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The Countess of Drogheda

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     We have often heard of actresses and singers to whom peers have taken a fancy late in life, and whom they have raised from the stage of the theatre or the opera to a coronet and a carriage and four; but the reverse instances are few in number by comparison ; for it is not often that noble and titled ladies have condescended to smile on young actors or public singers, and to bestow on them a hand and a heart, even if it be only a second-hand article. Still one or two examples of such freaks of fortune occur to me ; and one of these I will relate in the present paper.
     Somewhere about the year 1670 there happened to be a concourse of persons of quality at the new and fashionable watering-place of Tunbridge Wells. The Pantiles, as its chief promenade was styled, and still is styled, was filled daily with a bevy of fair ladies in large hoops and tall head-dresses, and showing an equal proportion of maids, wives, and widows, of whom it may be reasonably supposed that the first and third sections were not so much bent on 'drinking the waters' as on angling there in for husbands.
     Among this fashionable crowd, there was one young widow who attracted general attention by her engaging manners, and the piquancy of her wit, no less than by the beauty of her complexion. This was Letitia Isabella, Countess of Drogheda, a lady between five-and-twenty and thirty years old, who had been born of an aristocratic house, being the oldest daughter of John Robartes, Earl of Radnor, and had married Charles, second Earl of Drogheda, an Irish peer, who some ten years after his union with her had died, just at the convenient moment, leaving her his sorrowing 'relict,' and-what probably she valued still more-her own mistress.
     At the same time there happened to be at the Wells a young beau of fashion, who had already gained repute as a dramatist and man of letters, one William Wycherley, the story of whose life, briefly told, runs thus. The son of Mr. Daniel Wycherley, of Cleave, in Shropshire, he was born in or about the year 1640. His father, a gentleman enjoying an estate of 1640 a year, sent the boy to France when he was at the ago of fifteen, in order to complete his education. During his residence there Wycherley fell frequently into the society of the banished Royalists, and was persuaded by some of them to embrace the Roman Catholic faith.
     After the Restoration 'Wycherley returned to England, and became a student of law at the Middle Temple. All lovers of the English stage are familiar with the name of Wycherley as a man who united in himself the double character of a comic dramatist and a man of fashion in the time of the later Stuarts. From 1660 to 1669 or 1670, when he produced his first play, Wycherley attracted no little attention in fashionable circles; and his favor with Charles II, his intrigue with the Duchess of Cleveland, under whose patronage he rapidly won his way up to a high position at Court, his introduction to Buckingham, and his intimacy with Rochester, became the subject matter for conversational gossip.
     His first play, 'Love in a Wood, or St. James's Park,' produced about 1669, was so far successful that the author was enabled to take rank as one of the leading wits of the clay. Three other plays followed from his pen, and were equally fortunate; they are entitled: 'The Gentleman Dancing-master,' 'The Plain Dealer,' and 'The Country Wife;' their licentiousness, however, will prove a bar to their ever again becoming popular; but it was fashionable then to hold the social proprieties in contempt, and Wycherley was a man of fashion. The rapid course of dissipation which Wycherley began to run from the date of his introduction into fashionable life, broke down his health at an early age, so that he was obliged for some time to travel on the Continent, the expense of his tours being defrayed by Charles II, with whom he was a great favorite.
     But how does this biography bear on the fate and fortune of Lady Drogheda? I will explain. There is an old song which says,

A well-jointured widow may soon be a wife.'

     And Lady Drogheda soon proved to be an instance in point. She met Wycherley at the Tunbridge waters: she ' came, she saw, and she conquered.' And this was how it came about. The story has been told before, but I will repeat it.
     On Wycherley's return to England he one day went into a bookseller's shop at Tunbridge accompanied by his friend, Mr. Fairbeard, when they heard a young and very beautiful lady inquiring of the bookseller for one of his Wycherley's most fashionable and successful plays, called 'The Plain Dealer:' I Madam,' said Mr. Fairboard, pushing the author towards the lady, 'since you are for " 'The Plain Dealer," here he is for you: The introduction thus effected was followed by a few flattering, compliments on the part of Wycherley, and initiated his acquaintance with the noble and wealthy Countess of Drogheda, to whom a short time afterwards she was married, much to the displeasure of Charles Il., who considered it a misalliance on the part of the lady.
     Their married life was not, however, a happy one, as his wife was of a very jealous temperament. Probably the lady had good cause for her jealousies; at all events, Dennis, a contemporary of Wycherley, and a dramatic and political writer and critic of considerable note, relates that their lodgings were in Bow Street, Covent Garden, opposite the 'Cock Tavern,' and that if at any time he entered that place of entertainment with his friends, be was obliged to leave the windows open, so that she might see that there was no woman in the company. The result of all this jealousy on his wife's part led to Wycherley's appearances at Court being like angels' visits, few and far between; and this, in the end, gave umbrage in high quarters, and lost him the favor of Charles.
     Their married life was not of long duration, for the Countess died shortly after their union, leaving him, however, all her fortune. Wycherley, whose habits were very extravagant, quickly squandered his wife's money in dissipation, assisted by the expenses of a law-suit consequent upon a dispute relative to her will. Ire was cast into prison for debt, where he lay seven years, when he was released by James II., who graciously granted him a pension of 1200 per annum.
     About the time of Wycherley’s release from prison he succeeded of his patrimonial estate, but it was of little pecuniary advantage to him, as it was heavily mortgage, and strictly entailed. Being on bad terms with his nephew, who was the next heir, and desiring to injure him, Wycherley married again (being then seventy-five years of age); and again the bride was a young and wealthy lady'. In ten days after the ceremony he died; yet in this brief space of time, Ito had contrived clandestinely to dispose of a considerable part of the lady's fortune probably in liquidating his old-standing debts. On his death-bed he gave his young wife this piece of advice: 'Not to take an old man for her second husband,' and that was almost the only legacy that lie bequeathed to her. Whether she paid any regard to the precept is more than I am able to tell. 

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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