The American Heiress and British Aristocrat – The Love Story of the 8th Duke and Duchess of Roxburghe

For this Christmas special, I explore the relationship of Henry Innes-Ker, 8th Duke of Roxburghe, and Mary May Goelet whose love story epitomises the contemporary trend for rich American heiress to marry European aristocrats. But their story was different, it was a love match…

Holly: Hello darlings and Merry Christmas. Welcome back to Past Loves, the weekly history podcast that explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time to bring you the lighter side of history and a touch of romance to daily life. I am so so so happy to be back here with you with a festive special after quite a long time with no new episodes. Things have been busy. But of course, I couldn’t let Christmas pass without delving into a good love story from history. Last year, in case you missed it, we went on a trip to the ballet and discovered the very passionate love story between Rudolph Nureyev and Eric Bruhn. But this year, we’ve got some truly magical surroundings for the festive special as I was very warmly welcomed (virtually of course) into the archives of Floors Castle by Operations Manager Matthew Thompson.

Floors Castle was designed by leading Edinburgh architect William Adam for the 1st Duke of Roxburghe in 1721. Built on the site of an existing building, Floors was originally a plain but symmetrical Georgian country house and then it was remodelled by William Playfair for the 6th Duke between the 1837 and 1847 and it’s with this, it developed into the dramatic and truly romantic castle that you can now visit in the Scottish Borders today. And so funnily enough, I came across the love story in this magical setting that we are going to explore – that of Henry John Innes-Ker 8th Duke of Roxburghe and his wife Duchess May – when I was watching Antiques Roadshow. Now, I recently wrote my master’s dissertation on the role and different manifestations of public history on the Roadshow. So I was watching this episode, of course purely for academic research, and yet, when Fiona Bruce began the show with this story that we’re going to delve deeper into today, I knew instantly that I needed to feature Henry and May on the podcast. It is a true love story which interestingly weaves into the trend, shall we say, of American heiresses marrying British aristocrats but European aristocrats. And so Henry and May are, therefore, an absolutely fascinating couple and an hour discussing their romance is my Christmas gift to you. Enjoy. 

Welcome, Matt, and thank you so much for joining me today. 

Matt: Nice to see you. Thanks for having me on. 

Holly: So we’re gonna discuss Henry and May, but I thought perhaps we should start with Henry. So how would you describe him?

Matt: I would say it’s difficult at this sort of removed to get into people’s manners and how they behave and how they appear to others who are their contemporaries, but I think the impression that I’ve always had of him is that he was rather a quiet man. Quite stoical. He had quite high standards, in lots of ways. But he was very loyal, dedicated to duty, dedicated to his family and in common actually, a lot of his predecessors as the Duke of Roxburghe, he was a bit of a homebody. Floors Castle is one of those places that kind of makes you want to not roam very far. And I think Henry certainly had that in him, too. I mean, he travelled all over the world, but he always sort of had a yearning to return. I think that’s very common amongst other people that have held the position over the years – the family generally have always been very fond of where they are and their roots.

Holly: Yeah, I mean, it’s not much of a surprise is it when that’s your home? I don’t think you’d ever want to leave. 

Matt: As houses go. It’s okay. Looking after the roof has a few issues now and then but apart from that it’s rather grand pad to say the least.

Holly: It sure is. Is there a particular portrait at Floors that you think really depicts him beautifully? 

Matt: There’s a few around the place. There’s family portraits everywhere, as you might expect in a house like this. Of Henry in particular, there’s one of him as a young man, really, probably not that long after he returned from the South African war, so he’s sort of in the prime of life if you like. That’s a portrait and then there’s one of him as an older man when he’s the Chancellor of the Order of the Thistle – I think that was painted in 1928 – which is a really…he looks a bit world-weary and he’s obviously lived a very long life. But my favourite portrait isn’t actually a painted picture at all, it’s a photograph. One of the nice things about people that are around in the early part of the 20th Century and indeed slightly earlier is that you have real pictures of them which is great. And so there’s one of him in his dress uniform, complete with you know breastplate and unnecessarily type breeches. It sits in the Billiard Room just here Floors at the moment, and he’s just in the prime of life. He’s probably not been in the regiment long – it was probably 1897/1898, not long before he went off to South Africa – and it’s really a man in the prime of his life. He just looks so proud to be in his dress uniform and that’s the young man that Mary Goelet would have met. So it’s quite a…it’s one of those pictures that makes you feel something about the person which is always lovely. But I’d say that was my favourite depiction of him.

henry innes kerr floors castle love story
Henry Innes-Ker, 8th Duke of Roxburghe

Holly: No, that’s really lovely to see him like that. If we scoot back a little bit and talk a little bit about his childhood. What was it like growing up for him? Who were his parents?

