Additional Info

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

Share

Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

A Group of Scottish Women
Chapter 4 - Elizabeth, Duchess of Lauderdale (d. 1698)


From the writings of seventeenth-century historians one might imagine their world to have been a stage devoted exclusively to the performance of melodrama. They have invested their subject with all the conventional characteristics of that sensational form of art. Their heroes and heroines are so heroic as to be scarcely human; their villains and adventuresses are of the most lurid type. To that front row of stalls from which they viewed the play, the villain’s raven hair no doubt suggested the blackness of his heart; the character of the adventuress seemed no less scarlet than her lips. The very proximity of the spectator exaggerated the virtues or defects of the various characters, as in a theatre it enhances the redness of the low comedian’s nose and makes the “heavy father” still more ponderous.

If contemporary critics were too close to the footlights, we, on the other hand, are certainly too far off to appreciate the charm of subtle effects or delicate characterisation. Distance may lend enchantment; it supplies perhaps the advantage of a truer perspective. But to bring the scene closer there is nothing left save to have recourse to the imagination, at best an unsatisfactory opera-glass. Only in imagination can we note the emotions of the principal actors or follow them beyond the limits of that narrow proscenium within whose bounds history has confined their movements. Some intimate diarist, and Evelyn or a Pepys, may bid us accompany him to the players’ dressing-rooms behind the stage; even so, the knowledge that we gain is but scanty, the glimpse too often misleading. For if the modern historian is occasionally prejudiced in his views, how much more so must the contemporary chronicler have been, living as he did in an age when a fair, unbiased eye and an open mind were not considered qualifications essential for the writer of history. While the essayist of today may twist his facts into the shape he requires to prove a paradox – that Henry VIII. was a perfect lover, or Mary Queen of Scots a model wife – he does not, like the bygone historian, cherish any personal grudge which can only be paid off at the expense of truth.

In the seventeenth century, on the other hand, the chronicler did not suffer from the modern weakness of being able to see both sides of a question. Consequently, whatever his descriptions lost in fairness, they gained in strength. He painted his patrons in broad, heroic colours; his foes he portrayed in harsh outline, black as silhouettes, and with as little of suggestion or detail. Small wonder, then, if we find it difficult to form any accurate mental picture of many of the great personages of the past who are shown to us in such exaggerated colours. A great deal has been written about some of them, and yet how little do we really know of any single one. Take, for instance, the case of Elizabeth, Duchess of Lauderdale, a woman who attained to greater power and position than any other woman (not of royal blood) in the whole history of Scotland. What do we learn of her private life, of her real ambitions, of her best side, from the writings of her contemporaries? Practically nothing. Bishop Burnet has, indeed, left a very full sketch of her character as it appeared to him. But his drawing is in many senses a caricature; it is everywhere coloured with the author’s prejudice and personal spite. Since that time other writers have for the most part been content to make slavish copies of the bishop’s portrait, if anything deepening its shadows, certainly imbuing it with no fresh colour.

It is idle to suppose that a woman of so much character and determination, possessed of such ability and strength of purpose, could have been altogether bad. There must have been good points about her character which her contemporaries had neither the grace nor the desire to see. Yet it is nowhere suggested that the Duchess of Lauderdale was blessed with a single redeeming quality. It is only when we search her private correspondence that we can discover a faint trace of that softer side which nature did not deny to her any more than to less hardened and unscrupulous individuals.

Elizabeth Murray was the elder daughter of William Murray, 1st Earl of Dysart, by his wife Catherine Bruce, a member of the Clackmannan family. Lord Dysart was of comparatively humble birth, being the son of a Fifeshire minister. Educated by his uncle, Thomas Murray, at one time tutor to Prince Charles, he became in turn “whipping boy” to and intimate friend of the young prince, who showed his gratitude to the victim of his vicarious punishments by eventually appointing him to be one of his gentlemen-of-the-bedchamber. Perhaps the memory of those early flagellations which he had suffered in Prince Charles’s stead rankled in William’s breast when he grew up. At any rate he repaid his master’s kindness by selling his secrets to Parliament for a sum of forty thousand merks, and in many other ways betrayed the trust which the King was so unwise as to repose in him. William Murray was, in fact, an ignoble character, unworthy of either confidence or affection, and his nature was not in any way improved by his being created Earl of Dysart in 1643. One single good quality he possessed. Though in his sober moments he was outspoken and indiscreet, in his cups he became at once reticent and reserved. Luckily, he was generally drunk.

