Marin v Wollstonecraft
In the Court of Chancery towards the end of the seventeenth century, whilst Charles II was on the throne and some sixty years before the Ruttson case, another had been brought against a member of the Woolstonecraft family. The documents concerning the case can be seen at the Public Record Office under their reference C 5/521/31.1
On 1st May 1682, a complaint was submitted to the Right Honourable Heneage, Earl of Nottingham, Lord High Chancellor of England. The plaintiff was Abraham Marin of St Martin in the Fields and the defendant’s name was Mary Woolstonecraft.
Marin began by claiming that about eight or nine years previously he had been:
"Living in the house of Mistress Ellanor Gwyn being then tutor or governor to her sonne the now right honourable the Earl of Burford".
My attention was immediately captured. Was not the Earl of Burford the illegitimate son of Nell Gwynn and Charles II?
The story of Nell Gwynn, Charles II favourite mistress, is well known. Samuel Pepys called her "pretty, witty Nell" and she was born on 2nd February 1649/50, the second daughter of Thomas Gwynne and his wife Helena, otherwise Eleanor. Her father was reputed to have come from a substantial Welsh family, but had lost his wealth whilst fighting, in the office of captain, for the Royalist cause in the Civil War. He made a scant living by selling fruit but died whilst Nell was still a baby. According to legend, he was in a debtor’s prison in Oxford at the time. The family was now totally impoverished, with little means of support. What scarce money there was would go towards the alcoholic mother's dependence on cheap brandy. With this start in life, Nell needed to be self-sufficient, tough and resourceful. From an early age, she would have learned to live by her wits.
She spent her early years living with her mother and sister in abject poverty in Coal Yard Alley and some consider she may have been born there. There was more than one street in London bearing a similar name, but the one with which she is associated was a slum situated to the east of Drury Lane. Nell learned to fend for herself from an early age. She earned money by selling fish and vegetables in the streets around Covent Garden and working as a maid in a brothel.
In 1663, Nell’s elder sister Rose, later married to a highwayman, was held in Newgate Prison on a charge of theft. Rose had influential friends including Harry Killigrew, son of the director of the King’s Theatre. She wrote begging to be rescued from "this woeful place of torment" and managed to gain her release. It is suggested that through this connection, at the age of thirteen, Nell found employment in the King’s Theatre as an orange seller.
Much as members of theatre staff offer refreshments today, she would stand at the front of the auditorium, with the other orange-girls, selling fruit. There was a constant exchange of lively repartee between these girls and the audience. However, Nell’s particularly outrageous humour and playful impudence soon made her the focus of much popular attention. Amidst unrestrained laughter, she stole the limelight with her audacious and saucy quips. Such was her attraction, admirers, "forgot to forget her". Realising her potential, the theatre management wasted no time in preparing her for the stage. Less than two years later, she made her début. With her natural and outspoken wit, "indiscreet and wild", she excelled as a comedienne, soon holding a leading role in the company; a star was born. There are several references to her in the diary of Samuel Pepys. In April 1665, he described her as, "pretty, witty Nell", and later, in January 1666/7, "a mighty pretty soul she is".
It was not long before she drew the attention of the King, himself.
Their first child, Charles, was born on 8th May 1670, whilst Nell was living in lodgings in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Before long, preparations were made for her to move into her first residence in Pall Mall. This was a new development, not yet ten years old, with grand houses along a tree-lined avenue on the outskirts of town, having the pleasures of the countryside close at hand.
Expecting her second child in 1671, Nell moved into a bigger and more suitably placed house at 79 Pall Mall, where her son, James, was born on Christmas Day. A wall separated the gardens from the grounds of St James’s Palace. As observed by John Evelyn, here, on a terrace at the top of the wall, Nell could converse with King Charles standing on the green below. Her home was the scene of much frivolity and light-hearted entertainment.
Overweight and still drinking heavily, Nell Gwynn’s mother, ‘old Madam Gwynn’, was to meet an undignified demise. According to reports, sitting near her house in Neat Houses, Chelsea, on 20th July 1679, somewhat inebriated, she fell into the watercourse there and was drowned.