Matt: He was the first son of who were at the time that the  Marquess of Beaumont and his wife, Marchioness of Beaumont, who were to become the 7th Duke and Duchess of Roxburghe in due course. He was born in 1876 in July at Broxmouth House, which isn’t that far away from where I’m sitting just now. It’s in Dunbar, in East Lothian, and that was ostensibly the Dower house by this point, but because his father wasn’t yet the Duke of Roxburghe, that’s where he was currently living with his wife. And so he did have an older sister, Margaret, and he subsequently had five other siblings (so four sisters and two brothers) so it was a big family. But his dad came from a big family as well. So he had cousins everywhere, hundreds and hundreds of relations around the country in various aristocratic family, so the web immediately starts to become much more complex. His father became the 7th Duke, just under three years, about three years, after he was born when his grandfather the 6th Duke died in 1879. And following Henry’s birth, there were huge celebrations in the Borders in general. Kelso, in particular, because obviously the succession that should be the birth of a son, when the heir to a dukedom has a son himself, it suddenly becomes you know, succession’s assured. Everyone can relax because they know their properties are safe and that they’re not going to get things sold from underneath them. So there was huge celebrations, big bonfires lit in Kelso town square. But, at the same time, this is lovely, but at the same time, whilst people were lighting bonfires and celebrating the fact that a new Duke-in-waiting had been born, they were very clear to be swearing allegiance to the 6th Duke. Yes, we’ve got a grandson in the mix. But we’re still very loyal to the 6th Duke, Duke James will be all right for us. We’ll never see this one take up the dukedom but we’re happy he’s here nonetheless. And so he’s been his early years at Broxmouth, moved to Floors on the death of his grandfather and then grew up here largely, learning all the good stuff, shooting, fishing, riding, hunting, all the things of a good country lad needs to know before heading off to Eton where he was educated up until he left and ostensibly joined the army. He went to military college. And it was whilst he was at Eton that his own father died. So he became Duke of Roxburghe when he was only 16 years old. 

Holly: Wow. 

Matt: Yeah, it’s pretty heavy stuff to fall on a young man’s head. 

Holly: It is, that is a big adjustment, especially because Floors has such a long ancestry. Could you talk a little bit about the history of the Castle more generally, just so we get the picture of kind of the weight he was taking on? 

Matt: Yeah, it’s quite a weight. I mean, the family can trace its lineage back to the Conquest. Although, it’s all a bit woolly once you get back that far. So the story of Floors and the family in the Borders really begins with the line of Earls that started with the 1st Earl of Roxburghe. He was created such 1616. He was one of these types, liked stealing cows and setting things on fire. He wasn’t very nice, by all accounts, and he fell in with King James VI, and James realised that he needed some of these rough tough chaps to control the Scottish Border which was very lawless at the time. So there were five Earls in quite quick succession until the 5th Earl became the 1st Duke in 1707. He was created by Queen Anne, because he had a sort of swing vote role really in the Act of Union between England and Scotland. He wasn’t massively instrumental personally, but his party really flipped-flopped at the last minute and so Union was voted through Scottish Parliament, much to the annoyance of most people in Scotland at the time I hasten to add. Edinburgh was on fire with rage about the whole affair. But yeah, so that was the 1st Duke and he then had this place, Floors Castle, built. There was a house here already, although it’s a bit shadowy, nobody really knows. There doesn’t seem to be very much information in our archives about what was here before. But there was a building here before. The first stone of this structure was laid in May 1721. They then moved in…the Duke’s mum was the first one to move in actually. It was her house, he built it for her. And it’s gone on from there really, there was some building work done here in the 1750s and 1760s, by the architect, William Adam’s son, Robert. And then there was another set of building works done during the time of the 6th Duke in the 1830s and 40s. That’s when it really became a pretty fairy-tale looking building. And all that happened in the 1830s and 40s, with a chap called William Playfair who was commissioned by the 6th Duke to construct something really flamboyant here in the Borders, really unique. And so he did, and then it remains remained pretty much as it is since then. So the house is it’s always been sort of evolving inside and out and we’ll speak about this more a bit later on. But I think the 8th Duke and Duchess certainly had a good hand in changing the interiors.

Floors castle and the river tweed
Credit: Floors Castle

Holly: So when Henry became Duke was that when he was at Sandhurst College?

Matt: No, he was at Eton when his father died. 

Holly: He was at Eton, okay. 

Matt: Yeah, so it was there a couple of years after that. I think he was 19 when he went to Sandhurst. Then spent a couple of years there and then enjoy the army proper. 

Holly: Yeah. So can you describe kind of the trajectory of his military career for me, please? 

Matt: Yeah, well, there was a period where…he was in the militia for a little while. Now the militia at this point is sort of a, it’s almost like a county guard – I don’t want to be offensive to anybody, but the regular army didn’t really see the militia as proper soldiers – so a lot of aristocrats were involved in the militia. And it was just in case the French decided to invade again largely. I mean that’s mostly why the militia’s there in the first place. Not a great deal of danger of the French arriving at this point in history, but you can never be certain. So he was he had a sort of honorary rank in the militia. But then he passed out of Sandhurst as a second lieutenant in 1897 I think it was a joined the Blues which is the Regiment of Household Cavalry, which has subsequently been amalgamated into the Blues and Royals. So they still exist today, but as a sort of composite regiment if you like, in which he served until he left the army later on in his life. So he was a long-time cavalrymen. A very fashionable regiment, very fancy, befitting a Duke really, but lots of aristocratic members in the ranks at the time. So it’s a real boys club. 

Holly: Yes. So what’s the significance of the 1901 Royal Tour of the Commonwealth?

Matt: Well, he was pals with the future George V – Henry was pals with the future George V – and it was planned for the Prince of Wales to head out to the Commonwealth following the cessation of hostilities in the South African war to really sort of reinforce royal presence in the Commonwealth and pat some backs and handout some medals. But the royal succession being what it was, it didn’t seem appropriate. The Prince of Wales was heading out at this point, so he got his brother to do and set him off, cruising on RMS which then became HMS Ophir which was a former royal yacht, which was a bit ropey by this point in time, a bit clattery and a bit sort of didn’t cope with swells ever so well. But it was recommissioned and sent off cruising out to the Commonwealth. They headed to Malta first and then on through the Gulf of Arden, round to Mauritius and then on to New Zealand, Australia. On all these sorts of places they hit – the whole Commonwealth was taken in. They finished up in Canada. They were away from March until late October 1901 and Roxburghe wasn’t overly keen on boat-y related matters. He described his cabin, although he was ADC (aide-de-camp to the Prince), he described his cabinet as a regular dog box, which he had to share with somebody else who was a good friend of his. I suppose if they hadn’t have been good friends when they started, they would have been when they returned. Yeah, lots of seasickness. Lots of cricket played on deck. Lots of fireworks when they went into ports, which completely underwhelmed Roxburghe. He didn’t care about that sort of stuff, he was like ‘rather boring fireworks display and presentation.’ We have his diaries. 

