Photo of the Day

A contemporary French print of an English wife sale.

“Wedlock”

One of the Queen’s direct ancestors escaped from eight years of marriage to a “despicable rogue” who imprisoned and tortured her for her fortune

Tragedy made Mary Eleanor Bowes the richest child in Britain. Mary was one of the wealthiest women in Britain: an heiress worth £1 million (over £150 million in today’s money) and raised in a life of privilege. Yet in the late 1700s, no amount of money or status could save her from the man described as Georgian Britain’s worst husband. At a time when women had no legal rights and were not even recognised as separate beings in marriage, divorce was taboo.

This tale set in the late 1700s of a wealthy, intelligent heiress tricked into marriage with one of the worst human beings who ever lived. “Wedlock” is truly the correct title as it evokes the image of being chained, locked, stuck in a marriage. Mary Eleanor has a loveless first marriage, but her marriage to Andrew Stoney (he takes her last name as stipulated in her very smart father’s will) is truly horrific. Stoney physically and mentally abuses Mary: punching, kicking, burning, starving, isolating, etc. And then there’s the fact that a woman had no legal protection from this sort of behaviour. It was a husband’s right to treat his wife as he chose.

When a woman married, she surrendered her wealth to her husband. And such was the legal system and social mores that a man could verbally and physically abuse his wife with impunity. For eight years, Mary endured just such a humiliating fate at the hands of her second husband, the vicious adulterer Andrew Robinson Stoney-Bowes.

With the death of her fabulously wealthy coal magnate father when she was just eleven, Mary Eleanor Bowes became the richest heiress in Britain. An ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II, Mary grew to be a highly educated young woman, winning acclaim as a playwright and botanist. Courted by a bevvy of eager suitors, at eighteen she married the handsome but aloof ninth Earl of Strathmore in a celebrated, if ultimately troubled, match that forged the Bowes Lyon name. Yet she stumbled headlong into scandal when, following her husband’s early death, a charming young army hero flattered his way into the merry widow’s bed.

Captain Andrew Robinson Stoney insisted on defending her honour in a duel, and Mary was convinced she had found true love. Judged by doctors to have been mortally wounded in the melee, Stoney persuaded Mary to grant his dying wish; four days later they were married.

Sadly, the “Captain” was not what he seemed. Staging a sudden and remarkable recovery, Stoney was revealed as a debt-ridden lieutenant, a fraudster, and a bully. Immediately taking control of Mary’s vast fortune, he squandered her wealth and embarked on a campaign of appalling violence and cruelty against his new bride. Finally, fearing for her life, Mary masterminded an audacious escape and challenged social conventions of the day by launching a suit for divorce. The English public was horrified–and enthralled. But Mary’s troubles were far from over . . .

Georgian Britain was a man’s world.  Stoney was wily, cunning and possessed an impressive Machiavellian mind. But he was also vicious, extravagant, ruthlessly ambitious and a consummate actor, able to maintain his façade is polite company. Under his complete control, Mary was cut off from her friends and children and endured years of brutal domestic violence. She effectively became her husband’s prisoner, and would later describe him as “the greatest monster that ever disgraced the human shape and at the same time, the most artful”.

Mary Eleanor Bowes

Born at Streatlam Castle in Streatlam and Stainton, County Durham, on 24 February 1749, Mary Eleanor Bowes was the daughter of George Bowes, a wealthy coal magnate. In 1760, her father, wealthy coal magnate George Bowles, passed suddenly. He left his 11-year-old daughter his fortune with some strings attached.

Determined to keep the Bowes name alive, her father specified in his will that his only daughter would never take another man’s name through marriage — though nothing in the will would protect her or her finances from falling under the control of a future spouse.

Bowes would come to this unfortunate realization over time, albeit not initially.

