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The Hon. Charles Spencer Cowper (1816-1879)

Charles Spencer Cowper by Alfred, Count D’Orsay, pencil, chalk and stump, 1845

Spencer Cowper – Two Prime Ministers, Two Wives

Charles Spencer Cowper was the third and youngest son of the 5th Earl Cowper by his marriage to Emily Lamb, sister of British Prime Minister Lord Melbourne.

Born in 1816, Charles was appointed a clerk in the Foreign Office in 1834. He was 21 when his father died and his brother George succeeded as 6th Earl Cowper.

In 1839, Charles’s mother married Lord Palmerston, the future Prime Minister who was then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. For the previous five years, Charles had worked as Palmerstons’ private secretary in the Foreign Office. He then became Secretary of the British Legation at Florence. He was Charge d’Affaires for Florence until 1841 when transferred to Stockholm. He left the diplomatic service in 1843 when he succeeded to the Sandringham estate. In due course, he would sell this estate to the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. Charles was a deputy lieutenant for Norfolk and served as the county’s High Sheriff in 1846. Charles’s sisters Emily and Frances married the Earl of Shaftesbury and Viscount Jocelyn. His eldest brother George passed away in 1856 and was succeeded by his son as 7th Earl. Charles’s second brother William Francis Cowper-Temple was the 1st and last Baron Mount Temple of Mount Temple.

Charles was married twice but had no known children. On 1 September 1852, he married Lady Harriet Anne Frances Gardiner, daughter of Charles John Gardiner, 1st and last Earl of Blessington and Mary Campbell McDougall. The Gardiner family, Earls of Blessington and Viscounts Mountjoy, were the greatest owners of property on the north side. Their principal residence, No. 10 Henrietta Street, was built by Luke Gardiner, Vice-Treasurer of Ireland, and the family resided there for over a century.

At the age of 15, Lady Harriet had been married to the fashionable artist and dandy, Count d’Orsay, but the marriage was an unhappy one and the couple separated in 1838. In the separation agreement, Lady Harriet paid over £100,000 to d’Orsay’s creditors (though even this did not cover all his debts) in exchange for d’Orsay giving up all claims to the Blessington estate. A pencil drawing the Count etched of Charles in 1846 accompanies this text.

Charles and Harriet’s only daughter, Mary Harriette Cowper was born in 1853 but died the following year. The church at Sandringham was ‘beautifully and judiciously restored‘ by Lady Harriet in memory of the baby. The family were in the third coach behind the hearse at the funeral of Lord Palmerston in 1865. The charitable and pious Lady Harriet died in Paris on 17 December 1869 at the age of 55. In 1874 all the Gardiner property in Dublin, except Henrietta Street, was sold in one lot for £120,000 to the Hon, Charles Spencer Cowper. (1) This presumably included Clonliffe Road, originally part of the nearby Cistercian stronghold of St Mary’s Abbey.

On 11 April 1871, Charles was married secondly to the actress Jessie Mary McLean, daughter of Colonel Clinton McLean. Prior to her marriage, Jessie was an actress on Broadway and was apparently romantically involved with the New York based lesbian actress and opera singer Felicita Vestvali (1824-1880). Jessie was referred to as a “large, dark-eyed Spanish Broadway beauty”. The New York Times also referred to “the lovely young Jessie” and quoted a description of her as “something between Cleopatra and Venus; with a pair of flashing black eyes, that will accomplish what Packenham could not – take New Orleans by storm’. (NYT, 17 October 1855, p. 1).

Charles and Jessie had no issue before his death in Rome on 30 March 1879 at age 62. On 3 April 3 1879, The Times solemnly reported: ‘We learn by telegram the intelligence of the death at Rome, from fever, of the Hon Charles Spencer Cowper, who has just passed away at the age of 63‘. His short obituary concluded: ‘In many of the capitals of Europe, Mr Spencer Cowper was well known for his social charm and conversational talents‘.

Jessie Spencer

Following his death in 1879, the estate of Charles Spencer Cowper passed to his widow Jessie Mary McLean. Part of this inheritance included ‘certain land and house property in Dublin and 7,666 acres around Strabane in County Tyrone which was then of considerable value but heavily mortgaged’. According to a valuation made in 1879, these lands showed a surplus of about £50,000. However, since Charles’s death, Jessie had borrowed over £10,000, mostly on the security of the property, which, with interest, amounted to £16,000 by 1895. Jessie claimed that half of the £10,000 she borrowed had been to repay her late husbands debts and pay off the mortgage interest. She only took £5000 for herself and that was because ‘she had not derived any income from the property referred to, but had relied upon voluntary allowances made to her by relatives, one of whom paid her £600 per annum since 1882‘.