Lord Dysart had planned a marriage between his eldest daughter and her cousin Sir Robert Murray, one of the most high-principled and capable men of his time. [A famous scientist and first President of the Royal Society.] Elizabeth, however, held other views on the subject of matrimony. She scorned Sir Robert, and in 1647, married Sir Lionel Tollemache (or Talmash), the head of an old and much-respected Suffolk family. Three years later, when her father died, she succeeded to his title as Countess of Dysart. [It was not until 1670, however, that the title was confirmed by royal charter and settled on any of her issue whom she might appoint as heir.]

Historians inform us that Lady Dysart was a very beautiful woman. And though they have a kindly habit of attributing beauty to all women of title, their praise on this occasion would seem to be based upon a solid foundation of truth. She was, moreover, exceedingly witty, a vivacious talker, a keen observer, with an acute mind and a still sharper tongue. Her education had certainly not been neglected, for we are told that she had studied not only divinity and history, but mathematics and philosophy as well. [Douglas’s Peerage.]

Lady Dysart’s moral character was not, unluckily, on a par with her mental qualities. Even in an age when feminine frailty was the rule rather than the exception, she gained an unenviable notoriety for the looseness of her conduct. With the Duchess of Cleveland, [“A woman of great beauty, but most enormously vicious and ravenous.” Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Times, p.62.] the Duchess of Portsmouth, and a score of other ladies of undoubted beauty but doubtful reputation who flourished at the court of Charles II., she helped to lower the general tone of public and private life. And it was with the assistance and encouragement of such women that Charles finally left the nation, as Roger Coke asserts, “more vitiated and debauched in its manners than ever it was by any other king.”

Scandal linked Lady Dysart’s name with that of many of the most prominent men of her day. It was even said that Oliver Cromwell himself was not proof against her blandishments. [May 12, 1677. . . went to visit the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale, at their fine house at Ham. After dinner her Grace entertained me in her Chamber with much Discourse upon Affairs of State. She had been a beautiful Woman, the supposed Mistress of Oliver Cromwell, and at that time a lady of great parts.” – Memoirs of Sir John Reresby, p.49. (1734.)]  She was certainly on intimate terms with him, and while that rigid old Puritan was in Scotland the safety of many of the countess’s friends was due to her personal intercession. Among those who owed their lives to such influences was John Maitland, 2nd Earl of Lauderdale. He had been taken prisoner at Worcester, and, but for her interference, would probably have perished on the scaffold. Lauderdale had long been Lady Dysart’s lover, which was sufficient reason to account for her interest on his behalf. But she seems to have been disappointed that his gratitude for her favours was not as overwhelming as she expected, and at the Restoration a coolness sprang up between the two which led to a temporary break of some years’ duration in their intimacy.

