Although the idea of millionaire heiresses might conjure up visions of care-free party girls drenched in champagne, the truth of some of history’s wealthiest debutantes is often more tragic than glamorous.
From a 12-year-old child bride who inherited modern day Mayfair and Belgravia to a woman whose cruel marriage led to her dying of a broken heart, the lives of heiresses from the 17th century onwards have been explored in a new book.
Written by journalist and biographer Laura Thompson, who has penned ritically acclaimed books on Agatha Christie, Nanacy Mitford and Lord Lucan, Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies reveals ill-fated women who faced a constant battle to control their own lives.
Frequently finding themselves the target of men eager to secure their vast fortunes, women were married off as young as six, while others had to be taken abroad to avoid kidnap.
Another had to send her own children away because her debt-ridden ex-husband was constantly trying to snatch them for ransom, and it’s suspected that he may even have murdered her in the end to get his hands on a £50,000 inheritance.
Here Femail takes a look at the scandalous goings-on that shaped their lives…
Drugged by a priest who illegally married her to his brother
Mary Davies was born in London in 1665, the year the Great Plague began to sweep across England, to parents Alexander Davis and Mary Tregonwell
Mary was born in London in 1665, the year the Great Plague began to sweep across England, to parents Alexander Davis and Mary Tregonwell.
Her great-uncle Hugh Audley had made his fortune during the Civil War, a lawyer who profited off of lending money to both sides. He owned land all over England, but is greatest asset was Ebury Manor.
Upon his death he had no children, and had decided to leave his fortune to his great-nephews Thomas and Alexander Davies. When Alexander died of the plague in 1665, his fortune was left to his only child – six-month-old Mary.
She would become heiress to some of the most valuable land in the world with the manor bordering what is now Bayswater Road and Oxford Street, and the River Thames.
Men with a taste for money: How men bartered with juvenile heiresses for wealth and status
Margaret Beaufort, heiress to the fortune of the 1st Duke of Somerset, was married aged six in 1450 to the son of her guardian, who was keen to get his hands on her money.
The marriage was annulled and five years later Henry VI married her off to his half-brother Edmund Tudor.
A year later she was the widowed mother of the future King Henry VII at twelve-years-old.
The minimum age of sixteen was not enforced in law until 1929.
Elizabeth Percy, the only child of the 11th Earl of Northumberland was married to a son of the Duke of Newcastle at 12.
When she was widowed two years later, aged fourteen, she married the MP Thomas Thynne.
By 15, Thynne had been murdered Swedish count who had taken an interest in the Percy fortune.
Elizabeth Malet was fourteen when she was abducted by the Earl of Rochester 1665.
While his initial attempt was unsuccessful, two years later, this time with Elizabeth’s consent, the couple married in a ‘clandestine’ ceremony at Knightsbridge Chapel .
The revised Marriage Act of 1823 specified that a man who married a minor under 21 without consent would have no access to her money.
With an appetite for heiress brides among the gentry, Mary was sent to France to evade kidnap, but by the age of seven her ambitions mother was displaying her to potential buyers in Hyde Park.
The minimum marriage age of sixteen was not enforced in law until 1929 and so by the age of 12, Mary was married at the church of St Clement Danes in the Strand, to Sir Thomas Grosvenor.
Grosvenor was a Cheshire landowner who was nine years her senior and he paid £9,000 to marry her, while her dowry was the 1000-acre Manor of Ebury
She was not obliged to live with Grosvenor, who would later become an MP and the local mayor, at his home at Eaton in Cheshire until the age of 15. Mary spent twenty years with her husband and gave birth to eight children.
Forty years of political upset ended when Catholic James II was sent into exile and replaced by William III after the Glorious Revolution of November 1688 – but the deposed king still had many English supporters.
Among them was Lady Mary, who became a convert to Roman Catholicism, while her husband remained anti-popish and loyal to the new king.
Grosvenor died at the age of forty in 1700 while Mary was pregnant with her last child, and the heiress was said to be lost without him.
The day before his funeral she met Father Lodowick Fenwick – a Benedictine monk who convinced her to travel around Europe with himself and his sister.
After sharing her new friendship with the trustees of her inheritance, among them her mother, they attempted to seize her money, her children and have her committed to an asylum due to her Jacobean beliefs.
They were unsuccessful and Mary soon made her way to Paris, where she took several suitors -including Fenwick’s brother Edward – before travelling to Italy for the Papal Jubilee with the chaplain.
When the pair returned to the Hotel Castile in Paris, Father Fenwick arranged a courtship between Edward and Mary.
‘It is obvious that from day one the Fenwicks had a well-worked plot to ensnare this woman’, writes Thompson. ‘The priest played his careful part, and set the scene for the sexy brother.’
