Thursday, February 12, 2015

Lady Mary Cowper: Lady of the Bed Chamber and Persipacious Diarist

Mary Clavering was born in 1685; the eldest surviving daughter to John Clavering, landowner and mine owner of Chopwell, co. Durham and first wife Anne Thompson. While her early years are virtually a mystery, it is noted that she spent her later teenage years in London with her Aunt Grace, Lady Wood, who was the widow of Thomas Wood, the bishop of Coventry. A remarked beauty, Mary also proved herself talented with the harpsichord; a talent she chose not show off in public but reserved for the privacy of Lady Wood’s home when there was company.
Lady Mary Cowper, engraving by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Although Mary was not considered a woman of considerable fortune, this did stop her from gaining the affections of William Cowper (Lord Chancellor to the king 1707-1710, 1714-1718 and at the time of their meeting, lord keeper to the great seal). Lady Mary’s early relationship with William Cowper, whom she met after consulting him on some law business, was inlaid with secrecy. Mary remarks in her diary “My Lord being a Widower when the late Queen gave him the Seals, it was no Wonder the young Women laid out all their snares to catch him.” An account follows of a Lady Harriet Vere, who apparently made several advances on her future husband before concluding he was already engaged to Lady Mary. Upon this discovery, Lady Harriet and her faithful kinswoman sent Lord Cowper an anonymous letter threatening to hinder the “passing of his Title” (elevation to a barony) in an attempt to dissuade him from marrying Lady Mary. In her diary, Mary remarks how the threat did not impede their engagement but as a result, the couple chose to marry in secret on 16 September 1706. Their nuptials where not publicly acknowledged until 1707, even though Lord Cowper became Baron in 1706. In 1710, Mary discovered a letter written to her husband by an admirer, to whom she immediately sent a vitriolic response. She lamented her husband’s actions in a letter, which stated, “I now live to see that all those assurances were only to keep me silent. For now I live to see you keep correspondence with people not at all fit for you if you design to be faithful to me.” Nevertheless, their relationship appears to have gained stability after this occurrence and the couple would have four children, Sarah (1707-58), William (1709-64), who would became a Lord of the Bed Chamber from 1733-1747, Anne (1710-50), and Spencer (1713-74), who would become the Dean of Durham in 1746. 
In 1714, Mary became a Lady of the Bed Chamber to Princess Caroline and elected to begin a diary in October, so she could maintain record of court events. In order to secure such a position, Lady Mary had established a friendly correspondence with Princess Caroline four year earlier and had received “the kindest letters from her.”  Mary was an educated woman and her fluency in French was one of the reasons why she was so admired by king George I. Her husband, a Whig, used his wife’s French eloquence to his political advantage. On several occasions, she was called upon to translate her husband’s memorials before they were sent to the king, such as a “Treatise of the State of Parties.” Although her father descended from a branch of a Northumbrian family with Jacobite tendencies, her political involvement shows she chose to adhere to the politics of her husband.
In 1718, Lady Mary’s husband resigned the Great Seal after speculatively losing favor with the king when Lord Cowper sided with the Prince of Wales in a quarrel with his father. Nevertheless, the husband and wife managed to help bring a brief reconciliation between the king and prince in 1718, but the record of this year is lost. While investigating a Jacobite conspiracy in 1722, Lady Mary’s husband was wrongly accused of being a co-conspirator. In a fit of paranoia, Lady Mary proceeded to burn any part of her diary that mentioned the royal quarrel. Thus, there is a gap her court record between October 1716, which ends in the birth of the Princess’s stillborn son, and April 1720. Lady Mary and her husband are seen in 1720 trying to personally persuade the Princess to demand her children, which were left under the care of king George I, be restored to her. The influence the Cowper’s had within the court had diminished at this time and the reconciliation between the king and prince that took place in 1720 was not in thanks to them. Robert Walpole, much to Lady Mary’s annoyance, had risen to a place of incredible influence. In her diary, she remarks bitterly,

“Walpole has engrossed and monopolized the Princess to a Degree of make her deaf to Everything that did not come from him. He stirred the Prince’s Zeal against South Sea stock, which he was well enough please with until Walpole had a Mind to signify himself upon that Head, and then the Prince and all Friends cried out against it.”

William Cowper died suddenly on 10 October 1723 in the house he built in Cole Green. Although their relationship had rocky moments, Lady Mary became so distraught after his death, her daughter believed she suffered from a "broken heart." She did not wish to long outlive her husband and ultimately received her wish when she passed away on 5 February 1724 in her home at Cole Green, Hertfordshire. She was later buried in St. Mary’s Hertingfordbury, Hertfordshire.
Before their marriage, William Cowper had promised Lady Mary a £300 jointure, which he reaffirmed in his will. Her wealth upon her own death included a £300 p.a. jointure, plus an added £500 p.a. jointure as well as jewelry, coach, and horses. 


Cowper, Mary and Spencer Cowper. Diary of Mary Countess Cowper, Lady of the Bedchamber to the Princess of Wales, 1714-1720. London: Spottiswood and Co., 1864.

Cruikshanks, S., D. Hayton, S. Handley. “Cowper, William (1665-1723), of Herford Castle and Colne Green, Hertingfordbury, Hets. And Ratling Court, Kent.” The History of Parliament. Accessed February 10, 2015.

Deconinck-Brossard, Françoise. “Cowper, Spencer (1713–1774).” Françoise Deconinck-Brossard In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman, January 2008. (accessed February 11, 2015).

Kugler, Anne. “Cowper , Mary, Countess Cowper (1685–1724).” Anne Kugler In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: OUP, . (accessed February 10, 2015).

'Parishes: St. Andrew Rural,' in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London: Victoria County History, 1912), 468-472, accessed February 10, 2015,

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