Wednesday, 24 October 2012

THE ANTIQUARIAN: The Last Earl of Barrymore, Henry "Cripplegate" Barry

When John R. Robinson created his chronicle The Last Earls of Barrymore, the author pointed out that his aim was not to glorify the behaviour of the infamous earls but rather to provide an exposé against what he called their “disastrous example of extravagance and folly”(5).   As part of the Prince of Wales’ Carlton House Set, the last Earls of Barrymore epitomized the indulgence of England’s Regency Period (c1811 – 1821); in an aristocratic world of privilege, debauchery and extravagance, they came to be known as some of the most notorious rakes of their age. 

One of the earliest known members of this illustrious family was a nobleman of the early 12th century named William de Barry who married Hangaret the daughter of Gerald of Windsor by his wife Nesta, the beautiful princess of South Wales.  In 1169, members of the Barry family participated in the invasion of Ireland and became so powerful that they were called “the Great Barrys” or Barry more.  The chief of this family held the titles Lord of Olethan, Viscount of Buttevant and in 1627 advanced to the dignity of Earl of Barrymore.

The family of Richard, 6th Earl of Barrymore, moved to London after their father’s death in 1773 and as part of the Regency Rakes (so named after the swearing in of George, Prince of Wales, as Regent in 1811) earned the following nicknames:  Richard “Hellgate” Barry, who was notorious for racing teams of horses through London streets and squares, and who, dying at the early age of twenty-four, squandered over 300,000 pounds in six short years; Augustus “Newgate” Barry, so named because Newgate was the only penitentiary he had never been incarcerated in; Lady “Billingsgate” Barry, whose obscene language resembled the kind associated with the Billingsgate Fish Market and Henry “Cripplegate” Barry who, after the death of his more famous elder brother Richard, became the 8th and last Earl of Barrymore.

Having received the nickname “Cripplegate” due to his clubfoot, Henry Barry began his notorious career as the youthful companion of his elder brother Richard.  As boys, the pair indulged in such pranks as changing signposts, propping coffins containing dummy bodies against doorways then ringing the bell to terrify the maid who answered, and imitating the cries of a woman in distress only to knock the watchman down who had come to her rescue. 

Called in one literary vignette of the time a paragon of debauchery, the earl was also known for his beautiful singing voice and his passion for drama and music.  Described as having the consummate bearing of the aristocrat, he was reputedly a man of great wit and so his company was much sought after; it was said that as the constant companion of the Prince of Wales the two men participated in “many disgraceful orgies.” It was, in fact, the Earl’s unrestrained propensity for humour that led to the many quarrels and duels that became part of his legend---the duels becoming a cause célèbre because, as some records report, the Earl fought them in the nude. 

On one occasion he mocked the General Sir James Alured Clarke, who claimed to be an expert on Native tribes of North America, by creating fictitious tribal names for Clarke to pontificate on at a gathering.  The General fell for the ruse and as the interview continued each tribal name became more fantastical then the last. By the time the Earl asked the veteran soldier to give a description of the Fol-lol-di-riddle-low tribe, both the Earl and the entire gathering had burst into great laughter.  On another famous occasion while dining at Windsor Castle, the Earl challenged a Colonel Cowper to create a better plan than he for assaulting the Castle.  The two men proceeded to draw lines of attack and defence over a tablecloth.  When Cowper’s plan began to outstrip the Earl’s, Henry calmly took up a tumbler of water and then just as calmly threw it into the Colonel’s face, saying, “your plan is full of faults, for you have forgotten the Thames.”

In 1795, contrary to acceptable practice, Earl Henry “Cripplegate” Barry married a commoner, Anne Coghlan, the extremely beautiful daughter of a tavern keeper (Melville, 71).  Twenty-eight years later, the last Earl of Barrymore died of stroke related symptoms on December 18, 1823 in Faubourg Saint-Germain, Paris at the age of fifty-four.  He was penniless.

"What do you mean, you find it too distracting?!"

Melville, Lewis.  The Beaux of the Regency.  London: Hutchinson & Co., 1908.

Robinson, John Robert.  The Last Earls of Barrymore.  London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company, 1894.

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