Amelia Radcliffe

Amelia Radcliffe—the So-Called Countess of Derwentwater

The unhappy fate of James, the last Earl of Derwentwater, has been so often recounted, both in prose and verse, that it is almost unnecessary to repeat the story; but lest any difficulty should be found in understanding the grounds on which the so-called countess now bases her pretensions, the following short summary may be found useful:—

James Radcliffe, the third and last Earl of Derwentwater, suffered death on Tower Hill, in the prime of his youth, for his devotion to the cause of the pretender. He is described as having been brave, chivalrous, and generous; his name has been handed down from generation to generation as that of a martyr; and his memory even yet remains green among the descendants of those amongst whom he used to dwell, and to whom he was at once patron and friend.

When he was twenty-three years of age he espoused Anna Maria, eldest daughter of Sir John Webb of Cauford, in the county of Dorset, and had by her an only son, the Hon. John Radcliffe, and a daughter, who afterwards married the eighth Lord Petre. By the articles at this time entered into, the baronet agreed to give his daughter £12,000 as her portion; while the earl, on his part, promised £1000 jointure rent charge to the lady, to which £100 a-year was added on the death of either of her parents, and an allowance of £300 a-year was also granted as pin-money. The earl's estates were to be charged with £12,000 for the portions of daughter or daughters, or with £20,000 in the event of there being no male issue; while by the same settlement his lordship took an estate for life in the family property, which was thereby entailed upon his first and other sons, with remainder, and after the determination of his or their estate to his brother, Charles Radcliffe, for life; on his first or other sons the estates were in like manner entailed.

If the Earl of Derwentwater had been poor his Jacobite proclivities might have been overlooked, but he was very rich, and his head fell. Moreover, after his decapitation on Tower Hill the whole of his immense property was confiscated, and given by the crown to the Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital. The commissioners of to-day assert that the property became the property of the representatives of the hospital absolutely. On the other hand, it is contended that, by the Act of Attainder, the property of forfeiting persons was vested in the crown only, according to their estate, rights, and interest, and that the earl, having only an estate for life in his property, could forfeit no greater interest.

His only son, although he lost his title of nobility by the attainder of his father, was, by solemn adjudication of law, admitted tenant in tail of all the settled estates, and the fortune of the earl's daughter was, moreover, raised and paid thereout. The earl's son was in possession of the estates during sixteen years; and, had he lived to attain twenty-one, he might have effectually dealt with them, so that they could not at any future time have been affected by the attainder of his father, or of his uncle Charles Radcliffe. At least so say the supporters of the self-styled countess.

Upon the death of the martyr-earl's son, in 1791, and presumably without issue, the life estate of Charles Radcliffe commenced, but it vested in the crown by reason of the attainder. Not so, however, the estate in tail of the eldest son, James Bartholomew. This boy was born at Vincennes, on the 23d of August, 1725; but by a statute passed in the reign of Queen Anne, he had all the rights of a subject born in the United Kingdom; and, among others, of course, had the right to succeed to any property to which he might be legally entitled. But the government perceived the fix in which they were placed, and immediately, on the death of the son of the earl, and when James Bartholomew was an infant of the age of five years, they hurried an Act through Parliament which declared that nothing contained in the dictatory law of Queen Anne gave the privilege of a natural born subject to any child, born or to be born abroad, whose father at the time of his or her birth either stood attainted of high treason, or was in the actual service of a foreign state in enmity to the crown of Great Britain. This excluded the boy, and the government began to grant leases of the estates which would otherwise have fallen to him.

And now we begin to plunge into mystery. It is asserted that the reported death of John Radcliffe, son of the last earl, was merely a scheme on the part of his friends to protect him against his Hanoverian enemies who sought his life. Some say that he died at the age of nineteen, at the house of his maternal grandfather, Sir John Webb, in Great Marlborough Street, on the 31st of December, 1731. Others maintain that he was thrown from his horse, and killed, during his residence in France. But the most recent statement is that his interment was a sham, and was part of a well-devised plan for facilitating his escape from France to Germany during the prevalence of rumoured attempts to restore the Stuarts, and that, after marrying the Countess of Waldsteine-Waters, he lived, bearing her name, to the age of eighty-six.

