Friday 22 June 2018

Life in the time of John and Mary Pitt, Earl and Countess of Chatham By Jacqueline Reiter #History #Georgian @latelordchatham

Life in the time of John and Mary Pitt, Earl and Countess of Chatham
 By Jacqueline Reiter

John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham is not nearly as famous as other members of his family. He was born in 1756 into one of Britain's most celebrated political dynasties; his father and brother were two of Britain's most famous prime ministers (William Pitt the Elder and William Pitt the Younger). John (as I call him) is rather less famous. If he is remembered at all, it's for all the wrong reasons. His reputation was destroyed as a result of his command of the disastrous Walcheren Expedition of 1809, during which a quarter of the British troops engaged became ill.

Lord Chatham.

My novel, Earl of Shadows, stops short of John's military disgrace, spanning the years 1778 to 1806. It focuses on John's difficult relationship with his brilliant younger brother William and his (rather more satisfactory) marriage to Mary Townshend. John's wife is even less well-known than he is; I could compile everything I've ever seen written about her on the back of a postcard and have room to spare. Not, perhaps, the most obvious pair to write about, but once I started researching them it became clear that they were fascinating personalities with turbulent, often tragic, life-stories – and that they wanted me to tell their tale.

With a story revolving so much on status and identity, fixing John and Mary firmly within their period was vital. They were products of their times as well as of the public and private challenges they faced. This was a period of tremendous upheaval in British history. By 1778, Britain had lost the reputation for military glory she had acquired under Pitt the Elder during the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). Fifteen years after the end of the conflict that made John's father a household name, Britain was at war with her American colonies, and the struggle was about to spill over to France and Spain.

The war ended in 1783, but the process of making peace destroyed Britain's political status quo. Lord North (prime minister since 1770) resigned in 1782, ushering in a long period of instability. Three ministries followed in quick succession until, in December 1783, King George III called John's brother, William Pitt the Younger, to the premiership. William had already spent a stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer and had a strong reputation as an orator; but he was only 24, and his appointment would never have happened without the impact of losing America on the British political scene.

Ten years later, Britain went to war again – this time with revolutionary France. This conflict (and the war against Emperor Napoleon that followed) dominated the next 22 years, despite a brief truce between 1802 and 1803. Britain struggled militarily for much of the period. The financial burdens of war combined with poor weather conditions, causing failed harvest, spiralling inflation, and social unrest.

It was an unsettled time to be British aristocrats, and this was precisely what John and Mary were. This aspect of John's story is particularly crucial to my novel. His father had been one of the most famous (and feared) men of the mid-18th century. John's social identity was determined both by his rank as an Earl, and by his role as the celebrated Pitt the Elder's heir. He would have expected to be the most important member of his family following his father's death. But John's story as an 18th century Georgian aristocrat was not straightforward. For all his guaranteed social prominence, John was almost immediately overtaken by his younger brother. William's stupendously quick ascent to power made him one of the most important men in the country – something that complicated his relations with his elder brother no end.

The more I read, the more I realised this was a fascinating and unusual story of sibling rivalry waiting to be told. I nevertheless needed a happier story to balance this tale of frustration. Luckily for me, John's happy marriage came to my rescue.

Mary, Countess of Chatham.

Mary Townshend, John's wife, might be unknown in the history books, but I soon realised just how unjustly she has been overlooked. Born in 1762, she was the second daughter of Thomas Townshend, later first Viscount Sydney (as Home Secretary, he presided over the founding of the Australian penal colony that bears his name). The Townshends and Pitts were close, and John and Mary more or less grew up together. Theirs was clearly a love match; in an age full of disaster stories like the Duchess of Devonshire and George IV and Caroline of Brunswick, John and Mary's closeness was like a breath of fresh air.

It wasn't all upbeat, of course, and Mary experienced her fair share of personal tragedy. She suffered throughout her adult life from serious chronic physical pain, and was crippled for nearly two years by what was described as a "rheumatic disorder" in her hip. When the disorder was at its height she could only move about in a wheelchair, and it left her with a permanent limp. She was treated using electrical therapy via a machine that produced static electricity, channelled into the affected body parts using glass rods (this was believed to stimulate circulation and movement). Later in life, and perhaps partly because of her chronic pain, Mary suffered profound depression; her doctor, Sir Henry Halford, also treated George III during his periods of insanity.