Holly: Oh, that’s amazing to be able to have that. 

Matt: …shows us the stuff he was getting up to. Lots of hunting. I mean, wherever they spent a long time in Australia hunting. Lots of functions. Lots of meeting new people. But ostensibly, it was a royal progress to reward Commonwealth soldiers for their participation in the South African war and Roxburghe as aide-de-camp went along for the ride really. 

Holly: Yes, I mean, it’s unsurprising the kind of society he kept, but still like it’s actually quite substantial in the story of May and how they met. So do we know kind of how, when and where Henry met May?

Matt: It’s all a bit woolly to be honest. It’s a bit of a difficult one. Unfortunately, we don’t. It would be lovely if we had a letter in the collection that said, ‘I saw this man across a crowded room and he was wonderful and his name is Henry. He’s the Duke of Roxburgh.’ But life doesn’t work like that unfortunately and it would be great if it did because it would help people like us to unpick this one. But I think it’s pretty difficult to think that the first time they met wasn’t in New York in 1895 at Consuelo Vanderbilt’s wedding to the Duke of Marlborough. Now, Marlborough was Roxburghe’s cousin. HIs mother, Roxburghe’s mother, was an Anne Emily Spencer Churchill who is the Duke of Marlborough’s sister. So current Duke of Marlborough was Roxbughe’s cousin. So he would have been invited to the wedding. I don’t see any way…we don’t have a record of it but you play the percentages, and realistically he was there. I mean it would be weird if he wasn’t. We know May Goelet was there, his future bride, because her mum had basically shoehorn her in to be one of Consuelo Vanderbilt bridesmaids, because one thing that Mary Wilson who was May’s mother was really, really hot on was getting her daughter front and centre in the whole marriage craziness that was occurring at the time. And one of the ways to do that was to make her visible and what could be more visible than one of the most eligible heiresses in America marrying one of the most prominent aristocrats in Britain. He might have been skint, but he was one of the most prominent aristocratic in Britain. So I think it’s probably daft to assume they didn’t cross paths at that event in 1895. The first time we know they’re in the same place, and we can definitely pinpoint it, is a couple of years later in 1897. It’s the same year actually, that May’s presented to the Queen at Buckingham Palace in May that year and then there’s a garden party effectively at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Jubilee and we know that Roxburghe was there and we know that Mary Goelet was there, too. So I think that’s the first time that they would have probably been formally introduced. Although, conceivably, if I was a gambling, man, I’d put it on at 1895. Yeah, the evidence tells us at 1897.

Holly: The evidence we have in the archive at least. 

Matt: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Holly: And so you mentioned that Charles was this kind of broke aristocrat, and that Consuelo very rich heiress. This was quite a trend at the time, wasn’t it?

Matt: Yes, there’s a raft of girls of that sort of age, of that sort of background in the States who are marrying into the British aristocracy. It’s not just the British aristocracy, it’s European aristocracy, really. But Britain is the focus I think because of the common language and of lots of ties and things. Britain is the sort of focal point. They call them the Buccaneers. It’s really interesting book about these girls and there’s probably about 40 of them that are really sort of prominent names that you pick out from big wealthy American families that are marrying into English British aristocracy. So yeah, it is a bit of a trend. In fact, it’s weird, but the Duke of Roxburghe’s younger brother, Alastair, also married in American heiress in 1907, by the name of Anne Breese. So you know, it’s a trend even within that family at that time to be marrying American heiresses. But yeah, I mean, the Astors were doing it, the Vanderbilts were doing it. It was just it wasn’t that it was trendy. I just think that it’s this contrast between the old money and new money and the Americans were very wealthy, whether it’s banking, real estate, railways, oil, you name it, there’s a variety of industries that are that money. But what they don’t have is that old legitimacy, that sort of really solid born to it sort of feeling that the aristocracy has. It’s almost a rubber stamp. So that’s what they’re after. They’re after that sort of just firming up that sort of, they’ve got everything. They’ve got the boats, they’ve got the cars, they’ve got the houses, they’ve got money to burn, but they’ll still be looked to askew at certain events, by certain people because they’re new money. So the way you rectify that is by joining the two together. And it works the other way, as well as a fair number of European aristocrats who are a little bit down on their luck financially, sometimes it’s their own fault, sometimes it’s not. And, you know, they’re interested in the windfall. I mean, we spoke about the Vanderbilt wedding, which is probably the most famous one of them all – Consuelo Vanderbilt and Duke of Marlborough. They hated each other, they really didn’t get on at all. It was not a happy camp. 

Holly: Yeah, no, I found it fascinating reading about them, because I was like ‘these people did not like each other.’

Matt: But there are various social pressures most often coming from the bride’s parents actually in that direction. And then there’s the financial imperative in the other direction. So there is that push and pull factors across the Atlantic. And of course, at this point in history as well, travel becomes so much simpler. You’ve got steamships taxiing across the Atlantic, backwards and forwards much more regularly than they ever used to. Communications are opening up. It’s all happening at this point and all these factors together, I suppose combine into this perfect storm into inter-Atlantic marriages. So it’s a really interesting period in history. 