On the death of Sir Lionel Tollemache in France in 1669 the countess and Lauderdale were reconciled, a fact which caused so much uneasiness to poor Lady Lauderdale that she hastened to Paris, where she promptly died. One of the characters in Oscar Wilde’s most brilliant farce declares that to express a desire to be buried in Paris hardly points to any very serious state of mind at the last; but; in spite of this, one may assume that the first Lady Lauderdale was a very serious-minded and, indeed, a melancholy woman. Anne, daughter of the 1st Earl of Home, had been systematically ill-treated by Lauderdale ever since her marriage with him. He would certainly appear to have been a most disagreeable husband. At one time he was making love to the pious Lady Margaret Kennedy, [A keen Presbyterian, “whose religion exceeded as far her wit, as her parts exceeded others of her sex.” – Sir George Mackenzie’s Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland, p.165.] a daughter of Lord Cassillis; at another the Countess of Dysart claimed his undivided attention. Lady Lauderdale’s position was a difficult one, but for many years she filled it with dignity and self-restraint. Sometimes she lived with her husband at their town residence on the east side of Highgate Hill, where we find them entertaining Mr. Pepys and his friends to supper; [“Went to my Lord Lauderdale’s house to speak with him, and find him and his lady, and some Scotch people, at supper: pretty odd company, though my Lord Brouncker tells me, my Lord Lauderdale is a man of mighty good reason and judgement. But at supper there played one of their servants upon the viallin some Scotch tune only; several, and the best of their country, as they seemed to esteem them, by their praising and admiring them: but, Lord! the strangest ayre that ever I heard in all my life, and all of one cast. But strange to hear my Lord Lauderdale say himself that he had rather hear a cat mew, than the best musique in the world; and the better the musique, the more sick it makes him; and that of all the instruments he hates the lute most, and, next to that, the baggpipe.” – Pepys Diary, July 28, 1666.] at other times she was separated from Lord Lauderdale, and writing to complain bitterly of the dilapidations of her house and of her husband’s neglect. [Owing to the number of books which Lauderdale kept stored on the top floor of his house the countess’s bedroom ceiling was always threatening to fall in on her head. (See Lauderdale Papers, vol. ii. p.203.)]

Lady Dysart had such an influence over his affections, that, as Sir George Mackenzie tells us, neither her age – she was then about forty-eight, though she did not look it [“…nor was her wit less charming than the beauty of other women; nor had the extraordinary beauty she possest whilst she was young ceded to the age at which she was then arrived.” –Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland, by Sir George Mackenzie, p.218] – nor Lauderdale’s public position, nor the advice of his friends, not “the clamour of the people,” could prevent him from hurrying his second wife to the altar while his first was scarcely cold in her coffin. This unseemly haste confirmed the worst suspicions which the world had entertained regarding the relations that had long existed between the two, and still further, if possible, blackened their reputations. But in the face of general opposition the Earl of Lauderdale and the Countess of Dysart were married in the parish church of Petersham, Surrey, on the 17th of February, 1672. [The following is the extract from the church register: “The ryght honorable John Earl of Lauderdale was married to the ryght honorable Elizabeth Countesse of Desert, by the Reverend Father in God (Walter) Lord Bishop of Worcester, in the church of Petersham, on the 17th day of Februarie 1671-2, publiquely in the time of reading the common prayer; and gave the carpet, pulpit cloth and cushion.”] The wedding was celebrated by their friends in Edinburgh with banquets and junketings, while the castle guns fired as many salutes as upon the King’s birthday. [Affairs of Scotland, p.218.]

Lauderdale was in many respects a most remarkable man. At an early age he had arrayed himself on the side of the Covenanters, and was by them sent to Westminster in 1643 as one of the Scottish commissioners whose business it was to induce the king to renounce Episcopacy. In this he failed, and five years later discreetly joined the king’s party and became one of the most violent promoters of the “Engagement,” thus earning the hatred and suspicion of the Presbyterians, whose cause he had once upheld so vigorously. “Sick of the low farce of fanaticism,” said Mark Napier, “he threw his frayed and greasy mask of covenanting religion into the grave of Argyle wit irrepressible demonstrations of glee.” [Life and Times of John Graham of Claverhouse, vol. ii. p.44]  Like his second wife, Lauderdale was a student of Latin and divinity, had a profound knowledge of history, and was besides a master of Greek and Hebrew. Gifted, in addition, with a marvellous memory, he could express himself in a vocabulary which was as copious as it was rough. [Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Times, p.70.] Fountainhall goes so far as to call him the “learnedest and most powerful minister of state in his age.”

