Rakish English aristocrats are ever-popular in romantic fiction, rollicking through brothels and gaming houses until they're tamed by their heroines. Rakish heroes are charming, and a lot of fun; the reality, as exemplified here by Thomas Lyttelton, 2nd Baron Lyttelton (1744-1779), isn't nearly as appealing.
Like so many gentlemen who tumble down the wrong path, Thomas Lyttelton was a boy of great promise, talent, and charm. With unfortunate prescience, his father noted that "my only fear is that he may please the ladies too well." It was a well-founded fear, with the gossip-mongers already linking sixteen-year-old Thomas with unsavory women. He was swiftly hustled off on a Grand Tour of the Continent with the hope that travel would bring moderation and maturity. It didn't.
He ran up enormous gambling debts, fought duels, and frequented brothels. The young lady-bride chosen for him wisely had second thoughts, and to pay his ever-mounting debts he instead hastily married the older, wealthy widow of the governor of Calcutta. Within a year, the marriage had failed, and Thomas was off to Paris again in the company of a barmaid. He tried his hand at politics, but his reputation as a hot-tempered libertine with a weakness for actresses and courtesans, made him a regular in broadsides and pamphlets.
When his father died (some said of despair) in 1773, the new baron took his place in the House of Lords, and by luck was granted a Privy Council office. His temper and impulsive nature were not naturally suited to politics, however, and though his speeches were often eloquent, he alienated many, switched allegiances, and spoke too impulsively to achieve any real success. He was on the verge of being dismissed from his office when he died unexpected at his home in Surrey, aged thirty-five and decidedly unreformed.
But the gossip that had followed his misadventures throughout his life also swirled around his death. This excerpt from a letter from Elizabeth Montagu to the Duchess of Portland - respectable ladies, not scandal-sheet writers - demonstrates exactly why the baron was notorious as "the wicked Lord Lyttelton."
"Oh, Madam, did not the sudden death of Lord Lyttelton make you rejoice that his good father did not live to see an event for which the poor young man was so little prepared! My servants saw him pass my door with three gay* females at two o'clock; these girls were three sisters, and his cousins; by eleven o'clock that night he was called to another world! He carried these Miss Amsletts in his coach to his villa near Epsom; at supper, I hear, he declared himself hungry, soon after complained of pain at his stomach, and expired. The usual tenor of his life, the horrid party of pleasure he was at the time of his death engaged in, would fill one with unspeakable terrors, if one had not some reason to imagine there was a tincture of madness in him....It is said he has £5,000 to each of these Miss Amsletts; poor amend for their loss of reputation, if that be all they have lost." - from The Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Marquis of Bath, Vol. I.
*"Gay" used here with the 18th c. meaning: prostitutes, or women of easy virtue; party girls. Above: Portrait of Thomas Lyttelton, 2nd Baron Lyttelton, by Richard Brompton. National Portrait Gallery, London.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.