Holly: That is, I hadn’t considered that aspect of how technology changes and therefore that changes how we marry as well that’s really interesting.

Matt: Yeah, well they can suddenly get to each other. You know, within a matter of weeks, you can be in New York from Liverpool or you know, whatever. You can nip across and find yourself a bride.

floors castle and river tweed
Credit: Floors Castle

Holly: But May and Henry were a little different, because they were a love match, slightly different to Consuelo and Charles.

Matt: It’s very easy to be cynical and say, ‘how much in love were they really?’ I mean, they, I don’t think they knew each other particularly well when they got married. It’s a little bit hazy. I mean, she certainly was linked with a very wide variety of other people before Roxburghe was ever in the mix. I’ve actually taken the time to compile a list would you like to hear? 

Holly: I’d love to hear the list.

Matt: It’s a fascinating list. In 1897, this is just after Roxburghe has joined the army. They’ve met each other, but he’s not really in the picture as a as a potential suitor. They probably nodded cordially to each other across a group once or twice, maybe had a bit of a dance.

‘How are you doing?’

‘Oh, well, I’m terribly nervous about this and that’ 

‘I’m quite bored actually.’

‘Are there fireworks later?’ 

‘I don’t like those.’ 

You know, that sort of thing. In 1897, the story broke in The Times that May was engaged to the Duke of Manchester. Ridiculous. Manchester was a bit down on his luck. Financially, he’d inherited massive debts off his dad, and was a bit of a rake by all accounts, bit of a ladies man, gambler. Mary hadn’t even made her debut in the United States at this point. So she was she wasn’t even really on the marriage market. Her father was furious, apoplectic with rage because he just saw Manchester was completely the wrong kind of match. He hadn’t asked permission. There was you know, nothing. So it was just completely wrong. Manchester had form in this regard. He previously declared himself engaged, quite wrongly, to Pauline Astor, who was another one of these mega rich heiresses from the States. So he was a non-starter, but it turns out that he hadn’t. They weren’t engaged. He hadn’t actually proposed. They had met each other and this is even…this is a bit racy – she’d been to the theatre with his mother. I know. Be still my beating heart. 

Holly: Blimey, no wonder he thought they were engaged. 

Matt: Exactly. It’s easy to misconstrue these signals, I can understand why. Manchester was a non-starter, but the papers loved it. The one she probably came closest to marrying – there were a couple that she did come quite close to – a pal of Roxburghe’s, a chap called Henry Crichton, who was the son of the Earl of Erne in Northern Ireland. They spent a great deal of time together. He was quite sweet on her and I think she was probably quite sweet on him. But the timing I don’t ever think matched up for them. They were in different places, socially, and at different times and it just never really never really worked out. So that was, I think that was probably the closest one in terms of reality. And then there were a whole raft of just crazy ones. You’ll like this, this is this is really Hugo von Hohenlohe, who was a German Prince, aged around 50 at the time he was pursuing May Goelet hired an ex Prussian army officer and an Irish lawyer by the name of Lucius O’Brien – sounds dodgy already doesn’t it? – effectively to secure him a marriage contract with May Goelet and he agreed to pay the sum £10,000 for this service. So there’s a whole cottage industry around matching up aristocrats with heiresses. So long story short, Hohenlohe was broke, can’t pay. So it all comes out in the German papers, huge scandal. He has to get effectively bailed out by his grandma, who just chucked a few quid at the relevant people in the press and it goes away. Captain Oswald Ames of the Lifeguards six feet, eight inches of cavalrymen.

Holly: Blimey!

Matt: Exactly. He was the tallest man in the British Army and he was quite sweet on May Goelet.  Complete non-starter because he’s a commoner. But he was arm candy affectively. So she walked out with him a few times and it was all lovely, and they had jolly nice time socially, but he was never seriously in contention for marriage. Although the press does sniff around that one as well. They were very keen on that.

Holly: Well how could you not?

Matt: Well exactly, it’s just a great story isn’t it?

Holly: It is.

Matt: Prince Francis of Teck, brother to the future queen was also one of the ones that was mentioned. There was a little sniff in the same article that mentioned the aforementioned Captain Ames as a possible suitor, there was a sniff of a Roxburghe marriage in 1899 in the press. They mentioned that Henry Roxburghe was very nice young man, has a lovely estate in the Scottish Borders, is available for marriage, is currently in the army doing wonderful service in South Africa, and would make a wonderful match. There doesn’t seem to be any basis to that. It’s just that he happens to be alive, an aristocrat and of the right sort of age. I think those are the three… 

Holly: It’s enough of the criteria.

Matt: Precisely, precisely. Then the list goes on: Prince Heinrich of Bavaria, least said about him the better, Prince Henri of Orléans , grandson of King Louis Philippe of France – these are big names, these are big names – Viscount Ingestre, heir to the Earl of Shrewsbury (now Shrewsbury was the premier earldom in the country so this is a significant aristocratic), Grand Duke Boris Romanov, the Tsar’s cousin

Holly: Ah well there we go.

Matt: I know, you think if these things have come off, I mean, we’d be living in a different world right about now. So my personal favourite, that’s just a few of the big names that people will recognise, my personal favourite is a letter I found in the archives here, looking for something else which is invariably when you’ll find the best things was a letter written in 1901, from San Jose, Colorado by a chap called Michael Myers and he was writing to Mary Goelet and he opens up with something along the lines of… I think he calls Princess May. And then he basically says ‘Hi, my name is Mike. I’m a businessman. I’ve travelled to Europe. I’m about to inherit $15 million. I think I’ve got my head screwed on and I know which way the winds blowing. How would you like to discuss getting married?’ Completely unsolicited, no record of him having met this guy, but no, that’s her life. That’s her world. I mean, it’s just off the map isn’t it. 

