18 February 2014

Marriage defiance: 18th century style

Edward James Eliot by Joshua Reynolds

In the early 1780s (probably 1783 or 1784), William Pitt's friend Edward James Eliot from Pembroke Hall (College) met Pitt's sister Lady Harriot. Certainly by the spring of 1785, love was in the air, and Eliot found himself in the awkward position of having to write to his father to explain his budding attachment. Lord Eliot, Edward's father, was at his family seat at Port Eliot in Cornwall at the time with no apparent intentions of travelling to London. As newspapers began circulating the report that Edward Eliot was growing close to Lady Harriot Pitt, Eliot wrote to his father:

"Putney Heath [William Pitt's rented house], April 2d: Saturday 1785

My Hond. Lord,

As I have not yet heard any Thing of your Intentions about coming up to Town Thing spring, I am afraid I must begin to apprehend that you have no fix'd Determination of coming up at all: I should be sorry to give place to such an Idea at any Time; but must own I am more concern'd at it now as it obliges me to enter upon a subject by letter which I had very much wish'd to have mention'd by word of mouth; that wish having I am afraid kept me silent upon it longer than perhaps I ought to have been. You will probably by this formality of Preface have gone before me in supposing the subject to be, as indeed it is of the last importance to me; and that will in itself and as to what you shall think upon It. In one word, I am to acknowledge to you my Attachment to Lady Harriot Pitt; which has been so long attributed to me by Report, which was indeed attributed much sooner than there was any ground for it, and which was some time ago supposed to have proceeded much farther than you may readily suppose it has yet Gone. Tho I could not prevail upon myself to mention it, perhaps, the first moment that I might, which was no very Easy matter either (I mean to Determine the Precise moment) Neither have I made an Engagement for myself on such a subject without your knowledge or Consent.

You may possibly not be more inclin'd to enter upon this subject by Letter than myself and there is no necessity you should: If you are certainly coming to Town, I shall think it my Duty to wait your Time. If not, as soon as the immediate pressure of Publick business will allow, I shall Desire your leave to see you in the Country: In the mean while I thought it grew absolutely necessary to say so much; and if I have not said more or Dwelt longer upon it, it is not because I am Not very anxious and very solicitous on every part of the subject I have mention'd: I consider this as a communication I was bound to make; I leave the rest to future - Discussion - if I may call it so; by conversation or by correspondence as you shall think proper to Direct. 

I am my Hond. Lord, 

Your ever Dutiful
and ever affectionate son,

Ed: J: Eliot" [1]

In summary, his father did not approve. Lady Harriot did not come from a wealthy family, and Lord Eliot was not in a position to help them financially. There is no evidence that Lord Eliot made a trip to Town (that is, London) in the spring or summer of 1785. In the mean time, Edward James Eliot and Lady Harriot Pitt were falling deeply in love, and their engagement was announced in the newspapers in August 1785. At this time Lord Eliot requested Edward to come to Port Eliot in order to discuss the proposed marriage. To say that Lord Eliot disapproved of the union is an understatement, as Edward himself explains in a letter to Harriot on August 31, 1785:

"My Dearest Love, 

I have had a Conversation with my Father this Morning, upon the whole certainly a Melancholy one. It began with his telling me with a good deal of agitation that he already had annual expenses beyond his annual income, that therefore it was altogether out of his power to give me any assistance: That he almost desponded of his own affairs and thought it little less than absolute Ruin for us to think of going on on the present plan in the present circumstances: concluding with putting it to me in the most earnest manner and with the most pressing Instances for your sake as well as my own and his not to conclude (or rather to delay concluding) this engagement [to be married] till Lord Nugent's death or some other circumstance should enable him to do as he should wish to do upon that occasion...I told my Father I thought it was impossible. I will not distress you by repeating any more of the Conversation at present, the Result was that he would talk to me again, and I think he said he would write to your Brother [William - by then First Minister of the country for nearly 2 years] (I live in the hopes of calling him mine), but exactly to what effect I do not know...ever faithfully, affectionately, and sincerely yours, Ed. J. Eliot." [2]

