19 October 2017
As I was researching the life of the Revd Walter Shirley of Loughrea, Co Galway, and his links with successive holders of the titles of Earl Ferrers and Viscount Tamworth, I came across the story of the secret daughter of one Lord Tamworth, and how, when she was only 18, she married the same man four times within four months.
It is the story too of an Italian duke who began life as an illegitimate child, abandoned in a foundling hospital because of the embarrassment his birth had created for a family descended from Popes and Italian cardinals.
Caroline Shirley, Duchess Sforza Cesarini (1818-1897), married into the Italian aristocracy at the age of 18. She was born Caroline Shirley in Staffordshire at Christmas time in 1818, although the precise day is not known, and she was baptised on 29 December that year in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Chad in Brewood, between Stafford and Wolverhampton.
Her father was Robert Sewallis Shirley (1778-1824), Viscount Tamworth, eldest son and heir of Robert Shirley (1756-1827), 7th Earl Ferrers, who in turn was a nephew of the Revd Walter Shirley (1726-1786) of Loughrea, Co Galway. All that is known of her mother is that she was a servant girl in the household of Earl Ferrers.
This Lord Ferrers, like many of his predecessors and ancestors, was eccentric. He moved out of the family’s ancestral home at Staunton Harold in Lecestershire and built other houses, including Rakedale Hall and Ratcliff Hall. He quarrelled with his only son and heir, Lord Tamworth, who died on 6 June 1824 without any reconciliation between father and son.
The earl was living an isolated life at Rakedale Hall with his second wife, Elizabeth Mundy, and there were no children in this marriage. One morning in 1824, an impoverished woman arrived at the hall with a five-year-old girl, demanding to meet Lord Ferrers. She told Ferrers that the little girl was his grandchild and she begged him for financial support.
Lord Ferrers was charmed by the girl and agreed to adopt the child; for the rest of his life, she never left him. When her grandfather, Lord Ferrers, died three years later in 1827, he made surprisingly generous provisions for her in his will, including an income of £3,000 a year along with many of his manor houses, including Rakedale and Ratcliife.
Lord Ferrers entrusted his granddaughter to the care of his friend, Charles Mundy of Burton Hall, near Loughborough, a nephew of his second wife. By the time Caroline came to live with Charles and Harriet Mundy at Burton, their resources were dwindling and their mortgages increasing. Her own fortune was tied up in the slow and ponderous workings of the Courts of Chancery, and there were constant battles to get sufficient money to cover her education and other needs and challenges to the settlement by the new holder of the family titles, Washington Shirley (1760-1842), 8th Earl Ferrers. His son, Robert William Shirley (1783-1830), had inherited the use of the title of Lord Tamworth when Caroline’s father died in 1824.
Meanwhile, Caroline’s mother had married an innkeeper in Syston, Leicestershire, and was given a small annuity from the Shirley estate on condition that she had no contact with her daughter. Indeed, Caroline was led to believe that her mother had died. She was 18 and living at Burton Hall when her mother arrived at the house and threatened that nothing but force could remove her from the front door until she saw Caroline.
Eventually, other members of the household allowed her in, on the pretext of being shown paintings and furniture, without Caroline ever knowing that her mother wanted to see her. But when the woman saw Caroline, she threw herself at her emotionally. She was hurried from the room, and never again saw her daughter.
Caroline and her guardians’ son, Charles John Henry Mundy, fell in love and became engaged. But the marriage was impossible for many legal reasons at the time.
Her grandfather’s will stipulated that Caroline should spend three months each year on the continent. During a visit to Rome in March 1837, she met Don Lorenzo Montani Sforza Cesarini (1807-1866), Duke of Segni. She was then an 18-year-old, and she married the 30-year-old duke within the next few months.
The ducal house traces its lineage back to Giacomuzzo ‘Muzzo’ Attendolo, a peasant who enlisted as a soldier and embarked on a famed military career. He became known as Sforza, and his son, Francesco I Sforza (1401-1466), became Duke of Milan. Another descendant, Catherine de Sforza, married into the Medici family, Bosio II Sforza married a daughter of Pope Paul III, and four members of the Sforza family became cardinals.
But, like Caroline, Don Lorenzo had also been born illegitimately. His mother, Geltrude Conti, was the wife of Don Francesco II Sforza-Cesarini (1773-1816), Prince of Genzano and Duke of Segni. She became pregnant during an extra-marital affair with a Russian officer, Colonel Carl Marshall, who was also of English descent, and she gave birth to the child on 18 February 1807 in her husband’s palazzo about 30 km outside Rome, the Palazzo Sforza-Cesarini in Genzano di Roma, built in the 18th century by the architects Ludovico and Domenico Gregorini.
