What started as a friendly conversation between a young girl and an army officer on a steamer bound from France to England in 1852 culminated nearly a decade later in one of the biggest scandals Ireland had witnessed in that era.
Maria Theresa Longworth was born into an old, well respected English family in Chetwood, Lancashire in 1833. Although her family were Protestants she was sent at an early age to be educated at a Catholic convent in Boulogne in France. The young officer who engaged her in conversation on her return from Boulogne was Irishman William Charles Yelverton, heir to the peerage of Avonmore of County Cork.
Enchanted by Theresa’s beauty, he accompanied her into London, where he visited her several times before returning to barracks. Although Theresa was impressed by this worldly man, their friendship seemed to have ended as suddenly as it had begun. It was while studying in Naples in 1853 that Theresa re-established contact with Charles Yelverton. The two embarked on a correspondence which was to last several years, and lead directly to their notorious marriage.
During the Crimean War she joined the Sisters of Charity in France, and was posted to that region to nurse the casualties. At this time Yelverton, now a Major, had gone on leave from the Crimea and didn’t return to the area until September of that year. Theresa had been working in a hospital at Galata for about six months when Yelverton returned and came to look for her. Although it was their first meeting since London in 1852 he promptly proposed marriage.She consented, but he demanded that it be a secret marriage, outside of the Catholic Church, and she reversed her decision. Throughout their relationship he lied about his Protestant faith, even attending Mass with her. He then suggested that they get married by a Greek Orthodox priest in Crimea, but she refused to compromise. He claimed that the secrecy was to safeguard a sizeable inheritance and Theresa saw no reason to question this, but she would not yield to his demands.Theresa visited her sister in Wales for several months at the end of 1856, and then moved on to be with her beloved Charles, who was stationed at the Fort of Leith in Edinburgh. Again he proposed marriage, but his continued demand for secrecy ensured Theresa’s refusal. In April 1857 Yelverton tricked his sweetheart into reading the marriage ceremony from a missal, before informing her that under Scottish law, where a priest’s presence was not required, they were now married. She was horrified and refused to accept it, instead fleeing back to Wales.
Before long Yelverton wrote to her, suggesting an acceptable compromise. They would go to Ireland and be wed in a Catholic Church, but it would remain a secret for at least a while. She travelled to Waterford, where she met her fiancé at the start of August 1857. However, they failed to find a priest to marry them in that area and so they headed north.
On 10th August 1857 the couple reached the village of Rostrevor, nestled at the feet of the Mourne Mountains on the northern shore of Carlingford Lough. As the two were strangers and their religions were unconfirmed, the parish priest Fr. Bernard Mooney had to consult with the Bishop of Dromore. When questioned on his religious affiliations, Major Yelverton declared that he was a Roman Catholic, although not a great one. At this time it was illegal for a Catholic priest to marry a Protestant and a Catholic. The Bishop accepted his word and the marriage took place in Killowen Catholic Church outside Rostrevor on 15 th August 1857.
After their honeymoon the couple made their way back to Edinburgh. In the autumn Theresa paid a visit to her close friends, the Thelwalls in Hull, where she was joined by her husband. Over the months Charles and Theresa actually made little secret of their happy marriage. In 1858 Charles and Theresa left England to travel on the continent, but unfortunately Theresa fell ill in Bordeaux, and her husband had to leave her there to return to duty. Theresa recovered with her sister, Madame Lefebrvre, who grew increasingly suspicious of Charles Yelverton’s true motive for maintaining secrecy about the marriage. When Charles failed to answer her letters, Theresa went to Edinburgh to see him but he made excuses to avoid her. She quickly realised that her sister’s misgivings were justified and, when Charles again refused to tell his family about their marriage, Theresa Yelverton wrote to his mother and related the whole story.
The Yelverton family did not reply, but when they confronted their son about the affair he denied all, and was in fact about to marry a widow in Edinburgh. Theresa’s friend, John Thelwall, took up her case and began proceedings on her behalf to demand her share of her husband’s assets, and to claim her position as Lady of Avonmore. Major Yelverton decided to fight the case in open court and the much publicised trial commenced in the Four Courts in Dublin on 16 th January 1861. Theresa remained calm and collected throughout the trial, and her absolute adherence to her original statements won her much admiration.
The jury eventually concluded that both the marriage in the Scottish hotel room and that in Killowen Church were valid, and Major William Charles Yelverton was therefore responsible for his wife’s upkeep. When Theresa Yelverton emerged victorious from the court, she was paraded through Dublin’s streets like a queen.
Not surprisingly, the Yelverton family of Avonmore contested the verdict of the Dublin court and it was later quashed by the House of Lords. Nevertheless, Theresa had satisfied herself and her countless followers, and she continued to use the title of Lady of Avonmore for the rest of her days. She embarked on world-wide journeys which took her as far afield as California and Hong Kong. On 13 th September 1881 Theresa Yelverton died at Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. The building which housed the chapel at Killowen remains standing to this day, although following the erection of a more modern church nearby it became the local primary school.
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