We hear of the Gay Gordons and the Wild Beresfords, and another family traditionally distinguished by an adjective is that of the Handsome Hamiltons. For generations this great family has produced in England, Scotland, and Ireland, to say nothing of its French branch, a succession of beautiful women and handsome men. In Ireland the word "handsome" has almost become part of the name, so that even to the cardriver and the man in the street they are known as the "Handsomehamiltons."
The tradition goes back a long way. In the reign of Charles II. we find "La Belle Hamilton " at Court; a perfect paragon of beauty and discretion, whose husband, one of the flightiest men in France, adored her, and whose brother ransacked the dictionary for words of praise for his sister.
She was a granddaughter of the first Earl of Abercorn, and the daughter of Sir George Hamilton of Donalong. Her mother was the first Duke of Ormonde's sister, and the Butlers are another of those Irish families in which beauty descends from generation to generation as much as a matter of course as the family lands and title. The family were ardent supporters of the Stuarts. Elizabeth was the eldest of three daughters, and had six brothers, of whom one was the famous Count Anthony Hamilton, who afterwards wrote the " Memoirs of the Comte de Grammont." And another was George, who chiefly distinguished himself by marrying a sister of Sarah Jennings, Duchess of Marlborough, and then dying, leaving her free to become famous as "the lovely Duchess of Tyr-connel."
The Hamilton family loved France and the French, and, like most other Stuart partisans, spent the time of the Commonwealth with the exiles in France. There the children were brought up. At the Restoration there came flocking back all the beauty and gallantry of the three kingdoms, with perfect French accents, and full of French notions of enjoying themselves. The English Court soon outdid the French in its laxity, and it became a commonplace that its members had no decent feeling or behaviour about them. After the rigidities of the Puritans, the English who had remained in England were ready for a reaction, and before long the Court of the Merry Monarch became the proverb it has remained ever since for thoughtless, heedless gaiety, and a lack of any moral discipline. People lived as children do - they snatched what they wanted at the moment, and then cried for another toy.
A Credit to Her Sex
Into this Court came the Hamilton girls, the eldest of whom speedily became the wonder and admiration of all. Her beauty was transcendent, her virtue unimpeachable, her wit biting, her high spirits infectious. It was said of her that " she seemed to have been placed in Charles's Court purposely to redeem the credit of her sex."
She was allied by birth to all the illustrious families of the British Isles, so she took by right a place in the very highest rank, and was a huge favourite at Court. The Queen and the Duchess of York were absolutely devoted to her. She threw herself heartily into the amusements of life at Court, so far as her principles would let her. Evidently she was no prig - only, almost alone in the whole of England, she held to the ideals of what a woman should be. Irishwomen have ever been at the top of the rank for their modesty and virtue, and La Belle Hamilton was worthy of her country.
She was tall, with a full, elegant figure, "the finest neck and loveliest hand and arm in the world" (as her husband and brother together wrote twenty years later in the Memoirs). Her forehead was fair and open, her hair dark and luxuriant, arranged with exquisite taste but quite simply. As for her complexion, in an age when paint was as much a matter of course as soap or water is to us, she did not make up. Her own lovely bloom needed no aid, and she refrained from giving to artifice the credit that belonged to Nature. Her eyes were sparkling, and full of expression; her mouth was charming, though it could be very haughty. She was neither of the "languishers" nor the " sparklers," did not indulge in the vapours, and was never pert. She was dignified, but she could play a prank with the best of them, and her wit was a delight to all who heard it, and a terror to those who incurred it.
The Duke of York fell in love with her, and followed her about, ogling her. Elizabeth snubbed him as much as she dared, but it was not enough. He began to make her conspicuous, and the Court gossips began to watch their looks. At this juncture the Duchess of York stepped forward, and made so much of Elizabeth, reposed so much trust in her, took so many opportunities of testifying not only friendship but warm affection, that all tongues were silenced. One can imagine with what gratitude Elizabeth looked on the Duchess, who was a daughter of the famous Lord Clarendon.
Then the Duke of Richmond came along, and besought her to marry him. He was the first match in England, and his possessions might well have dazzled her, for she was far from wealthy herself. He was head-over-ears in love, and even enlisted Charles in his service, who interceded with her for the Duke. The King told her he would portion her nobly if she married her importunate suitor, but Elizabeth merely replied that a gambler and a sot should never be her husband.
