“THE GERMAN PRINCESS,” Mary Carleton, was a Kentish Adventuress who travelled the Continent, acquired several Husbands, was tried more than once for polygamy but always managed to avoid a guilty verdict. During her heyday she was a feature of London’s social scene and is mentioned in Pepys’ Diary. In the end, she was undone by a plate. Here is part one of her story.
NewgateThis woman was so called from her pretending to be born at Cologne in Germany, and that her father was Henry van Wolway, a Doctor of the Civil Law, and Lord of Holmsteim. But this story was of a piece with her actions, for she was really the daughter of one Meders, a chorister at the cathedral of Canterbury, and, some say, only an indifferent trader of that city, in which she was born, the 11th of January, 1642. We can say little of her education; only from her inclinations afterwards we may suppose she had as much learning as is commonly given to her sex. She took great delight in reading, especially of romances and books of knight-errantry – Parismus and Parismenus, Don Belianis of Greece, and Amadis de Gaul, were some of her favourite books; and she was so touched with the character of Oriana in the latter that she frequently conceited herself a princess, or a lady of high quality. Cassandra and Cleopatra were also read in their turns, and her memory was so tenacious that she could repeat a great part of their amours and adventures very readily.Her marriage was not agreeable to the high opinion she had entertained of her own merit; instead of a knight, or a squire at least, which she had promised herself, she took up with a journeyman shoemaker, whose name was Stedman, by whom she had two children, who both died in their infancy. This man being unable to maintain her extravagances, and support her in the splendour she always aimed at, she was continually discontented, till at last she resolved to leave him and seek her fortune. A woman of her spirit is never long in executing things of this nature; she made an elopement, and went to Dover, where she married another husband, who was a surgeon of that town. Information of this affair was soon taken, and she was apprehended and indicted at Maidstone for having two husbands, but by some masterly stroke, which she never wanted on a pressing occasion, she was quickly acquitted. This emboldened her to a third marriage, with one John Carleton, a Londoner, which was the occasion of her being first publicly known in town; for some of her old acquaintance giving Carleton’s brother an account of her former weddings, she was again taken, committed to Newgate, and tried at the Old Bailey for polygamy. Here again the evidence against her was insufficient, so that she was a second time acquitted.It is requisite, before we proceed any further in our relation, to observe that between the two last marriages she embarked on board a merchant ship, which carried her to Holland, from whence she travelled by land to the place she had so often talked of, the city of Cologne, where, being now mistress of a considerable sum of money, she took a fine lodging at a house of entertainment, and lived in greater splendour than she had ever before done. As it is customary in England to go to Epsom or Tunbridge Wells in the summer season, so in Germany the quality usually frequent the Spa. Here our adventuress had the picking of a few feathers from an old gentleman who fell in love with her, and who had a good estate not many miles distant from Cologne, at Liege or Luget. By the assistance of the landlady she managed this affair with so much artifice that he presented her with several fine and valuable jewels, besides a gold chain with a very costly medal, which had been formerly given him for some remarkable good service under Count Tilley against the valiant King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus.The foolish old dotard urged his passion with all the vehemence of a young vigorous lover, pressing her to matrimony, and making her very large promises, till at last she gave her consent to espouse him in three days, and he left the preparation of things necessary to her care, giving her large sums of money for that purpose. Madam now perceived it was high time to be gone, and, in order to her setting off with the greater security, she acquainted her landlady with the design, who had before shared pretty largely in the spoils of the old captain. The hostess, to be sure, was willing to hearken to any proposal that would help her a little more to fleece the doting inamorato.The princess, however, was resolved this time to have all the booty to herself, and to accomplish this she persuaded her landlady to go into the town and get a place for her in some carriage that did not go to Cologne; because, she said, her lover should not know whither to follow her. The old trot saw that this precaution was very necessary, and therefore away goes she to provide for the safety of her guest, who was now sufficiently to reward her out of her dotard’s favours. This was all our adventuress wanted, for as soon as she found herself left alone she broke open a chest, where she had observed her landlady to put all her treasure, and there she found not only what she had shared with her out of the old man’s benevolence, but also an additional sum of money not inconsiderable. There is little reason to tell the reader that she took all that was worth taking, there being none of her character apt to spare what it is in their power to seize, though it be from a brother or sister of their own profession. Madam soon packed up her parcel, and having before privately made sure of a passage to Utrecht, she fled thither; from thence she went to Amsterdam, where she sold her gold chain, medal, and some of the jewels, then proceeded to Rotterdam, and