04 January 2020

Four Victorian weddings
and a funeral

Bellingham Castle is now a romantic wedding venue and hotel between Drogheda and Dundalk, and the 19 luxury bedrooms include the sumptuous Bute Suite that recalls one of those four society weddings over a century ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Four weddings and a funeral in one family circle provide telling stories of how Irish society was changing at the end of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, in the decades immediately before World War I and the Easter Rising in 1916.

The first wedding took place secretly in 1870, when Lady Blanche Noel (1845-1881) married her music teacher, the Irish-born Thomas Murphy. She was born Lady Blanche Elizabeth Mary Annunciata Noel, at Exton Hall in Rutland on 25 March 1845, and at her baptism she was a godchild of Queen Victoria.

Her baptismal names illustrate how her parents were deeply influenced by the Tractarian movement. Her father, Charles Noel (1818-1881), second Earl of Gainsborough, was a prominent Whig politician who embraced Roman Catholicism in a very public conversion in 1850. Her mother, the former Lady Ida Hay, was a cousin of Queen Victoria and one of her bridesmaids; and her grandmother, Lady Elizabeth FitzClarence, was an illegitimate daughter of King William IV.

Lady Blanche and her sister, Lady Constance, were received into the Catholic Church by Pope Pius IX on New Year’s Day 1850. As a child, Blanche was schooled privately, learning Italian, French, German and Spanish, and some Latin and Greek, and travelling through Italy and Germany. After her mother’s death, she was left to her own teenage ways at the family home, Exton Hall. She sang in the choir in the family’s private chapel, and had daily music and signing lessons from Thomas Murphy, the young, tall, well-educated and handsome Irish-born organist in the chapel who was also the private music tutor to the Noel sisters.

In their hours together in the chapel after Matins and Vespers, Blanche and Thomas fell in love. Lord Gainsborough was aware of nothing until a visiting friend noticed their intimacy. In his indignant disapproval, one story says, he allowed the marriage to take place in his private chapel; another account says the couple eloped to London where they married, and that Blanche was disowned and disinherited by her father.

It is likely Gainsborough objected not because Murphy was Irish but because he was a commoner who brought no titles or estates into the family. Whatever his objections, Blanche and Thomas were married in the chapel at Exton on 6 March 1870. But one of Gainsborough’s conditions for consenting to the wedding in his chapel was that the couple should immediately leave England. The love-struck pair sailed for America and Blanche never saw her family again. There is little truth to the story that they travelled in the steerage compartment, 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 settled in Bartlett, New Hampshire. There, Murphy taught music and French at a boys’ school and was the organist in a local church, while Blanche earned a reputation as a writer with magazine essays, short stories and travel logs. Gainsborough appears to have had regrets eventually about the way he treated his daughter. In 1874, he provided her with an annuity of £60, and invited her back to Exton Hall – if only she left her husband.

Blanche accepted the annuity but refused her father’s conditions for her return to Exton. She was not present for a second family wedding in the same chapel in 1874, when her sister Lady Constance (1847-1891) married a more acceptable Irishman, Sir Henry Bellingham (1846-1921). The Bellinghams were once a powerful and influential family in Co Louth, and for over 100 years, without interruption, a Bellingham sat in the Irish House of Commons as MP for the county. At Oxford, Sir Henry, who became the fourth baronet, became a friend of Cardinal Newman and Cardinal Manning, and while he was still in his 20s he made a very public conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1873, a year before his marriage.

Nor was Blanche present at a third family wedding in 1880, this time in Ireland. Her widowed brother, Charles Francis Noel (1856-1926), by then known as Viscount Campden, married Mary Elizabeth Dease in Coole, near Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. Unlike Blanche and her Irish husband, Charles and his Irish bride returned to live at Exton.

