The amazingly eccentric Lady Salisbury

4 February 2010

When people think of the great political hostesses of eighteenth century England, they most likely think of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the beautiful and vivacious patroness of the Whig cause. What about her great rival, the Tory Marchioness of Salisbury though?

Born Lady Emily Mary Hill in 1750, the daughter of the 1st Marquess of Downshire and his wife Lady Margaretta FitzGerald, she married James Cecil, 1st Marquess of Salisbury on the 2nd December 1773.

Lady Salisbury was not as beautiful or charming as the lovely Georgiana, but was comely, charismatic and rather eccentric, with imperious manners and a loud, Irish voice. She loved showing off and was often to be seen driving around London or the family estate, Hatfield House in a blue and silver carriage, drawn by four magnificent matched horses and surrounded by dozens of liveried footmen and pages, one of whom carried a large velvet bag of gold guineas which Milady could throw to any members of the deserving poor who happened to catch her eye.

She was a noted hostess, holding enormous decadent parties at their town house in London or at Hatfield. She was particularly fond of gambling and it is said that her Sunday card parties would go on all night, leaving the long gallery ankle deep in discarded cards by morning. Everyone wanted to go to Lady Salisbury’s parties and who could blame them? Milady ordered that no expense be spared both to assure her guests’ enjoyment and also raise the prestige of her family.

The ordinary people were not forgotten and she loved to open Hatfield to the public on Sunday afternoons, throwing open the windows so that people could wander around at will, while enjoying the band playing on the terrace and the wonderful spectacle of their aristocratic hostess being rowed up and down the river in a sumptuous state barge by a dozen splendidly liveried men.

Lady Emily may have been conceited and rather vainglorious but she was also cheerful, sociable and generous. She loved to be active from dusk to dawn and appeared to need very little sleep. She loved to rise early in order to go hunting, which she adored and then followed this up with a day of tireless activity and socialising before heading out, splendidly dressed as always to a series of balls and parties in the evening. She must have been fun but also seriously exhausting to be around!

She would never be dogged by the same tiresome romantic rumours as Georgiana but the outgoing, brash and dynamic Lady Salisbury managed to attract the breath of scandal nonetheless, thanks to her total disregard of convention, her often robust language and her absolute lack of religious conviction. To modern eyes, she seems progressive and refreshingly fun to be around but at the time, her behaviour, with its arch disdain for convention and etiquette was considered highly scandalous.

It is known that she very rarely attended church and there is a story about she and her daughters arriving late at a service at the Chapel Royal in London, only to find that it was completely packed with no seats to be had. ‘Where shall we go, Mama?’ one of her daughters piped up. ‘Home again, to be sure, ‘ replied Lady Salisbury. ‘If we cannot get in, it is no fault of ours. We have done the civil thing.’

It is also said that upon hearing the story of Adam and Eve, she is said to have been furious about Adam putting all of the blame onto Eve. ‘Shabby fellow indeed!’ she exclaimed angrily.

Lord Salisbury died in 1823 and was succeeded by his son and his wife. However, Lady Emily, by now over seventy years old was stubbornly determined not to resign herself to the dismal sounding title of Dowager Marchioness and hide herself away in the countryside for the rest of her days. She was absolutely used to being the centre of attention at all times and that is how she was determined to remain.To make her position clear she started off with that beloved stratagem of all termagant dowagers: she refused to hand the family jewels and, more crucially, her husband’s Order of the Garter (which she had herself painted wearing) over to her son and his wife, the new Marchioness.

Once her period of mourning was over, Lady Salisbury threw herself into her new life and was living it up just as extravagantly and splendidly as ever. She was a well known sight in London at this time, driving about the capital in her beautiful carriage, dressed up to the nines in diaphanous gauze dresses, diamond necklaces, with highly rouged cheeks and with her grey hair dressed in the latest youthful fashion. She was a figure of fun and was known by the nicknames ‘Old Sal’ or ‘Old Sarum’.

Even when her body began to weaken, the proud Marchioness refused to accept time’s inevitable passage and carried on just as she always had. She spent all day on the hunting field, insisting that her grooms tie her to her hunter so that she couldn’t fall off and with another groom guiding her with a leading rein. ‘Damn you, my lady, jump!’ he would yell whenever they came to a fence.

Creevey described her in his diary as: ‘She is reclining on a sofa, reading the Edinboro’ Review, without spectacles or glass of any kind. Her dress is white muslin, properly loaded with garniture, and she has put off a very large bonnet, profusely gifted with bright lilac ribbons, leaving on her head a very nice lace cap, not less adorned with brightest yellow ribbon…

The end was to follow soon after. It was always impossible that a life such as that of Lady Salisbury could end with a whimper and so it was to prove. On the evening of the 22nd of November 1835, her son and daughter in law were reading in their wing of Hatfield House when a maid rushed in and told them that clouds of smoke were coming from the Dowager Marchioness’ bedroom in the West Wing of the house. By the time they rushed outside, the entire West Wing was ablaze and no one was able to enter the building to rescue Lady Salisbury. Her son attempted several times to rush past the flames but was forced to retreat every time.

Every fire engine in the area arrived at Hatfield House and for a while it looked as though the wonderful mansion, that had been built by Elizabeth I’s chief minister, Lord Burleigh, would be lost to the flames until just before dawn when the wind changed and the house was saved.

Sadly, all that could be found of the vital, eccentric Lady Salisbury were a few charred bones and some scraps of metal, all that remained of the family jewels. It is believed that she was writing at her desk when the tall feathers that she wore in her hair caught light in a candle. A horrible end to an amazing life.

After her death it was discovered that Lady Salisbury had been overwhelmed by monumental debts and was on the brink of ruin. It was also found that the splendid jewels that she had so stubbornly clung to since her husband’s death had been sold one by one to pay off debts and been replaced by paste fakes so very few genuine pieces had remained.