He died when Mary he left her a fortune estimated at between £600,000 and £1,040,000. Overnight, the young girl became one of the richest, if not the richest, heiresses in England. Possessing such a fortune could easily have gone to her head but instead, Mary, an intelligent and intellectual girl unafraid to speak her mind, decided to invest her money in botany, for which she had a huge passion. For instance, she built experimental hothouses where she could cultivate exotic plants.

Being wealthy and beautiful, it’s not surprising that Mary attracted many suitors to her hand. She seems to have encouraged the attentions of John Stuart, the eldest son of Lord Bute, then Prime Minister, and of Campbell Scott, the younger brother of the Duke of Buccleuch, but in the end she didn’t choose either of them. Instead, she became engaged, aged only 16, to John Lyon, the 9th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne.

At age 18 she wed John Lyon, the ninth Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorn. Lyon, an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II, took Bowes’ name per her father’s stipulation, which required an Act of Parliament to make official.

Some of their children, would, however, choose the surname Bowes-Lyon.

The early marriage to John Lyon – the 9th Earl of Strathmore –  produced five children but was far from happy.

The Earl, though a striking looking man, did not share Mary’s interests and the pair had little in common. Mary enjoyed several flirtations and threw herself into the social melee.

The pair had little in common, and because divorce was both rare and difficult to obtain in those days, Bowes resigned herself to the idea of living out her days in an unhappy union.

John Lyon and Mary Eleanor Bowes

Mary gave birth to five children in six years: Maria Jane, John, 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, Anna Maria, George and Thomas, 11th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. Mary’s husband used her money to restore his family seat, Glamis Castle. In the meantime Mary was busy with her botany projects, financing the explorer William Paterson’s expedition to the Cape in 1777 where he collected plants for her, and in 1769, also self-published The Siege Of Jerusalem, a poetical drama. A few years after their marriage, the Earl contracted tuberculosis. As his health weakened, Mary started taking lovers. She became a widow on 7 March 1776, when the Earl died at sea on his way to Portugal.

When the Earl died at sea in 1776, nine years after their wedding, Mary was more relieved than bereft.

A widow with a young family (third-born son Thomas was the great-great-grandfather of the late Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon), she hoped to make a more fortuitous second match. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

At the time, Mary was expecting a child by her lover, George Gray. Although she was now free to marry him, she was reluctant to do so. Not only she would lose her high rank (Grey belonged to an inferior social class), but he had also squandered away his own fortune.

Mary hastily arranged a marriage before her pregnancy became obvious.

Before she could finalise the union (though she had taken legal steps to pass on her fortune to her children, instead of her soon-to-be second husband), a rival for her affections appeared.

Widowed sea captain Andrew Robinson Stoney – who, unbeknown to Mary, had abused his wealthy first wife, locking her in cupboards and forcing her to subsist on just an egg a day — had ingratiated himself with her circle.

Stoney Bowes

Sea captain Andrew Robinson Stoney –  with a history of domestic abuse (though this detail went unbeknownst to Bowes until it was too late), Stoney began hanging around Bowes’ crowd, using his charm and good looks to get close to the wealthy, and technically single, widow.

Charming and handsome, he seduced her but failed to convince her to break off her engagement to Gray in favour of him. So he launched an audacious plan to win her hand. A plan so elaborate, one would be tempted to call it impressive, were its ends not so vile.

Stoney started out by fabricating derogatory stories about Bowes’ character, which he published anonymously in the gossip section of The Morning Post, a popular newspaper. Then, in a double-bluff, he challenged the editor of the paper to a duel to defend Mary’s honour.
Stoney publicly lost, and the duel left him wounded, bloody, and near-death in the streets. When Bowes arrived to find the man who gave his life to vindicate her name, she agreed to marry him after hearing that his only dying wish was to be her husband.

Mary and daughter

What Bowes didn’t know was that the entire thing was staged. Stoney had not only bribed the editor of the paper to fake the duel, but also a local doctor to corroborate. The doctor doused Stoney in animal’s blood and declared him almost dead.