In New Hampshire, Blanche had a reputation for feeding and clothing local poor children. The couple had no children, and Blanche died just four days short of her 36th birthday after four days illness; she had remained a fervent Catholic all her life. Her funeral took place on 24 March 1881 in the Catholic Cathedral in Portland, Maine, and she was buried temporarily in a vault in the Calvary Cemetery before her body was brought back to England and buried beside her mother in the Noel crypt in Exton.

Gainsborough, who had remained a widower, died on 13 August 1881 a few days after Blanche had been reburied in the family crypt. On his deathbed, he agreed that Thomas should continue to receive Blanche’s small annuity. He was 62 and was buried beside his wife in the crypt. His titles and estates passed to his eldest son, Charles, who had married Mary Dease the previous year.

Thomas Murphy moved first into a boarding house and then to Boston, where he died on 11 October 1890. 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 a year later in 1891.

In 1895, Henry Belligham married his second wife, another prominent English Catholic, Lelgarde Harry Florence Clifton. But he still grieved Lady Constance, and in 1902, when a 200-year-old great royal oak at the castle gates fell in a storm he had it carved for the Calvary erected in her memory at the gates of Bellingham Castle.

The fourth society wedding in the family circle was celebrated in 1905, when Henry’s younger daughter, Augusta, married John Crichton-Stuart, fourth Marquess of Bute, then said to be the wealthiest man on these islands. The Princess Maud, a chartered steamer, took the guests across the Irish Sea to the harbour at Annagassan, Co Louth, for the wedding at Bellingham Castle. Even the bride’s sister Ida, who had become a nun in England as Mother Mary Emmanuel, was present at the wedding.

But when the wedding party and guests left as they had arrived, by steamer from Annagassan, the Edwardian world they left behind was falling apart, never to be put together again. Within a decade, World War I had broken out and the events were already in train that would lead to the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising in 1916.

Exton Hall remains the home of the Noel family; the chapel where Lady Blanche and Lady Constance married their Irish husbands is a unique Catholic niche in the country house wedding market in England. Bellingham Castle is now a romantic wedding venue and hotel between Drogheda and Dundalk, and the 19 luxury bedrooms include the sumptuous Bute Suite that recalls one of those four society weddings over a century ago.

This paper was first published as Chapter 47, ‘Four Victorian weddings and a funeral’ in Marriage and the Irish: A miscellany, edited by Salvador Ryan (Wordwell: Dublin, 2019, 283 pp), pp 163-165

John Leslie, ‘the oldest bishop
in Christendom’, and
his eighteen-year-old wife

Castle Leslie … the home built by Bishop John Leslie at Glaslough, Co Monaghan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

When Bishop John Leslie died on 8 September 1671, he was just a few weeks short of his 100th birthday and was reputed to be the oldest bishop in Christendom. He was also a pugnacious bishop, and was known as ‘the fighting bishop’ because of his active role, despite his years, in the wars that raged throughout Ireland in the 1630s, 1640s and 1650s.

Bishop Leslie must have been a very happy man though. When he died, his wife Catherine was half his age, and in their 33 years of marriage they had ten children in all. John Leslie may have thought he was at the end of his career when he came to County Donegal in June 1633 as Bishop of Raphoe. He was then almost 62, single, and was moving from Scotland where he had a difficult time as Bishop of the Isles, a far-flung diocese. But Ireland brought its rewards in church, politics and in marriage.

Leslie was born at Crichie in Aberdeenshire on 14 October 1571. He was educated at Aberdeen, but left Scotland in 1588 and studied in Padua, Leipzig, Madrid, Salamanca and San Sebastian. He continued to live on Continental Europe for decades, and in Spain he was acclaimed for his learning in Latin.

He was in his late 40s when he moved to England, and he was admitted to read in the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1618. He was ordained deacon that year by John King, Bishop of London, and at the age of 50 was ordained priest in 1621. On the nomination of King James I, In 1624, he received the degree of Doctor of Divinity (DD) at Trinity College Cambridge in 1624 and was also made a Privy Councillor of Scotland and one of his royal chaplains. That year, Leslie also received his first church appointment, as Rector of Hartlebury in Worcestershire. But he remained there for only three months and returned to London as Rector of Saint Martin Vintry on Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1625, ten days before the king died.

