My historical novel "Lieutenant and Mrs. Lockwood" is based on an actual Irish family, and I've had people ask about their story. The Lockwoods' story turns out better than that of the Fortescues, but I think I have stayed true to the lives they led.
In 1798, Ensign William Faithful Fortescue married Honora Marie O’Brian in a ceremony conducted by the local Catholic priest. It is interesting to consider the notion that their seemingly innocent marriage was a small but deliberate violation of the law.
William was a junior officer of the Westmeath Militia. His company had been posted to Clonakilty, and it was there that he met Honora, a daughter of one of the premier Irish clans. Historical sources being what they are, there is no record of how they met, though we might be sentimental enough to assume they came to love one another. What the record does show is that they were married in the spring of that year, and that just months later William and every other crown soldier in Ireland was fighting for his life against thousands of Irish in the largest rebellion of Ireland’s long, tormented history.For hundreds of years, Ireland had been harshly ruled by the English. Ninety-five percent of the land was controlled by five percent of the population, the small, selfish, and corrupt oligarchy of Anglo-Irish Protestant elites. The native Irish had been reduced to the status of disenfranchised tenants. The English solidified their dominance with harsh Penal Laws intended to keep the natives powerless, and to reduce the power of the Catholic Church.
Penal Laws touched every aspect of Irish society, but one was particularly pertinent to Ensign Fortescue and Miss O’Brian. A 1745 law decreed that a marriage between a Protestant and a Catholic, if conducted by a Catholic priest, was null and void. That law was well-known throughout Ireland, and yet the young couple knowingly violated it. William was a King’s officer, and one wonders why he would risk censure from those of his religion and class to marry a Catholic woman, consecrated by a Catholic priest. One possible explanation is of a romantic nature: Perhaps he did so to prove his love to his Catholic fiancé.
William then had opportunity to prove his loyalty to his King in action against the Irish rebels at the battle of Shannonvale, then as the years passed he served as an officer with the 27th Foot, the Inniskilling Regiment. He served with distinction in the Peninsula, in North America, and at Waterloo.
At Waterloo, the Inniskillings took more casualties than any other unit on the field, yet they unflinchingly held their position at a key point of the Allied line. William was one of the wounded, shot through the arm and chest. Such a wound was almost always fatal, but he miraculously recovered. But the wound never fully healed, and he eventually developed a degenerative lung condition. He died a lingering, gasping death six years later, Honora would later write, “literally for want of air.”
Honora quickly applied for a pension, in a letter so desperate and poignant as to merit being quoted in full:
Received. July 3, 1821
To the Secretary of War Clonakilty, Ireland
I am the unfortunate widow of William Faithful Fortescue, late of the 3rd Veteran Battalion, and of the 27th Regiment of Foot, I was Married to him in the year of the Rebellion, when he served in the Westmeath Militia, and I Flatter myself with Credit to himself and his affectionate Family; he served on the Peninsula and was in many Actions, he went with the 27th Regiment to the plains of Waterloo, where he received two Wounds one in the arm one the other in his Chest and was for many months Despaired of, his health he never recovered, but as he was so near getting his Company and promotion, he ran all risques and went out with the regiment to Gibraltar where he remained for more than a year in a wretched state of health until his Colonel wrote to his family to beg they should pressure on him to exchange into A Veteran Battalion which he did, after his Misery and Twenty Years servitude, to put an end to my sad story he departed this life at Mallow on the 22nd of the month after suffering more than words can tell, and Leaving his wife and Five Children three daughters and two Sons, with no other provision but their Claim on Government. I shall no longer Trespass on your time, but to request you would favor me with a few lines to let me know, to whom I am to send my Certificates and what steps to follow it I am to take, my two Sons are at School at Mr. Dempster Barron House Surrey, and my youngest Daughter at Falkham near London, my two eldest at Malahides near Dublin, they have lost the best of Fathers who was endeavoring to give them a good education as the Children of A Gentleman of Birth and excellent private and public Character, and once more to Request Sir you will favor me with a Speedy Answer-
I have the Honour to be Sir your most Obedient
Honora M. Fortescue
The Names and Ages of my Children
Susan C. Fortescue Born at Naas Age 19
Honoria Fortescue Born at London Derry Age 17
John C. Clermont Fortescue Born at Tullemore Age 15
William T. Neynoe Fortescue born at Enniskillen Age 13-
and Mary Anne Born in Clonakilty Age 8 going on Nine
But desperation and poignancy had little effect on Dublin Castle. As William had been posted to a Veterans Battalion just before his death, his pension lay with the Castle. Their authorization of the pension was inexplicably delayed, then delayed again, until Honora was forced to beg for help from British army headquarter at Horse Guards.
Lord Palmerston, Secretary for War, who was also bombarded with letters of support from William’s brother officers, was blunt in telling the Castle to pay the pension. But the Fortescues’ secret had somehow been uncovered. The Castle replied to Palmerston with an acidly polite letter to point out “that the late Lieutenant Fortescue was a Protestant, and Mrs. Fortescue a Roman Catholic. It may be proper to observe, that one of the parties having been a Protestant, the other a Protestant or Roman Catholic, the marriage, as now certified, is not by law valid -- A marriage of persons so circumstanced by a Roman Catholic Priest, was once a felony, and is still highly penal, unless the parties were previously married by a Protestant Clergyman.”
In the face of the stubborn resistance of Dublin Castle, Horse Guards paid the pension themselves. Signed by Lord Palmerston, the pension was backdated to 22 June 1821, and was increased from the mandated £26 to £40 per annum. But by then it was too late; Honora Fortescue had also died, without knowing if her children would be cared for. We cannot know how that uncertainty shaped her final days. Her youngest daughter, Mary Anne, also died, just days after her mother, at school in England. The second daughter, Honoria, at age seventeen, carried on her mother’s work and inquired about the pension on behalf of her siblings. The records close with yet another obfuscating official letter from the Castle, confusing Honoria with her late mother Honora.
Reform of the Penal Laws came slowly. Faced with the prospect of civil war in Ireland, Parliament eventually passed an Emancipation Bill in 1829 which removed some barriers, but only over violent protest from Dublin Castle. A Marriage Law removed some restrictions in 1836, though it was not until 1873 that all legal barriers to Catholic marriage were removed.
Pictured, a painting set in the Regency period (1810-1820) by 19th century British artist Edmund Blair Leighton titled "Signing the Register."
While those legal barriers were lifted, social barriers remained. All across the world, and to our collective shame, humanity’s tradition, bias, and fear restrict what should be a simple matter of recognizing the love two people hold for one another.
Reform came far too late for William and Honora Fortescue. They must have been anguished to die, knowing they left a cloud of doubt, perhaps even shame, over their family’s future. We might hope, though, they would have been pleased to know that things worked out well for their four surviving children. The scattered records reflect both the older girls marrying well, while both boys secured commissions in the service of the East India Company.
The lives of the Fortescues are buried in the endless rolling history of the world. The story of their struggle is reduced to one thin, dusty envelope in the British National Archives. Still, those of a trusting nature might think that William and Honora found peace. Those of a particularly sentimental nature might hope they love one another yet.