23 August 2021
Penelope Smyth, the woman
from West Waterford who
became an Italian princess
‘If only those walls could talk.’
As I was being guided around Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church, Youghal, Co Cork, early last week, I noticed a large number of plaques on the walls, including one that tells the story of Penelope Smyth who became Princess Penelope of Capua. She was born in Co Waterford, between Youghal and Lismore, and – had history taken a different twist or turn – she might have ended her days as Queen of Greece, or Queen of Belgium.
The memorial commemorating her in Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church reads:
‘In memoriam Her Royal Highness Penelope Caroline, Princess of Capua, daughter of Grice Smyth Esqr of Ballynatray, Co Waterford, born 19th July 1805, died 13th December 1882. The beloved wife & faithful widow of His Royal Highness Carlo Ferdinando Di Borbonne, Prince of Capua, who died 2nd April 1862.
‘This memorial devoted to a devoted and lamented mother is erected by her loving and beloved son & daughter, His Royal Highness Prince Francesco Carlo di Borbonne and Her Royal Highness Victoria Augusta Ludovica Isabella Amelia Philomina Helena Penelope di Borbonne Capua.
‘“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord” Rev. XIV 13.’
Princess Penelope was born in Co Waterford on 19 July 1805, while her husband, a member of the long-tailed Bourbon dynasty, was six years her junior. They met in the mid-1830s, romance was in the air, and on 5 April 1836 they eloped to Scotland and married at Gretna Green.
But their hasty marriage was not met with approval from the prince’s family. He had defied a royal decree that all royals required the king’s permission marry. In this case, the king was Carlo’s brother, King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, a kingdom based in Naples that included Sicily and much of southern Italy.
The couple began their honeymoon in exile. Then, in an unusual turn of events, the couple remarried a month later. But this second marriage did not meet the king’s approval either.
The couple remained in exile until his brother’s death. They had two children, Francesco and Vittoria, and remained devoted to each other until Carlo died on 2 April 1862. Their son Francesco died soon after.
Princess Penelope lived for another 20 years in a villa in Lucca, Italy, and died on 13 December 1882.
The family feud between the Smyths of Ballynatray and their royal relatives were said in Victorian society in Ireland to be ‘matters of much Neapolitan, not to say European, notoriety.’
Penelope Caroline Smyth was the second daughter of Grice and Mary Smyth of Ballynatray. She was born in 1815 and grew up on the banks of the Blackwater in Ballynatray.
The king refused to recognise the marriage because Penelope was not of royal blood. When the king refused to change his heart, the Italian prince and the Irish princess abandoned Naples and settled in Malta where they raised two children.
The title ‘Prince of Capua’ was traditionally given to the second sons of the Kings of the Two Sicilies.
Prince Francesco Carlo di Borbonne was born in Palermo on 10 November 1811. His father, Francesco I (1777-1830), was King of Naples; his mother was the Infanta of Spain. When their father died in 1830, Carlo’s elder brother, Ferdinand II (1810-1859), became King of the Two Sicilies (1810-1859). Between March and June 1829, the Neapolitan government put Carlo forward as a candidate for the Greek throne in 1829, and he was a candidate to become King of Belgium in 1831.
There were rumours that Penelope and Carlo had an earlier, private marriage at the Villa Reale di Marlia, near Lucca.
On 8 March 1836, her brother Richard Smyth received an irate letter from the manager of the Pantechnicon Carriage Makers in Belgrave Square, London, claiming Penelope had borrowed £45 in cash from them shortly before disappearing to Naples.
Later that month, Penelope wrote to Richard at Ballynatray, telling how she had been received in a ‘most cordial manner’ by Carlo’s sister Marie Christina, the Regent of Spain. ‘She embraced me several times and repeated that I should call her “Sister” and not “Majesty”!!’
Carlo and Penelope arrived at Gretna Green in Scotland and were married on 5 April 1836, perhaps not just once but twice. And, they were married on at least three further occasions – in Madrid, in Rome, by Cardinal Thomas Weld, a nephew-in-law from her first marriage of Mrs Fitzherbert, and, finally, in the fashionable Saint George’s Church in Hanover Square, London, on 8 May 1836.
The stories of multiple marriages echo the stories of the four marriages of her contemporary, Caroline Shirley (1818-1897), illegitimate daughter of Lord Tamworth, and Don Lorenzo Montani Sforza Cesarini (1807-1866), Duke of Segni, a year later, in 1837.
Penelope and her Prince abandoned Naples and went into exile in Malta. There they built a new palace, Selma Hall, and lived as exiles for the next 14 years. They were the parents of two children: Prince Francesco Ferdinando Carlo di Capua (1837-1918), Count di Mascali (1837-1918), and Princess Vittoria di Borbonne (1838-1895).