then to the Brill, where she took shipping for England.She landed at Billingsgate one morning very early, about the latter end of March, in the year 1663, but found no house open till she came to the Exchange tavern, where she first obtained the title of “the German Princess,” in the following manner. She was got into the aforesaid tavern, in company with some gentlemen, who, she perceived, were pretty full of money. These gentlemen addressing her in the manner usual on such occasions, she immediately feigned a cry, which she had always at command. The tears trickled down her cheeks, she sighed, she sobbed, and the cause being demanded, she told them that she little thought once of being reduced to such a wretched necessity as she was now in, of exposing her body to the pleasure of every bidder. Here she repeated the history of her extraction and education, telling them a great deal about her pretended father, the Lord Henry van Wolway, who, she said, was a sovereign Prince of the Empire, independent of any man but his sacred Imperial Majesty. “Certainly,” continued she, “any gentleman may suppose what a mortification it must be to a woman born of such noble parents, and bred up in all the pomp of a Court, under the care of an indulgent father.”They gave her, out of mere pity, all the money they had about them, promising to meet her again with more. This they also accomplished, and ever afterwards called her the poor unfortunate German princess; which name she laid claim to in all companies. The Exchange tavern was kept by one Mr King, who was the same that kept it when our princess received her honorary title. As she was now come from foreign parts with a great deal of riches, he believed more than ever the truth of what she had before affirmed. Nor was madam backward in telling him that she had raised all her wealth by private contribution from some princes of the Empire who were acquainted with her circumstances, and to whom she had made herself known: adding, that not one of those who had given her anything dared to acquaint her father that they knew where she was, because they were all his neighbours, and vastly inferior to him in the number and strength of their forces. ” For,” said she, ” my father is so inexorable that he would make war upon any prince whom he knew to extend his pity to me.”John Carleton, whom we mentioned before as her third husband, was brother-in-law to Mr King. He made his addresses to the Princess van Wolway in the most dutiful and submissive manner that could be imagined, making use of his brother’s interest to negotiate the affair between them, till with a great deal of seeming reluctance at marrying one of common blood, her highness consented to take him to her embraces. Now was Mr Carleton as great as his Majesty, in the arms of an imaginary princess; he formed to himself a thousand pleasures, which the vulgar herd could have no notion of; he threw himself at her feet in transport, and made use of all the rhetoric he could collect to thank her for the prodigious honour she had done him. But alas! how was he surprised when Mr King presented him with the following letter:SIR, I am an entire stranger to your person, yet common justice and humanity oblige me to give you notice that the pretended princess, who has passed herself upon your brother, Mr John Carleton, is a cheat and an impostor. If I tell you, sir, that she has already married several men in our county of Kent, and afterwards made off with all the money she could get into her hands, I say no more than could be proved were she brought in the face of justice. That you may be certain I am not mistaken in the woman, please to observe that she has high breasts, a very graceful appearance, and speaks several languages fluently.
Yours unknown, T. B.After Mrs Carleton (for so we may at present call her) had got rid of her husband, and of the prosecution for marrying him, she was entertained by the players, who were in hopes of gaining by a woman who had made such a considerable figure on the real theatre of the world. The house was very much resorted to upon her account, and she got a great deal of applause in her dramatical capacity, by the several characters she performed, which were generally jilt, coquette, or chambermaid, any one of which was agreeable to her artful intriguing genius; but what contributed most to her fame was a play, written purely upon her account, called The German Princess, from her name, and in which she performed a principal part, besides speaking the following epilogue:”I’ve passed one trial, but it is my fear I shall receive a rigid sentence here: You think me a bold cheat, put case ’twere so, Which of you are not? Now you’d swear I know. But do not, lest that you deserve to be Censur’d worse than you can censure me:, The world’s a cheat, and we that move in it, In our degrees, do exercise our wit; And better ’tis to get a glorious name, However got, than live by common fame.”The princess had too much mercury in her constitution to be long settled in any way of life whatsoever. The whole City of London was too little for her to act in. How was it possible then that she should be confined in the narrow limits of a theatre? She did not, however, leave the stage so soon but she had procured a considerable number of adorers, who, having either seen her person or heard of her fame, were desirous of a nearer acquaintance with her. As she was naturally given to company and gallantry, she was not very difficult of access; yet when you were in her presence, you were certain to meet with an air of indifference. There were two of her bullies who doted on her beyond all the rest, a couple of smart young fellows, who had abundance more in their pockets than they had in their heads. These, from a deficiency