By 1894, Jessie was in trouble and made an application to have her debts discharged. She ascribed her insolvency to the depreciation in the value of Irish property owing to the non-payment of rents, and to their reduction by the Land Courts. As such, her income from these lands was lower than the amount she was paying out to cover the interest in the mortgage and family loans. Nonetheless, there were some discrepancies in Jessie’s tale. On 15 November 1894, she stumbled in her response to HJ Turrell (representing the creditor) saying she ‘might have borrowed £14,000 since her husband’s death, but she could not say whether that figure was correct or not‘. The Times further noted that Jessie ‘had been in the habit of speculating on the Stock Exchange and she had also dealt with John Shaw & Co., the outside brokers‘. Jessie denied these transactions had resulted in ‘heavy liabilities‘.

In February 1895, the Judge found in Jessie’s favour, agreeing that the economic climate in Ireland had rendered the equity of redemption valueless. As this was beyond Jessie’s control, he agreed that she should be given an immediate order of discharge.

Jessie died in Frankfurt on 7 October 1901. Her remains were buried at Romsey on the 15th ‘with Catholic rites in the grave containing the body of the Hon. Charles Spencer Cowper‘. Charles’s nephew, the Hon. Evelyn Ashley and his wife, Lady Alice Ashley, were the only mourners, Earl Cowper being ill.


The 3rd Earl Cowper

The title of Earl Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) was created in the Peerage of Great Britain in 1718 for Lord Cowper, the longtime Lord Chancellor of Great Britain. Charles Spencer Cowper’s paternal grandparents were Sir George Nassau Cowper, 3rd Earl Cowper and Hannah Anne Gore, daughter of Charles Gore. The 3rd Earl died young in December 1789 and was succeeded as 4th Earl by his eldest son, 13 year old George.


The 5th Earl, Melbourne & Palmerston


When George died aged 23 on 12 February 1799, the titles passed to his younger brother – Charles’s father – Sir Peter Leopold Louis Francis Nassau Cowper, 5th Earl Cowper.  The 5th Earl was also invested as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Charles’s father, the 5th Earl Cowper, was born on 6 May 1778. Charles’s mother Emily Mary Lamb, Countess Cowper, was a sister of Prime Minister Viscount Melbourne and a daughter of Sir Peniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne, by his marriage to Elizabeth Milbanke. The 5th Earl and Lady Emily had two daughters and three sons, the youngest of whom was Charles. The 5th Earl died on 21 June 1837 at age 59. Two years later, on 16 December 1839, his widow Emily married, secondly, Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, with whom she had no further children. She died on 11 September 1869.


Emily, Countess of Shaftesbury


Charles’s eldest sister was Lady Emily Caroline Catherine Frances Cowper. On 10 June 1830, she married Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801 – 1 Oct 1885), the eminent philanthropist and son of the 6th Earl and Lady Anne Spencer. She died on 15 October 1872. They left issue:
1) · Lady Victoria Ashley, m. (1873) 2nd Baron Templemore, + d. 15 Feb 1927
2) · Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 8th Earl of Shaftesbury+ b. 27 Jun 1831, d. 13 Apr 1886
3) · Rt. Hon. Evelyn Melbourne Ashley, PC, of Classiebawn, County Sligo & Broadlands, Romney, Hamps. He was born on 24 Jul 1836 and, as barrister and MP, rose to become Private Secretary to Lord Palmerston and an influential politician in his own right. By his first marriage (1866) to Sybella Charlotte Farquhar, he had a son, Wilfrid, created Baron Mount Temple of Lee (father of Edwina Mountbatten), and a daughter, Lillian. In June 1891, Evelyn was married secondly to Lady Alice Elizabeth Cole, daughter of William Willoughby Cole, 3rd Earl of Enniskillen and Jane Casamaijor. The Hon. Evelyn died 15 Nov 1907. As Evelyn and his wife Alice were the only members of the family to attend the funeral of Jessie Cowper, one wonders whether they might not have received a share of her lands in the inheritance. Classiebawn in County Sligo later became home to the Mountbattens and was where the family were staying on the day of Lord Mountbatten’s murder in 1979.

Frances, Lady Jocelyn

Charles’s second sister was Lady Frances Elizabeth Cowper. On 9th April 1841, she married Robert Jocelyn, Viscount Jocelyn (1816 – 1854), son of Sir Robert Jocelyn, 3rd Earl of Roden and Hon. Maria Frances Catherine Stapleton. She died on 26 March 1880, having had the misfortune of burying her husband and all three of her children beforehand.