Holly: It really is. I was just imagining that on like a dating app nowadays and the madness that that would happen, but maybe we should talk a little bit about…15 million yeah…But maybe we should talk a bit about so Mary, or May, which was a middle name Goelet why she was bringing in these like big names as rumoured to marry her because her family and her upbringing is very interesting, and kind of the reason why there’s so much interest around her. So perhaps we could talk just a little bit we’ll just start by how would you describe her? 

Matt: Um, she was relatively small. She was of average height. I think she’s, you know, how they say about Cleopatra, that Cleopatra has always been by history reputedly very, very beautiful. But every depiction of her that we see, she isn’t beautiful, but she does have very strong features and I think her personality was very alluring. I think she was very clever. And I probably class May in the same sort of category. Not I’m saying she wasn’t beautiful because I think she was I mean, there’s this wonderful portrait in the billiards room here. It’s a full length one of her basically debutantes dress, and it’s just really really…she’s lovely looking girl really striking. But she had quite strong features are quite strong jawbone, quite a quite a large nose, but it didn’t detract from her attractiveness, brunette, petite, and then worth about $25 million US dollars. I mean, I think that’s that those are the things that these people are really looking for

Holly: Again, the criteria were working with. 

Matt: What first attracted you to, you know, young, petite, multi-millionaire heiress Mary Goelet? And you know, there you go.

Holly: Yeah. So how was her family in possession of all of this wealth?

Matt: Her dad and his brother had a real estate company which they’d been very fortunate in acquisitions. They’d bought up big chunks of Manhattan when it was at relatively rock bottom prices and they’d hung onto it and with the rise of New York as a city, the family’s fortune really rose as well. So they were fantastically wealthy real estate. Her mother was Mary Wilson who – that’s a great story as well, the marrying Wilsons that’s what they were called in the states because she came from quite a big brood herself, had lots of sisters. They’d all married into very wealthy families. So they got known the Marrying Wilsons, I love that. But she was wealthy in her own right too. She came from a banking family. So combined it was these sort of two American familial superpowers really that had combined in Ogden Goelet and Mary Wilson to create Mary and her brother Robert as probably two of the most eligible young people in the world. Out with her inheritance, so not counting what she was to get following the death of her mother in the late 1920s, she was independently worth about $25 million. 

Holly: Wow

Matt: Which is stupid money. I mean really really stupid money. So understandably, she was very marketable and her mother, from a very early age, was the arch-marketer. She pushed her into every opportunity. She got advice from all sorts of rather elevated in New York society about how to get your daughter noticed on the marriage market and she basically did the painting-by-numbers thing and did ‘let’s do this. Let’s do this. Let’s get her here. Let’s get her involved in this. Let’s get her meeting these people. She needs to meet that person,’ And it just goes on from there and so she must have just had such as weird life from a young girl. It must have been so surreal. But she didn’t know any different so I feel equally very sorry for her and very envious of her upbringing because I think that she had everything anyone could ever want. But, at the same time, was kind of predestined to be pushed into this rather weird bubble that she then inhabited for the rest of her life and I think that her way out of that was to actually declare that ‘you know I’m not going marry any of these people, any of these weird old Germans or any of these strange, moderately impoverished aristocrats, I’m going to marry who I want to marry’ and she put her foot down and it worked.

Holly: Good, good girl. 

Matt: Fortunately I think it largely worked because the person that she actually chose was someone who was entirely appropriate in the eyes of the establishment. It was just a very acceptable match. But there’s not a great deal of information on how they got there. I mean they were at the garden party together in 1897 and they were at a ball together just after that. One of these fantastic late-Victorian things where everyone’s dressed up to the nines. They’d separated the ladies into these four courts and so there was the French court, Russian court, British court and Oriental court. It’s all very sort of Henry VIII and they all had these fantastic dresses on. May was in the Oriental court, one of the junior members of the Oriental court, presided over by these very grand ladies with huge titles. He was at that ball but I think his character just means that he just goes completely under the radar and everyone’s focusing on ‘oh look at that dress’ and they’re not focusing on the Duke of Roxburghe standing around with his pals, having a drink and quietly chatting to people and being very debonair and handsome and very interesting in his own right but it’s the dresses that get the headlines. And so, the next time we really see them together isn’t until the year they get married, so 1903, and they bump into each other at the America’s Cup. He’d done the South Africa thing, done heroic deeds in the South African war that he gets decorated for. He comes back here with somewhat of a heroes reputation I suppose and whether he rocks up at the America’s Cup because he knows that she’s going to be there is a matter for debate, but he certainly goes there. Now she’d come from a big sailing background. Her dad was big into sailing, racing. He died on a yacht called the Mayflower – the Mayflower after her incidentally – which has subsequently been sold to the President of the United States. It’s now the presidential yacht that is at the America’s Cup. She bumps into Roxburghe on the yacht that her father used to own which is a really crazy…what are the odds? And then I think they just get chatting.

Holly: What are the odds? Can you maybe manufacture that one?

