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When Mary Cole, a butcher's daughter, caught the eye of Lord Berkeley, it was as flint to tinder. A libertine and a forsworn bachelor, he was taken aback that the Catholic-reared beauty refused to be his mistress. Within weeks he'd brought her family to bankruptcy. When, still, she eluded him, he devised a theatrical plot to abduct her.
It was then that he knew he could not let her go.
Aided by his corrupt chaplain, Hupsman, the Earl duped his 'shepherdess' with fake nuptials.
Tumbling to the truth, Mary became passionately committed to gaining her eldest son's birthright. With an astonishing grasp of pastoral economy, she repaired the Berkeley fortunes while a succession of children compounded her plight.
Her estranged sisters, meanwhile, were moving among the glitterati of Pitt's England and the New America and their scandalous activities had to be curtailed at the highest level before a legal knot was eventually tied.
Upon Hupsman's death, the temptation to affirm the ‘first marriage' proved too strong for the Earl and Countess and they conspired in a criminal act to ‘find' the registry. The upshot was a sensational trial in the House of Lords in 1811 whose repercussions were to shake the foundations of the Berkeley dynasty for ever and put Mary's life at risk.
Was that marriage a sham? Or was it a timeless truth?
"I have been as much sold as any lamb that goes to the shambles!"
Often she had watched them in the fickle days of spring, skipping about the lush meadows of Gloucester, exulting in the gift of life. Steadily they grew fat and independent of the placid ewes, unaware of the shadow of the butcher's blade, or that they were destined for some rich man's table.
That was long ago, when Mary was a slip of a thing and Pa kept The Swan Tavern at Barnwood and grazed livestock there. He used to send his meat into the city of Gloucester and numbered among his customers many of the great houses of the Vale. They were well-known, the Coles. Folk grumbled about their airs and graces, but William Cole was a respected tradesman who never sold anyone short. He was proud of his three lovely daughters, of whom Mary was the youngest, and had high hopes of his fourth child, his namesake, Billy, despite the shameless way the women of the household mollycoddled him. His wife, too, was a comely body who earned pin money by nursing sick and newborn infants and saw no contradiction in this humble occupation and that state to which she aspired. "For," observed she, "high birth or lowly, tis nought but an accident. Nobility of character is what signifies." Mary possessed a natural reserve and took this dictum to heart, but her sisters were wanton and Cole was relieved when his eldest, Ann, took up with Will Farren, a likely fellow in the same trade as himself, and went to live in Butcher's Row, Westgate, in wedded safekeeping.
Life was simple then. The sun always seemed to be shining. Mary delighted in picking nosegays of sweet peas and lavender from her father's garden and went capering off to school with them, adding poppies and buttercups and Queen Anne's lace along the bridle way.
But in the year 1783, when Farmer George was King and Mary was full-grown, the recent death of old Cole marked a dramatic change in the family's fortune....