Negotiations in 1838 tried to secure the right of the Prince of Capua to return to Naples, with a promise from his brother that he could keep his titles, his wife would receive a title and the rights of the children would be respected. But the negotiations collapsed, and the Prince of Capua was described as a ‘pretender.’
Further negotiations took place in 1839, and again in 1841. It all these talks, it was suggested that Penelope would have the title of ‘Duchess of Villalta’ or Princess of Mascali’ But, once again, the talks collapsed.
The problem seemed to lie, in part, in the titles given to the Archduchess of Austria, wife of the king’s uncle, the Prince of Salerno, the King’s uncle, and the Princess of Sardinia, wife of the Count of Syracuse, the Prince of Capua’s younger brother. The Bourbon family fretted about being seen to insult the Courts of Vienna and Turin, but Penelope was unwilling to be a mere countess when she could be a princess.
Meanwhile, the Smyths of Ballynatray were worried that Penelope’s claims to any inheritance from Ballynatray that would sustain her lifestyle could be a drain on the family’s finances.
Carlo and Penelope left Malta on 22 August 1850 and returned to Italy with their children Francesco and Vittoria. Prince Carlo died in Turin at the age of 50 on 22 April 1862, four months after the death of Penelope’s brother-in-law, Henry Wallis (1790-1862) of Drishane Castle, Millstreet, Co Cork, who had married Ellen Smyth in Saint Mary’s, Youghal, in 1825.
Ferdinand II died in 1859, his son succeeded as King Frances II, but the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies collapsed in 1860 during the Italian war of unification. Shortly after Carlo died in Turin in 1862, Victor Emmanuel II, king of the newly united Italy, formally recognised their marriage and granted Penelope the royal residence of Villa Reale de Marlia near Lucca in Tuscany.
The Duchess di Mascali, as she became, died at the Villa Reale de Marlia in 1882. The tablet erected to her memory is in north aisle of Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church, Youghal.
The Smyth family has lived in Co Waterford from Elizabethan times, and Ballynatray House, near Youghal, stands on the banks of the River Blackwater, Co Waterford, north of Youghal and south of Lismore.
Sir Richard Smyth of Ballynatray, Co Waterford, a High Sheriff of Co Waterford and became a brother-in-law of Richard Boyle, the 1st Earl of Cork, when he married Mary Boyle in the early 17th century. Smyth was a witness to Sir Walter Raleigh’s sale of lands in Co Cork and Co Waterford to Richard Boyle in 1602, and became a trustee of the new Boyle estates, along with Edmund Colthurst and Edmund Coppinger.
Sir Richard Smyth’s younger son, also Sir Richard Smyth, was a captain at the Battle of Kinsale, while his elder son, Sir Percy Smyth, was knighted in 1629, fought during the rebellion of 1641, and was military governor of Youghal in 1645. His second wife, Isabella Ussher, was a granddaughter of Archbishop Adam Loftus of Dublin.
Percy Smyth’s ‘castellated residence’ was largely destroyed in 1641, and his family later built a larger, Dutch-gabled house in the 1690s.
Percy Smyth’s sons included Boyle Smyth, MP for Tallow, Co Waterford; William Smyth, his heir; and Richard Smyth of Ballynatray.
Richard Smyth of Ballynatray married Alice, daughter and co-heir of Richard Grice of Ballycullane, Co Limerick, and their son, Grice Smyth was the ancestor of the Smyth family of Ballynatray.
Richard Smyth of Ballynatray and Alice Grice were the parents of Grice Smyth of Ballynatray, who married Gertrude Taylor of Burton, Co Cork. Grice Smyth died in 1724, and was succeeded at Ballynatray in turn by his son, Richard Smyth (1706-1768), and his son, also Richard Smyth.
When this Richard died, Ballynatray passed to his brother, Grice Smyth (1762-1816), who built Ballynatray in 1795. The large Palladian house designed by Alexander Dean of Cork incorporated the earlier house.
The house stands on a double bend of the River Blackwater that gives the impression of a large lake. Steep, oak-covered hills slope down on all sides of the house. Ballynatray is 11 bays long and five bays wide, with two storeys over a basement and a ballustraded parapet, originally decorated with elaborate urns. The façade facing the mouth of the River Blackwater has a pedimented breakfront, while the three central bays of the entrance front are deeply recessed and filled with a long, single-storey porch.
The interior was built for entertaining on the grandest scale, with a suite of interconnecting rooms, and some fine early 19th century plasterwork. The hall has a frieze of bull’s heads, the heraldic symbol of the Smyths, and the billiards room has an imaginative cornice of billiards balls and cues. The bedroom floor originally had a curious curvilinear corridor, but this has since been altered.
