This week (10-16 May 2021) marks Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. Mental illness is often hidden or misidentified in the historical record, and at the History of Parliament we’re trying to do our bit to correct this. Our research staff often identify cases of parliamentarians who suffered with their mental health, and today, Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our Lords 1715-1790 project, considers the troubled life and death of the 2nd earl of Scarbrough…
At about eight in the evening of 29 January 1740 Sir Thomas Lumley Saunderson, sitting late in the House of Commons, and the earl of Chesterfield, who seems to have been observing the debate, were summoned out of the chamber with an urgent message. Saunderson’s brother and Chesterfield’s great friend, Richard Lumley, 2nd earl of Scarbrough, was reported either ‘dead or at the extremity by a fit of an apoplexy’ [Milner, Lumley Castle Records, 167]. They rushed around to Scarbrough’s London residence where he had been found lying dead not, as much rumoured, from apoplexy (the term normally employed by 18th-century authors for a stroke) but having committed suicide.
Scarbrough was second son of one of the signatories of the letter of invitation to William of Orange. Following the death of an older brother, he became heir to his father’s earldom and, soon after the death of Queen Anne, was summoned to the Lords early by writ of acceleration. Appointed to the household of the Prince of Wales as master of the horse, he remained close to the future George II for the remainder of his life, and was continued in the same key role when George became king in 1727. At court he was well liked and even when he found himself in opposition to the administration he managed to remain on good terms with pretty much everyone. When Scarbrough resigned his post in 1734 so that he could vote against the court, the king accepted with regret, insisting that ‘he had for 19 years looked upon him more as a friend than a servant’. [Lord Hervey Memoirs, ed. Romney Sedgwick, 249]
All of this makes Scarbrough sound like the kind of influential, second-ranking politician of a type familiar to anyone who studies the early-modern period. And that may well be so. But it is apparent from comments made during his life, and from responses to his premature death, that for much of his career he struggled with his mental health. As news of his suicide gradually became known, efforts were made to explain why he had felt the need to take his own life. One story was that he had suffered from poor health ever since being involved in a carriage accident in 1737. At the time there were concerns that he had received a severe head injury and might not survive [HMC Carlisle, 186]. According to some, the stress caused by his condition was the explanation for him deciding to bring his suffering to an end.
Others who knew him well, though, suggested that this was a convenient misrepresentation. Lord Hervey believed that the downturn in Scarbrough’s health occurred around the time of the accident, but was unrelated to it:
About this time Lord Scarbrough was seized with an illness in his head, which everybody thought was madness… but as many people had a real regard for Lord Scarbrough, and many more thought it a good air to affect it, they took advantage of an overturn in a coach… and imputed all these symptoms, which had been upon him in a less degree for many months before, to this accident.Lord Hervey Memoirs, 750-1
Never a wholly reliable or sympathetic witness, Hervey was right to suggest that Scarbrough had suffered from mental ill health for some time, but perhaps did not realize for quite how long. Francis Hare, bishop of Chichester (who only outlived Scarbrough by a matter of months) concluded he was ‘a strange mixture of a man’ and believed that there was a genetic element to his condition, observing that his father, mother and uncle had all fallen ‘into the deep melancholy’ prior to their deaths.
The man who probably knew Scarbrough best, though, was Lord Chesterfield. In character they were opposites, but they enjoyed a firm and sincere friendship. Almost two decades after his friend’s death, he composed a brief memoir, which was later published as one of his ‘Characters’, in which he attempted to resolve the issue of his friend’s always delicate mental health:
He had a most unfortunate, I will call it a most fatal kind of melancholy in his nature, which often made him both absent and silent in company, but never morose or sour. At other times he was a cheerful and agreeable companion; but, conscious that he was not always so, he avoided company too much, and was too often alone, giving way to a train of gloomy thoughts.Milner, Lumley Castle Records, 174
It was this tendency to brood that Chesterfield feared had contributed to Scarbrough’s death. Various anecdotes had circulated about the immediate trigger. One was that Scarbrough had been due to marry the duchess of Kingston, but felt unable to go through with it and could think of no other way to extricate himself from the engagement. Another, also relating to the duchess, was that he had confided a state secret to her, which she passed on to the duchess of Marlborough, and that he felt his honour had been tarnished.
Chesterfield had been one of the last to see Scarbrough alive and never forgave himself for failing to prevent his suicide. He may now be best known for his urbane letters to his son on courtly etiquette, and for his important role as a politician and diplomat who joined the opposition to Sir Robert Walpole in the 1730s, but his touching portrait of a friend by then long dead, perhaps frames him in a somewhat different light, revealing the depth of the hurt caused by Scarbrough’s sudden and unexpected loss. He concluded:
I owed this small tribute of justice, such as it is, to the memory of the best man I ever knew, and of the dearest friend I ever had.Milner, Lumley Castle Records, 175
Edith Milner, Records of the Lumleys of Lumley Castle, ed. Edith Benham (1904)
Some materials towards memoirs of the reign of King George II by John, Lord Hervey, ed. Romney Sedgwick (1931)
Follow the research of our Lords 1715-1790 project at the Georgian Lords section of our blog.