A reluctant Bowes only consented to marry Stoney after finding him in such a condition, expecting him to live no more than a few days at best. Stoney’s health unsurprisingly improved, and he would go on to subject his wife to physical and psychological torture for eight long years.

The abuse began right away and started with Stoney’s censorship and total control of everything that might connect Bowes to the outside world, such as her mail. He banned her mother and many of her friends from visiting her at home, and on the rare occasions that she was allowed to leave the premises she was followed by servants, who reported back with the details of her every move.

Physical violence soon followed, and Bowes would suffer countless beatings. Sometimes Stoney punched and kicked Bowes; at other times he would club her with a candlestick or the handle of his sword.

Stoney’s first wife, Hannah, was the daughter of William Newton of Burnopfield. It was widely believed that Stoney Bowes caused her death in order to assume her inheritance. After his marriage to the Countess, he behaved brutally towards her. Among other outrages, he imprisoned her in her own house and forced her and one of her daughters to go into exile in Paris. They returned after a writ had been served on him. At the same time, he raped the maids, invited prostitutes into the home and fathered numerous illegitimate children.

Her new husband also attempted to take immediate control over Bowes’ vast fortune — but that came to a halt after he discovered a legal document that guaranteed all of her wealth to be passed onto her children.

Enraged, the beatings intensified. When he discovered that she had secretly made a prenuptial agreement safeguarding the profits of her estate for her own use, he forced her to sign a revocation handing control to him. and instead transferred total control of Bowes’ money and estate over to him.

This prompted Bowes’ ex-brother-in-law, Thomas Lyon, to remove his nieces and nephews from her care out of fear that Stoney would attempt to control the children. Thus Bowes was left alone with her abuser and would continue to suffer to the point that she started to believe that she deserved the beatings.

Andrew Robinson Bowes Esq. as he appeared in the Court of King’s Bench, on November 28, 1786, to answer the articles brought against him by his wife, the Countess of Strathmore.

Subdued and submissive, she began to believe the beatings were her own fault. Her plump face became gaunt, her fine clothes shabby and she lost her appetite and sparkle.

Cruelly, Stoney insisted that Mary be curt and often downright rude in company, to perpetuate a myth he had circulated that she was a truculent wife.

Behind closed doors, the opposite was true. By then drinking heavily, Stoney’s brutality intensified.

In 1778, Mary wrote: ‘He beat me several times, particularly once with a thick stick, the head of which was heavy with lead, and with the handle of a horsewhip.’

Living in fear of the violence, Mary knew there was little she could do in her defence. Not only was marital violence common and tolerated, it was supported by law. A legal manual published in 1736 permitted husbands to beat their wives lawfully to ‘keep them to their duties’.

Mary’s predicament soon became even worse. When she fell pregnant with Stoney’s child, he continued to beat her and denied her the food she craved. When their son, William, was born, the abuse intensified.

Stoney bedded and impregnated the wet nurse – once even sleeping with her in the same bedroom as his wife.

Mary would later write of the time that Stoney ‘used me with more cruelty and indignity than ever’.

At one point he beat her so viciously around the eyes that ‘the whole room appeared in a blaze’.

On another, she was left temporarily deaf by blows to the head.

As the assaults increased – often with the use of a knife – Mary discovered that Stoney had taken out a slew of life insurance policies on her.

Refused money for clothes, shoes and undergarments, Mary’s dishevelled appearance began to resemble that of the lowliest servant – but it was to prove her salvation. When a new maid arrived at the couple’s London home on Grosvenor Square – appointed by the family chaplain and not Stoney, who usually employed prostitutes as servants – Mary found an ally.

Educated, devoutly religious and with a strong sense of propriety, Mary Morgan was appalled by the abuse she witnessed. Though understandably fearful for her own safety, she agreed to help Mary escape and enlisted the help of three women servants.

On the evening of Thursday, February 3, 1785, Stoney left their Grosvenor Square home to dine with a relation – and Mary instigated her daring plan.

