Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Cassandra - Duchess of Chandos 1670 - 1735

If I'm ever an international movie star I think I'm going to book into hotels as Cassandra, Duchess of Chandos. It's a superb name. There would be glamour, intrigue and just enough naughtiness. Cassandra, in my imagination, is not the kind of woman who would carry her own luggage.

Cassandra was, though, an actual person, with an actual life some of which was lived in Nottingham's Wollaton Hall. What I think I love most about her is that she wrote down all the family's dirty little secrets which was a racy thing to be doing. She was also a geek: she learned to read medieval English so she could catalogue the family archive, and in her spare hours put Dad's wildlife trophies in good order.

Born in 1670 Cassandra was the daughter of naturalist Francis Willughby and Emma. They named her after her Grandma, family names being very much A Thing in this family of many Francis-es. Dad dies when she's two, and Mum remarries four years later. Step-Dad, Sir Josiah Child, is very rich and they all move to Essex where he plants trees, builds houses, and does the things rich men do. He's  Governor of the East Indies company, founder of the Royal Africa company and owns a good chunk of Jamaica. There's blood on his money.

In 1687 Cassandra's big brother Francis moves to Wollaton Hall and asks her to join him. She does, but he dies in 1688. Younger brother Thomas then moves in, and together the siblings set about restoring the hall which had massive fire damage and had been empty since 1643. Gardens are planted, walls are muralled, statuary is purchased. For inspiration they travel to see other great estates - I'm not clear if they took Thomas' wife along or left her home while they had fun.

In 1713 she marries her cousin, James Brydges. Together they build Cannons House in Middlesex. With fountains! The house becomes so famous that in the 1720s a one way system of crowd control is introduced. You've read Pride and Prejudice: you know that the English have always liked a good nosy round a stately home.

The Middleton Hall pamphlet says
Cassandra was 43 and was marked by smallpox. It is evident that James did not marry his cousin for money or any obvious female charms but his sons needed a mother.
Could that pamphlet be any more annoying? Cassandra was well travelled, well read, 'well bred', wealthy, and had extensive experience of estate management and remodelling. Smart girl. I'd marry her. I will concede that wedding portrait isn't terribly flattering.  Family wealth is hammered by the South Sea bubble in 1720. So let's hope she didn't marry him for his money?

Wedding portrait

Cassandra dies in 1735, aged 65. She'd not been well for the last ten years, and was a big fan of a spa day and a nice lie down. She had no children, but had been step mum to two sons since they were small. Here's a connection I wasn't expecting. Was Jane Austen's mum - the Duke's great niece - named after her?

Where did I get my information from? The Middleton Hall website, and the University of Nottingham archive. I've checked Project Gutenburg: her books and travel diaries aren't there, yet. But I bet they're quite a read.

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