Edward Walpole, the second son of Sir Robert Walpole, was an enviable and handsome youth at the age of twenty. His father was Prime Minister, and at the height of his power. He himself had just returned from the grand tour of Europe.
He was well blessed with position, influence, and good looks. Moreover, he had rooms in Pall Mall over the shop of a certain Mr. Rennie. In the recesses of this tailor's shop, as a rose lurks in a hedgerow, he espied one day a young girl apprentice of radiant loveliness, by name Mary Clement. The young Walpole promptly became enamoured of her, and she became his devoted partner through life.
They were, it is said, the handsomest couple in Europe, and the fruit of their union reflected ample credit on both of them. Their three daughters created a furore throughout London by their beauty as children, and as they grew in years to womanhood their loveliness increased, and was accentuated by the goodness of their hearts and the solid qualities of their intellects.
All three made, from a worldly point at any rate, the most brilliant matches.
Laura, the eldest of these three graces, whose fame supplanted that of the lovely Misses Gunning, was taken to the altar by a brother of the Earl of Albemarle, the Hon. and Rev. F. Keppel, who later became the occupant of a seat in the House of Lords as Bishop of Exeter. Writing about her marriage, her uncle, Horace Walpole, said : ' We are very happy with the match. The bride is very agreeable, sensible, and good, though not so handsome, perhaps, as her sisters."
Charlotte, the youngest, after refusing many imposing suitors, succumbed to Lord Huntingtower, heir to the Earl of Dysart, for reasons which throw a lurid light upon what was then considered the marriageable age and a fairly reasonable manner of court-ship. Horace Walpole writes that though the young lord, who was extremely impetuous, had been in love with Charlotte for some months, he was quite unknown to her by sight upon the day in which he asked her father for her hand.
Her father consulted her, and Horace Walpole continues : "She was with her sister Maria, to whom she said, very sensibly, 'if I were but nineteen I would refuse point-blank, for I don't like to be married in a week to a man I never saw. But I am two-and-twenty, and it is dangerous to refuse so great a match.' "
Brilliant as were these matrimonial achievements for the two daughters of a Pall Mall tailor's apprentice, they were eclipsed by the great destinies of Maria, the second in age but the first in beauty and accomplishments. Her loveliness was sensational. She was followed everywhere by admiring crowds, and half the eligible nobility of the realm knelt before her, heart in hand. She was beauty itself. Her figure and profile were exquisite; her complexion, which tended to brown, was adorned with the bloom of perfect health; her hair and eyes were also brown; her expression, wit, and manners vivacious.
Among the crowd of wooers who besieged her, it was the oldest and the least handsome who met with the best reception. She, like her sister Laura, married into the house of Stuart. Her husband, James, Earl Waldegrave, was a man of great position. His character and credit placed him at the head; of the peers of England as her beauty placed her in the front rank of her sex.
The wedding was celebrated at the house of Horace Walpole's brother in Pall Mall, close to the shop in which her mother had plied the needle. The ceremony was performed by the Bishop of Exeter. The bride wore a white and silver gown, and, though her beauty was largely hidden under a hat pulled deep over her face, what was to be seen of it was sufficient to make her uncle declare that she was handsomer than ever, with a sweet delicacy arising from her "cold maiden blush."
A "Sensible" Wedding
After the wedding, which was, according to Horace Walpole, "as sensible as ever was," the small party of wedding guests sat down to dinner. Afterwards the newly married couple got into their postchaise at the door, and went to Lord Waldegrave's seat, Haverstock, near Brentwood, in Essex.
Here Maria spent an uneventful, though serenely happy, existence.
Lord Waldegrave, after his marriage, turned his attention and his talents more closely to affairs of the State. He was the intimate favourite and adviser of King George II., and had he lived longer he would have become the undoubted leader of the Whigs. He fell a victim to smallpox in 1763. Inoculation against the dread disease was then a novelty, and it was one he had not tried. His illness was short, and throughout it he was nursed devotedly by his young wife. Her courage and tenderness surprised all who beheld her during this trying time.
Said Horace Walpole to her : "My dear child, there never was a nurse of your age had such attention." She answered :
' There never was a nurse of my age had such an object."
His death left her quite disconsolate. She spent herself in tears, and when not overcome by her grief, she was ever recalling his love and consideration for her, and endeavoured to order her actions as she felt he would have desired. She lost in him, as the contemporary chronicler put it, 'a father who formed her mind and a lover whose devotion knew no bounds."
