Pity the three significant women in the life of George Richard St John, 3rd Viscount Bolingbroke. The first, Charlotte Collins, he abandoned on his country estate at Lydiard Park with their three young children, but not before he embroiled her in his incestuous love affair with his half sister Mary Day Beauclerk. Charlotte even claimed the son born in Paris in 1787 was hers in an attempt to hush up the scandal. However, another three sons later and George Richard also tired of Mary.
George Richard’s love life eludes a certain amount of detail, but it would appear that by 1789 he was living in Heidelberg where he made the acquaintance of two brothers, Barons Charles and Ferdinand von Hompesch, the sons of Baron Franz Carl Baron von Hompesch and Antonia von Hacke.
Invited back to the family’s castle at Dusseldorf, George met their young sister Isabella Antonia Marianne Charlotte Sophia Baroness Hompesch. The impressionable seventeen year old was seduced by the smooth talking English aristocrat who conveniently forgot to mention his wife and the family he had left back home.
He persuaded Isabella to marry him in a secret ceremony held in a nearby village church. Then the heartless Lothario threw Isabella’s bonnet and shawl in a stream to evince her death by drowning, and later intercepted the girl’s letters to her father in which she pleaded for forgiveness for her clandestine marriage.
So what do you think of him so far?
George Richard brought Isabella to England, but obviously not to his Wiltshire home. Their first son was still born in February 1794 in London. A second son, George Frederick was born the following year, also in London, after which George Richard removed his family to a hideaway in Wales.
Did Isabella never question why they lived their life in secrecy? Why her letters to her family went unanswered? George claimed to be unable to return home as his father Frederick was incensed that he had married a Catholic. Frederick, however, had been dead for more than five years and had spent his last years ‘out of his mind.’
After two years spent in hiding it would appear that George Richard’s cover was blown and the couple left Wales for America. On arriving in New York the couple first took a house in Greenwich Street where another son William James was born.
In 1798 George Richard brought a property in Elizabethville, New Jersey. Liberty Hall, a 14 room country house standing in 22 acres, was built in 1772 for William Livingstone, a New York lawyer who became Governor of New Jersey and famously signed the American Constitution in 1787 alongside George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
While Liberty Hall may have played a prominent part in America’s history, George Richard led an undercover existence, known as Lord Bolingbroke to friends only and as Mr Belasise to everyone else.
“He has been here nearly ten years now, and as they say means to return to England this year,” the Rt Hon Augustus John Foster wrote to his mother in September 1805. “She [Isabella] is anything but handsome; a little square German with broken teeth, but they say very amiable. Their children are remarkably fine. He flatters himself they he is not known here to be Lord Bolingbroke.”
Accounts of Isabella describe her as kind and thoughtful, perhaps unsurprisingly, a resilient character and a woman who found pleasure in everything.
Family friend and fellow exile Count Niemcewicz wrote in his diary after the couple returned to England that “Lady Bolingbroke who, although she was not beautiful, possessed not only all the virtues but also all the graces. She was calm and sweet with a lustful husband, the best possible mother, a good friend, with a heart in which trust follows respect once given.”
In a strange quirk of history, polish born Niemcewicz also deserted his wife Susan to return to Europe. Susan would end her days at Liberty Hall, the former Bolingbroke refuge, purchased by her son Peter Kean.
With the death of Charlotte in 1803 George Richard decided to come clean – there is no record of how poor Isabella received the news. So after a bigamous marriage, six illegitimate children and with Isabella pregnant yet again, the couple were legally wed on August 1, 1804 in Trinity Church, New York.
The following year they sold Liberty Hall to wealthy New York City merchant and philanthropist, Thomas Eddy for $12,500 and on June 6, 1806 set sail for England.
The arrival of the family at Lydiard Park must have set local squiredom tongues a wagging, or perhaps not. By then George Richard’s reputation was well known.
George’s last years were dogged by ill health. It was he who built the plunge pool on the edge of the lake in Lydiard Park in 1820, revealed during excavations in 2005 ahead of the £5 million parkland restoration.
In 1824 he left Lydiard with his daughter for a restorative tour of Italy. He died in Pisa on December 11, 1824. His body was returned for burial in the family vault at St Mary’s.
Isabella outlived her husband by more than twenty years. At the time of the 1841 census she was living in Torquay, close to her eldest son George who was a vicar there. She died in 1848.
George Richard is buried with his two wives in the St John vault beneath St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze. Sadly there are no known surviving portraits of either Charlotte Collins or Isabella Hompesch.