Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Eleanor Eden: The Woman Who Almost Married a Prime Minister

by Stephenie Woolterton

The Honourable Eleanor Eden,
engraved by Emery Walker
The Honourable Eleanor Agnes Eden, afterwards the 4th Countess of Buckinghamshire, is most remembered as the woman who nearly married Prime Minister William Pitt the younger in the late 1790s. Many of those who have read about William Pitt (1759-1806) will be aware that he never married, and may also know that at one time he had contemplated marriage to Lord Auckland’s eldest daughter. At the time, Pitt was 37 years old, and Eleanor was 19.

The vast majority of Pitt’s biographers have largely omitted any and all references to Pitt being interested in women (or quickly gloss over them in order to undermine their significance), as it does not fit with their notion of his alleged homosexual inclinations or asexuality. Indeed, one has gone so far as it assert that Pitt “never in his life showed interest in or affection for women.” [1]

I argue that this is far from the case. Dr. Burney, Fanny Burney’s father, remarked in September 1799 that “no one can be more cheerful, attentive, and polite to ladies than Mr. Pitt, which astonishes all those who, without seeing him, have taken for granted that he is no woman’s man, but a surly churl, from the accounts of his sarcastic enemies.” [2]

It is enjoyable to read first-hand anecdotes of Pitt as they help to furnish a rounded glimpse of his private life. Lady Hester Stanhope, Pitt’s niece, once said that he was “always polite to women, and [was] a great favourite with many of them.” [3] The diarist Nathaniel Wraxall, in his posthumous historical memoirs, mentions that Pitt had “in different periods of life distinguished certain ladies, some of whom I could name, by marks of great predilection.” [4]

Pitt’s sister Lady Harriot Eliot (then Lady Harriot Pitt) wrote to her mother from Bath on December 27, 1779, commenting, “I am amazed that you have not heard from William. Lady Charlotte [her emphasis] must be the cause.” [5]

Who was this Lady Charlotte in William’s life at the end of 1779? There is no other surviving evidence that mentions her, and her surname is unknown, but she must have spent a sufficient amount of time with William if both his sister Harriot at Bath (William was in London and Cambridge at the end of 1779) and his mother in Somerset knew of her. Perhaps it was a fleeting affair. Pitt was only 20 years old in 1779, and had not yet entered the grinding world of Parliament, so maybe he found time to be a beau. Although we will never know the whole of the matter, this snippet shows that William had affections for a lady.

Eleanor Agnes Eden
by John Hoppner (c. 1790s)
Another piece of evidence in support of Pitt’s interest in women is Lord Sidmouth’s (Henry Addington) testimony to John Wilson Croker when Croker came to visit him in 1838. Henry Addington knew Pitt from his childhood years. His father, Anthony Addington, had been Lord Chatham’s (Pitt the Elder) physician. Addington later went on to serve as Speaker of the House of Commons, and then briefly as Prime Minister (1801-04) in between Pitt’s two administrations. Despite their political differences, they were friends up until Pitt’s early death in 1806.

Sidmouth, aged 82 in 1838, said to Croker that “Pitt is never said to have had a female attachment; it is not true. He had, I believe, more than one. One I know of; it was to the present Dowager Countess of Buckinghamshire, then Miss Eden.” [6] Eleanor Eden was born on July 9, 1777, and she claims the spot as Pitt’s only confirmed love interest. In the autumn of 1796, many remarked upon how much time Pitt was spending at the Auckland family residence, and Pitt’s friends and political associates began to believe that there could be a marriage on the horizon.

William Pitt (the younger)
by Sir Joshua Lawrence (1807)
Lord Glenbervie recorded a weekend visit at Lord Auckland’s Eden Farm, near Bromley in Kent, when Pitt was also present. On November 20, 1796, Glenbervie wrote the following in his diary: “Pitt had dined and slept here [Eden Farm] the night before, and returned here with us last night after supper. He has been here five days in the week every week for the last two months [so presumably since at least September 1796]. The world supposes he is in love with Miss Eden.” [7]

