While writing my biography of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, I discovered several instances where the records were frustratingly thin or even non-existent. Many of these instances were connected with the life of Chatham’s wife, Mary Elizabeth, Countess of Chatham. Lady Chatham (who I have already written about here) is a shadowy figure, remarkable in the historical record largely for her absence from it. This is I suspect partly because of her lengthy episodes of mental illness in 1807-9 and 1818-21. Information about these episodes is sparse: the Chathams were a deeply private couple at the best of times, and this (clearly) was not the best of times.
One of the mysteries connected with Mary Chatham’s ill health is the role of Mary Frances, Countess of Macclesfield. I was first alerted to this by a letter, probably written by Lady Chatham’s sister Georgiana Townshend to Lady Chatham’s physician Henry Vaughan (later Sir Henry Halford) in April 1807. At this time Mary was at her worst, and Georgiana was in despair. Lady Chatham’s maid, she told Halford, “thinks her no better or she would write to me, & L[ad]y Macclesfield thinks on the whole she is not”. Georgiana’s next line makes it obvious Lady Macclesfield somehow had an important steadying influence on Mary Chatham: “She will be in Town tomorrow please God, & will see her then & after”.
This was a puzzle. I had never before come across either Lord or Lady Macclesfield in my research on the Chathams. Shortly after I came across the following in a letter from the politician George Canning to his wife, dated March 1810. Lord Chatham was then undergoing scrutiny during the parliamentary inquiry that followed the failure of the Walcheren Expedition of 1809, which he had commanded. At the time this letter was written Chatham was under the shadow of censure by the House of Commons. Canning had left the government a few months previously and was marshalling his personal following: “[Lord] Binning called upon me Friday, to make his profession of faith & following reserving only the question about Lord Chatham against whom he cannot vote for private reasons, Lady Binning being Lady C[hatham]'s intimate friend, I believe connection. For the rest he vows to follow me, in or out, implicitly.”
Now this was interesting. Thomas Hamilton, Lord Binning (later Earl of Haddington), was married to Lady Maria Parker, the only child and heiress of Lord and Lady Macclesfield. A chance discovery had provided me with another piece of the Macclesfield puzzle.
I still only had two pieces, however, and Lady Macclesfield herself wasn’t helping. What I knew about her was sketchy. She was born Mary Frances Drake in about 1761, the daughter of Reverend Thomas Drake, Vicar of Amersham. She and her two sisters were co-heiresses, and she managed to bag an earl, so presumably Thomas Drake had been a rich man. He was certainly from a rich family: his elder brother, William, was lord of the manor of Amersham and possessed of considerable political influence (Amersham was a “rotten borough”). The Drakes had been one of the most important families in Amersham since at least the seventeenth century, when Mary Frances’ ancestor Francis, godson and namesake of the famous Elizabethan privateer, had first bought the right to return MPs.
|George, 4th Earl of Macclesfield|
I have not managed to work out how Mary Frances met the 4th Earl of Macclesfield, but Amersham isn’t a million miles from Shirburn Castle, Lord Macclesfield’s country seat, so it’s possible the pair met socially. The wedding took place on 24 May 1780, when Mary Frances was still a minor, with consent of her uncle and guardian (her father died when she was in her mid-teens).
There could have been several reasons for the marriage (chief of which may have been Mary Frances’ sizeable fortune), but one of the most suggestive is mathematical. The couple’s daughter, Maria (the future Lady Binning), was born on 23 January 1781, less than eight months after the wedding. Either she was premature, or Lord and Lady Macclesfield married in a hurry. Whatever the truth, the young couple’s baby daughter never received any siblings. This lack of fecundity may have given Mary Frances something in common with her friend Lady Chatham, who never managed to bring even one pregnancy to term.
Lady Macclesfield was prominent at court, and seems to have been a favourite with Princess Augusta. She was also a lady of fashion: her court wear is frequently described in the newspapers. On her presentation after her wedding she was said to have “attracted the eyes of every one” in a dress of “laylock and silver, superbly trimmed, with variegated silver gauze interspersed with tiffany and foil”.
All these things might have made Lady Macclesfield and Lady Chatham likely to form a firm friendship. They were of an age and married young; they moved in the same social circles. Misfortune only strengthened their bond. When Mary Chatham fell ill in 1807, she seems to have been unable to confide in close family. This was particularly the case with her husband, who got in the way to the point that Mary’s doctor eventually told him to go away for a while. Mary Macclesfield must have been a point of normality to which Lady Chatham could cling.
Lady Macclesfield’s importance to the Chathams is borne out by several other clues in the correspondence. In the summer of 1809, while Lord Chatham was abroad with the army at Walcheren, Lady Chatham (who was still ill) left London with Lady Macclesfield. She spent almost the entire time her husband was away at Shirburn Castle. From here, Lady Macclesfield sent increasingly positive health bulletins to Chatham through his cabinet colleague Lord Liverpool. As the Walcheren campaign collapsed into ignominy, these positive reports must have been the only heartening things for Chatham on an increasingly bleak horizon.
There is no evidence that Lady Macclesfield played any role in Mary Chatham’s second illness, nor is there a record of her reaction to Mary Chatham’s death in May 1821. By this time, however, Mary Macclesfield herself was very ill. She suffered for over a year before dying at half past ten in the evening on 1 January 1823, her husband and daughter at her side.
The widowed Lord Chatham was then in Gibraltar, where he was serving as governor. Lord Binning, Lady Macclesfield’s son-in-law, wrote less than forty-eight hours later to apprise him of the passing of his wife’s close friend. “Lord Macclesfield was very anxious that you should be written to among the first,” he wrote, “as he well knows the place that for various reasons she bore in your esteem & friendship.”
Whoever Lady Macclesfield was, and whatever she did, her role in the life of Lord and Lady Chatham was clearly invaluable.
 [Georgiana Townshend] to Henry Vaughan [Sir Henry Halford], 14 April , Leicestershire Record Office DG24/819/1.
 George Canning to his wife, 3 March 1810, BL WYL 250/8/24.
 Information from http://amershamhistory.info/people/before-1600/the-drake-family/. See also George Lipscomb, The History and Antiquities of the County of Buckingham, volume 3 (London, 1847), p. 155.
 The registers of marriages of St Mary Le Bone, Middlesex, 1668-1812 … Part III (London, 1921), p. 71.
 Information from https://www.geni.com/people/Mary-Parker-Drake-Countess-of-Macclesfield/6000000011542659107. The date is confirmed by various newspaper reports.
 Morning Post, 6 June 1780.
 Morning Chronicle, 28 July 1809; Lord Liverpool to Chatham, 14 August , TNA PRO 30/70/6 f. 417.
 Lord Binning to Chatham, 3 January 1823, TNA PRO 30/8/365 f. 195.
About the author
Jacqueline Reiter has a PhD in late 18th century political history from the University of Cambridge. A professional librarian, she lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children. She blogs at www.thelatelord.com and you can follow her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/latelordchatham) or Twitter (https://twitter.com/latelordchatham). Her first book, The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017.