Brave, unscrupulous, superstitious, [Napier declares that he believed implicitly in goblins and witches. (See Life and Times of John Graham of Claverhouse, vol. i. p.77.) In Baxter’s World of Spirits there is a letter from Lauderdale in which he gives an account of a visit he paid to a convent at Loudun in France, where the nuns were supposed to be possessed by spirits. And in 1649 he went to Antwerp to see some witched exorcised, but was much disappointed with the sport. (See C.K. Sharpe’s preface to Law’s Memorials, p. cxi.)] an accomplished liar, of uncouth appearance and boisterous manner, Lauderdale seemed little fitted for a court. Yet he contrived to gain a complete ascendancy over Charles, and, after the disgrace of Middleton [John, 1st Earl of Middleton.] in 1662, was appointed Secretary for Scottish affairs, and for twenty years, until the arrival of the Duke of York, was virtual King of Scotland. His looks were decidedly not in his favour. With long red hair that hung wildly about his shoulders, and a tongue too large for his mouth, causing him, as Burnet says, to “bedew all that he talked to,” [History of His Own Times, p.70.] he fell far short of the generally accepted idea of a wit or a courtier. Yet he was both the one and the other. And this ungainly personage rapidly became one of the King’s especial favourites, and assisted his royal master in the prosecution of those private amours which were his Majesty’s principal occupation. [Kirkton, in his History of the Church of Scotland (p.158), says that he was the King’s “privado in his secret pleasures, in which office to keep himself in favour he acted a most dishonourable part.”] On one occasion, when owing to the burning of his fleet at Chatham and the successful retirement of the Dutch, the King was especially depressed, Lauderdale adopted the role of a seventeenth-century Herodias. Dressing himself in a woman’s petticoat, he danced before his monarch with such vigour – if not grace – as successfully to chase away the royal melancholy.

As a statesman Lauderdale may have been vicious and untrustworthy, but, though Macauley refers to him as a “ruffian,” he was not cruel. Law calls him a man of great spirit, wit, and daring, who did more without the sword than ever Oliver Cromwell accomplished with it; “a man very national, and truely the honour of our Scots nation for witt and parts.” [Law’s Memorials, p.65.] His firm suppression of the Covenanters, once his friends, and the anti-conventicle Acts which he enforced for this purpose made him unpopular; but he cannot be accused of an undue exhibition of tyranny during his rule in Scotland. He had a violent temper, which occasionally threw him into fits of passion resembling madness. At such times his charm as a husband was even less noticeable than usual, and his second wife found him no more tolerable than had her predecessor. [Writing to Queensberry in 1678 Lord Rothes says: “The Duchess…says, it is not huffing and ranting that does business; and cries when she speaks of my Lord’s infirmity of falling into passion, when, God knows, she is as guilty herself.” (Queensberry Papers.)]  To his inferiors he was insupportably haughty; to his superiors, like all bullies, he cringed. Clarendon calls him “insolent, imperious, flattering and dissembling,” fit for intrigues and experienced in the darkest political designs, with “courage enough not to fail where it was absolutely necessary, and no impediment of honour to restrain him from doing any thing that might gratify any of his passions.” [History of the Rebellion, vol. vi. p.9] In his violence and lack of scruple he was a good match for his wife, and between the two they managed to incur an amount of popular odium unique in Scottish history.

Soon after their marriage the Earl and Countess of Lauderdale made a triumphal tour of Scotland. They were everywhere received with that royal pomp and ceremony which was then customary [“The nobility…in public processions, funerals etc., displayed a degree of pomp unknown in the present times. The Duke of Queensberry, the King’s Commissioner, when coming to Edinburgh A.D. 1700, was met by the magistrates about eight miles from the city, which he entered with a train of near forty coaches and about 1200 horse.” – Arnot’s History of Edinburgh, p.195.] and which they particularly enjoyed. But though the Scottish people waved their flags and bowed their heads before the new Commissioner and his wife, the national heart remained singularly cold and unmoved by their arrival.

