Love and Marriage Go Together Like A Horse And Carriage…

Blog by Pam Wilson, Visitor Experience Interpreter

Many of us enjoy escaping into a period drama on film or television. The novels of Jane Austen, written in the early 1800s, continue to fascinate readers around the world. Plots often involve feisty heroines, haughty gentlemen, forbidden love, black sheep, family drama and almost always elegant mansion houses set in beautiful parkland.

CVCSC:0018.F Ceremony at Gretna Green, by A.B. © Compton Verney photo by Jamie Woodley
Ceremony at Gretna Green, by A.B. © Compton Verney photo by Jamie Woodley

The couple in this painting from our British Folk Art Collection have run away to Gretna Green, just over the Scottish border, so that they can marry without the consent and approval of their families. Although this version of the picture dates from 1907, it is based on a popular engraving from about a hundred years earlier by W. Matthews of Oxford.  At that time, the age of consent in England was 21, but in Scotland a couple could marry at 14 simply by declaring their wish to be man and wife before two witnesses. An enterprising blacksmith with premises just over the border was happy to perform the civil ceremony over his anvil.

So, was Compton Verney the setting for any ‘Period Drama’ in Regency times?

The Verneys were no strangers to family drama and heartache. John Peyto Verney, the 14th Baron Willoughby de Broke, who lived at Compton Verney during the years of the Regency (1811-1820), had inherited the title from his uncle Richard Verney in 1752. Something of a black sheep, Richard had held the title of 13th Baron but he had not been allowed to inherit the estate. It seems that he quarrelled with his father over one, and maybe a second, unsuitable marriage. It is rumoured that he was unfaithful in both and was always in debt.

By contrast his nephew John, known as the ‘Good Baron’, made a successful and advantageous marriage to Lady Louisa North, sister of the future Prime Minister, Lord North. They were a glamorous and spectacularly wealthy couple. It was they who employed Robert Adam and Capability Brown to remodel the mansion house and park, and create the beautiful landscape we see today.

John and Louisa had ten children, but tragically only three survived to adulthood. Of these, the eldest son, John, was declared a lunatic while still a young man of only 26. He became 15th Baron Willoughby de Broke when his father died in 1820 but did not live at Compton Verney. He was cared for elsewhere and his younger brother, Henry, looked after the estate for him until he died some 30 years later.

The only surviving daughter, Louisa, married the Rector of the nearby village of Lighthorne who had been the tutor and companion of her poor brother, a marriage which was thought to be beneath her and caused something of a scandal.

The younger son Henry, later 16th Baron, remained a bachelor until he was 56 years old when he married Margaret Williams, known as ‘Miggy’, who was 27 years his junior. She came from Bodelwyddan Castle in Wales and was the sister of Mary Elizabeth Lucy of Charlecote Park.

The marriage was childless but seems to have been happy in spite of Henry’s eccentricities. He was a passionate sailor and had a yacht called The Antelope in which he sailed around the coast of Scotland and all the way to St Petersburg. He even had a small frigate built especially to sail on the lake at Compton Verney. Preoccupied with arrangements for his own funeral, he devised a winch for lowering coffins into the Chapel vault through an opening in the terrace. He made the servants practice lowering a coffin filled with stones equal to his own weight, and swore at them if they jolted it or bumped it against the sides. He died in 1852. Margaret survived him by 28 years and built a church near her family home at Bodelwydden in his memory, known today as ‘The Marble Church’.

Some of this would not seem out of place on our screens or between the pages of a bestseller!

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