From this conversation it appears that Lord Eliot believed that writing to William Pitt about his son's engagement to Pitt's sister would exert some pressure to dissuade the couple from getting married. In this, Lord Eliot was severely mistaken. Pitt wrote back to Lord Eliot from Downing Street on September 8, 1785 stating that: 

"...A further delay [to the marriage], such as you now desire, could not I am persuaded be reconciled to the happiness of either of them [Eliot and Lady Harriot], or under all the circumstances be productive of any satisfactory advantage; and the appearance which it would now have to the Public [as the engagement was already reported in the newspapers and elsewhere] would be incapable of any satisfactory explanation...This being the Case your Lordship will I am sure perceive that no effect could be provided by a Conversation between us..." [3]

Essentially, Pitt rebuffed Lord Eliot's attempt to use him as a go-between in order to deter the marriage. Edward Eliot also wrote to his father on September 8, 1785. He was upset by his father's refusal to consent to his impending marriage, however he was determined to proceed without his father's approval. He wrote:

"My Hond. Lord,

By Mr. Pitt's Letter which you will Receive with this you will see that I did not mistake in thinking that what you had stated in yours to Him (however likely to weigh with other persons or in other Circumstances) has had no Effect upon his mins with respect to the present Question [i.e., his  upcoming marriage to Pitt's sister]. I could not say that I wish'd it might, and as I am sure you wish me happy I am sure you Do not wish that I Could. It then only Remains for me to Entreat your pardon and Forgiveness, and to Beg you will from this moment Consider the Thing as Done. It will Give less pain to yourself and all that are concerned to Consider it so, and I am sure we should avoid all unnecessary uneasiness: As it is, I am I do assure you most Deeply Distressed at the manner in which you Feel and think of this Event: I Believe you do not Doubt that I am so. It wounds most Deeply the Happiness and satisfaction which I should otherwise have felt, of every kind, at this Connexion. But I will not add more upon such a subject. It is no small additional anxiety to me to Reflect on the Inconveniences of a Different kind which you feel yourself in; But which, as some Consolation to myself, it is my Firmest Resolution never to multiply or Augment. 

I am my Hond. Lord, 
Your very affectionate and very Dutiful son, Ed: J: Eliot." [4]

As Lord Eliot disapproved of the marriage and flat-out stated he could not provide any financial assistance to the couple, it fell to Mr. Pitt to help his sister and best friend. He gave Edward the newly-vacated post of King's Remembrancer in the Exchequer which was worth £1,500 a year. The monetary equivalent of that value today is £161,000 per annum [5]. Pitt also gave the couple £500 just after their wedding; this gift was recorded in one of Pitt's account books which is now amongst the Chatham Papers at The National Archives. 

Edward James Eliot and Lady Harriot Pitt were married by special licence in Downing Street on the evening of Saturday, September 24, 1785 [6]. Their happy marriage (which lasted for only a year and a day) was tragically cut short after Harriot died from puerpural fever shortly after she gave birth to their first child. It was truly a marriage of love, and Edward Eliot never recovered from her loss. 


1. Eliot Papers, Cornwall Record Office: EL/B/3/3/2.

2. Headlam, C. (ed.) (1914) The Letters of Lady Harriot Eliot (1766-1786). Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable, pp. ix-x.

3. Ibid, p. xii.

4. Eliot Papers, Cornwall Record Office: EL/B/3/3/4.

5. I used the website www.measuringworth.com to calculate the 2012 value.

6. Hereford Journal. Thursday, September 29, 1785.


  1. So sad! Real life doesn't always guarantee happy endings, which is why I write my own!

  2. Oh, I hated that ending. If only it was fiction and could be rewritten. :/

  3. Such a sad story. I don't think Lady Chatham was overly keen on the match either, was she?

  4. Sad, but beautiful and really romantic on account of its ending. :)

  5. If you have a budget to work with, you should try to get the most affordable one possible without cutting corners.https://www.pixelicious.ca/best-wedding-venues-montreal