Cover image for Duke Hamilton is dead! : a story of aristocratic life and death in Stuart Britain


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Central Library DA483.H315 S73 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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On the morning of November 15, 1712, two of Britain's most important peers, the fourth Baron Mohun & the fourth Duke of Hamilton, met in Hyde Park. In a flurry of brutal swordplay that lasted perhaps two minutes, both fell mortally wounded. For months afterward, the kingdom was in an uproar, for the duel had occurred at a moment of grave political crisis. Whigs & Tories, increasingly desperate over the future as Queen Anne neared death, hurled charges of political murder & treasonous plotting against one another. Charge & countercharge filled the press as the social & moral crises mounted. Using the famous Mohun-Hamilton duel as a focal point, the author re-creates the desperate aristocratic world of late seventeenth & early eighteenth-century Britain. Mohun & Hamilton stood at opposite ends of a bitterly divided political spectrum, but politics was not the only cause of their quarrel. A decade-long battle over a disputed inheritance was a crucial element, & the author shows how, amid the luxury & ostentation of the aristocratic lifestyle, something very like moral anarchy reigned. The result is a stunning narrative of life & death in a tumultuous time, an era in which incivility & moral turpitude ruled beneath a thin veneer of aristocratic manners.

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Booklist Review

According to Stater, the traditional aristocratic lifestyle of the British nobility was threatened by numerous social, political, and economic changes during the waning years of the Stuart dynasty. Although their financial extravagances reached dizzying new heights, British peers began to lose their stronghold on the economy at the end of the seventeenth century. Beset by fiscal woes, menaced by intermittent conflicts with France, and bitterly divided between Tories and Whigs, the upper crust drank heavily, debauched at will, and generally set new low standards of morality and civility. The author's analysis of the decadent climate of Stuart Britain hinges on an in-depth examination of the long-standing feud that existed between James, fourth duke of Hamilton, and Charles, fourth baron Mohun. Fueled by opposing political ambitions and a disputed inheritance, this infamous rivalry culminated in a duel that left both participants dead. Utilizing the Hamilton-Mohun episode as a microcosm of aristocratic life, Stater successfully re-creates a turbulent and dramatic era. A fascinating slice of social and cultural history. --Margaret Flanagan



