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Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon

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Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon

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A maverick politician, the 4th Earl of Abingdon's speeches in the House of Lords were noted for being “peculiarly eccentric.” An outspoken critic of Lord North and his administration, he rigorously defended the liberties of the American colonies, yet denounced the French Revolution as a threat to “the Happiness of the whole habitable Globe.” Abingdon was a keen musician from an early age. A gifted composer in his own right, he was a noted patron in the London music scene. He was plagued by financial problems from the moment he inherited the earldom and his own extravagant lifestyle did little to alleviate his problems. He died insolvent in 1799.

Willoughby Bertie was born 16 January 1740, the second son of Willoughby Bertie, 3rd Earl of Abingdon, and his wife Anna Maria Collins (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 1, p. 48). He became his father’s heir, styled Lord Norris, when his elder brother James was killed in a fire at Rycote in 1745 (MS. Gough Oxon. 31, fol. 215). He succeeded his father as 4th Earl of Abingdon on 10 June 1760 (House of Commons 1715-54, vol. 1, p. 460).

Upon the completion of his education, Abingdon made an extensive tour of the continent. In February 1763 he is documented as being in Rome. He is then recorded as visiting Naples in March and Geneva in September. In February 1764 he is again recorded as being back in Rome and in September visited Florence. He returned to Geneva around July 1765 (Ingamells, Travellers in Italy, p. 2). During his time in Switzerland, Abingdon visited Voltaire at Ferney (McCulloch, 'Musical Oeuvre', p. 1). Abingdon married, on 7 July 1768, Charlotte, daughter of Sir Peter Warren (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 1, p. 48). The marriage produced ten children.

Abingdon earned himself the reputation of a political maverick. His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine remarked that “his frequent speeches in the House of Peers were peculiarly eccentric” (Gent. Magazine, (Oct. 1799): p. 903). He was particularly hostile to the administration led by Lord North. He vehemently opposed the war against the rebelling American colonies which he condemned as “cruel and unjust” (Bertie, Affairs of America, p. 1). In July 1782 Abingdon provoked outrage in Ireland when he introduced a bill in the House of Lords to assert Parliament’s right to legislate over Ireland’s foreign affairs (Bertie, Affairs of Ireland, pp. 11-17). Not a single peer supported it (Lowe, 'Willoughby Bertie', ODNB). He was opposed to the abolition of the slave trade. He argued that the movement for abolition was simply the result of a “new philosophy” inspired by the new French republic. He denounced revolutionary France as a “Savage Nation” that espoused “principles by which all of Europe is already convulsed, and with the direful influence of which, the Peace, the Order, the Subordination, the Happiness of the whole habitable Globe is threatened” (Bertie, Abolition of the Slave Trade, p. 6).

The Earl was a keen musician from an early age. His father’s estate accounts for 1755 record a music master being employed for the young Lord Norris (MS. Top. Oxon. b. 179, fol. 17). The accounts for the following year reveal that he was receiving instruction from a flute master (MS. Top. Oxon. b. 180, fol. 16v). Abingdon’s passion for music was retained throughout his adult life.  He is credited with the composition of one hundred and twenty musical works (McCulloch, 'Musical Oeuvre', pp. 9-27). He was also a musical patron, most notably of Joseph Haydn during his time in England, 1791-1795 (Landon, Haydn, p. 231). He was also joint organiser, with his brother-in-law Sir John Gallini, of the Bach-Abel concerts in London (McCulloch, 'Musical Oeuvre', p. 2). Haydn, Carl Friedrich Abel and Johan Christian Bach are among the composers who dedicated works to the Earl (McCulloch, 'Musical Oeuvre', pp. 4-5).

