her infant Lee daughter had died in 1640, but her two surviving Lee sons, Henry and Francis Henry (Harry and Frank), and her Wilmot infant had to be protected, their estates managed, their educations supervised, and their marriages planned. In 1653 Lady Wilmot sent the Lee boys to De Veau's Academy in Paris, where they were both taken seriously ill. In February 1654 she followed them over to France and stayed there for seven months, determined to see her husband Wilmot before returning to England. He had been titled Earl of Rochester in 1652 by the exiled Charles II, for whose restoration to the British throne he worked heroically. In 1655 Rochester came in secret to England to foment the Yorkshire uprising, which failed. Since she was married to a traitor, insurrectionist, and spy, the Countess of Rochester had great troubles with the Puritan Committee for Compounding, which kept resolving to take all her lands. But by marrying her son Harry off to Ann Danvers, daughter of a prominent Puritan neighbor at Cornbury and Chelsea, and by writing a direct petition to Oliver Cromwell the Lord Protector, the countess managed to snarl matters in so much red tape that she preserved the estates largely intact. Her business acumen was unhampered by an exalted sense of ethics; like her contemporaries, the countess was willing to falsify records, lie, perjure herself, and avail herself generally of all the privileges afforded the English aristocracy. She was assisted by the fact that her old friend "Honest John Cary" was Commissioner for Sequestrations for Oxfordshire all that troubled time.

By 1659 it was obvious to the countess that the Puritan government was adrift, and carefully, through her son Harry, she began to prepare to cut her Puritan ties and resume her close relations with the Stuarts, whose obligations to her dead husband were great. Henry Wilmot had planned the Battle of Worcester in 1651 and had smuggled young King Charles in disguise south and onto a vessel after the fight ended in defeat for the Stuarts; he had represented the exiled court at Ratisbon; he had raised moneys for the wastrel Charles and died loyally in exile. Once the Stuarts were back in England, the countess could claim all that was due to the Wilmots; meanwhile, she had to rely on the ties built through the Lees to the Puritans and Parliament. Before she could effect her plans, both Harry Lee and his wife died in 1659, he of smallpox and she in childbirth, as Clarendon's correspondents promptly informed him. The countess was left with two small granddaughters, Ellen and Anne Lee; her second son, Frank Lee, who became the new Baron of Ditchley, and her thirteen-year-old son John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester. Through these progeny and their descendants, the countess maneuvered the family fortunes like a chess master for the next twenty-five years.

Early in 1660 she swung into fierce action. Through the agents of her granddaughters' properties, she instructed their numerous tenants how to vote in the March election. She made Frank Lee stand for Parliament also and had him send a "present" of £500 to Clarendon and the king on the eve of Charles' return. After the Restoration, she made dozens of petitions for royal favors and grants. Young Lord Rochester was given an annual pension and sent on the Grand Tour to France and Italy. Frank Lee became Keeper of Wychwood Forrest and other royal preserves. Swearing that the late Harry and Ann Danvers Lee had loaned money to the Puritan "traitor" Sir John Danvers, which he never repaid, the countess claimed the forfeited Danvers property as "restitution" and she got it. Through her family connections with the Apsleys, the St. Johns, the Villierses, the Osborns, and the Howards, the countess showed herself far removed from the fearful, "helpless" young widow of 1640.

Constantly appealing to her old friend Edward Hyde, now lord chancellor of England, Lady Rochester managed to increase her fortune vastly. In 1661, she sold the Wilmot house in London, procured a lease on the Wilmot estate at Adderbury from the Bishop of Winchester, and spent £2,000 fixing the manor house and furnishing it. Then, in April, she told Clarendon that young John Wilmot got less than £40 a year income from "athurberry estate" and asked him not even to let that be known, "my Lord owing monys at oxford." She also applied for a place in the Royal Bedchamber, and through Clarendon, she became Groom of the Stole to his daughter Anne, the Duchess of York. The Lee family records show that in 1664 the countess' personal debts amounted to £19,230, a staggering sum for the day. And when young Rochester returned, late in 1664, from the Continent, his mother had affected an unholy alliance between Clarendon and Barbara Villiers Palmer, Lady Castlemain, to promote the king's favoring the marriage of the youth with Elizabeth Mallet, the wealthy heiress form Somerset, who was the catch of the season. The notorious Castlemain, Charles II's favorite mistress in the 1660s and mother of several royal bastards, was a cousin of Lady Rochester's, as it happened. Thus, in five short years, the countess had woven an elaborate web of relationships with the Stuarts, after having been just as intimately connected with the Puritans through the Danverses, St. Johns, and Hutchinsons. If the countess's allegiances appear changeable between 1640 and 1660, her coat turned no more often than the coats of her countrymen; she was simply more adroit at reversal than the rest.

