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Daughters of Ireland: The Rebellious Kingsborough Sisters and the Making of a Modern Nation

Daughters of Ireland: The Rebellious Kingsborough Sisters and the Making of a Modern Nation

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by Janet Todd

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They were known as the Ascendancy, the dashing aristocratic elite that controlled Irish politics and society at the end of the eighteenth century—and at their pinnacle stood Caroline and Robert King, Lord and Lady Kingsborough of Mitchelstown Castle. Heirs to ancient estates and a vast fortune, Lord and Lady Kingsborough appeared to be blessed with everything


They were known as the Ascendancy, the dashing aristocratic elite that controlled Irish politics and society at the end of the eighteenth century—and at their pinnacle stood Caroline and Robert King, Lord and Lady Kingsborough of Mitchelstown Castle. Heirs to ancient estates and a vast fortune, Lord and Lady Kingsborough appeared to be blessed with everything but marital love—which only made the scandal that tore through their family more shocking. In 1798, at the height of a rebellion that was setting Ireland ablaze, Robert King was tried for the murder of his wife’s cousin—a crime born of passion that proved to have extraordinary political implications. In her brilliant new book, Janet Todd unfolds the fascinating story of how this powerful Anglo-Irish family became entwined with the downfall not only of their class, but of their very way of life.

Like Amanda Foreman’s bestselling Georgiana, Daughters of Ireland brings to life the world of a glittering elite in an age of international revolution. When her daughters, Margaret and Mary, were at their most impressionable, Lady Kingsborough hired the firebrand feminist Mary Wollstonecraft to be their governess, little realizing how radically this would alter both girls’ beliefs and characters. The tall, striking Margaret went on to provide crucial support to the United Irishmen in the days leading up to the Rebellion of 1798, while soft, pleasing Mary indulged in an illicit, and all but incestuous love affair that precipitated multiple tragedies.

As the Kingsboroughs imploded, the most powerful and colorful figures of the day were swept up in their drama—the dashing aristocrat turned revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald; the liberal, cultivated Countess of Moira, a terrible snob despite her support of Irish revolutionaires; the notorious philanderer Colonel George King, whose sexual debauchery was matched only by his appalling cruelty; Britain’s cold calculating prime minister William Pitt and its mad ruler King George III.

With irresistible narrative drive and richly intimate historic detail, Daughters of Ireland an absolutely spellbinding work of history, biography, passion, and rebellion.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“LUCID AND ENTERTAINING . . . There is much to admire in this well-written, well-researched, and frequently original study of an Anglo-Irish family in decline. . . . Todd charts the rise and fall of the Kings from their earliest days in Co Roscommon, through the various maneuverings that brought them to prominence, to the momentous year which changed not only their fate, but the fate of their country. In many ways they are shown to be emblematic of the Irish experience at that period: within a year of 1798 Robert was dead; within ten years Margaret was living in Italy in disgrace (she left her husband for another man); and George King ended his days in a lunatic asylum, as did one of his own sons. . . . Todd gives an excellent description of the dynastic machinations.”
—The Irish Times

