While Frances Winchcombe fared badly as Henry Bolingbroke’s first wife, his second, Marie Claire de Marcilly, appeared to be the love of his life.
Marie Claire des Champs was born in the chateau of Marcilly, near Nogent sur Seine in 1675, the daughter of Armand des Champs, Seigneur de Marcilly and his wife Elisabeth Indrot.
As a young woman Marie Claire made quite an impression at the glittering court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. She was described as intelligent but unassuming, vivacious, amiable and of a sweet disposition and she attracted the attention of the wealthy Chevalier de Villette. However, it was his father Philip le Valois Villette whom Marie Claire eventually married.
Widowed in 1707 Marie Claire inherited property and an income from her husband to add to her Marcilly wealth and appeared in no hurry to remarry.
Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke and Secretary at War to Queen Anne, fled to France in 1715 having thrown in his lot with the Jacobite King James III. A Bill of Attainder was served upon Henry that same year, charging him with privately negotiating a dishonourable and destructive peace with France while a Secretary of State for Queen Anne and accusing him of advising the surrender of Tournai to the French and Spain and the West Indies to Philip of Spain. Deprived of his title, his estates and his wealth, Henry was considered by many as a traitor twice over.
Abandoned by most of his friends and associates, Henry rented a small house in Ablon where he licked his wounds and wrote ‘Reflections Upon Exile.’ It was at about this time that the widowed Marie Claire, three years his senior, became his mistress.
By 1717 Henry had moved in with Marie Claire at Marcilly. The couple were said to spend their mornings taking walks about the estate and in the afternoon they would read and talk together. Perhaps Henry had found a match for his intellect in Marie Claire that was missing in poor Frances.
Henry appeared to be a reformed character, living a life of domestic bliss, but he hadn’t changed that much. While he might have appeared content in his rural retreat, Henry had not given up on his dream of a return to England and political prominence, and in 1718 he left Marie Claire and moved to Paris to kick over the traces and indulge in the excesses of his former lifestyle. But it was to Marie Claire he returned when it all took a toll on his health.
Frances Winchcombe, Henry’s abandoned wife, died that same year, but Henry and Marie Claire were still unable to marry. Marie Claire had invested heavily in English funds which would be seized by the crown should she marry the outlawed Henry Bolingbroke, and neither of them could afford for this to happen.
As Frances had financially supported Henry for many years, so did Marie Claire. And as Frances had petitioned for his pardon, so Marie Claire used her influential friends, the Duchess of Kendal and Mrs Howard, mistress of the Prince of Wales, to plead his case.
And Henry still had some friends in parliament who argued for him and in 1723 a pardon passed the Great Seal and he was allowed to return to England. By 1725 Henry’s property had been restored and the couple settled in England and a home at Dawley near Uxbridge. However Henry was still unable to resume his political career.
While Marie Claire and his friends tried to persuade Henry to give up on politics and concentrate on his philosophical work, others thought the situation ripe for his return and even tipped him as a contender for Prime Minister. By 1730 he was leader of the Opposition despite having no seat in either House.
Marie Claire was attributed with healing the rift between Henry and certain members of his family, including his much younger half sister Henrietta, and was described as being extremely popular with the Battersea household. The only blot on her character came with her cruel comment on the death of her husband’s stepmother, Angelica de Pellisary. “Dear Lady St Jean is dead, I think it is the best thing she has done since she came into the world. They say her husband and children are no more grieved about it than I am,” she wrote to her friend Lady Denbigh.
Throughout her life Marie Claire was plagued by an unspecified internal complaint, which at times reduced her to the state of an invalid. Always less than happy living in England, she returned to France where Henry joined her in 1734. Then in her 60s, if Marie Claire hoped for a peaceful retirement in her homeland she was to be disappointed. By 1744 they were back in England, living a life of near solitude at the St John manor house in Battersea, any political influence Henry had clawed back eventually extinguished.
