Mary, Duchess of Norfolk, 1692-1754


With the death of Mary, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, on 17th September, 1754, the ancient family of Shireburn of Stonyhurst became extinct. For more than 500 years the Shireburns had counted themselves amongst the most wealthy and influential of the Lancashire gentry. They traced their ancestry to Robert of Shirebuen, who was granted the manor of Hambleton by one Geoffrey the Crossbowman, probably his uncle, in 1245. As the centuries passed they acquired extensive lands in both Lancashire and Yorkshire, including the manor of Aighton Bailey and Chaigley where their mansion house of Stonyhurst was situated. Despite the fact that they remained loyal to the Roman Catholic religion after the Reformation, and were, liable to the legal penalties imposed upon members of that religion, they managed to preserve their position of eminence to the end.

Many of the records of the Shireburn family were deposited in the Lancashire Record Office on 5th December, 1957 by Colonel J. W. Weld of Lulworth, Dorset, through the Dorset Record Office [this article was first published in the Lancashire Record Office annual report for 1965]. Some of the more interesting documents in this collection refer to the last of the family, Mary Shireburn, who became Duchess of Norfolk in 1709. A certain amount of correspondence, several interesting accounts, and a vast quantity of material relating to the administration of the estates has survived. The Duchess, moreover being the wife of one of the country’s leading peers, was close to the centre of affairs. The effect of the political intrigues of the early eighteenth century were to have far reaching effects upon both herself and her husband, effects illustrated by some of the documents.

The last male head of the Shireburn’s of Stonyhurst was the duchess of Norfolk’s father, Sir Nicholas Shireburn. He came into possession of the family estates upon the death of his elder brother Richard in 1690. Already Sir Nicholas had been created a baronet by James II in 1685 ; despite the fact that he was a younger son, he was a wealthy man, having married a Nothumbrian heiress, Catherine Charleton of Hesleyside. This marriage added estates in Northumberland to those already owned by Sir Nicholas in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Sir Nicholas and Lady Catherine had three children ; the eldest Isabel died as a child on 18th October, 1688 ; the second Mary Winifreda Francisca was born on 22nd November, 1692, and a son, Richard Francis on 3rd December, 1693. It seemed, therefore, that the inheritance would pass to the only son ; Unfortunately, this was not to be, for on 8th June, 1702, Richard Francis died, it is said as a result of eating poisonous berries in the gardens of Stonyhurst. The only surviving child, the daughter Mary, thus became sole heiress.

The upbringing of Mary Shireburn was doubtless a major influence on her future career. It was at this time she acquired her religious beliefs, her parents being devout Roman Catholics, as well as certain political ideas. Most of the Catholic families retained their loyalty to the deposed King James II, who was their co-religionist and who had attempted to relieve them of some of the irksome restrictions which the penal laws imposed on their private and public lives. There can be little doubt that the Shireburns shared this loyalty to the Stuart cause.

Unfortunately, the documents are almost completely silent as far as the childhood of the young heiress is concerned, Several letters, however, written to her by her father in 1708, whilst she was at Stonyhurst and he was settling affairs in Norhumberland, have survived. From these it is evident that she was fond of riding and hunting. On 18th July Sir Nicholas writes:

“ . . . I am glad you have so much sport in Buck Hunting, and you are welcome to Kill one when and as often as you please provided the slow Spaniard doe but Keep his Horses Heels Oute of your Way. I think you had best send for the Preston 3d. Coatch to Carry the Nobele Don A Hunting . . . .”

Unfortunately, the identity of the “slow Spaniard” is not explained. An amusing insight into the fifteen year old heiress’s character is provided by her father’s manner of addressing her, which is usually “Dear Minx.”

It was important, since she was a great heiress, that Mary Shireburn should make a good marriage. It is to be regretted that romance and sentiment played a very minor part in the marriages of the sons and daughters of the gentry. By means of a successful marriage alliance family fortunes could be preserved and even considerably improved; when two families came to a suitable arrangement the couple in question showed their sense of duty and filial obedience by assenting to the match. In the case of Mary Shireburn the bridegroom was no less a personage than Thomas Howard, eighth Duke of Norfolk and hereditary Earl Marshall of England.

The possibilities of this marriage were discussed as early as 1706, the bride-to-be then being only thirteen years old. Amongst the Portland Manuscripts (printed in the 4th Appendix to the 15th Report of the Historical Commission) is a letter written by Baron Robert Price addressed to Robert Harley and dated 13th September, 1706 referring to the possibility of such an alliance:

“The Duke of Norfolk is said to have a design upon Sir Nich. Sherborne’s of the North daughter and heir who is here also [i.e. at Bath] who has upwards of £3000 p/a and red-lettered. “ [i.e. a Roman Catholic].

