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The Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773)

‘I recommend you to take care of the minutes, for the hours will take care of themselves’, was one of many pearls of wisdom dropped by Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694–1773).

“If you are invited to drink at any man’s house, more than you think it’s wholesome, you may say you wish you could, but that so little makes you both drunk and sick, that you should be only be bad company by doing it.”
Lord Chesterfield,
‘Principles of Politeness and of Knowing the World’.




Known as Lord Stanhope until his father died in 1726,  Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield was born in London in 1694 and educated at Cambridge.

Having embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe as a young man, he learned much of the useful advice he later pass on to his son Philip:

‘The world is a country which nobody ever yet knew by description; one must travel through it one’s self to be acquainted with it’.

His cousin James Stanhope, a favourite of George I, secured him a place as gentleman of the bedchamber to the Prince of Wales. As MP for St Germans, young Philip kicked off his political career with a well-received maiden speech in the House of Commons concerning the recently disgraced Duke of Ormonde in 1715. He was promptly fined £500 for addressing the House six-weeks short of his majority. He left the Commons with a low bow and sailed for Paris from where he sent much useful information home about the dastardly Jacobites. A Whig by temperament, he remained a close ally of the Prince of Wales during the subsequent quarrel between King and father.



In 1726 his father died, and Lord Stanhope became Earl of Chesterfield. He took his seat in the House of Lords, and began to let loose with his superb oratory. In 1728 he was sent to the Hague as ambassador and was a model of tact and temper, dexterity and discrimination. He was rewarded with Prime Minister Robert Walpole‘s friendship, the Order of the Garter, and the position of Lord Steward of the Prince’s household.




Melusine Sophie, Countess Von Der Schulenburg C.1741; Circle Of Antoine Pesne (1683-1757)

He also secured a useful bride in the shape of Melusina von der Schulenburg, Countess of Walsingham, a natural (illegitimate) daughter of George I by his German mistress, the Duchess of Kendal, a woman well known in Ireland as the benefactor of Wood’s Halfpence.

Like her mother before her, Melusina was a genius at bribery, pocketing £12,000 in 1723 alone. Her influence came to an end when George I died. She and Chesterfield were married in 1733. As the wedding day approached, Chesterfield must have been kicking himself that he once publicly described Melusina’s mother as a ‘a considerable example of George I’s bad taste and good stomach’.

The Duchess of Kendal certainly disapproved of Chesterfield’s penchant for pleasure, gambling and gaming, not least when he and the new King fell out. It was almost certainly a marriage of convenience – the 38-year-old Melusina being supposed a considerable heiress.

They had no children, although Melusina was reputedly the mother of Benedict Swingate Calvert (1722–1788) was a prominent Maryland Loyalist in Maryland during the American Revolution, after an affair with Charles Calvert, 5th Baron Baltimore, proprietary governor of the Province of Maryland.



Meanwhile, Chesterfield’s affection for the Prince of Wales’s mistress Henrietta Howard, later Countess of Suffolk, turned George II against him. Chesterfield’s vehement opposition to Walpole’s Excise Bill ensured his dismissal from the Stewardship. He was one of the leaders of the Whig opposition in the 1730s, eventually unseating wily Walpole in 1742.




George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner.

To put this into context, this was the year Handel came to Dublin to conduct ‘The Messiah’ in Neal’s Music Hall on Fishamble Street and so raise money for a series of charities. Much of these were concerned with the brutal famine and big freeze of 1740 in which between 16% and 20% of the population of Ireland are estimated to have perished.

The concert was such a success that it inspired barber-surgeon and midwife Bartholomew Mosse to start fund-raising for a lying-in hospital, The Rotunda, the first purpose built maternity hospital in the world.

One of his first contributors was Dean Delany, of Down, husband of Mrs Delany, a contemporary diarist of great fame who we will turn to again shortly. The relevance here is that the Earl of Chesterfield was one of the founding governor’s of London’s Foundling Hospitals.



Although infuriating to many, Chesterfield was undoubtedly a man of considerable culture. Even while destroying Walpole, he was founding hospitals. He continued to live in Paris in the 1740s and became a pal of Voltaire and the French poets Crebillon, Fontenelle and Montesquieu.

He was unlikely to go far at home in London because he and George II were still violent enemies. Using the pen-name Jeffrey Broadbottom, Chesterfield began publishing scathing attacks on the King in a new journal called Old England. He soon became an icon for those who disliked George II such as the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, who left him £20,000 as a mark of her appreciation.




