The Lord Chancellor's Natural Children: Part I

Ruth Herman

The Park, Hertingfordbury C1780
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies


Lord Cowper’s Natural Son

Scandalous behaviour in the gentry and aristocracy is nothing new but modern sensibilities would expect those in highest office to have lived a relatively blameless life.  How would we react if the most senior lawyer in the land, the Lord Chancellor was shown to have raised two illegitimate children?  In the early eighteenth century it appears that public opinion was more forgiving.  And in Lord Cowper’s case this was no simple mistress kept in secret from the family.

There is all manner of rumour surrounding this relationship, although the incontrovertible fact was that the first Earl Cowper,[1] a highly respected lawyer, trusted counsellor to Queen Anne and senior member of the ministry, managed to father a second family with a local lady of the gentry.

The lady in question was indeed a lady.  Elizabeth Culling was the heiress of a good estate at Hertingfordbury, a mere five miles from the Cowper family home at Cole Green. A person of her standing would more usually have married another member of the gentry and the openness of her relationship with the prominent politician is surprising.  The contemporary Tory satirists had a field day with this senior Whig.  One scandal writer crafted a story where the thinly disguised Cowper persuades the impressionable young woman that to have two wives is perfectly legal.[2]  Jonathan Swift called him “Will Bigamy”. [3]  Daniel Defoe, not normally one to agree with Swift wrote: ‘This does the Orphan’s Cause devoutly plead, Secures her Money and her Maidenhead: And then persuades her to defend the crime’.[4]

Perhaps it was the fact that Elizabeth Culling was a substantial heiress in her own right, but what might by any standards should have been an uncomfortable situation does not seem to have phased either the Cowpers or the Cullings to the extent that a cache of letters to be found the HALS archives[5] indicate that Cowper’s second wife accepted the children in a gracious manner.  In fairness, a possible reason for this forgiving attitude was the fact the children were born while he was wed to his first wife and Elizabeth the mistress died several years before he re-married.

Perhaps the most charming of all the letters contained in this small collection are the ones, undated, which William Culling (1697- 1719) sends to Mary Cowper, the wife of Lord Cowper and lady in waiting to the Princess of Wales.  They appear to show genuine affection for the gracious lady. One letter apologises at his confusion at meeting her ‘Royal Highness’ in Mary’s company and being so tongue-tied that he cannot answer the Princess’s questions. He rather disarmingly claims his lack of response is because he has been ‘so little among persons of rank’.  It is difficult not to imagine that as an illegitimate offspring he has not been able to move in the circles he would have normally have known.  This issue of rank is clearly one which bothers him, because he refers to it again in another letter saying that ‘persons of my rank can make no returns to those of yours but by taking every occasion to shew their respect.’

One thing these letters bring home very emphatically is the difference in the speed of communications between then and now.  Even tragic news cannot be conveyed faster than a horse and a sailing ship can travel.  In one very sad letter, from Paris where William lived for the last years of his life, his friend writes to Lord Cowper that after an illness caused in the opinion of his contemporaries by catching a chill while walking in the gardens of Versailles, he lost William, ‘the best of friends’.[6] This heart-felt letter is followed in the file by William’s version of a will.  Although it appears to be a family tradition to father children outside marriage, like his own parent he takes responsibility for his son. Written on a rather scrappy piece of paper he leaves sufficient funds for his ‘naturall’ son to complete his education. And touchingly, he has given his son his own suname although it is written ‘C——g’.[7] A further letter from a friend to William’s father has the melancholy news that the ‘body is on the road’ and should arrive at its destination in fourteen days.

The family saga continues with a set of letters concerning the marriage of Mary, William’s sister to be published in part two of this story.

[1] The friend and correspondent of Sarah Churchill. His dates are 1665-1723.

[2] Delarivier Manley, The New Atalantis

[3] Jonathon Swift, The Examiner No. 22

[4] Daniel Defoe, Reformation of Manners

[5] DE/P/F84-86

[6] /43

[7] /50

This page was added on 21/09/2016.

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