While Mary Morgan and a fellow maid feigned a quarrel to distract the guards, the lady of the house rushed below stairs, covered her tattered gown with a servant’s cloak and tucked her hair under a maid’s bonnet before scurrying into the night.

The richest heiress in Britain made her way through the foggy streets to hail a hackney carriage. Stoney, who had been alerted to her escape, unwittingly hurtled past in another coach, his head hanging out of the window as he scoured the streets for his wife.

When she reached her hideaway in the City, Mary was joined by the four servants who had helped her. She immediately launched legal proceedings to divorce Stoney – citing cruelty and barbarity, and producing witnesses, as the law demanded – and reclaim all her children.

Relying on handouts from friends and servants (Stoney controlled her fortune and had custody of her two youngest children), Mary set about reclaiming her inheritance, with the help of a former footman who had retained a copy of the deed in which she had signed over the money to her children.

For a few months, using an assumed name, Mary enjoyed freedom at her hideaway, until one fateful day when Stoney intercepted a food parcel from one of her farmer tenants and learned of her address. Realising his only hope of maintaining Mary’s fortune was to persuade her to return to him, he hired a group of hoodlums to kidnap her in broad daylight.

They fled to the North, with the police and Mary’s supporters in hot pursuit. For ten days of unimaginable hardship, Stoney and his cohorts tried to persuade Mary to surrender her body and mind. She was gagged and beaten, threatened with rape, starved and forced to ride bareback and barely clothed across the Pennines during the coldest winter of the century.

Finally, the prisoner and her captor were spotted by a ploughman and Mary was freed. Stoney was found guilty of assault and jailed for three years.

Mary had been so weakened by her ordeal that she could not stand for a month or walk across a room for six weeks. When her strength began to return, she continued divorce proceedings.

It would take four years – due in part to Stoney’s cunning and prevarication – before she divorced him on the grounds of cruelty. Even from his cell, Stoney waged a dirty war against his estranged wife, accusing her of infidelity and bad behaviour, as he fought to hang on to her fortune and her two youngest children.

The divorce case, with the additional legal battles regarding these incidents, were sensational. Although the public initially felt sorry for Mary, they soon turned on her when news of her affairs became known. Of course, Stoney added fuel to the fire, making a series of seedy claims about Mary, even purchasing shares in a newspaper so he could print the memoir he had forced her to write! The public also didn’t like the fact that Mary had tried to prevent her husband from gaining access to her fortune. Finally, the deed in which Mary had signed over her wealth to her husband was overturned. Her fortune and beloved children were returned to her, and Stoney was imprisoned.

The various trials were reported in detail by the Press and Mary’s name was sullied. It was only the sheer volume of witnesses attesting to Stoney’s ill treatment which eventually saw her win a landmark case.

Indeed, one judge described her as ‘the most persecuted woman that ever was’. Mary was physically safe, but her reputation never recovered. The public also didn’t like the fact that Mary had tried to prevent her husband from gaining access to her fortune.

Mary spent the remainder of her life living quietly in the country, where her obsession with animals (she insisted her cook prepare hot meals for them) meant she was regarded as an eccentric.

She never remarried, her reputation and social standing having been damaged permanently by Stoney’s libellous slanders.

When her loyal maid Mary Morgan died in 1796, Mary was bereft. She followed her to the grave in 1800. Buried by her own demand in the dress she had worn to marry the Earl of Strathmore, she was laid to rest in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. One of Mary’s final wishes was the large statue of Lady Liberty that had watched over Mary’s childhood home, but in death, Mary would wish for a statue of Lady Justice to watch over her grave.

Born into wealth, blessed with the best education of the day and encouraged by a progressive father, Mary could have achieved greatness as a writer, linguist or botanist, had not her ambitions been stifled by her first husband and strangled by the next.

