Read also Whittier's "New Wife & Old"
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. More than 30 years her senior, old, unpleasant and unattractive, Wentworth was wealthy beyond imagination with a 50-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.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was also in his 60s when the
Wentworth story caught his imagination a full century later. An account of
the Wentworth-Hilton marriage had appeared in Brewster's "Rambles About
Portsmouth." 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
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
By J. Dennis Robinson
© 1997 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
ONE hundred years ago, and something more,
In Queen Street, Portsmouth, at her tavern door,
Neat as a pin, and blooming as a rose,
Stood Mistress Stavers in her furbelows,
Just as her cuckoo-clock was striking nine.
Above her head, resplendent on the sign,
The portrait of the Earl of Halifax,
In scarlet coat and periwig of flax,
Surveyed at leisure all her varied charms,
Her cap, her bodice, her white folded arms,
And half resolved, though he was past his prime,
And rather damaged by the lapse of time,
To fall down at her feet, and to declare
The passion that had driven him to despair.
For from his lofty station he had seen
Stavers, her husband, dressed in bottle-green,
Drive his new Flying Stage-coach, four in hand,
Down the long lane, and out into the land.
And knew that he was far upon the way
To Ipswich and to Boston on the Bay!
Just then the meditations of the Earl
Were interrupted by a little girl,
Barefooted, ragged, with neglected hair,
Eyes full of laughter, neck and shoulders bare,
A thin slip of a girl, like a new moon,
Sure to be rounded into beauty soon,
A creature men would worship and adore,
Though now in mean habiliments she bore
A pail of water dripping, through the street,
And bathing, as she went, her naked feet.
It was a pretty picture, full of grace,-
The slender form, the delicate, thin face
The swaying motion, as she hurried by;
The shining feet, the laughter in her eye,
That o'er her face in ripples gleamed and glanced,
As in her pail the shifting sunbeam danced:
And with uncommon feelings of delight
The Earl of Halifax beheld the sight.
Not so Dame Stavers, for he heard her say
These words, or thought he did, as plain as day:
"O Martha Hilton! Fie! how dare you go
About the town half dressed, and looking so ! "
At which the gypsy laughed, and straight replied:
"No matter how I look; I yet shall ride
In my own chariot, ma'am." And on the child
The Earl of Halifax benignly smiled,
As with her heavy burden she passed on,
Looked back, then turned the corner, and was gone.
What next, upon that memorable day,
Arrested his attention was a gay
And brilliant equipage, that flashed and spun,
The silver harness glittering in the sun,
Outriders with red jackets, lithe and lank,
Pounding the saddles as they rose and sank,
While all alone within the chariot sat
A portly person with three-cornered hat,
A crimson velvet coat, head high in air,
Gold-headed cane, and nicely powdered hair,
And diamond buckles sparkling at his knees,
Dignified, stately, florid, much at ease.
Onward the pageant swept, and as it passed,
Fair Mistress Stavers courtesied low and fast;
For this was Governor Wentworth, driving down
To Little Harbor, just beyond the town,
Where his Great House stood looking out to sea,
A goodly place, where it was good to be.
It was a pleasant mansion, an abode
Near and yet hidden from the great high-road,
Sequestered among trees, a noble pile,
Baronial and colonial in its style;
Gables and dormer-windows everywhere,
And stacks of chimneys rising high in air,-
Pandaean pipes, on which all winds that blew
Made mournful music the whole winter through.
Within, unwonted splendors met the eye,
Panels, and floors of oak, and tapestry;
Carved chimney-pieces, where on brazen dogs
Revelled and roared the Christmas fires of logs;
Doors opening into darkness unawares,
Mysterious passages, and flights of stairs;
And on the walls, in heavy gilded frames,
The ancestral Wentworths, with Old-Scripture names.
Such was the mansion where the great man dwelt,
A widower and childless; and he felt
The loneliness, the uncongenial gloom,
That like a presence haunted every room;
For though not given to weakness, he could feel
The pain of wounds, that ache because they heal.
The years came and the years went,-seven in all,
And passed in cloud and sunshine o'er the Hall;
The dawns their splendor through its chambers shed,
The sunsets flushed its western windows red;
The snow was on its roofs, the wind, the rain;
Its woodlands were in leaf and bare again;
Moons waxed and waned, the lilacs bloomed and died,
In the broad river ebbed and flowed the tide,
Ships went to sea, and ships came home from sea,
And the slow years sailed by and ceased to be.
And all these years had Martha Hilton served
In the Great House, not wholly unobserved;
By day, by night, the silver crescent grew,
Though hidden by clouds, her light still shining
A maid of all work, whether coarse or fine,
A servant who made service seem divine!
Through her each room was fair to look upon;
The mirrors glistened, and the brasses shone,
The very knocker on the outer door,
If she but passed, was brighter than before.
And now the ceaseless turning of the mill
Of Time, that never for an hour stands still,
Ground out the Governor's sixtieth birthday,
And powdered his brown hair with silver-gray.
The robin, the forerunner of the spring,
The bluebird with his jocund carolling,
The restless swallows building in the eaves,
The golden buttercups, the grass, the leaves,
The lilacs tossing in the winds of May,
All welcomed this majestic holiday!
He gave a splendid banquet, served on plate,
Such as became the Governor of the State,
Who represented England and the King,
And was magnificent in everything.
He had invited all his friends and peers,
The Pepperels, the Langdons, and the Lears,
The Sparhawks, the Penhallows, and the rest;
For why repeat the name of every guest?
But I must mention one, in bands and gown,
The rector there, the Reverend Arthur Brown
Of the Established Church; with smiling face
He sat beside the Governor and said grace;
And then the feast went on, as others do,
But ended as none other I e'er knew.
When they had drunk the King, with many a cheer,
The Governor whispered in a servant's ear,
Who disappeared, and presently there stood
Within the room, in perfect womanhood,
A maiden, modest and yet self-possessed,
Youthful and beautiful, and simply dressed.
Can this be Martha Hilton? It must be!
Yes, Martha Hilton, and no other she!
Dowered with the beauty of her twenty years,
How ladylike, how queenlike she appears;
The pale, thin crescent of the days gone by
Is Dian now in all her majesty!
Yet scarce a guest perceived that she was there,
Until the Governor, rising from his chair,
Played slightly with his ruffles, then looked down,
And said unto the Reverend Arthur Brown:
"This is my birthday: it shall likewise be
My wedding-day; and you shall marry me!"
The listening guests were greatly mystified,
None more so than the rector, who replied:
" Marry you ? Yes, that were a pleasant task,
Your Excellency; but to whom? I ask."
The Governor answered: "To this lady here";
And beckoned Martha Hilton to draw near.
She came and stood, all blushes, at his side.
The rector paused. The impatient Governor cried:
"This is the lady; do you hesitate?
Then I command you as Chief Magistrate."
The rector read the service loud and clear:
" Dearly beloved, we are gathered here,"
And so on to the end. At his command
On the fourth finger of her fair left hand
The Governor placed the ring; and that was all:
Martha was Lady Wentworth of the Hall!
SEE ALSO: Seacoast NH Poems, Ballads & Songs
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