Heroism is most often associated with individuals braving physical or mental challenges, often for the good of others or for some noble cause. The Lady Ethelreda Townshend, according to her contemporaries did not care much for anything other than her own pleasure. And yet it is difficult not to admire her for a determination to do as she pleased. Lady Townshend (1708 – 1788) was one of those notorious 18th century ladies whose behaviour might have been outrageous but whose disregard for the requirements of polite society were at the very least brave. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the delightful The lively Lady Townshend and her friends give a list of her lovers and here perhaps we could give her a cheer on behalf of the older woman, as at the age of 44 she pursued (and won) the 23 year old Frederick Campbell. (It was said, rather unkindly that she kept a dormitory in her dressing-room at Whitehall for Westminster schoolboys and such like). She belongs on this site, not only because of her bold behaviour but also as a permanent resident in Hertfordshire; a member of the Harrison family, she inherited Balls Park from her Uncle George, and is buried in the family vault at All Saints, Hertford.
Admittedly she began with an inheritance which made dependence on a husband or keeper unnecessary. And according to her biographer, her parents were pleased to marry her at the tender age of 15 to Charles, the eldest son of a viscount, Thomas ‘Turnip’ Townshend, a senior politician and a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to George I. And in defence of her desire for freedom it was a loveless marriage to a man she clearly didn’t like very much; they are described as not even sitting down to dine together. There was further justification in her antipathy towards her husband as he had a lasting affair with his maid on whom he fathered three children. Her husband, also a parliamentarian, did not enjoy the political intrigues of Walpole’s ministry and in 1730 he retired from his Westminster activities to his estate in Norfolk where he spent his time devoted to rural life and agriculture. By this time Ethelreda had done her wifely duty and produced five children for him and ten years later, in 1740/41 the couple separated. Clearly she was more interested in the high life than country pursuits and with her new freedom and her independent wealth she became a celebrated society hostess in London, with a reputation for witty repartee and ‘gorgeous entertainments’. According to one commentator, ‘all the celebrities, dandies and macaronies of the time flocked to her assemblies’.
Her salon was devoted to pleasure. She was politically inclined to be anti-government although when she fell in love with a known follower of the Stuart Pretender on trial for treason she flirted briefly with Jacobitism. And she certainly wasn’t pious. As Walpole said: “My Lady Townshend has been dying, and was woefully frightened and took prayers; but she is recovered now, even of her repentance”. It was said that she had exhausted scandal both in her person and her conversation. Her other reputed lovers included Sir Harry Nesbitt, the Duke of Cumberland, the Duke of Argyll and Lord Kilmarnock (the Jacobite). She is also rumoured to have ‘made overtures’ to the Duke of Newcastle, which were rejected. She was so well known in her circles that it was said that she formed the basis for Henry Fielding’s lascivious Lady Bellaston in Tom Jones.
Most of our view of Ethelreda comes from descriptions in her contemporaries’ correspondence and they appear more amused than shocked by her activities. Her quoted remarks are both acidic and apt. For instance in 1762 she said of the growth in the peerage “I dare not spit out of the window for fear of spitting on a lord”. Of the androgynous Lord Hervey she said: “God had created three races of English – men, women and Herveys”. She could also hold her own when she came under scrutiny by her social circle. Taking a break from her house in Whitehall she took a short lease on a “villa at Tyburn” an area famous for public executions. She countered their disapproval by saying that as her ‘neighbours’ were continuously being hanged and were therefore always changing she could never tire of the view. This is evidence of a grisly sense of humour, perhaps, but a bold one. She also rather disloyally remarked that the royal family, who liked to go to all public shows and suppers, were the cheapest family to see and the dearest to keep. Swearing was also not out of her range and she was quite capable of the kind of language which one would not have expected from a lady of breeding; a fellow guest at a dinner party records her as ‘speaking out and calling things by their proper name”. The details of this outburst do not highlight a ladylike demeanour. Rather they point to her unabashed disregard for polite behaviour (and the flavour of her reputation). When she turned to her dinner companion and using words not to be seen on a public website, commented on his lack of sexual expertise, he replied that she was known to be both expert and generous with her favours. Disappointingly, at this point Ethelreda decided to take the matter no further and changed the subject.
The quirky Horace Walpole, the builder of the exquisite Strawberry Hill in Twickenham was a friend of the hedonistic Ethelreda and many of the stories about her can be found in his letters. Although he was frequently disparaging of her adventures they were clearly very close and on one occasion she took charge of his wardrobe, finding him a suit with a white background and purple and green flowers which he wore to the marriage of one of his relatives.
He was a frequent commentator on her antics and with keen delight reported that she was spectacularly unabashed at public displays of bad behaviour: Walpole reports that “My Lady Townshend was arrested two days ago in the street at the suit of a house-painter, who, having brought her a bill double of the estimate he had given in, she would not pay it. “ In other letters he says:
My Lady Townshend’s gallantries were the talk of the town, for they were usually conducted in a manner that scorned secrecy. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu says that, whilst Lord Townshend was spitting up his lungs [Etheldreda’s husband suffered from consumption] at the Gravelpits [a fashionable resort for invalids near Kensington] she ‘is diverting herself with daily rambles in town. She has made a new friendship with Madam Pultney and they hunt in couples from tea-drinking till midnight.
My Lady Townshend was a great patroness of the Italian singers and gave private concerts, being a woman of fashion in all things, even to parting with her husband, Charles, the third viscount of his name.
Do but think on a duel between Winnington [Eethelreda’s lover] and Augustus Townshend [a cousin]; the latter a pert boy, captain of an Indiaman; the former declared cicisbeo to my Lady Townshend. The quarrel was something that Augustus had said of them; for since she was parted from her husband, she has broke with all his family. Winnington challenged; they walked into Hyde Park last Sunday morning, scratched one another’s fingers, tumbled into two ditches — that is Augustus did, — kissed, and walked home together.
But she could be equally acerbic in her comments on Walpole:
I believe she alluded to my disposition to pout, rather than meant to compliment me, when my Lady Townshend said to somebody t’other day, who told her how well Mrs. Leneve was, and in spirits, “Oh! she must be in spirits: why, she lives with Mr. Walpole, who is spirit of hartshorn! [i.e. smelling salts]
Life was not always joyful for the Lady Townshend. Tragedy struck in the death of two of her sons. Roger, a professional soldier, was killed in battle in 1759 and she erected a monument to his memory in Westminster Abbey in 1762, designed by Robert Adam. There was further heartache when her favourite son died in 1767. This loss struck her so strongly that she retired from her riotous life for several years. She spent the last years of her life lavishing her affection on her grandsons and was given a complimentary obituary from the Gentleman’s Magazine:
She possessed her faculties in amazing perfection to the last. Her acuteness of observation and brilliancy of expression were as forcible and brilliant as at her earliest state of life, when she was so esteemed, and her society cultivated by the first wits of the time.
Ethelreda died at the good age of 80. She had lived an extravagant life but no doubt enjoyed it more than if she had followed the norm. She may not have been considered virtuous but she did no harm, and was certainly good fun, pushing the boundaries of a constrictive society in defiance of contemporary convention. And there is surely something heroic in that.