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date: 26 November 2020

Howard [née Shireburne], Mary, duchess of Norfolkfree

  • John Callow

Howard [née Shireburne], Mary, duchess of Norfolk (1692–1754), Jacobite sympathizer and landowner, was born on 22 November 1692 at Bedford Row, Bloomsbury, the second daughter and third (but second surviving) child of Sir Nicholas Shireburne (1658–1717) and Catherine Charleton (d. 1728). She was baptized Maria Windforda Francesca, but was always known as Mary. She was raised at the family seat of Stonyhurst Hall, Lancashire, at a time when the wealth of the Shireburnes, carefully amassed through the acquisition of large estates, the aggressive defence of property rights, and the pursuit of the woollen trade, was being confidently exhibited through massive building schemes and ostentatious charity. As children, neither she nor her siblings enjoyed good health. Her sister, Isabel, had died in 1688, and when Mary began to sicken in the spring of 1698, her father showed no hesitation in sending her to seek a cure at the exiled Jacobite court of St Germain. During her seven-month stay she was touched for the king's evil by James II and came under the care of his personal physician, Sir William Waldegrave. Though the touching made for good propaganda, and was used both to emphasize Sir Nicholas's continued refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the English government and his faith in the quasi-divine properties of the fallen Stuart dynasty, Waldegrave's practical assistance in saving the girl's life was promptly rewarded with the gift of a gold watch, worth in excess of £26. On her return home on 12 December 1698 Mary was consigned once again to the relative obscurity of the nursery and the schoolroom until the tragic death of her brother, Richard Francis (1693–1702), after eating poisonous berries, robbed her family of their only male heir and transformed her own dynastic importance and social standing.

As the future recipient of valuable estates and properties in Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, and the Isle of Man, her wealth (estimated at about £2600 a year), religion, and politics made Shireburne extremely eligible for marriage into the declining English circle of great Jacobite and Roman Catholic families. Accordingly, she was betrothed to Thomas Howard, eighth duke of Norfolk (1683–1732), and even though the penal laws prohibited a public wedding, the dinner that followed it at Shireburne House in St James's Square (26 May 1709) was the occasion for enormous expense and display. The princely sum of more than £668 spent on gilt plate as part of her dowry, and '£350 in part for my daughter's weding cloathes' (Shireburne and Weld papers), attests to the desire of Sir Nicholas to maintain a prominent position in noble society, even though a role in public life was denied him on account of his faith.

The young couple spent much of the remainder of the year at Stonyhurst, before returning to the Howard estates in the spring of 1710. Bitter disputes between the duke and the corporation of Norwich led to his abandonment, and eventual demolition, of his palatial property there, and he subsequently settled with the duchess at Worksop Manor in Nottinghamshire. However, there is little to indicate that the pair were ever particularly close, and Mary maintained a peripatetic existence, travelling between her residences in the north and the midlands. It is conceivable that a breach occurred between husband and wife in 1715–16 over the duke's willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Hanoverian succession after the failure of the Jacobite rising. Even though this was done in order to save his brother's life, the duchess remained scornful of the attempted rapprochement. She was also hostile towards her husband's attempts in 1719 to engineer a concordat between the pope, the Hanoverian government, and the Roman Catholic community in England. While it is possible that Mary's continued opposition to any such scheme might have proved decisive in eroding support for it within the ducal household, it seems certain that it was her lobbying which ensured that considerable funds were diverted from the Howard estates to help finance the Jacobite cause on the continent. The transference of these moneys served to implicate the duke in an abortive Jacobite plot of 1722. Arrested at Bath, the duke was quickly conveyed to the Tower of London, where he was held prisoner for the next six months. However, the general lack of hard evidence against him ensured that he was eventually released on bail, having given assurances of his future good conduct.

An active supporter and patron of the Society of Jesus, the duchess was instrumental in securing appointments for Jesuit priests within her household, effectively overruling the duke's preference for Franciscans. In 1725 she brought Father Thomas Lawson SJ, the former almoner to Mary of Modena and confessor to James II, back from exile to serve as her personal chaplain.

The death of the duchess's mother in January 1728 left her with the full income from the Stonyhurst estate, as well as the use of the house, which had been reserved to her mother by her father's will. The estate earned the duchess a rental income of about £1800, yielding £1200 after expenses. Her marriage settlement may have been intended to establish her financial independence of her husband, but it was challenged by the duke, whose lawyer, Nathaniel Piggott, insisted that the duke enjoy the rents and profits during the couple's joint lives.

From early 1730 the income from the estate was paid directly to the duke; this led to a formal separation between the couple, involving an indenture of 6 March 1730. Movable property was divided between them. The duke retained the house and the greater part of its contents. He transferred the beds and furniture from the three best rooms, as well as several tapestries and statues, to the principal ducal residence at Worksop and sold many other items. The duchess retained much of her jewellery and plate. The duke left Stonyhurst in a condition 'sufficient and necessary for a steward to live and keep house in, whoever he should be' (private information), but his long-term plans for the management of the duchess's patrimony as a dependency of the ducal estate ended with his premature death on 23 December 1732.

