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Lady Wentworth

Martha Hilton Wentworth/ NHHSSEACOAST POETRY

When the elderly NH governor married his young housekeeper It was the Seacoast scandal of the 18th century. Commoners simply did not mate with royalty in those days. The story was 100 years old when New England’s top romantic poet transformed it into verse. It appeared in his most famous collection, "Tales of a Wayside Inn" that also included the classic and often innaccurate poem about Paul Revere’s ride. Here is the complete Longfellow ballad.


READ ALSO The Other Lady Wentworth
VISIT the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion today

The marriage of Portsmouth's royal British governor Benning Wentworth to his housekeeper Martha Hilton on March 15, 1760 was the scandal of the decade. Almost 40 years her senior, old, unpleasant and unattractive, Wentworth was wealthy beyond imagination with a 45-room mansion near Little Harbor. With his wife recently deceased and the American Revolution closing in, Wentworth surprised his guests at a family party by proclaiming his intentions. He required the distinguished Rev. Arthur Browne of the posh Queen's Church to marry them on the spot.

Longfellow’s Life

LongfellowLike Gov. Benning We4ntowrth, Maine poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was also in his 60s when the Wentworth story caught his imagination. An account of the Wentworth-Hilton marriage had appeared in Brewster's "Rambles About Portsmouth" in 1869. Living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Longfellow was then American's most popular poet having hit the charts with "Evangeline," "The Song of Hiawatha," and "The Courtship of Miles Standish." Longfellow was also in a period of grief for the loss of his own wife Frances who, despite his heroic efforts, had died ten years earlier when the dress she was wearing caught fire. In 1862 he published a book-length series of poems fashioned after Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In Longfellows's "Tales of a Wayside Inn," a group of traveler's meet in Sudbury, Mass and exchanged stories. Only five of the 22 tales take place in the United States. One poem is the legendary "Paul Revere's Ride." Another is "Lady Wentworth" which is reproduced below.

In 1871 Longfellow toured a number of historic houses in Portsmouth with a local friend, including the Wentworth-Coolidge mansion which he describes in the the poem. Longfellow was pleased to learn that he had captured the scene well and had to change only a single line in a revised printing. In the footnotes to an early edition of the book, the editor adds that a Wentworth descendant wrote to dispute details of the poem. According to Wentworth family legend, only Rev. Browne and family members were at the Governor's 60th birthday party. Martha Hilton was said to be 35, not in her early 20s at the time of the wedding, and wore, not silk, but a calico dress and a white apron.

Though Longfellow's Victorian, often sentimental style grew out of favor at the end of the 19th century, his choice of Martha Hilton Wentworth was apt. Her romantic rags-to-riches tale was as popular in Revolutionary War era Portsmouth as it was for Americans caught up in the Civil War a century later.

By J. Dennis Robinson. Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved. First published online here in 1997.


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