ON the occasion of his proposal of marriage my husband’s speech to me was I daresay one of the most singular a woman ever heard from a man. We were walking by the Wye, which was in a green spate. A great house came into view, its windows reflecting silver winter light and its chimneys like pillars to hold up heaven. John stopped and said, ‘That is Llangoed Castle. Edward Williams has it but I will buy it from him and there we will live. Will it suit you?’ I laughed and replied, “It will, very well - but will we be married or scandalously eloped?” John had recently been much in the gossip in London for fighting with a mob while he was escorting the Prime Minister. In truth, John was seldom out of the gossip in London, but now he looked at me with intensity, sank down to one knee, took my hands in his and began to speak. “Mary,” he said, “You see before you one of the greatest sinners of the world. I never go to church. I do go to the Hellfire Club. I never pray or give to the poor. I have been with many women. You will not know them but I could name them all, and they number 37 - wives, virgins, a nun and two sisters among them: I have been an astounding fornicator. I have fought eight duels and won all of them, wounding six men and grievously maiming two more, sometimes in the defence of my honour, but more often in salve of my pride. There is not a liquor in Britain I have not drunk to the dregs and I have laid waste to inns, taverns and one apothecary shop while in drink.
The Bible is almost a foreign text to me
The Bible is almost a foreign text to me but I have made a great study of the Devil’s Picture Book. The familiarity I have achieved thereby has allowed me a skill at cards with which I have amassed some fortune, and you know I have Chilton Park and its estate in Wiltshire; with sensible investments in the West Indies and hard work in England I will in four years have enough to buy the Castle twice over. Oh Mary, I can only offer myself to you as I am and will be: I do not ask you to accept what I have been. But I will swear to go no more to women, to fight no more duels, to give up gaming and street battling, to turn from cards altogether, to love you and cherish you and furnish you with every ease, happiness and stimulation as may be in my power, to be a true husband to you, and a noble father to our children. There is no thing on earth I love as I love you.
You hold my life and all my hopes in your hands
You hold my life and all my hopes in your hands. Will you love me, and marry me, and live with me, until the grave shall rest us, and heaven take you, and the other place, perhaps, have me? If you cannot accept I will understand, but my life will be an enduring winter, and Hell hold no fear for me. Will you marry me, Mary?” I do not believe a woman with blood in her veins could have refused him. When you hear Truth you know it, as I knew it then. My father objected, of course, and so we waited until he passed on before we travelled to Gretna Green and made our vows. Within four years we had four children and the Castle. No one believed that John would change his nature - and perhaps he did not, but he did change his deeds, maintaining only his mighty energies. Instead of duelling he took up litigation, and was fearsomely successful. He never played cards again. He would sometimes drink but no more than was decent, except on rare occasion. There were no more whores, wives, nuns or virgins. One he had known, Charlotte H-, who was cast out by her husband and left with nothing - he having discovered she had known John before him through her diary (commit nothing to paper that you would not have read by all the world!) - came begging to John in despair and disgrace.
John cared for her as much as he loathed the man and so it was his pleasure to install her in a property he had completed on a high hill at Grwyne Fechan - the Hermitage.
It was a remote place
It was a remote place John had intended to let or sell to a gentleman. None wanted it, and so he had a road built across the mountains and let Charlotte live there, charging her nothing. It was widely speculated that she was his mistress, and ‘Macnamara’s road’ a highway to her bed, but neither John or I were troubled by the slanders, ‘She was once’ being too complicated a formula for provincial tongues, who naturally found ‘She is’ much easier. Only one scandal hurt us in all our happy years at the Castle, when Mary our daughter ran away with her brother Arthur’s tutor. John sank very low, saying he had fallen from the summit of felicity to the lowest point of misery. It took many discussions and reminders of his own transmutation, from wild blade to matchless husband to bring him to the rueful view that Mary was a Macnamara too, and would one day come good. ‘Who are we, John, to disbelieve in redemption?’ I asked him, and he laughed at last.
John only had one regret
That scandal aside, John only had one regret, which was that he was never successful in joining Mr Pitt in Parliament, for they were great friends and John would have been a mighty support to the Prime Minister. He made a happy man, in his later years. A young person came to see him with the idea of making a biography of John’s life - a project never completed. This person asked John if there was a secret to his many successes. John answered: “Reputation! When they heard that I had had the hearts of beautiful women, women were intrigued to meet me. When they knew I fought duels eagerly my opponents felt feeble in their arms before I raised my sword. When they knew I cared not for loss or gain card players folded their hands. And when they knew I would die before I would settle their suits, plaintiffs wilted. Not even death can undermine reputation - time only hardens and extends it. You will see. When I am gone I will be thought larger, wilder, greater and more dangerous than any man could ever be. Only be sure that I am buried like a Viking with my best horse and hound, and in the most spacious grave in Wales!” And then that old man winked at me, and took my arm, and we went in for tea.
Horatio Clare 2016
Illustrations - Jane Matthews
How to experience this legend: Once Upon A Time in Wye Valley
This walk is based from PENGENFFORDD, on the A479 between Crickhowell and Talgarth. This is a mountain walk in every sense of the word, particularly if you take the long option. A significant portion of the route is along an exposed ridge at an altitude of between 600 and 700 metres, and you will need a reasonable level of fitness, good navigation skills and appropriate clothing and footwear. If you are unsure about what this entails, please seek advice
DISTANCE: Short route = 22kms return
Long route = 28kms
HEIGHT GAIN: Short route = 500 metres
Long route = 650 metres
STARTING POINT = SO174296 on OS
Explorer OL13 or Landranger 161
A mixture of good tracks and muddy paths, with some long ascents. Parts of the long route are steep and rocky. Fit parties should allow 6 hours (short) or 8 hours (long).
Cars should be parked in the car park at the Dragon’s Back Inn (also known as the Castle Inn) on the eastern side of the main road through Pengenffordd (on the right if travelling from Crickhowell). The landlord charges for parking here, and there is an honesty box in the car park.