A Coughton Court story

Marriage for us today is an institution that celebrates love, but at the end of the 18th century, marriage was a business. Wealthy and prestigious families used it as an instrument to either keep the family fortune inside or to improve it. You could not just marry anyone, and in some cases, you had a severe problem, because there was almost no available option with whom to get married…

By the end of the 18th century, this was the problem of Sir John Acton, 6th Baronet. He was a successful naval officer and a politician who became the Prime Minister of the kingdom of Naples. His ascent to power was promoted by no other than Queen Carolina. Napoleon himself used to call her “the only man in Naples”. She was the sister of the most famous French Queen of all times, Marie Antoinette.

The Queen persuaded her husband to bring Sir Acton first to build the kingdom’s navy. A few years later, he became the commander of the army and finally the Prime Minister. The Queen had 16 kids, and since the King was travelling most of the time, many believe that Acton was the father of several of them…With all this power also came a lot of wealth, and so at the age of 63, the Acton family in England started to put pressure on the 6th Baronet to settle down and get himself an heir, or risk an inheritance war between his relatives.

It was easier said than done because John Acton was from a Catholic decent, and Catholic nobles tended to marry among themselves, and there were not too many candidates. Eventually, it became clear that there was only one potential bride, but there were two problems. First, she was 50 years younger than him, and if that was not enough, she was the eldest daughter of his brother. Her name was Mary Anne, and I am sure you can imagine how she felt when she heard the news.

She did everything a 13-year-old person can do… First, she dressed up as a boy and tried to run away. After she was found, she kept hiding in the big house. They had to take her to church kicking and screaming. For us in the 21st century, there is nothing you could say to make this marriage look good, especially when you know that within a year, the couple had a son and two more kids came not far after, all of them before Mary Anne celebrated her 20th birthday, but in 18th century standards, this was considered a happy marriage. John Acton treated Mary Anne with much respect. He helped her learn how to become an expert host (which was kind of the only thing a noblewoman of her age should know), and he did not bother her for too long…because she became a widow by the age of 24, and probably one of the wealthiest widows on the continent.

A few years after her husband died, Mary Anne came back to England. She had several estates around the country, and she kept moving between them. She was considered one of the best hosts in London and had many influential friends. She never remarried (why should she? A marriage meant that all her wealth would go to her new husband), but we do know that she had several lovers and at least one more child with one of them. One of the “advantages” of being married young, is that you can almost become a friend with your kid, and this was precisely the case in Mary Anne’s story, because her daughter Elizabeth became her best friend, and when Elizabeth got married into the Throckmorton family, Mary Anne became a regular face in this Tudor mansion.

Mary Anne lived a very long life. She outlived all of her kids, and when she finally died in 1873, the gap between her death and her husband birth was 137 years… scary!

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