Matt: I know, I know. Well I think maybe you probably could. Somebody’s pulling some strings somewhere. The trouble is that the interim period’s very dark, so you get to 1903 and the America’s Cup and the race gets postponed which gives them time effectively, some time together, have a chat about certain things. I think she’s 26 by this point and he’s a couple of years older so he’s 28. These are ages that, in this period in history, people in their station are well married at this point. It’s quite unusual for them not to be hitched by now. So there’s probably pressure at Roxburghe’s mum, prodding away at him going ‘you need to get married come on!’ and her mum going ‘you need to choose someone. There’s hundreds of them.’ And he pops the question at the America’s Cup in 1903, early 1903, and of course this time she says yes. The only one she’s ever said yes to out of all the, I think there’s 20 odd different people who’ve asked her and those are just the ones we know about.

Holly: Yeah Roxburghe was the one. What do know about their actual wedding day?

Matt: A fair bit I think. It was…her mum, Mary Wilson, then went into wedding overdrive

Holly: I can imagine

Matt: And things happen quite quickly. So, by I think it’s the October, it is October 1903, the wedding is planned for St. Thomas Church in New York which coincidentally is where Consuelo Vanderbilt and the Duke of Marlborough in 1895 so it is conceivably where they first met each other anyway which is one of the reasons I think that that’s where they did meet

Holly: I mean that’s a romantic thought

Matt: It is quite. I mean I’m a romantic at heart, I can’t help it. So the wedding’s planned to be enormous. It’s planned to be this huge society occasion, everyone and anyone who is remotely important on both sides of the Atlantic is going to be there. But then, unfortunately, Mary’s uncle dies. He’s the Duke of Pembroke’s brother, Michael, who is her uncle suddenly dies and so what was planned to be a huge scale because of the nature of the enterprise and people have to be seen to be doing the right thing (mourning and what have you), it suddenly gets scaled back, much to the annoyance certainly of Mary Wilson. She’s furious about the whole affair, you know she’s upset by the fact that she can’t do this huge societal extravaganza for her daughter’s wedding. So it gets scaled back to just close friends and family. There’s still about 250 people invited but this palatial, cathedral-like church not far from the family home at 608 Fifth Avenue – this church is on the corner of Fifth Avenue so St Thomas Church, New York, about the same size as a British Cathedral by all accounts – they make it into this quite intimate, small, chapel-like structure. So they build a church within a church almost with the right sort of planting and there’s lots of greenery around, palm trees, all sorts of stuff going on. They make it much more intimate setting than it would’ve ordinarily have been. So it doesn’t feel like it’s a small wedding in a big church. It feels like it’s a English chapel wedding. Roxburghe hates the whole thing. He rocks up in New York and the press are there waiting for him as he gets of the boat and he being a relatively unassuming Brit – it doesn’t happen in Britain like that at all. He can walk can walk around in Britain relatively unnoticed by everyone. But it seems that the boats, as they’re one their way in, get hold of somebody at the port and give them a list of prominent passengers so the press know who’s coming and the same thing happens when his mother arrives for the wedding. He goes to pick her up from the port and there’s just press everywhere and he hates it. He’s just appalled by the whole affair. He just finds it completely unacceptable. You know, his wedding as far as he’s concerned is his affair and it’s nothing to do with anyone else. ‘Why does the press want to know and why do they want to know who my mother is? Why are they pointing that at me and why are they asking me this?’ Yeah a difficult thing for him I think to get his head round.  

Holly: Well that’s understandable. Didn’t May’s carriage on the day get mobbed as well though?

Matt: Yeah it did. A wedding like this it had massive press coverage in the State. It was very fairy-tale and they hit all the right notes with promotion. Their marketing department was amazing basically. They really knew exactly what they were doing. Her carriage pulls up. There’s already been scuffles with a number of, a large number of women who tried to gain entry to the church uninvited. So the police are actively fighting with women keeping them out of the church. Some women find a manhole that they end up going underneath the church, coming up in a part of the church that isn’t guarded away from everybody.

Holly: Wow

Matt: So there’s these women literally crawling out from underneath the ground to try to get into this very event. But yes the carriage gets mobbed. She gets kind of rushed in under guard almost. People want to touch her. They’re grabbing hold of her wedding dress. She’s a, you know, total celebrity. But scary I would think. 

Holly: Yeah!

Matt: You know weddings are strange events at the best of times but having that going on too, just off the map. Yeah so they eventually get in. Roxburghe eventually calms down from his wife-related rage. The way she’s been treated and the way everyone’s behaving, he’s just disgusted by the whole affair, completely flabbergasted by it all. But then his best man calms him down and they go do their wedding thing and then they all retire to 608 Fifth Avenue for…I don’t know, probably sausages on sticks and those cheese and pineapple things people have.

Holly: Yes classic party food 

Matt: Exactly, a fairly lavish wedding reception and then they’re off to Europe on their honeymoon. 

Holly: Oh lovely

Matt: Um I think it’s Nice they head off to. They have property, the Goelet’s have property, in Nice and they head off in that direction.

duchess may floors castle love story
Mary May Goelet

Holly: So talking off the papers, I read in the New York Times obituary for May that she was  “one of England’s greatest hostesses and close friend of King George V and Queen Mary” and so I was wondering if we knew that much about the social life of the couple?

