Letter from the Missing Chevalier

A letter from Charles François de Courtenay to Fanny Ayliffe in 1860 is as scandalous as expected and raises a new, important question

Brit Nicholson
Oct 21, 2018 · 13 min read

I’ve previously written extensively about François de Courtenay and his descendants. I knew that this letter would answer some of the questions that had long been on the minds of anyone who wondered why François was separated from his wife early on in their marriage. I keep intact the original punctuation, capitalization, and spelling wherever possible.

On September 21, 2018, I was very happy to have finally made it to the West Sussex Records Office. For almost a year I had been aware of some letters concerning my third great-grandfather, Charles François de Courtenay, that were housed at the Petworth Archives and could be made available to view at the records office. The letter that interested me the most was from François to his estranged wife, Fanny de Courtenay (née Ayliffe), in 1860. I suspected that the letter would be a deathbed confession and that it would address the separation of the couple that led to François starting a new family in 1843 after 23 years of marriage. Another letter was to Fanny from her father, Thomas Hamilton Ayliffe, in 1830. This letter addressed some criticisms that they already had of François. The third letter was from Col. George Wyndham, Fanny’s first cousin, to his brother-in-law Sir Charles Burrell. In that letter Col. Wyndham is also critical of François.

The letter from François de Courtenay to Fanny was postmarked 21 May 1860 from Reims, 21 May Strasbourg À Paris, 22 May in Paris, and 23 May in Canterbury, England. It was addressed to Mme. de Courtenay at Mrs. Potter’s, St. Paul’s, Canterbury, Angleterre.

I once wasn’t sure if my third great-grandfather, Charles François Courtenay, who started a family in La Rochelle in 1846 and later moved to Nantes and then Reims was the same person as the Charles François de Courtenay who disappeared from England in the 1840s. I eventually proved that they were the same person in a few ways: through the birth of his first child in England with my third great-grandmother, through newspaper advertisements for French tutoring, and through the record for his 1861 death in Reims, which stated that he was born in England. But the fact that the letter to his estranged wife was postmarked from Reims in 1860 is perhaps the most definitive evidence of all. I didn’t know where it had been sent from until I had the letter in my hands.

To my surprise, it was mostly a love letter. I knew that some of the content would be scandalous, since François had started a new family of five children 17 years earlier. But there were many surprises in the letter. It answered some of my questions and it posed a new very important question to me, which we will come to later.

One person who is mentioned in the letter is Sir Charles Merrik Burrell, who was the husband of Fanny’s first cousin (on her dad’s side) Frances Wyndham. Fanny’s father, Thomas Hamilton Ayliffe, had a sister, Elizabeth Ilive, who had a daughter with George Wyndham, the 3rd Earl of Egremont. That daughter’s name was Frances Wyndham, and she married Sir Charles Burrell in 1808. Col. George Wyndham, who wrote another one of the letters I read at the records office, was a son of the 3rd Earl of Egremont, meaning he was a brother-in law of Charles Burrell.

The letter from François starts with some business concerning recent mail and his admission that he would have written to Fanny “many weeks ago, but for the many letters I[‘ve] addressed to you and then put in the fire.” The ostensible reason that he had been meaning to write to her was this: “strange to say I received some weeks ago a letter partly addressed to you here [in Reims].” It was because “it was so addressed coupled with my name and the word [Monsieur?] after the word Mme that I ventured to open it.” He supposes that the reason it was partly addressed to Fanny was “making sure of finding you here.” The letter “enclosed a draught for money to Mme De C_ or Bearer, une somme apez considerable, and as there is no Mme de C_ here, I of course said there must be a mistake though the Banker said he would discount if I pleased, I refused, and sent it back the same day by return of cost — it was enclosed in a letter signed by Sir Chs Burrell drawn on his or a Bankers [note?] in the city. The draught seemed to come either for you or from you, at any rate I sent it back to Paris immediately.” That was the ostensible reason that he wrote the letter, but we will soon see that he had other motives.

He then uses the letter (or a more recent one) from Charles Burrell as a device to further the true motives that the two men apparently share with each other:

Now my dear love I may quote a few lines from Sir Chs. (last) letter which I have now open before me. He gives frankly his opinion that we ought to live together and not live away from each other in this manner unlike Christians. He puts all the blame on my side saying I was first in the wrong ever to have lost sight of you, for when once united it is for ever for eternity. I am ready to bend my character to your whims sh’d you have any. I shall do my utmost to love and please you dearest love even unto death, and we shall pray the Lord together. Do not let me remain like the wandering Jew an outcast in this world. And let us hope to spend our fortune eternally together in holiness. The stream clears as it moves on, and so do our thoughts, and so dear love do forgive your dear husband of all the wrongs he may have been guilty towards you. I am always thinking of you sweet dear whether dreaming or walking, my first and last thoughts are always about you and no power can smother the endearing light that while I breathe there is hope of our being once more happy together. A true affection knows no shade, you made such deep impressions on my heart that nothing but death can efface, for it is well known that when wed the heart with love is warm, that there is no power that can break the charm. I cling to you dearest love and kiss you a thousand times, I look at those beautiful clear sky blue eyes, they seem to speak to me, it is God’s mysterious gift, car c’est plus fort que moi.

