The Ponsonbys of Bishopscourt, Co Kildare, and Bessborough, Co Kilkenny, were a family of staunch protestant Whigs descended from Sir John Ponsonby, a cavalry officer from Cumberland who was appointed by Cromwell to make a record of all atrocities committed on Protestants during the 1641-49 Rebellion. He was awarded an estate in Kilkenny at Kildalton which he renamed Bessborough after his wife Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Folliott.
Sir John Ponsonby’s second son William served with the Williamite army at the Siege of Derry. Elected MP for Kilkenny City in 1692, Sir William retained the seat for nearly thirty years when, in 1721, he was elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Bessborough. Two years later, he became Viscount Duncanon.[i]
Upon his death in 1724, Sir William was succeeded as 2nd Viscount by his eldest son, Brabazon Ponsonby (1679-1758) who had secured a wealthy heiress as his bride in 1703. The 2nd Viscount played an ingenious hand when he threw his lot in with the 3rd Duke of Devonshire, the rising star of British Whig politics. When the Duke began his seven year tenure as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1737, the 2nd Viscount convinced him to take his son William Ponsonby on as Private Secretary. In 1739, William married the Duke’s 20-year-old daughter, Lady Caroline Cavendish. That same year, the 2nd Viscount superseded Lord Shannon to become Commissioner of the Revenue and was further elevated to the Earldom of Bessborough. In 1743, the Earl’s ambitious younger son John ‘Speaker’ Ponsonby married another of the Devonshire daughters, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish.
By 1745, the Earl of Bessborough was a happy man. He had a secure seat in the Irish House of Lords and his family would retain control of the Revenue Board until Lord Townsend's dismissal of Speaker Ponsonby as First Commissioner of the Revenue in 1770.[ii] His second son John (later the Speaker) further earned the trust of the government when he raised four companies of horse for service against the Jacobite rebels in Scotland in 1745. John was appointed to the Privy Council of Ireland the following year and quickly began to consolidate the foundations laid by his father to make the Ponsonbys one of the principal parliamentary families in 18th century Ireland.
But, if Speaker Boyle was already wary of the Ponsonbys, his heckles were considerably raised when, in 1748, the Duke of Devonshire 's heir (the Marquess of Hartington) married the ailing Earl of Burlington's heiress. On one hand, this bode well as the Duchess-in-waiting was the Speaker’s niece. On the other hand, the Duke-in-waiting was a brother-in-law of not one but two of the dastardly Ponsonby boys. Moreover, it meant that Lord Burlington’s sister (aka Speaker Boyle’s wife) would no longer succeed to any of the fortune. Sure enough, when Lord Burlington died in 1753, Lady Hartington (the future Duchess) secured the whole shebang, including Lismore Castle in Waterford and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.[iii]
The Ponsonbys were dog-like in their bid to bring down the Boyles, pushing for control of Cork City itself and angling for control of all the old Burlington boroughs. [iv] But they had no real power at constituency level, owning just one seat in their native Kilkenny plus control of the borough of Newtonards, Co Down, which they acquired amid much notoriety in 1744. Their political influence rested almost entirely on connections and borrowed strength - and it was always to do so. The pendulum swung Boyle’s way in 1751 when the Ponsonbys unsuccessfully challenged Speaker Boyle at a bye-election in Cork City.[v] But by April 1755 it was back with the Ponsonbys when their brother-in-law, Lord Hartington, became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Hartington succeeded his father as Duke of Devonshire in December 1755 and, the following year, replaced the Duke of Newcastle to become Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland.
The Duke of Devonshire had no time for the Ponsonby-Boyle vendetta. The achievement of peace in 1756 involved protracted negotiations after which Boyle stepped down as Speaker on condition that he be elevated through three ranks of the Peerage to the Earldom of Shannon. He was further granted an annual pension of £2,000 for 31 years, payable by the Crown. His son was appointed Master-General of the Ordnance, for which one disgruntled contemporary felt he was 'as fit ...as the Primate or one of his own daughters'.
