The Infamous Life of Stoney Bowes
The tale of Andrew Robinson Stoney Bowes came to the attention of William Thackeray direct from the grandson of one of ‘Stoney Bowes’ most famous victims -his unfortunate second wife Mary Eleanor Bowes – and became the inspiration for Thackeray’s picaresque and satirical novel ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’. Unusually, the fictional character is a much tamer version of the real man, for Stoney Bowes must rank as one of the eighteenth centuries most disturbing characters. Handsome, charming and deadly he was an adventurer, wife-beater and pathological liar with a victim complex.
His behaviour was often censured by contemporary society as being more extreme than was acceptable but was he just an over zealous eighteenth century male or was his behaviour that of a Georgian sociopath?
Andrew Robinson Stoney came from a genteel but impoverished Anglo-Irish family and was born in 1747 in Greyfort House, County Tipperary. Although he was a favorite son, his temperament and ambitions did not suit him to become a down at heel gentleman farmer on the family farm. Even as a young man he was hot-tempered and arrogant. By the 1760’s he was enlisted as an ensign in the British Army and following a misprint in a local newspaper promoted himself to the rank of Captain.
His army chums found him good company and his debauchery was well-known to his comrades. He had the sense to keep it under wraps in polite society where he cut a dashing figure with his good looks, athletic figure and charming Irish brogue – a natty red uniform must have helped too.
“His speech was soft, his height was more than five feet ten, his eyes were bright and small, he had perfect command of them, his large eye brows were low large and sandy, his hair light, and his complexion muddy, his smile was agreeable, his wit ready.” So said his friend and some-time henchman the Surgeon Jesse Foot.
The charming Irish adventurer was a staple feature of eighteenth century life and heiress hunting was practically a national pass-time for many an ambitious and penniless gentleman. This was Stoney’s special area of expertise. He had a way of gaining the loyalty of men, and the adoration of women. His first victim – for victim she most definitely was – was Hannah Newton. As a wealthy heiress from Burnopfield, County Durham, he soon targeted her as a lucrative marriage prospect and he began courting her in earnest.
Bagging his first heiress
From here the charming adventurer began to show his true colours as a manipulative and mercenary predator. He successfully inveigled his way into Hannah’s, and even her mother’s, affections by posing as a love-lorn and wealthy suitor. Very soon the young girl was besotted and Stoney pressed his advantage home – being so frequently in Hannah’s company he was effectively ensuring she would have to marry him in order to protect her reputation from scandal.
Nevertheless Hannah’s father had left a clause in his will to protect his daughter’s inheritance – any future husband must have at least £50 per year income and any interest in the Newton fortune would die with his wife unless a male heir was forthcoming. Stoney was aware – well aware – of this obstacle.
He considered elopement, but had rejected it as it would cost him Hannah’s fortune and all Hannah represented to him was cold hard cash. Instead he begged and bullied his family, writing by turns pleading and aggressive letters demanding they give him the money. At the same time he further manipulated Hannah and her mother by offering to release the besotted twenty year old from her obligations to him. He is quoted as cynically saying:
“You may be assured I had no intention of going, for I well knew I would not be permitted. However, with the help of a few tears, I was prevailed to remain with her.”
His machinations were eventually successful, his family made him a settlement, and he was married to Hannah Newton and her twenty thousand pounds fortune on the 5th November 1768. They moved to her home at Cole Pike Hill in Durham. Stoney rejoined his regiment and resumed his debauched and violent lifestyle but now with ample funds to squander.
Hannah must have had a miserable marriage and was often at Bath for her health, Wendy Moore writing in ‘Wedlock’ thinks if not physically caused by Stoney, Hannah’s ill-health was exacerbated by his harsh treatment of her. He engaged in legal wrangles with the Trustees of her father’s will when he tried to exploit the ancient woodlands on her estates, and he forced her to make a £5000 settlement on him should she die childless. eventually Hannah did die, along with the child she had just given birth too. Stoney reluctantly gave up his grip on her fortune.
A second heiress comes along
£5000 in his bank account, Stoney left the North, and set out in search of another cash cow to wed. Anne Massingberd of Ormseby Hall was his next target and he soon had her eating out of his hand, his attentions were callously calculated to ruin her reputation and any alternative marriage prospects. However Stoney was in for a shock when he realised that Anne wasn’t quite as well off as she seemed and the liaison was soon over as far as he was concerned. Anne felt differently and does not seem to have gotten over being jilted by Stoney, writing many letters to him begging for him to return to her.
The Richest Woman in England in his sights
Despite the fact that Stoney’s reputation for bad treatment of women seems to have been well-known it is a measure of his charm and charisma and sexual chemistry that so many women fell for him. True Hannah and Anne had led very sheltered lives, but his next victim Mary Eleanor Bowes was highly educated, a widow and had been living it up in a very scandalous manner since the death of her husband the Earl of Strathmore in 1776.
