In the seventeenth century Gawsworth, which lies near the town of Macclesfield in Cheshire, was a valuable English country estate worth over £2,000 a year. Between the years 1643 and 1744 it was the subject of a series of protracted legal disputes over its ownership, involving fraud, disinheritance, false imprisonment, and at least two violent deaths, during the course of which a number of lawyers naturally became somewhat richer than they had before.

The Fittons of Cheshire

Gawsworth Hall and its lands had long been in the possession of the Fitton family and in the mid seventeenth century was held by one Edward Fitton, 2nd Baronet. Edward however, had a problem, in that despite being twice married he had no children to inherit his estate. His closest relations were his seven sisters who were all married and provided for; his brothers were all dead, and he therefore appeared be the last of the Cheshire Fittons.

In fact Edward's nearest male relative was a cousin named William Fitton whose father, another Edward Fitton, had left for Ireland in the 1570s to seek his fortune and became Lord Treasurer of Ireland. Whereas Edward regarded his cousin with some suspicion he was at least a Fitton and so on the 9th November 1641 Edward wrote a will in which he bequeathed his entire estate to this William Fitton.

Naturally Edward's sisters were unhappy at this turn of events. In particular the news was a disappointment to one Charles Gerard (the son of Edward's sister Penelope Fitton). The English Civil War was in progress and both Charles and Edward were active in the royalist cause; Charles believed that as a staunch royalist he was more deserving of the Gawsworth estate than the Irish Fittons whom he believed displayed suspiciously Parliamentarian sympathies. Charles therefore made strenuous attempts to press his case and to persuade Edward to change his mind, but no avail as Edward remained resolute to the end.

The end in fact came perhaps rather sooner than Edward expected. Appointed Governor of Bristol shortly after the town was successfully stormed by Royalists in 1641, Edward became ill with 'consumption' (probably pneumonia) and died there in the August of 1643. As soon as he was dead his sisters took of the disruption caused by the civil war and seized as much of the Gawsworth estate as they could get their hands on. Such actions however did little to dissuade Walter Fitton who, armed with Edward's will, simply went to law to gain control of the estate. He openly espoused the cause of the Parliamentarians and was thus successful in evicting the sisters and gaining possession of Gawsworth.

The Fitton sisters with their royalist sympathies were left out in the cold, and Charles Gerard was similarly disappointed. Charles remained committed to the royalist cause and had to be content with promotion to the rank of a general in the Royalist army and the award of the peerage title of Baron Gerard of Brandon on the 8th November 1645. When Parliament emerged victorious in the civil war, the new Lord Gerard went into exile with the young Charles II where he continued to scheme against the new regime and even entertained ideas of assassiniting Oliver Cromwell at one time.

The Restoration

In 1660 the world changed; the Cromwellian republic was no more and the monarchy was restored. Charles II now sat on the throne and Charles Gerard could return to England in triumph at the head of the new king's personal bodyguard.

By now William Fitton was in his dotage and it was his son Alexander who now acted as head of the family. With the return of Charles Gerard, Alexander anticipated a reopening of the dispute regarding Gawsworth and so made an effort to reach a compromise with the Baron Gerard, but met with little success. He was contemptuously dismissed by Gerard who now had every confidence that his friendship with the king would now enable him to obtain the 'justice' that had earlier been denied.

Charles Gerard soon launched a lawsuit claiming that he was the rightful owner of the Gawsworth estate. In support of this contention he produced a will dated 16th August 1643 in which he was named as sole beneficiary of the late Edward Fitton's estate. Unfortunately the will wasn't sealed and all the witnesses to the document were long dead but Charles claimed to be able to produce further testimony to support the contention that the will had once been sealed and that the signatures were genuine.

This of course left any court with the difficult choice of deciding between two conflicting wills and no doubt unwilling to leave anything to chance Charles Gerard now decided to put matters beyond doubt. He arranged for the arrest of a notorious forger by the name of Abraham Granger and through threats of violence and the promise of an annuity of a £100, Granger was persuaded to falsely testify that he had forged the 1641 will which granted Gawsworth to William Fitton. To add credibility to the tale further witnesses were hired to support the story that William Fitton had indeed hired Granger to forge the 1641 will.

