05 August 2016

The love story that forced
Queen Victoria’s god-daughter
and an Irish composer to run
away from her father’s home

A wedding in the private chapel at Exton Hall … three Victorian weddings caused joy and pain for Irish and English families (Photograph © Steven Bradshaw/Exton Park

Patrick Comerford

My visits earlier this week to the beach and harbour at Annagassan, to Bellingham Castle and to the charming Co Louth village of Castlebellingham drew my attention to the story of the Bellingham baronets, the story of the great society wedding at the castle in 1905, and to the way the family’s fortunes went into decline following the events 100 years ago in World War I and after the Easter Rising in 1916.

But as I researched these stories, another story of romance and family fortunes and misfortunes unfolded. This was the story of Queen Victoria’s cousin and god-daughter who eloped with an Irish-born organist, who was disowned by her father who was one of the leading politicians of the day, and who died in exile while she was still in her mid-30s.

When the future Sir Henry Bellingham (1846-1921) left the Anglicanism of his birth and family in 1873 at the height of the Tractarian controversy and became a Roman Catholic, his move caused a stir in polite and aristocratic circles throughout these isles. He had become a friend of both Cardinal Newman and Cardinal Manning, and a year later, in 1874, he married Lady Constance Julia Eleanor Georgiana Noel, the daughter of another high-profile aristocratic convert to Catholicism, Charles George Noel (1818-1881), Lord Campden and future 2nd Earl of Gainsborough.

The marriage was celebrated in the Noel family’s private estate chapel in Exton Hall. Her father was a prominent politician, and Lord and Lady Campden had embraced Roman Catholicism in a very public conversion a quarter of a century earlier in 1850.

Their public conversion was all the more controversial because Lady Campden, the former Lady Ida Hay (1821-1867), was a first cousin once removed of Queen Victoria. She was a cousin of Queen Victoria because her mother, the former Lady Elizabeth FitzClarence (1801-1856), was an illegitimate daughter of King William IV and his Irish-born mistress, Dorothea Jordan (1761-1816) from Waterford.

The family kinship was very public and caused no embarrassment to Queen Victoria, who invited Lady Ida to be one of her bridesmaids when she married Prince Albert in 1840. A year later, on 1 November 1841, when she was still only 20, Lady Ida married Charles George Noel (1818-1881), who had assumed the title of Viscount Campden less than three months earlier and who had been Whig MP for Rutland for just a few short months.

He was the only child of Charles Noel (1781-1866), 1st Earl of Gainsborough, and his second wife Elizabeth Grey. His mother died two weeks after he was born, and he was educated privately and at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Ida and Charles had five children:

1, Lady Blanche Elizabeth Mary Annunciata Noel (1845-1881).
2, Lady Constance Julia Eleanor Georgiana Noel (1847-1891), who married Sir Henry Bellingham.
3, Charles William Francis Noel (1850-1926), who became 3rd Earl of Gainsborough.
4, Edward Noel (1852-1917).
5, Lady Edith Horatia Emma Frances Noel, who became a nun and died in 1890.

The first two children had been born when their parents publicly embraced Catholicism and were received into the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius IX on New Year’s Day, 1 January 1850. Soon after, Lord Campden set about building a private chapel on his estate.

The family lived at Exton Park, a large country estate that was the home of the Noel family and the Earls of Gainsborough since the 16th century. Rutland is England’s smallest county, totalling only 382 sq km (96,000 acres). A century ago, the Exton Park estate made up 14.6% of Rutland, some 14,000 acres, the family owned the village and all the residents were either estate workers or tenants. The family still owns a number of properties, including Exton Hall, and today the estate covers about 6,000 acres.

Famous visitors to Exton Park in the past have included Shakespeare and Handel, and the Noel family once used the Upper Lake on the estate for re-enactments of naval battles – an enthusiasm that helps to explain the choice of Horatia and Emma as middle names for Lord Campden’s youngest daughter.

