Eccentric Aristocrats

When we think of the life of the nobility, we rarely think of anything except a life of leisure and decadence. However, there were those who showed their “quirks.” Let us meet a few.

William Thomas Beckford (1 October 1760 – 2 May 1844), was an English novelist, a profligate and consummately knowledgeable art collector and patron of works of decorative art, a critic, travel writer and sometimes politcian, reputed to be the richest commoner in England. He was Member of Parliament for Wells from 1784 to 1790, for Hindon from 1790 to 1795 and 1806 to 1820. He is remembered as the author of the Gothic novel Vathek, the builder of the remarkable lost Fonthill Abbey and Landsdown Tower (“Beckford’s Tower”), Bath, and especially for his art collection.

On 5 May 1783 he married Lady Margaret Gordon, daughter of the fourth Earl of Aboyne. However, Beckford was bisexual, and was hounded out of polite English society when his letters to the Hon. William Courtenay, later 9th Earl of Devon, were intercepted by the boy’s uncle, who advertised the affair in the newspapers. Beckford chose exile in the company of his wife, whom he grew to love deeply, but who died in childbirth at the age of 24. He had an affair with his cousin Peter’s wife Louisa Pitt (c.1755-1791).

At Fonthill Abbey, Beckford refused the use of servants’ bells in the rooms, except the one his daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton, used. Instead, his servants were made to crouch in low, narrow ante-rooms so that they could respond immediately to his command. When traveling, he took his French cook with him to prepare his omelettes, as well as transporting his bed for a good night’s sleep. Although Beckford rarely entertained, he often order an elaborate dinner set for twelve. However, Beckford would dine in solitude, eating only one course and sending back the rest.

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, (15 March 1779 – 24 November 1848) was a British Whig statesman who served as Home Secretary (1830–1834) and Prime Minister (1834 and 1835–1841). He is best known for his intense and successful mentoring of Queen Victoria, at ages 18–21, in the ways of politics. Historians conclude that Melbourne does not rank high as a prime minister, for there were no great foreign wars or domestic issues to handle, he lacked major achievements and enunciated no grand principles. “But he was kind, honest, and not self-seeking.” Melbourne held a great dislike for carrying a watch, but with his position, he must be on time for appointments and other matters of business. Therefore, he would shout out to his servants for the time. 

Adeline Louisa Maria, Countess of Cardigan and Lancastre (24 December 1824 – 25 May 1915) was the second wife of English peer James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who led the Charge of the Light Brigade, and later the wife of the Portuguese nobleman Don António Manuel de Saldanha e Lancastre, Conde de Lancastre. She was the author of scandalous memoirs, My Recollections, published in 1909 under the name Adeline Louisa Maria de Horsey Cardigan and Lancastre, though strictly speaking she was not allowed by the rules governing the British peerage to join her former and current titles together. Her book detailed events and people coupled with gossip concerning the establishment of Victorian England. After her marriage to the Earl of Cardigan in 1858, Queen Victoria had refused to have her at court because Cardigan had left his first wife after wooing her away from her husband, Lt. Col. Christian Johnstone, a childhood friend. Adeline liked to “dress” for dinner: she would often appear as a nun or a Spanish dancer. In her final years, she kept her coffin in the hallway. Several times per day, she ordered her butler to lift her into the box to assure herself that she fit.

Henry Cavendish (10 October 1731–24 February 1810) was a British scientist noted for his discovery of hydrogen or what he called “inflammable air.” Cavendish lived the life of a recluse. He would communicate with his housekeeper by scribbling messages that he left on a table outside his bedroom. He was also known to dismiss any female servant to cross his path during the day. The female servants were to be neither SEEN nor HEARD.

George William Francis Sackville Russell, 10th Duke of Bedford (16 April 1852 – 23 March 1893) was a Liberal member of Parliament for Bedfordshire between 1875 and 1885, when the constituency was abolished. He was High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1889. In 1891, Russell inherited the title of Duke of Bedford, together with Woburn Abbey and several other estates, which went with it. Like Cavendish, Bedford was something of a recluse. He would dismiss any female servant he encountered after noon, when her work must be completed.

Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater (11 November 1756–11 February 1829), known as Francis Egerton until 1823, was a noted British eccentric, and supporter of natural theology. Egerton was known for giving dinner parties for dogs, where the dogs were dressed in the finest fashions of the day, down to fancy miniature shoes. Each day Egerton wore a new pair of shoes, and he arranged the worn shoes into rows, so that he could measure the passing time. An animal lover, Egerton kept partridges and pigeons with clipped wings in his garden, allowing him to shoot them despite failing eyesight. Egerton never married, and upon his death, his title became extinct.

William John Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland (12 September 1800 – 6 December 1879), styled Lord William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck before 1824 and Marquess of Titchfield between 1824 and 1854, was a British aristocrat eccentric who preferred to live in seclusion. He had an underground maze excavated under his estate at Welbeck Abbey near Clumber Park in North Nottinghamshire.

Welbeck Abbey contains none of the normal show of grandeur. The rooms were stripped of portraits and tapestries. The rooms were painted pink and touted bare parquetry floors, with no furniture other than a commode. The Duke lived in 5 rooms in the west wing. They, too, were sparsely furnished. The 22 acres’ kitchen gardens had braziers within the walls to help ripen the fruit. A riding house (396 feet x 108 feet x 50 feet) was lit by 4000 gas jets. The Duke’s stables contained 100 horses, but he never rode them in the riding house. One can also find a roller skating rink.

Underground, one finds a series of tunnels and usable rooms. Totaling 15 miles, the tunnels connected the underground rooms to those above ground level. There was a 1000 yards tunnel that connected the house to the riding house. These were not narrow crawl-through structures. Instead, a person could stand upright within them. One tunnel, 1.25 miles long, ran northeast from the coach house to South Lodge. Reportedly, within, carriages going in opposite directions could pass each other safely. Domed skylights and gaslights illuminated the tunnel.

Like those above ground, those underground chambers were painted pink. A great hall, which served as a chapel, a portrait gallery, and occasionally as a ballroom, was 160 feet long and 63 feet wide. Reportedly, the ballroom was equipped with a hydraulic lift that could carry 20 guests from the surface to the ballroom. The ceiling was painted to represent a setting sun. One could also find a 250 foot long library, an observatory with a large glass roof, and a vast billiards room.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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