Sadness was beginning to cast its shadow over the house in Pall Mall. In September of the following year, whilst visiting Paris, Nell’s younger son died when only eight years old, the cause was given as a ‘sore leg’. In the year of this court case, Nell took her leave of the stage, giving her final performance at the Theatre Royal. The King died less than three years later, on 6th February 1684/85, and Nell passed away on 14th November 1687.
On 27th December 1676, the titles, Earl of Burford and Baron Heddington, were conferred upon the young Charles by his father. Both places are in Oxfordshire. Later, in 1684, he was created Duke of St Albans. Burford had various tutors including, Thomas Otway, the dramatist, and Sir Fleetwood Sheppard, Nell Gwynn’s steward. Evidently in this court case, Abraham Marin was claiming to be another. It is interesting that in the same year, 1682, at the age of twelve, the Earl of Burford was sent to Paris to learn French and deportment.2,3, 4, 5
In his complaint, Abraham Marin referred to a time eight or nine years previous. The Earl of Burford would have been three or four years old then and living at 79 Pall Mall.
Abraham Marin went on to maintain that:
"There dwelling in the same house all that tyme one Mary Woolstonecraft spinster who was servant in the same house and then was putt to attend upon the said Earle of Burford in the qualification of his maid and she the said Mary Woolstonecraft being desierous (sic) to assist a sister of hers to help her to a livelihood whose name was Anne Abell married then to one William Abell a comon porter then living in a Cellar in Clare Markett did with much industry sollicite and importune your Orator in his name to take a house in New King Street near St James Field therein to dwell and to vendrercamie Comodityes they intended to deal and trade in for the said William Abell was not in a condition capable to take a house himself or to be trusted for the rent of a house".
Marin claimed he took the house at a rent of Ł32 a year, letting Anne and William Abell have free use of part of the premises, he living in part of the remainder.
"And this being done the said Mary having another brother one Charles Woolstonecraft a spectacle maker who at that time lived in a deplorable poor condition somewhere in Shooe Lane she ye said Mary did again sollicite and importune your Orator to become engaged for a small house for the said Charles Woolstonecraft in Sheir Lane, London promising and agreeing also to save your Orator harmless for therein whereupon your Orator relying upon the said promises and honesty of the said Mary Woolstonecraft did take a house in the place above mentioned and became engaged for the rent thereof for the said Charles Woolstonecraft to one Richard Dawson a woolling draper in Gracious Street London att the yearly rent of ten pounds".
The complainant insinuated that on 8th August 1679 he had lent the sum of Ł20 to Anne and William Abell to enable them to buy stock from a Mrs Taylor. The latter had been running a chandler’s shop in part of the house in New King Street and, when she ceased trading, Anne and William Abell wanted to take over her business. Marin also declared he made a further advance in the sum of ten pounds to them.
Admitting Mary Woolstonecraft had deposited some "small sums of money with him", he went on:
"Some friends of the said Mary having on her behalf proposed a marriage to be between your Orator and the said Mary which being refused to be received or embraced by your Orator and finding that there would be a discontinuance of acquaintance and between your Orator and her came and desired your Orator to come to an accompt for some small sums of money she had so put into your Orators hands and also for some other things she pretended your Orator had of hers And your Orator being willing rather to give her more than less on purpose to have nothing further trouble with her bid her reckon all up what she thought your Orator might owe her which she did and made up an accompt of twenty five pounds odd moneys for which she desired a note under your Orators hand and at the same time promised and agreed that notwithstanding such note your Orator should be reimbursed whatever moneys he had or should disburse or be out upon the several accompts aforesaid and thereupon your Orator for quietness sake did give such note under his hand for payment of the said money".
Apparently there had been a question of marriage between Abraham Marin and Mary Woolstonecraft, but he denied making the suggestion himself and insisted she had initiated the idea. Somehow Mary had trusted him sufficiently to hand over some articles to him and, when he did not pay for, or return, the items, she had to compel him to give her a note acknowledging their value.
