Thomas Lyttelton: a fantastic narrative
The story about Thomas Lyttelton’s death is fantastic, even if you believe it. So is the following narrative even more fantastic?
A trio of improbabilities
The new narrative links his death with two other, apparently disparate, assertions in the history books that look nearly as improbable. We’ll take them in chronological order.
First, what happened in 1763 following his betrothal to the daughter of General Warburton.
As he was at this time only nineteen years of age, and no marriage-settlement could be made until he had attained his majority, it was suggested by Sir Richard Lyttelton, one of his uncles, that he should pass the intervening time in travelling on the Continent.
From at item on the Web
Next, the death itself.
On Thursday, the 25th of November, 1779, Thomas Lord Lyttelton, when he came to breakfast. Declared to Mrs. Flood, wife of Frederick Flood, Esq., of the kingdom of Ireland, and to the three Miss Amphletts, who were lodged in his house in Hill Street, London (where he then also was), that he had had an extraordinary dream the Night before; he said he thought he was in a room which a Bird flew into, which appearance was suddenly changed into that of a Woman dress’d in white, who bade him prepare to Die; to which he answered, ‘I hope not soon, not in two Months’; she replied, ‘Yes, in three Days.’
When he had dressed himself that day to go to the House of Lords, he said he thought he did not look as if he was likely to Die: in the Evening of the following Day, being Friday, he told the eldest Miss Amphlett that she look’d melancholy; ‘But,’ said he, ‘you are foolish and fearfull, I have lived two Days, and, God willing, I will live out the third.” On the morning of Saturday he told the same ladies that he was very well, and believed he shou’d bilk the ghost. Some hours afterwards he went with them, Mr Fortescue and Captain Wolseley, to Pitt Place, at Epsom; withdrew to his bed-chamber soon after eleven o’Clock at night, talked cheerfully to his Servant, and particularly inquired of him what care had been taken to provide good Eoles for his breakfast the next morning; Stepd into Bed with his Waistcoat on and as his Servant was pulling it off, put his hand to his side, sunk back, and immediately expired without a groan.
From at item on the Web
Finally, an apparently unrelated episode after a further 28 years.
Old Mrs. Becher was a stern and decorous lady, who ruled her household with tyrannical authority. But her severely Evangelical piety did not make her insensible of the advantages of wealth and position, and when her granddaughter grew up to be a very beautiful young lady, Mrs. Becher determined that she should make a brilliant marriage.
Anne, as it turned out, had her own views on this subject. At an Assembly Ball in Bath during 1807 she met Henry Carmichael-Smyth (1780-1861), a younger son of a good Scottish family, who was an ensign of the Bengal Engineers. He told her of the ten years of active service that he had seen in India; of his part in the capture of Allyghur, the battle of Delhi, the siege of Agra, the battle of Laswaree, the battle and siege of Deeg, and the first siege of Bhurtpore; and she learned from others that he had been several times mentioned in despatches for exemplary valor. Weighed against these achievements, the fact that he had neither money nor prospects seemed to her of little importance. The two young people were soon very much in love, and despite the prohibitions of Mrs. Becher, who altogether refused to countenance their engagement, they continued to meet after Anne returned from Bath to Fareham.
From Ray's Introduction to Vol 1 of the letters of William Makepeace Thackeray. A footnote traces its origin to Thackeray's mother, née Anne Becher, later Anne Carmichael-Smyth.
The improbable feature here is the reason given for grandmother Becher’s opposition to the marriage, which she goes to extraordinary lengths to prevent. Carmichael-Smyth's supposed "lack of money or prospects"? But his father is "physician extraordinary to George III" – no mean achievement, considering the extraordinary nature of the King's ailments. And his eldest brother James, also an engineer, later becomes Governor of British Guiana. Why should Anne’s grandmother suppose she could make a better match?
The new theory
This theory fits nearly all the facts.
Lyttelton’s death is suicide. He invents the story about the ghostly warning to cover up his intentions.
The reason for this suicide is his discovery of the consequence of an earlier indiscretion, namely incest with his sister Lucy. He was sent abroad because she became pregnant.
Since he was abroad at the time, he is unaware of the birth of an illegitimate child. But something happens in 1779 which brings it to his attention. Maybe someone has found out and is threatening him with exposure. These two portraits may be relevant.
