– Marquise d’Harcourt (1771-1846)
Published in Windlesora 11 (1992)
I first came across the name of Sophie Elizabeth, Marquise d’Harcourt on the census return of 1841 when she was living at St Leonard’s Hill, the mansion from which the present private road takes its name. The census disclosed the following information:
Sophie Marchioness Harcourt aged 70 ye
William Harcourt aged 35 years
Elizabeth Harcourt aged 25 years
Infant aged 1 year1841 Census
But her true identity remained hidden through six months of research. It was obvious she was not the widow of the Third Earl Field-Marshal Harcourt. He had died in 1830 and his widow, Countess Harcourt died in 1833. There was no Fourth Earl as the title had died with the Field-Marshal because he had no children.
Some of the mystery was resolved when a typewritten copy of her diary was loaned to me by the Rector of Clewer, the Revd Denis Shaw. The remarkable journal began in 1798 and ended the day before her death in June 1846. She wrote it up every day and although the years between 1799 and are missing, what remains is a treasure indeed.
From her diary, it appears that she met her husband Amédée d’Harcourt, a member of the aristocratic French family when she was visiting relatives, including the Duc d’Harcourt, in Paris. Sophie was one of the English |Harcourts from Pendley in Hertfordshire. She met Amédée again when he fled the terror of the French Revolution and had taken refuge with his distant cousin, Earl Harcourt. Sophie’s father did not look kindly on the penniless Frenchman and refused his permission for them to marry. However, the Field-Marshall made him his aide-de-camp and Amédée followed a successful military career.
He married Sophie in 1800 and they had three children, Mary, Comtesse de Castries, who lived in France, William, who married Elizabeth Cavendish, and George who married Paule St Aulaire, the daughter of the French Ambassador to the Court of St James, and from whom the present Marquis d’ Harcourt is descended.
It is from other sources than the diary that we learn details of the tragic death of Amédée in 1831 when they were living in St Leonard’s Dale, the Dower House of St Leonard’s Hill. It was reported that he died after a riding accident and was buried in the Church of St John the Baptist, Aldbury. After the death of Countess Harcourt in 1833, Sophie and her son William moved into St Leonard’s Hill. It is from this period that her diary is most complete.
The years between 1833 and 1846 are rich in details of the period. She records her visits to Windsor Castle as a guest of the young Queen Victoria and her impressions of the Monarch. Her trips to Paris, using the newly opened railroad from Slough, and the difficulties of the ferry crossing are acutely observed. The incompetence of the French doctors when treating her grandchildren is written about from her sensible and experienced viewpoint. Throughout the journal, expressions of her love for her children and grandchildren are interwoven with the details of the daily routine of a well-born and titled gentlewoman, who has not quite enough income to live in the style which society expects of her.
In her last entry, dated June 21st 1846, she quotes from the Gospel of St. Luke: “... and they all with one consent began to make excuses. The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground and I must needs go and see it, I pray thee have me excused“.
This was the last of many biblical quotations which are sprinkled throughout the diary indicative of the comfort she drew from religion during periods of unhappiness. However, there is no indication in the last entries that her death, which followed her drinking a lethal amount of her toxic eye drops (possibly laudanum) was other than accidental.
One mystery still remains to tantalise the researcher. What did she look lie? Knowing the daily intimate thoughts of a woman through the last decade of her life but never to have seen a picture of her remains frustrating.