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. The family were descended from William Piers, who had been granted the Abbey lands by Elizabeth I: William's great-grandson Sir Henry Piers was created a baronet in 1661.[2] By the time of his descendant Sir John Piers, the Abbey had been demolished and incorporated into a house which had itself fallen into disrepair, and which was allegedly the inspiration for Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent.[3]

Sir John was the eldest son of Sir Pigott William Piers, 5th Baronet, and his wife Elizabeth Smythe, and succeeded to his father's title and estates in 1798. He first married Mary Pratt, the daughter of Rev. Joseph Pratt of Cabra, in August 1796; she died in 1798.[4] 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, and set up a household with her. The couple had seven children: Henrietta, Henry, John Edward, William Stapleton, George, Louisa, and Florence, born between 1803 and 1819.[5]

The Cloncurry scandal[edit]

Crim. Con, an 1807-8 satirical print referencing the Cloncurry scandal and court case. Piers and Lady Cloncurry are observed by the painter Gabrielli. The caption notes that the "sketch [...] has been valued at Twenty Thousand pounds!", in reference to the huge damages awarded to Lord Cloncurry.

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:[6] if he succeeded, a sum of money would be deposited in his bank account by a person whose identity was never revealed. 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".[7] 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, the joint largest recorded award ever in a criminal conversation case.[8] 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 Cloncurrys' country house, Lyons Demesne, on a ladder.

The Isle of Man[edit]

Piers and his partner Miss Denny took a house in Braddan and became fairly prominent in island society. He was not, however, necessarily able to avoid his old ways, 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.[9] 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, who "advanced towards him, and ordered him to go down to his knees and beg, for pardon and life".[10] Meredith was later shot dead in a further duel by a Mr Boyes or Boyce, one of Piers' seconds.[11][10] Hannah Bullock, who in 1816 published the History of the Isle of Man, commented that from the arrival of Piers and his associates "peace spread her wings, and for many months was heard of no more [...] I am not exaggerating when I assert that every evening closed upon a quarrel".[12] In 1810 it was reported that Piers, still a figure of public interest, had finally shot himself after having "debauched the daughter of a respectable clergyman",[13] but the reports were evidently exaggerated.

It was claimed that Piers and Miss Denny - subsequently Lady Piers - were married in May 1815, while still living in the Isle of Man.[14] The marriage was held privately at their home: according to Piers this was because his mother disapproved of the relationship, and he wanted to have the opportunity of explaining the circumstances to her before making the marriage public.[15] This later caused problems when it was discovered that no special licence had been obtained and the marriage might not have been legal under Manx law. Lady Piers later 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".[16] 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 1815 marriage). They succeeded in their claim to legitimacy, and the case (Piers v Piers) remains the leading case in English law on the presumption of marriage. [17]

After spending several years in the Isle of Man, Piers returned to Tristernagh, where he had a house built surrounded by a high wall to keep out his creditors.[6] Despite this he was eventually forced to pay the damages in the Cloncurry suit, with great reluctance.

Later years[edit]

Piers was again in court in 1830, when Richard Malone Esq. accused him of provoking a breach of the peace. It was claimed that Piers had fired his gun in the prosecutor's demesne "as an intentional insult" and that Piers had also written a "most severe and offensive letter" to Malone following an argument between Malone's gamekeeper and his son John.[18] The court held that, despite his actions, Piers had not been intending to provoke Malone into fighting a duel.

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".[19]

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.[20] 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. ^ Lodge; Archdall (1789), The Peerage of Ireland, 2, Dublin, p. 202
  3. ^ Casey and Rowan, The Buildings of Ireland: North Leinster: The Counties of Longford, Louth, Meath and Westmeath, 1993, p.147
  4. ^ The Peerage
  5. ^ [1] Piers v Piers (1849) 11 HLC 331 at p.333, 9 ER 1118 at p.1119
  6. ^ a b Lehane, B. The companion guide to Ireland, 2001, pp.98–99
  7. ^ The New Annual Register, 1808, p.42
  8. ^ Gibson, C. Dissolving Wedlock, 2002, p.34. The other case was that of Henry Wellesley, 1st Baron Cowley against Henry Paget, 1st Marquess of Anglesey.
  9. ^ Belchem, J. A New History of the Isle of Man: The modern period 1830–1999, Liverpool University Press, 2000 p.379
  10. ^ a b Moore, Douglas 100 Years Ago: An Account Illustrative of Manx Life and Manners at that Period, 1904, p.34
  11. ^ Harrison, W.Bibliotheca monensis, 1867, p.76
  12. ^ Moore, 1904, pp.35-36
  13. ^ The Annual Register of World Events: A Review of the Year, Volume 50, 1810, p.80
  14. ^ The Bad Baronet of Braddan [2]; Piers v Piers (1849) 11 HLC 331, 9 ER 1118 [3]
  15. ^ Reports of cases argued and determined in the High Court of Chancery: during the time of Lord Chancellor Plunket, Volume 1, 1839, p.294
  16. ^ Piers v Piers (1849) 11 HLC 331 at p.334, 9 ER 1118 at p.1119
  17. ^ Keane and McKeown, The Modern Law of Evidence, 2016, p.319
  18. ^ The Law Recorder: Containing Reports of Cases and Proceedings in the Courts of Law and Equity at Dublin and Elsewhere, v4. 1831, p.102
  19. ^ Ó Cléirigh, Mícheál. Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, v5, Hodges, Smith & Co, 1856, p.1620
  20. ^ See Delaney, F. Rewriting History, address to the Federation of Historical Societies, 2001. Accessed 3-02-12
Baronetage of Ireland
Preceded by
Pigott William Piers
Baronet
(of Tristernagh Abbey)
1798–1845
Succeeded by
Henry Samuel Piers