In 1667, Rochester eloped with Elizabeth Mallet, and the countess matched wits with Mrs. Mallet's avaricious old grandfather, who was just as shrewd and greedy as Lady Rochester. The lady won. About this time, John Aubrey accused the countess of poisoning Lady Denham "with chocolatte"; Lady Denham was allegedly the mistress of the Duke of York, and the duchess, Lady Rochester's royal mistress, did not like the situation. But only Aubrey hinted that Anne Wilmot was the agent of retribution; since her best informed biographer says Lady Denham probably died of peritonitis, we may acquit the countess of the charge of murder, whatever other charges can be levelled justly against her.

In 1667 a subtle but severe rift came between the countess and her son Rochester. The older woman did not like her daughter-in-law, despite her wealth; she did not approve of her son's libertinism (the old countess was a highly devout Christian!), and when young Rochester acted to help impeach Clarendon, the countess' longtime aide and benefactor, an opposition was established. Then, late in 1667, Frank, her remaining Lee son died suddenly. Since he left two infant boys, Edward Henry and Francis, to join as heirs with the countess' other grandchildren, Ellen and Anne Lee, the countess resumed her role as champion of the Lees against the counter-interests of the Wilmots, who were represented by Lord Rochester, then twenty-one years old. The countess retained a special love for the children of her first husband, which the morals and manners of her son Rochester and his wife did little to displace; and though her "love" in time did inestimable damage to the Lees, she always preferred them to the Wilmots.

In 1673 the opposition between Rochester and his mother reached a crisis when the old lady wanted to marry her granddaughter Ann Lee ("Nan") to a notorious rake and Whig sympathizer, Thomas Wharton, solely for reasons of fortune. The king, seconded by Rochester, wanted Nan to marry a Catholic nobleman of the Trirece family of Arundells. Ellen Lee had made a highly suitable marriage, in 1672, to James Bertie, Lord Norrys of Abingdon, with everybody's approval. But the countess' determination to wed Nan to Tom Wharton angered the king and reminded him that it was traitorous Danvers money that he had given by grace and favor to the countess and her heirs. Rochester was horrified when Nan, perhaps against her own wishes, was wedded to Wharton. A compromise of sorts was worked out, however, in 1674, when Edward Henry Lee was formally betrothed to the Lady Charlotte Fitz-roy, a bastard daughter of Charles II and Lady Castlemain. He was eleven years old and she was ten when the engagement was made formal, and he was created Earl of Lichfield in anticipation of his future as a royal son-in-law. When they reached the ages of puberty, the Lichfields were wed in 1677, but several terrible family wrangles over money and rights preceded that. After Frank Lee's death in 1667, titles and benefits traditionally held by the Lees had been consigned to Lord Rochester. With Edward Henry's future in the balance, the countess conjoined with the Lichfields and Edward Henry's remarried mother, Eleanor Bertie, Countess of Lindsey, to wrest all the holdings back from the Wilmots. The intricate ties between members of the family and the king's ministers (the lord treasurer was Lady Lindsey's brother-in-law and the Countess of Rochester's cousin by marriage, for example) resulted in the "disinheriting," as the Wilmots saw it, of Rochester's children, especially his son Charles Wilmot. By 1679, when Rochester gained a sweet revenge against the king by helping to impeach his lord treasurer, political and economic conflicts were already threatening to rip the families to bits.

When Lord Rochester died his repentent, dramatic death in July 1680, his mother the countess extracted every drop of remorse from him for all his past misdeeds. The series of letters written in June and July by her express the countess' passionately sincere belief that her son's torments of agony were caused by the devil's wrestling for his soul; she gloried in the spectacle of her son's spiritual triumph and got him to sign a Remonstrance of Faith, which she witnessed. After he was buried, Anne the dowager countess authorized the publication of the funeral sermon, which called Rochester "the greatest of sinners." After the death of his widow and his son Charles, in 1681, she undertook the raising of Rochester's three daughters, and continued to give orders to the various Lees.

