The Cottage Countess of Great Bolas

12/01/2016 15:22

Written by Marie Kreft

North of the Weald Moors is a tiny rural village called Great Bolas, pretty but unremarkable apart from one story. In the late 18th century, Sarah Hoggins, the 16-year-old milkmaid daughter of a Shropshire farmer, fell in love with the family lodger. John Jones was a landscape painter, or so she thought. They married, lived in Great Bolas for a time and had one child, who sadly died. One day John took Sarah on holiday to Lincolnshire – where he made one or two revelations. He showed Sarah his ancestral home, Burghley, and revealed that he was not John Jones at all, but Henry Cecil, the 1st Marquess of Exeter.
They married again (after all, Henry had wed Sarah under a false name, and perhaps bigamously too) and returned to Great Bolas as Earl and Countess of Exeter. The rest of their lives should have played out happily, but Sarah is thought never to have adjusted to her elevated role in society. She died a few years later, still in her twenties, and is immortalised in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, ‘Lord Burleigh’, part of which goes:

But a trouble weigh'd upon her,
And perplex'd her, night and morn,
With the burthen of an honour
Unto which she was not born.

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