It could be that François would have been unhappy with whichever woman was in his company, and pined for whomever he had lost. But there are indications that the separation was initiated by Fanny. In a letter from Thomas Hamilton Ayliffe in September, 1830, he tells his daughter that he’s sorry to hear that she has cause to diminish her affection towards François. Mr. Ayliffe spends much of his letter worrying to Fanny about money, saying he doesn’t know what will become of himself and his sons if Lord Egremont doesn’t remember Thomas in his will. It was certainly enough to cause stress for Fanny, then 33. Mr. Ayliffe goes as far as saying that he could not ask Fanny for aid, considering her own situation in a foreign land, then living in Paris. Mr. Ayliffe had apparently heard recently, maybe from Fanny herself. He comments that François would act like a madman in order to get out of an appointment to some position, which may have been in the military, public office, or some profession; and would surely not take the position if it were in his power to do so. Mr. Ayliffe asks if François has returned yet from Algiers, where he probably fought under Louis Auguste Victor de Ghaisne, comte de Bourmont in the invasion of Algiers from June to August of 1830. Louis de Ghaisne and François’ father had both fought in L’armée des émigrés against the French Republic. On August 11, 1830 de Ghaisne heard the news that his preferred monarch, Charles X, had been deposed. He refused to pledge his allegiance to the new king, Louis-Philippe, and was forced out of command. It’s possible that François was shipped home at the same time as de Ghaisne and he may have been back at home in Paris by the time Fanny received the letter.

François abruptly transitions from his love letter to a defensive posture:

Now my dear love, my dear Fanny, I don’t think it was quite right in you to call your forsaken husband a French beggar for I am no French man but a true born Englishman, nor do I look like one & as for the 2d term, I sh’d have been ashamed to have mentioned such a word knowing the close Bonds that bind us together yes love, for ever.

It’s probably impossible to know how early François’ infidelity began, but it appears that finances and his career decisions that were questionable to Fanny and her family caused an early split in their relationship. It’s very likely that François left Fanny and their young daughter Rosabella in Paris after being called a French beggar by his wife, since the son of a French count probably wouldn’t care to suffer such an indignity. This may have happened before Fanny received the letter from her father in 1830 or sometime between then and 1843. Although François was in England part-time from 1827 to 1843, it appears that Fanny stayed in Paris from the early 1820s until after 1841 and François was probably there off-and-on for most of that time.¹

Additional evidence for a very early split between the couple comes from their children. It would have been highly unusual for a British couple at that time to stop having children at such a young age. Both of their families had histories of large numbers of children, as did most families in England at the time. Especially for a French nobleman who had no living son, François would have been eager to have more children. All of the evidence suggests that François never did anything to prevent having children. François and Fanny had their first child a year after marriage, but he died in infancy. Only 15 months later, in December of 1822, they had their daughter Rosabella in London. And then they simply stopped. It may have been because of the heartbreak of losing their first child, or Fanny could have been advised by a doctor, such as her father, that it wasn’t safe for her to have children. But I think it’s far more likely that Fanny’s diminished affection, either because of financial problems or early infidelity by François, had started sometime between 1822 and 1823.

It would seem obvious that the second term he mentions is the word “beggar,” except that he then goes on to say that he was the one to have “mentioned such a word.” But it almost seems as if François mentioned divorce after being called a French beggar, being “ashamed to have mentioned such a word knowing the close Bonds that bind us together … for ever.” I believe that this exchange most likely occurred sometime not long after August of 1838. In the letter from Col. George Wyndham to Charles Burrell in April of that year, it’s made clear that François and Fanny are in need of financial help. Just four months later François’ apartment in Brighton, Sussex was robbed of what sounded like most of his valuable possessions. This to me, would be the most fitting time for him to have described himself as “forsaken.” He continues in his letter:

How I should like to see Sir Chs. Burrell smile at the idea of your telling one that I was free to marry again, why my dear I would not do such a thing not even were you to Divorce me in the Court laws of Divorce.

I learned a lot from this passage. For a long time I had assumed that François had remarried, whether scrupulously or not. Even when I began having doubts about that, it was clear that he pretended to have been married to my third great-grandmother from 1843 to 1861, even stating so explicitly in birth records for their children. As far as I know there wasn’t one time when they had separate residences during that period. But this letter, for me, is strong evidence that he never did remarry. In the same vein:

You have been led to think many things which have never existed, nor have I ever had any woman living with me one half the time you mention in your letter, and there is not one of them that was ever worth the paring of your nails.