Instead, she achieved something of much more significance and far-reaching importance. By pitting her wits against one of history’s vilest husbands and the legal and religious establishment – at a time when women enjoyed little protection – she won a historic divorce case which would stand as a beacon of hope to inspire campaigners in the battle for women’s rights.

Selling a Wife (1812–14), by Thomas Rowlandson. The painting gives the viewer the impression that the wife was a willing party to the sale.

Between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth century in England, there was a strange and fascinating custom called wife-selling.

A husband takes his wife and child to the local market, intending to sell them both to the highest bidder. Yes, this is the introduction to the 1886 Thomas Hardy novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, but it was also a commonly practised custom among the poor of old England.

Back in the early-to-mid 1800s, “wife selling” offered itself to many Brits as an easier and less costly alternative to a traditional divorce.

Before 1857, the year that the first divorce court would appear in England, divorcing one’s spouse was a tough and costly endeavour. In order to legally file for the dissolution of a marriage, you’d need a private Act of Parliament and the blessing of a church — necessities that would, today, cost around $15,000.

Because the average working-class man typically could not afford such rates, he would simply transfer “ownership” of his wife to the highest bidder in a public auction, much the same way one would sell a cow or a goat.

In fact, the details of these public auctions exactly resembled the buying and selling of any other such commodity. Walking together to the public market or local cattle auction, the husband would simply pay a market toll before placing his wife upon a stand, tethered to her seller from the wrist or waist by a thick strand of rope.

Now displayed at the auction block for all to see, buyers would sometimes haggle with the seller until reaching an agreed upon price. And just like that, the unhappy couple was together no more.

While the custom seems especially strange and even offensive to most people today, it is important to remember that, before the Marriage Act of 1753, the law did not require a formal wedding ceremony, making the matrimonious pairing of a couple essentially nothing more than an agreed-upon arrangement. The husband and wife would, however, be formally regarded as one legal personage, with the man now incorporating the woman’s rights.

Wife selling

A French depiction of Milord John Bull, heading to Smithfield Market to sell his wife.

During this period there wasn’t a year without a newspaper report of a court case involving the sale of a wife. Between 1780 and 1850, around 300 wives were sold.

The first divorce was established in 1857 and before that it was very difficult and costly to dissolve a marriage.

In order to make a divorce legal, it required a private Act of Parliament and that would cost at least £3,000 (£15,000 at present day values) and in the end blessing of the church.

The average man could not afford an annulment and the only alternative to divorce was to separate through the process of a public sale. In poor districts, a wife was considered a chattel to be bought and sold like any other commodity.

The husband would take his wife to the marketplace or cattle auction and register his wife as a good of sale and a rope was placed around her neck, waist or wrist, and they were made to stand on an auction block.

It was an illegal practice but also the only alternative for the average man and the authorities turned a blind eye to it.

When the deal was done they would go to the local tavern to celebrate the successful transaction. Almost every single wife went on sale or to an auction of her own volition and held a veto over where she went next.

In many cases, the sale would be announced in advance in a local newspaper and the purchaser was arranged in advance. The sale was just a form of symbolic separation.

One of the first reported cases of wife selling took place in 1733, in Birmingham, where Samuel Whitehouse sold his wife, Mary Whitehouse, in the open market to Thomas Griffiths for about one English pound.

There are also cases where the wife is sometimes reported as having insisted on the sale and for many women, this was the only way out of an unhappy marriage.

Wife selling reached its high point in the 1820s and 1830s and husbands who wanted to sell their wives came under extreme social pressure and the practice waned.

This didn’t mean that there weren’t any more cases of wife selling and the most recent case was reported in 1913 when a woman claimed that her husband sold her to one of his workmates for £1.

Wife selling (English custom) – Wikipedia

Poor Men In 19th-Century Sold Wives To Highest Bidders – ViralNova

The strange English custom of wife-selling – Vintage News

Wife Selling: The 19th Century Alternative To Divorce | mgtow – Voat

Andrew Robinson Stoney – Wikipedia

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