This statement is followed by an amusing observation on the Duke:

“The Duke lives great both in table and equipage.”

The Duke had succeeded to his title in 1701 when his uncle died without issue; between this time and his marriage, he travelled widely in Europe, in 1703 being received in audience by the Pope.

The marriage duly took place on 26th May, 1709. Among the Shireburn papers is an interesting account which shews the cost of the wedding dinner and other meals during the celebrations. The cost of the dinner alone was no less than £60 18s. 6d. – a large sum in the early eighteenth century. Some of the individual items make amusing reading:

“for Turkey polts stewed with slice ham 00 18 00
for 2 Capons Stuft and Ragoo 00 9 00
for a Sr Line [sirloin] of beef allabrasse 00 10 00
4 small wild burds Larded 00 18 00
A Wild Rabbitt Larded 00 7 06
2 Dishes of Tartes Custids and Cakes 00 10 00
2 Dishes of Jelley and blamaing 00 18 00

The total cost of the dinner, supper and next day’s dinner was £128 15s. 2d, a sum which perhaps justified Baron Robert Price’s comment on the Duke’s dining habits quoted above!.

During the years immediately following the wedding the couple lived at the Duke’s famous residence, Arundel Castle in Sussex. Several bills and accounts among the Shireburn papers shew that Sir Nicholas and Lady Catherine paid a visit to the newly married couple in 1710. These, incidentally, illustrate that the guests paid for their own laundry.

Political events, however, were soon to intrude into the lives of the Duke and Duchess in the form of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715. Although the Duke and Duchess, unlike many people of similar social and religious standing, escaped implication in the rebellion, which was completely crushed by the government forces at Preston, it cannot have left them unaffected. The Duke’s brother, Edward Howard, played an active part and was captured, only the influence of Norfolk securing his release. Sir Nicholas Shireburrn was strongly suspected of aiding the rebels, although he seems to have escaped serious consequences. Among those taken at Preston were Lord Widdrington and his brothers Charles and Peregrine, distant relatives of the Duchess through her maternal grandmother.

Only two years after the rebellion, Sir Nicholas Shireburn died on 16th December, 1717; in his will, dated 9th August, 1717, he left Stonyhurst to his wife for her life with the reversion of that and his other estates to his daughter Mary, Duchess of Norfolk. A copy of the will is preserved among the family papers, together with an account of how the Duke of Norfolk paid all his father-in-law’s debts. The collapse of the rebellion meant further restrictions on Roman Catholics; an Act of Parliament of 1715 compelled all members of that religion to register their estates. Copies of the returns sent by the Duke and Duchess to the Clerks of the Peace at Preston and Wakefield for their Lancashire and Yorkshire estates respectively in 1718, have survived to demonstrate that even the mighty were not exempt from the Government’s penalties.

This fact was further demonstrated by the arrest of the Duke on 29th October,1722 on suspicion of high treason, after the discovery of a new Jacobite Plot against George I and his ministers. Despite strenuous opposition upon the part of several peers, the House of Lords consented to the detention of the Duke. Among the dissentient peers were the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Chester. A printed protest by those who had voted against Norfolk.s imprisonment exists among the Shireburn papers together with a number of letters written by and addressed to his Duchess, who spared no effort to secure his release. Whatever the government’s opinion, the Duke’s mother, Mary Howard of Worksop, had no doubt as to her son’s innocence. On 31st October, 1722 she wrote to her daughter-in-law that her only fears were that the Duke’s health might be damaged if his confinement was long and protracted. “I do fear nothing ells for I believe all he world is satisfied that he never did medle with state affairs” she writes. Many of the letters express concern at the strictness of the Duke’s confinement. On 8th December, 1722 the Duchess complains to her husband’s mother;- “ . . . I can not yet send you any comfortable newes in relation to my dear Lord Duke, he is yet strictly confined and tho’ I am still more and more satisfied that they have nothing against him yet I cannot so much as get leave to see him . . . “

The Duke was eventually released in May the following year, largely as a result of the influence of the Duke of Kingston to whom his wife had written several letters requesting assistance. It is believed, however, that this imprisonment in the Tower cooled any ardour which Norfolk may have possessed for the Jacobite cause. This is the usually accepted explanation for the disagreements which arose between himself and his wife, resulting in their mutual separation. The first mention of a separation among the Shireburn papers is in a deed of settlement dated 6th March, 1729-30 where the Duke allows certain plate and jewellery to his wife for life. The reason for the settlement is given as follows:-

“Unhappy Differences and Disputes having Airsen between the said Thomas, Duke of Norfolk and the said Mary Duchess of Norfolk his wife by means whereof they have agreed to a mutual separation from Bed and Board . . . “

