Thursday, 25 August 2016

A Tragic Countess and a Sociopath

  When is a lion not a lion?

   When it’s a Bowes-Lyon.

  Apologies for the awful pun/riddle. But the story of how the Lyons of Glamis became the double barrelled Bowes-Lyons is a fascinating one which will hopefully make amends.  It also shows an insight into an altogether vanished world in the 18th century.  The story of Mary Eleanor Bowes, who became the 9th Countess of Strathmore, was so extraordinary that it has become the subject of a number of books and even a work of fiction which itself became a film.
    This young Englishwoman was the victim of a controlling man which eventually led to her ruin and nearly brought down the entire ancient house of Glamis.  Her fate also gives lie to the peculiar modern perception that the persecution of women in the pre-industrial age was restricted to the downtrodden lower classes.  Mary’s family rose to prominence and riches slowly, from the time of Elizabeth I until the period when her father was once of the richest landowners and coal mine owners in County Durham.  Born on 1749, Mary Eleanor was matched with John Lyon, eldest son of the 8th Earl of Strathmore.  John Lyon spent most of his childhood in Durham because his father had married an heiress from the area and what could be better than him also marrying an heiress.  Not only would the family augment their net worth, they would consolidate their influence in the north-east of England.  So Thomas married his heiress and became John Bowes-Lyon, but the marriage was not happy because of the different characters of bride and groom.  Although he was known as ‘the beautiful Lord Strathmore’, he was too stolid a character for his new wife.

Mary Eleanor Bowes, tragic Countess.

   The artistic English lady hated the hunting-shooting-fishing ethos of Glamis Castle and was properly displeased when the estate factor, Robert Graham of Fintry became besotted by her.  She was more open to the advances of his youngest brother, James Graham, although it seems more a case of extreme flirtation that a full blow love affair.  Extraordinarily, the middle brother, Robert Graham also fell in love with her.  The three brothers from Angus were just a prelude to further, real trouble down south.  When the earl began living mostly in Bristol and Bath for health reasons (and to indulge in his love of horse racing), Countess Mary Eleanor lived apart in London and began a serious affair with a Mr Charles Grey.  By 1776 she was living on and off with Grey as his wife and on 7th March that year the Earl of Strathmore died on his way to Lisbon, from consumption.  He wrote a last, consolatory letter to his wife, offering advice, but it was not to save her from the incredible drama of what followed.
   After having five children with the late Scottish nobleman, she became pregnant by Grey and planned to marry him.  But now she had the misfortune to be targeted by a ruthless and charismatic Anglo-Irishman named Andrew Robinson Stoney.  According to a physician who treated him, this man Stoney was ‘cowardly, insidious, hypocritical, tyrannic, mean, violent, selfish, jealous, revengeful, inhuman and savage, without a single countervailing quality’.  Extraordinarily, this was no exaggeration. 
Andrew Robinson Bowes, 18th century sociopath.

  Stoney had already set himself up in Durham, attaching himself to a rich heiress, whom he mistreated and effectively killed through neglect.  Small fortune won, he now set about luring the romantic and credulous Mary Eleanor.  By deception he sidled into the lady’s affections and she was soon hopelessly in love with him. They married the following year and her husband became known, not least to notoriety, as Stoney Bowes.  While he failed in his attempt to bluster and bribe himself a seat in parliament, the no longer broke Stoney Bowes gained access to his new wife’s trust funds.  Within a few years he had a son and daughter with his wife, somehow managed to become an MP, and spent much leisure time pursuing maids, tenants’ wives and any other hapless female who came into his orbit.  He practised constant brutal intimidation and actual violence against Mary and, horribly, made her write a ‘confession’ which he had published. 
      The book begins:

I have been guilty of five crimes.
The first, my unnatural dislike to my eldest son...My second crime was, my connection with Mr Gray before Lord Strathmore’s death... By medicines I have reason to think, I miscarried three times... Next, I repent having profaned Saint Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, by giving Mr Gray meetings there... Another crime was, plighting myself most solemnly to Mr Gray... to marry none but him; and yet I married you [Mr Stoney], which... I reckon amongst my crimes.

   This particularly disgusting form of public humiliation shows how precise Stoney was in his efforts to utterly debase his wife, laying bare her supposed weaknesses and crimes , dictated by himself, partly in response at countering the press campaign against his behaviour, but doubtless also because he enjoyed the power it gave him.  Apart from enumeration in painful detail all her past flirtations and discretions, Mary was made to set down her weakness at consulting ‘conjurers’ and gypsies.  There follows a long and very painful series of details about her sins, weaknesses , misdemeanours:  almost starving herself to death at Glamis Castle, taking a bottle of black poison to induce miscarriage, her ‘foolish behaviour about...cloaths...’

The Confession of the Countess.

   The whole book is a brutal example – perhaps unique – of ritual, literary humiliation on a grand scale.  But Stoney Bowes was by no means finished with his victim.  Later it transpired that Stoney had raped the nursery maid, all the while physically torturing his wife.  He then raped the wet nurse and made her pregnant.  After taking Lady Strathmore and several of her children were taken abroad by her husband, she eventually escaped him and filed for divorce back in England.  There followed a remarkable and prolonged episode where Andrew Stoney Bowes plotted and then abducted his wife and took her north, leading to a man-hunt which scandalised the whole nation.  In November 1786, he was brought to justice in London and either remained in prison or was subject to penal law for the following twenty-two years of his life until he died.  
   He conducted a vigorous legal battle against his estranged spouse, trying to regain access to her wealth.  During his prison term – which we might be justified in calling a career – he maintained two mistresses.  He later ‘enjoyed’ a typed of house arrest outside of gaol and finally died, extremely unrepentant, in January 1810.  His poor wife predeceased him by ten years.
   Happily, Mary Eleanor was reunited with her eldest son, John (who became the 10th Earl of Strathmore), whose forgiving character meant that he bore his mother little ill-will despite her earlier published dislike of him which was at least partially factual.  Stoney Bowes gained a kind of surrogate afterlife in literature as the basis for the main character in William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lydon.
   As if in an act of karmic compensation, the descendants of Stoney’s brothers became eminent in various philanthropic spheres of public life in the Victorian age and early 20th century.  One of the descendants of the Stoney family, on his mother’s side, was the celebrated and lamented scientist Alan Turing.

   Meanwhile, the name of Bowes lives on as a spectral appendage to the family of Glamis Castle.  Could it also be that she frequents the place yet?  The spirit who haunts St Michael’s Chapel in the castle in generally reckoned to be that Lady Glamis who was wrongly burned for witchcraft in the 16th century, but could she really be the sad shadow of a much later Countess who was unhappy in her brief time at Glamis?

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