I was walking about Longleat House a couple of weeks ago, when I saw this picture. It was not particularly obvious. It was hung above a door in one of the rooms in the house and unless you turned and looked back you wouldn’t notice it.
I always look at the portraits in historic houses because they give me ideas for clothing and hairstyles and a sense of potential characters for my writing. Some portraits just scream a tale to be told.
There is one of a very sly looking chap at Stoneleigh Abbey, he’s from the 19th Century and has a moustache and a wicked twinkle in his eyes. None of the guides there have ever been able to tell me who he is, but he looks awfully like a Mr Wickham. However…
When I looked up at this picture I had that sense that this woman had a story to be told. I don’t know why. There was just something in the way she was holding her head and smiling, all confidence and come hither. I looked at the list of portraits I held in my hand which were left in each room and scanned through the list, but the name of the woman in this portrait wasn’t on it. So I turned to the guide who was sitting in the room and asked, “Who is that?”
“Kitty Hunter, the mistress of the Duke of Pembroke,” he answered.
Well now of course my interest was piqued, especially as Pembroke is a name I have borrowed for a character in my book. So then I had to discover her scandalous story.
Here it is…
Catherine (Kitty) Hunter was the daughter of Thomas Orby Hunter, an Admiralty Lord, so very respectable, or should have been, had she not run off with the Earl of Pembroke.
At the end of this blog are elements of transcripts of letters, written by Horace Walpole at the time. These tell the story and express the horror, excitement and gossip which spun around London high society when the elopement occurred.
The couple did not decide to have a discreet affair. In Horace Walpole’s letters he describes witnesses to the intrigue (the 18th Century word for affair) at a ball on the Wednesday evening, as though it was plainly obvious to the whole room what was going on. I can just imagine the twenty-eight year old Earl of Pembroke eyeing the twenty-two year old Kitty with a lustful look while she batted her eyelids and flirted, not doubt outrageously, if it drew so much attention.
Can you picture him leaning in close and perhaps touching a little too much and a little too openly. Maybe they were laughing and drawing the eyes of the whole room as they danced. Certainly they must have spent considerable time with one another for their interest in one another to have been noted so particularly, in a period where only two dances were supposed to be allowed to any one man in a night.
The elopement followed the next night, so at some point in the hours they had been flirting at the Middleton ball, they had arranged the details of their elopement.
The Earl is noted in Walpole’s letters below to have arrived home, having arranged for his wife to have plenty of company that night, with a bundle containing a disguise.
He ate in his rooms, and then donned the disguise of a sailor and black wig and apparently he and Kitty then left on a packet boat for France.
Other accounts say that the Earl’s family sent a man to find them and bring them back again, but having offered for his wife to join them (Shelley style), the Earl merely disappeared to France again with Kitty.
Walpole joked in one letter; ‘As Pembroke as horseman by most is accounted/ Tis not strange that his Lordship a [Kitty] Hunter has mounted’
When Kitty returned to England at the end of their whirlwind six month affair in November 1762, she was pregnant with his child.
Henry, the Earl of Pembroke stayed abroad and was reappointed to his commission as a General (and was rumoured to elope with another woman whom he ran away with on her wedding day).
Kitty’s and Pembroke’s child was named Augustus Retnuh Reebkomp – Retnuh an anagram of Hunter – Reebkomp an anagram of Pembroke.
The Earl arrived in England a few months behind her in the February of the following year and made peace with his wife in the March, paying Kitty off. He did continue to support and favour the child though who was brought up in Pembroke’s home for most of his life. Reebkomp did cause further arguments between Pembroke and his wife though. Especially when Pembroke attempted to have Reebkomp appointed in the army as a lieutenant under the name Augustus Herbert. Lady Pembroke immediately ensured Reebkomp kept his own surname, she did not wish him having his father’s family name which belonged to her own son. However Reebkomp was later renamed Montgomery.
Kitty must have had quite a character. I would guess she was fun-loving and not a woman to hold back. I should imagine she spoke animatedly and never cared about causing offence. I only make these assumptions because of the words Walpole recorded that the Earl of Pembroke wrote when he left his wife, he’d said he was bored with her ‘goodness and sweetness’. I assume then, Kitty was neither good nor sweet, and as the Earl also recorded in his letters, to tell everyone he was going, that he had ‘long tried in vain to make is wife hate and dislike him’ I am also assuming that Kitty must have been able to hold her own against such a man.It must have been fun and exciting to set everyone’s tongues wagging at the Middleton’s ball, while plotting to elope, you can just see that look of expectation in the eyes of her portrait which I saw at Longleat.
They fled at night in darkness, in disguise and on a boat, to go abroad. Well what could have felt more romantic and exhilarating than that?