Is the resemblance suggestive? Has Becher’s artist spotted it? Is that the reason he shows Harman's head at precisely the same angle as Lyttelton's? Or is this merely eighteenth-century artists’ zeitgeist?
To develop the theory…
Importance of the Lyttelton family
Thomas Lyttelton’s father George has become the First Baron Lyttelton of Frankley, with a seat at Hagley Hall. George’s father was Sir Thomas Lyttelton, but it is through his mother that the family has its most significant connections. One of her sisters has married Sir Richard Grenville, and their daughter Hester, George’s cousin, marries William Pitt the Elder, later becoming Countess of Chatham. When George dies, his son Thomas becomes Second Baron Lyttelton. They are often distinguished as The Good Lord Lyttelton and The Wicked Lord Lyttelton.
“The wicked Lord” Lyttelton
Thomas has a chequered career. He is talented as a writer, and is an impressive speaker when he enters Parliament. He has the “great presence of mind” to fetch the doctor when the Earl of Chatham suffers a “convulsion fit” in the Lords.
At least one person has a charitable view.
Solitude was to him the most unsupportable torment, and to banish reflections he fled to company he despised and ridiculed.
Comment on Thomas (second Baron) Lyttelton by Elizabeth Montagu's friend Mrs Carter, quoted in Reginald Blunt, Mrs Montagu, 'Queen of the Blues'.
His own view is that he got into bad habits on the European trip, thanks to an unwise decision by his elders.
It was determined for me to make the tour of Europe previous to my marriage, in order to perfectionate my matrimonial qualifications; and the lovely idea of the fair maid I left behind was presented to me as possessing a talismanic power to preserve me from seduction.
From letter of Thomas Lyttelton, quoted in at item on the Web
The notion that he was virtuous before embarking on this trip should, however, be taken with a pinch of salt. According to the Oxford DNB, he was exhibiting erratic behaviour at the age of sixteen. His sister Lucy was also reckoned to be a tearaway in her younger days. How far did they flout convention?
The role of his uncle Thomas Smith may be relevant here. Smith is the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Lyttelton, but is treated in most respects as a member of the family at Hagley, where his niece and nephew are growing up. What more natural than curiosity about his origins, leading to speculation and experimentation about sex? They may not even realise there is anything wrong with incest until she becomes pregnant. But the pregnancy (according to this narrative) is unknown to young Lyttelton. He is kept in ignorance by being sent abroad: the story that he is being made to wait until a marriage settlement can be made is a cover-up. When the baby arrives, his father arranges to have it adopted by John and Ann Becher, so he does not discover what has happened until many years later.
The Lyttelton-Becher connection
How has the connection between the Lytteltons and the Bechers arisen?
An early link is suggested by a record of John Becher’s father Henry acting as domestic chaplain to Frederick, Prince of Wales (son of George II and father of George III) for a period in the 1740s. Such a period may have overlapped with the time that George Lyttelton and William Pitt were also in the prince’s service.
A big half-clue here. Thomas Smith, Lyttelton’s half-brother, has risen through navy ranks to become an admiral. He develops a reputation for keeping in touch with seamen who have served under him, and helping in their careers. John Becher and his brother Michael are among those that Smith has helped, though there is no record of their serving under him. The source of his interest may be a request from his half-brother, following a promise to their father to find a sponsor for their naval careers.
Although no evidence has been found of a direct Lyttelton-Becher connection, there is a whole file of correspondence (now at the William L Clements Library, University of Michigan) between Smith and Becher, his brother and mother. Smith witnesses John Becher’s wedding on 26 September 1761 at Hagley, vouching for him as a local resident! The link is continued through Alexander Hood, a Smith protégé and associate of John’s brother, who marries Lyttelton’s cousin Mary West, and later becomes godfather to one of John’s children.
These links suggest that the Bechers and Lytteltons are close enough for George to seek the Becher’s help in covering up the arrival of his incestuously-conceived grandchild. Possibly part of the reward he offers is to pay Joshua Reynolds to paint Ann Becher’s portrait, though perhaps it’s surprising that the artist should paint her rather than her husband.
What happens to the baby? Two boys are christened at Bristol St Augustine on 24 May 1764, ostensibly the children of John and Ann Becher. The elder, Michael Thomas, is two years old at the time: we suggest elsewhere a reason for the delay, and possibly for choosing Bristol as a venue. The younger, John Harman (whose portrait above shows such a resemblance to Thomas Lyttelton’s), will leave a will declaring his exact age in years, months and days; from which his birth date can be calculated as 26 March 1764.