Despite these challenges, Mary's strength of character was obvious, and I soon found myself admiring the way she overcame her physical ills. She was an active participant in her husband's social life, regularly attending court (all that standing about, with her rheumatic disorder!) and following John on his domestic military postings. I found several accounts of her presiding at district headquarters and following him on parades in an open carriage; the soldiers seem to have loved her. She did not go with him on campaign, but, when John went to Holland in 1799 as part of the Anglo-Russian Helder expedition, she followed him to his embarkation point at Ramsgate, and waited there until his return.

John and Mary's story, then (and William's, for their story would not be the same without his), is firmly rooted in their period and social surroundings. Had John not been an earl in late 18th century British aristocratic society, and had William not been one of Britain's most famous political figures, things would have been very different. As it was, researching them has allowed me to approach the familiar tale of Britain's struggle during the Napoleonic Wars from a different, and far more personal, angle.

Image attributions

The portrait of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, studio of John Hoppner, 1799, is courtesy of the Commando Forces Officers’ Mess, Royal Marines Barracks, Plymouth

The portrait of Mary, Countess of Chatham is ca. 1789, possibly by Edward Miles (private collection)

Earl of Shadows

Two brothers are locked in a life-long struggle to fulfil their destinies.

John and William are the elder and younger sons of 18th century political giant William Pitt. The father is a man of great principle and a great orator. Twice Prime Minister, he accepts the title Earl of Chatham in recognition of his services to the British nation. But his death on the floor of the House of Lords deals a devastating blow to the family.

Forced to forego his military career, John inherits the title and a debt-ridden estate. William inherits the gilded tongue that will make him the brilliant rising star. John sees the problem looming, but the little brother cannot succeed without the big brother’s support. At the most critical moment John runs away from his responsibilities and his brother. It proves to be a fatal mistake.

Can John ever make amends and find forgiveness? Or will he continue to hold onto a pain that has almost become part of himself? Can he escape the long shadow of destiny?

Earl of Shadows is a meticulously researched and moving account of sibling rivalry in a world of duty and honour at the heart of one of Britain’s most iconic political families. It brilliantly underlines the notion that history is about more than just the winners – that there is another, more human, story to tell.

'Absorbing, historically accurate portrayal of family conflict, soaring ambition, and redeeming love. An impressive fiction debut by a highly talented author.' -- Margaret Porter, bestselling author of 'A Pledge of Better Times'

Purchase link  

Read for FREE with

Jacqueline Reiter

Jacqueline Reiter has a PhD in late 18th century British history from Cambridge University. She has been researching the Pitt family for many years, focusing particularly on the life of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, whose nonfiction biography – The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (Pen and Sword, 2017) – she has also written. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research and she has a piece on Lady Chatham coming out soon in History Today. She is currently working on a chapter for the forthcoming Cambridge History of the Napoleonic Wars. Jacqueline lives in Cambridge with her husband and their two young children, both of whom probably believe Lord Chatham lives in their house.

Jacqueline loves to hear from readers, you can find her: Website  Twitter  Facebook  Goodreads

--> -->


  1. Thank you for having me, Mary Anne!

  2. Thank you for sharing John Pitts history. It must have been hard living in the shadow of his father and then being eclipsed by his younger brother must have really stung. Mary must have been made of some real strong stuff, and without modern medicine to help her. I am so glad you shared their story Jacqueline.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it, and I agree on both counts. I hope I've done justice to their story!

  3. John was certainly over shadowed by his brother. I have to be honest, I do not know anything about him, other than he was William's brother. As for his wife, what a remarkable woman. I shall look forward to learning more about him. Your book is on my ever growing 'to-read' list!

    1. I suspect I'm one of the first people to look into his life in any detail (he hasn't had the best historical reputation, which I think scares people off a bit). And Mary -- the more I read about her, the more I loved her.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx