The history of Adeline, the Scandalous Countess

Posted 14th March 2024

Laura Malpas explores the colourful life of Adeline, Countess of Cardigan and Lancastre.

Sometimes a historic character jumps from the page with such personality that they seem alive. Countess Adeline captured her memories of Victorian Society life in her autobiography ‘My Recollections’, written in such a vivid and breathless style that it feels like she is talking directly to us, and what tales she tells!

Adeline Louise Maria Horsey De Horsey was born on Christmas Eve in 1824, to a wealthy family in Berkeley Square, London, the oldest of three children and the only daughter. A socially confident and intelligent child, she was a quick learner, benefitting from having both her own French governess, and the opportunity to learn with her younger brothers’ tutors. Adeline was an accomplished musician, a graceful dancer, and remarkably pretty. As a child she was was welcomed into London’s finest drawing rooms for plays and parties, including occasions attended by the young Princess Victoria who enjoyed listening to Adeline singing Spanish songs accompanying herself on guitar.

At eighteen, awestruck Adeline was presented to the young Queen Victoria, who was only five years older. Adeline was delighted to attend the first fancy dress ball given at Buckingham Palace. She was dressed as a pretty shepherdess and was much admired by both Victoria and Albert.

Sadly, Adeline’s idyllic life ended the following year when her beloved mother caught scarlet fever and died. Adeline kept house for her father and found the official mourning period a difficult contrast from the gaiety of her former life.

As an educated, young, beautiful, wealthy and well born girl she was considered quite the catch on the marriage market and she recalls with satisfaction the many proposals she received. Her father did his best to protect her, which proved difficult as they regularly attended many country house parties, balls and parties. Adeline visited Northamptonshire several times, recalling events held at Apethorpe and Deene Park. She acquired a reputation as an ambitious flirt, and the relish with which she shared the gossip and scandalous goings-on in her memoirs bears out her disregard of conventional behaviour.

In 1848 she met Count Carlos Montemolin, heir to the Spanish throne. He fell passionately in love with Adeline, and she was dazzled at the prospect of becoming the Queen of Spain. The couple shocked Society when they became engaged, but when it became clear that Carlos would not be crowned, Adeline ended their engagement abruptly.

Back at home with Papa, she saw a great deal of her father’s friend, the Earl of Cardigan whom she had known since a child. Cardigan was unhappily married to a divorcee, and had separated, consoling himself with amenable ladies. But he was enchanted by his friend’s beautiful and vivacious daughter. He invited Adeline and her father to a house-party at Deene Park and was smitten as soon as he saw her there. Despite being twenty-seven years her senior and married, Cardigan also dazzled Adeline. He was a Royal favourite, wealthy, and a war hero, having heroically led the infamous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ during the Crimean War. Adeline found him fascinating and fell deeply in love with him too.

It was highly improper, and Queen Victoria never forgave Adeline for it, but Cardigan began courting her, taking her for outings whilst unchaperoned. Lady Cardigan was terminally ill, and this bad behaviour caused much gossip upsetting Adeline’s father and brothers. They pleaded with her to stop, but she refused. She became Cardigan’s mistress, and Adeline began to be shunned by her Society friends, but it did not affect her happiness.

Within the year Lady Cardigan died, and they were free to marry. For propriety, they allowed some time to elapse before setting sail for Gibraltar where they married in the Military Chapel. In December 1858, Adeline, now Countess of Cardigan returned to Deene Park as its mistress, to be greeted by six hundred tenants on horseback accompanying the couple from the railway station to the House. This began the happiest ten years of Adeline’s life.

The new Countess threw herself into country estate life with her husband. She especially enjoyed riding and hunting with the Quorn, Belvoir, Cottesmore and Pytchley, becoming a popular figure in Northamptonshire Society, less concerned with morals than London Society. Cardigan indulged his lively young wife, even building her a ballroom at Deene so she could party in style and kept her mounted on the most elegant horses to show off her graceful horsemanship. Sadly, this blissful time ended abruptly in 1868 when Lord Cardigan died after a fall from a horse. His body lay in state in the ballroom and was viewed by six thousand mourners. An elaborate funeral followed for the war hero with internment in Deene Church.

Lord Cardigan was childless and left everything to his beloved Adeline for her lifetime. Although the estates were heavily mortgaged, she was proud of the improvements she made to the house and estate. Adeline loved Deene inside and out, even its ghosts. She wrote with pride describing the new stables and a riding school she built, and the restoration of Deene Church and the construction of the Brudenell family Chapel to house the grand tomb of her husband. She continued to live mostly at Deene for the rest of her life.

Widowed and wealthy in her mid-forties, the Dowager Countess now enjoyed the status of a courtesan. Queen Victoria’s society had not forgiven her for the scandal of her marriage to the Crimean war hero, but the Prince of Wales’s Set enjoyed her company. She decided to remarry and considered a proposal from Israel Disraeli, whom she had known since childhood. She rejected him because of his halitosis although she liked him well enough.

Holidaying in Paris, Adeline met and married Don Antonio de Lancastre, a Portuguese noble. She enjoyed travelling with him in Lisbon and Paris before returning to Deene Park, apparently needing to attend to estate business. Don Antonio found the countryside uncomfortable, and they spent much of their marriage apart.
Adeline further incurred Queen Victoria’s displeasure by styling herself Countess of Cardigan and Lancastre using both her English and Portuguese titles. The Queen was offended because she herself travelled Europe incognito as the Countess of Lancaster.

Adeline was widowed again in 1898, and now enjoyed her eccentricities to the full. Popular locally and generous with her tenants, she became something of a local tourist attraction, riding and cycling through the area wearing Lord Cardigan’s bright red military trousers. She enjoyed smoking in public, considered most unladylike, as were the steeplechases she organised through the estate graveyard. She continued entertaining at Deene, and famously scandalised her guests by arranging herself elegantly in her coffin, which she kept in the ballroom and asking to be admired. She frittered away the family fortune she had been left, and eventually had to sell off some of her possessions including the stables she had built.

In her last years she dictated her book ‘My Recollections’ a best-selling volume full of scandalous gossip, remaining unrepentant to the last. Adeline died at her beloved Deene Park in 1915 and was interred in the church next to the love of her life, Lord Cardigan.

The final words of her ‘Recollections’: ‘I have seen everything worth seeing, and known everyone worth knowing, and although I am sometimes inclined to say, ‘all is vanity’ yet I think life’s little vanities are the sauce picquante of existence’.

If you want to read more, try ‘My Recollections by the Countess of Cardigan and Lancastre’ reprinted by Leopold Classic Library. Also visit

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