Mary Eleanor Bowes, ancestor of the Queen, was brought up at the luxurious estate of Gibside in County Durham. Known as the heiress of ‘all the wealth of the North’, it was perhaps inevitable that she became prey to fortune hunters.
In 1767 John Lyon, 9th Earl of Strathmore, married her. The marriage lasted nine years, and she bore him five children, but it was not a happy one. While she lavished time and money on her gardens, he gambled. When her husband died, she had already begun an affair with George Gray – described in her Confessions as a ‘dishonest, lazy, amorous, greedy pussycat of a man’ – and was pregnant with his child. About to marry him, she was seduced by the Irish adventurer Andrew Robinson Stoney and after a duel between the two lovers, Stoney married her in 1777.
But, from the start the pair were mutually antipathetic: she a termagant, he a bully. His physical cruelty increased when he found that her fortune was protected by a Trust and he tried everything, from forcing Mary Eleanor to confess her past misdemeanours in the extraordinary Confessions to blackmail and kidnapping, to break it.