Matt: Well yes and no. I mean I am sure that in the archives here, there’s a wonderful bit of research waiting to be done because we do have a large tranche of her letters which I’ve cursorily flicked through on occasion just to sort of have a look what’s there. We had a TV thing here a few years ago and they wanted to know all about her, I was looking through the letters for little titbits for them. So the information is doubtless there. She was reputedly an excellent hostess and they were I mean Henry was long-standing pals with George V. George V was the 9th Duke’s godfather so they were close friends. There was a fair bit of to-and-fro between here and London, mutual visitation etc etc. These things are a matter of record, you know we know these things happened. She was into entertaining in the same way that the Astors were into entertaining. Lady Astor reputedly had solid gold cutlery. She was famous for it, the best hostess in the world, and I think that May had almost been brought up to be that, to emulate that and entertaining with a bit of panache was something very American – that whole sort of society impactful event hosting. But I can’t help but think that Henry was just trying to hide all the time. I don’t think he would have liked it. I think he would have really struggled with it. I think he was quite private and quite sort of you know, not introverted as such, but I just get this sense that he would’ve always been tried to be reigning her in and you know ‘do we have to?’ I feel like that sort of question would have been asked a lot. But I think she was great, she settled in really really well, fishing. There’s a couple of miles of the River Tweed on the estate here, one of the best, if not the best, salmon fishing river in Scotland and she could fish with the best of them. I think it would have been a bit weird for her arriving in Scotland though, just if that’s not too much of a tangent because…

Holly: No, no

Matt: If you think about her life up until 1903, cosmopolitan, international, the sailing set, parties everywhere, very high-end events that she was attending and then she comes to…I think it would have felt a lot like she was landing in the middle of nowhere because we are rural here and, I mean it’s not in the middle of nowhere anymore but in 1903, it kind of was. The plumbing was literally Victorian – still is in many senses, it works very well. But it wouldn’t have been what she was used to. There was no electricity here when she moved in 1903 so she’s soon changed that. It arrived in 1904. So she certainly sort of cracked the whip and was just like ‘Henry this won’t do, we need electricity immediately’ and I just think it would have been a bit like landing on the moon. A completely different world. A Victorian house, the décor certainly wouldn’t have been to her taste and obviously set about changing it quite rapidly so you know lots of interior renovations since. Yeah it would have been a bit of a culture shock for her I think and they did spend a lot of time moving around. They were back and forwards to the States. They were back and forwards to London a lot. I think the family here has always been backwards and forwards from London a lot. London’s where the court is. Henry was a courtier. He was very close to George V as we’ve mentioned. So they were out a lot I think. I think they brought out the best in each other in that respect. She was very extroverted and wanted to be out all the time. He was more of a homebody and he made her appreciate the comforts of home and she brought him out of his shell a little bit perhaps and I think that’s perhaps what’s nice about them, about their relationship, they had that interplay between them, that mutually beneficial. They each brought something to the table that improved the other one.

Holly: Yeah balanced in each other out.

Matt: Yeah I think that’s really nice.

Holly: So you mentioned that she made some changes to Floors. What kind of changes?

Matt: Well…

Holly: Everything and anything?

Matt: Yeah pretty much. Actually it’s interesting but, shameless plug, it’s the side of the house that the public visit, really in the reception rooms along that wing of the house. Her mother died in 1929 and so, she then inherited a lot of stuff. They had a big house at Newport, Long Island called Ochre Court which in not in the Goelet family any more. The Goelets are still in New York. There’s just a lot more of them than there used to be and the money’s kind of spread around a little bit more. But they’re still an important New York family. The New York house, I’m not sure what happened to that, whether it’s still in the family or not I’m not sure. But Ochre Court certainly isn’t. But it was this big, one of these big, they call them cottages and they’re not. I used to live in a cottage. It’s not like the cottage I used to live in I can tell you that. Very grand place, it was stuffed to the gunnels with mostly Louis XV period French furniture and art that had been collected by her mother over the years. All that stuff came here and some of it went to the house in London which was filled with kit from the states and lots of it came to Floors, most notably some very large tapestries from the 1760s made in Brussels that are very beautiful. There were some French ones, slightly earlier in date, but some French tapestries too which are vast and are on the walls now in the drawing room and the ballroom here. And to accommodate these huge pieces of art, she need to sort of chop and change things a little bit. So the room sizes weren’t necessarily to her liking because they’re Victorian rooms, some of them were a bit smaller than she would like so there were a couple of walls that were knocked through. Just thinking about it now and you think ‘oh God how did you get away with it?’ But yeah, there was some very heavy plaster ceilings, moulded plaster ceilings, beautiful, very ornate, that were installed by the architect William Playfair in the 1830s/1840s. She got rid of those so they just became flat ceilings and the height of the ceilings were raised a little bit so that people were looking at the walls rather than looking at the ceilings. And the decorative schemes, specifically in the drawing room, was exclusively centred around the tapestry installations. So she had a rather expensive firm of interior designers called Lenygon and Morant who had worked on the Cunard Line of transatlantic ships before coming to work here at Floors, so they had a great pedigree in period interiors and she had them come and basically Georgian-ise (if I can coin a term), Georgian-ise the interiors to much more to her liking. So what was a Victorian house with very heavy décor became much more light and airy, Georgian in style in parts and then there’s a real deco influence in some areas as well. It’s understandable because we’re in the 20s. So the furniture that was here, lord only knows what happened to it. I mean I imagine quite a lot of it was sold, although there are rumours. Some of the guides that work here and have worked here for years have this story – and I’m completely unsure of the veracity of this – but they have this story that she ordered that a lot of the furniture that she found when she arrived here was taken out into the front park and burnt. Now if that’s true, now I don’t think it is true, but if it is true, what a woman! This sort of funeral fire of Victorian furniture, it’s just terrifying. But yeah so almost completely changed the furniture scheme, so now we have lots of beautiful French pieces here that certainly weren’t here before her arrival. Some pieces made for French kings, we’ve got a piece that’s made for the Comtesse D’Artois’ apartments at the Palace of Versailles. So there’s just some beautiful, beautiful pieces of furniture. Carpets, there’s a carpet that was made for the Gallery of Apollo at the Louvre. There’s one that was made for Louis XV’s dining room at Fontainebleau – you just think about the people who walked across these things. ‘Who spilled peas on this carpet?’ is a question that I often ask visitors here. No it’s just amazing, just an amazing amazing collection.  