Publishers Weekly
Todd is the biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft, and the early feminist firebrand plays an important part in this well-researched and skillfully written look at the aristocratic, Irish Protestant King family, in particular the sisters Margaret and Mary and the role they played in the ill-fated 1798 Irish Rising. Todd asserts that Wollstonecraft, who served as a governess to the King children, had a crucial impact on the two young women, encouraging them to think for themselves and to question authority, especially their self-absorbed mother. Eventually, Charlotte King dismissed the governess for "encouraging insubordinate behavior." Todd does a fine job placing the King family in an age of revolutionary fervor in Europe. She explores the tense years before the 1798 Rising and stresses how political differences split the King family. Margaret joined the republican United Irishmen, while her brother George became a leading loyalist to the Crown. Mary was a rebel on the domestic front-still a teenager, she had an affair with a married cousin, Henry Fitzgerald, which led her father, Robert, to kill Fitzgerald. Todd explores the scandal and the sensational murder trial of Robert, who was acquitted, as well as describing the simultaneous 1798 Rising of the United Irishmen. Informers in high places doomed the Rising, and Ireland was soon incorporated into Great Britain. George King played a central role in quelling the rebellion, much to sister Margaret's chagrin. Todd has written an excellent historical account of one fascinating Irish family and how it influenced Ireland during a crucial period of its history. 8 pages of illus. not seen by PW. (On sale Feb. 10) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Historian Todd, a prolific author of books about women writers in Britain, here delivers an engaging social history and biography of two significant Irish sisters, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the turmoil in Britain leading to the Irish Union of 1801. What is absolutely pivotal to this story is that these upper-crust Kingsborough sisters were tutored by none other than Mary Wollstonecraft. (Todd's earlier biography of Wollstonecraft referred to her time in Dublin as governess to the pampered Kingsborough siblings: impressionable Margaret and younger sister Mary.) As Todd reveals, both sisters were at first reluctant to be "governed" by the plain Wollstonecraft, but they eventually responded to her fiery intellect and feminist stance. While Todd persuasively argues that Wollstonecraft's influence on Margaret led to her support for the United Irishmen in the days leading up to the rebellion of 1798, she is less convincing when arguing that Wollstonecraft's influence on Mary led to romantic tragedy. Still, this intimately detailed story is a historic page-turner that readers will thoroughly enjoy, whether informed about Irish history or not. Recommended for all academic and larger public libraries.-Gail Benjafield, St. Catharine's P.L., Ont. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sweeping saga a la Tara unmasked: Ireland's King family (the Lords Kingsborough) through feudalism's death struggle with the rise of republican thought in the late 18th century. Historian Todd also tracks England's pioneer feminist (Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life, 2000) into a year's service as the Kingsboroughs' governess and tutor to their two young daughters, both faced with the prospect of a privileged life as members of an Anglo-Irish aristocracy, also known as the Ascendancy, that effectively held the unpropertied Irish majority firmly in sway through the English Crown's puppet Parliament in Dublin. By the author's estimation, a year of Wollstonecraft was enough to inoculate Margaret (the elder) and Mary King with revelations on the sorry state of womanhood that led each in her own way to reject the typical arranged marriage. "It was remarkable," the author comments, "that any aristocrats, raised by servants to consider their own desires paramount . . . ever managed to live together [as man and wife]." While Mary winds up in a sordid affair with a married man who may be her mother's relative, Margaret sublimates her loveless union as Lady Mount Cashell into clandestine support of the United Irishmen, an avowed nonsectarian (initially) group dedicated to severing political ties to England and permitting Catholic representation in Parliament. Things do not go well for either daughter: Mary attempts suicide, a family disgrace; Margaret remains an anonymous patriot as the opposition is forced underground by Dublin edicts and the situation devolves into the failed, bloody 1798 Rebellion culminating in the 1801 Act of Union, and in which the King family is associated withatrocities (in the name of Church and Crown) that, along with even worse reprisals, initiate two centuries of sectarian violence-and counting. Feminism, republicanism, nationalism: at least one -ism too many. Agency: Anderson Grinberg

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Random House Publishing Group
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Chapter 1

The Price of a Bride

The spirit of collateral calculation . . .

-horace walpole

In May 1798 an earl was tried before his peers for the murder of his wife's cousin. The trial of Robert, Earl of Kingston, before the Irish House of Lords proved an extraordinary event in the King family, already torn apart by political difference and personal conflict. It also impinged on a crucial period in Irish and Anglo-Irish history: the Rebellion of 1798.

Robert and his wife, Caroline, were heirs of a dynasty. Long before 1798 their ancestors the Fitzgeralds had become notorious for combining murder, money, feuding and revolt. Through the generations they mingled old Celtic and English blood, becoming a fairly typical, ethnically diverse Anglo-Irish clan. They were especially proud of being descended from the White Knight, who derived his glamorous name from the color of his armor-or from the white scarf with which the English monarch Edward III bandaged his battle wound. The Knight established his castle at Mitchelstown in County Cork.

In the 1650s the Fitzgerald heiress brought the White Knight's inheritance of castle and fertile lands into the hands of the Kings, a Yorkshire family of civil servants whose grateful English sovereigns had rewarded them with Irish property at Boyle in County Roscommon. By this marriage the Kings became masters of thousands of acres in southern and midland Ireland. They liked the glamour of the White Knight and used him in family portraits as they moved up the ranks to become the Barons Kingston.

By the time of James, 4th Baron Kingston, in the eighteenth century, the King estates had been divided, and it became a dream of successive generations to unite them. But it was not one that James could realize, since at his death in 1761 he left only a married daughter, Margaret, to inherit his lands-as a woman she could not accede to his title. She had married rather beneath her: a country gentleman, Richard Fitzgerald of Mount Ophaley, County Kildare, a vain but attractive militia colonel with a modest civil pension of £200. When the marriage had occurred, however, the baron had had a son living and not much value was placed on the daughter-in the marriage market wealth far outweighed rank. With this young man's death, the family hopes had now to settle on Margaret's only child, Caroline, who became heiress of over seventy-five thousand acres of Cork and Limerick stretching across twenty miles. It was one of the largest fortunes in Ireland and she was one of the most sought-after girls.

