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MAD, BAD AND FASCINATING TO KNOW: The colourful ancestors of the Dukes of Bedford Geri Parlby Tuesday 20 November 2018


 Geri took us through the ups and downs of the remarkable Russell family augmented by portraits, enchanting miniatures and some saucy Gillray cartoons! The portraits illustrated changing fashion while the cartoons the 18th century satire. The first member to rise to fame and fortune was John Russell, a wine merchant. His facility for languages enabled him to provide invaluable assistance to Joan of Castile and her husband Philip of Austria when they were shipwrecked en route to the English Court.  On arrival, his talents were immediately recognised by Henry V11. He would go on to hold high office under every Tudor monarch except Elizabeth 1. Following the dissolution of the monasteries he was granted vast lands in London, the Fens and of course Woburn Abbey and its estates, as well as being created Earl of Bedford. His comment, made on losing an eye in 1520, remains the family motto today: Que sera, sera.


His grandson Edward, the third Earl and his feisty wife Lucy became a golden couple in the Elizabethan Court and would go on to be firm favourites of James and his wife Anne of Denmark. Lucy was a patron of Inigo Jones and thoroughly enjoyed the decadent Stuart Court even, it said dancing topless during a masque! Although her husband retired from Court, Lucy continued to enjoy the high life amassing huge debts in the process; a recurring Russell problem. With no surviving children these were passed to cousin Francis, forth Earl. He was the first to live at Woburn, moving to escape the plague. He employed Inigo Jones to extend Woburn and build Covent Garden, the piazza and St Paul’s Church. He also headed the work to drain the Cambridgeshire Fens – known as the Bedford Levels to this day. During the turbulent civil war, William, the son of the following Earl and a convinced Protestant, was implicated – probably unjustly - in the Rye House Plot of 1683 to assassinate Charles 11 and his Popish brother in order to prevent James from succeeding. It failed and William was beheaded. Jack Ketch, the incompetent executioner took four blows to complete the task. Following the Glorious Revolution, his father, the aged Earl was created a Duke. During the 18th century gambling debts balanced by clever marriages which brought money and lands ensured the family’s survival. The Gillray cartoon of the young Duke Francis as a bull being chased by the Gordon mother and daughter illustrates the importance of such arrangements. Sadly he never married and died after a game of tennis at 36. Before that in 1797, when Pitt put a tax on hair powder to help finance the wars, Francis had his hair cut short in protest – Beau Brummell followed suit and powdered hair was soon out of fashion. The new style was known as the Bedford Level.

His brother John succeeded, but by the time of his death in 1839 his building projects, coupled with his lavish hospitality, landed the family in serious debt once more. Fortunately his successor was able to restore the situation due to the discovery of copper on the estate. It is to his wife Anna Maria – a miniature painter in her own right - that we owe the joys of afternoon tea. Feeling hungry between lunch and dinner she ordered tea, scones, and cakes to fill the gap and, since after 1840 tea became much cheaper, it soon became a favourite habit.

Written by Jenny Thorpe

Geri is a former Fleet Street journalist and film publicist. She has a first class honours degree in History and Theology, a Masters in History of Art from the Courtauld Institute and a Theology doctorate from Roehampton University in London. She has been lecturing for the past eleven years both in the UK and internationally. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at Roehampton University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.