When you were younger did you ever dream that one day you would meet a prince, be swept off your feet, and then get married and live happily ever after? Well, then you may not be too surprised to learn that during the Georgian period two beautiful sisters from fairly humble origins took London Society by storm and then married into some of the most aristocratic families in the land. These two beauties were Maria and Elizabeth Gunning, and their wit, liveliness and good looks captured the public interest and their fame led to them being mobbed when they promenaded in the park and spectators standing on chairs when they were presented at Court.
So how did two unknown girls, lacking in fortune and connections, ever reach these dizzy heights? The sisters were born around 1733 in Hemingford Grey in Huntingdonshire, the daughters of an Irishman called John Gunning and his wife the Honourable Bridget Bourke. They were raised in genteel poverty and in 1740 or early 1741 the family returned to Ireland where they rented a house in Dublin and also resided in the ancestral home of Castlecoote House, County Roscommon. As soon as they were old enough it seemed that the Gunning sisters started working in the theatres of Dublin to boost the family income, which was very unusual for daughters of the gentry during the Georgian period, as it was widely assumed that most actresses were also courtesans.
However, in 1748 they were still regarded as respectable enough to be invited to a ball hosted at Dublin Castle by Viscountess Petersham. It is said that at this point the Gunning sisters were so impecunious that they could not even afford to buy suitable ball gowns for the occasion, and that they were rescued by a theatre manager called Tom Sheridan who lent them a Lady Macbeth and a Juliet costume to wear to the dance. At some point during the ball they were presented the Earl of Harrington, who was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and they made such a good impression on this noble personage that in 1750 he granted their mother a generous pension.
On receipt of her pension their mother immediately swept the Gunning sisters back to England and their house in Huntingdon, where they entered local Society. The two beautiful girls were an instant hit at nearby Assemblies and balls, and soon their fame had even spread as far as London. They soon moved to the capital, where their celebrity continued to grow, taking Polite Society by storm. They were even accorded the honour of being presented at Court in December, 1750, an event which was even chronicled in the newspapers of the day.
The Gunning sisters were much courted and admired, and in January 1752 Elizabeth Gunning was introduced to the Duke of Hamilton. This fateful meeting led to a whirlwind courtship and at a St Valentine’s Day party in Bedford House the Duke threw caution to the wind and demanded that a local parson marry them then and there. The parson refused as the Duke of Hamilton had not procured a licence and the banns had not been called. Undeterred by this setback, the Duke took his bride-to-be to the Mayfair Chapel, where they were married without a licence and with a ring taken from a bed curtain. These ceremonies were known as ‘clandestine marriages’ and although regarded as somewhat improper were legally binding and valid.
As Duchess of Hamilton, Elizabeth Gunning bore three children, but unfortunately the Duke passed away in 1758. She had not lost her allure, however, and attracted the attention of the Duke of Bridgewater, and entered into an engagement with this illustrious gentleman. However, for reasons that are not known, the engagement was terminated, and in 1759 she married John Campbell, Marquess of Lorne. In 1770 Elizabeth Gunning became the Duchess of Argyll when her husband succeeded to the dukedom, and she went on to have a further five children. She was a great favourite with the royal family, and between 1761 and 1784 she served as a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte and King George III created her the Baroness Hamilton of Hameldon in her own right. The impoverished Irish beauty had become one of the greatest ladies in the land and she was also the darling of some of the period’s finest artists, being painted by both Gavin Hamilton and Sir Joshua Reynolds. She lived to the age of 57 and passed away on 20th December 1790 in her London home, Argyll House and was laid to rest at Kilmun in Argyllshire.
In contrast, her sister, Maria Gunning, lived a much shorter and arguably less respectable life. As beautiful as her sister, Maria Gunning was also well known for being incredibly tactless. In London Society this tactlessness just added to her popularity, and she even told King George II that the spectacle that she would most like to witness was a royal funeral. Fortunately George II found this comment amusing, and Maria went on to marry the 6th Earl of Coventry in March 1752. The noble couple took themselves off on a tour of the Continent for their honeymoon, taking along Lady Petersham in their train. The two women did not seem to overly enjoy this trip, and the new Countess of Coventry took a special dislike to the romantic and sophisticated city of Paris. This might have been because her husband was beginning to show his controlling tendencies, and was refusing to allow her to wear the excessive rouge on her face that was so fashionable in Paris at that time. As the story goes, the Earl even went as far as wiping her face with his handkerchief when she appeared at dinner with an overly made up face.
When they returned to London, Maria Gunning’s popularity had not waned, and she even had to have her own guard to keep her from being mobbed in the park that was headed by the Earl of Pembroke. She was not immune from scandal however, as her husband became involved with the notorious courtesan Kitty Fisher, and the two women even clashed over the Earl in public. She was probably no angel either, as it was rumoured that she had an inappropriate romantic liaison with the Duke of Grafton.
But the Countess of Coventry was not to enjoy a long life. Despite her husband’s protestations, she continued to wear the heavy face make-up that was so fashionable at the end of the eighteenth century. Unfortunately these cosmetics contained lead and arsenic, which are both highly toxic. These toxic ingredients would have caused the skin to become highly irritated and break out and would probably have prompted Maria Gunning to have plastered on even more of the make up to cover these skin imperfections. Continued overuse of the toxic cosmetics eventually caused lead poisoning, which in this case proved fatal, and Maria died on 30th September 1760 at the tragically young age of 27.
So, it was possible for two unknown and impoverished Irish beauties to capture the hearts of fashionable society and marry rich, powerful men. For one of the Gunning sisters it was unfortunately not a case of happy ever after, but is shows that the rest of us can still dream on. One day our prince just might arrive on his white charger!
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