Lady Mary Coke
Lady Mary Coke, by Allan Ramsay.
|Born||6 February 1727
either at Ham, Surrey
or at 27 Bruton Street, London, England
|Died||30 September 1811
Morton House, Chiswick, England, UK
|Occupation||Author, letter writer, journal writer|
|Spouse(s)||Edward Coke, Viscount Coke, from 1741 to 1753|
|Parents||John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll (1680–1743) and Jane Campbell|
She was the fifth and youngest daughter of the soldier and politician John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll (1680–1743), and his second wife, Jane (c.1683–1767), a maid of honour to Queen Anne and Caroline, Princess of Wales, and grew up in Sudbrook or in London, visiting her father's ancestral estate at Inveraray in Argyll at least once and possibly more often.
She married on 1 April 1747, Edward Coke, Viscount Coke (1719–1753; though she never used the title Viscountess), son of Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester. Their courtship had been strained, and in retaliation Edward left her alone on their wedding night and from then on virtually imprisoned her at his family estate at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, only for her to react by refusing him his marital rights. Their families went to litigation, and eventually produced a settlement in 1750 whereby she could live with her mother at Sudbrook but had to remain married to Edward until his death, which came in 1753, when Mary was 26. Already having received a handsome legacy from her father, she set out on her life of independence (she never remarried), that became (as her DNB entry puts it) "marked by gossip, travel, devotion to royalty, and self-imposed misadventure".
In her grandiose shows of grief on the death of Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany in 1767, Lady Mary alleged in veiled hints that they had been secretly married, a claim that brought her further derision. He had been a subject of an intensely emotional and lengthy flirtation, which she alleged had been passionate on both sides, but according to most accounts the relationship had actually been one-sided, with York (12 years her junior) regarding it and her as a joke.
On her first trip to Europe in 1770–71 she became a friend of Maria Theresa of Austria and was warmly welcomed at the Viennese court, only to kill off this friendship on her third visit in 1773 by interfering in court intrigue. Mary, however, did not see that this predicament had been self-inflicted and from then on saw any disaster - servants' incompetence, unsuccessful auction bids, rheumatism - as part of a Maria Theresa-instigated plot pursuing her across Europe. Emily Barry (née Stanhope, Countess of Barrymore, and wife of the 6th Earl) was even accused by Mary of luring away her previously faithful servant whilst she was in Paris in 1775, in order to aid an alleged assassination plot against her by Maria Theresa's daughter Marie Antoinette and her underlings.
It was the 1775 event which finally drove away another of Mary's close friends, Horace Walpole. Though devoted and mock-gallant in his flattery of her (his The Castle of Otranto in 1765 was dedicated to her), he also could see that her lack of a sense of humour and pride in her own self-importance made most of her misfortunes self-inflicted. He called her and two of her sisters (Caroline Townshend, Baroness Greenwich, and Lady Betty Mackenzie) the three furies, and wrote elsewhere:
She was much a friend of mine, but a later marriage,3 which she particularly disapproved, having flattered herself with the hopes of one just a step higher, has a little cooled our friendship. In short, though she is so greatly born, she has a frenzy for royalty, and will fall in love with and at the feet of the Great Duke and Duchess, especially the former, for next to being an empress herself, she adores the Empress Queen, or did—for perhaps that passion not being quite reciprocal, may have waned. However … Lady Mary has a thousand virtues and good qualities: she is noble, generous, high-spirited, undauntable, is most friendly, sincere, affectionate, and above any mean action. She loves attention, and I wish you to pay it even for my sake, for I would do anything to serve her. I have often tried to laugh her out of her weakness, but as she is very serious, she is so in that, and if all the sovereigns in Europe combined to slight her, she still would put her trust in the next generation of princes. Her heart is excellent, and deserves and would become a crown, and that is the best of all excuses for desiring one.4
She even saw evidence of a conspiracy (this time a Catholic one against the Protestant succession) in Margaret Nicholson's attempt to assassinate George III in 1786 and Maria Fitzherbert's rumoured marriage to George, Prince of Wales. Some of her observations, however, were more accurate, for example her praise of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire's political skill, in 1787: "As soon as ever any young man comes from abroad he is immediately invited to Devonshire House and to Chatsworth—and by that means he is to be of the [Whig] opposition".5 She avidly collected political information, deploying it to protect herself, her friends and her family, and passing it on to her sisters in her journal, and was a frequent visitor to the Houses of Commons and Lords, witnessing political controversies like Warren Hastings's trial and the debate over the Cumberland election petition in 1768 (in which she backed Sir James Lowther).
She bought Morton House, Chiswick four years before her death there, liking the fact that Sir Stephen Fox had built it late in the 17th century and it had been little altered since. She was buried in Westminster Abbey in her father's family vault on 11 October 1811.
Lady Mary is mainly known from her own journal, never intended for publication and instead written for self-amusement and for the amusement of her sisters, most especially Anne (1719/20–1785), who had married William Wentworth, 2nd Earl of Strafford, in 1741. Her DNB entry states: "The journal ranges from banal descriptions of card games and weather to perceptive social observation and expressions of sincere affection, often closely and unselfconsciously juxtaposed. The personality which emerges from the whole combines elements of the mundane and the preposterous with the deeply sympathetic."
She began writing it in August 1766 and stopped making regular additions in January 1791, when Anne's husband died, though the printed edition only includes entries up to December 1774. (Her great-great-great-nephew James Archibald Home edited this edition.) After 1791, Lady Mary did still continue to pass on her opinions known to friends and relatives such as her niece Lady Frances Scott (her sister Caroline's daughter by her first marriage to Francis, earl of Dalkeith) and her first cousin once removed Lady Louisa Stuart. Louisa in 1827 wrote an acerbic memoir of Lady Mary which is another major source for her life.6
- "Survey of London: volume 37: Northern Kensington". British History Online. Retrieved 2012-12-01.
- "AUBREY HOUSE". English Heritage. Retrieved 2012-12-01.
- Between the Duke of Gloucester and Walpole's niece Lady Waldegrave.
- Walpole to Horace Mann, 28 November 1773, The Yale edition of Horace Walpole's correspondence, ed. W. S.Lewis and others, 48 vols.(1937–83), 23.530
- E. H. Chalus, ‘Women in English political life, 1754–1790’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1997, p88
- Miller, Karl, Stuart, Lady Louisa (1757–1851), writer in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004 & online edition, January 2006 (subscription required) accessed 29 February 2008