By this reputed marriage it is said that he had a son, who was called John James Anthony Radcliffe, and who, in his turn, espoused a descendant of John Sobieski of Poland. To them a daughter was born, and was named Amelia. Her first appearance at the home of her supposed ancestors was very peculiar; and the report of her proceedings, which appeared in the Hexham Courant, of the 29th of September, 1868, was immediately transferred into the London daily papers, and was quoted from them by almost the entire provincial press. The following is the account of the local journal, which excited considerable amusement, but roused very little faith when it was first made public:—

"This morning great excitement was occasioned in the neighbourhood of Dilston by the appearance of Amelia, Countess of Derwentwater, with a retinue of servants, at the old baronial castle of her ancestors—Dilston Old Castle—and at once taking possession of the old ruin. Her ladyship, who is a fine-looking elderly lady, was dressed in an Austrian military uniform, and wore a sword by her side in the most approved fashion. She was accompanied, as we have said, by several retainers, who were not long in unloading the waggon-load of furniture which they had brought with them, and quickly deposited the various goods and chattels in the old castle, the rooms of which, as most of our readers are aware, are without roofs; but a plentiful supply of stout tarpaulings, which are provided for the purpose, will soon make the apartments habitable, if not quite so comfortable as those which the countess has just left. In the course of the morning her ladyship was visited by Mr. C.J. Grey, the receiver to the Greenwich Hospital estates, who informed her she was trespassing upon the property of the commissioners, and that he would be obliged to report the circumstance to their lordships. Her ladyship received Mr. Grey with great courtesy, and informed that gentleman she was acting under the advice of her legal advisers, and that she was quite prepared to defend the legality of her proceedings. The sides of the principal room have already been hung with the Derwentwater family pictures, to some of which the countess bears a marked resemblance, and the old baronial flag of the unfortunate family already floats proudly from the summit of the fine, though old and dilapidated tower."

This is a bald newspaper account; but the lady herself is an experienced correspondent, and in one of her letters, which she has published in a gorgeously emblazoned volume, thus gives her version of the affair in her own vigorous way:—

"Devilstone Castle, 29 th September, 1868.

"Here I am, my dear friend, at my own house, my roofless home; and my first scrawl from here is to the vicarage. You will be sorry to hear that the Lords of Her Majesty's Council have defied all equitable terms in my eleven years' suffering case. My counsel and myself have only received impertinent replies from under officials. Had my lords met my case like gentlemen and statesmen, I should not have been driven to the course I intend to pursue.

"I left the Terrace very early this morning, and at half-past seven o'clock I arrived at the carriage-road of Dilstone Castle. I stood, and before me lay stretched the ruins of my grandfather's baronial castle; my heart beat more quickly as I approached. I am attended by my two faithful retainers, Michael and Andrew. Mr. Samuel Aiston conveyed a few needful things; the gentle and docile pony trotted on until I reached the level top of the carriage-road, and then we stopped. I dismounted and opened the gate and bid my squires to follow, and, in front of the old flag tower, I cut with a spade three square feet of green sod into a barrier for my feet, in the once happy nursery—the mother's joyful upstairs parlour—the only room now standing, and quite roofless. I found not a voice to cheer me, nothing but naked plasterless walls; a hearth with no frame of iron; the little chapel which contains the sacred tombs of the silent dead, and the dishonoured ashes of my grandsires.

"All here is in a death-like repose, no living thing save a few innocent pigeons, half wild; but there has been a tremendous confusion, a wild and wilful uproar of rending, and a crash of headlong havoc, every angle is surrounded with desolation, and the whole is a monument of state vengeance and destruction. But here is the land—the home of my fathers—which I have been robbed of; this is a piece of the castle, and the room in which they lived, and talked, and walked, and smiled, and were cradled and watched with tender affection. You never saw this old tower nearer than from the road; the walls of it are three feet or more in some parts thick, and of rough stone inside. The floor of this room where I am writing this scrawl is verdure, and damp with the moisture from heaven. It has not even beams left for a ceiling, and the stairs up to it are scarcely passible; but I am truly thankful that all the little articles I brought are now up in this room, and no accident to my men.

"Radcliffe's flag is once more raised! and the portraits of my grandfather and great-grandfather are here, back again to Devilstone Castle (alias  Dilstone), and hung on each side of this roofless room, where both their voices once sounded. Oh! as I gaze calmly on these mute warders on the walls, I cannot paint you my feelings of the sense of injustice and wrong, a refining, a resenting sorrow—my heart bleeds at the thought of the cruel axe, and I am punished for its laws that no longer exist. I pray not to be horror-stricken at the thoughts of the past ambition and power of princes who cast destruction over our house, and made us spectacles of barbarity. But, nevertheless, many great and Christian men the Lord hath raised out of the house of Radcliffe, who have passed away; and now, oh! Father of Heaven! how wonderfully hast Thou spared the remnant of my house, a defenceless orphan, to whom no way is open but to Thy Fatherly heart. Now Thou hast brought me here, what still awaits me? 'Leave Thou me not; let me never forget Thee. Thou hast girded me with strength into the battle. I will not therefore fear what man can do unto me.'

"These are my thoughts and resolutions. But I am struggling with the associations of this lone, lone hearth—with no fire, no father, no mother, sister or brother left—the whole is heartrending. I quit you now, my kind friends; I am blind with tears, but this is womanly weakness.

