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She was a twenty-six year old heiress – the youngest sister of Charles, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham of Wentworth Woodhouse, and a man who was about to become the First Minister of Great Britain. He was a lowly Irish Footman – a tall, handsome ex-soldier from Newry, Ireland, who had fought in the Seven Years War, and was four years her junior. According to the letters of Horace Walpole, the gossipy Earl of Orford [1], their affair began with Lady Henrietta ‘tutoring’ her Irish Footman in Grammar, Mathematics and Music; and finished with a hasty marriage concealed from her family; and a watertight and cautiously drafted prenuptial agreement which she drew up herself, to protect her fortune. It also ended with the baptism of their daughter, Agnes, a scant eight months later.

Their clandestine marriage in 1764 rocked society and scandalised her family: it was feared the shock to the sensibilities of her maiden aunt, Lady Bel Finch, ‘would near kill her’; her sister, Lady Mary Milbanke, wrote to her brother to break the news: “My dear Lord, arm yourself with Fortitude and Resignation…”; and Charles, receiving the news at Wentworth Woodhouse, was so shocked that he is supposed to have carried the letters around in his pocket for more than six months, reading and re-reading them, until his wife physically removed them from him.

The shock, horror and outrage of her family and of her contemporaries seem almost farcical today, but we live in a very different world where distinctions of class, wealth and education are much less observed, and where women’s rights to own property and manage their finances, vote, determine what happens to their bodies – in short to exert control over all aspects of their lives – are indisputable. It is difficult for modern audiences to appreciate how extraordinary Lady Henrietta’s choice to marry her Footman was.

Having embarked on an affair with William, by September 1764, Lady Henrietta must have known she was pregnant beyond any doubt, and her choices had shrunk to two: confess or marry. Had she confessed her difficulties to her family, it is unlikely they would have publicly cast her off: the desire to protect the Marquess and his family’s reputation alone would have ensured that they would have whisked her off to the continent to give birth in secrecy, or arranged an acceptable bridegroom who was willing to give her the protection of his name in exchange for a handsome reimbursement.  However, she made a different choice – to leave family, friends, society, without knowing whether she would ever be received by them again and to abandon her luxurious home and lifestyle in order to marry her Footman, and care for their child. It is hard to believe that this was anything other than a love match, on her part.

On 21st Oct, 1764, she and William quietly left the London Townhouse in Grosvenor Square and made the few minutes journey to St George’s Church, Hanover Square, where they were married by special license, with only two strangers, Ann Jones and Challis Mathers, as witnesses.

The scandalous marriage of Lady Henrietta Watson-Wentworth and her Footman, William Sturgeon, was to last just fifteen years before she died, aged 52, in Rouen, France, in 1789, but it produced five surviving children and, at the end, her sister Lady Charlotte reflected: “I believe I have done the poor man an injustice in some suspicions I have harboured…(but) in the worst of times, I never doubted his faithful attachment to his wife”[2].

In a time when most women went from the cradle to the grave at the mercy of their fathers, husbands, brothers, sons and other male guardians, whose rights of ownership over them, their property, and even their children, were enshrined in law, Lady Henrietta was that rare being: a woman of the right age to be independent. A woman whose inherited wealth gave her freedom to live as she chose; a woman of education, and intelligence, who weighed the consequences of her actions and had the courage to make independent judgements as to what would bring her personal happiness: these took her outside the sphere to which she was born, into an unknown brave new world.

[1] The Yale edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence Edited by W.S. Lewis [et al.]. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1933-1983.

[2] 17 Oct 1789: WWM/F/112/1-100 Title: Letter from Lady Charlotte Watson-Wentworth to Fitzwilliam