The family had lived in the old hall until 1810, when Exton burned down with all its contents, including the library, the paintings and the family portraits.

A new Exton Hall was built, and was then rebuilt in the mid-19th century. The Revd Baptist Wriothesley Noel (1798-1873), one of the most popular Evangelical preachers of the day, had become friends with the architect Henry Roberts through their mutual concern for the welfare of the poor. He introduced Roberts to his eldest brother, Charles, who had inherited Exton in 1838 and reacquired the family titles three years later. Roberts quadrupled the size of Exton Hall, adding tall Jacobean turrets, chimneys, gables and windows. It was almost quadrupled in size in 1850 with additions by the architect Charles Alban Buckler.

In 1850, just as the new hall was taking shape, the son and heir, Charles Noel, and his wife Ida converted to Roman Catholicism. It was a surprise to the family as his grandfather had rarely missed an opportunity in Parliament to oppose Catholic Emancipation.

Soon after his conversion, Lord Campden planned a new private Roman Catholic chapel for his estate. The foundation stone was blessed by Bishop Richard Butler Roskell of Nottingham and laid by Lord Campden on the feast of Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, 29 December 1857.

In 1860, while he was still known as Lord Campden, he was urged to stand in the by-election in Co Cork against the Liberal candidate and newly-appointed Attorney-General for Ireland, Rickard Deasy (1812-1883). Although he had once been a Whig MP for Rutland, albeit briefly, Campden was picked as the Tory candidate by Sir John Pope Hennessy (1834-1891), then Conservative MP for King’s County, who was anxious to build on the success of the Catholic-Tory alliance in the 1859 election.

But his recent conversion to Catholicism made Campden a suspect figure among Irish Conservatives, who were less than enthusiastic about supporting his campaign, and he lost to Deasy by 2,000 votes. In London, The Times started running stories about ‘the Great Campden Controversy.’ On 10 March 1860, it reported: “Everyone is asking the delicate question who is accountable for Lord Campden’s election expenses. Cork County cannot be fought with less than £5,000 or £6,000 aside.” Eventually, Hennessy was ordered to pay £1,000 “for the balance of the expenses incurred on behalf of Lord Campden at the recent election.”

In 1866, Charles Noel succeeded his father as Earl of Gainsborough and took his seat in the House of Lords. But the new Lady Gainsborough, the former Lady Ida Hay, enjoyed her new standing as a countess for little more than a year; she died on 22 October 1867 and was buried in the crypt of the new chapel built by her husband.

The church, which abuts the east wing of the Exton Hall and was designed by the architect Charles Alban Buckler, was completed in 1868 and was dedicated to Saint Thomas of Canterbury. With its completion, a private chaplain was appointed, along with a resident organist, Thomas P Murphy, whose duties also included teaching music to the Noel children as their private tutor.

A wedding in the chapel where Lady Constance Noel and Sir Henry Bellingham were married in 1874 (Photograph: © Steven Bradshaw/Exton Park)

In 1874, the chapel was the venue for Henry Bellingham’s wedding to Lord Gainsborough’s second daughter, Lady Constance Noel (1847-1891). Lady Constance may have missed her mother’s presence at her wedding, but another absence that would not have gone unnoticed that day was that of her elder sister, Lady Blanche Elizabeth Mary Annunciata Noel.

Lady Blanche was born at Exton Hall on 25 March 1845, and just as her mother had been one of Queen Victoria’s bridesmaids in 1840, Blanche now became a godchild of Queen Victoria.

She was born on the Feast of the Annunciation, and her additional names at baptism, Elizabeth Mary Annunciata, show how her parents were already deeply influenced by the Tractarian movement.

As a child she was schooled privately, learned to speak Italian, French, German and Spanish, learned some Latin and Greek, and travelled to Italy and Germany. As a teenager, she missed her mother and was left to her own devices at Exton Hall.

