A Family Dispute

Ruth Herman

Lady Cowper Duchess of Marlborough

The two ilegitimate children of William, first earl Cowper, and his near neighbour, the heiress Elizabeth Culling survived their mother and grew up under the guardianship of their uncle Charles.  Their natural father, sometime Lord Chancellor under Queen Anne kept a distant but caring eye on them. William the eldest child died in Paris, also the father of a natural child to whom he left a sum in his will for his education.   His sister Mary married her sweetheart with the Earl’s initially reluctant approval.[1] We  know that she lived until January 1739 when she wrote to Lord Cowper from her sick bed in Sawbridgeworth .This letter was closely followed by a letter dated February from her nephew, William Culling, who writes that his aunt has died.

The two letters show an acrimony which is only too common when a will is disputed between two members of a family. William talks of a ‘great misfortune’ that has befallen him. He had bought himself a commission in the army with some of the money left to him by his natural father. But he was shocked when he discovered that the remainder of his inheritance which was held in trust by his aunt had been squandered.

In short that the £4000 he had been expecting to receive ,instead of being

properly managed as anybody might have expected they have spent the whole and have not left enough behind (except the estate which is entailed upon their children) even to pay the bond debts which my uncle had contracted.

The only course open to him he claims is to sell his commission and contenting himself as well as he can ‘in retiring … into Bedfordshire and living on what I have left will afford me’.

This sounds quite straightforward until you read the other side of the story where the aunt, Elizabeth Isaacson (née Culling) also writes her father that

Your lordship must believe my nephew’s late behaviour cannot be pleasing to me. I will not reproach him judging that if he has any gratitude he will soon be sensible how he ought to have acted towards me.

It is not clear exactly what the dispute is but it is also evident that Mary resents the favour that has been shown to her nephew:

I can’t help resenting it but your lordship’s being an advocate in his behalf will greatly induce me to favour him as far as prudence will give me leave but he must by his immediate and future good conduct give me just reason for so doing.

I have not found any evidence of exactly what young William has been doing but it Mary is clearly trying hard not to offend her father while still expressing her displeasure at her nephew’s behaviour.

I do assure your lordship I have a grateful sense of the many obligations you have ever shown to him and hope he will continue to deserve your friendship for his interest and happiness has hitherto been very dear to me and I most sincerely wish he may hereafter give me cause to think that twenty years tended and anxious care for him has not been misapplied.

The upshot of this unexpected loss of income was that William needed to sell his commission as a sub-brigadier in the Horse Guards and he requested that his father obtain the permission for him to do so.

[1] See A Daughter Marries, and The Lord Chancellor’s Natural Children Part 1 on the Herts Memories website

This page was added on 06/11/2016.

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