Soon after her move back to France, Mary fell ill with a mysterious condition and while Thompson suggests her initial illness was genuine, it was used by the Fenwicks to ensnare her in their duplicitous plot.
They hired a doctor to administer Mary with emetics suitable ‘for a horse’, drugged with laudanum which had been sprinkled over her food and repeatedly bled with leeches.
After waking up from an unconscious state, Mary was informed that she and Edward had been married by Father Fenwick – but that she simply couldn’t remember the ceremony taking place.
Incredibly, Mary was able to contact her mother in England and flee to her home in Millbank – but soon Fenwick turned up, claiming she was insane, and demanding the rights to her properties and £30,000.
A two year court case in which Mary tried to prove she had not willingly married Edward ensued.
The Spiritual Court of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster soon pronounced their marriage a sham, but a retrial in 1703 saw a jury at Westminster Hall rule in Fenwick’s favour.
Despite his win, Edward never claimed his land or money and a year later, the ruling was overturned and the marriage annulled on grounds that Mary had been ‘of unsound mind’ at the time of the wedding.
While her mother once again tried to regain custody of Mary, Thomas Grosvenor’s sons stepped in and Mary was cared for by Grosvenor’s family until her death in 1730.
Seven years before her death, Grosvenor Square was laid out on Mary’s land while some of her fields would be the area surrounding Buckingham Palace and others dotted around Hyde park.
‘Queen of the poor’ who housed prostitutes with Charles Dickens
Baroness Burdett-Coutts was born in 1814 to Sir Francis Burdett, a politician and Sophia Coutts – whose father Thomas founded the prestigious London bank of the same name
Baroness Burdett-Coutts was born in 1814 to Sir Francis Burdett, a politician and Sophia Coutts – whose father Thomas founded the prestigious London bank of the same name.
Thomas had three daughters with his wife Elizabeth and when he died in 1822 the banker left his fortune to his second wife Harriet Mellon – an actress he wed at the age of 80 who was 40 years his junior.
She was left instructions to distribute it to the family member she felt was most worthy, and after 15 years she chose his granddaughter, Angela.
Her father, Sir Francis, was a liberal politician who gained fame as an advocate of universal suffrage and he had insisted that all of his five daughter receive an education.
Harriet’s decision was swayed by Angela’s ‘modest demeanour, fitting to the Victorian-female ideal’ and she was given her £1.8 million fortune at the age of 23 in August 1837. She was also entitled to half of the shares in the Coutts banking house.
Also inheriting Thomas’ home in Stratton Street, Angela became one of the richest women in Europe and was thought to be the wealthiest heiress in England.
Due to her new found riches the heiress was overwhelmed with letters from eager suitors, so much so that she and her governess Hannah Meredith had to come up with a signal to end the meeting when a bachelor proposed.
Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies, by Laura Thompson, explores ill-fated women who suffered kidnap, forced marriages, and the threat of confinement in an asylum
She was even stalked for two years by Richard Dunn, a bankrupt Irish barrister desperate to get his hands on her fortune.
But there was one man who caught her eye, the Duke of Wellington – whom she proposed to at the age of 33 when he was seventy-eight, however he declined, certain that he was too old for her.
Her life’s work began when she met Charles Dickens, soon after she inherited her fortune. He was one of many high profile guests who visited Angela, including Queen Victoria.
While their relationship was never romantic, the pair shared an intimate friendship, and Angela was the author’s inspiration for the character Agnes Wickfield in David Copperfield.
One of her first endeavours was offering sizeable donations to the ‘Ragged Schools’, a project started in 1818 by a Portsmouth shoemaker to educate the very poorest children.
In 1846, she and Dickens came up with the idea for a home for prostitutes in Shepherd’s Bush, which opened a year later as Urania Cottage, after Angela noticed sex workers pacing from Piccadilly to Green Park from her bedroom window.
In order to protect her reputation, Angela donated the money to fund the home under the pseudonym ‘Lady Unknown’. The home managed to rehabilitate thirty women of the 56 who had passed through their doors by 1853.
‘How remarkable she was. It was a singularly rare Victorian woman who actually looked upon prostitutes, who did not turn her head away, or close the curtains, or tell herself that if their existence was not acknowledged then they did not exist’, writes Thompson.
Other projects of the heiress include donating resources to Florence Nightingale in the Crimea as well as financing a new development for the poor called Columbia Square in Bethnal Green.
She set up sewing schools and financed silk weavers in Spitalfields and when the cholera epidemic of 1867 hit, arranged for an aid programme of £20,000 for victims.
Angela eventually became President of the Ladies’ Committee of the RSPCA and gave financial support to explorer David Livingstone’s 1858 Zambezi expedition.