After another day of direct observation of Pitt in the company of Eleanor, Lord Glenbervie was certain of Pitt’s romantic ardour. “From Pitt’s manner in a walk we took yesterday, his constantly sidling up to Eleanor, and particularly his reluctance to go away and various pretexts for staying beyond an hour when he told us he was engaged, I am now persuaded he is in love and means to marry her...How strange it would seem, and how offensive perhaps to the public both in England and Europe, if it was to be known that almost every day since the recess of Parliament the man [Pitt] on whom rests the interest of so many, the fate perhaps of this and future generations, the main burthen of the contest between the Allies and the French, have been spent here [at Eden Farm] in idleness and lounging and the Minister’s mind chiefly occupied with a passion which employs his thoughts the more from his awkward backwardness to speak, or his yet unsettled resolution on the subject.” [8]

Even the politician Edmund Burke mentioned the widely circulated rumour of Pitt’s intended marriage in a letter he addressed to Mrs. Crewe on December 27, 1796: “The talk of the town is of a marriage between a daughter of his [Lord Auckland’s] and Mr. Pitt; and that our statesman, our premier des hommes, will take his Eve from the garden of Eden.” [9]

However, not everyone was keen on the idea of Pitt marrying Auckland’s daughter. On December 7, 1796, Lord Glenbervie noted how Mrs. Drummond, Pitt’s political right-hand man Henry Dundas’s daughter, heard of the intended marriage: “After dinner Lady Loughborough asked Lady Katherine [Glenbervie’s wife] if she believed in Pitt’s marriage; that all Pitt’s friends believe it will be a match; that she thinks all very right, except the father-in-law [Lord Auckland]. She added that she had said the other day to Mrs. Drummond [Dundas’s daughter], ‘How long do you think my husband and your father will continue in the Cabinet if this marriage takes place?’ There was a good deal of sagacity in the question, enough to indicate the reflections of a greater politician than Lady Loughborough.” [10]

From the same diary entry, Glenbervie reflects on Dundas’s uncomfortable silence in Auckland’s presence when they were recently at Eden Farm:

“When we were at Eden Farm about ten days ago, the conversation turned, at breakfast, on the Dundas’s. Lord Auckland said he thought Dundas out of spirits, which Pitt denied having observed. We all agreed that he [Dundas] was never much of a talker. Pitt qualified it by saying, ‘Never in a mixed company,’ but added a strong instance where the only company was himself, William Grant (the King’s Counsel), and Dundas. He [Pitt] said, after being himself for some time at the whole expense of the conversation, he had stopped and waited to see if either of them would begin any subject and that he literally waited without effect, a dead silence having prevailed for all that time.” [11]

Finally, a further entry of Lord Glenbervie from December 21, 1796 bears out Lord Auckland’s tendency for political intrigue. It also alludes to the reservations other leading politicians may have been expressing concerning a potential marital alliance between Pitt and Eleanor Eden. That day, Glenbervie, Auckland, and Mr. Lowndes were appointed by Pitt to discuss the subject of Pitt’s Poor Bill. Pitt’s intention was to move to bring the bill forward in the House the following day:

“While Pitt was out of the room and Lord Auckland remained there tete-a-tete, I asked him if he was going to have the Privy Seal. He said, ‘I do not know what I am to have…I am not impatient…If this Treasuryship of the Navy could be opened it would make an arrangement for us all very easy.’ I infer from thence that he not only is intriguing for himself to have that office, but that he supposed I was apprised in some degree of some negotiation, or at least some plan of Pitt’s respecting it. But I do not think Dundas will easily quit his hold of an office which from so long enjoyment he must consider in a manner as his estate, and I should be very sorry, and should think Pitt very unwise, if he were to urge any arrangement in a manner unsatisfactory to Dundas.” [12]

What can we glean from Lord Glenbervie’s observations? He certainly wasn’t close to Pitt, but he was a direct observer of Pitt’s time with Miss Eleanor Eden. Glenbervie was also not alone in his assessment that Pitt was in love with Miss Eden. Intriguingly, some of Glenbervie’s journal observations of November and December 1796 seem to bear out the argument that any marriage between Pitt and Auckland’s daughter could have been politically ruinous to Pitt. Dundas and Lord Loughborough seemed to have had their serious reservations about Auckland, and Auckland himself so much as directly stated to Glenbervie that he wanted Dundas’s position (or the Privy Seal). It is clear from this that Dundas feared and disliked the idea of Pitt marrying Lord Auckland’s daughter, and was potentially worried about the amount of influence Auckland could exert over Pitt if he became his father in-law.

