Deene Park, Northamptonshire [http://www.deenepark.com] has belonged to the Brudenell family since 1514: its current owner, Mr Edmund Brudenell, is directly descended from the purchaser, Sir Robert Brudenell, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in the reign of Henry VIII.
Across the generations, the Brudenells have held the titles Duke of Montagu, Marquess of Ailesbury, Earl of Cardigan. Of all the illustrious ancestors, one who stands out in national history is James, 7th Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868), the man who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (1854). His modern reputation was compromised by Cecil Woodham-Smith’s account The Reason Why (1953) and Trevor Howard’s portrayal of him in the film The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).
In fact, the Battle of Balaclava was simply an incident in a life lived hard and fast.
As Lord Brudenell he was shunted into the pocket borough of Marlborough at the age of 21. As a result of his most determined political stand, abstaining over the Catholic Emancipation Act, he was removed from this seat. He purchased the parliamentary seat of Fowey, Cornwall, only to see it abolished two years later under the 1832 Reform Act. He then spent the equivalent of £1½ million on being elected, legitimately by the standards of the day, to the new constituency of Northamptonshire North. Five years later he had to move to the House of Lords on inheriting his father’s title.
His emotional life was similarly turbulent. He seduced the wife of a childhood friend, Elizabeth Tollemache Johnstone, whose husband roundly declared her “the most damned bad-tempered and extravagant bitch in the kingdom” and divorced her. She married Lord Brudenell in 1826, but by the time she became countess eleven years later they had separated. There were no children.
In the months before Elizabeth died in 1858, Lord Cardigan formed a liaison with Adeline de Horsey, 28 years his junior. Two months after Elizabeth’s death, they took off to Gibraltar in Cardigan’s yacht, married, and travelled on to receive a papal blessing in Rome. Queen Victoria and British society never forgave them.
They enjoyed ten years of happy marriage, punctuated with what a family history describes as “trivial infidelities”, and she lived on as the epitome of the term “merry widow” until 1915.
Cardigan’s portrayal in The Charge of the Light Brigade, at most impressionistic and certainly not entirely accurate, hardly begins to capture the drama of his life. There’s another film to be made out of the life of this least boring of Victorians.
Deene Park contains numerous portraits and mementos of the 7th Earl and his countess Adeline, who between them lived there for 78 years.