Since the early 1860s, her relationship with Dickens became more distant, but before his death in 1870, the author travelled to Paris where he gave a not to Hannah Browne saying that he ‘lived over again the years that lie behind us’.
In 1871, Angela – who was hailed ‘the Queen of the Poor’ by her fans – became one the first women to be made a Baroness ‘in her own right’ before becoming the first female Freeman a year later.
Nine years later, at the age of 66, Angela finally announced to her engagement – to a 29-year-old actor called William Ashmead Bartlett.
Her friend Queen Victoria was said to have proclaimed that ‘Lady Burdett really must be crazy’, later writing in her journal: ‘That poor foolish old woman Lady Burdett-Coutts was presented on her marriage with Mr Bartlett forty years younger than herself.
‘She looked like his grandmother and was all decked out with jewels – not edifying!’
Her husband, who later became Tory MP for Westminster, remained married to Angela until her death in 1906 and continued working to support her causes.
CATHERINE TYLNEY LONG
The devoted wife whose cruel husband tormented her
Catherine Tylney Long, born in 1789, was a ‘bright and savvy’ new money heiress whose vast fortune came from trade
Catherine Tylney Long, born in 1789, was a ‘bright and savvy’ new money heiress whose vast fortune came from trade.
Hailed the ‘Regency It Girl’, Catherine inherited her money at just 16 and would have had accumulated a ‘Kardashian-level following on Instagram’ had she been born today.
She was the daughter of James Tylney-Long and Lady Catherine Sydney Windsor and resided at Wanstead, her property in Essex, which would become the subject of a cartoon titled Worshippers at Wanstead depicting her hoards of fans.
When Sir James’ only son died in 1805, Catherine inherited his fortune and estate, which comprised of the £360,000 Palladian mansion, Draycot House in Wiltshire, thousands of acres over various counties and at least £40,000 a year.
After moving to Mayfair to learn the ways of a society lady, she attended a party held by the future George IV where she met the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV. He was besotted with Catherine.
While Lady Windsor was thrilled at the prospect of the Duke’s proposal, the handsome and badly behaved William Wellesley Pole, son of the 3rd Earl of Mornington, caught her eye instead.
Described as ‘immensely sexy and well travelled’, Catherine fell instantly for Pole – who had already lived with a seamstress in Ipswich and had racked up debt gambling and drinking.
Ignoring advice from her mother and sister, Catherine married Pole at the age of 23 at St James’s, Piccadilly in 1812.
‘His sexual prowess was the stuff of excitable gossip’, writes Thompson. ‘To be frank about it, the most likely explanation for Catherine’s decision to marry him is that they had slept together – she was rumoured to have sneaked him into Draycot, the Wiltshire family home – and that she became unwilling to relinquish this beguiling new experience.’
The marriage came with a prenup and Pole, who soon became an MP, was entitled to his wife’s property and her earnings – including Wanstead House.
But the relationship turned sour quickly, with Pole denying Catherine’s sister of the £15,000 each left to them in their fathers will and soon becoming ‘more careless of his wife’s feelings’.
He was soon spending vast amounts on clothes and renovating the house and asked for additional money from his wife’s own protected income, which she agreed to.
The couple had a son in 1813, and while Catherine was thrilled about her baby, her husband described the newborn as an ‘ugly little wretch’.
By his mid 30s, Pole began to ‘despise’ her and boasted that he had slept with ‘a thousand and three women’ and in 1815, asked Catherine to sign a will leaving him £50,000 if she died in childbirth.
In 1818 she learned that Pole had a secret love child, who was born around the time as her own baby, and she agreed to pay her husband’s mistress £500 a year to leave England for France with her child.
But very soon the mistress returned and continued her affair with Pole, meanwhile his spending had spiralled out of control – with Catherine’s husband spending £300,000 in 1818-20.
As his debts stacked up, Pole escaped prosecution because he was an MP – but when he retired in 1820, he was declared bankrupt and fled to France where he sold more of Catherine’s assets to try and pay what he owed.
Despite all this – Catherine was still in love with Pole and travelled to Paris with their three children.
Public opinion was largely in favour of Catherine, with those who attended an auction at Wanstead declaring Pole a husband who had ‘in some dozen years only, dissipated the accumulated riches of ages, without dignity, and sunk into comparative poverty, without pity’.
Ultimately, Wanstead was demolished so Pole could sell the bricks and timber to clear his debts while Catherine’s home in Tylney Park in Hampshire was also sold off.
Soon the couple moved to Italy, where Pole decided to ditch his original mistress and embark on a relationship with his married cousin Helena Bligh.