Lady Frances’s eldest child, Lady Edith Elizabeth Henrietta Jocelyn married the Earl of Arran and had four children but died in Basle, Switzerland, aged 26 on 3 October 1871.

Lady Frances’s youngest child, Frederick Spencer Jocelyn died aged 19 just five weeks later. Lady Frances’s middle child Robert succeeded his grandfather as 4th Earl of Roden but died unmarried aged 33 on 9th January 1880; Lady Jocelyn died 10 weeks later.

George, 6th Earl Cowper

Charles’s oldest brother, Sir George Augustus Frederick Cowper, was born on 26 June 1806. On 7 October 1833, he married Anne Florence de Grey, Baroness Lucas, daughter of Sir Thomas Philip Robinson, 2nd Earl de Grey and Lady Henrietta Frances Cole. Four years later, the summer solstice of 21st June 1837 brought about the death of his father and George succeeded as 6th Earl Cowper. He died on 15 April 1856 at age 49. His widow, Anne, Countess Cowper, survived him by 24 years and died on 25 July 1880.

Francis, 7th Earl Cowper, & his Siblings

The 6th Earl had two sons and four daughters. Two daughters had passed by 1879 but the other four are all contenders for “Aunt Jessie’s”‘s interest. The eldest son Sir Francis Thomas de Grey Cowper succeeded as 7th Earl Cowper when he was 22. A member of Gladstone’s British Liberal party, the 7th Earl succeeded the Duke of Marlborough as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland between 1880 and 1882. One imagines the Cowper estate in Dublin was of the essence at such a time. He married Lady Katrine Cecilia Compton, daughter of Admiral William Compton, 4th Marquess of Northampton. He died aged 71, without issue, on 18 July 1905 and so the Earldom and Barony of Cowper and Viscountcy of Fordham became extinct. His other surviving siblings were Hon. Henry Frederick Cowper (born 1836, a bachelor, MP for Hertfordshire, died 10th November 1887), Lady Florence Amabell Cowper (born 1837, married Hon. Auberon Edward William Molyneux Herbert, two children, died 26 Apr 1886) and Lady Amabell Frederica Henrietta Cowper (born 1846, married Admiral Lord Walter Talbot Kerr, 6 children, died 15 Oct 1906).

William Francis Cowper-Temple, 1st and last Baron Mount Temple

Charles’s second brother was William Francis Cowper-Temple, 1st and last Baron Mount Temple of Mount Temple. He was born on 13t December 1811. He married, firstly, Harriet Alicia Gurney, daughter of Daniel Gurney, on 27 June 1843. He married, secondly, Georgiana Tollemache, daughter of Admiral John Richard Delap Tollemache and Lady Elizabeth Stratford, on 22 November 1848. He was invested as a Privy Counsellor (P.C.) and created 1st Baron Mount Temple of Mount Temple, Co. Sligo [U.K.] on 25 May 1880, during which time his elder brother was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He died, without issue, on 17 October 1888 at age 76. On his death, his title became extinct.

The Cowper Papers

Some of the Earl Cowper papers are held by the Hertford County Record Office; if enquiring, enter in subject “please direct to HALS study room staff”. Amongst the records that specifically relate to Charles Spencer Cowper are:

  • D/EP F492 – Papers concerning a mortgage loaned by Charles Spencer Cowper to Earl Cowper, 1851-55
  • D/EP F502/6-11 – Correspondence of 6thEarl Cowper from Charles Spencer, n.d. [c1832-1840]
  • D/EP F528-529 – Annotated manuscript copies of 1st Earl Cowper’s ‘Impartial history of Parties’ and the diary of his wife [perhaps in the hand of 6th Earl or Charles Spencer Cowper], mid 19th cent.
  • D/EP F530 – Manuscript verses, some probably in the hands of 6th Earl Cowper and his brother Charles Spencer Cowper, n.d. [c1830s-40s]
  • D/EP T1264 – appointment of £15000 portions in favour of William Francis Cowper and Charles Spencer Cowper, 1839
  • D/ECu/10 p113-270

There might well be further references to Charles Spencer Cowper to be found within the Cowper papers, the full catalogue of which may be viewed at the Access to Archives website Herts Direct offer a research service, charged in 2007 at £7.00 per 15 minutes of research. Further information about the service can be found at

Further Reading

  • Blake, Robert (1966). Disraeli, New York: St Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-19-832903-2.
  • W. Teignmouth Shore, D’Orsay, or, The Complete Dandy (1911)
  • M. Sadleir, Blessington–D’Orsay: A Masquerade (1933)
  • R. R. Madden, The literary life and correspondence of the countess of Blessington, 3 vols. (1855)



With thanks to Peter McKenna, Jean Dickson and others.