Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, 1756-1829: Privilege Done Right

Look him up and the subject will immediately turn to dogs.  Dogs and boots and dinner parties.

“At his table, which was celebrated, Sir Henry invited companions of more than one kind. Bijou and Biche, the two favourite dogs, were often there seated on chairs, with imposing napkins around their necks, and to them each plate was solemnly offered. One day, however, their behaviour not conforming to the ideas of their master, they were punished in the most terrible manner! A tailor was immediately summoned.

” ‘ These blackguards have deceived me,’ said their eccentric master. ‘ I have treated them like gentlemen, they have behaved like rascals. Take their measure! they shall wear for eight days the yellow coats and knee breeches of my valets, and stay in the anteroom, and be deprived of the honour of seeing me for a week.’ ”

Nevermind these two, there were plenty of other dogs as well, for each of whom expensive boots were hand made, along with clothing.  All the dogs would sit at table, a servant for each one of them, and let the feasting begin.  They, and the household cats, were also given free use of the earl’s numerous carriages, much to the amazement of their Parisian neighbours.  Ils sont fous, ces anglais!

The writers of potted biographies tend to leave it there, which is very wrong of them.  Truth is, the fellow had a good deal more on offer,  much of it remarkable.

Far from being an Upper Class Twit of Very Small Brain, he is among the best examples of educated dilettante as can be found in the period.   Yes, he bought dogs bespoke booties.  He also compiled one of the finest collections of historical autographs and manuscripts in Europe. To fill his ample free time, he was a writer and a translator and a scholar.

He was well prepared for all this.  The younger son of the Bishop of Durham, he was schooled at Eton, at Christ Church, and All Souls’ College, Oxford.  Okay, so back then mere rank could have gotten him entry into those institutions.  He was also made a Fellow of the Royal Society and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, which took a little more doing.

In middle age, bad health saw him move to Paris.  It is from that time that the stories of his eccentricities arise.  For example, his sole attempt at traveling outside of Paris, accompanied by fifteen carriages, that was cut short when he was confronted that night with a typical meal at a typical road side hostelry.  If that was the quality of food available in the countryside, he wasn’t willing to risk it.  Home again before dawn. (Mind you, how tolerant a modern American or Briton would be towards rural 19th century food is a question best left to The Supersizers.)

Much though there was, and is, in Paris to distract a man, he did not let the place interfere with his work.  He wrote extensively, chiefly on the narrow line of Bridgewater genealogy and its shining lights, but in subjects of more general interest as well.    For the benefit of his adopted host country, he translated Milton’s ‘Comus’ into French (and, generously into  Italian).  Putting the classical education of Eton and Christ Church Oxford to good use, he came out with an annotated edition of Eurypides’ Hippolytus with a facing translation in Latin.  Inspired by his relative the Duke of Bridgwater’s canal from the mines of Worsley to Manchester, the Earl wrote a pamphlet urging the benefits of similar works on France.

He showed his real mettle in interesting times. The revolution had seen the Duc de Noailles dispossessed of his magnificent Hotel de Noailles on the Rue de St Honere.  The restoration after Napoleon’s exile to Elba saw it returned to him.  Once word came that Napoleon was again on the march, the Duc sold the place to Egerton, presumably at a good price, and headed off to Switzerland. Egerton had already lived in Paris for over ten years, was well known, and was unmoved by the arrival of the Emperor.  He himself was a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.  The story goes that when Napoleon tore up a good part of Paris to complete the Rue de Rivoli, but he was stopped when he reached Egerton’s property and sent packing.

Well, he was distracted that year, was Napoleon.  But for Waterloo, Egerton might not have won the second round.

On the other hand,  the allies did not do much better when they came into town.  The Duke of Saxe-Coberg  tried to requisition the place for himself and his suite, but was met by Egerton and his thirty servants, all of them armed and ready to resist by force.  The Duke backed down, as did a Russian general who tried his luck with the earl.   (Alas, by 1830, modern city planners pulled off what Napoleon could not, and so cut through a good deal of the gardens that Egerton had so boldly  preserved.  Still, they survived long enough for him to stock  with clipped pigeons and partridges, so much easier for his weak eyes to shoot for the evening meal.

He died quietly and unmarried  (though there is talk of a natural born daughter who predeceased him), at a ripe age, and with him, all his titles.

He left his collection of manuscripts and autographs, mostly literary, mostly French and Italian,  to the British Museum along with 12,000 pounds to pay for their curating.   He left another 8,000 pounds to the Royal Society at their discretion. They commissioned eight scholars to compose the Bridgewater Treatises.

Not a word about what should happen to his dogs, however much they are what he is today chiefly remembered for.  Well, how many people get to write their own epitaphs?

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