However, Marin maintained the matter did not end there. He claimed Mary Woolstonecraft and her sister, Anne, became "confederates" and he was so harassed by them that he "warned" Ann Abell out of the house he was sharing with her. He accused Ann of refusing to leave, "in defiance":
"That he could not enjoy freedom or quietness in living in ye house in so much that your Orator was forced to and did in or about the month of May in the year of our Lord 1680 take another house in Ryder Street in the Parish of St Martins in the Fields where he now lives".
He inferred Anne remained in the house until "Michaelmas following", 29th September, with the rent mounting up all the time. Marin implied he settled the arrears of Ł28 himself. He also made accusation that Charles Woolstonecraft had not been paying his rent to his landlord and Marin had been "forced" to pay a sum of Ł5 that was owed. Charles Woolstonecraft had since died and so Marin’s complaint against him could not be contested.
Matters supposedly deteriorated. Marin asserted others joined the "confederates" including persons named, Craven, Dartiguenane, Comins and, Mary’s brother, Arnold Woolstonecraft.
Arnold Woolstonecraft, wasn’t that the name of Edward’s father? Until then I had not imagined any link between the defendant in this court case and the family I was investigating. The name is very unusual, perhaps there was a connection. I was curious to find out more about this Arnold. What had been his occupation and where had he lived?
"They do by such their combination endeavour to set on foot several extorts and demands against your Orator whereby to gain a great sum of money from your Orator which they are by Agreement to share and divide amongst themselves".
"They do pretend a Bill containing several things which she the said Mary Woolstonecraft pretends she had formerly at several times given to your Orator amounting in the whole to the value of fifty odd pounds or thereabouts".
Mary and her friends were said to have threatened legal proceedings.
Abraham Marin reported that, during April 1681, he had been out of the country having been "called over by his Master, the Duke of Courland". Courland, otherwise Kurland, is now called Latvia and is one of the republics bordering the Baltic Sea. In April 1681, the Duke of Kurland was Jakob Kettler. He was seventy years of age and died the following year on 1st January 1681/82.
It is interesting to note some family links between the Duke of Courland and Charles II. Elizabeth, daughter of James I and aunt to Charles II, was born in 1596. In 1612 she married Fredrich V, Elector of the Palatine. Fredrich’s sister, Elisabeth Charlotte Wilhelm Palatine, married Georg Brandenburg. Their daughter, Luise Charlotte, Princess of Brandenburg, married Jakob Kettler, Duke of Courland, in 1645. Similarly, Charles II’s sister, Mary, married Willem II, Prince of Orange. He was the third cousin of Kettler’s wife.6
Returning to the court case, according to Marin:
"The said Confederates in the mean time were plotting further mischief against your Orator and among themselves the Combination aforesaid your Orator at his return was arrested in an account of one hundred and forty pounds or some such account at the suit of one Dartiguenane and in another account of seventy five pounds or thereabouts at the suit of the said Mary Woolstonecraft and in several other accounts and having thus gotten your Orator into their clutches and power and your Orator being unacquainted with the English law…… ".
Marin went on to insinuate that Comins had led him to believe he was a solicitor who would act on his behalf, but had actually tried to trick him into paying at least part of the demands:
"Give the said other Confederates something than be at their mercy".
Marin stood firm and was
"Unwilling to encourage such villainy by way of compromise".
Meanwhile, Marin’s friends suggested he might be "quit" of Mary Woolstonecraft if he paid as much as he could. Consequently, he
"Did pay unto ye said Mary Woolstonecraft the sum of twelve pounds ten shillings in part of the five and twenty pounds for which he gave her such note under his hand as aforesaid And it being agreed that your Orator should allow the said Mary Woolstonecraft the sum of twenty pounds upon and in full of her bill of fifty pounds aforementioned which she had framed as aforesaid and pay her the other twelve pounds ten shillings and some short time after your Orator did give unto her a Bond for payment of the said sum of Twenty pounds in three
months after and thereupon she the said Mary Woolstonecraft did give unto your Orator a General Release".
This implied she had agreed to accept the sum of twenty pounds to settle the additional fifty pounds.
"Being summoned to his Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Counsel to give an account why he had arrested your Orator produced a paper full of fraudulent reflections upon your Orator".
