It’s Downhill All the Way

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It was the intrepid Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who first proposed that ‘the world consists of men, women, and Herveys.’ So it has remained ever since, although the inspiration for Lady Mary’s remark was, of course, that most mercurial creature of early 18th century England and confidante of George II’s spouse Caroline, John, Lord Hervey. The queen found him ‘particularly agreeable, as he helped to enliven the uniformity of a Court with sprightly repartees and lively sallies of wit.’ Speaking of which, if Hervey’s memoirs (which were only first published over a century after his death) are not quite up to the mark of those by his French near-contemporary the Duc de Saint-Simon, nevertheless they offer an insight into the intrigues of political and social life at the time, and also explain why he inspired as much loathing as love.
Among those who felt the former emotion was Alexander Pope who in his satiric poem of 1735 The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot mockingly called the sexually-ambiguous Hervey ‘Sporus’ (the name of the Emperor Nero’s catamite) and wrote of him, ‘His wit all see-saw between that and this/Now high, now low, now master, up now miss/And he himself one vile Antithesis/Amphibious thing! that acting either part/The trifling head, or the corrupted heart/Fop at the toilet, flatt’rer at the board/Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord.’
Despite his innumerable affairs with women and men alike, and his general weak health (for which his father blamed ‘that detestable and poisonous plant, tea, which had once brought him to death’s door, and if persisted in would carry him through it’) Hervey and his loyal wife nevertheless managed to have eight children, among them Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol.

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Frederick Augustus Hervey was born in August 1730 and as the third of Lord Hervey’s four sons was not expected to inherit either the family title or lands. He therefore needed to find an alternative career (two of his brothers joined the armed forces, one becoming an admiral, the other a general) and so became a Church of England clergyman. Thanks to the intervention of his eldest brother George who as second Earl of Bristol in 1766 was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (although he never visited the country), Frederick Augustus – already a royal chaplain – was appointed Bishop of Cloyne. A year later, aged only 38 he became Bishop of Derry and thus responsible for one of the richest Irish sees. Judicious management of diocesan funds allowed him not only to increase his wealth but also to ensure that some portion of the Bishop of Derry’s estates in would pass to his own heir.
It is difficult to discern the depth of Bishop Hervey’s personal religious beliefs, but there can be no doubt about his tolerance: he was a proponent of religious equality and dedicated himself to improving the lot of Roman Catholics and Presbyterians within his diocese, and further afield. He campaigned to place on the statute book an oath of allegiance which would permit loyal and well-disposed Irish Catholics to disavow the more extreme papal doctrines – such as the teaching that heads of government excommunicated by the Pope could be deposed or murdered by their subjects. In 1774 an oath along the lines he had been suggesting since 1767 was incorporated in an act of the Irish parliament (it was then spurned by the Papacy). But he was also somewhat eccentric – he was, after all, a Hervey – and on one occasion he organised a curates’ race along the sands of Downhill, the winners being awarded benefices then vacant in the Derry diocese.

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Lord Charlemont declared of Bishop Hervey, ‘his genius is like a shallow stream, rapid, noisy, diverting, but useless. Such is his head, and I fear it is much superior to his heart. He is proud and to the last degree vindictive; vain to excess, inconsistant in his friendships… fond of intrigue in gallantry as well as politics, and sticking at nothing to gain his ends in either… A bad father, both from caprice and avarice; a worse husband to the best and most amiable of wives; a determined deist, though a bishop, and at times so indecently inpious in his conversations as to shock the most reprobate… His ambition and his lust can alone get the better of his avarice.’
Meanwhile Sir Jonah Barrington in his own highly entertaining memoirs described the bishop as ‘a man of elegant erudition, extensive learning, and an enlightened and classical, but eccentric mind:—bold, ardent, and versatile; he dazzled the vulgar by ostentatious state, and worked upon the gentry by ease and condescension:—he affected public candour and practised private cabal.’
One of the ways Hervey practised private cabal was by becoming over-involved with Irish politics. His sympathy for the plight of Catholics led him to take an interest in parliamentary reform and even, it has been suggested, in the notion of independence for Ireland as would be attempted before the end of the century. However, by that time, following the death of two brothers he had inherited the Earldom of Bristol and with it considerable estates in England that increased his already great wealth.

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Even before becoming Earl of Bristol in 1779, the Bishop had been a great traveller on mainland Europe: it is often said the reason so many Hotels Bristol exist is that they were named after him. In particular he loved Italy, a country in which he spent more and more time as he grew older (he would die in Albano in July 1803). Here he collected the many artworks intended to fill great houses built for him in these islands. So all consuming was his passion for translating architectural ideas into reality that he became known as the ‘Edifying Bishop.’ He was responsible for two new residences in Ireland, the first and more conservative being Downhill, County Derry. It dates from the mid-1770s when work started under the supervision of a Cork-born stone-mason Michael Shanahan, perhaps to a design by James Wyatt. Located close to a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the house is long and narrow and of two storeys over basement, its granite ashlar exterior relieved by a series of bows and giant fluted Corinthian pilasters. Long wings on either side (originally concluding in domes) flank a central courtyard and this in turn leads to a further extensive range at the rear, allowing all services to be kept on the one site. Downhill is highly exposed to harsh winds whipping off the nearby seas and was always cold but at the time of its construction Hervey wrote enthusiastically to one of his daughters that the place ‘is becoming elegance itself, with 300,000 trees…and almost as many pictures and statues within doors.’ Indeed the interiors were said to be magnificent, the principal stone staircase having a balustrade of gilded ironwork beneath a frescoed dome while the main rooms were a library and double-height picture gallery, at one end of which were pairs of Corinthian columns supporting an entablature above which were the arms of the bishopric and earldom.

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As can be seen from these photographs, little remains today of the Earl-Bishop’s splendid residence at Downhill. On his death he left the Irish estates to the Rev. Henry Hervey Bruce, brother of a deceased cousin – Mrs Frideswide Mussenden – to whose memory the Earl-Bishop had built an exquisite domed rotunda in the grounds of Downhill, known as the Mussenden Temple. The Rev. Bruce, who became a baronet soon after coming into his considerable inheritance, had looked after both his benefactor’s property and diocese during the Earl-Bishop’s long absences from Ireland. Generations of the Bruce family remained in possession of Downhill for the next 150 years but the house was seriously damaged by fire in 1851 when many of the most valuable contents, including its library and collection of statuary, were lost.
In the early 1870s a programme of restoration was carried out to the designs of John Lanyon, which involved a new entrance being created on the west side of the house and the installation of plate-glass windows as well as a new heating system since Downhill had hitherto been notoriously cold. But even these improvements could not save the house after a sequence of deaths led to heavy duties and sales. During the Second World War Downhill was used as a billet by the RAF and a few years into peacetime it was unroofed and permitted to fall into ruin. Now under the care of the National Trust, Downhill stands as a handsome if gaunt shell through which those harsh Atlantic winds continue to whistle.

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I shall at some future date be writing about both the Mussenden Temple and the Earl-Bishop’s other Irish house, Ballyscullion.