Henrietta Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough

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The Right Honourable
The Countess of Bessborough
Angelica Kauffmann, Portrait of Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough (1793).jpg
1793 portrait by Angelica Kauffman
Personal details
Born (1761-06-16)16 June 1761
Wimbledon, London
Died 11 November 1821(1821-11-11) (aged 60)
Spouse(s) Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough
Children John Ponsonby, 4th Earl of Bessborough
Sir Frederick Ponsonby
Lady Caroline Lamb
William Ponsonby, 1st Baron de Mauley
George Ponsonby
Harriet Osborne, Baroness Godolphin
Parents John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer
Margaret Georgiana Poyntz

Henrietta Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough (16 June 1761 – 11 November 1821), born Lady Henrietta Frances Spencer (generally called Harriet), was the wife of Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough; the couple were the parents of the notorious Lady Caroline Lamb. Her father, John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer, was a great-grandson of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. Her sister was Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.

Being the youngest child, Harriet was often left in England when her parents and older sister Georgiana would visit the continent for her father's health. As a child, Harriet was frail and sickly, which led her mother to send her abroad for schooling, thinking that foreign air would help strengthen her. However, she grew into a young woman of exceptional beauty and intelligence, witty, well-read and self-assured.[1]

On 27 November 1780, Harriet married Frederick Ponsonby, then the Viscount Duncannon, an Anglo-Irish nobleman who later became 3rd Earl of Bessborough. Their marriage was a difficult one; because Harriet and her husband were both avid gamblers, they often found themselves in debt. Frederick was also known to be abusive of Harriet, often humiliating her at public gatherings, as well as demanding that she find money to pay for the debts which he had incurred. In 1790, her husband began divorce proceedings, but, under intense pressure from both families, agreed to drop them. In addition to Lady Caroline, mentioned above, there were three sons to the marriage: John William, later 4th Earl of Bessborough; Frederick Ponsonby; and William Ponsonby, who became the 1st Baron de Mauley.

Henrietta Ponsonby with her sons Frederick and John by John Hoppner (1787)

Harriet had numerous lovers during her marriage; as she once remarked, "I can never love anyone just a little". Among her more notable lovers were Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the playwright and Whig politician, and Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Earl Granville, who became her most enduring lover.

Her affair with Granville produced two illegitimate children: Harriet Emma Arundel Stewart, wife of George Godolphin Osborne, 8th Duke of Leeds (though she died in 1852 before he succeeded to the title), and George Stewart. Harriet managed to hide her pregnancies from her husband; this was less difficult in an era when the aristocracy might make extended visits of many months abroad or to friends' country homes. She later sadly remarked that for seventeen years she had "loved [Granville] to idolatry." However, she came to believe that he loved her least of all the men in her life, "although I once believed otherwise".[2] Recognizing his need to marry for purposes of his political career, she did not oppose, and in fact facilitated, Granville's marriage to her niece, Lady Harriet Cavendish ('Harryo') in 1809.[3][4]

Of her younger admirers, her favourite was The Honourable William Lamb (who succeeded as The 2nd Viscount Melbourne in 1828), although he then fell in love with her daughter Caroline. Although Harriet was anxious for Caroline to marry early, she had misgivings (which would come to be entirely justified) as to whether William and Caroline were well suited; in addition she and William's mother Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne, detested each other (Henrietta referred to Lady Melbourne as "the Thorn"). However, due to her fondness for William, she gave her consent to their marriage.[5]

Richard Sheridan's feelings for her became an obsession. He distressed her greatly just before his death by saying that he hoped his ghost would haunt her; she asked him if he had not done enough through his life to make her unhappy, without wishing to harm her further?[6]

Harriet often accompanied her sister to political events as well as soirees. She was also very close to her sister Georgiana's best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, with whom she often was seen in public. Harriet died on 11 November 1821, in Florence, Italy at the age of 60, following the death of her youngest grandchild, Henry, in Parma.[7] According to Lord David Cecil, she died peacefully and without regrets, worn out as she was by a life of emotional turmoil.[8] He describes her as a woman of "indescribable distinction".[9]


Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ O'Toole, Fintan. A Traitor's Kiss: the Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Granta Books, 1997, p.250.
  2. ^ Cecil, David Sir. Mellbourne, Pan Books Edition, 1965, p.39.
  3. ^ Gleeson, Janet. Privilege & Scandal, 2006.
  4. ^ Douglass, Paul. Lady Caroline Lamb, Palgrave-MacMillan, 2004.
  5. ^ Cecil p.57
  6. ^ O'Toole p.466
  7. ^ Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, The Modern Library, 1998.
  8. ^ Cecil p.137
  9. ^ Cecil p.39

External links[edit]

Media related to Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough at Wikimedia Commons