It was useful money because when his mother-in-law died in 1743, his wife inherited far less money than either of them had expected. Walpole gleefully reported ‘Chesterfield got nothing from her but his wife’. However, they did manage to secure the Duchesses’ Royal pension which they sold for £9500, setting them up nicely for the Irish job. And Melusina was George I‘s natural daughter so they still scooped £1500 a year annual from the Irish civil establishment.



In 1744, Chesterfield’s Whig friends came to power and he was again dispatched to the Hague, this time to try and cajole the Dutch into joining Britain in the War of the Austrian Succession against France. He succeeded in doing so. His reward was Ireland.



‘An able man shows his spirit by gentle words and resolute actions’. So said Chesterfield. The Lord-Lieutenancy of Ireland was a position he had long coveted. He held the post from 8 January 1745 to 15 November 1746. Even his enemies are in agreement that his 750-or-so day long Irish administration was a great success, coinciding as it did with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion. Indeed, he is frequently given credit for the fact that the Irish nation remained true to the reigning house.

The combined Franco-Scottish invasion of England, scheduled for 1744, had been annihilated by a freak storm. Poor old Charlie pawned off his mothers jewellery in order to fund an attack the next year but he never secured Irish support, save for the 700 strong Irish Brigade, and his gallant Highland swordsmen came a cropper to Cumberland’s canon-balls at Culloden.

One of his aides reported how a paranoid Protestant firebrand stormed into the Viceregal lodge one morning on a matter of the greatest public importance. He burst into Chesterfield’s bedroom and roared ‘All the papists in Ireland are up, my Lord’. ‘Then it’s high time for all the Protestants to be up too,’ said his Excellency, looking at his watch; “tis half-past ten; good day, Sir;’



Chesterfield made friends with everyone, encouraged toleration and kept on side with both Orange and Catholic. He was the only prominent Englishman to show evident sympathy or kindness to the oppressed Catholic majority at this time. He thought the Penal Laws outrageous and encouraged the public exercise of religious worship, whatever your religion. This was totally at odds with what all people of his class and background thought at this time. England’s Protestants were taught to fear the Irish Papist. Chesterfield became enamoured of ‘the beautiful Lady Palmer’ and, conducting her through the mazes of the minuet at a courtly ball, famously declared her ‘the only dangerous Papist I have met in the entire kingdom’. She lived to be a hundred and was still dangerous when she died.




Another woman he knew was Mrs. Delany, the diarist, whose husband was a great social benefactor in Ireland. She recalled preparing for the reception of Lord and Lady Chesterfield in October 1745, which may interest the hostesses amongst you:

‘Early in the morning came an express from Dublin to say their Excellencies were coming to breakfast. To work went all my maids, dropping covers off all the chairs, sweeping, dusting, until by eleven my house was as spruce as a cabinet of curiosities, and well bestowed upon their Excellencies, who commended and admired, and were as polite as possible. They came soon after eleven in their traveling coach, examined every room, were delighted with the situation, liked the furniture, but were impatient to see my own work, upon which the Dean conducted them into ‘the Minerva,’ where I had two tables covered with all sorts of breakfast’.



Bust of Lord Chesterfield at the Royal Dublin Society.

He immersed himself in Irish life, becoming intimate friends with the likes of Jonathan Swift, Alderman Faulkner of the Journal and Nathaniel Clements. He made up sonnets about Irish beauties. He frequented the theatre on Smock Alley. One gala-night, when the viceroy and court were present, and the house crammed, one of the ‘bloods’, a Captain St. Leger, who was standing at the wings, ‘had the freedom to put his lips to the shoulder of Mrs Bellamy’, the great actress, as she went by. The offended actress about turned and gave him a mighty slap on the face that rang through the house. The act took place in full view of the audience. Lord Chesterfield was seen to rise in his box; and clap his hands in approbation.




He was a very able satirist too. One of his pet hates was the Irish gentry’s penchant for excessive drinking – 5,000 tons of wine came into the country regularly.

‘This is a sure proof of the excessive drinking of the gentry there, for the inferior sort of people cannot afford to drink wine … these 5,000 tuns of wine are chiefly employed in destroying the constitutions, the faculties, and too often the fortunes of those of superior rank, who ought to take care of the others. Were there to be a contest between public cellars and public granaries, which do you think would carry it? I believe you will allow that a claret board, if there were one, would be much better attended than the linen board, unless when flax-seed were to be distributed’.




John Henry Foley’s statue of Viscount Gough as it was in Phoenix Park.

