tells of the eccentric MP for Athboy, Co. Meath – born 300 years ago this month – who thought he was a teapot, and was afraid his spout might break off.
Many people have had delusions of grandeur: Cork’s Edward Kenealy claimed he was the Twelfth Messenger of God, and Anna Anderson was convinced she was Anastasia, Tsar Nicholas II’s youngest daughter. As for all those professing to be Napoleon Bonaparte, let’s not go there.
Less well-documented are people who believed they were pieces of crockery. John Bligh, 3rd Earl of Darnley, was born in 1719, near Gravesend, Kent. The Bligh family-owned land in nearby Cobham, as well as most of Athboy.
When he was eight years old, he was sent to Westminster School, with other boys from wealthy families. From there, he was admitted to Merton College, Oxford, graduating with an MA in 1738.
Before taking up residence on the Darnley estate, at Clifton, Co. Meath, Bligh did the grand tour of Italy — the educational luxury of the day — paid for by his elder brother, Edward. In a somewhat pathetic letter to Edward from Rome, in 1740, he whinged about the hot weather, bad air, “excessive dear prices,” and unpaid bills that were causing him “uneasiness” and “great distress,” and begged him to send more money.
Back in Ireland, tenant farmers had long-detested the Darnleys. “The first Lord Darnley served Cromwell as a butcher, butchering the Irish…” (T. Ua Conmhidhe, Stories and Legends). They were never “conventional” or “average” characters,” says E. Wingfield-Stratford (The Lords of Cobham Hall, 1959), but the 3rd Earl, by all accounts, was quirkier than most.
Outwardly, John Bligh appeared “solid” and “capable,” a man “terribly conscious of his own dignity.” His eccentricities did not stop him becoming MP for Athboy — which he represented from 1739 until 1748 — and for Maidstone, Kent — which he served from 1741 to 1747.
That very year, when Edward died, aged 31, John succeeded to the title and family estates. These included Cobham Hall, Kent, which his father had ‘come into’ following his profitable marriage to a wealthy heiress.
After failing to be elected MP for Tregony, Cornwall, in 1754, Bligh never stood again for parliament, either in England or Ireland. The seat that he gained in the House of Lords, in 1765, gave him the opportunity to return to Ireland more frequently.
In Dublin, on September 11, 1766, the “ageing nobleman” — he was almost 48-years-old — suddenly married eighteen-year-old Mary Stoyte, a wealthy heiress and only child of John Stoyte, a leading barrister from Streete, Co. Westmeath. The unexpected marriage, between a sworn bachelor and a young woman, shocked Dublin society.
A letter at the Surrey History Centre, in Woking, written by the Rev. George Chinnery (future Dean of Cork) to Viscountess Midleton (18 Aug. 1762), remarks on Bligh’s astonishingly late decision.
“Prim, plain, beady-eyed, and rather pleasantly old-maidish,” little Mary had attracted an army of young suitors wanting to get their hands on her money, but finally gravitated “to the safekeeping of a middle-aged partner… substantial in every sense of the word,” continues Wingfield-Stratford.
The new Countess of Darnley had to cope with the odd private behaviour of her touchy husband. According to a manuscript in the possession of the Tighe family, on the night of his marriage, John Bligh “imagined himself to be a fine China tea pot, and was under great fears, lest the spout should be broken off before morning!” [Permission: deputy keeper of the records, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, PRONI D2685/14/1].
The anecdote caused “great mirth” in Dublin. Fortunately, the earl’s absence — he was in Kent — meant he did not witness the guffaws.
During his long bachelorhood, he had neglected Cobham Hall, and the family’s grand mansion was now a “derelict pile in an uncultivated waste.” In order to fund the building’s conversion, from a “gaunt and bleak shell” into a luxurious mansion, the people of Ireland suffered “rags, lice and poverty,” complained Kilkenny artist Letitia Bushe, in a letter to Lady Anne Bligh.
In spite of his nocturnal fears, the earl managed to father seven children: John (1767), Mary (1768), Edward (1769), Theodosia (1771), Sarah (1772), Catherine (1774), and William (1775).
Although he rashly sent baby John to Kent ahead of him and his wife, Bligh was, at the same time, terrified in case any of the children became ill: “Take care you do not heat yourself by walking too fast, or too much… or by eating salt meat, hard dumpling, hot rolls or buttered biscuits,” he warns John, at Eton, years later.
Each summer, he took the family to Weymouth, where the seawater was believed to strengthen weak constitutions and help brace nerves.
Despite every precaution, in 1781 John Bligh caught malaria. Attempts to treat him with quinine and peppermint-water purges failed, and on 31 July, 1781, he died, at the age of 61. As far as we know, his spout was still intact. Mary lived on until 1803.
In 2011, Adam’s Auction House, in Dublin, resurrected the teapot tale, when it put up for sale the silk christening robes and bonnets of John, the 4th Earl of Darnley (1781-1831), who was to turn his back on politics and become a cricketer. As for delusions, nothing in the teapot line: he merely claimed to be the 7th Duke of Lennox.
The House of Lords was not impressed.