Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sedley, Catharine

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SEDLEY, CATHARINE, Countess of Dorchester (1657–1717), born on 21 Dec. 1657, and baptised eight days later at St. Giles-in-the-Fields, was the only child of Sir Charles Sedley [q. v.], by Catharine, daughter of John Savage, earl Rivers. As early as June 1673 Evelyn spoke of her as ‘none of the virtuous, but a wit.’ In 1677 Sir Winstone and Lady Churchill were anxious for a match between their eldest son (afterwards first Duke of Marlborough) and Catharine, his distant kinswoman. She was not good-looking, they admitted, and she squinted, but she was rich. The negotiation was soon broken off (Wolseley, Life of Marlborough, i. 189). Catharine became a familiar figure at Whitehall, Barillon describing her as clever, but very pale and thin. She soon supplanted Arabella Churchill (whom she excelled both in ugliness and impudence) in the good graces of the Duke of York. Charles II conjectured that she must have been prescribed to his brother by his confessor as a sort of penance. Dorset made some rather brutal attacks upon her lack of beauty and love of finery, notably in the verses ‘Tell me, Dormida, why so gay,’ 1680 (State Poems, iii. 395). Catharine herself was astonished at the violence of the ducal passion. ‘It cannot be my beauty,’ she said, ‘for he must see I have none; and it cannot be my wit, for he has not enough to know that I have any.’ The Roman catholics were the chief targets of her caustic tongue, and they apprehended, not without cause, that upon James's accession she might occupy a position similar to that of the Duchess of Portsmouth. When James came to the throne he resolved that he would see his mistress no more, and bade her remove from Whitehall to the house in St. James's Square (No. 21, formerly occupied by Arabella Churchill), which he had purchased for her, at the same time increasing her allowance from 2,000l. to 4,000l. per annum. But despite these precautions, some three months later, whether by accident or design, the pair met at Chiffinch's and the amour was renewed. The revival of the intrigue was attributed to a design on the part of Rochester and Dartmouth to neutralise a catholic queen by a protestant mistress. Though report assigned to him a successful rival in Colonel Graham, the keeper of the privy purse, the king was content to believe himself the father of Catharine's children, and on 19 Jan. 1686 a writ passed the privy seal creating her Baroness of Darlington and Countess of Dorchester, with an enhanced pension of 5,000l. per annum. Such a gratuitous insult (for the honour was unsought by the shrewd Catharine) provoked the furious resentment of the catholic camarilla. For two days the queen refused both food and speech, while James, stricken by a tardy remorse, had recourse to a scourge (which curious love-token his wife subsequently bequeathed to the convent of Chaillot). The countess was ordered to withdraw from Whitehall to her own house, and thence to Flanders. Quite unabashed, she wrote that the number of convents in Flanders would render the air too oppressive for her; but eventually, after a personal interview with her lover, she consented to go to Ireland, where her friend Rochester was viceroy. She found Dublin ‘intolerable’ and the Irish ‘mallincoly’ (autogr. letter in Mr. A. Morrison's Collections, iii. 128). She returned in August 1686, and was visited with great secrecy by James; but her political importance was gone. She bore the revolution with complete equanimity, and in May 1691 William and Mary granted her a pension of 1,500l. per annum, while in 1703 her former pension of 5,000l. was renewed by a grant in the Irish parliament. In August 1696 she married Sir David Colyear, second baronet, who was created in 1699 baron, and four years later Earl Portmore. She was conspicuous at the coronation of George I (Lady Cowper, Diary, p. 5n.) She is supposed to have made a pious end, dying at Bath on 26 Oct. 1717. Dr. Johnson may have had this supposition in his mind when he wrote in the ‘Vanity of Human Wishes:’ ‘And Sedley curs'd the form that pleased a king.’

By her husband, Earl Portmore, who survived till 2 Jan. 1730, she had two sons—David, viscount Melsington (d. 1729), and Charles Colyear, second earl of Portmore (d. 1785).

By the Duke of York (afterwards James II) she seems to have had several children who died young. Dangeau mentions in February 1686 that two of her sons by the king were being educated in Paris. The only child who lived to maturity was apparently Lady Catharine Darnley; she married, on 28 Oct. 1699, James Annesley, third earl of Anglesey, from whom, on account of alleged cruelty on his part, she was separated by act of parliament on 12 June 1701 (cf. Hist. MSS. Comm. 10th Rep. App. iii. 336). After his death, in January 1701–2, she married, secondly, on 16 March 1705–6, John Sheffield, first duke of Normanby and Buckingham [q. v.]; she died on 13 March 1743, and was interred, with almost regal pomp, in Westminster Abbey. Her extravagant pride in her rank was conspicuous even on her deathbed (cf. Walpole; British Champion, 7 April 1743). By her first husband she had an only daughter, Catherine, who married William, son of Sir Constantine Phipps [q. v.], lord-chancellor of Ireland. By her second husband she had a son Edmund, who succeeded to the title and estates, but, dying unmarried during his mother's lifetime, bequeathed to her all the Mulgrave and Normanby property. These estates she left by will to her grandson, Constantine Phipps, first baron Mulgrave, whose grandson, Constantine Henry Phipps [q. v.], on his elevation to the marquisate, assumed the title of Normanby.

Portraits of Lady Dorchester, by Kneller and Dahl, were at Strawberry Hill, while an anonymous portrait of her, in a low dress with red drapery, is in the possession of Earl Spencer (Cat. Nat. Portr. 1866, No. 1022).

[G. E. C.'s Peerage, s.v. Annesley, Darlington, Dorchester, and Portmore; Luttrell's Diary, vol.}} iv. passim; Evelyn's Diary, ii. 84, 248; Reresby's Diary, passim; Burnet's Own Time; Ellis Corresp. ii. 92; Poems on State Affairs, 1716, passim; Dangeau's Mémoires, i. 303; Diary of Henry, earl of Clarendon, ed. Singer; Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. App. pp. 173, 176; Mazure's Hist. de la Révolution, ii. 149, 170; Lady Cowper's Diary; Lingard's Hist. of England, x. 201 sq.; Macaulay's Hist. 1858, ii. 70 sq.; Ranke's Hist. of England, iv. 285; Jesse's Mem. of the Court of England under the Stuarts, iv. 491; Dasent's St. James's Square, pp. 181–2; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. iii. 281, 438.]

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