In the end, Pitt chose not to marry Eleanor Eden. Some may conclude that Pitt never married because he was not attracted to women, but that in and of itself, especially given the times in which Pitt lived, was not a motivation to stop him from marrying. If anything, marriage would have bolstered Pitt’s reputation. Alternative explanations suggested have been his poor health and his pecuniary indebtedness. Pitt was chronically in debt all of his adult life, but again, this did not usually stop others.

Pitt’s reasons behind ending the courtship remain a mystery. There are, however, some unbound draft letters, and the letters he finally sent to Auckland, which are still in existence. Pitt’s letter to Auckland detailing his painful decision not to marry Eleanor has been printed in its entirety in several places, including Rosebery’s (1900) Letters Relating to the Love Episode of William Pitt and William Hague’s (2004) William Pitt the Younger.

What has never been published are the draft letters Pitt wrote before he sent the final letters to Auckland. These letters, still unbound, are located at The British Library. [13] They are completely separate from the rest of the Auckland papers, and form the private correspondence between William Pitt and Lord Auckland regarding Pitt breaking off his relationship with Eleanor Eden.

Eleanor, Countess of Buckinghamshire
by Emery Walker
The initial draft letter from Pitt to Auckland is undated. In it, Pitt avowed that, “I should not do justice to my own Feelings or explain myself as frankly as I wish to do, if I did not own that every hour of my Acquaintance with her has served to augment and confirm that Impression, [the line ‘I have however the mortification of thinking that I have given way to It farther than I ought to have done’ is scratched out] and to convince me that whoever may have the Good Fortune to be united with her is likely to have more than his share of Human happiness.” [14] Nevertheless, in no uncertain terms Pitt came to his decision, unequivocally stating that “…after the fullest and calmest Reflection, that I am capable of on every Circumstance that ought to come under my Consideration (for her sake at least as much as for my own), I am unalterably convinced that the obstacles to it are decisive and insurmountable.” [15]

After Auckland received Pitt’s first letter on January 20, 1797, he was obviously displeased. One can’t even begin to imagine how Eleanor was feeling. Her innermost feelings for Pitt have never been publicly recorded, but as Auckland refers to her not leaving her room for several days afterwards, it can be inferred that she was in love with Pitt. Auckland himself desired to meet with Pitt in person to discuss Pitt’s reasoning for not marrying Eleanor. He was hoping that an interval of time might elapse whereby the insurmountable circumstances barring the marriage might be overcome. Pitt’s mind, however, was firmly decided. He was not the type of man to settle painful personal matters face-to-face, hence why he broke it off by letter.

Henry Addington, then the Speaker of the House of Commons, was privy to the secret of Pitt’s interest in Eleanor Eden. Judging by the contents of Pitt’s letter to Addington dated January 23, 1797, the day after the relationship with Eden was officially considered as over, Addington may also have known the reasons underpinning why Pitt ended it. Unfortunately, Pitt does not tell all in his letters. Indeed, he was always very careful with what he wrote. In reference to the pain of breaking it off with Eleanor, Pitt tells Addington that “…I trust I can command my Feelings enough to bear the rest, and not to be wanting either to the Calls of Public Duty, or to what yet remains to me of the Private Relations of Life.” [16]

Pitt seemed to be emotionally affected by the situation. His resolve was firm and unwavering; he would not change his mind once his decision had been made. Discussion was futile, but Pitt wasn’t unfeeling: he hoped that “the Shock has been as little distressful in its Consequences, to any Part of the Family.” [17]

In his final draft letter on the matter to Auckland, he entreated him, “believe me, I have not lightly or easily sacrificed my best hopes and [‘most ardent’ is scratched out] earnest Wishes to my Conviction and Judgment.” [18] In all of this, Eleanor’s feelings are not accounted for or explained. She was a nineteen year-old girl, and Pitt was probably her first love.

Two years later, on June 1, 1799, Eleanor married Robert Hobart, the Earl of Buckinghamshire, and she became the Countess of Buckinghamshire. Pitt died less than 7 years later, in 1806, at the age of 46, and Eleanor remained married to Lord Hobart for 16 years until his sudden death in 1816. She had no children, and remained the Dowager Countess of Buckinghamshire for the last 35 years of her life.

