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The Gunning Sisters – Irish Beauties at the Georgian Court

Maria, Countess of Coventry by Francis Cotes

Croome Park, Worcestershire, October 1761. The dark room stank of death and poison as the Countess of Coventry breathed her last. Her once beautiful porcelain skin was badly pocked and already decaying. It was an astonishingly tragic finale for the 27-year-old Irish woman who, just a decade earlier, had entranced King George II and won the heart of all England.

The Countess’s younger sister would fare better. Elizabeth was always the wiser of the two. But even as Maria Gunning lay dying, Elizabeth was facing challenges of her own, not least from those who felt she had remarried with tactless haste after the death of her first husband.

The Georgians were terrific at celebrating beautiful women, particularly when they came in pairs. And few pairs came with greater hype than the gorgeous Roscommon-bred Gunning sisters who took London by storm in 1751.

Their mother Bridget was a daughter of Theobald Bourke, 6th Viscount Mayo, head of a branch of the Clanricarde Bourkes. The 3rd Viscount Bourke, her great-grandfather, was executed during Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland.

In October 1731, Bridget married John Gunning of Castlecoote, Co. Roscommon. The Gunning family originated in Tregonning, Cornwall, but relocated to North Stoke, Somerset, during the reign of Henry IV. From this family descended Richard Gunning who, born in 1587, was the first to settle in Ireland. [1] Richard’s son John Gunning, [of Castle Strange?], married Margaret, daughter of Edward Malone. The family subsequently secured ownership of Castlecoote House, a handsome mansion just outside Roscommon town. The house was built in the late 17th century within the enclosure of an earlier castle, possibly by the afore-mentioned Edward Malone.

It is said that John Gunning won Castlecoote – now a flagship of the esteemed Hidden Ireland group of guesthouses – in a poker match. The veracity of that is unknown but Gunning, a barrister, was certainly a gambling man and ‘an Irish gentleman of the rollicking, duelling old school’. His penchant for fast-living had obliged him ‘to retire into the country, to avoid the disagreeable consequences that must ensue.’ [His sister Mary was married to one of the Earl of Charlemont’s sons while.]

In any event, the Gunning family arrived in Castlecoote in 1742, shortly after the devastating famine that killed upwards of a third of the Irish population. They were accompanied by their three daughters, Maria, Elizabeth and Kitty, aged 9, 8 and 6. Two more children were born in Ireland, namely Lissy and John, while another daughter Sophia died as an infant in 1737.

For the next six years the family lived at Castlecoote on the banks of the River Suck, close to Kilbride Church and the St Brigid’s Well to which the Gunning sisters are said to have owed their wonderful complexions.

Riddled with debt, John Gunning sank into morose self-pity at his Roscommon retreat. Bridget was made of more ambitious stuff. In 1748, she took off for Dublin with her two elder daughters, taking a fashionable townhouse on Great Britain Street.

The family had virtually no money but Bridget had useful connections through her kinship with the Bourkes. She also had an immense asset in the beauty of her two older daughters.

When that wonderful observer of 18th century Irish society Mrs Delany encountered Maria, she concurred that the girl was ‘a feast!’

‘She is a fine figure and vastly handsome, notwithstanding a silly look sometimes about her mouth’, wrote Mrs. Delany. ‘She has a thousand airs, but with a sort of innocence that diverts one! She has a thousand dimples and prettiness in her cheeks, her eyes a little drooping at the corners, but fine for all that.’

Elizabeth was perhaps not so beautiful but she also had a ‘regularity of features, and faultless formation of limbs and shape’ that caused passers-by to come to a standstill.

In October 1748, the Gunning sisters were invited to a ball at Dublin Castle, prompting considerable panic as the bankrupt Bridget Gunning could not afford suitable dresses for such an occasion. The fairy godmother was Tom Sheridan, manager of Dublin’s Theatre Royal and father of the playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. A number of stories would later circulate about how Bridget had been urging her daughters to become actresses so that they could bring in an income, recruiting the Dublin stage actress Peg Woffington to teach and dress them up. [2]

Sheridan supplied the Gunnings with two Shakespearian costumes from his theatre. And so it was as Lady Macbeth and Juliet that these ‘marvellously comely maidens’ were presented at Dublin Castle to the elderly Viceroy, Lord Harrington. He was so impressed that he subsequently gifted their mother a large pension which enabled her to relocate to England with the two girls. This may have been connected to the death in 1752 of Maria and Elizabeth’s younger sister Lissy, aged eight.

From their home in Huntingdon, the Gunning sisters quickly began their assault on London. It began at local balls and dances where their beauty was much remarked upon. By the autumn of 1750, London was anxious to see them.

On 2 December 1750, Maria and Elizabeth were presented to King George II at the Court of St James. The bewigged courtiers stood on their chairs in order to cop a better look at the Roscommon beauties. Maria, never the sharpest cookie, took the opportunity to tell the elderly monarch that she was longing to see a Coronation, which, of course, would require the king to die beforehand. Fortunately he roared with laughter.