"Twelve o'clock the same day. My tears of excitement have yielded to counter-excitement. I have just had an intrusive visitor, who came to inquire if it is my intention to remain here. I replied in the affirmative, adding earnestly, 'I have come to my roofless home,' and asked 'Who are you?' He answered 'I am Mr. Grey, the agent for her Majesty, and I shall have to communicate your intention.' I answered, 'Quite right, Mr. Grey. Then what title  have you to show that her Majesty has a right here to my freehold estates?' He replied, 'I have no title.' I then took out a parchment with the titles and the barony and manors, and the names of my forty-two rich estates, and held it before him and said, 'I am the Countess of Derwentwater, and my title and claim are acknowledged and substantiated by the Crown of England, morally, legally, and officially; therefore my title is the title to these forty-two estates.' He has absented himself quietly, and I do hope my lords will not leave my case now to under officials.—Yours truly,

Amelia, Countess of Derwentwater.

Their lordships left the case to very minor officials, indeed; namely to a person whom the countess describes as "a dusky little man" and his underlings, and they without hesitation ejected her from Dilstone Hall. The lady was very indignant, but was very far from being beaten, and she and her adherents immediately formed a roadside encampment, under a hedge, in gipsy fashion, and resolved to re-enter if possible. From her letters it appears that she was very cold and very miserable, and, moreover, very hungry at first. But the neighbouring peasantry were kind, and brought her so much food eventually, that she tells one of her friends that cases of tinned meats from Paris would be of no use to her. The worst of the encampment seems to have been that it interfered with her usual pastime of sketching, which could not be carried on in the evenings under a tarpaulin, by the light of a lantern.

But her enemies had no idea that she should be permitted to remain under the hedge any more than in the hall itself. On the 21st of October, at the quarter sessions for the county of Northumberland, the chief constable was questioned by the magistrates about the strange state of affairs in the district, and reported that the encampment was a little way from the highway, and that, therefore, the lady could not be apprehended under the Vagrant Act! A summons, however, had been taken out by the local surveyor, and would be followed by a warrant. On that summons the so-called countess was convicted; but appealed to the Court of Queen's Bench.

During the winter the encampment could not be maintained, and the weather, more powerful than the Greenwich commissioners, drove the countess from the roadside. But in the bright days of May she reappeared to resume the fight, and this time took possession of a cottage at Dilston, whence, says a newspaper report of the period, "it is expected she will be ejected; but she may do as she did before, and pitch her tent on the high-road." On the 30th of the same month, the conviction by the Northumberland magistrates "for erecting a hut on the roadside," was affirmed by the Court of Queen's Bench.

On the 17th November, 1869, while Mr. Grey was collecting the Derwentwater rents, the countess marched into the apartment, at the head of her attendants, to forbid the proceedings. She was richly apparelled, but her semi-military guise did not save herself, or those who came with her, from being somewhat rudely ejected. Her sole consolation was that the mob cheered her lustily as she drove off in her carriage.

On the 5th of January, in the following year, a great demonstration in her favour took place at Consett, in the county of Durham. A few days previously a large quantity of live stock had been seized at the instance of the countess, for rent alleged to be due to her, and an interdict had been obtained against her, prohibiting her from disposing of it. However, she defied the law, and in the midst of something very like a riot, the cattle were sold, flags were waved, speeches were made, and the moment was perhaps the proudest which the heiress of the Derwentwaters is likely to see in this country.

Such conduct could not be tolerated. The Lords of the Admiralty were roused, and formally announced that the claims of the so-called countess were frivolous. They also warned their tenants against paying their rents to her, and took out summonses against those who had assisted at the sale. On the 16th of January, the ringleaders in the disgraceful affair were committed for trial.

Notwithstanding this untoward contretemps, the countess made a further attempt, in February, to collect the rents of the forty-two freehold estates, which she said belonged to her. But the bailiffs were in force and resisted her successfully, being aided in their work by a severe snowstorm, which completely cowed her followers, although it did not cool her own courage. On the 11th of February, 1870, the Lords of the Admiralty applied for an injunction to prevent the so-called countess from entering on the Greenwich estates, and their application was immediately granted. Shortly afterwards the bailiff acting on behalf of the countess, and the ringleaders in the Consett affair, were sentenced to short terms of imprisonment. Thus those in possession of the property could boast a decided victory.

But the law courts are free to all, and the countess determined to take the initiative. She had jewels, and pictures, and documents which would at once prove her identity and the justice of her claim. Unfortunately they were all in Germany, and the lady was penniless. By the generosity of certain confiding gentlemen, about £2000 was advanced, on loan, to bring them to this country. They came, but their appearance was not satisfactory even to the creditors, who became clamorous for their money. There was only one way left to satisfy them, and Amelia, of Derwentwater, took it. The jewels and pictures were brought to the hammer in an auction-room in Hexham—the countess disappeared from public ken, and the newspapers ceased to chronicle her extraordinary movements.