The Life of Viscount Mordaunt of Avalon

In our book, An Infamous Mistress: The Life Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott, we uncover Grace’s maternal family for the first time and reveal that her aunt was the Countess of Peterborough. Robinaiana Brown was, for many years, the mistress of Charles Mordaunt, 4th Earl of Peterborough (and 2nd Earl of Monmouth): he could not marry her for he already had a wife. When that wife died he married Robinaiana with indecent haste, anxious that the child she was carrying could be born legitimate.

The 4th Earl of Peterborough was not the only member of his family to have marital misadventures, for three successive generations of the House of Mordaunt made irregular marriages. We’re going to slip in to the end of the reign of Queen Anne to have a look at the 4th earl’s father, John, wonderfully titled the Viscount Mordaunt of Avalon in the county of Somerset (c.1681-1710), who, like his own father Charles Mordaunt (1658-1735), the ‘celebrated’ 3rd Earl of Peterborough (and 1st Earl of Monmouth), was a noted military commander.

Charles Mordaunt, 3rd Earl of Peterborough (1658-1735) by Charles Jervas (c.1675-1739). Burghley House Collections.
Charles Mordaunt, 3rd Earl of Peterborough (1658-1735) by Charles Jervas (c.1675-1739). Burghley House Collections.

John was a Colonel in the army, fighting bravely with the Duke of Marlborough’s forces: a wound received during the Battle of Blenheim (August 1704) caused him to lose his left arm.   He also followed the example of his father when it came to matters of matrimony. The 3rd Earl of Peterborough had eloped with John’s mother, Carey Fraser and initially kept the marriage secret. (Carey Fraser the daughter of Sir Alexander Fraser was, by her mother, a descendant of Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne, as was the 3rd earl’s mother, Elizabeth Carey.)[i]

The Battle of Blenheim, 13 August 1704 by John Ross.
The Battle of Blenheim, 13 August 1704 by John Ross. Government Art Collection.

Following John’s rejection (in 1703) as a suitor for the hand the Duke of Marlborough’s daughter, Mary, the duke wrote:

I have heard that he is what they call a rascal, which can never make a good husband.

In 1705 history repeated itself and John Mordaunt eloped with Lady Frances, daughter of Charles Powlett, 2nd Duke of Bolton. His parents, despite their own elopement, disapproved. Lady Frances might have been the daughter of a duke but she had brought no money to the marriage and there were no expectations of a later settlement from her father. John’s mother was especially displeased, writing to Lord Shaftesbury that her son’s:

unhappy marriage had shown the deepest ‘ingratitude’: ‘O that Heaven had left him no hand to dispose of!

Their marriage has not yet been discovered and possibly it was conducted abroad, for Lord Mordaunt was neglecting his military duties in 1706 to attend to ‘his lady, who is at Ghent’.

Scene in a Bedchamber; British School, c.1700; V&A.
Scene in a Bedchamber; British School, c.1700; V&A.

By April 1708 Lord Mordaunt and his regiment were quartered in York. As well as his military career he had also entered the political arena, but now he stood down. The parish register of St Mary Bishophill Senior in York contains the baptism entry, on 19th Oct 1708, of Charles, son of Lord Mordon [sic] and on 16th Dec 1709 the baptism of John, son of the same. John, Lord Mordaunt and his wife Frances were living at Middlethorpe Hall at the time, a beautiful William and Mary country house located about two miles from York city centre, built in 1699 for Thomas Barlow, a master cutler from Sheffield.[ii] We have a brief description of the Hall dating from 1702 recorded in the diary of the Yorkshire antiquarian Ralph Thoresby:

17th September 1702. ‘Received a visit from Mr. Barlow, of Middlethorp, near York, which very curious house he built after the Italian mode he had observed in his travels to Rome…

As the Barlow’s retained custody of the hall well into the latter years of the eighteenth-century, the Mordaunt’s were temporarily renting the residence. (Following the Mordaunts’ residence there, in 1712 Thomas Barlow embarked upon the Grand Tour with his son Francis and the hall was let to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.)

Middlethorpe Hall
Middlethorpe Hall. © Copyright J Thomas and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

By September 1709 the disagreement between the 3rd Earl of Peterborough and his eldest son over the elopement was at an end. For the earl was also staying at Middlethorpe Hall; he wrote to the Duke of Marlborough from there, congratulating him on his recent military success in France in taking the fortress of Tournai. Possibly the birth of John’s son and heir had mended the rift?

Sept. 12th, 1709

I received the late agreeable news at my Lord Mordaunt’s house in Yorkshire, where Lord Huntley had brought his wife to see me… I congratulate your Grace the more upon this occasion, because it seems by the account we have received that the enemies never fought so well; the vigorous resistance added a grace to your victory and will make their submission less shameful. Upon Lake’s death, I desired Lord Mordaunt to make all possible haste to his regiment.

A year later all turned to tragedy. Smallpox was a dreaded disease at the time, with no class distinctions, striking down the wealthy in just the same way as the poor. It must have been particularly virulent that year as both John, Viscount Mordaunt, and his younger brother Henry (a naval officer) succumbed to the disease. By the middle of April, both brothers had been consigned to their eternal rest inside the family vault at their estate of Turvey in Bedfordshire.[iii]

On Thursday last, the Lord Mordaunt, only Son to the Right Hon. the Earl of Peterborough and Colonel of the Scotch Fuziliers, died of the Small-Pox, at Winchester, much lamented; he has left behind him two Sons.

John died intestate and administration of his effects was granted to a creditor in August 1711. Regardless of the fact that his ancestors lay buried there, many years later Charles, 5th Earl of Peterborough and 3rd Earl of Monmouth sold Turvey to cover costs following a Criminal Conversation case after Lord Foley discovered him in flagrante delicto with Lady Foley in a shrubbery.

Lord Peterborough and Lady Foley ' in flagrante delicto'.
Lord Peterborough and Lady Foley ‘ in flagrante delicto’.

The 5th Earl was Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s cousin – who knew that she was not the only member of her family to appear in a Criminal Conversation trial! But, for more information on Grace and her family you’ll have to read our book, An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott. Currently, and for a limited time, it is available at the bargain price of just £4.99 as an eBook (Kindle and ePub) direct from Pen and Sword.

An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden.



[i] The 3rd Earl of Peterborough married, secondly, the opera singer Anastasia Robinson – and that marriage was kept secret for many years, publicly acknowledged only months before the earl’s death.

[ii] Viscount Mordaunt died intestate; his probate confirms the place of his death and says he was ‘of Middlethorpe.’

[iii] Henry Mordaunt died on the 24th February 1710 at Bath (and was buried on the 1st March). Just over a month after his brother’s burial, John, Lord Mordaunt, also succumbed to the same disease, dying at Winchester on 5th April and joining his brother in the family vault on 13th April 1710.