This is my third great-grandmother he’s talking about, and now I feel very sorry for her. Despite any wrongdoing by François, I had imagined that he had started a second life with Louise Patience Ridley and that they were happy together. It seemed that the best that a man could do at that point was to love his partner. Instead, it’s most likely that François mistreated my third great-grandmother; and more than just the typical mistreatment of women in that era; as he probably always made it clear that she wasn’t worthy of marriage (very important at that time) and that he never stopped loving his estranged wife.

It’s difficult to address the comment about the amount of time François lived with another woman because I don’t know the amount of time she specified or if his response was truthful. I will just say that enough time had elapsed since their marriage (1820) that it’s possible for his statement to be either true or false, i.e. she may have accused him of living with another woman from 1826 (or earlier) to 1860 (at least 34 years), even if he only did from 1843 to 1860 (at least 17 years), or it’s possible that he lived with my third great-grandmother for the entire time that Fanny specified.

I do not deny that these hirelings took more liberties than I ever granted, and some produced children, which are gone to their home from different causes.

So he blames his servants for having slept with him. The big surprise I mentioned earlier is the use of the plural tense here. It may not be surprising that there was more than one woman, but in using the words “some produced children,” he seems to definitively admit that he had children with more than one servant. I haven’t previously found evidence for this, but there was one person I had wondered about. A man named Eugène Courtenay crossed the border from France to Belgium in 1883, around the same time that the children of François and Patience Ridley were traveling back-and-forth between France and Brussels. This man, a dentist, said he was born 24 June 1845 in Nantes, France, which is the same place that my second great-grandfather was born in 1853. I initially thought that Eugène must be a child of Patience and François, however the timing isn’t right: their second daughter was born 18 February 1846 in La Rochelle, just eight months after Eugène was born. Also, Eugène would be the only one of their children who didn’t have the middle name Ridley. Strangely, Eugène’s birth was never registered in Nantes or even La Rochelle. Since there weren’t a lot of Courtenays in France at the time, except for a few Britons who were there temporarily, a far more likely explanation is that Eugène was a child of François and another of his servants.

His comment that the children had all “gone to their home” was definitely not true. His sons Charles and Henry were living with him and Patience in Reims in the 1861 census. And if he meant that they had all died, then the lie was a whopper. The earliest death for his four children born in France to Patience Ridley was 20 years later in 1881, when their daughter Emilie died at the age of 33 in Paris. The only other possibility, to my knowledge, of a child who could have died before 1860 was their first child. I’ve never found anything more than the birth registration for Mary Ann Ridley Courtenay, which was in Leeds, Yorkshire in 1843.

Another surprise was that François was still traveling between England and France in 1860. He states,

I shall have the occasion to pass through Canterbury “Via Folkestone”. I was much pained to learn from a stranger that I had a grand daughter living with you but [you] let that pass like many more untold news.

He may have continued tutoring French across England and tutoring English in various parts of France for a couple of decades until 1860 or 1861. In that case he may have visited Fanny at times, but it sounds like it wouldn’t have been a common event, and she may have never allowed it once.

His granddaughter, Horatia Cauty, would have been almost 12 by the time he wrote the letter. It sounds as if François may not have known about her until about 1860.

Horatia Cauty, left, and her grandmother Fanny de Courtenay (née Ayliffe). Photograph in possession of Elinor Gallant, courtesy of Jeremy Masters. Amazingly, this photograph which has very recently surfaced, despite being the only known photograph in existence of these two individuals, happens to have been taken very near to the date that this letter was written — probably no later than a few years afterwards. This affords us the rare opportunity to picture two of the main characters of this letter as they would have looked at the time it was written.

François ends the letter with this:

Sir Chs. Burrell says to me what are you waiting for now to go & join your better half. Why I am only waiting for one kind word from you dearest love. Your ever affectionate husband, François –.

And then written sideways on the right margin, from bottom to top: “Je t’embrasse mille fois de tout mon cœur, qui est tout à tois.”

I took one more moment to appreciate what I was holding. The language and issues discussed made the letter seem like something that could be written today. Yet, it was a letter that was once held by people who lived very different lives than me. One of them happened to be my ancestor. He held the same paper over a hundred and fifty years ago that I was holding now. I don’t know what happened to any of the possessions of Charles François de Courtenay, or his son Ernest Henry Courtenay, or Ernest’s daughter (my great-grandmother) Marie Louise Courtenay, except for this letter. François crumpled up a few just like it, but this one made it to the mailbox and was eventually preserved.

¹The letter to Fanny from her father in 1830 was addressed to 12 Rue Montaigne (now 12 Rue Jean-Mermoz) in Paris. By March 25, 1833, François and Fanny were no longer living there as it was then occupied by the Reverend Thomas Sayers, a British clergyman living in Paris. But they were likely still living somewhere in Paris.

Feel free to tell me what you think of this post, let me know if any of the people I mentioned are your ancestors or if you have additional information, or ask me about genetic genealogy or genealogical research.

Brit Nicholson

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Not content to learn only one field, I studied applied math, geology/geophysics, physical oceanography, and then human behavioral modeling and simulation.