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Nan Clarges, Duchess of Albemarle

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     In the reign of the 'Merry Monarch' courtiers and nobles, to say nothing of princes, did not always look to the highest rank in the selection of their wives; and indeed the same to a certain extent may be said to have been the case during thy puritanical times of the Commonwealth; for within three years after the execution of Charles I. at Whitehall the daughter of a black-smith and farrier in the Savoy, John Clarges by name, was fortunate enough in her matrimonial career to secure for her husband a no less celebrated person than General Monk, the Duke of Albemarle.  To John Clarges is attributed the setting up of the May pole in the Strand, at the time of the Restoration, upon its former site.  Clarges was farrier to Duke, then plain Colonel Monk. He lived over his forge at the junction of the Strand and Drury Lane, near the spot where the historic `Maypole' was set up. He gave his daughter an education suited to the employment to which she was brought up, namely, that of a milliner. As the manners of young people are generally formed in early life, Anne-or as she was , usually called "Nan"-Clarges retained something of the blacksmith's daughter about her even after her elevation to a coronet with strawberry leaves.
     On one fine morning in the summer of 1632 Anne Clarges was married, in the church of St. Lawrence Poultney, in the City of London, to one Thomas Ratford, the son of another man of the same name, who had been a farrier, and a servant in the employment of Prince Charles, and was resident in 'the Mews,' no doubt the King's Mews at Charing Cross, on the spot now covered by the National Gallery. After their marriage we are told that this Thomas Ratford and his wife lived at the 'New Exchange,' in the Strand, in a house or shop bearing the sign of the 'Three Spanish Gipsies.' Here they sold such articles of domestic use and requisites for the toilet as wash-balls, powder, and gloves; Mistress Anne Ratford also teaching plain and fancy needlework to such young girls as, wishing to acquire the art and mystery of a sempstress, chose to avail themselves of her services.  About 1647 Mistress Ratford was herself acting as sempstress to Colonel Monk; she need to carry his linen to his military quarters, and, as it is alleged, 'had great control and authority over him.' It is even said that when Monk was
in 'durance vile,' in the Tower of London, she was kind to him in more than one capacity. It must be remembered that he was then in want, and that she assisted him; and when afterwards she became his wife he had so high an opinion of her understanding that he often consulted her in important matters. As she was a thorough Royalist, it is probable that she really had a hand in bringing about the restoration of the monarchy, But nothing is more certain than that the brave commander, who was never afraid of bullets, was often terrified by the tongue of his wife.
     In 1648 her father and mother died; and in the following year, some little domestic squabble or grievance having arisen, she and her husband separated. Whether Anne Clarges (or Ratford) had given up the stall in the 'New Exchange,' or whether her husband was really dead, is not, and never will be known, for no certificate from any parish register appears to have been forthcoming to prove his burial; but at all events, in 1652, the lady herself saw, no impediment to her entering a second time into the connubial state, and accordingly in the above-mentioned year she was married at the church of St. George-the-Martyr, in Southwark, to the gallant colonel, a name of importance in English history, and one whom we afterwards know as the chief instrument of the restoration of the monarchy. In the following year she was delivered of a son, Christopher, of whom we shall hear more presently.
     In 1660 the dukedom of Albemarle was conferred on Monk (who had now become a general); but the coronet of strawberry-leaves does not appear to have rested very becomingly upon the brow of the duchess; for, as Pepys tells us in his gossiping diary, 'she became the laughing-stock the Court, and gave general disgust'-of course, he means among the ladies. Pepys tells us, by the way, how he went to roster Hall, and bought among other books one of the 'Life of our Queen,' which he read at home to his wife. 'But,' he adds, 'it was so silily written that we did nothing but laugh at it. Among other things, it is dedicated  to that paragon of virtue and beauty, the Duchess of Albemarle.' Indeed, it may be added that she was not at all handsome or attractive, or even cleanly in appearance; and that her mother was one of the five women-barbers of Drury Lane, and a person of no high repute for her morals. A ballad is extant, written upon her and her four companions; the burden of it is:

Did you ever know the like,
Or ever hear the same,
Of the five women-barbers
That lived in Drury Lane?'

     The duke died in January, 1669, leaving the above-mentioned son, Christopher, who became, or ar all events was called, the second duke, and who was appointed Governor of Jamaica in 1687: he died there without issue in the same year, when his titles became extinct.
     A few years later, namely in November, 1700, a cause cèlèbre was heard at the bar of the King's Bench, in which the name of Anne Clarges, Duchess of Albemarle, was brought prominently before the public. It was an action for trespass between William Sherwin, Plaintiff, and Sir Walter Clarges, bart., defendant. The plaintiff, as heir and representative of Thomas Monk, Esq., elder brother of George, Duke of Albemarle, claimed the manor of Sutton, in Yorkshire, and also other lands in Newton, Eaton Bridge, and Shipton, as heir-at-law to the said duke, against the defendant, to whom they had been left by his only son and successor Christopher, the second duke. At the trial several, witnesses were brought forward to swear that they had seen Thomas Ratford, her Grace's first husband, alive as lately as January 1669-70, many years after her marriage with the first duke and the birth of the second. In opposition to this evidence it was contended that all along, during the lives of Dukes George and Christopher, this matter was never questioned; that the latter was universally received as the lawful son of the former; and, further, that the matter had been thrice already tried at the bar of the King's Bench,- where the defendant had gained three verdicts. One witness swore that he owed Ratford five or six pounds, which he had never demanded; and a man who had married  a cousin of the Duke of Albemarle swore that he had been told by his wife that Ratford died five or six years before the duke married. The 'benefit of the doubt' was given by the judge to the side of equity and leniency.  In summing up, the Lord Chief Justice Holt thus addressed the jury: 'If you are certain that Duke Christopher was born whilst Thomas Ratford was living, you must find for the plaintiff; if you believe that he was born after Ratford was dead, or that nothing appears of what became of him after Duke George married his first wife, you must find for the defendant.'
     In the end a verdict was given for the defendant, who was the only son of Sir Thomas Clarges, brother of the duchess, and who was created a baronet in 1674; he owned the property on which Clarges Street, Piccadilly, now stands.*
     It only remains to add that 'Nan' Clarges, Duchess of Albemarle, and ex-sempstress, died within a few days of the duke, her husband, in 1669, and was buried by his side in Henry the Seventh's chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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