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Regency Rites: Almack’s Assembly Rooms

What was Almack’s?

Almack’s was founded in 1765 by a Mr. McCall. The building was located on King Street just off St. James Street* and included a large ballroom, as well as supper rooms and card rooms.

Almack’s was ruled by a select committee of society matrons known as the Lady Patronesses. These ladies ruled the club with an iron hand; only the crème de la crème (about 25%) of London society were authorized to cross the threshold of this exclusive circle. Each application for membership was carefully scrutinized by the high-handed patronesses, who were not above using their power for retribution against their rivals or other personal reasons.

The food served was not of the best quality. Alcohol was not served—only tea and lemonade.The floor of the ballroom was said to be dreadful, and the rigid rules set by the patronesses could not be broken by anyone. It is said that the Duke of Wellington, the hero of the Peninsular War, was refused admission because he did not sport the proper dress—knee breeches, white neckcloth, and a long-tailed coat. The doors were locked precisely at eleven o’clock and no one was allowed in after that for any reason. There was a long list of”do’s” and “don’ts” (mostly don’ts) for the young debutantes, and any infraction could result in expulsion from the club and social censure. When the waltz was finally given the seal of approval—it was condemned for years as being scandalous due to the close proximity of the dancers’ bodies—the young ladies had to be individually approved to dance it by one of the patronesses.

Almack's Assembly Rooms

Almack’s Assembly Rooms

Almack’s balls were decidedly not anywhere near the grandest balls of the London Season, so why did the matchmaking mothers of the haut ton scramble to get their hands on those square cardboard vouchers that would gain them admittance?

One word—marriage. Almack’s was the exclusive “marriage mart” of the ton. While potential spouses for your sons and daughters could be found elsewhere, the “best” ones could ideally be found at Almack’s, where the average, everyday riffraff need not apply. Who wouldn’t want their daughter to find a wealthy, well-connected—perhaps titled—spouse to enrich the family fortunes? Matchmaking mothers everywhere yearned to have their marriageable offspring included among the exclusive company of Almack’s.

Who were the Patronesses?

The Lady Patronesses—six or seven at any one time—were:

Lady Castlereagh

Lady Castlereagh

Lady Castlereagh (Emily Anne) was a wealthy earl’s daughter who married the Viscount Castlereagh (later the 2nd Marquess of Londonderry), who held many political posts (Secretary of States for War, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and leader of the House of Commons) during the period. Lady Castlereagh was the one who insisted that the door to Almack’s be closed promptly at eleven. She and Mrs. Drummond Burrell were both known for their disdainful arrogance.

Lady Jersey

Lady Jersey

Lady Jersey, “Queen Sarah,” “Silence,” or “Sally” to her close friends was the wealthy daughter of the 10th Earl of Westmoreland who married the 5th Earl of Jersey. Lady Jersey’s mother-in-law, Lady Frances Jersey, was at one time the mistress of the Prince of Wales (it was she who recommended he choose Princess Caroline for his wife), and her parents eloped to Gretna Green (quite the scandal). Lady Jersey’s younger sister married the brother of the scandalous Lady Caroline Lamb, but when the latter ridiculed her in her vengeful novel Glenarvon, Lady Jersey barred her from Almack’s forever.

Lady Sefton

Lady Sefton

Lady Sefton (Maria) assisted many a green girl to negotiate the hazards of the marriage mart. Her husband was an enthusiastic sporting man, and a member of the Four-in-Hand Club (an elite club for only the best drivers).

Lady Cowper

Lady Cowper

Lady Cowper (Emily) was the daughter of the great political hostess, Lady Melbourne, and due to her mother’s numerous affairs, her paternity was never verified. She disapproved of her sister-in-law, Lady Caroline Lamb, but was otherwise known as one of the kindest of the patronesses.

Princess Esterhazy

Princess Esterhazy

Princess Esterhazy (Thérèse) was the grand niece of Queen Charlotte and never let anyone forget it. Her husband Prince Paul Esterhazy served as the Austrian ambassador to England 1815-1842. She and the Countess Lieven demonstrated the utmost in continental sophistication.

Countess Lieven

Countess Lieven

Countess Lieven (Dorothea) was the first foreigner to serve as a patroness of Almack’s. Her husband the Count was the Russian ambassador to England from 1812 to 1834. Besides being a leader of London society, she was a significant political force in Great Britain, France and Russia.

Mrs. Drummond Burrell

Mrs. Drummond Burrell

Mrs. Drummond Burrell (Clementina) was a great heiress and daughter of an earl who later became a baroness when her husband succeeded to his father’s title. Although one of the younger patronesses, she was considered the most arrogant and haughty of them all.

Appearance was everything.