In November 1662 the case came before the Court of the King's Bench and Charles Gerard's carefully laid preparations bore fruit as the court was indeed persuaded the court that the genuine will was a forgery and the forged will genuine and awarded Charles Gerard possession of Gawsworth.

Nevertheless Alexander Fitton continued to pursue avenues of appeal although without success and his opponent even launched a successful prosecution for perjury against him, which left Alexander languishing in prison for a while. Strangely enough Alexander found some support from the aforementioned Abraham Granger who, disappointed by the failure to of Gerard to pay the promised annuity had decided to confess the truth. This enabled Alexander produced a pamphlet entitled, A True Narrative of the Proceedings in the Several Suits in Law That Have Been Between the Right Honourable Charles Lord Gerrard of Brandon and Alexander Fitton Esq, in a bid to whip up public support for the case.

The pamphlet laid bare the facts that Charles Gerard had acquired Gawsworth by means of a forgery and had fraudulently produced evidence to discredit the genuine will. Unfortunately Alexander Fitton was perhaps unaware of the statute of Scandalum magnatum which protected the 'great men' of the land from such accusations. As a peer of the realm Charles Gerard was entitled to the protection of this statute and simply presented a copy of the offending pamphlet to the House of Lords who promptly called Alexander Fitton before them and forced him to apologise on bended knee and fined him £500. Since Alexander Fitton didn't have the necessary £500 to pay the fine, he was clapped in prison, which is where he spent the next twenty years of his life.

With his rival now behind bars and effectively silenced, Charles Gerard enjoyed the benefits of high favour with king Charles and duly prospered; eventually in 1679 he was further ennobled when he was created the very first Earl of Macclesfield.

The fall and rise of the Earl of Macclesfield

However Charles Gerard's elevation to an earldom marked the high point in his career under king Charles II. He was a committed supporter of the established Church of England and suspicious of the openly catholic James, Duke of York who remained, due to the lack of any legitimate offspring by his elder brother Charles II, heir apparent to the throne. Gerard thus became a supporter of the claims of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth and in 1680 he supported the Exclusion Bill which sought to remove the Duke of York from the succession. Unfortunately for Gerard it was the crown who prevailed during the Exclusion crisis; the bill was defeated and the king took action against those whom he now saw as his enemies.

Charles Gerard was simply deprived of his offices at the time but things got worse for the Earl in 1684 when the government eventually remembered about Alexander Fitton and released him from prison. Finally believing that he now had a chance to reverse the decision reached in 1662 Alexander launched yet another lawsuit. The case came before the Lord Keeper Guildford who rather surprisingly ruled that since the Earl had been in possession for twenty two years he could not now in law be dislodged.

Whilst disappointed by the outcome of the case Alexander had reason to be hopeful as king Charles died in February 1685 and his brother James duly became James II. Clearly James II would be no friend of the Earl of Macclesfield given his earlier support for the Exclusion Bill; Charles Gerard evidently thought so as he was soon implicated in the Monmouth Rebellion, and was outlawed and forced to flee into exile for the second time in his life. With his rival now absent, Alexander Fitton declared himself a Roman Catholic and was soon in favour with the new king. He was granted a knighthood and appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland and had every reason to belive that with James' support he might soon regain possession of Gawsworth.

Unfortunately for Alexander the wheel turned again as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 drove Alexander into exile with the deposed James II. Charles Gerard returned to England in the company of William of Orange and was rewarded for his support by being appointed a Privy Councillor and Lord President of the Council of Wales, whilst Alexander was left to moulder in the exiled king's court and contented himself with the empty Jacobite title of Baron Fitton of Gawsworth bestowed upon him by the former king James II.

Now secure in the possession of Gawsworth and with his former rival condemned to exile Charles Gerard was finally permitted the peaceful enjoyment of his ill-gotten gains. His marriage to the French Jeanne de Civelle had produced two sons and three daughters and so the succession to his title and estates seemed secure. When the old rogue finally died on the 7th January 1694 he was succeeded by his eldest son Charles.

