Mary, Countess Cowper was born in 1685, the daughter of John Clavering of Chopwell, County Durham, who was from a cadet branch of a noble family from the north-east. Her marriage in 1706 to William Lord Cowper, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and later Lord Chancellor, appears to have been a love match. They met when she consulted him on a matter of law and married soon afterwards, keeping the marriage secret for a while, although the reasons for this are unclear. Perhaps political differences between the families were behind it.
The couple lived at Panshanger and had several children, but Mary had ambitions for herself, quite apart from the rise of her husband’s career. Despite her family’s leanings towards the Jacobite cause, she, like her husband, was a staunch Whig, supporting the Hanoverian succession. She had a number of powerful friends – notably the Duchess of Marlborough – and had kept up a correspondence with Princess Caroline, wife to the future George II.
Shortly after the accession of George I, Mary was appointed a Lady of the Bedchamber to Caroline, now Princess of Wales, and immersed herself in the affairs of court. By her own account, the King seems to have been quite taken with her, and many of the most powerful people on the political scene were friends – or, sometimes, enemies.
She was at court through the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, as well as the very public quarrel between the King and the Prince of Wales, which Mary played an important part in resolving. Nevertheless, Lord Cowper fell from favour, partly because of allegations, subsequently discredited, that he’d been involved in a Jacobite plot. He resigned from office in 1722, dying the following year. Mary, who had herself become estranged from the Princess, died four months later, supposedly of a broken heart.
Mary was a notable beauty of her day, but also well educated and studious – her collection of books at Panshanger supposedly included many abstruse subjects, and were extensively annotated in her hand. The character that comes through her diary, showing intelligence, curiosity and a lively wit, bears this out.
Mary kept her diary from 1714 to 1716, and another section exists during 1720. It’s probable that she continued to keep it during the missing years, but her daughter, Lady Sarah, recorded that her mother destroyed parts of her diary and correspondence at the time of the allegations against Lord Cowper. It can only be guessed what might have been in them, and why Mary considered it wise to burn them.
Lady Cowper’s diary exists in manuscript in the Hertfordshire Archives. The handwriting is generally easy to follow, in spite of extensive use of abbreviation, but she frequently tended to disguise the names of people at court, even sometimes resorting to numerical codes. Fortunately, a printed edition was issued in 1864 by John Murray, whose editor undertook the Herculean task of identifying each of these participants.
Nevertheless, the printed version creates some problems. It’s incomplete, leaving out parts of some entries and even some whole ones, which are often impossible to reconstruct without the names being available. Also, the text has been edited according to the Victorian idea of grammar, especially punctuation and capitalisation. Ironically, many of these are, to modern view, more incorrect than Mary’s original version. In these versions, I’ve followed the original text as far as possible, only repunctuating and expanding abbreviations when the original would be difficult to follow.
It should be noted that, at the time this diary was being written, England still used the Julian Calendar (also known as old style) with the year beginning on 25th March. This means that some dates could be ascribed to either of two years. Dates given in this section are all according to the Gregorian Calendar, or new style.