The Sad History of Bridget Hyde

Bridget Hyde with her mother, step-father and step-brother by John Michael Wright 1673. National Portrait Gallery London

The sad history of Bridget Hyde is ‘a detestable and most ignominious story. That at any rate was the opinion of the famous poet, Andrew Marvel, a contemporary of Bridget’s, who had the details first hand. It certainly illustrates the perils of being an heiress before Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1754 made parental permission necessary for the validity of a union where the any of the parties was under the age of twenty one. Until then English marriage laws were so loose that as Daniel Defoe pointed out in his tract ‘Conjugal Lewdness’, an heiress was constantly ‘watched, laid wait for and as it were besieged by a continual gang of rogues, cheats, gamesters and such like starving crew, so that she was obliged to confine herself like a prisoner to her chamber,’ or run the risk of abduction or some other more subtle deceit.

Bridget’s mother was Mary Hyde. Mary was a noted beauty from a poor family who none the less managed to use her personal advantages to make a good marriage. Her husband, Sir Thomas Hyde, was respectable, wealthy and much older. He did the decent thing and died not long after the wedding, leaving Mary, a young, beautiful and very rich widow, free to make an even more splendid union second time around. On this occasion she chose the ambitious and powerful banker Sir Robert Vyner.

In the superb family portrait painted by John Michael Wright in the year 1673, Sir Robert can be seen to the right of the picture looking every inch the successful plutocrat in his loosely flowing silk gown no doubt recently imported from the East Indies. His wife, Mary, who manages to combine both elegance and maternal grace, draws towards her both her children. The young boy sprawling across his mother’s lap has a mischievous and spoilt look. As son and heir he is clearly the darling of both his parents. Bridget by contrast, who is the child of Mary’s first husband, looks a little uncertain of herself. She is pictured on the far left of the painting, clinging to her mother’s arm, nestling into her side. She was eleven years old when this painting was realised. The silk ribbons dangling from her shoulders provide a visual echo of the leading reins of childhood from which she is just emerging. In other ways she is on the brink of womanhood. The colour of her dress identifies her with her mother, and the ruching of the sleeves, the low neck line, the jewellery all point towards adulthood.

It’s a very relaxed and informal grouping. This is a painting that celebrates domestic harmony and family values. The inevitable spaniel with its fawning gaze completes the intimate circle. Interestingly, however, the artist John Wright perhaps hints that trouble might well lie ahead in the build up of dark menacing clouds in the background.

Young girls at this time could be married off at the age of 12 and if the girl also happened to be an heiress it was generally considered advisable to get them wed as soon as possible after her twelfth birthday, so as to avoid the possibility of mishaps, like her falling in love with an inappropriate suitor. Vyner, an astute business man, was quick to realise that he had a valuable asset in his step-daughter Bridget. Through her deceased father, Sir Thomas, Bridget was said to be worth £100,000 an immense sum in the late 17c, making her a very desirable marriage prospect indeed.

Vyner, although a man of enormous wealth on paper, had actually run into liquidity problems as a result of extending too much credit to free spending King Charles. He had little prospect of seeing these debts paid back any time soon until he came up with the brilliant idea of marrying Bridget off to Lord Danby’s second son, Viscount Dunblane.

Danby liked the idea because it absolved him of any need to finance his younger son. Vyner liked the idea because Danby – in his role as Charles’s first minister of state – promised to prioritise Vyner’s outstanding bills on the Exchequer.

This marriage would probably have gone smoothly ahead if a certain John Emerton had not intervened. Lady Mary, Bridget’s mother, had two sisters, Susan and Sara. These two sisters had married 2 brothers called Emerton. Neither of the sisters had done anywhere near so well in the marriage stakes as the pretty Mary. The Emerton brothers were mere bailiffs. They helped run the Hyde estates owned by their wealthy sister-in-law.

Bridget sometimes used to go and stay with the Emertons in the Hertfordshire countryside. She was there in the autumn of 1674 just after she had turned 12. Her mother was ill and so it was very natural that she should be spending some time in the country with her aunts. When the aunts heard that Bridget was likely to be marrying Lord Danby’s son they were not at all pleased. It meant they would very shortly lose their position of influence over the Hyde estates. But if, on the other hand, Bridget was to marry Sara’s son, John, it would be a very different story.