The Earl of Lauderdale had always pretended to despise wealth, but the rapacity of his countess, to whose passion or caprice he was entirely subservient, seems to have been sadly infectious. At her instigation he set himself to raise money be every possible method, while she herself offered all the places in the Scottish government for sale, and levied large contributions wherever she went. She even threatened the magistrates of Edinburgh with divers penalties unless they made her a suitable gift of money, and by similar means managed to amass vast sums. So corrupt did the administration become in Lauderdale’s hands that no political aspirant could obtain advancement or hold public office unless the Commissioner’s wife had first of all been handsomely bribed.

Though extortionate, covetous, and greedy, Lady Lauderdale did not, like Lady Margaret Douglas, [Sister of the first Duke of Queensberry. She was so penurious that she dressed in rags, and so anxious to amass money that she would sit all day long on the bank of the river Annan, carrying people across on her back for the modest sum of a halfpenny a head. (See Law’s Memorials, p. lxxxi.)] hoard her gold, but spent it on pleasures or luxuries with a reckless and extravagant hand. Then, when her store was exhausted, like Oliver Twist or the daughters of the horse-leech she clamoured loudly for more. Much of her money and her husband’s was spent in beautifying her property at Ham, in Surrey. The house on this estate, which had been built in 1610, belonged for a long time to the Tollemache family. It was afterwards altered and entirely refurnished by the Lauderdales, who spared no expense to ensure its comfort and magnificence. [In 1672 King Charles granted the manor of Ham in fee to the Lauderdales and to the Countess (or Duchess as she then was) of Lauderdale’s heirs by her first husband. (The Environs of London, by Rev. D. Lysons, vol. i. p.173.)] Evelyn, who visited the place in 1678, has left a description of it which in its eloquent enthusiasm is strangely suggestive of the prospectus of a modern house-agent, comparing it favourably with the finest villas in Italy; “the house furnish’d like a greate Prince’s” (he says); “the parterres, flower gardens, orangeries, groves, avenues, courts, statues, perspectives, fountaines, aviaries, and all this at the banks of the sweetest river in the world, must needes be admirable.” [Evelyn’s Diary, August 27, 1678.]

It was with sums wrung from the unwilling citizens of Edinburgh that the Commissioner and his lady were enabled to decorate and improve Ham House; and the Scottish people were not slow to realise this fact and to resent it. The general hatred which the countess’s rapacity evoked in Scotland was still further increased when she started to meddle in private as well as public affairs. She spoke of her acquaintances with a licence which was unpardonable, embroiled her husband with all his best friends, from the Earl of Argyll to Sir Robert Murray, and even brought about a quarrel between Lauderdale and his brother, Lord Hatton. So busy was she, indeed, in her interferences, that people began to ask sarcastically whether there were not one Commissioner at Edinburgh, but two.

In 1672 Lauderdale was created a duke, an honour which pandered still more to the vanity of his duchess, but which he only lived ten years to enjoy. His wife’s determination to be treated with the respect due to a queen added indeed another touch of bitterness to the universal dislike which she inspired. At the opening of Parliament she ordered chairs to be placed on the floor of the house, so that she and her ladies might sit and listen to the speeches in comfort. [Affairs of Scotland, p.219] Such a privilege had never been claimed by any woman before her time, and this not very unreasonable request was soon magnified into an exhibition of pride, which only served to increase her unpopularity.

The duchess’s unsavoury reputation provided lampoonists with abundant material. She was the subject of any number of coarse rhymes and ballads. A bowdlerised version of one of the least offensive of these – a parody of a popular song called “Black Bess” – is given in Maidment’s Second Book of Scottish Pasquils. [Page 23.]

“She is Besse of my heart, she was Besse of old Noll;
She was once Fleetwood’s Besse, now she’s Bess of Atholle;
She’s Besse of the Church, and Besse of the State,
She plots with her tail, and her lord with his pate.
With a head on one side, and a hand lifted hie,
She kills us with frowning and makes us to die.