Frustrated and in ill health, Henry was described as ‘pendantick, fretful, angry with his wife,’ by occasional visitor William Pitt, who would lead Britain during the Seven Years War 1756-1763.
A difficult companion for the increasingly isolated Marie Claire who appears to have never acquired a proper grasp of the English language.
“I am lodging here in Pierre Point Street, between two parades, but with no air from either one of them – only the din of both streets during the day, and every night all the turnspit dogs of the city meet together and bark without ceasing,” she writes from Bath were they had gone to take the waters in 1747. “A man we sent here on purpose chose this delightful house for us; his lordship was so ill that we remained here, now that he is better it is not worth while changing as he hopes to leave at the end of the month. He does not feel that the waters have cured his stomach, which should be, we are assured, their chief property. I wished to try them but they did me harm by overheating my blood. They say the town is very full. I see no one, nor am I likely to see anyone, especially any ladies. I am too old to make new acquaintances. I do not wear panniers nor do I speak the language.”
But the irascible Henry who had behaved so callously towards his first wife, the neglected Frances Winchcombe, showed nothing but love and devotion to his second, never more so than in her final months.
On December 19, 1749 Marie Claire wrote to Lady Denbigh from their house in Soho.
“My hermit and I go to bed before six o’clock. He gives himself up entirely to looking after me, in fact, this is his only occupation. It is enough to give him the spleen, but he shows no sign of it. I cannot tell you how touched I am by his love and care.”
Marie Claire died on March 18, 1750, aged 74.
“My heart is broken, my spirit crushed and my body crippled,” Henry wrote. “I am the most miserable of all men.”
Marie Claire was buried in the parish church of St Mary’s, Battersea. The inscription on her memorial reads – ‘She lived the honor of her own sex, the delight and admiration of ours. She dyed, an object of imitation to both, with all the firmness that religion can inspire.’
Following her death the Marechal de Montmorin, husband of Marie Claire’s stepdaughter, challenged her will on the grounds that her marriage to Henry in May 1720 in Aix la Chapelle had never been legally solemnised. Without documentary evidence the French courts decided in favour of de Montmorin.
Henry appealed against the judgement but by then he was terminally ill. He died on December 12, 1751 unaware that the French Chamber had reversed the decision of the courts and validated his marriage.
Just one portrait of Marie Claire hangs in Lydiard House, but even this is the subject of some controversy.
Fashion designer and dress historian, the late Stella Mary Newton, wrote an article for the Friends of Lydiard Tregoz annual report in 1988 in which she made the following observations.
‘The other mystery is this large and romantic looking portrait of Marie Claire de Marcilly who was the second wife of the first Viscount Bolingbroke.
She died in 1750, he in 1751. But this was not the way that ladies dressed in the early years of the 18th century, nor is it the way that drapery painters represented them as being dressed.
Nor were they, at that time, placed on the canvas in this manner, in a vacuum, as it were.
Her face, yes, that accords with the mid-century very well, but that little flat drapery over her head, her high set waistline, and her straight skirt would have been totally rejected.
I am going to be very daring, and suggest that here is an instance where the portrait was begun, but that the sitter died in 1750 before her dress and general appearance could have been agreed with the drapery painter. The unfinished canvas may have remained until the end of the century, the romantic period leading up to what has been called the ‘Empire’ period, and was then worked on to produce this appealing but extraordinary effect.
The first Lord Bolingbroke had been a very distinguished man, if no portrait of his wife had survived, or rather no finished portrait, it may have been thought desirable to clothe the existing face.’
Dress and Fashion in the Portraiture at Lydiard Tregoze Report No 21 1988
Henry and Marie Claire's monument in St. Mary's Church, Battersea courtesy of the Church Monuments Society http://www.churchmonumentssociety.org/London_Wandsworth.html
Portraits of Marie Claire de Marcilly and Henry, Viscount Bolingbroke courtesy of Lydiard Park www.lydiardpark.org.uk