The Last Countess Cowper
In 1882, Hertingfordbury saw the return of Katrine, Countess Cowper and her husband from a 2-year political posting to Dublin. Following Gladstone’s victory in the May 1880 parliamentary election, Francis, the 7th Earl Cowper was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This post represented the British monarchy in Ireland, while practical government was carried on by the Chief Secretary. Irish nationalists resented this situation and politics was volatile. Just days after the Cowpers’ return in May 1882 the Chief Secretary and his permanent-under-secretary were murdered. Katrine wrote later: “Murders and outrages of every kind were taking place all around us … we learnt afterwards that had Lord Cowper not left Ireland when he did, he would have been murdered also.” 1
Katrine was born on 26th July 1845, the eldest child of Admiral William and Eliza Compton, fourth Marquess & Marchioness of Northampton. At the age of 25, she married Francis Thomas de Grey, at Prince’s Gate in Knightsbridge, London. The marriage lasted 35 years and appears to have been happy, though childless.
Life at Panshanger
Returning from Dublin in 1882, the couple settled into life at their country seats of Panshanger, Hertingfordbury or Wrest Park, Bedfordshire.
During the last decades of the 19th century, the issue of home rule for Ireland began to dominate the politics of the country. The Irish leaders demanded a separate parliament to rule instead of legislation from Westminster. The predominate party at this time – the Liberals – was split in two with the creation of a new Liberal Unionist Party, which subsequently went into coalition with the Conservative Party.
The Cowpers’ began to move away from Gladstone’s home-rule vision. In December 1889 Katrine publicly supported her husband at an open meeting at the Corn Exchange in Hertford, where Lord Cowper proposed the resolution in support of the Liberal Unionist cause. 2
Katrine did not hold back at elections either. In 1892 she wrote an open leaflet in support of Lord Baring, the Unionist candidate running against the Liberal contender. In the continuing promotion of home rule, she foresaw a ‘dreadful civil war’ 1.
This great political turmoil led to a desire for groups to meet in non-party political circumstances. Through their married life the Cowpers’ mixed with a group of intellectuals, called The Souls, where conversations met their taste for contemporary arts.3 Katrine maintained correspondences with many of the leading figures of the day, including artists like Edward Burne-Jones and John Singer Sargent, and politicians such as Herbert Asquith and Winston Churchill.
Katrine wrote articles for a monthly literary magazine called The Nineteenth Century. Her article in 1890 entitled ‘The Decline of Reserve Among Women’, she wrote that the ‘giant’ strides in the social life of women “maybe justly viewed by some with feelings of alarm”. Evidently Katrine did not have much sympathy for women pushing for change – for the first time “the good old times were better, far better than the new”.4
End of an Era
After three and a half decades of marriage, Francis died in July 1905, and having no children ended the Cowper title. Katrine was left the use of the Panshanger estate during her lifetime, but this was not going to be an entirely quite retirement.
In 1909 she wrote to The Times newspaper, calling for the government and opposition to “unite in condemning methods by which the women’s movement is being carried on?”1. Perhaps in response to the founding of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, who refused to pay taxes without political representation.
Katrine’s last public appearance at Panshanger was to welcome the Hertfordshire Hounds to Hertford. The following day she left for the south of France and died five weeks later, at Cannes on 23rd March 1913.5 Her body was returned to Hertingfordbury where she is remembered, with Francis, in the angel monument in St Mary’s Church graveyard.
1 Scrapbook of newspaper cuttings, etc. relating at activities of Countess Cowper (Apr 1882 – Jun 1910). Available at HALS: document ref. DE/P/F591
2 ‘Unionist meeting at Hertford’. Hertfordshire Mercury, December 21 1889, page 3
3 Lanigan, Dennis T. ‘Katrine Cecilia Compton, Countess Cowper by Edward Clifford (1826-1897). From The Victorian Web (https://victorianweb.org/painting/clifford/paintings/16.html) viewed on 27th August 2023
4 ‘The Decline of Reserve Among Women’. The Nineteenth Century, January 1890
5 ‘Sudden death of Countess Cowper’. Hertfordshire Mercury, March 29 1913, page 5