Sir John Piers, 6th Baronet

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Sir John Bennett Piers, 6th Baronet, of Tristernagh Abbey, (1772 – 22 July 1845) was an Anglo-Irish baronet, now largely remembered for his part in a major scandal of the early 19th century and for being the subject of an early poem by John Betjeman, Sir John Piers.[1]

Life[edit]

Piers came from a long-established family of the Anglo-Irish gentry, seated at Tristernagh Abbey in County Westmeath. He was the eldest son of Sir William Pigott Piers, 5th Baronet, and his wife Elizabeth Smythe, and succeeded to his father's title and estates in 1794. He first married Mary Pratt, the daughter of Rev. Joseph Pratt, in August 1796; she died in 1798.[2] Piers was later to gain a reputation as a rakehell, duelist, and gambler. In 1803 he met Elizabeth Denny, an actress at Astley's theatre in Dublin, who he moved in with him. The couple had seven children: Henrietta, Henry, John Edward, William Stapleton, George, Louisa, and Florence, born between 1803 and 1819.[3]

The Cloncurry scandal[edit]

Piers gained public notoriety after an 1807 "criminal conversation" trial. He was seen with Elizabeth Georgiana, Lady Cloncurry, the wife of an old school friend (and creditor), Lord Cloncurry, and it later emerged they had been conducting an affair. Moreover, it was established that Piers had seduced Lady Cloncurry as part of a bet:[4] if he succeeded, a sum of money would be deposited in his bank account. The evidence included letters in which he addressed Lady Cloncurry, sensationally by the standards of the time, as his "beloved Eliza", and referred to her husband as a "poor tame wretch".[5]. Piers did not attend the trial, having fled to the Isle of Man, and Lord Cloncurry was awarded the enormous sum of £20,000 in damages. Lady Cloncurry was sent to live with her father, General Charles Morgan, and divorced by her husband in 1811 (each of them subsequently remarried). The scandal was of great interest to the media of the time, particularly in view of what were regarded as the "humorous"[1] circumstances of the discovery, as the "preoccupied" couple had been observed by an Italian mural-painter, Gaspare Gabrielli, who was working in the same room at the Cloncurry's country house, Lyons Demesne, on a ladder.

Later years[edit]

After a period in the Isle of Man, Piers returned to Ireland, where he had a house built surrounded by a high wall to keep out his creditors.[4] Despite this he was eventually forced to pay the damages in the Cloncurry suit, with great reluctance. Piers was not necessarily able to avoid his old ways in the Isle of Man, as he is recorded as appearing before the Deemster along with two others (a Major-General Stapleton and Captain Edwards) after they started a fight while part of a theatre audience.[6] He was also recorded, a matter of months after the trial, as fighting a duel with a John Meredith Esq. over a bet made at dinner; Meredith fired early, missing Piers, but was later shot dead in a further duel by a Mr Boyes, one of Piers' seconds.[7]

It was claimed that Piers and his partner Miss Denny were married in May 1815, while living in the Isle of Man.[8] This later caused problems when records of the marriage could not be located, though Lady Piers testified that "I am quite certain that [Piers] intended to solemnize a legal and valid marriage, as he frequently expressed to me an anxious wish that I might have issue which would inherit his estates".[9] The couple's youngest daughters, Louisa and Florence, took action against Piers' heir, his brother Henry Samuel Piers, to recover money they claimed due to them as John Piers' legitimate children (Piers' sons were born before the supposed marriage). They succeeded in their claim to legitimacy and the case remains legally important.

Piers and his family eventually moved to Saint-Omer in France, where they lived on the small income that could be obtained from his estates. Piers died in 1845 and is buried in Saint-Omer. He was succeeded as baronet by his brother, but the affair had been disastrous for the family's fortunes: by the 1850s Tristernagh was said to be "in a frightful state of delapidation, and the family estates much encumbered".[10]

Poem[edit]

One of John Betjeman's earliest published poems, first printed in the Westmeath Examiner, was titled Sir John Piers, and reimagines the scandal. Part I, The Fete Champetre, describes a fashionable picnic attended by Lord and Lady Cloncurry and Piers, "the handsomest blade in the County Westmeath"; Part II, The Attempt, is spoken by Piers to Lady Cloncurry; Part III, The Exile, describes the baronet in disgrace on the Isle of Man; and IV, The Return, is again spoken by Piers as he plans the building of his walls at Tristernagh. Part V, Tristernagh Today, is a present-day supernatural coda in which the narrator encounters something unpleasant near Tristernagh churchyard. Betjeman adopts a humorous style, parodying nineteenth-century verse forms, through much of the poem.

Betjeman also participated in a 1978 documentary on the crim. con. case, The Bold Bad Baronet, produced for BBC Northern Ireland and presented by Frank Delaney. Delaney developed the theory that Sir John Piers' partner in the "diabolical wager", who was never identified, had likely been Lord Cloncurry himself, who owned land adjacent to Piers' demesne on the shores of Lough Iron.[11] Much of the Tristernagh estate was later bought by Cloncurry.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Malcolmson, A P W. The pursuit of the heiress: aristocratic marriage in Ireland 1740–1840, UHS, 2006, p.151
  2. ^ The Peerage
  3. ^ [1] Piers v Piers (1849) 11 HLC 331 at p.333, 9 ER 1118 at p.1119
  4. ^ a b Lehane, B. The companion guide to Ireland, 2001, pp.98–99
  5. ^ The New Annual Register, 1808, p.42
  6. ^ Belchem, J. A New History of the Isle of Man: The modern period 1830–1999, Liverpool University Press, 2000 p.379
  7. ^ Harrison, W.Bibliotheca monensis, 1867, p.76
  8. ^ The Bad Baronet of Braddan [2]; Piers v Piers (1849) 11 HLC 331, 9 ER 1118 [3]
  9. ^ Piers v Piers (1849) 11 HLC 331 at p.334, 9 ER 1118 at p.1119
  10. ^ Ó Cléirigh, Mícheál. Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, v5, Hodges, Smith & Co, 1856, p.1620
  11. ^ See Delaney, F. Rewriting History, address to the Federation of Historical Societies, 2001. Accessed 3-02-12