Chapter One A Season of Youth * * * Godliness went out of fashion when the Stuarts returned from their Continental exile in the spring of 1660, and though there was no shortage of people to lament the immorality of the times, the royal example encouraged misbehavior. The Queen Mother, Henrietta Maria, her life blighted by the execution of her husband, Charles I, knew a great deal about the failings of the new generation, and especially those of her rakish boy, the King. The English were often scandalized by Charles II's irregular life: the news that the man who claimed to be, "by the grace of God," King of England, France, Scotland, and Ireland had been creeping through a Whitehall garden in the pursuit of yet another loose woman was hardly likely to reassure anxious moralists about the stare of their society. In this climate two women whose son and grandson would later be linked prepared to send their children to court.     Anne, Duchess of Hamilton, and Catherine, Lady Mohun, were in some respects opposites. The duchess, a devout Presbyterian, wife of one of Scotland's most powerful men as well as a power in her own right, was possibly the richest woman north of the Scottish border. Her lands stretched across Scotland's waist from Edinburgh to Glasgow, and her house, which dominated the Clyde Valley just south of Glasgow, was imposing enough to be called Hamilton "Palace." Lady Mohun, on the other hand, was the widow of Warwick, second Baron Mohun, a nobleman of distinctly minor importance whose family lived in relative modesty in Cornwall. Her peculiar Norman name, though it argued for the antiquity of her husband's family, invariably perplexed strangers, who never pronounced it correctly--"Moon"--on the first try. Her odd name aside, Lady Mohun's Catholic faith would certainly have disgusted the duchess--the seventeenth-century Presbyterian horror for all things Catholic was only matched by the Catholic's equal revulsion for Presbyterians. Fortunately, the two women probably never met, because in their old age neither of them cared to travel to London.     And yet these women, so different in some ways, shared more than an antipathy toward the court and its corrupt London home. Like virtually every noble family in the British Isles, the Hamiltons and the Mohuns paid a high price during the civil wars of the mid-century. Both families had sided with Charles I, and Parliament's victory over the King's forces had left them in serious trouble. Lord Mohun, who raised a regiment of infantry at his own expense, found himself and his estate subject to punitive fines and taxes in the aftermath of defeat. The Duchess of Hamilton suffered still more. Parliament executed her father in 1649, an ironic martyrdom, for the King had not only distrusted him but even jailed him for his suspect loyalty. Her uncle, the second Duke of Hamilton, died in the service of Charles II not two years later, killed in the disastrous Royalist defeat at Worcester. The duchess inherited her uncle's title, but with it came the unwelcome attention of the Commonwealth's authorities, who seized her property and expelled her from her house. Both women endured the years of Cromwell's regime under the threat of penury.     The Restoration of Charles II ended the immediate threats from a hostile government: the political climate changed dramatically from the moment the handsome young King landed at Dover to the frantic cheers of his subjects. But the legacy of the wars remained. Weakened estates and political divisions dogged the kingdom's noble families, many of whom were bitterly disappointed by Charles II's inability to make their losses whole. Nevertheless the prospect of renewed royal favor drew the ambitious to London, where they prowled around the King's person, competing for power and place. This unrelenting search for courtly success, conducted by many with an ugly ruthlessness that was the despair of contemporary moralists, ultimately drew the families of Lady Mohun and the duchess together.     Lady Mohun's eldest son, Charles, was probably the first to arrive in the metropolis. Born in 1649, the year of Charles I's execution, Charles grew up in straitened circumstances, and at his father's death in 1665 he inherited large debts with his title. Though the family's lands in Cornwall and Devon must have brought in a substantial income, mostly from rents, nearly all the money went to creditors, including the annual £1,000 the second baron left his wife. These heavy charges, to say nothing of the high cost of living fashionably in London, reduced the third Lord Mohun to near desperation. Like many of his peers, he financed his lifestyle through a constant round of debt: mortgages, bonds, and credit extended by merchants provided the food, housing, and consumer goods that he and much of the English aristocracy and gentry relied upon to distinguish themselves in an increasingly prosperous society. In the 1660s a laborer in the fields or a porter in the streets of London lived on less than £20 a year, and a gentleman could live comfortably on an annual income of a few hundred pounds. Many merchants and tradesmen found their own incomes rivaling those of the gentry in the boom following the Restoration. But nobility demanded spending well beyond that expected from others; a peer's social standing depended upon high living--and what constituted "high living" was changing quickly, as gentlemen competed to outspend their lowborn rivals.     The second Duke of Buckingham, to take only one example among many, piled up debts of well over £160,000 in the 1660s and '70s before his creditors finally called a halt to his spending. He was not alone in being tempted by new houses, coaches, horses, art, and clothes. Fortunately, deficit financing could maintain a peer at a far higher level of consumption than his income warranted, but the system depended upon lenders' confidence. Shopkeepers sold to their noble clients on credit to boast of their high-class clientele, and to augment their profits. Knowing the risks, merchants routinely inflated their prices for ordinary goods by as much as 100 percent. They kept a wary eye upon their customers' estates and income. When they concluded that a borrower was overextended, they stopped the flow of goods, and the embarrassed noble faced a scramble for cash.     Like that of his peers, therefore, Mohun's social position depended upon the judgment of an array of men and women who ranked far below him: tailors, grocers, vintners, and even washerwomen. They conspired to maintain his extravagant life only as long as they could be sure that he was creditworthy. While they might pull their hats off when they presented their bills, this cast of characters nevertheless had considerable power over his reputation. Mohun's first direct experience of this power came in 1667, when one of his creditors, patience at an end, sued for a debt of £300. Thereafter Mohun's financial standing threatened to vanish like a mirage: shopkeepers and other lenders rushed to secure their debts. He could not be arrested for debt himself (a longtime privilege of peers, the monarch's hereditary counselors) but this did not save him from the constant din of complaining tradesmen. Family servants were arrested, and the door of his London lodgings resounded with the knocks of importunate lenders.     In these circumstances there was only one thing that any self-respecting peer could do: find a rich wife. Marriage to an heiress was one of the few ways, apart from royal favor, that an impecunious nobleman could recover from financial catastrophe. Status-conscious fathers often traded cash for social standing, and many peers were more than willing to oblige in the pursuit of ready money. Certainly Lord Mohun was. His search for a well-endowed wife was under way by about 1670, but was hampered by his reputation. Three years earlier there had been a scandal when John Dolben, Bishop of Rochester, was alleged to have "put his hand into the opening in the front of the hose of Lord Mohun, a boy on account of his age, but not on account of the beauty of his face." More important, however, was the paucity of Mohun's income. Most annoying of all was the money siphoned away from his property by his mother, who obstinately refused to part with a penny of her jointure or, better still, die. Instead, she continued to live piously in her now increasingly ramshackle Cornish home while her son's debts mounted. At last, in an effort to make himself a more attractive candidate for marriage, Mohun was reduced to suing his own mother. In February 1671 he claimed before the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, that Lady Mohun's willfulness threatened to deprive him of his estate. Despite what he called his repeated "dutiful applications" to her, the old lady clung obstinately to the deeds and papers he claimed he needed to maintain his rights. It would seem that the Lords were skeptical of Mohun's tender regard for his mother, however, because they refused to act on his petition.     This result no doubt caused Mohun to redouble his efforts to find a wife, but it did nothing to strengthen his bargaining position with prospective fathers-in-law. It was not until 1673 that the search finally paid off. The Earl of Anglesey's daughter Phillippa was, as subsequent events would illustrate, a burden her father was eager to unload. Not that the earl was himself beyond reproach--the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that Anglesey was "one of the greatest knaves in the world," and James, first Duke of Ormonde, a good judge of character, said that he was no better than a common thief.     As far as Arthur, Earl of Anglesey, was concerned, though, the proposed match was a great opportunity. In April 1672 he wrote in his diary that Lord Mohun had "moved me with great civility" for Phillippa's hand--an application as unexpected as it was welcome. Even more pleasant were Mohun's words on the next day, when the young lord repeated his request, "leaving everything else to myself, whether I gave anything or nothing." As Phillippa was the Earl's only child, Mohun must surely have expected a substantial settlement--but he expected too much if he was relying on Anglesey's sense of fairness. Mohun's pledge was most welcome: the heavy cost of a daughter's dowry could substantially weaken an aristocrat's estate, and no doubt Anglesey was delighted to find Phillippa's suitor to be so reasonable. Mohun's barony would ordinarily entitle him to a dowry of at least £5,000, but undoubtedly Anglesey used Charles's weak financial position to his own advantage. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Victor Stater. All rights reserved.

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