In 1906 C E Noverre presented to Norwich Union Life Insurance Society a document which featured portraits of Francis and Frank Noverre, among the first and later directors of the Society. The document displays armorial bearings which it seems the Noverres had recently achieved, and there is a tribute to ‘the Earl of Craven (Francis’ brother-in-law), ‘Trustee of the Society from 1809 to 1825, together with the Craven bearings.
Is Francis’ expression one of smug satisfaction, because his wife’s sister, the actress Louisa Brunton, married the Earl of Craven in 1807? Or is it a gleeful chortle? In 1825 the notorious courtesan, Harriette Wilson, published her Memoirs, and they began: ‘I shall not say how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.’
It is impossible to know how much the Noverres knew about the Earl’s background, but here is the story.
Harriette was fifteen when she embarked on her career as a Cyprian in 1801. At first she had the Earl’s younger brother in her sights but, being a canny girl, she shifted her target to William the Earl. She thought him ‘safe’. He was thirty, a career soldier and owner of vast swathes of Berkshire and a London residence in Charles Street.
Installed in Ashdown Park, Berkshire, and satirically observed by Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra, Harriette discovered that ‘safe’ meant achingly dull. She laughed at the Earl’s nightcap and yawned as he drew plans of his past military engagements to entertain her. Moved to Brighton, she was bored by his sailing and sought for a replacement. Having no sense of propriety, she invited the Prince of Wales to visit her. He demanded that she visit him in London. She refused and lit, instead, upon nineteen-year-old Frederic Lamb, son of Lord Melbourne. Craven did not tolerate rivals and had thrown her out by the end of 1801. She moved on to trawl the aristocracy, several future statesmen, Lord Byron and Wellington, who she thought ‘looked like a rat catcher’. Her Memoirs were a means of extorting money from her ex-lovers when she was hard up. Those who did not pay up in order to be omitted were exposed. Wellington’s retort: ‘Publish and be Damned’, is the most famous shrug in history.
Wellington could outsmart a wilful baggage. Craven was out of his depth and a dullard. His military life had no fame; he bought his way up the ranks. He is not of political note. His life combined dullness with scandal, and he was a child of a scandalous marriage.
His father married Elizabeth Berkeley when she was sixteen. She bore six children whilst deceiving him with a succession of lovers for which he ejected her from his vast acres whilst maintaining his own mistress.
Elizabeth took her youngest child, Keppel, fled to the continent to write and travel, and became the mistress of the Margrave of Brandenburg, Anspach and Bayreuth. She called herself Margravine in spite of the existence of the lady bearing that title lawfully.
When their respective spouses died in 1791 Elizabeth ‘went into weeds on the first day and into white satin and many diamonds on the second.’ She and the Margrave married in Lisbon in October 1791, moved to London and set up palace at Brandenburg House, Fulham where they could look down on her former husband’s bijou love-nest, Craven Cottage. Brandenburg House had a chapel for the Margrave and a theatre for Elizabeth, who led the demi-monde in a riotous party attended by the Prince of Wales and ignored by Polite Society and her son William, the new Earl.
After the Margrave’s death in 1805 Elizabeth resumed her travels abroad, and Brandenburg House acquired another notorious resident, Queen Caroline.
Now to return to the Noverres and Bruntons in Norwich. John Brunton, father-in-law of Francis Noverre and manager of the Theatre Royal, was voted out of office by the theatre proprietors in 1800. By 1804 he was manager of the Theatre Royal, Brighton and patronised by the Prince of Wales and the Earl of Craven. In 1805 and 1806 Brunton’s actress daughter Louisa played in summer seasons at her father’s theatre. She had followed two of her sisters to Covent Garden, making her debut on 5 October 1803. She was a beauty with arch charm, but after an initial success she was demoted to secondary roles.
Craven probably saw Louisa at Covent Garden as well as at Brighton. He gave chase – or she did – and on 12 December 1807 they were privately married at his London house. Louisa played The Bride to a small audience and she never acted again. If she had looked forward to moving among the aristocracy she was disappointed, for most of them ignored her. She spent much of her life on the Craven acres in Berkshire. When her father retired in 1811 her parents moved to Berkshire to enjoy Louisa’s elevated circumstances.
Suppose that Louisa and the Earl set out on their wedding journey in 1808, in the course of which they visited the Noverres in Norwich. While the sisters engaged in nursery chat, for Louisa was pregnant, Francis, about to become a director of Norwich Union Life Assurance Society, saw in Craven and his wealth a man useful to the Society as a Trustee. This event may, of course, have happened in London or Berkshire. I suspect that Freemasonry connected Craven, Brunton and Noverre. It was the social and commercial glue of the period and a strong force in the army, in which Craven was still a serving officer.
The Noverres and Bruntons may have been worldly enough to know about Craven’s scandalous baggage and not to care, given Louisa’s establishment and the uses to which Craven wealth might be applied.
In January 1825 Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs were published and Craven was exposed to notoriety, in spite of which he was made General soon afterwards. He died that summer, not from dullness.
The Noverres may not have read the Memoirs and they may not have cared about the scandal. C E Noverre made a point of cherishing his family’s grand (if questionable) connection. As for Francis Noverre, his portrait shows a smug man who knows a wicked story.