Anxious about such wealth remaining in women's hands, James worked out a will that would ensure his estates traveled to Caroline and onward to the goal: a son in the bloodline. Through Caroline, too, the King lands in Counties Roscommon and Cork might once more be united; then her son could inherit all and give the family huge political and social prominence across the island. Caroline's father, Richard Fitzgerald, must of course be compensated, so James's will stipulated that if her mother was dead, Caroline at twenty-one would inherit all the land of the White Knight, but Richard, her father, should receive an income of £2,000 as long as his daughter remained unmarried. However things were arranged and sweetened, the daughter would always be a great deal wealthier than her father. She might also remain wealthier than her eldest son, since he could not inherit until she relinquished the property.

In 1763, before her child was ten, Margaret died. Given her great riches and the danger of fortune hunters, Caroline was made a ward in chancery during her minority. Her father, Richard, was her guardian.

Three years after his wife's death Richard married again. His new spouse was a pleasant, sociable lady who brought him a modest fortune but not one on the scale of his first wife's. Soon they were parents of three daughters. Each would require a decent portion if she was to marry within her rank and keep up socially with her rich half sister. For the moment, as guardian of Caroline, Richard had access to the Mitchelstown rents but even with this goldmine he never quite had enough ready cash for his needs.

Caroline had a strange status, favored heiress and stepchild in a new family. It cannot have been easy for any of them. They lived at Richard's estate, Kilminchy Castle, in Maryborough, Queen's County (Laois), and kept a house in fashionable Merrion Square in Dublin. Earlier in the century the premier duke of Ireland, the Duke of Leinster, had built a large, rather forbidding country mansion in an undeveloped suburb of the city on the edge of Molesworth Fields, south of the Liffey. Rightly he assumed it would turn into a townhouse when his status attracted fashionable people to move close by. Merrion Square grew up around him and some of the newer inhabitants were Richard, his wife, their children and Caroline.

Occasionally they also visited Mitchelstown, and Caroline must always have known that she alone owned the castle, not her father. Where middle-class girls grew up assuming they would marry and place the dowry from their parents into the hands of a husband, an aristocratic heiress such as Caroline knew her importance from birth as carrier and holder of estates.

Yet father and daughter got on reasonably well. Richard did not overburden the girl with learning but ensured she had the proper ladylike accomplishments of French and music. He could also be indulgent and he bought Caroline the sort of present every little girl wants: a pony called Button.

Inevitably there was a buzz of activity around the rich child. Someone must secure her in marriage before she had a mind of her own or, as one guardian of an heiress expressed it, "before she was aware of what man or money was." It was common to arrange marriages on the basis of barter, and young women usually had little say in a matter that fathers had agreed. Caroline's interest would be represented mainly in the discussion of jointure (money to support her if her husband predeceased her) and pin money (her annual allowance). Her grandfather Baron Kingston's will ensured that the estates would always be vested in her and not simply be merged with those of a husband. If he died before she did, she would continue to hold them before leaving them to her eldest son.

As far as birth was concerned, the major claimant for the rich prize was William, son of the Duke and Duchess of Leinster, the Duchess being one of the five lively daughters of the English Duke of Richmond. It was impossible to marry higher in Ireland and the Leinsters had immense political and social prestige.* But the Duke and Duchess had had a superfluity of children and consequently their great state was not supported by great riches. Also there were other Kings waiting in the wings with more zeal and assiduity than the Leinsters could muster.

These Kings, holders of the Roscommon lands at Boyle, had the advantage of being blessed by the dead Baron Kingston, who had favored an alliance of the two branches of his wealthy family. Like the Mitchelstown Kings, the Boyle Kings had gone some way up the social scale and were now Viscounts Kingsborough.

The present holder of the title was Edward, an ambitious, brooding, rather humorless man, who had succeeded his notoriously rakish and charming brother some years before. He was determined to avoid his brother's mistakes and make a respectable mark on the world. He would begin by resurrecting the defunct King title of Baron Kingston; he would then top it with an earldom. He felt he had the property to back his claims: he had inherited King House, big but unfashionably in the middle of Boyle town, and he was now reconstructing another mansion at nearby Rockingham that had a properly large demesne. This opulence was augmented by a further inheritance from his brother, a good solid townhouse in Dublin, 15-16 Henrietta Street, the grandest of the twenty-one terraced dwellings built in the 1720s and '30s away from the old city center. After he had achieved the proper honors, Edward would combine his titles and Boyle lands with the great Mitchelstown estates now vested in young Caroline. His instrument in this ambitious plan must be his eldest son, Robert, an unprepossessing youth now being educated expensively in England at Eton College.

Over the next years Edward kept an eye on Caroline, as well as on the opposition from the powerful Leinsters. He encouraged his own young daughters to write to the girl and swap stories about ponies. At the same time he set about a letter-writing campaign to capture the earldom of Kingston for his family and raise their social position.

In the mid-eighteenth century Ireland was ruled from Dublin under the British crown. The executive was usually drawn from the great Irish families, while ultimate authority lay in the crown-appointed Viceroy or Lord Lieutenant in Dublin Castle, seat of British power in Ireland. As the main instrument for rewards and favors, including titles and honors, the Lord Lieutenant was the most important personage to impress.