The duchess recovered the Stonyhurst estate and its income, though not the items the duke had alienated. By this point she was living at the house of her kinsman Peregrine Widdrington (1692–1748) in Chiswick, Middlesex. Though there can be no doubt that she embarked upon a sexual relationship with Widdrington, it is not known whether the couple were formally contracted in marriage. Thus, although her remarriage was announced in the pages of the Gentleman's Magazine (November 1733), Mary's silence on this matter in her own, otherwise meticulous, correspondence and her failure to record any allusion to her relationship with Widdrington in the inscription for his funerary monument would seem to attest quite strongly to a common-law partnership. Certainly, her failure either to acknowledge or disown a morganatic marriage led to the severance of her friendship with Father Lawson and to a cooling of her regard for the Jesuit order. Whatever the nature of her relationship with Widdrington, the duchess's conduct emphasized her independence. She commissioned a new London house in Arlington Street from James Gibbs, with a marble fireplace by John Michael Rysbrack and wrought iron staircase by Thomas Wagg, signing each contract herself.

The duchess spent the remainder of her life overseeing the careful management of her northern estates, combining a sense of paternalism to her favoured tenants with an unflinching hardness towards outside interference and towards any who were judged unworthy of her protection. Her last recorded visit to Stonyhurst was in 1734. Though still committed to the Jacobite cause, to which she provided some financial support, she does not appear to have played a role in the rising of 1745. As befitted the last of her line, she devoted considerable energy to the raising of monuments commemorating departed members of the Shireburne family; these not only recorded their commitment to Roman Catholicism but also celebrated the perils that they had been forced to endure as the result of their devotion to the Stuart cause. She died at Preston on 25 September 1754, and was buried beside Peregrine Widdrington in the Shireburne chapel of All Hallows Church, Great Mitton, Lancashire, on 20 October. According to local tradition her coffin was borne on its last journey, across the fell tops, by her own servants and retainers. She died without children, and her property and estates were divided in her will between William Hall Gage, later second Viscount Gage, who received the Arlington Street house, and the family of her aunt Elizabeth, who received the Stonyhurst estate and other properties in Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, and Northumberland, and through whom they devolved upon successive generations of the Welds of Lulworth until 1794.


  • J. Gerard, Stonyhurst College (1894)
  • J. Callow, ‘The last of the Shireburnes: the art of death and life in recusant Lancashire, 1660–1754’, Recusant History, 26 (2003), 589–615
  • M. Panikkar, ‘The eighth duchess of Norfolk’, pt 4, Stonyhurst Magazine, 499 (2003), 24–32
  • F. J. A. Skeet, Stuart papers, pictures, relics … in the collection of Miss Maria Widdrington (1930)
  • H. Howard, Indications of memorials, monuments … of the Howard family [1834–6]
  • S. Hibbert Ware, Lancashire memorials of the rebellion, 2 pts in 1, Chetham Society, 5 (1845)
  • G. Brenan and E. P. Statham, The house of Howard, 2 vols. (1907)
  • F. W. Steer, ed., The Arundel Castle archives, 4 vols. (1968–80), vol. 1
  • G. Gruggen and J. Keating, Stonyhurst (1901)
  • H. Chadwick, St Omers to Stonyhurst (1962)
  • C. D. Sherborn, A history of the family of Sherborn (1901)
  • parish register, Great Mitton, All Hallows Church, 20 Oct 1754, Lancs. RO, PR 3031: acc. 4232 [burial]
  • Lancs. RO, Shireburne and Weld papers, DDSt
  • Arundel Castle archives, West Sussex, T. 70
  • Stonyhurst College archives, Shireburne box file B; E/2/4/4, 1, 5, 9 and e; E/2/6, 9, codicils to will of 8 Aug 1750, 12 March 1753, 13 March 1753, 23 Aug 1754
  • private information (2006) [M. Panikkar]


  • Lancs. RO, Shireburne and Weld papers, incl. accounts for Mary's wedding to the duke of Norfolk and corresp. relating to his imprisonment in the Tower
  • Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, corresp. and estate records
  • Arundel Castle, Sussex, archives, letters and papers, letter to kinswoman ‘Mrs Howard’; will and codicils; other Shireburne wills
  • Lancs. RO, Great Mitton parish register, incl. details of duchess's table, acc. 4232.8, PR 3031: acc. 4232


  • attrib. G. Kneller, oils, 1707–1720, priv. coll.
  • oils, 1709–1730, Stonyhurst College, Lancs.
  • W. Maxwell-Stuart, watercolour, 1922 (after oils attrib. G. Kneller, 1707–1720), Stonyhurst College, Lancashire; copy, Lulworth Castle
  • B. Lens, miniature, Arundel Castle

Wealth at Death

over £14,000 in legacies; Stonyhurst Hall; estates at Blackburn, Ormskirk, Isle of Man; Bailey Hall; property in Preston and Mitton, Lancashire; West Riding of Yorkshire; Northumberland; Middlesex; and London: Arundel Castle archives, T. 70; Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, archives: Shireburne box file B; E/2/4/4, 1, 5, 9 and e; E/2/6, 9, codicils to will of 8 Aug 1750, 12 March 1753, 13 March 1753, 23 Aug 1754

Lancashire Record Office, Preston
private collection