24 September 2019

Two monuments by
the west door of
Lichfield Cathedral

The monument to Gilbert Walmesley (1680-1751) close to the West Door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During my visits to Lichfield Cathedral last week, my attention was drawn to two monuments beside the West Door that in their own way link Lichfield Cathedral with both the Comberford family and with the Montagu family, which for generations was associated with Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

The first of these monuments commemorates Gilbert Walmesley (1680-1751), the Registrar of the Ecclesiastical Court of Lichfield and a friend of Samuel Johnson.

Walmesley was the descendant of an ancient family from Lancashire. Another member of this family, the Very Revd William Walmesley (1687-1730), was a Prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral in 1718-1720, and then Dean of Lichfield 1720-1730.

Richard Walmsley was the appraiser of probate in the Diocese of Lichfield. His daughter Mary was a god-daughter of William Comberford of Comberford and was named in his will, while his son, William Walmesley, was Registrar of Lichfield (1692), a Justice of the Peace (JP) or magistrate for Staffordshire, Whig MP for Lichfield City (January to November 1701), and the Chancellor of the Diocese of Lichfield from 1698 until his death in 1713.

William Walmesley married Dorothy Gilbert, daughter of Humphrey Gilbert of Fradley, in Lichfield Cathedral on 22 April 1675. When he died on 18 July 1713 he was buried in the cathedral. Their son, Gilbert Walmesley, was educated at Trinity College, Oxford, but did not take a degree. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1707, and became registrar of the ecclesiastical court of Lichfield.

Gilbert Walmesley was ‘the most able scholar and the finest gentleman’ in Lichfield, according to Anna Seward, the ‘Swan of Lichfield.’ He lived at the Bishop’s Palace in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield for 30 years, and was regularly visited there by a young Samuel Johnson and David Garrick.

Johnson described him as ‘a Whig with all the virulence and malevolence of his party,’ but conceded that he was polite and learned, and Johnson said he could not name ‘a man of equal knowledge.’ Indeed, Walmesley tried to have Johnson appointed the master of a school at Solihull in 1735.

Walmesley married Magdalen Aston, commonly known as Margaret or Margery, in April 1736. She was the fourth of eight daughters of Sir Thomas Aston of Aston-by-Sutton, Cheshire. Her sister, Elizabeth Aston of Stowe Hill House, Lichfield, who died in 1785, is one of the principal characters in the story of ‘Spite House.’

Gilbert Walmesley died in Lichfield on 3 August 1751, and his widow died on 11 November 1786, aged 77. They are buried in a vault near the south side of the west door in Lichfield Cathedral.

Samuel Johnson was said to have promised to write an epitaph for him. But he delayed on the project for so long that it was written instead by Anna Seward’s father, Canon Thomas Seward (1708-1790).

The monument to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) by the West Door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A nearby monument commemorates Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), who is remembered for her letters, her descriptions of her travels in the Ottoman Empire while her husband was the wife of the British ambassador to Turkey, and for introducing smallpox inoculation to Britain after her return from Turkey.

She was born Lady Mary Pierrepont, a daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, 1st Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull.

By 1710, Lady Mary had two possible suitors to choose from: Sir Edward Wortley-Montagu (1678-1761), MP for Huntingdon (1705-1713), and Clotworthy Skeffington, MP for Antrim (1703-1714) and, from 1714, the 4th Viscount Massereene in the Irish peerage.

To avoid marriage to Skeffington, Mary eloped with Montagu, and they probably married on 23 August 1712. The Montagus and Harringtons, two inter-related families from Northamptonshire, were at the heart of the early years of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. James Montagu (1568-1618) was the first Master of Sidney Sussex and became the Dean of Lichfield in 1603-1604.

Meanwhile, on 9 September 1713, Clotworthy Skeffington married Lady Catherine Chichester, sister of Arthur Chichester (1695-1757), 4th Earl of Donegall. The Skeffington family were the original proprietors of Fisherwick Park, between Lichfield and Tamworth. In the 1580s, William Comberford married his first wife, Mary Skeffington, daughter of William Skeffington of Fisherwick.

This William Comberford entertained the future Charles I as his guest at the Moat House in Lichfield Street, Tamworth, in August 1619. The Skeffington family acquired Comberford Hall in the first half of the 18th century. Both Fisherwick Hall and Comberford Hall were bought by the Earls of Donegall in 1789.

Mary Wortley-Montagu’s brother died of smallpox in 1713, and her own famous beauty had been marred by a bout of the disease in 1715, although she survived. A year later, Edward Wortley-Montagu was appointed the British Ambassador to Constantinople in 1716. She travelled with to Vienna in August, and from there they travelled on to Adrianople and Constantinople.

He was recalled in 1717, but they remained at Constantinople until 1718. They finally set sail for England, travelled through the Mediterranean, and arrived back in London on 2 October 1718.

Her account of their voyage and of her observations of Turkish life, including her experiences in a Turkish bath, are often credited as an inspiration for subsequent female travellers and writers and for Orientalist art. During her visit she was sincerely charmed by the beauty and hospitality of the Ottoman women she encountered, and she recorded their lives and thoughts.

In her writings, she praised Islam for what they saw as its rational approach to theology, for its strict monotheism, and for its teaching and practice of religious tolerance. She saw Islam as a source of the Enlightenment, and claimed the Qur'an was ‘the purest morality delivered in the very best language.’

She also returned to England with knowledge of the Ottoman practice of inoculation against smallpox, and defied convention by introducing smallpox inoculation to Western medicine.

Mary’s daughter Mary married the future Prime Minister, John Stuart (1713-1792), 3rd Earl of Bute, in August 1736, despite her parents’ disapproval of the match. That year, Mary began an affair with Count Francesco Algarotti. She left England in 1739, and went to live with Algarotti in Venice. Their relationship ended in 1741 but she continued to travel extensively, visiting Venice, Florence, Rome, Genoa and Geneva and Avignon.

During all this time, Sir Edward Wortley Montagu was MP for Huntingdon once again (1722-1734) and then for Peterborough (1734-1761).

When Edward died in 1761, she left Venice for England. She arrived back in London in January 1762, and died on 21 August 1762.

A monument to Lady Mary was erected beside the south door in Lichfield Cathedral in 1789 by Henrietta Inge, widow of Theodore William Inge (1711-1753) of Thorpe Constantine, near Lichfield. But her only potential family connections with Lichfield that I have been able to trace might have been through her jilted suitor, Clotworthy Skeffington, whose family were buried in Saint Michael’s Church on Greenhill.

Lichfield Cathedral in last week’s mid-September sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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