In time for Valentine’s Day I rediscover an extraordinary love story from the English Civil War and Commonwealth, Read My Heart by historian Jane Dunn.
In the summer of 1648 two young people made their way to the Isle of Wight, the first leg of a journey to France. Meeting there would set the course for their whole lives. Dorothy Osborne was 21 and, accompanied by her brother Robin as chaperone, was en route to visit their father who was living in exile in St. Malo. William Temple was 20. His father was sending him off on a young English gentleman’s traditional sojourn on the Continent to broaden his education.
The England the young pair travelled through was war-torn and weary, bitterly divided between the Royalists loyal to King Charles I and the Parliamentarians. The first of the Civil Wars had ended with the decisive defeat of the King at the Battle of Naseby and he was currently held prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, the very place they were heading. By co-incidence both young people had relatives on the island, but on opposite sides of the conflict. Dorothy’s kinsman Richard Osborne was Gentleman-of-the Bedchamber to the King and was suspected of plotting to help Charles escape. On the other hand William’s cousin, Colonel Robert Hammond, was the Governor of the Castle and responsible for guarding the King.
Dorothy Osborne came from a loyal Royalist family who had suffered terribly in the war. Two of her brothers died in battle and her parents lost most of their lands and fortune in support of the King. Her father Sir Peter Osborne had been appointed Lieutenant Governor of Guernsey and had to supply and defend the castle there with his own resources. Her mother Lady Dorothy was reduced to selling the family’s silver and linens and was broken in health and spirit. Like many families of the time there were divided loyalties. Lady Dorothy’s brother Sir John Danvers was a Parliamentarian who would set his signature on the King’s death warrant. It was due to his intervention after the wars that the Osbornes were able to keep their estate at Chicksands in Bedfordshire.
The portrait of William Temple featured on the cover of the book shows a handsome young man with long flowing locks, the stereotype of a dashing Cavalier. But he came from a Parliamentarian family. His father Sir John Temple had been a Member of Parliament in Ireland and was appointed Master of the Rolls there by King Charles. But he joined a group of disaffected aristocrats opposed to the King and spent a year in prison. When he was released he won a seat in the English Parliament. William’s mother died when he was very young and he grew up in the care of an uncle and his maternal grandmother in the Sussex countryside. He was later educated at boarding school and at Cambridge, a center of the Puritan cause.
The story of Dorothy and William’s meeting on the Isle of Wight reads like something from a romantic novel, perhaps written by Daphne du Maurier. Or a screenplay for a Masterpiece Theater costume drama. It was certainly dramatic. As they waited to board the boat to France, Dorothy’s hotheaded brother Robin impulsively ran back to the inn where they had spent the night. Using a diamond ring he scratched a biblical quotation on the window attacking Governor Hammond, whose name must have brought this particular quote to mind:
“and Haman was hanged upon the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.”
Everyone present was quite familiar with their King James Bible and would have known the next sentence: “Then was the King’s wrath pacified.” With the island hyper-alert for Royalist plots this was foolhardy behavior in the extreme. Robin ran back to his sister but the authorities were soon after him and he was arrested. As he was about to be charged before Governor Hammond Dorothy stepped forward and took responsibility for the seditious act herself. Perhaps she reasoned that the authorities would be reluctant to charge a woman. We know that William witnessed this scene because he wrote to his sister that this was the moment he fell in love with Dorothy, touched by her bravery and devotion to her brother. Perhaps he intervened with his cousin on their behalf because the matter was dropped and the Royalist brother and sister were allowed to continue their journey.
In classic romantic fashion Dorothy and William’s relationship blossomed aboard ship. As they passed the little island of Herm they spied an isolated cottage and fantasized living together there into old age, enjoying country life far from the troubles of the world. When they arrived in St. Malo William stayed with Dorothy’s family for over a month. At this time they pledged themselves to one another. But the idyll came to an end when Sir John Temple discovered the reason for his son’s tarrying in St. Malo. He ordered William to leave at once for Brussels.
There followed a six years long clandestine courtship conducted mostly by letter with just a few brief meetings. Both families were adamantly opposed to the match. The reason was not their differing loyalties in the Civil War, but financial. The Osbornes and the Temples each needed their children to marry money to mend the family fortunes. It was the custom of the times. As Jane Dunn explains:
“the idea that young people could choose whom they wanted to marry on the grounds of personal liking, even love, was considered a short cut to social anarchy, even lunacy.”
After the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and the establishment of the Commonwealth Dorothy and her father returned to England and the family were reunited at Chicksands Priory. William completed his European travels and lived the life of a young man about town in London. We know the story of their continuing romance from Dorothy’s letters to William which he kept and which were passed down in the family. When they were discovered and published in 1888 they were an immediate sensation and recognized as the work of an extraordinarily talented writer.
Virginia Woolf was an admirer. She wrote:
They make us feel that we have our seat in the depths of Dorothy’s mind, at the heart of the pageant which unfolds itself page by page as we read. For she possesses indisputably the gift which counts for more in letter-writing than wit or brilliance or traffic with great people. By being herself without effort or emphasis, she envelops all these odds and ends in the flow of her own personality. It was a character that was both attractive and a little obscure. Phrase by phrase we come closer into touch with it. Of the womanly virtues that befitted her age she shows little trace. She says nothing of sewing or baking. She was a little indolent by temperament. She browsed casually on vast French romances. She roams the commons, loitering to hear the milkmaids sing; she walks in the garden by the side of a small river, “where I sitt downe and wish you were with mee.”
Dorothy described her own theory of writing thus:
“All letters methinks should be free and easy as one’s discourse not studied, as an oration, nor made up of hard words like a charm.”