Later Dartiguenane withdrew his demands, allegedly:
"For fear of prosecution and being made appear what he was and is hath since given your Orator a Recantation under his hand and seal of whatever he said or put in before his Majesty’s said Most Honourable privy Counsel against your Orator as also a general Discharge or Release for that your Orator then hoped to be forever after quiet from the evil designs of the said Confederates".
Contrary to the "reasonable compassion" he had anticipated, he complained that they
"Did prosecute your Orator upon a pretended felony and offered to raze the prosecution if your Orator would give them a Sum of money which your Orator refused and chose to stand his Trial and upon his Trial was acquitted."
Marin affirmed he was arrested again on a suit brought by Mary Woolstonecraft regarding the money he owed her and also on a suit brought by Mary’s sister, Anne, and her new husband. William Abell had died and Anne was now married to Richard Webster. They were claiming the sums of Ł70 and Ł230. Marin explained he was granted bail but these suits were still pending in His Majesty’s Court of King’s Bench.
Marin protested that they still owed him money, but admitted that he could not prove it:
"Your Orator’s witnesses are dead or gone unto places beyond the Sea remote and unknown to your Orator".
He wanted a detailed account of how much they declared he owed:
"That the said Mary Woolstonecraft Richard Webster and his wife may set forth and defend an explanation what moneys goods or things your Orator does had or received from them or any or each and which of them and the explicit times when, places where, and report by and to whom and in whose person the same were had received or delivered And also what money your Orator hath lent paid or disbursed or been engaged for to or for them and which of them and upon what account and that there may be an Account stated between your Orator and them the said Confederates for and touching the promise in the honourable Court and that what shall appear to be thereupon due from your Orator may be
desired to pay unto them, your Orator being willing and offering to pay unto them anything that shall appear to be due upon right Accompt unto them any or either of them And that until such accompt shall be so settled in the honourable Court that all further proceedings at the Common Law for or touching any the matter aforesaid or for touching or concerning any other matter or things between your Orator and the said Confederates or any or either of them may be paid by the judgement of the honourable Court".
Marin is obviously very anxious about the case pending in His Majesty’s Court of King’s Bench and asks:
"May it please your Lordship to grant unto your Orator his Majesty’s gracious writ of Judgement for stay of all further proceedings at the Common Law for any the matters aforesaid".
To settle the matter finally:
"And also his Majesty’s most gracious writ or writs of subpoena directed unto the said Mary Woolstonecraft Richard Webster and Anne his wife, Craven and Comins thereby commanding them and any of and at a certain day and under a certain promise therein to be required personally to be and appear before your Lordship in His Majesty’s Most High and Honourable Court of Chancery then and thereupon their several and respective each to answer all and singular the Justices and further to pay to and abide such further order and direct thereon".
Marin was trying to convince the Chancellor that he was the innocent victim of a conspiracy to extort money from him. He pleaded that, as a visitor to this country, he was unacquainted with English law. He professed to be at the mercy of the conspirators and without means to resist their demands. However, it should be borne in mind that Marin had been forced to bring the case to court through fear of prosecution by the pending action in the Court of King’s Bench.
Mary was supposedly a mere servant, but Marin appeared to hold a position of some prestige and authority. He maintained that, as well as being tutor to the Earl of Burford, his master was the Duke of Courland. As such he would have had some very influential friends and contacts, whom, no doubt, he could have called upon to avoid any conviction over unpaid debts.
Mary Woolstonecraft must have felt sure she had a very strong case to justify going to the extent of taking legal action against Marin to try and recover what she was owed.
Was Marin as virtuous as he implied or was he a rogue and a bounder, lying and exaggerating to gain sympathy? Poor Mary, would she ever see her money and possessions again? How would she answer the accusations made against her?
1 TNA: Court of Chancery: Six Clerks Office: Pleadings before 1714, Bridges (C 5)
2 Stephen, Leslie, and Lee, Sidney, Editors, Dictionary of National Biography (London, Smith, Elder and Co, 1908)
3 Dasent, Arthur Irwin, Nell Gwynne, 1650 - 1687(London, Macmillan and Co, 1924)
4 Masters, Brian, The Mistresses of Charles II (London, Blond and Briggs, 1979)
5 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Pedigree Resource File No 6
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