The Trials of the King of Hampshire – Elizabeth Foyster
Over the last few weeks I have been musing about where eccentricity ends and lunacy starts and have been swayed by the argument that it is a class and wealth issue. Our betters, aristos and those with pots of money, are able to get away with standards of behaviour that would see us mere mortals carted off to an asylum. But, occasionally, the distinction is more than a moot point as the tragic and gothic tale of the 3rd earl of Portsmouth shows.
The subject of Foyster’s book is the splendidly named John Wallop – one of his traits which cast doubt on his sanity was his frequent assaults on his servants and his predilection for seeing children and pets beaten. One poor footman broke a leg. Portsmouth went to see him, not to offer tea and sympathy but to jump on it again, breaking the limb a second time. He seemed to derive some sexual gratification from being bled by young girls in the neighbourhood who were instructed to use a lancet for the purpose. He took great delight in visiting people on their death-bed and was a regular attendee of funerals – black jobs, he called them – where his behaviour often caused the mourners distress.
Why the distinction between eccentricity and lunacy was more than moot in the case of the 3rd earl of Portsmouth was down to inheritance and money, what else? From an early age he was different from others and, particularly, his siblings. Instead of going off to Eton and Cambridge like the other brothers, Portsmouth was home schooled, spending some time holed up with Jane Austen’s father, before Jane was born. The novelist did meet him later at a function, claiming that he “surpassed” the behaviour of other gentlemen, perhaps not a terribly high bar, and the poet Byron described him as a “prize fool of an earl”. But was he mad?
In those days, to be declared insane required a public trial. Portsmouth endured two, the first shortly after his forced marriage to Mary Anne, in 1814. This was at the instigation of his younger brother, Norton Fellowes, who sought to annul the marriage. The attempt failed but in 1823 another attempt was made. The trial was a cause celebre and was to be the longest and costliest insanity trial in history, racking up costs of 2 guineas a minute. What seemed to tip the balance against Portsmouth was that he shared his marriage bed with his wife and her lover. To modern eyes, he was cruelly treated, abused physically and mentally by his wife and her paramour but to his contemporaries, his seemingly laissez-faire attitude to Mary Anne’s infidelities was proof positive of derangement. The court found that Portsmouth was mad, a verdict which annulled his marriage, disinherited his heir who was almost certainly not his, and meant Newton was in pole position to inherit the title and a vast annual fortune of £18,000 onn his death. Mary Anne was required to pay £40,000 towards the cost of the trial and fled the country.
Surprisingly, Portsmouth was reasonably well treated afterwards, being allowed to reside at the family home near Basingstoke, Hurstbourne Park. He had a throne erected in one of the rooms and styled himself the King of Hampshire. He lived a further thirty years. Newton duly inherited the title but enjoyed it for less than a year.
Foyster’s book is an entertaining and well-researched piece of work, although at times its rather thematic approach to Portsmouth’s strange and disturbing story does serve to confuse rather than enlighten the narrative. And she shies away from attempting to diagnose what was wrong with Portsmouth. Nonetheless, it is an invaluable insight to life amongst the upper classes and how unusual character traits were dealt with.