It’s interesting to note that while London society, as demonstrated by the Lady Patronesses, demanded a high degree of moral perfection, it was really the façade that counted. As long as you behaved with discretion—i.e., didn’t get caught—you could have adulterous affairs with impunity. While it was expected that wives would remain faithful to their husbands until the birth of an heir or two, after that, it was quite common for both husband and wife to indulge in affairs. It was widely known that Lady Melbourne had affairs with politically powerful men who fathered many of her children, but her the importance of her position precluded any open censure.

Most of the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s had notorious affairs. Emily Cowper, taking the advice of her mother, the above-mentioned Lady Melbourne, to be true to her lover rather than her husband, had a long affair with Lord Palmerston, who later became Prime Minister, and after her husband died, they married and lived happily ever after.

As long as it was behind closed doors—and you were wealthy and important enough—you could get away with a considerably lower standard of behavior. Of course, marriages tended to be more about property, wealth and family connections than any sort of love or affection, so perhaps such scenarios were a natural result of cold-blooded unions.

The King Street location of Almack’s is an office building now; when I was there two weeks ago, it was covered with scaffolding. Christie’s Auction House is across the street.

The Regency Rites series

Regency Rites: The Well-Dressed Regency Lady 

Regency Rites: Presentation at Court

Regency Rites: Almack’s Assembly Rooms 

Regency Rites: The London Season

Episode #9: In Which Lady P Depletes the Cooking Sherry During Her Discussion of Caroline of Brunswick

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Susana’s Parlour is celebrating the second anniversary of The Romance Reviews with the Treasuring Theresa Lucky In Love Giveaway. To enter the contest, click the TRR graphic at right or the Treasuring Theresa graphic in the side bar.

Before you go, leave a comment on today’s post for five contest entries. Be sure to include your email address in your comment!

Lady Pendleton, Damian Ashby’s eccentric aunt (see the epilogue to Treasuring Theresa on Susana’s web site), is visiting Susana from the early 19th century. She’s intrigued by life in 21st century Toledo, Ohio, and, of course, Susana is thrilled to have the opportunity to pick her brain about life in Regency England. It certainly gives her a great deal to write about in Susana’s Parlour!

Susana [to the Reader]:

In our last encounter, Lady P enlightened us on the Prince of Wales’ illegal marriage to a twice-widowed Catholic lady unsuitable in every way to be Queen Consort of England. Following that, he married—for reasons of state—his first cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, daughter of his father’s sister. I’ve read of what a dreadful disaster that was, but I wanted to pick Lady P’s brain about it.

Lady P:

Really, Susana! Pick my brain, indeed! What an indelicate turn of phrase!!

Susana:

It’s just an expression, your ladyship. It means—well, I should have said only that I’m curious to learn what you have to say about the Prince’s choice of wife.

Lady P [shuddering]:

Naturally I have a great deal to say about it, but first I must shake off the image of some quack physician performing surgery on my brain. Is there anything left of the cooking sherry?

Susana:

No, you finished that one off last week after watching the finale of Downton Abbey, don’t you remember? But don’t despair—I bought a new bottle yesterday at the Kroger store.

[A slight pause while Susana leaves the room and returns with a glass of wine for Lady P.]

Lady P [after draining half the glass and dabbing at her lips with a handkerchief]:

Just the thing. I do enjoy a little wine in the evening, you know. What a pity you have no wine cellar. Why, in my day, every reputable household had a wine cellar and a stock of good wine. Even though you yourself do not indulge, Susana, you ought at least to think of your guests!

Susana [shrugging]:

My friends and I usually go out. In any case, if your ladyship is properly refreshed, I wonder if we could resume our conversation about the Princess of Wales. I have heard that she and the Prince detested each other on sight. Is that true, do you think?

caroline2Lady P:

That was indeed the on dit, and I must say, I could believe it. The Prince arrived late to his wedding, and in a most intoxicated state, too. Lady Bessborough—Georgiana’s sister Harriet, you know—told me that the night before he’d written a note declaring his everlasting love to Maria Fitzherbert—with whom he was estranged at the time—and he made out a will leaving everything he owned to her as well. Harriet was much distressed to see the state he was in.

Susana [shaking her head]:

Then why was she chosen in the first place? He was a grown man; surely he could have found a way to avoid it if he’d wished to.

Lady P:

Was he? A grown man, I mean. Much of the time his behavior resembled that of an over-indulged child. [Looking around nervously] I suppose I can say that with impunity since he’s been dead for nearly two centuries, but truly, my dear, the Prince of Wales was never the man his father was, the madness notwithstanding. [Sighing] In any case, the Prince had accumulated such debts that Mr. Pitt—the Prime Minister, you know—promised to give him a substantial increase in income if he were to make a suitable marriage.