Leslie was now dabbling in politics and war, and he was with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, at the Siege of Isle de RĂ© in 1627 in support of the Huguenots fighting against the French crown. The siege was a disaster, but Leslie continued to enjoy royal favour, and he returned to Scotland at the age of 56 when King Charles I appointed him Bishop of the Isles in August 1628. In Scotland, neither episcopacy nor a far-flung diocese along the western coast had their attractions, with strong Presbyterian resistance to Charles I’s efforts to impose a brand of Anglicanism on the Church of Scotland. When Charles I was finally crowned in Edinburgh in June 1633, he rewarded Leslie’s loyalty with a new appointment as Bishop of Raphoe in Co Donegal, and he had Raphoe Castle built.

By then, Leslie was almost 62, but Ireland offered a fresh start, in life and in love. Leslie found many of the diocesan estates had been acquired illegally by lay people, and he used the force of law to recover some of these lands. He had no official residence, and so he built a new, fortified episcopal palace. In his disputes, he found a ready ally in John Bramhall, Bishop of Derry and later the Restoration Archbishop of Armagh. Then, in 1638, the bishop married Catherine Cunningham, daughter of Alexander Cunningham, Dean of Raphoe Cathedral. There was almost a gap of half a century in their ages – he was almost 67, she was only eighteen.

When the rebellion of 1641 broke out, Leslie went to battle for Charles I. Although he was now 70, he raised a company of soldiers, brought ammunition from Dublin to Derry, and relieved a besieged Sir Ralph Gore at Magherabeg, in north-west Donegal.

When most of his fellow bishops of the Church of Ireland abandoned their dioceses and moved to England or Scotland, Leslie remained in Raphoe and did not go to Scotland until 1642. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, he returned again to County Donegal and defended Raphoe against the Cromwellians. He was one of the last royalists to submit in 1653, and was the only Anglican bishop to remain in his diocese in Ireland during the Cromwellian era. During those years, he confirmed children in Dublin, and ordained priests and deacons.

At the Restoration in 1660, Leslie – by now an elderly but sprightly man of 88 – rode from Chester to London in just 24 hours to declare his loyalty to Charles II. He then returned to Ireland and resumed his role as Bishop of Raphoe. A year later, with Bramhall’s reorganisation of the Church of Ireland, Leslie’s loyalty was recognised once more and at almost the age of 90, he was appointed Bishop of Clogher in June 1661. On the recommendation of Charles II, the Irish Parliament voted to him a reward of £2,000. Leslie said he hoped ‘that whatever the house hath given to a prophet may receive a prophet’s reward.’

Leslie used the money to buy Glaslough estate in County Monaghan and renamed the house Castle Leslie. Despite his age, he remained Bishop of Clogher for another decade. When he died on 8 September 1671, he was buried at Saint Saviour’s, the church he had built on his estate.

Catherine and John Leslie seem to have been happily married, and they had ten children. Their eldest surviving son, John Leslie, became Dean of Dromore, while their sixth son, the theologian Charles Leslie (1650-1720), Chancellor of Connor Cathedral, was a leading non-juror, refusing to take the oath of loyalty to William III and following the Jacobite court into exile.

The descendants of this happy marriage continue to live at Castle Leslie in Glaslough – which is, appropriately, a popular wedding venue today. The Castle Leslie estate has recently launched a new gin in honour of Bishop John Leslie; named ‘The Fighting Bishop’, it is produced from beech leaves and botanicals hand-picked from trees planted by the bishop on the estate over 300 years ago.

This paper was first published as Chapter 15, John Leslie, ‘the oldest bishop in Christendom’, and his eighteen-year-old wife, in Marriage and the Irish: A miscellany, edited by Salvador Ryan (Wordwell: Dublin, 2019, 283 pp), pp 50-52.