Stepney 200

Last Monday, 3 October, marked the 200th anniversary of the death of a lesser known but fascinating figure of the Regency age: Sir John Stepney, Baronet, sometime ambassador to Dresden and Berlin. Stepney died at Trnava in modern-day Slovakia, and in many respects his afterlife proved as memorable as his 68 years of living. He gave instructions that he should receive what was essentially an atheist funeral, but the local authorities seem instead to have given him both a Protestant and a Catholic service. His will was dominated by two principal themes: the construction of a particularly byzantine entail, the implications of which occupied and perplexed his heirs for over a century, and the arrangements for the transportation of his pet pug Carlino back to England, through the heart of war-torn Napoleonic Europe. (The dog died on the journey, but Sir John’s valets claimed the reward specified in the will by dumping the canine corpse on the doorstep of the ex-mistress he had named as the recipient.) A fashionable ‘macaroni’ in his younger days, and eminent enough to have been painted by Reynolds, Stepney was a close friend of Charles James Fox and a part of the Prince of Wales’s circle, connections that led to his appointment as an ambassador. At Berlin he had audiences with Frederick the Great, then nearing the end of his reign, and reported Frederick’s blunt opinion that the new United States of America was far too big to last for very long and was as doomed to failure as any union of European nations would be. Opinions of his ambassadorial service were mixed. Nathaniel Wraxall, who visited him in Dresden in 1778, praised the ‘hospitality and polished manners’ of ‘one of the finest gentlemen to have been employed on missions during the present reign’, but one critic snidely attack both Stepney and his mother: ‘Sir J- S-, who saunters about the assemblies of Dresden in honour of his royal master, is a gay young man, of an elegant taste, and with an estate most heavily encumbered by a dowager, who makes life too agreeable to think of leaving it.’ (The dowager Lady Stepney had a formidable temper and an eccentric personality, perhaps best encapsulated in her decision to name her favourite dog Serpent.)

Sir John’s pleasures were principally the turf (disastrously), the card tables (ditto) and women (with mixed success). He never married, but fathered three acknowledged illegitimate sons and a fourth reputed one. His most passionate liaison was probably that with Lady Almeria Carpenter, one of the great court beauties of the 1770s; unfortunately, though, she was also notoriously dim. They were engaged to be married, but it seems likely that his seduction of her, leading to the birth of the boy who became Lieutenant-Colonel Orlando John Williams of the Newfoundland Regiment, ended the relationship. She soon took up with a far more illustrious lover, the Duke of Gloucester, the most bovine of the brothers of King George III. (Stepney got his own back in due course; he seems to have become the lover of the Duchess of Cumberland, widow of another of the brothers.)

Stepney came from an intriguing and influential family, one which bore a name that remains a byword to a quarter of the world’s population: in the Indian sub-continent and Brazil, a ‘Stepney’ is still the name for a vehicle’s spare tyre. The bloodline also produced George Stepney, diplomat, poet and leading member of the Kit Kat Club during Queen Anne’s reign, as well as close friends of an eclectic range of prominent figures from Gladstone and Tennyson to Karl Marx and Dylan Thomas. John’s younger brother Tom was one of the most recognisable eccentrics in London clubland and also served as a witty Blackadder-like groom of the bedchamber to the Prince Regent’s brother, the ‘grand old Duke of York’. Their parents had inhabited one of the most spectacular Georgian houses in Wales, Llanelly Housenow being restored by a dynamic project team, and due to open to the public in 2013. I’ve been working on a book about the family for about 15 years now, and hope that its appearance will coincide roughly with the opening of the great house; I’ll cover other aspects of the history of the Stepneys in subsequent blogs. As part of the ongoing research for the book, I hope to be able to visit Trnava one day fairly soon and to pay my respects properly to that fascinating old rogue, Sir John Stepney.

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