of wit in themselves, were very fond, in the large quantity, of that commodity which they discovered in our princess, and for that reason were frequently in her company. There is no doubt but they had other designs than just to converse with her, for they several times discovered an inclination to come a little nearer to her body. And madam was not so ignorant but she knew their meaning by their whining; she therefore gave them encouragement, till she had drained about three hundred pounds apiece out of them, and then, finding their stock pretty well exhausted, she turned them both off, telling them she wondered how they could have the impudence to pretend love to a princess.After this, an elderly gentleman fell into the same condition at seeing her as several had done before, though he was fifty years of age, and not ignorant of her former tricks. He was worth about four hundred pounds per annum, and immediately resolved to be at the charge of a constant maintenance, provided she would consent to live with him. To bring about which he made her several valuable presents of rings, jewels, etc. At last, after a long siege, he became master of the fort; yet in such a manner, that it seemed rather to be surrendered out of pure love and generosity than from any mercenary views, for she always protested against being corrupted, so far as to part with her honour, for the sake of filthy lucre, which is a common artifice of the sex. Our gentleman, though, as has been remarked, was sensible of what she was; yet by degrees he became so enamoured as to believe everything she said, and to look upon her as the most virtuous woman alive. Living now as man and wife, she seemed to redouble her endearments, and to give them all a greater air of sincerity, so that he was continually gratifying her with some costly present or another, which she always took care to receive with an appearance of being ashamed he should bear so many obligations on her, telling him continually that she was not worthy of so many favours. Thus did she vary her behaviour according to the circumstances and temper of the persons she had to deal with. At last our old lover came home one night very much in liquor, and gave her a jewel of five pounds value, and our princess thought this as proper a time as any she was like to meet with for her to make the most of his worship’s passion. Accordingly, having got him to bed, and seen him fast asleep, which he soon was at this time, she proceeded to rifle him, finding his pocket-book, with a bill for one hundred pounds upon a goldsmith in the city, and the keys of his trunks and escritoires. She now proceeded to secure all that was worth her while; among other things she made herself mistress of twenty pieces of old gold, a gold watch, a gold seal, an old silver watch, and several pieces of plate, with other valuable movables, to the value in all of one hundred and fifty pounds. Now she thought it best for her to make off as fast as she could with her prize. So as soon as it was day she took coach and drove to the goldsmith, who mistrusted nothing, having seen her before with the gentleman, and instantly paid the ten pounds, upon which she delivered up the bill.Having thus overreached her old lover, madam took a convenient lodging, at which she passed for a virgin, with a fortune of one thousand pounds left her by an uncle; to this she added that her father was very rich, and able to give her as much more, but that disliking a man whom he had provided for her husband, she had left the country and retired to London, where she was in hopes none of her relations would find her. That this story might appear the more probable, she contrived letters from a friend, which were brought her continually, and in which she pretended she received an account of all that passed, with respect to her father and lover. These letters, being loosely laid about the chamber, were picked up by her landlady, who out of curiosity perused the contents, and by that means became more and more satisfied in her tenant. This landlady had a nephew of considerable substance, and it was now all her endeavour to make a match between him and her young gentlewoman, whom she soon brought to be pretty intimately acquainted together. The new lover presented her with a watch, as a token of his esteem for her person, but the poor innocent creature refused it with abundance of modesty. However, she was at last prevailed upon to accept this little favour, and the young man thought himself with one foot in Paradise already, that she was so condescending. Their amour after this went on to both their satisfactions, madam seeing a fair prospect of making a penny of her inamorato, and he not in the least doubting but he should obtain his wish, and one day or another enjoy that heaven of bliss which, as he frequently expressed it, was treasured in her arms.One day as they were conversing together, and entertaining each other with all the soft and tender endearments of young lovers, a porter knocks at the door, and, upon being admitted, delivers a letter to our lady, being introduced by the maid, who had received her instructions beforehand. Madam immediately opens and reads the letter; but scarce had she made an end before, altering her countenance, she shrieked out: “Oh, I am undone! I am undone! ” All the company could scarce prevent her falling into a swoon, though the smelling bottle was at hand, and her young lover sitting by her who, to be sure, did not fail to use all the rhetoric he was master of, in order to comfort her, and learn the cause of her surprise. “Sir,” quoth she at last, “since you are already acquainted with most of my concerns, I shall not make a secret of this. Therefore, if you please, read this letter, and know the occasion of my affliction.”