County Kerry native Kay Caball is a professional genealogist and author of the definitive Finding Your Ancestors in Kerry. (She has helped me.) Kay also wrote The Kerry Girls: Emigration and the Earl Grey Scheme, about the young women shipped to Australia in 1849/1850 from four of the county’s workhouses. Her new book is The Fall of the Fitzmaurices: The Demise of Kerry’s First Family, available through Kay’s My Kerry Ancenstors website, and O’Mahony’s Booksellers in Limerick. Kay provided this overview of the story. MH
Ennobled as the 1st Earl of Kerry in 1723, Thomas Fitzmaurice, 21st Lord of Kerry, Baron of Lixnaw and his wife, the former Lady Anne Petty, presided over great estates in Kerry and elsewhere. They and their family enjoyed prestige, influence and immense wealth. Within 100 years their land was gone, the Fitzmaurice earldom was no more.
So what could have happened to this Kerry dynasty after almost 500 years of acquisition and expansion, which was then so reduced in such a short space of time? We would have to say improvidence, extravagance, careless management, and improvidence.
Thomas, 21st lord, inaugurated a span of lavish spending; the main result of his expenditure on the ancestral seat of Old Court was a magnificent demesne and a well-appointed house run on a grand scale. His raised status as an earl in 1723 would appear to have spurred him to take on all the trappings expected of the title. He purchased and furnished a Dublin home in the prime fashionable area of St Stephen’s Green,1 while continuing to improve and develop his Kerry estates. His three daughters, Anne, Arbella, and Charlotte, made good if not spectacular marriages: each into new families with generous dowries. His sons, William and John, enjoyed exclusive educations at Westminster School and at the University of Oxford.
Thomas’ eldest son and heir, William, was not the wisest of men. After his father’s death in 1741, William became 2nd earl, and was head of the family fortunes and estate for just over six years.
William was involved in a number of expensive court cases and family settlements, the most spectacular of which arose from his dalliance with a mistress that led to a scandal of epic proportions in the exclusive aristocratic circles of 18th century Dublin. Elizabeth Leeson, his mistress of two years, declared they were married, and though neither Church nor state had been involved in any nuptials, the courts decided there had been a valid marriage, and he was ordered to proceed with a Church ceremony or be excommunicated. William does not appear to have followed up with the Church ceremony, but Elizabeth, now titled Lady Elizabeth Fitzmaurice, conveniently died three years later. William then married the daughter of the earl of Cavan, against his father’s wishes.
So we come to Francis, who became the 3rd earl of Kerry in 1747 on the death of his father. Francis was not then seven years of age. His mother initially became his guardian, but when she remarried and moved to England three years later, he became a ward in Chancery, and was left in the care of a tutor and servants. The Old Court estate and demesne in Kerry were closed up and allowed to deteriorate. Incompetent agents were responsible for managing and collecting the land rents. Francis, although left to fend for himself, had a good tutor, and he attended and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin at the age of 15, but afterwards led a lazy and indulgent life. To compound matters, he got involved with a married woman, Anastasia Daly, herself an heiress. Francis’ cousin, British Prime Minister William Petty-Fitzmaurice, 2nd earl of Shelburne and 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, said of Francis:
He fell in love with a married lady twenty years older than himself, the daughter of an eminent Roman Catholic lawyer, and she having obtained a divorce, married her – [she was] an extraordinarily vain person. Having to fight their way up into good society, and having no children, they sold every acre of land that had been in our family since Henry II’s time.2
Anastasia’s husband took an action against Francis Fitzmaurice, and there followed a sensational court case which revealed lurid and explicit descriptions of their sexual encounters. The aggrieved husband was awarded £5,000 compensation for the loss of the company of his wife. This would be over €974,235 in 2019,3 and resulted in the commencement of the large-scale sale of land and assets from the Fitzmaurice Lixnaw estates. Soon after, a divorce was granted by the Westminster Parliament, and Francis and Anastasia married in England in 1768. Initially, they settled in London, where they furnished three large houses lavishly within the space of 10 years, before moving to Paris in 1778. Even though Anastasia, now Countess of Kerry, had the pleasure of being presented at court, the couple were not given the recognition they felt they were due as part of the respected old Norman Irish nobility. Although they moved in aristocratic circles, British society at that time was conservative and rigid, and the young Protestant earl married to the older Irish Catholic divorcee, with a scandalous past, did not command the cream of invitations or acceptance into the milieu to which they aspired.
Their sojourn in Paris from 1771 to 1792 – where they lived extravagantly, dined, wined, entertained and shopped – came to an abrupt end when they had to flee during the Reign of Terror at the time of the French Revolution. Francis and Anastasia were lucky to escape with their lives, but their servants were executed.
Though they had to abandon their possessions in Paris, their papers – letters, bills, receipts, invitations – were saved, and this collection of eight boxes of documents is now housed in the Archives Nationales, Paris. Their extravagant spending had meant frequent letters home to the earl’s agent, solicitors and auctioneers with instructions to sell or unload land or leases at almost any cost to keep banks and creditors at bay, copies of which survive in Paris.
Back in London in 1795, Anastasia was to live for only four more years. She died in 1799 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, where Francis erected a large monument to her. Francis died in 1818 and was buried with Anastasia. This, then, is the story of the fall of the Fitzmaurices, the premier family of Kerry for 583 years.