In our earlier blog, looking at entertainments in Regency London, it was remarked that the Marchioness of Salisbury was unusual in opening her house to guests upon a Sunday. She always held a musical conversazione upon that day during the London season, attended by those of high rank and the best musicians.
Mary Amelia Hill (known as Emily Mary) was born in 1750, the daughter of Wills Hill, 2nd Viscount Hillsborough (later 1st Earl of Hillsborough and 1st Marquess of Downshire). In 1773 she married James Cecil, Viscount Cranborn of Hatfield House, Hertfordshire. Her new husband was the only son and heir of the 6th Earl of Salisbury and, just seven years after their marriage, James became the 7th earl and Emily Mary his countess (the couple were later elevated in the peerage to the 1st Marquess and Marchioness of Salisbury). Lady Salisbury was known as a prominent political hostess (a Tory and a fervent supporter of the monarchy) and was also a keen and talented sportswoman. It is perhaps unkind to describe her as eccentric, but she certainly paid little heed to many conventional norms as she determinedly walked her own path.
Lady Salisbury was seen as the political opposite to the Whig supporting Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and noted as a model female canvasser.
Her proceedings have been marked with such delicacy and dignity, as to shame the mobbing conduct of her rivals.
A trendsetter rather than a follower, Lady Salisbury was often to be seen in clothes of her own design and she rode enthusiastically to hounds well into her dotage, dressed in a sky blue riding habit with black collar and cuffs, a hunting cap on her head. Her slight frame belied her strength and she had an almost limitless energy. She took over the ownership of the Hertfordshire hounds in 1793 when her husband was forced by ill-health to resign his mastership and moved the kennels lock, stock and barrel to Hatfield House; they were subsequently known as the Hatfield hounds.
Archery was another of Lady Salisbury’s passions and she was also a talented artist.
Described as pretty, witty, intelligent and outspoken, she was married – reasonably happily it would seem – for thirteen years before having four children in quick succession, Georgiana Charlotte Augusta (1786), Emily (1789), James Brownlow William (1792) and Caroline (1793). Sadly, the youngest, Caroline, died in childhood and Lady Salisbury was widowed in 1823.
As the years passed and, well into her 70s, Lady Salisbury continued to run rings around people half her age; she was affectionately known as ‘Old Sally’. Even when her eyesight was failing and she had to be tied into her saddle, she still rode with the hunt.
The manner of Old Sally’s death was just as unconventional as her life had been. She had remained at Hatfield House after her husband’s death, living with her son, his wife and her grandchildren in her own apartments consisting of two suites of rooms. At 6 o’clock on the evening of the 27th November 1835, Lady Salisbury, after dressing for dinner, sat down at her writing desk. It is thought that some item of her clothing, perhaps the feathers she was wearing in her hair, caught alight from the three candles burning beside her but, whatever the cause, an intense fire broke out in her suite. By the time it was discovered (by a needlewoman named Brown who noticed the passageway was full of smoke), the room in which Lady Salisbury had been sitting was a mass of flames and so densely filled with smoke that it was impossible for anyone to enter.
A female servant, and one of old Lady Salisbury’s men-servants, attempted to do so; but the man fell down stupefied by the smoke, as soon as he had crossed the threshold, and was with difficulty saved. It appears certain that the fire must have commenced about twenty minutes before it was discovered; and the apartments being all wainscoted, its progress was terrifically rapid. No vestige of the Marchioness was discovered by any one; nor was a sound heard by those who first approached the room, except the moaning of an old favourite dog who was shut up with her.
Lord Salisbury arrived on the scene and had to be forcibly held back from attempts to rush into the flames and save his mother. The west wing of Hatfield House was destroyed and all that remained of the dowager marchioness were a few fragments of bone.
Spectator, 5th December 1835
Cecil [née Hill], Mary Amelia [Emily Mary], marchioness of Salisbury by E H Chalus, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Tales of English Eccentrics, Tony Grumley-Grennan