Lord Bessborough’s second son, John Ponsonby, was duly appointed Speaker with a hefty annual salary of £4,000. He simultaneously became an ‘undertaker’ for the government by which he controversially undertook to manage the business of government in the Irish Parliament in the absence of the Lord Lieutenant. This gave him power to appoint people to high offices, as well as act as Lord Justice, and do anything he deemed necessary to bring about a government majority when bills needed to be passed.
Upon the death of the 1st Earl of Bessborough in 1758, the Speaker’s elder brother William Ponsonby (1704-93) succeeded as 2nd Earl. He had been MP for Kilkenny since 1727 and served variously as Lord of the Treasury, Lord of the Admiralty and as Joint Postmaster General. But his principle interests were collecting art and seducing women (including George II’s daughter, Princess Amelia). He and his son were largely absentee landlords but they would continue to exert considerable political influence throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The 3rd Earl’s daughter Caroline married future Prime Minister Lord Melbourne and enjoyed a very public affair with Lord Byron.[vi] The 4th Earl served as First Commissioner of Woods and Forests, as Home Secretary, as Lord Privy Seal and as First Lord of the Admiralty. He was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland when the Famine broke but died, a day after his friend Daniel O’Connell in May 1847. The 9th Earl of Bessborough was Governor General of Canada from 1931-35. The 10th Earl was a Minister of State in Ted Heath’s cabinet. The 12th and present Earl lives in Hampshire. The family seat of Bessborough in Co Kilkenny was burned in 1922.
The Ponsonby, Boyle and Devonshire dynasties were further united by a political marriage of 1763 when Richard Boyle (Lord Shannon’s son and heir) married Speaker Ponsonby’s daughter Catherine. The following year, Richard succeeded as 2nd Earl of Shannon. An uneasy alliance between the two families duly ensued although Lord Shannon and his father-in-law continued to disagree and bicker in private. The castle noted that, though their families were married, the two men 'do not consult or act together politically'.
In a letter to Anthony Foster from 15 August 1765, Speaker Ponsonby expressed himself with characteristic indiscretion: 'What matters it to us who are Ministers in England? Let us stick to our own circle and manage our own little game as well as we can'. But the Speaker underestimated the charismatic Lord Townshend who became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1767. In 1770, both the Ponsonby and Boyle dynasties took a serious blow when Lord Townshend dismissed Speaker Ponsonby from his lucrative position as Commissioner of the Revenue, and dismissed Lord Shannon from his post as Master-General of the Ordnance. In a state of panic, Ponsonby resigned as Speaker and so lost any remaining influence he might have had. He spent the remainder of his life trying, in vain, to be reelected. His honest but indolent son Billy (aka Lord Shannon's brother-in-law William Brabazon Ponsonby) tried to follow in his father’s footsteps but lost his way entirely, being defeated in 1790 when he attempted to wrestle the Speakership from John Foster.[vii] The Speaker’s second son George became a prominent advocate of Catholic Relief and led the British Whig party in opposition from 1808-1817.
[i] William Ponsonby was created Viscount Duncannon (of the fort of Duncannon in the County of Wexford), and Baron Bessborough (of Bessborough in the County of Kilkenny) in the Peerage of Ireland in 1723 and 1721 respectively.
[ii] In 1749 Lord Bessborough was given the additional title of Baron Ponsonby of Sysonby, in the County of Leicester, which entitled him to a seat in the British House of Lords.
[iii] The 4th Duke duly recruited Capability Brown to landscape the gardens. Their son and heir, the 5th Duke, was played by Ralph Fiennes in the recent movie ‘The Duchess’.
[iv] The Ponsonby’s first broadside had been fired in 1737 when they purchased the seignory of Inchiquin, right in the heart of Lord Shannon's East Cork empire.
[v] Their candidate was Sir Henry Cavendish, a kinsman of the Duke of Devonshire who had been collector of the Revenue in Cork from 1743-47
[vi] The 3rd Earl’s son Major General Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, a great Waterloo hero, was father to Sir Henry Ponsonby, private Secretary to Queen Victoria.
[vii] His son William was the General Sir William Ponsonby who so memorably killed leading the cavalry charge at Waterloo. During the 1790s, the General’s older brother John, 2nd Baron Ponsonby, enjoyed an affair with society beauty Lady Elizabeth Conyngham, wife of the Marquess of Conyngham and later mistress to George IV.