The next was Jermyn, invincible wherever he went. When it was seen that he was a captive of La Belle Hamilton, everyone said that at last she had met her match. Not a bit of it ! Jermyn retired discomfited. Then she refused Arundel, afterwards the Duke of Norfolk, with £30,000 a year; and the elder Russell, and then his nephew; and the rich, witty Earl of Falmouth, who was a friend of the King and the Duke of York. These were only the important one:., the smaller fry must have numbered hundreds.
A Successful Wooer
Now there appeared on the scene a Frenchman, brave, gallant, good-looking, a younger son, penniless, banished, entirely dependent on the gaming-table for his subsistence, bearing the historic name of de Grammont, He had been banished from France for making love to the wrong lady, and to ease his wound he picked out the loveliest woman at the English Court to flirt with. This, of course, was Elizabeth Hamilton, the proud, penniless beauty. Philibert, Comte de Grammont, distinguished her with his attentions in an ardent but quite careless manner, according to his custom.
Never was man so taken aback ! Elizabeth remained quite indifferent. She did not seem to mind whether he was present or absent, whether he flattered her or someone else, whether he languished or wooed, or was chilly and reserved or moody and jealous. He could not make it out. No other girl had ever failed to twitter and flutter when the handsome, gay count approached her. The result was inevitable. De Grammont plunged into a sea of love, drowned in it, gloried in the drowning, left the gaming-table to be with her, braved ridicule for the sake of his worship. Elizabeth smiled gently and gravely, and remained un-nustered. The King took a hand in the game, helping de Grammont to many opportunities of being with his lady.
One of these was on the occasion of a masquerade, when de Grammont was told by Charles to escort Miss Hamilton. When the time came, to everyone's amazement, the Count turned up in ordinary dress. He made his explanations to the King before the assembled Court. He had sent to Paris for a French costume, and the valet had but just arrived, saying the clothes had been stolen from him on the road.
"I should have killed the man," remarked de Grammont, "but I was afraid of making Miss Hamilton wait."
And after that she had the heart to go and stay in the country, and forbid him to visit her on any pretence whatever !
Twenty years afterwards he dictated his memoirs to Anthony Hamilton, and says that when he met Miss Hamilton at a ball for the first time, he " knew he had seen nothing at Court till this instant."
He was twenty years older than the lady, and had a European reputation for marvellous clothes and daring flirtations. When he went to Madrid to fetch the Infanta to marry Louis XIV. he rode through France and Spain in flame-colour. But he had met his fate at last. He stayed perforce in London while she was away, thinking of her all the time; and when she returned he rode out to meet her with her brother.
"Miss Hamilton being in his eyes ten or twelve times more handsome than before her departure, he would have purchased with his life so kind a reception as she gave her brother."
But Elizabeth was no longer insensible. Like so many other women of the past, and the present, and the future, she fell a victim to a man who had not only looks and charm, but the other virtues of being penniless and a light-hearted rascal.
So they became engaged at long last, and as soon as he had her promise he cooled down. When he heard that he was recalled to France, he started off on horseback at once without her. At Dover two extremely polite horsemen overtook him - Sir George and Count Anthony Hamilton. "Count de Grammont," said they, "have you forgotten nothing in London ?"
"Yes," said he immediately, "I have forgotten to marry your sister." And turning his horse, they rode back together.
They spent most of the rest of their lives in France. She was not very popular there; she was too reserved, too dignified, and held notions about personal conduct which were extremely out of place in the France of the period. Her wit, too, was biting, and she never hesitated to sharpen it on those she disliked. She became a quiet, stately woman, without a trace of high spirits. She was Dame du Palais to Maria Theresa, and the Memoirs say she was the chief ornament of the Court. Madame de Sevigne liked her, and so, oddly enough, did the King.
Her husband adored her, although the Ethiopian could not change his skin, and he never settled down to a useful career. He had the makings of a fine soldier, but his frivolity prevented his ever rising.
They had two daughters, one of whom married the Earl of Stafford, and the other became an abbess in Lorraine. The Memoirs abound with praises of her beauty and disposition. They were written when de Grammont was an old man of eighty-five. He died in 1707 at the age of eighty-six; and in the following year La Belle Hamilton, now a handsome, stately, dignified, quiet woman of sixty-seven, followed him to the grave.
Elizabeth Hamilton, daughter of a house famous for the beauty of its members, and generally known as "La Belle Hamilton. ' She married the Comte de Grammont and was distinguished for her transcendent beauty. lively wit, and high spirits