The Mohun inheritance

Like his father Charles Gerard, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield had his problems with James II and had once been sentenced to death for his part in the Rye House Plot, only to be pardoned by the king. He too became an enthusiastic supporter of the Glorious Revolution and afterwards an avid member of the Whig Party.

He had earlier married Anna Mason, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant named Richard Mason in 1683, but from the beginning the marriage was in trouble. Two years later they separated and lived apart for the next ten years without much incident until the Countess of Macclesfield began a long affair with Richard Savage, 4th Earl Rivers. This was embarrassment enough for the Earl of Macclesfield, but what was worse his wife had born two children by the Earl Rivers, whom as the law stood at the time, would have been deemed as his children and thus entitled to succeed to his wealth and titles.

Therefore Charles thought it necessary to divorce his wife and took the somewhat extraordinary step of procuring an Act of Parliament to achieve this end without bothering with the customary precedent of obtaining the decree of an ecclesiastical court. Naturally Charles' Whig credentials stood him in good stead as the legislation was passed through parliament in 1698, dissolving the marriage and rendering the two children illegitimate.

Charles was now around forty years old and without a direct heir, although there was plenty of time for him to find another wife who could generate the necessary offspring. Of course, should he fail in this regard there remained his younger brother Fitton Gerrard, but he had no children either and what is more the two had fallen out over the matter of the Earl's divorce. Should his brother prove unsuitable there were the offspring of two of his sisters.

Firstly there was his sister Elizabeth who had married a distant cousin named Digby Gerard, 3rd Baron Gerard of Bromley; their only daughter, also named Elizabeth, had married James Hamilton, Earl of Arran. heir to the title Duke of Hamilton. Secondly there was sister Charlotte had who married a Sir Thomas Orby and their only daughter wed Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun. In normal circumstances, failing any heirs of the Earl and his brother, Messrs Hamilton and Mohun could therefore eventually expect to split the Gawsworth estate and the rest of the Gerard wealth between them. However these were not normal circumstances as none of the 2nd Earl's property was entailed, and he was thus free to dispose of it as he willed.

In the meantime, in the year 1701 the Earl of Macclesfield was entrusted by William III with the mission of formally presenting to Sophia the Electress of Hanover a copy of the Act of Settlement, but having completed his mission he fell ill shortly after his return to London on the 30th October. Charles' health rapidly deteriorated and the 2nd Earl died on the 5th November 1701 at the age of forty-two leaving everyone in a state of suspense as to the destination of the Earl's wealth.

Of course the title of Earl of Macclesfield passed to his younger brother Fitton Gerard but to everyone's surprise the 2nd Earl bequeathed his entire fortune to his nephew Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun, quite ignoring the claims of his brother and his other nephew James Hamilton. Although Fitton Gerard was granted a life interest in the Gawsworth estate this did not prove to much of an issue for the Baron Mohun as Fitton was already ill and he too died without issue on the 26th December 1702.

This left the other nephew James Hamilton later Duke of Hamilton somewhat unhappy as he was similarly desirous of getting his hands on at least a share of the Gawsworth lands. So James Hamilton began intriguing with Fitton Gerard and the Orby family and persuaded the 3rd Earl to grant Gawsworth on a 99 year lease to in an attempt to frustrate the Lord Mohun. When the 3rd Earl finally expired in 1702 James Hamilton immediately sent his agents to take charge of Gawsworth in the name of the lessees. However Charles Mohun was however more than a match for the Scottish peer. Having taken the time to cultivate local favour in Cheshire he was able to procure the necessary eviction notices and soon gained possession of Gawsworth much to James Hamilton's annoyance.