Over the course of 1751, England’s capital city went wild for the fair Gunning sisters. They were constantly being mobbed in the streets by admirers anxious to catch a glimpse of them, or still better to touch them. A wily shoemaker at Worcester gained two and a half guineas by exhibiting, at a penny a head, a shoe he had made for the countess.

According to one account, ‘The West End went almost mad over them. When they appeared at Court, the aristocracy present was indecorous in its efforts to view the dominant beauties. The crowd surged upon them, and it was with difficulty they entered their chairs because of the mob outside.’ [3] They sisters could not emerge from a carriage without causing a stampede. After Maria was mobbed in Hyde Park, the King assigned her a personal guard, headed up by the dashing Earl of Pembroke, heir to the substantial FitzWilliam estates in Dublin.

Horace Walpole, man of letters, was less impressed. ‘Two Irish girls of no fortune, who make more noise than any of their predecessors since the days of Helen, and who are declared the handsomest women alive.’

Nonetheless, their march to the top was by now assured. Both sisters were painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a work which can be seen in the main hall at Castlecoote today.

Elizabeth Gunning who became Duchess of both Hamilton and Argyll. The Duke of Hamilton commissioned the portrait shortly after their wedding in 1752. It was painted by his kinsman Gavin Hamilton, a friend of Robbie Burns.

In January 1752, the golden-haired Elizabeth met the 6th Duke of Hamilton at a St. Valentine’s Day masquerade ball in London. Seized by intoxicated desire, the Scottish aristocrat summoned the local parson to perform a marriage ceremony there and then. The parson refused because the Duke had neither license nor ring, so the Duke hauled Elizabeth into Mayfair Chapel, where no licence was required, swiped a ring from a bed-curtain, and they emerged as the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton.

Just over two weeks later, Maria followed suit and married the 6th Earl of Coventry.

The cracks began to emerge quickly. Part of the problem was that the girls – Maria, for sure – lacked the education to be at ease in high society. Unlike other Georgian beauties such as the Lennox and Devonshire sisters, the Gunnings did not have the ability to become political or intellectual power-houses. Moreover, their husbands were not brilliant intellects but drink-sozzled, empty-headed buffoons.

Maria loathed her honeymoon in Paris where her poor tact and clumsy manners combined with her inability to speak French left her feeling sorely out of place.

In a bid to make an impression, she took up the practice, then fashionable in Paris, of applying white lead-based pigment paste to her pretty oval face and red powder to her cheeks. The noxious effects of this lethal cocktail inevitably caused her skin to react unhappily. In order to disguise the facial eruptions that then appeared, Maria – like many other women – merely applied still more make-up.

Perhaps wise to the follies of his wife’s vanity, Lord Coventry forbade her from applying the powder. When she arrived at a dinner party with it on her face, he pounced upon her with a handkerchief and began rubbing it off.

Back in London, her beauty still drew such huge crowds that the King felt assigned her a permanent guard headed up by the Earl of Pembroke.

But Lord Coventry had already tired of his Irish beauty and taken up with London courtesan Kitty Fisher. When Maria met Miss Fisher in a London park, she demanded to know where Kitty had acquired her dress. Kitty suggested she ask Lord Coventry as he was the one who bought it. Maria slammed Kitty’s impertinence but she was already powerless to do anything but embark upon an affair of her own. She was duly linked to various blades, including the 3rd Duke of Grafton, a future Prime Minister, whose mother was a Cosby from Stradbally Hall in Co. Laois.

Meanwhile, despite Walpole’s description of Hamilton as ‘vulgar, debauched, extravagant, and damaged in person and fortune’, Elizabeth’s marriage was a reasonably happy one. However, this fell apart when the Duke caught a chill out hunting and died in January 1758.

Within months, Elizabeth had received a marriage proposal from the Duke of Bridgewater. She turned him down in favour of Jack Campbell, the 36-year-old Marquess of Lorne, whom she married in March 1759. He was destined to become the 5th Duke of Argyll prompting Walpole to remark that he would not touch either of the Gunning sisters ‘for fear of being shuffled out of the world prematurely, to make room for the rest of their adventurers.’

Walpole concluded that he would not have been surprised if Lady Coventry had fetched up as ‘Queen of Prussia’.

However, Lady Coventry was not destined for Prussia. Like a character from a Brothers Grimm tale, she persisted with her poisonous beauty creams and contracted a consumptive condition. By day, she lay on a couch in a darkened room, clasping a pocket-glass in hand and grieving at her steady decay. She died aged 27 on 30 September 1760. Over 10,000 people viewed her coffin.

She left her widowed husband with a son George William, who succeeded his father as 7th Earl of Coventry in 1909, and two daughters, Mary Alicia (who was married in 1777 to Sir Andrew Bayntun Rolt, and died in 1784) and Anne Margaret (who was married twice, first in 1778 to the Hon. Edward Foley, MP, and secondly to Colonel Samuel Wright.)  The 6th Earl was married secondly to Barbara St John, daughter of Lord St John of Bletshoe, by whom he had (I think) 2 sons. He died on 8 September 1809.