Despite his wealth, position and desire to please, Edward was never quite in favor with Dublin Castle or with the new young Hanoverian king George III in England, but he was persistent. He began by insisting on reviving the family name of Kingston and in June 1764 the Lord Lieutenant relayed to him that the King had agreed to create him Baron Kingston. At once the Rockingham mansion was named Kingston Hall. But, despite being entertained at Boyle, the Lord Lieutenant was unwilling to raise his host further. Edward was undeterred and wrote directly to ask for an earldom. It was refused.

In 1765 a new Lord Lieutenant, Lord Townshend, arrived in Dublin. At once Edward approached him but, despite high hopes, he had a distressing audience. It left him fearing the great man doubted his "Attachment to the House of Hanover" and "His Majesty's sacred Person." Profusely he expressed his loyalty to the crown.

He then started lobbying a neighbor in Henrietta Street, the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, John Ponsonby, asking him to mediate with Townshend on his behalf. The Speaker did so and made Edward understand that the Lord Lieutenant was now sympathetic. Thus emboldened, Edward entertained Lord Townshend at dinner in King House.

In August 1768 he got his wish and became Earl of Kingston. Deeply grateful, he took his seat in the Irish House of Lords, knowing that his elevation had given him a better chance of gaining his second aim: the capturing of the Mitchelstown heiress. His new title allowed his son to take his old one and become Lord Kingsborough, a better-sounding name than plain Robert or Robin King. William, the Leinster candidate, still overtopped him in rank, since, on the death of his eldest brother, the young man had become Marquess of Kildare and heir to a dukedom.

Even before the Kingston title had been secured negotiations had been opened for the potential uniting of Caroline and Robert-or rather the Roscommon and Cork estates of Boyle and Mitchelstown. Robert was still away at school at Eton; his absence was an advantage, since an adolescent boy would not help in the wooing. He could be fetched home when needed.

The first necessity was to secure Colonel Richard Fitzgerald, Caroline's father. Edward had been courting him for some years and in 1763, the year Richard's wealthy wife died, Edward had provided him with a parliamentary seat in which he had an interest at Boyle. This was a considerable kindness, since seats were much sought after and Richard had little political aptitude-once elected, he seldom attended Parliament. Despite receiving this patronage, Richard still insisted on being wooed for his consent to the marriage, since he had debts and a family of little girls. Edward understood his anxieties for he too had a family and large debts.

Meanwhile the Leinsters were advancing, trusting in their status to secure the prize. Unhappily for them William, their candidate, was far from Ireland on the grand Continental tour he had begun after his years at Eton. It was the custom for the British and Irish aristocracy to send young heirs on a European trip to educate and refine them and to acquire the southern artifacts to adorn their new mansions. Especially in need of refinement, young William was visiting Italy, France and Austria, supposedly learning military arts, sometimes being painfully homesick and sometimes enjoying the sexual freedom the Continent allowed. While he was away his mother and aunts, particularly Lady Holland in London-mother of the future politician Charles James Fox-looked out for his interests, and both wrote to him as soon as Caroline Fitzgerald, "Miss F," came on the market.

Like the other Leinster sons, William was devoted to his mother, and family letters of sentimental attachment flowed between him and the Duchess. Her favorite was the younger Edward, a glamorous and affectionate boy, and for him she reserved her greatest outpourings of love. But she was properly attached to all her children although, like his siblings, she could not avoid regarding William as dull. Since he felt ready for marriage and wanted to settle down and at the same time help the chaotic finances of his extravagant and huge family-the Duchess bore the Duke seventeen children, of whom eleven survived to maturity-it did not take much to interest him in Caroline Fitzgerald and her vast Mitchelstown estates. It helped that the girl was also reputed a beauty.

In July 1767 William wrote from Florence to his mother, authorizing his family to begin negotiating for a bride, though at that point he did not even know her age. Three months later he was more urgent: "I believe to make up for my travelling expenses (that causes me more uneasiness than one can imagine) you must marry me to Miss FitzGerald as soon as I return; so I beg you'll make Cecilia and Emily [his young aunt and sister] pay their court to her whenever they see her." His keenness was not entirely financial: "I like the description that Cecilia sent me very well, and I think there is no time to lose, as I hear they want to marry Master King to her directly, and it would be a thousand pities that poor William should lose so good a match. (I am in earnest.)" Later he told his mother, "I hope you'll make the young ladies be civil to Miss FitzGerald upon all occasions, as I wish I was married to her and settled." He thought it would be a good idea to get her to their grand house of Carton so they could impress and work on her there.

Meet the Author

Janet Todd is the author of many books on early women writers. Her best-known recent books are the biographies Mary Wollstonecraft and The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. She lives in Glasgow and Cambridge.

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