The sequence of letters now owned by Rush Rhees Library was written in 1685-86, when rapid personal changes were following the death of Charles II and his succession by his brother James, the former Duke of York and an avowed Catholic. Thomas Wharton, Nan Lee's faithless husband, had secretly supported the pretender, the Duke of Monmouth, in the July 1685 invasion. James Bertie, Ellen Lee's husband now Earl of Abingdon, had raised a regiment to march west and fight Monmouth. Edward Henry Lee, Earl of Lichfield, and his wife were uncertain what to expect now that her father was dead, her mother off living in tawdry exile in France, and her uncle on the throne.

The chain of letters by the countess to her grandson Lord Lichfield was set off by the death of unhappy Nan Wharton at the age of twenty-six just the month after Anne Wilmot, Lord Rochester's oldest daughter, had married Henry Bainton, Esq., a country gentleman. Although Wharton had infected Nan with "the pox" (syphilis) and had caused her sterility and death by refusing to tell her of it, and despite his keeping other women and siring children by them, Nan had left all of her fortune to him. The "vyle man" Wharton, as the countess called him, would go on to become the lord-lieutenant of Ireland, compose the Whig song "Lillibullero," and incur the hatred of Jonathan Swift in time. But in 1685, the countess' concern was how to get Nan's fortune out of his control and back into the family. Her letters, mostly to Lichfield, with a few to his wife and mother, comprise a fascinating account of private machinations, personal heartbreak, and public history.

In addition to the glimpses into the intricacies of seventeenth century law which they provide, the countess' letters of 1685-86 show the backstairs politicking of James II's reign. Lady Rochester's grandmotherly advice on how to ingratiate himself with the king foreshadows James' replacement of the popular Abingdon as lord-lieutenant of Oxfordshire with the less confident Lichfield, a move that antagonized the county constituency and assisted James' overthrow in 1688. The Parliamentary plottings of the detested Wharton presage the eventual triumph of Whiggery under William III.

And there are glimpses of the future great as children. In addition to Anne Wilmot Bainton, Rochester's daughter, who became ancestress to the Earls of Warwick, there are "your tow littel cosens . . . Bette Wilmot and Mallet." Rochester's daughter Elizabeth was to become the Countess of Sandwich, a dazzlingly witty woman who dominated her weak husband, supported the cause of James III, and charmed St. Evremond, Ninon de Lenclos, Matthew Prior, Alexander Pope, and Lord Chesterfield. Mallet Wilmot married a Welsh nobleman and became close friends with the celebrated actress Elizabeth Barry, her father's former mistress. Ellen Bertie became the subject of John Dryden's elegy, "Eleanora," upon her death in 1692, and Edmund Waller likewise extrolled the dead Anne Wharton and dedicated several poems to her memory. The countess' report of a visit by Lichfield's younger brother, Frank Lee, who made a bad marriage; her description of "Honest" Cary's grief at the death of his beloved wife, and most of all, her callous account of the truly pitiable death of Nan Wharton-all make the Rochester-Lichfield letters uniquely interesting and moving.

In 1692 the old countess finally relinquished the reins over the yoked families she had controlled for half a century. Leaving Adderbury and Oxfordshire, she settled in London in St. Anne's Soho, where she died in 1696 at the age of eighty-two. She had outlived two husbands, three sons, and many of her grandchildren. She left a double legacy: the vast wealth she had assembled and the boundless cupidity needed to amass that wealth. Bequeathed to all her descendents, that avariciousness tore apart the family and its fortune. In 1701, the House of Lords heard a case involving the daughters of Lord Rochester and their husbands against Edward Henry Lee, Earl of Lichfield. The countess had left Wilmot property to the Lees, and the Wilmots, determined to win it back, took the Lees through lawsuit upon lawsuit and finally before Parliament, where the case was decided in favor of a male Lee against three female Wilmots. Even from her grave, Anne Rochester continued to guide the fates of her divergent offspring.


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