Abingdon was plagued with financial difficulties from the moment he inherited the earldom in 1760. His father bequeathed him colossal debts amounting to £129,000 (MS. D.D. Bertie c. 2, item 1). Over the course of the next eight years he was forced to liquidate assets totalling just over £186,000 in an attempt to ease his situation. Despite these efforts, his finances declined into chaos. His own spending habits must have done little to alleviate his plight. He invested considerable sums restyling both the mansion and grounds at Rycote (MS. Top. Oxon. b. 177, fol. 51; Stroud, Capability Brown, p. 142). An alleged fondness for the turf can only have exacerbated the problem (Bertie, Adieu to the Turf).

The Earl died 26 September 1799 and was buried at Rycote Chapel. A legal opinion, drawn up in 1799, declared that he had died insolvent (MS. D.D. Bertie c. 2, item 17, p. 11). His wife predeceased him on 28 January 1794 (Cokayne, Complete Peerage, vol. 1, p. 48).

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Here is an interesting contemporary account, probably written between 1775 and 1780:

"We then gain Whitam Hills (sic), so called from a little village at the foot of them, were (sic) in a most curious old house, Lord Abingdon is now constrained to take up his summer residence, having been obliged to give up Rycot, a most noble residence he had in this country, to his merciless creditors of the tribe of Levy. These hills with a large tract of meadow in the vales beneath, are part of the property of this lord, though I am afraid his lordship has now nothing to do with the receipt of the rents, a reflection that I cannot bear to think on without being followed by some very uneasy sensations, for how must it hurt this liberal and generous heart, ... and such I know it to be, ... reflect that by his inordinate passion for racing he has totally deprived himself of the greatest pleasure he could have, that of doing good to his fellow creatures."

From Diary of a Journey in Oxfordshire c.1775-1780 by William Hucks, the younger, of Knaresborough.

Norreys 02/12/2013

Eight years after he succeeded, the 4th Earl married one of the three heiress daughters of Sir Peter Warren, 'the richest commoner in England'. Her inheritance included part of Manhattan Island. There is still an Abingdon Square in NYC, the only royal or aristocratic street name not changed after independence - an enduring tribute to Willoughby's support for the rebels.

His advantageous marriage makes his subsequent financial meltdown seem all the more odd. However the great men of his time were expected to be ridiculously extravagant and he did not except himself from that rule. Willoughby was particularly keen on the turf. This predeliction was inherited by the 7th Earl who, after two generations of careful retrenchment, over-indulged his interest in horse racing and was forced at the end of his long life to sell all the family's remaining landed property.

Norreys 05/11/2013

The surviving output of the earl’s compositions comprises some 120 works, 12 choral, 76 vocal (songs for 1-3 voices) and 30 instrumental. Works that were known to exist include 18 ‘Catches’ for three voices and a further 18 instrumental Divertimentos. These 36 works were until recently known to, or in the possession of one of the earl’s descendants, but their current location remains a mystery.

Given the earl’s notoriously outspoken contributions to debates in the House of Lords, it is perhaps no surprise that music historians have homed in on his political songs and ballads. But these represent but a very small minority in his total vocal output – about 8%. They are, however, telling in content, demonstrating his abhorrence of unthinking allegiance to religious beliefs and atavistic support of any political party, be it Whig or Tory.

Over and above those ‘political’ ballads we have a wealth of songs to a variety of texts, from pastoral 18th century English poetry (notably that of William Shenstone) to translations of ‘Arabian Poetry’ by J.D. Carlyle. As an overall assessment we can say that the best of his songs bear comparison with the best examples of late 18th century English song-writing.

His purely instrumental output is devoted primarily to attractively simply Country Dances, most of them involving two flutes, many of them dedicated to friends and family, or bearing intriguingly quirky titles.

His most progressive work – though by no means musically his best – is a multi-media depiction of the Execution of Mary Queen of Scots “in four [later seven] views”. In it the earl attempts to bring together the “Sister Arts” defined as “Music, Poetry and Painting”. In the introduction the earl also defines his own persona, defying the question as to “who” but stating “what” he is: HOMO SUM (I am a human being).

Dr Derek McCulloch 18/01/2013

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