Grice Smith married Mary Broderick, daughter and co-heir of Henry Mitchell, of Mitchell’s Fort, Co Cork. Their children included Princess Penelope, and Ellen, who married Henry Wallis of Drishane Castle. He died in George’s Street, Limerick, on 18 January 1816, and he is commemorated by yet another memorial in Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church:
‘Sacred to the Memory of Grice Smyth Esquire of Ballinatre (sic) in the county of Waterford who having endured a most painful illness for ten years with perfect resignation to the will of God: departed this life in the City of Limerick; on the 18th Day of January Anno Domini 1816, and in the 51st year of his age.
‘His remains are deposited near this place in the same tomb with those of his ancestors, the Earls of Cork and Burlington.
‘As a brother, husband, parent and friend he was most affectionate, generous and sincere.
‘This monument is erected to his memory by his widow Mary Broderick Smyth, daughter of the late Henry Mitchell, Esquire, of Mitchells Fort, is testimony of her esteem and love.
‘As many as I love I rebuke and chasten, be zealous therefore and repent. Revelations, Chapter III verse xix.’
Penelope was a few months old when her father Grice died in Limerick in 1816. Ballynatray was then inherited by his eldest son, her eldest brother, Richard Smyth (1796-1858). Samuel Lewis describes the house in 1837 as ‘finely situated in a much improved demesne.’
Richard Smyth married the Hon Harriet St Leger, daughter of Hayes St Leger, 2nd Viscount Doneraile. They had no sons, and when Richard died in 1858, Ballynatray was inherited by their only surviving child, Charlotte Mary Smyth.
Ten years earlier, in 1848, Charlotte Mary Smyth of Ballynatray had married the Hon Charles William Moore (1826-1898), who became 5th Earl Mount Cashell in 1889. The 1st Earl Mount Cashell, Stephen Moore (1730-1790), had been MP for Lismore, Co Waterford.
When Charlotte inherited Ballynatray, she and Charles assumed the additional name and arms of Smyth. Their first act on inheriting the Ballinatray estate was ‘to forgive every penny of arrears due by the tenants, amounting to several thousand pounds.’ They then had several farms revalued, and reduced many rents.
The former Grice estate of 1,673 acres near Kilmallock, Co Limerick, was advertised for sale in 1861. But Charles William Moore Smyth of Ballinatray owned over 7,000 acres in Co Waterford and 272 acres in Co Limerick in 1870s. He succeeded to the earldom in 1889, on the death of his elder brother, who had spent the previous 15 years in a lunatic asylum in Bristol.
Lord and Lady Mount Cashell were the parents of a son of a son and five daughters. Their only son, Richard Charles More Smyth (1859-1888), was killed at the age of 28 while playing polo in India. His infant son, Claude Stephen William Richard More Smyth (1887-1890), born just weeks earlier, became known as Lord Kilworth when his father succeeded to the earldom, but died just six weeks before his third birthday. Father and son are both remembered in plaques on the west wall, beside the plaque commemorating Princess Penelope on the north wall.
Lady Mount Cashell died in 1892, and her husband, who had changed his name legally to Charles William More in 18889, became engaged to Lady Cowan, the widow of Sir Edward Cowan (1840-1890), a whisky distiller, chairman of the Ulster Bank and former Mayor of Belfast. However, Lord Mount Cashell jilted her on their planned wedding day. It is said she was standing at the door of Saint Anne’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin, when she received his letter telling her he could not marry her.
Then, a year later, in 1893, Lord Mount Cashell married Florence Cornelius, described dismissively as ‘a peasant girl’ from Queen’s County: he was 67 and she was 26.
When Charlotte died in 1892, once again there was no surviving son to inherit the estate, and Ballynatray and the Moore Park estate near Kilworth, Co Cork, passed to her eldest surviving daughter, Lady Harriette Gertrude Isabella Moore (1849-1904). She had married Colonel John Henry Graham Holroyd in 1872, and they changed their family name to Holroyd-Smyth.
Horace Holroyd-Smyth bequeathed Ballynatray in 1969 to his cousins, the Ponsonby family of Kilcooley Abbey, Co Tipperary, who sold the house to Serge and Henriette Boissevain in the late 1990s. They carried out a major restoration programme and Ballynatray later became the home of Henry Gwyn-Jones. The house and estate are now a wedding venue.
But the one wedding that never took place there was one of the many weddings of Princess Penelope, the woman from Waterford who might have been Queen of Greece or Queen of Belgium had history taken a different twist or turn.