She was said to have been gifted with a sweet, flexible voice, sang in the choir in the chapel, and was in daily contact with Thomas Murphy, the young, tall, well-educated and handsome Irish-born organist in the chapel who was also the private music tutor to Noel daughters. In the hours they spent singing together in the chapel after Mattins and Vespers, Blanche and Thomas fell in love with each other.

Lord Gainsborough was aware of nothing until a visiting family friend noticed this intimacy and warned him about his daughter’s choice in love. At first, he refused to even contemplate the possibility, but eventually he expressed his indignant disapproval.

One story says Gainsborough allowed the marriage to take place in his private chapel. Another source claims they eloped to London where they married, and that she was disowned and disinherited by her father.

Did Lord Gainsborough object because Thomas Murphy was an Irishman? This seems unlikely: her sister Lady Constance later married Sir Henry Bellingham from Co Louth; his son and heir, Charles, would marry an Irishwoman in Ireland; and his wife’s grandmother, Dorothea Jordan, was born in Waterford. Indeed, a decade earlier, Gainsborough had stood as a Tory candidate in the by-election in Co Cork. On the other hand, Murphy would later try to disguise his Irish background when he declared in census returns in New Hampshire in 1880 that he and both his parents were born in England.

Perhaps Gainsborough objected because Murphy was a commoner and brought no titles or estates into the family. Whatever his objections were, Lady Ida and Thomas Murphy were married in the new chapel at Exton on 6 March 1870.

But one of Gainsborough’s conditions for consenting to the wedding in his chapel was that the newly-wed couple should immediately leave for America. After they married, the love-struck pair set sail for America and Lady Blanche was never to see her family again. There is probably little truth to the story that they travelled in the steerage compartment of a ship, and that when they arrived “she and Murphy bummed around New York. They had no money and hadn’t eaten for 24 hours. She sold her earrings for a loaf of bread and said it was the best meal she ever had.”

The couple found themselves to North Conway through a priest they knew, and they finally settled in Bartlett, New Hampshire. Murphy was hired to teach music and French at the Kearsarge Schools for Boys in North Conway, and was the organist in a local church.

Lady Blanche soon earned a reputation as a writer. Her first published article, on Papal Rome, appeared in 1871 in the Catholic World, and over the next years she contributed half a dozen essays to the magazine. Her short stories and travel logs appeared in many magazines, including Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The Galaxy, Scribner's Monthly, The Galaxy, The Catholic Review and other publications, as well as the Catholic World. She also published sketches of her travels in Lippincott’s Magazine. She was a frequent contributor to English magazines too, and the editor of the Graphic invited her to write a series of short articles on American manners and customs.

Four years after she went into exile, Gainsborough appears to have had regrets about the way he treated his daughter. In 1874, he settled her with an annuity of £60, and offered her the opportunity to return to Exton Hall, but the offer was conditional on her leaving her husband.

Lady Blanche Murphy accepted the annuity but refused his conditions for her return to Exton. She was not present for the wedding in the same chapel in 1874 of her sister, Lady Constance, to another Irishman, the more acceptable Sir Henry Bellingham of Bellingham Castle, Co Louth.

Nor did she attend the wedding in Ireland in 1880 of her widowed brother, Charles Francis Noel (1856-1926), now known as Viscount Campden. On 2 February 1880, he married Mary Elizabeth Dease in Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Coole, near Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. The bride’s father, James Arthur Dease (1826-1878), of nearby Turbotstown House, was a Justice of the Peace and a Deputy Lord Lieutenant for Co Cavan. Unlike Blanche and her Irish husband, Charles and his Irish bride returned to live at Exton Hall.

A maternal aunt also also left Lady Blanche some money, which she used with her annuity and the payments for her articles to buy a cottage in Bartlett, New Hampshire. The cottage, now known as the Lady Blanche House, was originally known as the Ledge Farm. There she had a reputation for feeding and clothing local poor children, and spent hours in the open air and in the local woods. Despite her father’s initial reaction to her marriage, from the time of her wedding to the day of her death, she was in constant correspondence with her family and her many friends in England.