Eleanor died at the age of 74 in October 1851, and was buried at Nocton, Lincolnshire, with her husband [19]. She seems to have been a very private, benevolent woman. Eleanor was a very close correspondent with her youngest sister Emily Eden (who was born in 1797 – the year Pitt broke it off with Eleanor), although there is virtually nothing in the public record about Eleanor’s life. In 1861, Emily Eden wrote to Earl Stanhope that Eleanor had “the greatest dislike to the whole subject [of Pitt], and was so urgent against any mention of it.” [20] It is unlikely at this juncture that Eleanor’s true sentiments will ever be known. What can be affirmed is that she was the closest anyone ever got to marrying William Pitt the younger.

In Pitt’s final letter to Auckland, he closes with the following moving words: “I have only to hope that Reading this Letter will no where be attended with half the pain I have felt in writing It.” [21]


1.     Reilly, R. (1978) Pitt the Younger. London: Cassell, p. 332.
2.   Burney (1832) Memoirs of Dr. Burney arranged from his own manuscripts, from family papers, and from personal recollections by his daughter, Volume 3, pp. 278-280.
3.   Lady Hester Stanhope’s recollections to Mr. Madden (1829) The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, p. 361.
4.   Wraxall’s Historical Memoirs, in Waldie, A. (1837) The Select Circulating Library, Volume 9, Part 1, p. 165.
5.     Eliot, H. (ed. by Cuthbert Headlam) (1914) The Letters of Lady Harriot Eliot, 1766-1786. Edinburgh: Constable, p. 45-46.
6. Croker, J.W. (ed. by Louis John Jennings) (1885) The Croker Papers: The Correspondence and Diaries of the late Right Honourable John Wilson Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty from 1809 to 1830, Volume 2. London: John Murray, p. 338.
7.    Bickley, F. (ed.) (1928) The Diaries of Sylvester Douglas, Lord Glenbervie, Volume 1. London: Constable, p. 98.
8.     Ibid, pp. 98-99.
9.   ‘The Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; between the Year 1744 and the period of his decease in 1797, Volume 4,’ (1844) edited by Charles William, Earl Fitzwilliam and Sir Richard Bourke. London: Francis & John Rivington, p. 417.
10. Bickley, F. (ed.) The Diaries of Sylvester Douglas, Lord Glenbervie, Volume 1, p. 102.
11.  Ibid, p. 103.
12.  Ibid, p. 107.
13.  The British Library reference is BL Add Ms 59704.
14.  William Pitt to Lord Auckland, British Library, Add Ms 59704, ff. 1-6.
15.  Ibid.
  6. William Pitt to Henry Addington, January 23, 1797. Devon Record Office, Sidmouth MSS: 152M/C1797/OZ/7.
17.  Ibid.
18. William Pitt to Lord Auckland (draft letter), January 22, 1797. British Library Add Ms 59704, ff. 15-18.
20. The Hon. Emily Eden to Earl Stanhope. 1861. Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C60/20.
21. William Pitt to Lord Auckland (draft letter), January 22, 1797. British Library Add Ms 59704, f. 18.

Image Credits:

Figure 1: The Honourable Eleanor Eden, engraved by Emery Walker. Image is taken from Lord Ashbourne’s “Pitt: Some Chapters of his Life and Times” (1898), p. 230.

Figure 2: Eleanor Agnes Eden by John Hoppner (c. 1790s). She became Eleanor Hobart, the 4th Countess of Buckinghamshire, upon her marriage. Source:http://www.historicalportraits.com/Gallery.asp?Page=Item&ItemID=27&Desc=Eleanor-Eden-%7C-John-Hoppner.

Figure 3: A posthumous portrait of William Pitt (the younger) by Sir Joshua Lawrence (1807). The Royal Collection Trust. RCIN 400645.

Figure 4: Eleanor, Countess of Buckinghamshire by Emery Walker (c. 1830s). Source: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41400/41400-h/41400-h.htm.

About the Author:

Stephenie Woolterton has an MSc in Social Research, and a background in Psychology. She is currently researching and writing her first book on the private life of William Pitt the Younger. She is also working on a historical novel about Pitt’s ‘one love story’ with Eleanor Eden.

She blogs at: www.theprivatelifeofpitt.com and can be contacted via Twitter at: www.twitter.com/anoondayeclipse

Written content of this post copyright © Stephenie Woolterton, 2014.

1 comment:

  1. She is also working on a historical novel about Pitt’s ‘one love story’ with Eleanor Eden.

    Looking forward to this. Fascinating time


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