The duchess was gifted with great talents …. She loved business …. Her house was the centre of whatever was great and elegant, in either communion; and, by familiarising them with one another, their prejudices were softened, and their mutual good will increased.Charles Butler, Historical Memoirs 1
Charles Butler’s encomium of the 9th Duchess of Norfolk (1701/2-1773) was made in an account of the development of elite toleration of Roman Catholicism in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century. Thus, the duchess was accorded an important role in bringing about significant change. Butler (1750-1832) wrote his Historical Memoirs of the English, Irish and Scottish Catholics, since the Reformation from a position of some authority; he was a leading Roman Catholic layman, who had been at the heart of political efforts by Catholics to extend the toleration that had been granted in 1778, first in the Catholic Committee and then as a member of the Cisalpine Club.2 His uncle was Father Alban Butler (1709-1773), the famous hagiographer, who was for a time chaplain to the duchess’s husband, Edward Howard, 9th Duke. Given the author’s credentials, it is remarkable that this assessment of the duchess’s role has been largely overlooked although it is reported in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.3 The reasons for this omission are probably the most common ones: a lack of textual evidence, as much of the duchess’s correspondence is no longer extant, and the single disciplinary focus and gender bias of traditional historical enquiry.4 Butler’s comments suggest that the duchess’s influence was actually exercised principally through culture and hospitality, so this essay explores how the duchess’s patronage, her own cultural production, and her sociability could have effected the change in attitudes towards Roman Catholicism that Butler so readily grants to her.5 Through her example, the possibilities for social leadership that were open to Catholic women in eighteenth-century British society are illuminated.
The Making of the Duchess
Mary Blount was born into a Catholic gentry family that settled at Blagdon, in Devon. Her father, Edward, was a man of influence in Roman [End Page 77] Catholic circles and counted among his long-standing friends Alexander Pope. Her mother, Annabella (fl. 1700-1741), was the daughter of Sir John Guise, 2nd Baronet, and Elizabeth Grobham Howe. Annabella became a Catholic only some years after her marriage. Drawn together apparently by literary interests, theirs seems to have been a happy marriage despite the difference in their religion and a substantial difference in their ages. We know nothing of Mary’s education as the Blounts’ second child although clearly the arts of managing a house and needlework were passed on from mother to daughter.6 Mary is likely to have learned a lot about politics at home too, for in 1716/17 the family was forced to leave Britain for the continent after the Jacobite Rebellion in which they had not been involved. Her father was soon engaged in a scheme to promote an oath of allegiance for Catholics to the Hanoverian monarchy, which had papal backing at least at the beginning.7 Internal divisions among the committee, which included the 8th Duke of Norfolk (1683-1732), seem to have scuppered the plans, but it appears that Blount’s formulation of the Catholic patriot cause was effective. In the wake of its failure, Blount reflected that perhaps citizenship would never be possible, however patriotic he and other Roman Catholics like him knew themselves to be:
I hear already some crying out … nos Patriam fugimus and I with the rest am preparing to follow Plato, and call myself a Citizen of the world, so many brave Ancient Noble Familys must no more be stiled of this place or that place …. Tho’ it’s a Glorious Elegy to be a Lover of one’s Country, yet I don’t think it so great as to be a Lover of Mankind.8
The cosmopolitanism of Blount’s remarks were not mere convenience but a common attitude among Roman Catholic elite men...