Gretna Green, Penelope
Maybe I was fascinated by the name, Ballynatray. It’s in Ireland, near places with irresistible names such as Kilkenny, Limerick and Cork; and it’s not even a long way to Tipperary. Or maybe it was the fact that one of Ballynatray’s citizens, Penelope Smyth (1815-1882) wound up as a main player in one of the many romantic intrigues that took up so much royal time in the closing decades of the Bourbon dynasty’s rule in southern Italy—that is, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Young Penelope (photo insert, right) visited Naples with a sister in 1835 to spend the winter. They were guests of William Temple, ambassador to the Bourbon court and the brother of Henry Temple (aka Lord Palmerston, who would later be British Prime Minister).
At the time of her visit, Ferdinand II had been king for about five years. His brother, Carlo, Prince of Capua, was a notorious ladies’ man and, from all accounts, a totally exuberant and likable fellow. He was also an Anglophile, especially when he saw Penelope for the first time. Carlo and Penelope decided to get married, at which point the king expressed disapproval. He opposed Carlo’s marriage to a commoner and, at most, he said the royal house would recognize it as a so-called “morganatic” union; that is, the wife would not be made a royal nor would their children inherit any titles. (That was not particularly rare; even the king’s—and Carlo’s—grandfather, Ferdinand I, had entered into such a union on his second marriage). No dice, said Carlo and Penelope; we want all or nothing at all. Fine, said Ferdinand—nothing it is.
Carlo and Penelope eloped and headed for the Vatican States, then France, Spain and, finally England, all with the encouragement and financial help of the king’s first wife, Maria Christina of Savoy (1812-1836). She was a saint, (really—she was beatified in 1872), but she died very young and support from her dried up. Ferdinand further put the financial screws to his renegade brother by tying up his funds in Naples.
In spite of all that, Carlo and Penelope did what many young lovers do: they went to Gretna Green in Scotland and were married in the famous Blacksmith's Shops like so many other runaway star-crossed youngsters. They were then married in a religious ceremony in London, all the time refusing Ferdinand’s offer of “morganatic” recognition. The Annual Register of 1836 contains a lengthy item on efforts of the King of Naples to petition British courts to prevent the two from getting married. King Ferdinand’s legal ploy was that his brother, Carlo, as royalty, could not get married without his King’s (i.e., Ferdinand’s) consent. The British courts decided, sensibly, that there was really nothing to do since the two had not only already been married legally in Gretna Green, but on two earlier occasions after their elopement, once in Rome and again in Madrid. So they were married for the fourth time.
They spent the rest of the tenure of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (i.e. until 1861) being hounded by creditors and moving from England to France and Malta, living by their wits and on the generosity of others. They had two children, Francesco and Vittoria. Disraeli met the couple in 1838 and remarked how lovely Penelope was and how she had Carlo absolutely wrapped around her little finger.
When King Ferdinand II died, his son (Carlo’s nephew), Francis II, ascended to the throne of Naples. He had every intention of restoring his uncle’s funds and setting things right. He ran out of time, however, when Garibaldi kicked in the door of the kingdom before Francis even had time to warm up the throne. Garibaldi confiscated all Bourbon monies and property, and with the final defeat of Bourbon forces at the siege of Gaeta, the kingdom was through.
Before his own death in 1862, Carlo went to court (in the new United Italy) in Torino and sued—as a victim of the Bourbons(!)—to get his property or at least some money back. He died, however, and the question of what was to become of Penelope was solved by the generosity of king Victor Emanuel, the first king of the new nation. He gave Penelope a royal mansion in the town of Marlia in Tuscany. She lived there until her death on December 15, 1882. She was not particularly well-liked by people in the area (who had been violently anti-Bourbon and pro-all-Italian), and she was troubled by the mental illness of her son, Francesco, the “crazy prince,” as he was known to locals. Penelope Smyth was buried on the premises of the Marlia estate.
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