When she fell pregnant and had an abortion Bligh left her husband for Catherine’s husband, writing to his wife to tell her about their relationship.
Somehow – Pole convinced Catherine that Bligh had fled a cruel marriage and suggested that the two women become friends, which they did temporarily, travelling as a trio to Florence.
When the truth was out, Catherine demanded Bligh leave their hotel – but soon she would return to join the couple in Paris.
A devastated Catherine eventually wrote to her father-in-law, insisting: ‘My dear Lord, this must end… I have borne it till I can bear it no longer. There is a point where submission becomes a weakness, and resistance is felt a duty. I have reached it…’
Pole reacted by calling Catherine a ‘damned bitch’ and accused her of turning his parents against him.
As Catherine’s health declined, Pole began to ‘use the children as weapons’ and she eventually returned to Britain with her kids under the condition she paid her husband £4,000 a year.
Her solicitors told Catherine to seek a divorce and reclaim what was left of her assets while Pole returned to England with his cousin, who was now pregnant with his baby.
The last year of the heiresses life was ‘quite ghastly’, spent attempting to escape Pole who would break into her home trying to abduct her children – eventually having to move them from her care for their protection.
In September 1825, she visited her children one last time at her home in Richmond, where she was being cared for by her sister. She died the following day, aged thirty-six.
‘The cause, according to her doctor, was the broken heart cited by Catherine herself (or, more prosaically, the cumulation of years of anguish)’, writes Thompson. ‘However: given that Pole believed he would inherit £50,000 on her death, murder has to be a possibility. Catherine’s weakened state and stomach cramps are certainly compatible with poisoning.’
Shortly after Catherine’s death, for the first time in legal history, a father was deprived of his children on the grounds of unfitness and Catherine’s kids became Wards in Chancery and were cared for by their aunts.
The young heiress abducted and married for her fortune
Ellen Turner was the child of William Turner, a wealthy mill owner in Chester, Ellen held the title of ‘the richest heiress in the kingdom’
At just 15, Ellen Turner was one of the most eligible heiresses of the 19th century.
The child of William Turner, a wealthy mill owner in Chester, Ellen held the title of ‘the richest heiress in the kingdom’ and was a prime target for kidnappers – so much so that her father placed her in a private Christian boarding school in Liverpool.
In 1826, she would be lured out of the school by thirty-year-old Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a clever and ambitious lawyer who was extremely keen to bag an heiress bride.
With the help of his brother William and their young stepmother Frances Davis, the brothers came up with a plan to get their hands on Ellen’s vast fortune.
Initially, Frances came up with the idea of courting Ellen and marrying her legally, but gradually decided that it would be easier to kidnap her and force her into wedding Edward.
Frances lived nearby to Ellen’s father, and after learning her whereabouts, prepared the Wakefield brothers to carry out their kidnapping.
In March, a letter was delivered to Ellen’s school telling her that her mother had fallen very ill and she should travel home in the carriage that would be waiting for her outside.
Despite noticing that the servant driving the carriage wasn’t her father’s, Ellen went with her kidnappers and was taken to a hotel in Manchester and told that her father had fallen into great debt and needed to escape his lenders.
He said that his own uncle was among those who lent William Turner money and that Ellen’s father had come up with a plan to absolve himself of debt by marrying his daughter.
According to The Times, he told her ‘it now remained for her to determine whether she would accede, or her papa would be turned out of doors!’.
Desperate to save her father, Ellen agreed to travel with the brothers to Gretna Green where they were married, shortly moving Ellen to Calais telling her he had an ‘urgent appointment’.
William was informed by the school that his daughter was missing, but had no idea what had happened until receiving a letter from Wakefield a few days later telling him Ellen was married.
After eight days missing, Ellen’s relations arrived in Calais, where they battled with Wakefield to see their daughter – who he said was in love with him and had been a willing participant in the marriage.
William’s solicitor delighted Ellen by informing her that the marriage was not legal, and Ellen managed to flee France for England in the safe hands of her family. But Wakefield didn’t go down without a fight.
His trial garnered huge public attention, and Wakefield was still fighting to clear his name, insisting that their feelings had been mutual.
After managing to get his trial delayed, he pretended to be a heartbroken lover, sending Ellen books, portraits and love poems to convince the jury that she was once in love with him too.
In March 1827, the trial went ahead with Ellen giving powerful testimony about th lies that had led her to wed Edward. After just twenty minutes of discussion the jury found him guilty and sentenced to three years in jail.
Despite his conviction, Wakefield went on to have an impressive political career in Canada and New Zealand. He died in 1862.
Ellen married one of her prosecution team, Thomas Legh but died in childbirth aged 19.
Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies by Laura Thompson, Apollo, is available for £25