Who Were the Earls of Anglesey?

I recently bought a copy of John Speed’s 17th century map of Anglesey, to add to my collection of Anglesey Maps. An exquisite, highly decorated map, it was engraved from Speed’s drawings by Jodocus Hondius and first published in 1611 by Sudbury and Humble. They published several editions through the early 1600s, including one in which the descriptive text and index of placenames on the back was in Latin rather than English, for sale to the Continent. By 1676 the plates had been bought by Bassett and Chiswell, who produced a new edition, often with slight modifications to the maps. Most noticeable was the addition of the coats of arms of notable local families.

Coats of Arms

My new map is a Bassett and Chiswell edition, so I sat down to have a closer look at it, particularly the coats of arms. There were two, for Christopher Villiers and Arthur Annesley, the Earls of Anglesey. Who?? In my years of studying Anglesey’s history, I’ve never heard of them, and looking through my extensive collection of Anglesey history books I can only find the Earl of Anglesey mentioned in a single sentence.

Well, unlike the Marquesses of Anglesey (the Paget family of Plas Newydd, who were also the Earls of Uxbridge), the Earls of Anglesey seemed to not have any connection to the island whatsoever. It was just a handy title that a king could hang on one of his favoured courtiers.

Christopher Villiers (far right), with his brothers and spouses. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Christopher Villiers (far right), with his brothers and spouses. © National Portrait Gallery, London

The title was first bestowed on Christopher Villiers. Born in 1593, he was the son of Sir George Villiers, High Sheriff and MP in Leicestershire. He and his brothers became close to the court of King James VI and I, and Christopher (or Kit as he was known in court) became Gentleman of the Bedchamber and later Master of the Robes to the King. The king granted him the titles of Earl of Anglesey and Baron Villiers of Daventry in 1623. When he died in 1630 the title passed to his only son Charles, but he died childless in 1661. The title then became extinct.

Arthur Annesley, 1st Earl of Anglesey. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Arthur Annesley, 1st Earl of Anglesey. © National Portrait Gallery, London

However, the title was resurrected just two months later for another family. Arthur Annesley was born in Dublin in 1614, son of Francis Annesley, 1st Viscount Valentia. His father’s family was from Nottinghamshire, but he moved to Ireland at the time of the rise of the Anglo-Irish landowners. After education at Magdalen College, Oxford, and admission to Lincoln’s Inn Arthur became a Parliamentarian, first for Radnorshire then later for Dublin and Carmarthen. He initially sided with the parliamentarians during the English Civil War, but towards the end of the Protectorate his sympathies turned royalist and he was involved in the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. He was rewarded by being made Earl of Anglesey and Baron Annesley of Newport Pagnel, Buckinghamshire in April 1661. He filled many offices of state through his life, including Lord Privy Seal.

After his death in 1686 the title passed to his son James, also a parliamentarian and landowner. He died just four years later, and his eldest son James became Earl. James died in 1701, having just one daughter, so the earldom passed to his younger brother John, who also died without a son in 1710. The youngest brother Arthur then became the 5th Earl of Anglesey. He was a prominent politician like his grandfather, being a member of the British Parliament for Cambridge University, and of the Irish Parliament for New Ross, near his estates in Co. Wexford. He was also Vice-Treasurer and Paymaster General in Ireland and Governor of County Wexford. He died childless in 1737.

The 6th Earl of Anglesey was Arthur’s cousin Richard Annesley. He is known for his rather murky dealings surrounding claims to titles and legitimacy of marriages; the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls him a “kidnapper and bigamist”. Before becoming Earl of Anglesey he took the title of 5th Baron Altham in 1727 after the deaths of the previous barons, his father and elder brother Arthur. However, his brother’s son James, who may or may not have been illegitimate (the identity of his mother was disputed) and who had later become estranged from his father, also had a claim to the title. Richard arranged to have the young teenager James kidnapped and sent off to America as an indentured servant. James managed to escape and make his way back to England 15 years later, where he tried to claim the title. He initially won his case in court, but it was overturned on appeal and Richard continued as the 5th Baron Altham and, by that time, Earl of Anglesey. This incident is thought to have influenced Robert Louis Stevenson for part of the plot of his novel Kidnapped.

Richard was “married” three times, although the legitimacy of the marriages was disputed. He abandoned the first wife, Ann Proust, and was separated from the second, Ann Simpson, based on his cruelty. It seems he married the second Ann when he was still legally married to the first. His third marriage to Juliana Donovan produced two sons and two daughters.

When Richard died in 1761 his titles, including the title Earl of Anglesey, were to have passed to his son Arthur, but a distant cousin, Constantine Phipps, 1st Baron Mulgrave, claimed that the marriage between Richard Annesley and Juliana Donovan was not legitimate, and he therefore should take possession of the titles, given he was a grandson of the 3rd Earl. The court ruled that the marriage certificate was forged and declared all the English titles for the family extinct. This was the end of the line for the Earls of Anglesey.

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