Those of us in the present-day often mistakenly believe that aristocratic mothers from the Regency era could not possibly have loved their children as we do today. After all, a wet nurse nursed their babies; a nursemaid virtually raised their children; the children did not even eat at the table with their parents until they left the school room.
When researching Emily, Lady Cowper, I was shocked that she would leave the country for months at a time and not even see her children. But she was not unique. Many aristocratic women of the Regency era did the same.
Surprisingly, though, many of these women were truly affectionate mothers. Maternal bonds, after all, are likely the strongest in the world.
One of the most devoted of Regency-era aristocratic mothers was the first Lady Spencer.
The former Georgiana Poyntz (1737-1814) married the first Earl Spencer (1734-1783) in 1755. As the sole heir of his grandmother, Sarah Churchill, the first Duchess of Marlborough, he was one of the richest men in the kingdom.
Theirs was a love match from the beginning, and I’ve never found a word to dispute the couple’s devotion to one another. This was especially remarkable, given that adultery was rampant in aristocratic England at the time (and given the fact her two surviving daughters were famously adulterous).
Though the couple had five children, only one son and two daughters survived to adulthood. She was astonishingly close to her children.
Her oldest, Georgiana, would become betrothed to the 5th Duke of Devonshire when she was just sixteen; they wed on her seventeenth birthday. Lady Spencer was enormously proud of her beautiful, trendsetting firstborn, who became the toast of London society. She was equally as prostrate over her daughter’s vices, namely an addiction to high-stakes gambling. Though the young duchess had married a peer even richer than her father, her gambling kept the pair deeply in debt.
Lady Spencer wrote to her daughter every day, and rarely did one of her epistles fail to admonish Georgiana over her gambling.
Lady Spencer was also very close to Harriet, the younger daughter, despite that she’d been sent away to a French convent when she was a child to remove her from the English winters which adversely affected the sickly child. Lady Spencer did send her own mother to help look after Harriet during the years she had to live in France.
Even though Harriet lived to be sixty, she was plagued with ill health, which caused her mother much worry. When writing to others about Harriet when Harriet was in her thirties, Lady Spencer would refer to her as “my baby.”
After the daughters had presented their aristocratic husbands with heirs, they turned to lovers, and both “secretly” gave birth to illegitimate babies. It is not known if Lady Spencer ever knew of Harriet’s illegitimate children, but she did learn of Georgiana’s.
When Harriet was thirty she suffered a stroke from which she later recovered. However, Georgiana used her sister’s ill health to help cover up her own banishment to the Continent to “secretly” give birth to her love child by Charles Grey, later prime minister Earl Grey. When Lady Spencer heard her daughters were fleeing to the Continent because of a setback in Harriet’s health, she raced to be with them. Despite that the pious Lady Spencer was no doubt sickened and disappointed when she came to understand why the pregnant Georgiana was being forced to go to the Continent, nothing would do but that she, too, accompany them.
They were gone for two years.
Lady Spencer was also a devoted grandmother, especially to her daughter’s children. She and Harriet’s only daughter, who later became the infamous Lady Caroline Lamb, adulteress with Lord Byron, were uncommonly close – despite that Lady Caroline was always a difficult child. Harriett, Lady Bessborough, had brought her two youngest children with her during their two-year banishment, and during that time Caroline begged to sleep with her grandmother. Lady Spencer would withhold the privilege of sleeping with her when Caroline misbehaved – which was often.
When Caroline became engaged to William Lamb, who became prime minister Lord Melbourne after Caroline’s death, he knew he had to go to St. Albans to ingratiate himself with Lady Spencer, the grandmother to whom Lady Caroline was so especially close.
Lady Spencer lost the husband she adored when he was only forty-nine, and her son became the 2nd Earl Spencer. He was always a source of pride. He and his wife, Lavinia, were every bit as pious as Lady Spencer, and he also took public service seriously and held cabinet positions. Like his mother, he was a philanthropist.
He also kindly provided his mother with one of his estates (at St. Albans) for the remainder of her life.
Lady Spencer would also faithfully write to her daughter-in-law, despite that she could not like her. Lavinia made no secret of her dislike of her husband’s sisters – not a practice calculated to win her mother-in-law’s affection.
Harriett was as prolific a letter writer as her mother. When she would go stay with her aging mother at St. Albans, her correspondence is filled with mentions of chapel and Scripture reading seven days a week.
Her good living enabled her to live much longer than either of her daughters.
I like to think she’d have approved of the mothering skills of her great, great, great, great, great granddaughter, Princess Diana. And she would likely have been indulgent to Prince William and Prince Harry, too.