The Nobles and Barons, the Burrows and Clowns,
She threaten’d at home, e’en the principall townes;
But now she usurps both the sceptre and crown,
And thinks to destroy with a flap of her gown.
All hearts feel excited wherever she comes,
And beat night and day, lyke Gilmour his drums.

Since the King did permit her to come to Whytehall,
She outvies Cleveland, Portsmouth, young Frazer [Daughter of the King’s physician, afterwards Countess of Peterborough.] and all;
Let the French King but drop down his gold in a cloud,
She’ll sell him a bargain, and laugh it aloud.
If the Queen understood, what of her Besse did say,
She would call for Squire Dun [The hangman] to bear her away.” 

The Duchess of Lauderdale’s biographers have had some difficulty in finding epithets sufficiently abusive to apply to “poor Besse.” Mark Napier calls her a “daughter of Satan,” [Life and Times of John Graham of Claverhouse, vol. i. p.364.] and Bishop Burnet – the “old-clothes man of History” – is as scathing and more explicit in his denunciation. Yet there was a time when the worthy bishop could be numbered among the duchess’s most devoted parasites. In her honour he even composed some execrable verses in which she was referred to as an “angelic power in human mould,” and likened to a whole choir of heavenly cherubs. [Catalogue of Scottish Writers, p.56.] The reverend prelate’s infatuation was short-lived. He was perhaps annoyed that the Duchess of Lauderdale had not obtained for him that accelerated preferment for which his soul yearned. This, however, would not be enough to embitter him as completely as his writings suggest. His quarrel appears to have been principally with her husband. In 1674 we find the latter advising the King to dismiss Burnet, who had been tactless enough to interfere in the quarrel which was then raging between the Dukes of Lauderdale and Hamilton. Lauderdale’s treatment of Lady Margaret Kennedy was another cause of offence to the bishop. He had flirted with that devout lady for some considerable time. She had even resided with him at the Abbey of Holyroodhouse – being the only woman living beneath his roof – and he had actually courted scandal by going openly to her room in his nightgown. But Lady Dysart’s entrance upon the scene caused his attitude to change, and when the death of his first wife made such a step possible, he showed no inclination to lead Lady Margaret to the altar. She thereupon married Bishop Burnet instead, [Lady Margaret was the first of Burnet’s three wives.] and with all the fury of a woman scorned, at once proceeded to incite her husband to devise a plot against the Commissioner. In this Burnet was unsuccessful. The failure of this conspiracy added still further to his dislike of the Lauderdale family, and he availed himself of his “History” as the only adequate means of revenge.

Shortly after his elevation to a dukedom, Lauderdale seems to have grown tired of a life of extravagance, and, at his own request, his pension was reduced from L.60 to L.10 a day. “I swear it will be much easier for me to live at L.10 then L.50,” he writes in 1674; “by the great one I am no gainer, and I am deadly weary of being mine host to all Scotland.” [Law’s Memorials, p.59] He had always been overfond of the pleasures of the table, and towards the end of his life his greed increased to such an extent that he is said to have consumed a whole sheep daily, eating and drinking being now his only exercise and delight. [See “God’s Justice exemplified in His Judgements upon Persecutors.”] In his old age Lauderdale became, in consequence of these continual orgies, extremely corpulent and unwieldy. This was a source of great annoyance to him. As if to add to his discomfort, the King withdrew all his pensions, and cast off his now helpless and half-paralysed adviser, while his wife began to treat him most unkindly. She is even accused of having purposely hastened his death [“Discontent and age were the chief ingredients of his death,” says Fountainhall, “if his Duchess and physicians were free of it.” (Queensberry Papers.)] which took place on the 24th of August 1682, when he was in his sixty-seventh year. “The Duchess of Lauderdale hath crowned her kindness to her late lord,” writes Sir George Mackenzie to the Duke of Queensberry, two days later, “by urging him to drink the waters [at Tunbridge Wells,], which all foretold would kill him; and so it hath fallen out accordingly.” [Queensberry Papers.]