I would also assume it was her character Pembroke fell for, as Walpole comments on how beautiful Pembroke’s wife was, more beautiful than Kitty. (although if you continue reading Walpole’s letters there are several further comments on Lady Pembroke’s presence at parties, and her beauty, so Walpole obviously had an eye for her himself.)
Kitty cannot have disliked the life of a courtesan. Soon after her affair with Lord Pembroke ended she took a new lover, Augustus Hervey, later 3rd Lord Bristol – this was probably the point her son by the Earl of Pembroke, was taken into his father’s house. She certainly did not need to take on a new lover for financial support as the Earl of Pembroke had settled and annual annuity on her to support her – which was a common practice when men of good birth set aside a lover.
There is not so much known about her affair with Hervey except it produced another child, a boy, named Augustus for his father. A miniature of the child, painted by Gainsborough, is at Ickworth House.
Kitty was one of my luckier scandalous women. She found contentment in later life. She married Field Marshal, Sir Alfred Clarke in 1770.
Horace Walpole wrote at the time of Kitty’s elopement with the Earl of Pembroke, on February, 22nd, 1762;
‘In all your reading, true or false, have you ever heard of a young Earl, married to the most beautiful woman in the world, a Lord of the Bedchamber, a general officer, and with a great estate, quitting everything, resigning wife and world, and embarking for life in a pacquet-boat with a Miss? I fear your connexions will but too readily lead you to the name of the peer; it is Henry Earl of Pembroke, the nymph ‘Kitty Hunter.’ The town and Lady Pembroke were but too much witnesses to this intrigue, last Wednesday at a great ball at Lord Middleton’s. On Thursday they decamped. However, that the writer of their romance, or I, as he is a Noble Author, might not want materials,’ the Earl has left a bushel of letters behind him; to his mother, to Lord Bute, to Lord Ligonier, (the two last to resign his employments) and to Mr Stopford, whom he acquits of all privity to his design. In none he justifies himself, unless there is a justification, that having long tried in vain to make is wife hate and dislike him, he had no way left but this, and it is to be hoped he will succeed; and then it may not be the worst event that could have happened to her. You must easily conceive the hubbub such an exploit must occasion. With ghosts, elopements, abortive motions…’
Later in the letter Walpole jokes that ‘no soul could have read a line’ in some books ‘unless I had changed the title page, and called them, ‘The Loves of the Earl of Pembroke and Miss Hunter’ obviously society in London had been a buzz with gossip about the story.
Horace Walpole was so moved by the story he told it to another friend in a letter, in which he declared;
‘Lord Pembroke – Earl, Lord of the Bechamber, Major General, possessed of ten thousand pounds a-year, Master of Wilton, husband of one of the most beautiful creatures of England, father of an only son, and himself but eight-and-twenty to enjoy this assemblage of all good fortune – is gone off with Miss Hunter, daughter to one of the Lords of the Admiralty, a handsome girl with a fine person, but silly and in no degree lovely as his own wife, who has the face of a Madonna, and, with all the modesty of that idea is dotingly fond of him… it is not yet known whither this foolish guilty couple have bent their course; but you may imagine the distress of the Earl’s family, and the resentment of the house of Marlborough, who doat on their sister… but did ever one hear of an Earl running away from himself?’
On February 25th, Walpole then said;
‘No News yet of the Runaways… but all that comes out antecedent to the escape is more and more extraordinary and absurd. The day of the elopement he had invited his wife’s family to and other folk to dinner with her, but said he must himself dine at a tavern; but he dined privately in his own dressing-room, put on a sailor’s habit, and black wig, that he had brought home with him in a bundle, and threatened the servants he would murder them if they mentioned it to his wife. He left a letter for her, which the Duke of Marlborough was afraid to deliver to her, and opened. It desired she would not write to him as it would make him completely mad. He desire the King would preserve his rank of Major-General, as some time or the other he may serve again.’
He concludes their story with a note in a later letter dated, March, 29th, 1763;
‘Lord and Lady Pembroke are reconciled, and live again together. Mr Hunter would have taken his daughter Kitty too but upon condition she should give back her settlement to Lord Pembroke and her child : she replied nobly, that she did not trouble herself about fortune, and would willingly depend on her father; but for her child she had nothing left to do but take care of that, and would not part with it; so she keeps both, and I suppose will soon have her lover again too, for my Lady Pembroke’s beauty is not glutinous…’
Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.
See the side bar for details of Jane’s books, and Jane’s website www.janelark.co.uk to learn more about Jane. Or click ‘like’ on Jane’s Facebook page to see photo’s and learn historical facts from the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras, which Jane publishes there. You can also follow Jane on twitter at @janelark