The biggest flaw in this narrative: John Becher is so anxious to persuade the world that his adopted son is actually his own that he names the child John. That may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. On Ann’s side of the family, at least, children named after their natural father appear to be jinxed. Her father, Thomas Haysham, had two sons named Thomas: both died in infancy. Her grandfather, John Attwick, had four sons named John: the fourth outlived his father by less than a year.
Events of 1779
This narrative postulates that 1779 is the year that someone uncovers the deception. In all probability it is the year in which John Harman Becher’s portrait is painted.
Harman’s career is undergoing great changes at the time, although he is not yet sixteen. From the age of twelve he has been serving in the Navy during the American War. He leaves his father’s ship Nautilus on 30 October 1778, when she is near New York. Her muster book records him as transferring to Roebuck, but there is no record of him serving on that ship. Somehow he gets back to England, and the next definitive record is being taken into service as a writer with the East India Company. He is said to have arrived in Calcutta in November 1779, so his stay in England couldn’t have been long. Although the date of his portrait is unknown, there is no intimation that it has been painted after his arrival in India.
There also seems to be a hurry to have him sent to India, insofar as the company (presumably at the behest of one of its directors) appoints him as a writer when he is only fifteen. We may note that his father gets back to England around the end of June: barely early enough to see Harman before he leaves, even if he takes the fastest boat.
Our narrative postulates that someone seeing the portrait makes the connection with Thomas Lyttelton, starting a chain of events that prompts the “wicked lord” to take his own life, after inventing a remarkable cover story. This account of his last minutes is particularly telling.
With beating heart and straining eyes he watched the hand draw nearer and nearer. A minute more to go, half a minute. Now it pointed to the fateful twelve – and nothing happened. It crept slowly past. The crisis was over. He put down the watch with a deep sigh of relief, and then broke into a peal of laughter – discordant, jubilant, defiant.
“This mysterious lady is not a true prophetess, I find,” he said to his valet, after spending a few minutes in further mirthful waiting. “And now give me my medicine; I will wait no longer.” The valet proceeded to mix his usual medicine, a dose of rhubarb, stirring it, as no spoon was at hand, with a tooth-brush lying on the table, “You dirty fellow!” his lordship exclaimed. “Go down and fetch a spoon.”
When the servant returned a few minutes later he found, to his horror, his master lying back on the pillow, unconscious and breathing heavily. He ran downstairs again, shouting, “Help! Help! My lord is dying!” The alarmed guests rushed frantically to the chamber, only to find their host almost at his last gasp. A few moments later he was dead, with the watch still clutched in his hand, pointing to half-past twelve. He had died at the very stroke of midnight, as foretold by his ghostly visitant of three nights previously.
From at item on the Web
Is it far-fetched to deduce suicide by self-administered poison? There is elsewhere a suggestion that the clocks in the house had all been put forward half an hour: a further clue that death was pre-planned.
Death, then at the end of the day, 27 November. Four days later, John Becher makes a new will. Had there been a chance of recognition by Lyttelton for his paternity of young Harman, perhaps a legacy? Not now Lyttelton is dead.
So the story goes into hibernation for 28 years, emerging when Harman’s daughter forms a romantic attachment.
Grandmother Becher’s worries
If your young granddaughter wishes to marry the son of the king’s physician, what sort of status do you hold to believe that the match is beneath her? Ann Becher is the widow of a navy captain, left in a comfortable position with a large house in Fareham: is that status sufficient?
A more likely factor is young Anne’s age, only 15 when the romance begins. Nevertheless it hardly justifies the degree of deception in which her grandmother indulges.
But suppose the king’s physician discovers his son wishes to marry. He probably wouldn’t balk at the daughter of a deceased East India Company servant and granddaughter of a navy captain. But he might well inquire into her background, maybe even the circumstances of her father’s birth. At least, that could be the worry foremost in grandmother Becher’s mind. He might even locate Harman’s portrait and draw his own conclusions! No, far safer to send young Anne back to India. If someone there wishes to marry her, the inquiries grandmother fears will be avoided.
In fact, Anne is married twice in India: first to Richmond Thackeray, then to her original beloved Henry Carmichael-Smyth. And is her grandmother, in her eighties but still going strong, worried by the later development? Apparently not. When Anne and her second husband return to England, they pay the old lady an amicable visit in her new house in Gosport.