Blanche and Thomas Murphy had no children, and Lady Blanche lived at their cottage in Bartlett for just 11 months. She was just four days short of her 36th birthday when she died after four days illness on 21 March 1881.

A writer in the Boston Courier wrote: “Though her marriage had been romantic, there was nothing of the sentimentalist about Lady Blanche Murphy. After the time of Mr Murphy’s teaching in the school had expired they kept house, she doing most of the house work herself, while yet managing to do a great deal of writing.” Her last articles, on ‘The Tomb of the Conquistador’ and ‘The Great Monasteries of the Athos’ (sic), were published after she died.

Lady Blanche Murphy remained a fervent Roman Catholic all her life. Her funeral took place on 24 March 1881, at the Catholic Cathedral of Portland, Maine, with the Bishop of the diocese presiding at a solemn Requiem Mass. She was buried temporarily in a vault of the Calvary Cemetery, before her body was brought back to England and buried beside her mother in the crypt of the private family chapel in Exton.

Lord Gainsborough, who had remained a widower, died in London on 13 August 1881 a few days after Blanche had been reburied in the family crypt. On his death bed, he gave his consent that the small annuity he had provided for Blanche in America should continue to be sent to his son-in-law. He was 62, and he was buried beside his wife in the crypt in his private chapel at Exton Hall. He was succeeded in his titles and estates by his eldest son, Charles Francis Noel, who had married Mary Dease in Co Westmeath the previous year.

Thomas Murphy continued to live in their cottage at Bartlett after Lady Blanche died. He kept the farm but he went to live in a boarding house in North Conway. He then moved to Boston, where he died on 11 October 1890 and he was buried alone at Calvary Cemetery. His younger sister-in-law, Lady Ida Noel, who had become a nun as Mother Mary Emmanuel, also died that year. His other sister-in-law, Lady Constance Bellingham, died at Bellingham Castle, Co Louth, in the following year, 1891.

A wedding in the chapel at Exton Hall (Photograph: Exton Park)

The marriage of Lady Blanche and Thomas Murphy, and her father’s reaction to their romance, serve to illustrate how Victorian mores and values were beginning to crumble in the closing decades of the 19th century. His obsessive grief following her death shows too how he knew that the old order could no longer be shored up. The old certainties that were dying in English and Irish society would be swept away a few decades later with World War I and with the Easter Rising and the events that unfolded in the decade that followed.

Perhaps it is because of this love story between an English lady with royal connections and a handsome Irish composer, perhaps it is because of Lady Blanche’s unique writing ability, perhaps it is because of both, that the cottage Lady Blanche and Thomas Murphy lived in at Bartlett was awarded a New Hampshire historic marker, number 109. The Lady Blanche Cottage has been owned by Dick Goff and Glenora Heath since 2006.

In the great fire at Exton in 1810, the family portraits and paintings were lost and the hall’s library perished. But In 1986, the Noel family contacted the Leicestershire and Rutland Record Office after a substantial number of long-forgotten records were found in rusty deed boxes in the stables and muniments room at Exton Hall. The find uncovered during building work at the hall turned out to be the entire estate and family archive dating back to the 12th century but long thought destroyed.

The collection now fills close on 700 boxes in the record office. The papers have been meticulously catalogued and are now searchable online.

Today, Exton Hall is the home of Anthony Baptist Noel, who succeeded as 6th Earl of Gainsborough, 6th Viscount Campden and 6th Baron Noel in 2009. The chapel where Lady Blanche Noel married Thomas Murphy and where Lady Constance Noel married Sir Henry Bellingham is one of only two fully functioning Roman Catholic churches in the county of Rutland and it seats about 120 people.

The chapel is semi-public, providing Exton with a useful Roman Catholic niche in the country house weddings market in England. But to get married in the chapel either the bride or the groom must be a Roman Catholic. Some of Lord Gainsborough’s ‘old certainties’ are still in place.

Exton Hall remains the home of the Noel family and the Earl of Gainsborough

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