Chesterfield set up schools and hospitals and factories for the manufacture of glass, paper and starch. He supported the newly created Royal Dublin Society which had done ‘more good to Ireland with regard to arts and industry than all the laws that could have been framed.’ One of his finest legacies was to throw Phoenix Park open to the public. He planted a magnificent avenue of elms and numerous other trees about the place.

He also had a major role in the naming of the Park. He had his summer house here, known in centuries past as ‘the old Manor-house of Fionnuiske’, from the Gaelic ‘Fionn Uisce‘, meaning ‘clear water’. The erroneous spelling of ‘Phoenix’ dates to the Duke of Ormonde’s time. That mistake was perpetuated in eternity by the erection of the Phoenix Column on the Main Road near the Chief Secretary’s Lodge (now the U.S. Ambassador’s residence).

Chesterfield was a classics scholar. He enjoyed the legend of the wonderful bird, named for its bright scarlet wings resembling of Phoenician dye. The classical fable went on to say that there could be only one phoenix in the world at a time. It lived 500 years, then burned itself to death, but a new phoenix for the succeeding period sprang from its ashes. If one goes back 500 years before 1747, we have the Black Death of 1347 so perhaps there was something to it. The new phoenix rising from the flames surmounts Lord Chesterfield’s fluted Corinthian column, which is thirty feet high and bears inscriptions stating that Lord Chesterfield erected the column and beautified the Park for the delight of the citizens.

This was also, of course right next to John Henry Foley’s ill-fated statue of Sir Hugh Gough. Actually, the concept of sticking imperial statues all over the place was one of Chesterfield’s big things. It was during his time that another equestrian statue of George II was placed in the centre of the Green to stir up feelings of loyalty during these Jacobite times. Like Gough, it would take quite a hammering over the years and was eventually taken away after independence.



In 1746, Chesterfield’s time in Ireland came to an abrupt halt as he was appointed Secretary of State. But he misjudged his enemies, both at home and abroad, and by 1748 had returned to his favourite pastimes of cards and books. He was a cool and composed card shark. When George II tried to win him back offering a Dukedom, he declined. His greatest legacy on later years was to oversee the conversion of the British calendar to the Gregorian calendar so that the new year began on 1 January rather than 25 March (Lady Day). This became known as Chesterfield’s Act.



He had a famous fall out with Dr Johnson who felt slighted about his lack of support for his English Dictionary. Boswell later described him: ‘This man I thought had been a Lord among wits; but I find he is only a wit among Lords!” He was a virulent opponent of the Stamp Act, which placed a tax on all legal documents, permits, commercial contracts, newspapers, wills, pamphlets, and playing cards – not just in Britain but in the American colonies. The Act did not go down well in America.




In later life, deafness and blindness forced him to withdrew little by little from society and politics. Throughout his political career he had been grooming his son Philip Stanhope, a natural son by a Dutch governess, to become a proper enlightenment man. He wrote a lengthy book of advice for the young man in which he shows himself to be all on the side of moderation, toleration, keeping the peace. Never abuse large bodies of people at once. Frequent all churches. Laugh at no one. Devote your mornings to study, your evenings to good society. Dress as the best people dress, behave as they behave, never be eccentric, egotistical, or absent-minded. Live every moment to the full. But alas, in 1768, Philip Stanhope died aged 36.

After Philip’s death, Chesterfield adopted his godson, a third cousin once removed, as heir to the title and estates. That’s the thing. You never know who’s going to leave you money when you least expect it. By the age of 70, Chesterfield was blind and deaf. He still had his fine manners, his memory and his wit. “Tyrawley and I have been dead these two years, but we don’t choose to have it known”. He died on the 24 March 1773.



Chesterfield’s contemporaries thought him selfish, calculating and contemptuous. A maverick. Too clever by half. His literary legacy did not endure; few people read his books but I think he may yet enjoy a renaissance of interest as the 21st century advances onwards. Boswell said Chesterfield’s posthumously published advice to his natural son Philip taught ‘the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master’, whatever that’s meant to imply. And of course it was that son’s death which really marked the end of his natural legacy.

Chesterfield County, Virginia and Chesterfield County, South Carolina, are both named in his honour, as was Chesterfield House in Blackrock, County Dublin. And so, in a roundabout way, were Chesterfield cigarettes.

As a politician and statesman, Chesterfield’s short but brilliant administration of Ireland is worthy of greater attention. He had plenty of links to the gunpowder mills at Corkagh too. Perhaps the finest quotation attributed to him is this: ‘I recommend you to take care of the minutes, for the hours will take care of themselves.’