But in order to capture the largest fortune in England, Stoney would have to sink to very underhand and theatrical tactics and spin a web of deception and lies. in 1776 Mary Eleanor was already planning to marry her current lover, Nabob Gray, and had even gone so far as to draw up crucial legal papers protecting her inheritance from any future husband, when Stoney appeared on the scene. It is rumoured that he boasted openly that he was planning to go to London and marry the dowager Countess of Strathmore, such was his over-weaning confidence.Still, it took a spy in her household, a rigged slander campaign in the Morning Post – where Stoney acted the part of both slanderer and saviour with equal relish – and a faked duel in a crampt and darkened room at the Adelphi Tavern to achieve his aim. He had already made advances towards Mary Eleanor, and when he offered to fight a duel with the editor of the Morning Post, Mr Bates, Mary Eleanor seems to have been caught up in the drama and romance of the situation, especially when Stoney was mortally wounded defending her honour.
Only, things weren’t quite what they seemed. Bates and Stoney were in cahoots, they met a year earlier in Bath, and may well have hatched the whole plot there and then. Stoney also roped in his friend and ally Jesse Foote, a surgeon, in order to authenticate his fatal wounds. Mary Eleanor didn’t stand a chance, at his apparent deathbed she agreed to his request that he be married to the woman whose honour he had defended. Thinking he would be dead soon anyway, Mary Eleanor made the biggest mistake of her life and agreed. On the 17 January 1777, Stoney was carried to the altar in a stretcher, and he married his second fortune and took on the name of Bowes in accordance with her fathers will.
Stoney made a rapid recovery and soon made his true nature know to Mary Eleanor. Finding out he was not in control of her fortune, and that prenuptial agreements had been put in place to limit the financial powers of any husband, he began a sustained and brutal campaign against her – eventually tricking her in to revoking the deed. She endured 8 years of beatings, starvation, humiliation and control at the hands of Stoney. She finally escaped his clutches in February 1785, when with the help of her brave maid Mary Morgan and some other equally brave servants, she made her getaway. Penniless, she set about getting a divorce and regaining her fortune. She won. But at a high price to her health and her reputation.
Divorce and abduction
Public opinion was initially with the Countess, the divorce made people aware of the brutal treatment she had suffered at the hands of Stoney Bowes. But Stoney ruthlessly began to slander her reputation, buying a newspaper for the purpose and commissioning cruel satirical prints against her. The Georgian public swiftly turned against her, a wife who had lived a scandalous life – he had forced her to write her highly damaging ‘confessions’ and he later published them. A wife, furthermore, who had tried to prevent her husband from his legal rights to her money and property. Many people at the time would see him as a man standing up for his rights and he swayed the public opinion in his favour. Even those people who thought he had gone to far, may have thought she was getting no better than she deserved.
However, when legal proceedings began to turn in favour of Mary Eleanor, and Stoney Bowes knew his case would be lost, he took things into his own hands. He had his wife abducted in broad daylight. Bundled into a carriage and dragged back up north. Threatened with rape and violence Mary Eleanor was then dragged on horseback on a desperate cross-country flight for weeks and in the depths of winter until she was finally rescued, and Stoney arrested.
Abduction was one step too far, and Stoney Bowes was given three years in prison for the abduction. The divorce was finally settled in 1789 but not before he had hammed up his own sense of victimisation as much as possible – as Gillray’s cartoon of his Court appearance shows.
Deprived of his wife’s fortune, lambasted in print (even as early as 1777 The Stoniad had accused him of domestic violence and financial abuse of his wife), Stoney Bowes spend the last years of his life in debtors prison – eventually dying in 1810.
Yet, even in prison he wangled the best rooms, enticed young lawyers to take up his legal shenanigans, and spend his time seducing innocent girls. Polly Sutton fell into his clutches because her father was also in prison. By all accounts she was a lovely young girl with prospects when he met her – yet even in prison he was able to ensnare her. Stoney had several children with Polly and kept her locked up in a room he hired at the prison. She got the same treatment that all of his previous wives received – violence and abuse.
Typical Georgian Gent or Sociopath?
The eighteenth century, despite being a rather feminine century, was essentially a mans world. Men ran things and owned most of the property whilst women were in the power of their fathers, brothers or husbands for most of their lives. Men expected to own their wives as much as they owned the property their wife brought to the marriage. Society was also tolerant of some levels of domestic violence against women.
Stoney Bowes went much further than this. He was clearly charming and charismatic, but he bullied, cajoled, and manipulated male friends into becoming his accomplices, and women into becoming his victims. He was an extremely good liar, and appears to have had absolutely no conscience in relation to his dealings with women or empathy for the suffering he caused. He lived a parasitic lifestyle – to him, women were a meal-ticket, he manipulated their emotions then trapped them into violent abusive marriages. He was promiscuous, violent, controlling and showed no remorse for any of his actions. I’m certainly no expert on psychology, but I would say that Andrew Robinson Stoney Bowes was quite likely a bona-fide Georgian Sociopath.
Arnold, Ralph, The Unhappy Countess, Constable, 1987 edition
Moore, Wendy, Wedlock, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2009
Parker, Derek, The Trampled Wife, Sutton, 2006
Thackeray, William, The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Futura, 1974 edition
Author unknown, Profile of the Sociopath, http://www.mcafee.cc/Bin/sb.html