“Every year a fresh crop of marriageable maidens and scheming mamas came to Dublin for the Season. While they knew of his previous marriage, Robert found himself receiving more and more attention from those with daughters.
Among those whose attentions were becoming more and more enthusiastic was Lady Jane Molesworth. Mary, her sixteen-year-old step-daughter, was pretty, dark-haired, and vivacious. Her youth was no object for her step-mama, who had three daughters of her own to marry off. The sooner she could get Mary married and off her hands, the easier it would be to contrive good matches for her own children.“
From the Westmeath Examiner, in 2018. Where do you do an interview in Ireland? In the pub, of course!
Wicked Earl’s author grandson visits seat of Rochfort ancestors
When retired ship’s captain John Jackson decided to give his family tree a bit of a shake, he was stunned at what he found: castles, titles galore, soldiers, lords – and then the story of Robert Rochfort, the first Earl of Belvedere, nicknamed ‘The Wicked Earl’.
“Robert Rochfort was my five-times great grandfather,” says Manchester-born John, who was in Mullingar last week promoting his book, ‘Heart of Stone’, a fictionalised version of the tale of his evil ancestor, who locked away his wife, Mary Molesworth, over her alleged affair with his brother Arthur,
It is a tale well-known to anyone who has ever visited Belvedere House, built by Rochfort after consigning tragic Mary to confinement at the marital home – Gaulstown House – where she spent 31 years a prisoner.
Arthur, meanwhile, died later in a debtors prison after the court made a judgement for £20,000 against him after Robert sued him for “criminal conversation”.
Not generally given to colourful language – despite the maritime background – when speaking of Robert Rochfort, John Jackson finds himself resorting to epithets not generally used when we speak of our ancestors.
“He was a complete shit!” he admits, laughing.
“He was a vile human being – but that made him more interesting to write about.”
When John started his research, around 50 years ago, he was working off various handwritten manuscripts handed down in the family. Through these he came to know of Robert Rochfort, Earl of Belvedere, and of his roots in Westmeath – but nothing of the story for which Rochfort became famous locally.
Once the internet arrived, it made John’s researches easier, and stumbling across an online book about celebrated Irish beauties of the 18th century, he came across the name of Mary Molesworth, and realised she too was his ancestor, since she was Rochfort’s wife.
Rochfort and Mary Molesworth had four children.
“The line that comes down to me is through their daughter Jane,” says John.
Jane became the Countess of Lanesborough, and through her the line continues down through John’s mother.
It was the fact of his mother’s unusual surname (Dumaresq) that initially prompted John to start researching his family tree. Since it is a rare name, going back to the island of Jersey, it made researches relatively easy, even in those pre-internet days.
“[The Dumaresqs] were one of the two big families on the island, back in the day, though they’ve all died out now,” he says, going on to recount how they’d tended to marry well – the daughters of peers for example, and thus, it proved a not hugely-difficult task to follow his lineage, and thus discover the story which is the subject of ‘Heart of Stone’.
“What I like to say about their story is it’s fascinating – but nobody comes out of it looking well: nobody at all,” he says.
Rather than giving a faithful account of their story – something already done many times over by historians, John just based his account loosely on the true version: “What I like to say is I’ve perhaps given them the story they should have had,” he says.
John admits he was “fascinated” when he came across the tragedy, and even more so when he realised the leading protagonists were his direct ancestors.
“I hope that’s not too much of a recursive gene!” is the thought he sometimes has when he considers the nastiness of Robert Rochfort – but then he reminds himself that we each have 128 grandparents at the five-times-back level.
“So it’s a very small drop in the mix!” he jokes.
The book took John two years to write – but the Rochforts have proven such a rich source of material that John has another in the pipeline: “I’m 25,000 words into the next book, and the next book is about their daughter, Jane Rochfort, who married Brinsley Butler, 2nd Earl of Lanesborough,” he says.
Jane, the Countess of Lanesborough was herself a pretty colourful character, it turns out.
“They were married for about eighteen years or so; had kids; then the eldest three were married, and she said: ‘right: I’m off to London to live the high life!’”
The Earl, who was high up in the Irish Exchequer, stayed in Dublin; the Countess took off with their three youngest children and took herself a new lover, John King, a loan-broker to the aristocracy.
“And they were together for about forty years.”
John, who has lived and worked for periods in The Falkland Islands and in the Netherlands, had visited Ireland before, but until last week, never this area.
There are no family links in the area any more: “When the Rochforts died out – one of the things I mention in the book, it was in The Annals of Westmeath – when the second earl died in 1814, and having no issue the title became extinct,” says John.
What The Annals then stated was: “The Rochforts are cleared out of Westmeath, root and branch. They were a wicked race, and to this day the name is loathed and execrated in this county”.
• Heart of Stone is published by Crooked Cat books and available through Amazon.
My publisher, Crooked Cat Books, have been transformed into Darkstroke! They are open to submissions, too, particularly if you write in any of the “Dark” genres or tropes.