This document also lists some of the jewellery and plate which the Duchess was to receive; this includes a round pearl necklace containing fifty pearls, a brilliant diamond locket ring, a service of plate for the table consisting of ten silver dishes with a soup dish and ladle, and a “Japan Buroe”

Two years after this settlement, on 23rd December, 1732, the Duke of Norfolk died in London aged 49. His death was preceded by a long and painful illness which puzzled his doctors. His widow did not long remain single. In the Gentleman’s Magazine of November 1732, a notice of her re-marriage to the Hon. Piercy Widdrington appeared. This was none other than the Peregrine Widdrington who, with his brothers , had been captured at the defeat of the Jacobite army at Preston in 1715. It is an interesting fact that no other record of this marriage has been traced; quite possibly the couple were married by a Roman Catholic priest which would explain the absence of an entry in a parish register. There is no doubt, however, that during the period between this date and his death, Peregrine Widdrington resided at the Duchess of Norfolk’s house in Arlington St., London. A number of letters addressed to him there exist among the Shireburn papers.

Thus the Duchess did not return to her family home at Stonyhurst to live permanently; instead she had a new house built in London in Arlington Street. The deeds relating to her purchase of land there in 1734, together with her agreement with a bricklayer, Thomas Michener of Holborn, and proposals for masons and carpenters work are to be found among her papers. It is interesting that the architect she employed was James Gibbs, who had already been responsible for several notable buildings, including St. Martins in the Fields, London. He seems to have shared his employer’s political views also. For he was dismissed from his post as surveyor to the Commissioners for Building Fifty New Churches in London for being a Tory and a Scot in 1715.

Thus the Duchess was an “absentee landlord” during this period. The administration of her estates was carried on by her bailiffs and stewards in the various manors. She was informed of developments by post; her correspondence with her steward and attorney at Stonyhurst, John and William Hathornthwaite, provides us with a record of her dealing with her tenants during the time in which she resided in London. They also kept a series of rentals and accounts which they despatched annually to Arlington Street.

The Duchess’s second husband died some twelve years after the marriage on 4th February, 1748-8, aged 55. His wife had him buried at her own expense in the Shireburn Chapel at Milton. She herself outlived him by a single decade, dying on 17th September, 1754 aged 61, at the house in Arlington Street. Under the terms of her will the estates which she had inherited from her father descended to her cousin Edward Weld of Lulworth, who was the grandson of her father’s sister Elizabeth. She requested her body to be buried in the Shireburn Chapel at Mitton, but ordered that to extravagant sums of money be spent on her funeral limiting her executors to a total of £300. In fact, the cost as estimated in a document quaintly entitled “A Comptotation of Her Grace’s Funeral” amounted to £343 7s. 7d. This document throws an interesting light on the funeral arrangements. The journey from London to Mitton is expected to take eight days, and the cost of two mourning coaches is calculated at £47 12s. Other interesting items are:

“To 8 Nights Taking out the Corps, hanging a Room, wax Lights and siting up with the Corps £10.0.0
To 8 Men on Horse back to attend the Corps the Journey £64.O.O
To Crape Hatbands and Gloves for the Coachman and Postillions £1.1.0”

This estimated expenditure is compared in the same document with that incurred at Peregrine Widdrington’s funeral, the total cost of which was £391 .13s. 11d.,evidently the executors observed the testator’s request for economy to some extent at least.

Among the records of the executorship of the Duchess’s estate are several useful documents, including copies of her will and even the receipt for the jewels and plate which, as we have seen, the duke of Norfolk granted her for life in 1729.This is signed by the ninth Duke of Norfolk, the previous Duke’s younger brother. Another interesting document is a schedule of the household effects at Stonyhurst. These are listed room by room, but, unfortunately, the cost of the goods is not estimated. The schedule does, however, give the modern reader an accurate impression of the furnishing of the great house in the year of the owner’s death. In the “great Dining room” for example, were the following articles:

“A Marble Table with Mahogany Frame, a Grate fixed a Picture Chimney screen, 12 Walnut Chairs black Leather Seats, a Mahogany Dressing Chair Matted seat, an Eight Leaf Leather Screen, a Fruit Piece in gilt Frame, blue Paper Hanging, 6 suits of Window Curtains, Blue Stuff Valance and Rods,”


The great mansion of Stonyhurst remained in the hands of Edward Weld and his sons Edward and Thomas, until 1794; in which year Thomas leased the buildings and grounds adjoining to the Society of Jesus, who established there the famous public school. Nearby, in the Shireburn chapel of Mitton church the modern visitor may inspect the monuments which the Duchess erected in memory of her parents and second husband, Peregrine Widdrington. Here she herself lies buried near the remains of her ancestors, many of whom had played so prominent a part in the history of Lancashire.

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