John Gunning died at Somerset House in 1767 and his widow, the Hon. Mrs. Gunning, in 1770.

The Countess of Derby, daughter of Elizabeth Gunning, painted by George Romney, c. 1776–78.

As for Elizabeth, she gave the Duke of Hamilton two sons, James and Douglas, and a daughter, Elizabeth, known as Betty. James Hamilton, the eldest, was born in 1755 and succeeded as 7th Duke when he was a two-year-old baby but died of a fever while he was a fourteen-year-old schoolboy at Eton in 1769. [4] The second son Douglas duly succeeded as 8th Duke. On 5 April 1778, the family’s private life was thrown into disarray when Douglas married Elizabeth Anne Burrell (a sister of the future cricket-loving 1st Baron Gwydyr, the Duchess of Northumberland and the Countess of Beverley) in London. Rather unfairly, given her own background, Elizabeth objected to the match, maintaining that ‘the daughter of a private gentleman, however accomplished, was not qualified to be allied to her’.

Betty, Elizabeth’s only daughter, was painted by George Romney and married in 1774 to the 12th Earl of Derby, by whom she was grandmother to the Prime Minister.

Following the death of the 6th Duke of Hamilton, Elizabeth was married secondly to the 5th Duke of Argyll.  She bore him 5 children including the 6th and 7th Dukes of Argyll (bringing her tally to four Dukes) and Lady Charlotte Campbell, a novelist who was also considered one of the great Georgian beauties.

Elizabeth became a close friend of Queen Charlotte, serving as a Lady of the Bedchamber to her from 1761 to 1784. She was created Baroness Hamilton of Hambledon on 20 May 1776 by George III.

She was still objecting to her son Douglas’s marriage at the time of her death aged 57 on 20 December 1790 at Argyll House in London. Douglas and his Duchess were divorced, by Act of Parliament in 1794. When Douglas died five years later, aged 43 and without children, the Duchy of Hamilton passed to his uncle. He managed to regain their right to a seat in House of Lords (stripped during the time of the 4th Duke) but, despite two wives, left no children.

It remains a remarkable fact that two of Elizabeth’s sons became Duke of Hamilton and two more became Duke of Argyll. The 5th Duke of Argyll, her husband, outlived her and died in 1806.

Little is known of the Gunning’s younger sister Catherine Gunning, known as Kitty, ‘the youngest of the Graces’. Born at Hemingford Grey in 1735, she was renowned for her pretty face, but her figure was ‘marked with the smallpox.’ After her sisters’ marriages, she lived with her mother at Somerset House until 1769, when she was married, at the ripe old age of thirty-four, to a twenty-three-year-old ‘Irish squire’ by name of Robert Travers (or Travis) of Allhallows, Lombard Street. Baptised at St Alkmund’s, Derby, Robert was a son of Samuel Travis, from a Derbyshire family, and his wife Sarah Manlowe. He was a man of considerable means. For a short time after their marriage, they lived in County Cork.

Following the death of her mother in 1770, Kitty was appointed housekeeper at Somerset House, and removed there, where her eldest daughter, Elizabeth Dorothea, was born that year. She died within three years, aged thirty-eight, leaving a daughter, Brianna, who married the Rev. Nichols Cole Bowen, fifth son of Henry Cole Bowen, Esq., of Bowen’s Court, Kildorrery, co. Cork, by whom she had seven children. She was an ancestress of the writer Elizabeth Bowen and, by extension, me.

Their only brother John fought at the battle of Bunkers Hill, became a Major-General and eventually ran off with his tailor’s wife.

 

http://castlecootehouse.com/

 

FURTHER READING

 

Dukes, Brian Masters, (Published by Pimlico 2001 Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London)

Stirnet Genealogy, Peter Barns-Graham, Gunning

 

FOOTNOTES

 

[1] Richard Gunning, who lived at 15 High Street, Galway, was once thought to have been Charles I’s executioner. He lived in the rear of the building which now houses the King’s Head. He is not to be confused with Richard Brandon, the royal executioner who refused to perform the execution, and who lived in London.  It was only when Brandon refused to execute the king that it was necessary to find a replacement.

[2] There is some truth in these tales, later hushed up, presumably because being an actress in the Georgian Age was considered a shameful profession, closely identified with being a courtesan, financially beneficial but socially and spiritually demeaning.

It was commonplace for actresses to double up as high-class courtesans. It is said that the sisters befriended the great Dublin-born stage actress Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington. However, the girls had actually moved to England by the time Peg, having wooed the audiences of London with her comedy talents, returned to Dublin in 1751. In 1757, Peg Worthington was playing the part of Rosalind in As You Like It when she collapsed on stage. She never acted again and died of a wasting illness on 28 March 1760.

[3] Thomas Willing, Some Old Time Beauties.

[4] James Hamilton also inherited the Marquessate of Douglas and Earldom of Angus from a distant cousin in 1761.