The point was that Charles Mohun was very much a Whig and could therefore count on the support of the Whig Junto that effectively ran the country at the time, whilst James Hamilton was a Tory with Jacobite tendencies and regarded with the deepest suspicion by the crown. No matter how hard he tried there seemed little that James Hamilton could do to dislodge Mohun from Gawsworth and the matter dragged on through the courts for a number of years. However another opportunity arose which allowed Hamilton to strike a blow against his advesary as following the death of his sister Elizabeth, Charles Mohun had been appointed executor of her estate. Elizabeth Gerard was of course James Hamilton's mother-in-law and James now claimed that Charles as executor owed his wife some £40,000 and argued that the Lord Mohun should be forced account for his stewardship of his sister's estate.

On the 20th May 1710 this case came before the Lord Chancellor Cowper who ruled that Charles Mohun should indeed produce accounts. The possibility of having to pay the sum of £40,000 to Hamilton threatened to bankrupt the Baron Mohun, and what was worse for Mohun the old Whig dominance was waning as Queen Anne turned to the Tory Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford to build an alternative administration. Since these Tories were anxious to gain the support of an influential Scottish magnate such as the Duke of Hamilton, it was James not Charles who now had the greater political influence.

No longer able to rely on his political allies to fix things in his favour the fractious Charles Mohun, who had already been responsible for the death of two men in duels, felt that his honour had been impugned by the Duke of Hamilton during the course of a meeting held between the two at a solicitor's office and demanded satisfaction. Hamilton, anxious to maintain his won honour was happy to oblige. Thus the Hamilton Mohun Duel was fought at Hyde Park on the morning of the 15th November 1712 and resulted in the deaths of both combatants, whilst their seconds fled into hiding to escape the inevitable charges of complicity in murder.

The Battle continues

The deaths of the two principal antagonists did not however bring the dispute regarding Gawsworth to an end. For one thing Charles Mohun had drafted a will leaving everything to his second wife Elizabeth Grifith, thereby disinheriting his only daughter by his first marriage. Charles simply belived that his daughter Elizabeth by his marriage to Charlotte Orby was not his and thus saw no reason to provide for her.

Naturally Elizabeth Mohun challenged the will. With the support of her grandparents she launched a suit in the Court of Chancery in January 1713. Later that year in November 1713 her grandfather Thomas Orby sought to advance her claim when seized control of Gawsworth on her behalf. But like her former husband the Lady Mohun fought back with gusto, securing eviction notices from the county court to regain possession.

Once again the dispute over Gawsworth slowly raged its way through the courts. Elizabeth Mohun and Thomas Orby had grounds for optimisim however as they believed they could count on the support of the Earl of Oxford's Tory government. But to their great disappointment their claim foundered in 1714 as the political support they had counted on failed to materialise due to the collapse of the Oxford's administration. Eventually the dowager Lady Mohun decided in 1717 to reach a settlement with her step-daughter, so Elizabeth Mohun received £5,500, a sum which at least allowed her to marry Arthur St Leger who was at least the heir to the Irish title of Viscount Doneraile.

Buying out Elizabeth Mohun was one thing but the now widowed Duchess of Hamilton had not forgotten her husband's claim. Despite her husband's prior lack of success she continued to pursue the Hamilton claim to Gawsworth to the bitter end. The war smouldered on through the courts for the next thirty years, and it was only with the death of the Duchess in 1744 that the battle over Gasworth finally come to an end. By then the Hamilton family were more concerned with extracating the 5th Duke from any entanglements with the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 than pursuing a decades old claim to a small parcel of Cheshire.


SOURCES

  • Victor Stater High Life, Low Morals: The duel that shook Stuart Society (Pimlico, 2000) (NB published in the USA under the alternative title; Duke Hamilton Is Dead: A Story of Aristocratic Life and Death in Stuart Britain)
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entries for MACCLESFIELD, CHARLES GERARD, 1ST EARL and HAMILTON, MARQUESSES AND DUKES OF
  • Stirnet Genealogy at http://www.stirnet.com/HTML/genie/genfam.htm
  • The Peerages of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom at http://www.angeltowns.com/town/peerage/Peers.htm
  • A Brief History of Gawsworth Hall at http://www.gawsworthhall.com/history.html

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