There is no evidence of any romantic feelings existing between John Emerton and Bridget, but the aunts persuaded Bridget to go through a sort of mock marriage ceremony as if it was nothing more than a game. The cunning aunts took care, however, that the game should be conducted before a priest called John Brandling.

After the game was over neither bride nor groom thought much more about it. It is most unlikely that the marriage was consummated at this point. Conjugal relations were usually delayed until the girl was 14. The marriage, if it was a marriage, was kept a secret.

A couple of months later Bridget was summoned to London because her mother was dying. After the mother’s death Sir Robert’s attention reverted to the business of his stepdaughter’s marriage. He was horrified to discover that she was apparently already married. Enquiries were rapidly put in place as to the status of the groom and his relations. John Emerton’s father Richard was described as a ‘plain bumpkin not worth £150 a year’ and John was nothing more than ‘a pitiful boy going to prentice’.

Vyner was furious. Minister of State Danby was equally outraged. He promptly had the priest arrested. There was a general gasp of horror at the scheming of the Emerton tribe and at first it was widely thought the validity of the marriage would be quickly overturned. ‘The parson who played this prank is in custody and owns enough to make the marriage void,’ was the gossip.

But this was to ignore the complex political situation in England. Danby had always been loathed by the House of Commons for his supposedly pro-French sympathies. The Emerton incident was immediately seen as an opportunity by the House to impeach him for purportedly intimidating Brandling ‘not to declare the truth’. Vyner was similarly unpopular. ‘Cursed be the bank and hanged the covetous banker’, was a line from a popular anonymous poem of the period.

The Court of the King’s Bench before whom the case had been taken then compounded Danby and Vyner’s difficulties by awarding John Emerton temporary possession of Bridget Hyde’s estates until the Ecclesiastical Courts could determine the validity or otherwise of the supposed marriage. The situation continued to be at stalemate while the ecclesiastical courts deliberated the matter for the next six years. In the interim Bridget remained in the care of her stepfather.

Astoundingly, almost four years later, in July1678, while still awaiting the verdict of the Ecclesiastical Court, Bridget was the victim of a second marriage plot. On this occasion a soldier of fortune called Henry Wroth was having dinner at Vyner’s country house at Ickenham. After dinner was finished and the plates cleared, he pulled a pistol on Sir Robert and made off with Bridget in a waiting coach. Hardly the behaviour of the perfect dinner guest.

He headed towards Richmond ferry where a boat was waiting to carry them down river. Luckily Bridget was rescued before she came to any harm although she did lose her amber necklace and some handkerchiefs in the fracas. Wroth was arrested and thrown into prison.

In July 1680, the Ecclesiastical Court finally pronounced its verdict. They decided in favour of the legality of the original Emerton marriage, even though it had been carried out without the consent of the girl’s mother, her stepfather or apparently the girl herself. Again it is Defoe that best sums up the outrage that men wealthy parents felt. ‘A gentleman might have the satisfaction of hanging a thief that stole an old horse from him, but could have no justice against a rogue for stealing his daughter’.

The 1680 court decision was not quite the end of the Bridget Hyde story, however. What Emerton and the rest of his family wanted – and had wanted all along – was for Danby to buy them off. Negotiations to this end were under way but their progress proved too slow for Danby’s son, Viscount Dunblane.

He pre-empted the situation by running off with Bridget (her third abduction) in April 1682, marrying her in the church of St Marylebone (a notorious location for clandestine marriages) and getting her pregnant by July.

Danby’s hand was now forced. He stumped up the necessary 20,000 guineas and John Emerton renounced the marriage. The following year the Court, ever pragmatic, reversed its previous ruling, and declared the original Emerton marriage null and void after all.

This should have paved the way for a happy ending, for there is every evidence that Bridget was very keen on the dashing Viscount. ‘The Lord Dunblane is dancing with his mistress day and night, and she dotes on him’, according to one well placed gossip.  But happy endings were few and far between for heiresses in Restoration England.  Dunblane proceeded to run through Bridget’s money in the time-honoured manner, and left her according to an item in the Calendar of State Papers ‘in such misery and want, that she hath been forced to part with all her plate, and even her wearing clothes for bread’. She has left behind, however, a rather delightful book of her recipes and cures which is preserved in the Wellcome library.

 

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