Susana:

So…he was forced to marry Caroline of Brunswick to pay his debts? Did he have no other prospective brides to choose from?

Lady P:

Well, when you eliminate the Catholic royalty and those who were already wed, there were only two who were eligible, both of them his first cousins. Princess Louise of Mecklenberg-Strelitz was his father’s brother’s daughter, and frankly, she was the prettier of the two and seemingly possessed of the better temperament. There were rumors of Princess Caroline’s scandalous behavior even then, you see.

Susana:

Then why did he choose her? Did she have a larger dowry?

Lady P [clucking]:

The on dit was that Lady Jersey—the Prince’s mistress at the time—chose her because she seemed a less formidable rival.

Susana:

So…he allowed his mistress to choose his wife?

Lady P:

If you believed the Prince to be a man of integrity and good character, my dear Susana, then you have not been attending my words at all. The man had no intention of forming a true marriage, and even though he had broken with Maria, in some manner he still considered her his true wife and resented the necessity of making another connection for state purposes.

Susana:

So he didn’t really care who he married.

Lady P:

Whom, my dear. Not who. No, I don’t suppose he did. Consequently, when he ended up with a wife as odious as Caroline, nearly everyone secretly believed his punishment was well deserved.

Susana:

Did you agree with them, Lady P?

Lady P [sighing]:

As many faults as the Prince had, my dear, they were nothing compared to those of Caroline of Brunswick. Those who defended her when apprised of his cruel treatment—and that was nearly the whole of England, you know—could hardly have been well acquainted with her. Well, Sally Jersey was an exception, but then, Sally never did approve of the Prince, since she was forever having to live down the fact that her mother-in-law had been his mistress for a time, and had, in fact, chosen Caroline for him in the first place.

Susana:

Sally Jersey, one of the patronesses of Almack’s? Who would refuse vouchers to young ladies who did not demonstrate the utmost propriety in their conduct?

Lady P:

The same.

carolineSusana:

What did you think of Caroline, Lady P?

Lady P [throwing up her arms]:

She was truly dreadful, Susana. She rarely bathed, ate and drank to excess, was most immoderate in her dress and speech, and it was said that she was not chaste. But you should really ask Leticia, Lady Beauchamp, since she served—most unwillingly, I must say—as one of the Princess’s ladies-in-waiting.

Susana:

Lady Beauchamp? Where have I heard that name before?

Lady P:

She was an acquaintance of Theresa’s, you know, Damian’s wife?

Susana:

Ah, yes. But they were hardly bosom friends, as I recall.

Lady P [smiling]

Oh my, not at all. But they were merely young girls at the time, and you know how catty young girls can be. But then…perhaps we should arrange to have Leticia come for a visit sometime soon. I think you would enjoy—how did you put it—performing surgery on her brain for a time.

Susana:

Picking her brain is the proper expression, Lady P.

Lady P:

It is not proper at all, Susana, and you know it quite well. I do feel the need for another glass of that cooking sherry, if you don’t mind.

Susana [to the Readers]:

That’s all for this episode. But I am intrigued by the idea of speaking with Leticia, Lady Beauchamp. Perhaps Lady P will be able to persuade her to come for a brief visit to tell me about her experiences with the infamous Princess of Wales who was never allowed to be Queen. I can’t promise anything, however. This time travel thing can be very complicated.

As always, please do comment if you have any questions you’d like to ask Lady P about the late Georgian/Regency era. She does love to chat!

The Lady P Series

Episode #1: Susana’s Adventures With Lady P: The Introduction

Episode #2: Lady P Talks About… Pride and Prejudice?

Episode #3: Lady P and the Duchess Who Lost a Billion Dollars

Episode #4: Lady P and the Face On the $100 Bill

Episode #5: In Which Lady P Discovers Sparkly Fabrics and Ponders Violating the Prime Directive

Episode #6: Lady P Dishes the Dirt on the Duchess of Devonshire

Episode #7: The Political Exploits of Lady P and the Duchess of Devonshire

Episode #8: Lady P and the Prince Regent’s Illicit Marriage

Episode #9: In Which Lady P Depletes the Cooking Sherry During Her Discussion of Caroline of Brunswick

Episode #10: Lord Byron: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

Episode #11: In Which Lady P Talks About Hannah More and the Rights of Women

Episode #12: Lady P’s Revelations Regarding George III and His Peculiar Progeny

Episode #13: Lady P Discusses the Luddite Uprising, the Assassination of Spencer Perceval, and the General Unfairness of Life

Episode #14: In Which Leticia, Lady Beauchamp, Pops In For an Interview On Her Personal Acquaintance With Princess Charlotte of Wales

Episode #15: Lady P On Assignment in 1814 Kent

Lady P Quizzes Jane Livingston, the Hero’s Sister From “A Twelfth Night Tale”