Holly: It is and either way she made her mark, that’s for sure.

Matt: Very much so, very much so.

Holly: And I was wondering, because obviously a very substantial event during their time as a couple was the First World War and I was wondering what it was like for them?

Matt: Well pretty horrible I think

Holly: Well yes

Matt: Particularly horrible. I mean she’d just had the 9th Duke I think. He’d literally just been born, he wasn’t very old at all, and they’d tried for quite a long time to conceive a child but they hadn’t had a lot of success – just the one boy – and then of course Henry went off to war as he would want to do being a solider and all. I’ve actually got…do you mind if I read you a letter that he sent her.

Holly: Please do

Matt: Because this is quite interesting. He got wounded. He was lucky really in many ways but he got quite horribly wounded  and he writes, this is in dated 19th October 1914: 

“My Darling,

I’ve just got into a field dressing station having got knocked over this morning [shot – common parlance] –  it’s not a bad wound-grazed my left testicle and went through my left thigh, missing the artery – I had to be left in a cottage for an hour as we had to retire, but they came back and fetched me as the Germans also retired. It’s not bad and the bone is not touched so don’t worry and I shall soon be home again.

Tell my mother not to fuss as I’m all right and cheer up yourself. The attack was on Roulers-

 [Roulers is on the border literally between France and Belgium. It’s the first action of the Battle of Ypres in 1914. And he finishes with]

Yesterday I did well killing a German with my sword.

Much love”

And it’s just amazing. It’s just an amazing way to finish a letter.

Holly: Have to say this isn’t the romantic letter I thought you were going to read me.

Matt: No no but it is indicative of you know, he is obviously in quite a bad way. I mean morphine might well play a part in that letter who knows. But he was wounded quite badly and so she was obviously very worried about him. He was then invalided home and that was the end of his military service, although he remained, as far as I’m aware, he remained in the regiment but there was no more combat for him which I’m sure a relief to everybody. And the house I think, at least part of it was used as a military hospital during the First War. Although it’s difficult to get at that information too because a lot of that’s held by the MOD. We don’t have a great deal of information about that sort of stuff here because it effectively just gets handed over to them. Often the families move out and go and live somewhere else. But it seems like she was certainly still here during that period, whether it was the wing that was let out, it was probably for officers – a convalescent hospital for officers, including eventually the 8th Duke of Roxburghe who came home.

Holly: Yet more research to be doing

Matt: Well absolutely, exactly and you know that’s the trouble with these places, there’s so much here and there’s so many interesting inhabitants over the years that you really need a good few years to get your teeth into looking at everything we have available.

golden gates Floors Castle
These golden gates were a gift from the 8th Duchess to the Duke | Credit: Floors Castle

Holly: Yeah so maybe we should talk a little bit about their legacy as a couple because May died 5 years after Henry in 1937, what do you see as their short-term legacy?

Matt: Um I suppose they left a son who followed in his father’s footsteps at Eton and subsequently Cambridge and then joined the same regiment. So he started a family tradition of military service in the Royal Household Cavalry which continues to this day – strong family traditions there. So I think they raised their son in the right way. He was certainly a good solid citizen the 9th Duke of Roxburghe. They left behind them a glorious house. I mean I think its the material legacy as far as anything else which is fascinating, just this treasure trove of objects. It’s not just the furniture and the artwork and the tapestries, it’s porcelain and just these little object d’arts I suppose you’d call them that are just dotted all over the place, all these fascinating little things. Yeah so I think the material legacy really…she just looms so large here at Floors. Literally in some cases because the portrait of her in the Billiard Room is huge so she’s literally looming large but also you know that material legacy is something that we still harp on about to this day. So it’s a massive boom for us to have these wonderful pieces that, you know, without her we’d never have. We’d be talking about a rather tired Victorian interior but we’re not, we’re talking about this vibrant, energetic, very sort of opulent collection so yeah I think that would, for me at least, that’s what’s left behind and what really shines as a legacy. 

Holly: Well that’s really lovely and I think the perfect place to end. Thank you so much to talking to me about them.  

Matt: My pleasure, my pleasure.   

Holly: And thank you for listening. It was such a pleasure talking to Matt about Henry, May and their beloved Floors Castle which you too can visit and discover why Henry was so keen to remain at home – I know I would be – and in fact it actually continues to be the home of the couple’s descendants so it’s extra special. I hope that you enjoyed listening to their love story as much as I loved talking with Matt – it was really fun to be back in kind of the recording saddle and I’m so pleased to be back with this festive episode. 

Be sure to check out floorscastle.com for exact opening times of the grounds and castle and you can also find Floors on Instagram, unsurprisingly @floorscastle, which is also where you will find me @pastlovespodcast much much more – believe me I am still active over on Instagram.  

As a festive gift please I would absolutely love it if you could rate review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening to it now. But in the meantime, as I mentioned, you can always find me over on Instagram @pastlovespodcast where there are plenty more love stories in perfect bitesize chunks to delve into whilst the podcast is in hiatus again for an undetermined amount of time, we’ll see. You never know what’s going to happen. But, really, if Past Loves has become your current love there is no better place to be.

From me now though, thank you so very much for having supported me and the podcast for the past 18 months, a little bit over that. I hope 2022 brings really wonderful things for you – merry Christmas!

One thought on “The American Heiress and British Aristocrat – The Love Story of the 8th Duke and Duchess of Roxburghe

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