LUCY, MARCHIONESS OF WHARTON, MALMESBURY AND CATHERLOUGH
Society hostess and vicereine of Ireland
To some, Lucy Wharton was ‘the witty fair one’, irresistible to anyone who had ‘the honour of tasting her easy and agreeable conversation’. To Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, she was ‘a woman equally unfeeling and unprincipled: flattering, fawning, canting, affecting prudery and even sanctity, yet in reality as abandoned and unscrupulous as her husband’. The truth probably lay somewhere in between.
Born in around 1670, Lucy was the sole surviving child of Adam Loftus, 1st Viscount Lisburne and Lucy Bridges. Though not a great beauty, her looks were described as ‘so agreeable, that one cannot defend one’s heart against her’. Her father’s death in September 1691 also left her appealingly wealthy, with £5000 per year and lands including the Rathfarnham estate outside Dublin. Unsurprisingly, she had no trouble finding a husband. By January 1692, she was being referred to as the ‘new mistress’ of the widowed Whig politician, Thomas Wharton. By July, she was his wife.
The Whartons’ marriage would be unconventional even today. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries their behaviour was nothing short of scandalous. Thomas was notorious for his debauchery and Lucy too was known for what were politely called ‘her little excursions of love and gallantry’. Thomas did not react to her extra-marital liaisons as one might expect however, for far from being outraged at her affairs he instead encouraged them. His reasoning, according to Jonathan Swift, was that he felt himself ‘well recompensed by a return of children to support his family, without the fatigues of being a father’. Ultimately, Lucy bore three children; Philip in 1698, Jane in 1706 and Lucy in 1710. Whether they were Thomas’s remains to be seen.
Thomas (who was created Baron Wharton in 1696 and Earl of Wharton in 1706) was appointed Lord Lieutenant, or viceroy, of Ireland in 1708 and he and Lucy travelled to Dublin from their English seat, Winchendon, the following April. From their base at Dublin Castle they ran an establishment at which ‘dancing and dice’ were the order of the day and Lucy received their guests with what the eighteenth-century historian and distant relative, John Oldmixon, referred to as ‘that humanity and easiness, which adorn all the actions of her life’. Pregnancy prevented her from accompanying Thomas on his second and final trip in 1710, but from London she had petitions for friends fast-tracked by her husband’s secretary and took meetings with Irishmen visiting England who hoped she could secure them an Irish preferment from the Earl. Her tenure as vicereine may have been brief, but it demonstrated the social and political possibilities of the role and would be built upon by her successors.
Thomas died in 1715, soon after being raised to the rank of Marquess. Lucy followed just two years later and was buried with him at Winchendon. Her will is noticeably devoid of many of the religious sentiments common to the day, a final example of her lifelong disregard for the rules of polite society.
Thanks to Dr. Rachel Wilson (University of Leeds) for this week's herstory