A Croome Court story

In the 18th century, marriage in the upper classes was still something more like a deal than a love story. If you were a poor or ‘low born’, you would marry someone from your class, but there were exceptions, and I think that one of the most significant exceptions of all happened in the case of the Gunning sisters.

Elizabeth and Maria Gunning were the most beautiful girls in Ireland, and Maria considered the prettier of the two was deemed to be the most beautiful girl in the country. The sisters were born at the beginning of the 1730s in West Ireland, their family was impoverished. Their father won the family home in a card game. The sisters never received a proper education.

As the sisters grew, their beauty grew as well, and when Maria was 15 and Elizabeth was 14 their mother decided that they should learn a profession, there weren’t too many options for poor girls in those days, so she sent them to join a theatre group in Dublin. During that period many actresses ended up as mistresses of a wealthy patron.

While in Dublin the sisters suddenly encountered a fantastic opportunity. They got an invitation to a ball in Dublin Castle. Sadly, there was a problem; the girls had no suitable dresses for such an occasion. The fairy godmother was too busy with Cinderella, and the sisters had to find a different solution, and they did.

Instead of wearing regular dresses, they went to the ball in theatrical costumes from their theatre group, wearing the robes of Juliet and Lady Macbeth. The ball was a success, and the Gunning sisters became an immediate sensation. Their mother realised that the sisters would probably get better marriage offers if they crossed the sea and moved to London.

In 1750 they arrived, and, as she expected, the sisters became celebrities, and Maria was also taken to court to meet King George II. I already mentioned that they were not educated, and apparently when she reached the old Monarch, Maria told him that she had always dreamt about attending a coronation ceremony and she hoped to get an invitation soon. I’m not sure Maria understood that she had told the King that she wished to see him dead so she could get invited to the coronation of his heir (whom he famously hated). If she had been a man, she would probably have ended up in the Tower of London, but beautiful girls always get the benefit of the doubt. Instead, the old Monarch burst into laughter.

Now it was time for the Gunning sisters to hook up with the best husbands possible, and as the sisters had become the most sensational duo in the city, it did not take long. Elizabeth married not one but two dukes (not at the same time). Her first marriage was with the Duke of Hamilton; he was in such a hurry to seal the deal that he arranged the “Las Vegas wedding” of London in the 18th century, which was in a chapel in Mayfair that did not require any paperwork. After his death, she married Duke number two, the Duke of Argyll. She ended up the mother of four future dukes (she bore two sons in each marriage, so two of her sons became the Dukes of Hamilton, and two became the Dukes of Argyll), not bad, right?  Elizabeth also became one of the ladies-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte, and finally gained a title of her own, the Baroness of Hamilton.

Maria ended up with merely an Earl, and his name was George Coventry. However, her story was very different from Elizabeth’s. After the wedding, the couple went on a lavish honeymoon in Paris. As Maria could not speak a word in French, she was quite miserable in high society in the French capital. The only thing she did enjoy in the city of light was learning about the latest fashions in makeup. She started to apply a white powder to her face and red powder to her cheeks; she looked beautiful!

Unfortunately, makeup in the 18th century was primarily a poison, and when her skin reacted to the powder, she just added more to cover it. After the honeymoon, the couple came back to Croome. By now, the Earl realised that beauty was not everything, and although the couple did manage to have four kids (three of whom reached adulthood), both of them started to have affairs. Maria managed to have a relationship with a duke, who was also the prime minister – The third Duke of Grafton.

Maria’s makeup obsession became worse and worse, and she fell ill. Her facial skin was red and full of scars, and her beauty disappeared. This was the curse of the most beautiful Irish girl, and her beauty was now gone. Maria decided to go into hiding. She spent her last few months in her bedroom at Croome, away from the world with her windows blinds shut. Finally, she died at the age of 27, but her fame did not fade, and no less than ten thousand people attended her funeral.

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