Marriage of ‘the Big Marquis’ – the 1837 wedding of the Earl of Hillsborough and Caroline Frances Stapleton Cotton

Hillsborough Castle, the famous eighteenth century Georgian mansion, which is today the official residence in Northern Ireland of Queen Elizabeth II, was once the ancestral home of the Downshire Hill family. Used as the Irish residence of the Marquess of Downshire up until 1922, when it was given over to the Northern Ireland Government, the grand estate’s history stretches back to the turbulent early 1600s, and the Plantation of Ulster. That early period saw the land, which had been in the hands of Irish chiefs of the Magennis family, transferred to Moyses Hill, an English Elizabethan solider, in 1611. Desiring to shape the estate to suit his needs, Hill oversaw a significant programme of expansion and modification over the following years up until his death in 1630.

Although it was Peter Hill, the oldest son of Moyses, who inherited the land upon his father’s passing, his death in 1644 saw the family’s properties bequeathed to his younger brother, Arthur (1601-63). A Dublin-based lawyer, Arthur Hill also served as a colonel in the Royalist armies during the English Civil War, and it was under his proactive stewardship that further improvements to the estate were made, including the famous Hillsborough Fort, which was built to protect the road leading from Carrickfergus to Dublin.

Each generation of the Hill family, naturally, sought to put their own stamp on the estate. However, it was the Third Marquess of Downshire, Arthur Blundell Sandys Trumbull Hill (1788-1845) who, from 1815 onwards, made some of the most significant modifications to the Hillsborough house and estate. Labelled an ‘untypical Irish landlord’, the Third Marquess was hugely invested in the running of his estate, prioritising agricultural improvements, subsidising drainage schemes, and taking a keen interest in education, the Irish language and Gaelic culture.

'A Sketch of the Downshire Hills' by by John ('HB') Doyle, 16 September 1834. National Portrait Gallery collection.
'A Sketch of the Downshire Hills' by by John ('HB') Doyle, 16 September 1834. National Portrait Gallery collection.
Arthur Trumbull Hill, 3rd Marquess of Downshire. National Portrait Gallery collection.
Arthur Trumbull Hill, 3rd Marquess of Downshire. National Portrait Gallery collection.
Dedication in English and Irish to the Marquess of Downshire, from Edgeworth's 'Forgive and forget, a tale', 1831. ILC&M Collection.

The estate, which the Third Marquess had invested much time and effort into, was known for its lavish parties over the years. In October 1837 it would become the setting for an enormous celebration, the wedding reception of the Earl of Hillsborough and his bride, Caroline Frances Stapleton Cotton.

On 23 August 1837, Arthur Wills Blundell Sandys Trumbull Windsor Hill (1812-1868), more popularly known as ‘the Big Marquis’, due to his reputed ‘immense physical strength’, wed Caroline, eldest daughter of Stapleton Cotton, First Viscount Combermere. A prominent family in English society, the patriarch Stapleton Cotton was described as ‘an old-fashioned tory’ who had significant involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. An opponent of Catholic emancipation, the Reform Bill, and repeal of the corn laws, the Viscount had a lengthy and successful career as a diplomat and politician. However, it was his life as a soldier which was of most note. Cotton took part in various military campaigns in Ireland, including the suppression of Robert Emmet’s insurrection in 1803, before going on to hold the position of Commander of the British forces in Ireland in 1822 and Commander of the British Forces in India in 1825.

Arthur Wills Blundell Sandys Trumbull Windsor Hill, Fourth Marquess of Downshire (1812-1868) ILC&M Collection.
Caroline Frances Hill (née Cotton, 1816-1893). National Portrait Gallery collection.

The Hill-Cotton wedding, which saw the coming together of two prominent landed families, took place in the picturesque surroundings of Wrenbury, Cheshire, the home of the Cottons. A much-anticipated social event, the wedding was attended by many members of the gentry from both sides of the Irish Sea. Naturally, given the social significance of the marriage, there was much press attention. The Belfast Commercial Chronicle, one of the many titles which covered the event, reported that ‘demonstrations of joy’ were displayed throughout the locality on the big day. Triumphal arches bearing the inscriptions ‘Long Life to the Earl and Countess of Hillsborough’ and ‘Success to the houses of Combermere and Downshire’ relayed the feelings of the Cheshire countryside. The wedding ceremony was conducted by the bride’s uncle, the Rev. William Cotton, and afterwards, amid joyous scenes, the couple set off for Ombersley Court, Worcester, the seat of the bridegroom’s uncle, Lord Sandys.

Although taking place under ‘very unfavourable’ and unseasonal late August weather, spirits were undampened. The newly married couple’s cavalcade toured the locality and witnessed celebrations across Cheshire. While large crowds braved the weather to give their best wishes to the newlyweds, the reception paled in comparison to what awaited them in Hillsborough that October, when four thousand people gathered at the Hillsborough Fort for a celebration which is still remarked upon today. The rumoured demise of some of some of the guests due to overindulgence of ale and wine has long been a talking point of the event. In an upcoming post we will look at that event, its significance for Hillsborough, the art it has inspired, and discover if the deaths of overindulging guests is true or a merely a legend which has grown over time.

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