After her husband’s death the duchess developed that passion for litigation which sometimes assails wealthy old ladies who have nothing better to do with their time and money than spend them in courts of law. The Records of the Lords of Session are filled with accounts of the various suits brought by the duchess against her family and friends. Most of her energies would appear to have been directed to accomplishing the ruin of her brother-in-law Hatton, who had now succeeded to the earldom of Lauderdale. Hatton was already in trouble, for in this same year he was charged with embezzling money from the Mint of which he was then keeper. By this accusation he was publicly disgraced, and his sister-in-law’s persistent litigation added to his misfortunes. In 1670 she had tried to arrange a marriage between her eldest daughter Elizabeth and Hatton’s eldest son. The latter, however, did not fancy the duchess as a mother-in-law, and politely declined the proposal. On this account she hated him, and paid off her grudge against the son by impoverishing the father. She was, as Burnet says, violent in everything she did, “a violent friend, but a still more violent enemy,” as Hatton found to his cost.

She had long ago persuaded her late husband to settle the whole of his estates upon her. Among them was the property of Duddingston, near Edinburgh, which had been presented to her by the duke. In order to effect the purchase of this place, Lauderdale, with his wife’s consent, had raised the sum of £7000 upon her estate of Ham. After the duke’s death, she sued his heir for the recovery of this money, though she still clung like a leech to the property. The whole question as to the legal possession of the Lauderdale estates was finally brought before the Lords of Session. Lord Pitmedden, [Sir Alexander Seton] on the earl’s behalf, argued very justly that to force a man to ratify the deeds giving away the whole of his property to his sister-in-law, when he could not succeed, was to give him “stones instead of bread, and a scorpion instead of a fish”; and declared that such legacies as the late duke’s should not be encouraged, as they exposed old men to the danger of becoming the victims of unprincipled and greedy wives. “Lauderdale is loth to be reproached,” he added,” that his family is extinguished and killed by the hand of a woman.” [The Decisions of the Lords of Council and Session. (Sir John Lauder of Fountainhall.) (1759) Vol. i. p.323.]  Finally, as a means of settling the affair, the duchess was called upon to take a solemn oath that she had never personally undertaken the debt upon her house at Ham. This she agreed to readily enough, light-heartedly committing perjury, as was afterwards proved by the King, who declared that she acknowledged to him personally her undertaking of this particular debt. A lie or two one way or the other did not matter very much to the duchess, more especially if a sum of money depended upon it. [“Shall an estate acquired without conscience by lost by it? but she is as mean spirited in adversity as she was insolent in prosperity.” (From the MSS of Sir Frederick Graham, Bart., at Netherby Hall.)]

A more amusing case, which she also won, was that in which she sued Sir James Dick of Priestfield for the value of three swans. Five of these animals, belonging to Sir James, had settled upon the loch at Duddingston. The duchess immediately claimed them as her property, and proceeded to remove them. She killed two f the birds and sent them to her friend General Drummond, [William Drummond, afterwards 1st Viscount Strathallan, who was among the prisoners captured at Worcester in 1651. A pasquil of the day accuses him of being one of the duchess’s lovers.] who was ill, in order that “in his sickness their skins might warm his heart.” The remaining three she locked up at Duddingston. The indignant Sir James Dick retorted by breaking into her house and retrieving the swans, much to the duchess’s irritation. When the case came into court the judges decided in her favour, and Sir James was reluctantly forced to return his swans to Duddingston.

The duchess’s love of going to law soon grew to be a subject of popular jest. When Wycherley was adapting Molière’s Le Misanthrope, [The Plain Dealer was the title of the English play.] he introduced two new characters, that of Jerry Blackacre and his mother. Old Mrs. Blackacre, described in the stage directions as “a petulant, litigious widow, always in law,” is generally supposed to have been intended as a caricature of the Duchess of Lauderdale.