In this way she kept her authentic voice in William’s ear through the long roller-coaster years of their separation. She was by turns emotional, despairing, a gossip, and a witty storyteller. She was addicted to French romance novels and insisted that William read them too so they could conduct a kind of epistolary book club, exchanging views on the plots and characters. Many men would have balked at this but William was himself a romantic, in some ways less practical than Dorothy, and given to excesses of emotion. He wrote romance stories himself and sent them to her, indirectly expressing his feelings through the medium of fiction. She did once have to chide him for being slow getting through Madame de Scudery’s ten volume Clelie.
In January of 1654 the pair managed a rare meeting at Chicksands while Dorothy’s watchful brother Henry was away. Afterwards she wrote to him:
“Good god the fears and surprizes, the crosses and disorders of that day, it was confusing enough to be a dream and I am apt to think sometimes it was no more. But no I saw you, when I shall do again god only knows, can there be a more romance story than ours would make if the conclusion should prove happy? Ah I dare not hope it.”
One upsetting part of their reunion was William’s emotional outburst about a rumor that Dorothy had become betrothed to another. She reassured him:
“that you have still the same power in my heart that I gave you at our last parting; that I will never marry any other, and that if ever our fortunes will allow us to marry you shall dispose me as you please.”
Dorothy did not lack for suitors. She rejected about a dozen proposals over the six years of her secret engagement. She often wrote humorously about them in her letters to William. Sir Justinian Isham, a widower with four daughters old enough to be her sisters, she nicknamed “the Emperour” and dismissed him as an “impertinent coxcomb.” One hapless young man watched her toss his written proposal into the fire before she had even read it. A surprising suitor given her Royalist background was Henry Cromwell, son of the Lord Protector Oliver. She rejected him too but they became close friends. They shared a love of Irish greyhounds and he sent her a gift of “two of the finest young Irish greyhounds that ever I saw.” Not to be outdone William soon sent her his own gift of a greyhound.
Dorothy had long cared for her ailing father who finally died on March 11th 1654. Now he was no longer an obstacle to her marriage she gave her brother Henry an ultimatum, declaring she would “marry no one but William Temple.” Meanwhile William’s father Sir John Temple, reappointed Master of the Rolls in Ireland by Cromwell, relented. He had become worried for his son’s mental health, even fearing suicide, so great was William’s distress at the possibility of losing Dorothy. The relieved couple set a wedding date for October. But one final crisis threatened their happiness.
One week before the wedding date Dorothy fell seriously ill with smallpox and appeared near death. The disease was common at the time; about a third of the patients died and those who survived were disfigured for life with facial scars. William’s sister Martha wrote that he barely left her bedside during her illness, smoking a pipe out of a belief that the smoke would protect him from infection. Dorothy survived, and because their relationship had for so long been a meeting of minds in their letters, the loss of her beauty did not change it. But Martha later admitted:
“He was happy when he saw her life secure, his kindness having greater ties than that of her beauty though that loss was too great to leave him wholly insensible.”
Dorothy Osborne and William Temple were married at last on Christmas Day 1654 in a simple ceremony at St. Giles in the Field, London.
The married life that followed was full of public success and private sorrow. Through it all their devotion to one another never faltered. Their first son John was born in 1655, the only one of their children to live to adulthood. Soon after they joined William’s father in Ireland, living for several years in the countryside outside Dublin, an English enclave separated from the Irish people who were considered a dangerous and inferior race. While in Ireland Dorothy was almost constantly pregnant, losing five babies, stillborn or dying soon after birth, in as many years.
Great changes were coming to England that would launch William on a successful career as a diplomat. With the collapse of the Commonwealth after the death of Cromwell came the Restoration of Charles II. Out of gratitude to Dorothy for the sacrifices made by her family on his father’s behalf, Charles forgave William’s Parliamentarian background and appointed him ambassador to the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Thus William and Dorothy lived in The Hague for several years. William loved the Dutch people and culture, remarking on their cleanliness. It did not change his own habits however. He recalled spitting on the floor in the English manner during a dinner party. Each time a Dutch servant girl stepped forward with a white cloth and cleaned his phlegm from the floor! More consequentially William met and befriended the young Prince William of Orange, Charles II’s nephew. He negotiated the marriage contract between Prince William and his cousin Mary, daughter of Charles’s brother the future James II. During these years Dorothy, as well as suffering more stillbirths, gave birth to their beloved daughter Diana who would live to the age of thirteen.
William continued as a diplomat during the disastrous reign of James II though he was often incapacitated by severe gout. When his proteges William and Mary came to the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 he felt he was too old to serve. By this time William and Dorothy’s only surviving child John Temple was married with two young daughters. In 1689 he was appointed Secretary of War by the new sovereigns. But he felt he was inadequate to the enormity of his responsibilities and fell into a deep depression. On April 19th he drowned himself in the Thames, flinging himself from a boat where the currents were strongest and leaving a note for his family with the boatman, whose efforts to rescue him failed. With this final tragedy William and Dorothy had outlived all ten of their children.
The grieving couple retreated to their country home of Moor Park in Surrey and William devoted himself to his hobby of gardening. He was especially proud of his fruit trees. He wrote an influential book on garden design, Upon the Gardens of Epicurus, introducing the concept of the beauty of irregularity. His ideas would be developed by the great landscape designers of the 18th century including Capability Brown. The book is still in print.
William and Dorothy spent their last years in the countryside as they had dreamed of so long ago when they saw the little cottage on the island of Herm from aboard ship. Another wish from those days was not granted. William had written:
“let us die both in an instant, that so our souls may go together wheresoever they are destined, I am sure there can be no heaven without thee.”
Dorothy Osborne Temple died in early February 1695. Sir William Temple died on 27th January 1699.