The child was sent to a foundling hospital, and as he grew up he was apprenticed to a painter. When Lorenzo’s half-brother, Duke Salvatore Sforza-Cesarini, Prince of Genzano, died in 1832, his elder sister Anna (1803-1874) and her husband Marino Torlonia (1796-1860), Duc di Poli, claimed the estate. But Lorenzo’s true identity was revealed in 1834, and Anna and Marino appealed to the Sacra Romana Rota to keep Lorenzo from receiving any of the Sforza-Cesarini inheritance.
The case created a public scandal, but the Roman Rota upheld Don Lorenzo’s claim to the titles and estates. He was proclaimed Duke of Segni and his inheritance was restored to him on the grounds that a child born in the marital home was presumed in law to have been the legitimate child of the head of the house, who was Francesco II Sforza Cesarini, Prince of Genzano.
Lorenzo and Caroline were heirs to large fortunes and estates. But the legality of their inheritances was dependant, to a degree, on their nationality and religion. To overcome this, they decided to go through a sequence of four marriage ceremonies within four months.
They were first married in a brief civil ceremony at Gretna Green on 26 August 1837. Caroline was then received into the Roman Catholic Church, and on 17 September the couple were married by Bishop Thomas Griffiths, Vicar Apostolic of London, in his private chapel in Westminster. Then, on 28 October 1837, their marriage was solemnised in London at an Anglican church wedding at Trinity Church, St Marylebone. After that, they visited the Papal States, where they went through a fourth ceremony to satisfy the authorities in Rome.
Caroline and Lorenzo were the parents of two sons, Francesco Sforza Cesarini (1840-1899), who became the Duke of Segni, and Bosio Sforza Cesarini, born in 1845, who became Count of Santa Fiora; these two titles were inherited from the Conti and Sforza families. The gardens of his palace were designed by Don Lorenzo in honour of Caroline between 1840 and 1860.
Although she had become the Duchess of Santa Fiori in Italy, Caroline remained the owner of Rakedale Hall in England and the fine estates around it. But the couple lived at his ancestral home in Romagna, and during their rare visits to England they travelled incognito.
In the 1850s, Caroline and Lorenzo became active supporters of the cause of a united Italy. When French troops were withdrawn from Rome in 1860, Lorenzo was appointed Commissary for the Piedmontese forces at Rieti, and he became a deputy and a senator in the new kingdom.
After Lorenzo died in Pinerolo on 16 July 1866, his sons Francesco and Bosio used their homes to store weapons. In response, the Papal States confiscated all the Sforza-Cesarini properties. These were not restored to them until King Victor Emmanuel entered Rome in 1871, accompanied by Duke Francesco, Caroline’s elder son, as one of his close advisers.
In 1874, Caroline restored the church beside Ragdale Old Hall in memory of her ancestors.
Caroline is also noted in literary circles as the patroness of the eccentric English writer Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913). In 1890, Rolfe (‘Baron Corvo’) was expelled from the Scots College in Rome, where he had been testing his vocation to the Roman Catholic priesthood, because of his inability to concentrate on his theological studies, his ‘reputation as a pederast,’ and his erratic behaviour.
Caroline was introduced to Rolfe by one of her young relatives by marriage, Mario Sforza Cesarini dei Conti Santa Fiora. She took pity on the English-born writer and invited him to spend the summer at the Palazzo Sforza Cesarini at Genzano di Roma outside the capital. There, according to his biographer, ‘he gained a lasting insight into Italian history and character.’
When Rolfe returned to England in November 1890, Caroline initially forwarded him a monthly allowance, on the understanding that he would work steadily on his writing. He later claimed she had adopted him as her grandson, and used this unsubstantiated claim to support his use of the title Baron Corvo.
But Caroline ended his allowance several months later, and would play no further part in his life. Nevertheless, some literary experts believe that by giving him the opportunity to immerse himself in Italian culture over many carefree months in Rome, Caroline had an important early influence on Rolfe’s writing.
Caroline died in Rome on 17 November 1897, and her descendants in the Sforza family are still living in Italy.
Meanwhile, Charles John Henry Mundy inherited estates in Lincolnshire from his mother’s family and was the ancestor of the Massingberd-Mundy family of South Ormsby.
Sir Bernard Burke Vicissitudes of Families (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1863).
TR Potter, Walks Around Loughborough (1840).
Joan and Peter Shaw, ‘The Duchess of Sforza,’ originally published in the Wolds Historical Organisation Newsletter (1998).
George L Williams, Papal Genealogy: the families and descendants of the popes (Jefferson NC and London: McFarland, 2004), pp 79-82.
I duchi Cesarini < http://ducatocesarini.it/ > accessed 18 October 2017.
Shirley Family Association < http://www.shirleyassociation.com/ >, accessed 18 October 2017.