Caroline Norton was a Victorian campaigner for the Rights of Women at a time when they had none. She married George Norton, brother of 3rd Lord Grantley, and was the mother of 4th Lord Grantley – making her the Great Great Great Grandmother of the current Lord Grantley.
Using the archive of letters, drawings and poetry we have at Markenfield, we aim to make Markenfield Hall a hub of knowledge about Caroline – to make her a household name once more, and to give her the respect she always deserved.
Caroline, in the words of her biographer Dr Diane Atkinson
Markenfield Hall is joyously celebrating the beauty, the brilliance, and the bravery of Caroline Norton.
Caroline Sheridan, grand-daughter of the great comic playwright and Whig Member of Parliament, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was born in 1808. In 1827 a disastrous marriage was made for her by her impoverished widowed mother to George Chapple Norton, whose family owned Markenfield Hall. George’s drunken violence and emotional abuse ruined the marriage. The consequence of their ill-starred union were the legal reforms made in English parliamentary law in 1839, 1857 and 1870.
Caroline Norton was a poet and songwriter, a society beauty before and after her marriage. George Norton was the younger brother of 3rd Lord Grantley (whose portrait hangs in the Great Hall) who had inherited the title from an uncle. Grantley’s malign influence would prove to be the bane of Caroline’s life for 40 years.
In 1831 George Norton instructed his wife to persuade the Home Secretary, later Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to secure him a well-paid position as a police magistrate. This had far-reaching and painful consequences for Caroline. She fell madly in love with Melbourne, a handsome, charming and intelligent man – everything her husband was not. A ‘criminal conversation’ court case ensued, (the legal term for adultery) and while George Norton lost the case, Caroline – despite her innocence – lost everything.
She was left with only the clothes she stood up in, but her greatest loss was that of her three sons, Fletcher, seven, Brinsley, five, and Charles aged three, into the ownership of her cruel vengeful husband. Caroline’s desperate attempts to see her sons – whom she had no right to see and as their mother was not their parent in the eyes of the law – caused her to use her pen and go to into battle with the English legal system. She campaigned for separated wives to be allowed to see their children, helped to make it easier for wives to escape bad marriages, and enabled women to retain some of their property on marriage.
The three pieces of feminist legislation which changed the lives of wives and mothers for ever were the Infant Custody Act (1839), the Matrimonial Causes Act (1858) and the married Women’s Property Act of 1870.
One extraordinary aspect of Caroline’s life was her knowledge that she would not benefit from the legal changes for which she fought so hard – she knew that, but did it for the cause of women.
Caroline was one of the most selfless women I wish I had known. Today – every time a mother is given custody of her children, or is successful in her application for financial support from her ex-husband or partner – Caroline’s struggle with George Norton and her legal successes should be saluted. Many women have had bad marriages, and have suffered, frightened to speak out for fear of violence and of society’s disapproval, but Caroline would not and did not give in.
When she died in 1877 her once scandalous and then virtuous reputation faded fast. Now everyone should now about Caroline Norton and her life and work, and every time a woman makes one step forward in securing justice and freedom, thank Caroline.