She was left but moderately well off, as her husband's income, which was largely derived from his political offices, ceased at his death. She therefore moved to a house at Twickenham with her three ' daughters. Her grief at her husband's death left for a time a heavy mark upon her beauty, but healing time restored her looks and her interest in life. She was soon again besieged by suitors, among them being the Duke of
Portland. Her friends urged her to marry again, but she steadfastly refused.
Indeed, half the eligible men in England wanted to marry her. She had been difficult to please in her first marriage; she had loved her husband very deeply; and her devotion to her three lovely daughters filled her life. It seemed at one time as if the Duke of Rutland would succeed, by dint of sheer importunity; but she remained firm, and refused dukes and earls in a manner most incomprehensible to the match-making mothers of England.
Three years had now passed since the death of Earl Waldegrave. Society began to think that the lovely Countess really meant to spend the rest of her life in a widow's retirement. But her own relatives began to suspect that something was in the air. They did not quite know what it was, but they were sure there was something.
They were right. One day her own chaplain married her in Pall Mall to a very personable young man of twenty-three years old. No one else was present, and the affair was preserved a secret.
A Well-kept Secret
Her relations came inevitably to know of it, for a boy was born in the same year; but they were not told the bridegroom's name. Even Horace Walpole, her uncle, who had romped with her in her childhood at Strawberry Hill, was kept in ignorance. The friendship between uncle and niece was severely strained.
Still, for years no one knew who the husband was, and after a while curiosity died down.
Six years later the Royal Marriages Act was passed, rendering null and void any marriage made by a descendant of George II. without the previous consent of the Sovereign. This bore hard on the Duke of Cumberland, the King's brother, who had married Lady Ann Horton. He was in disgrace, and the Act dishonoured his wife.
. The Mystery Disclosed
At this juncture there came forward William Henry, Duke of Gloucester, the eldest surviving brother of George III., and a great favourite with that monarch. He pleaded with the King for Cumberland, but George was relentless.
"Very well," said Gloucester, "disgrace me too. I've been married for six years to the lovely Countess of Waldegrave ! "
So the secret was out, and a pretty sensation it caused. Society buzzed about it for weeks, and began to look very differently on the Countess, whose reputation had begun to suffer by the prolonged secrecy. But now she was a Royal personage, and her son was a prince. He afterwards married a daughter of George III., so that, had they had children, Mary Clement's great-grandchild would have been heir to the throne of England.
The announcement pleased Horace Walpole greatly. With the King things were viewed in a very different light. The Duke and Duchess were banished from Court, and those who visited them were no longer received at Court. His Majesty also directed that an inquiry should be held into the validity of the marriage, and the Duke and Duchess had to appear before three commissions for examination. The marriage was, however, found to be quite valid.
Meanwhile, the couple were almost completely shunned by society. Romance is, perhaps, not overmuch encouraged in Royal families. Horace Walpole chose the society of his niece to that of his Sovereign, and in writing of his resolve not to go to Court he says : "I intend making a list of all that are going to shun me in public and squeeze my hand in private, assuring me how exceedingly glad they are of my niece's good fortune; and of all that will not squeeze my hand till they see me at St. James's again, and then pinch my fingers off with protestations of their joy."
King George's indignation at having given him for a sister-in-law the daughter of a tailor's apprentice was, perhaps, but natural, especially as it was not outside the bounds of possibility that a grandson of the tailor's apprentice might one day occupy the throne of England. It did not, however, last very long. A period of travel abroad ensued. It was mainly spent in Italy, where they were received with the Royal honours denied to them in England; the Pope in particular was pleasant and agreeable to the Duke and his still thoroughly charming Duchess.
She was completely devoted to her Royal husband, and lavished on him, when his health failed him in Italy, all the attentions and care she had shown towards her first husband. At Trent, whither he was removed in what the doctors described as a dying condition, she never left his apartments, even for a walk, for seven weeks. This was not her only trouble; the Prince, her son, grew ill.
The arrival of a letter from King George, declaring that his affection for his brother had never altered, and never would, cheered the invalid and his beautiful nurse immensely, as did the discovery that the Prince was only suffering from the pains attendant upon the cutting of teeth.
In 1780 the daughter of Mary Clement and Edward Walpole was taken, with her husband, into Royal favour again.
She died two years after her husband, in 1807, at Brampton.