She had no children by her second husband, but had already presented Sir Lionel Tollemache with eleven, only five of whom, however, survived their infancy. To these she was warmly attached, and they no doubt had many opportunities, denied to others, of seeing the brightest side of her character. Two of them, at least, resembled their mother. Lionel, her eldest son, who sat for many years in the English House of Commons, and finally became Earl of Dysart, was as grasping and covetous as the duchess. Mrs. Manley, in that very old-fashioned work, The New Atlantis, calls him “an old curmudgeon” who kept a house “like the Temple of Famine.” [Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes, from the New Atalantis, vol. iii. p.230.] So miserly was he, she declares, that he used to leave home early in the morning, for fear lest any friend should drop in to breakfast. His whole idea was to save money, and to this end he would “weigh out Provisions to his Family, and seal up his Oven, that the hungry Domesticks might not pinch wherewith to appease the Cravings of Nature, from his number’d loaves.” [Ibid., vol. ii. p.210.]

The duchess’s two remaining sons were in every way superior to Lionel. Thomas Tollemache, the elder of the two, was a soldier who distinguished himself on many fields of battle. He eventually died of wounds received at Brest in 1693, in an engagement with the French when 800 men fell out of the 900 employed in the attack. His younger brother William entered the navy, and was a source of continual anxiety to the duchess. At the age of seventeen he had the misfortune to kill the second son of the Earl of Southesk in a street brawl in Paris. Only the influence of his mother saved him from a punishment much more severe than the heavy fine which was eventually imposed upon him. Of all her children William was the favourite. He is perpetually and most lovingly mentioned in her correspondence with Archbishop Sharp, who looked after the boy at one time when he was ill. [See the Lauderdale MSS. in the British Museum.] His mother’s solicitude on the subject of William’s health is shown by the tender care with which she prescribes the most drastic remedies for his cure, and explains in minute detail the exact medical treatment he is to undergo. After her son’s recovery the duchess’s gratitude to the archbishop gives abundant proof of the sincerity of her maternal devotion. Here, at any rate, we can find something for which to commend her.

Of her two daughters, Elizabeth, the elder, married Archibald, Earl (and afterwards 1st Duke) of Argyll. The marriage did not turn out happily. Elizabeth inherited her mother’s shrewish temper, and after a short time she and her husband agreed to separate. The younger daughter, Catherine, was more fortunate, being twice happily married, first to Lord Doune, and subsequently to John, 15th Earl of Sutherland.

As the duchess grew older, she gradually lost most of her friends. Death and her scathing tongue swept them away out of her reach. With them, too, vanished that wit and vivacity which had rendered her bitterest satire pardonable. And from being a fiery, pugnacious woman all her life, she suddenly became a tolerant, melancholy, and even devout old lady. “I am well assured, whenever my time shall end in this life,” she writes to one of her sons, “it will be an end to an Age of as many troubles as ever any one in my circumstances has suffered. And I trust in the Lord, as I am weaned from the world, so I shall be fully happie when I am out of it.” [Letter written on December 9, 1685, among the MSS. in the British Museum.]

Financial matters still continued, however, to hold her interest and engage her thoughts. Eighteen months before her death she sends her “most Deare Lyonell” a letter entirely filled with instructions as to the disposition of her money. She is particularly anxious that all arrears owed by her at Michaelmas shall be paid, “that I may not lessen my credit In the Least or [be] exposed to the censure of not keeping my word, which would trouble me in the Highest Degree.” [Ibid.] It was then a little late perhaps for the duchess to be worrying about keeping her word. Her past record proved that the act of breaking faith had never troubled her overmuch, and only the imminence of death can have awakened within her bosom this tardy sense of honour.

She died on the 4th of June, 1698, and was buried in Petersham churchyard, though no monument marks her resting-place there. Whatever her failings may have been – and they were no doubt numerous – it is an indisputable fact that no stateswoman – to use a term which Disraeli borrowed from Swift – has ever taken part in the domestic and political administration of Scotland with half the ability or the power displayed by Elizabeth, Duchess of Lauderdale.


Return to Book Index Page