St Peter’s Church in Ketteringham, Norfolk contains a number of memorials, but perhaps the most curious of them all is the one which is the most westerly of a group of memorials. It is a 1907 memorial to Charlotte Atkyns, who died in Paris in 1836 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole, once found herself caught up in the events of the French Revolution and her memorial inscription further recalls that she was the friend of Marie Antoinette. It was said the she made several brave attempts to rescue Marie Antoinette from prison; and after that Queen’s death strove to rescue the Dauphin of France. She bankrupted the family fortunes in this quest, mortgaging the Ketteringham Hall Estate and claiming to have spent an extraordinary eighty thousand pounds, about fifteen million in today’s money.
On her death, she requested that her body be returned to Ketteringham and a marble slab be placed on the chancel walls. Her relatives of the time, left destitute by her apparent eccentric enthusiasms, understandably failed to carry out either request. With the passage of time, it might also be thought that Charlotte’s Francophile adventures, together with the French name of Boileaus, might indicate a connection between the two families; on this point there remains today in St Peters an ‘Atkyns/Boileaus’ pew in situ. The Boileaus were an old Huguenot family who came to Norfolk by way of Dublin and already owned Tacolneston Hall. They were the ones who bought the bankrupt Ketteringham Hall Estate after Charlotte’s death.
Charlotte Atkyns, née Walpole, was considered by some to be an 18th-century Norfolk eccentric; that is being Norfolk by marriage and residency, not by birth. This, of course, did not stop her from suggesting that she was related to the well-known Walpole family of Norfolk, descendants of Sir Robert Walpole, our first prime minister – she was not!
Charlotte was born in County Westmeath & Roscommon in Ireland around 1758, her father was a William Walpole of Athlone. She became an actress and made her debut in Dublin in January 1776, continuing to perform at various other theatres in the city throughout the remainder of that year. Charlotte made her London stage debut as Leonora in The Padlock by Isaac Bickerstaff at the Crow Street Theatre in London before her Drury Lane debut in October 1777. There she had some modest success before then appearing at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in which she displayed, it seems, a versatility as a singer as well as an actress. The theatre management announced her in such terms via the local newspapers:
In 1778 – 79, and after spending a summer in Bath, Charlotte returned to Drury Lane where “as pretty as an angel” she added dancing to her repertoire of skills. However, after that season she completely gave up the stage – for marriage. The story goes that she captured the attention of Sir Edward Atkyns, of Ketteringham Hall, Norfolk and the grandson of a Lord Chief Justice. Edward and Charlotte married on the 18 June 1779 at St James, Piccadilly, London and were to have two sons, Edward and Wright Edward. Unfortunately, Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole, was never to be accepted by a Norfolk society which considered her to be ‘a common actress’. This situation was compounded by the fact that her husband was beginning to suffer under heavy debts. The couple’s future time abroad was to be put down to financial difficulties, at least by those who doubted her husband’s wisdom in marrying Charlotte. No sooner had Edward and Charlotte moved to France in November 1784, to get away from their ‘insufferable situation’, when Lady Jerningham wrote in a letter from Lille:
“A great many people have taken refuge here, to fly from their creditors in England; among the rest a Norwich family and a Mrs Atkins of Ketteringham. She was a player, a friend of Miss Younger. You may remember to have heard of her, and he was always a great simpleton or else he would not have married her.”
Others were more complimentary. A note preserved in the Folger Library and dated 1790, reads:
“Mrs Atkins, late Miss Walpole of Drury Lane Theatre, is perhaps the most…….female Equestrian. This Lady, whose residence is at Lille in Flanders, frequently rides for an airing….. to Calais, which is 74 miles and returns the following Day with the greatest ease.”
Charlotte personality and facial features were never in doubt, but despite being described as “pretty, witty, impressionable, and good,” she was thought of as an eccentric. This, however, did not stop the wedded couple from being welcomed in France where they made friendships with influential people at the French court. Among these friends was Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, better known as the Duchess of Polignac – she was a close friend to Marie Antoinette. Apparently, from the moment that the Duchess of Polignac introduced Charlotte to Marie Antoinette, Charlotte was enchanted and thereafter was, reputedly, an intense admirer of the Queen. According to one source:
“Atkyns shared first in the Queen’s amusements, then in her griefs, for she was still at Versailles when the Dauphin Louis Joseph died, and [she was still there] when 1789 began the cycle of years so terrible for French Royalty.”
When the French Revolution broke out, in 1789, Charlotte and her husband moved from Versailles to Lille, a city in northern France. Her relationship with the royal family was claimed to have been somewhat close because after the Atkyns began residing in Lille, Charlotte was to become known locally “as a pensioner on the Royal Treasury.” Then, in 1791, the Atkyns began to flit between France and Ketteringham and Charlotte extended her contacts with French émigrés. It was at this time when she was reputed to have been recruited as a spy and agent by her lover, the Royalist Louis de Frotté, a position that she purportedly fulfilled until 1794.
Once Louis XVI was guillotined in January of 1793, it was enough to make any Royalist lose hope of saving the Queen. However, the King’s death is said to have emboldened Charlotte. Apparently, it was then that she came up with an idea to save the Queen because, “Why should she not go in person to Paris and try her chance?” she would claim. Charlotte believed that the same level of surveillance applied to the King would not be applied to Marie Antoinette and this prompted her to think that she might be able to gain access to the Queen at the Temple. She had a plan!
There were several drawbacks to whatever plan that Charlotte’s concocted. Firstly, she was a foreigner and barely spoke French. There was also little support from her close friend Jean-Gabriel Peltier. Peltier had been a blazing revolutionary who suddenly did an about face and became an intense Royalist. He founded a newspaper with the title of “The Acts of the Apostles”, then violently attacked everyone who disagreed with his ideas.
The day after the insurrection of 10 August, Peltier left France and sought refuge in England where he, supposedly, developed a friendship with Charlotte and would do everything in his power to dissuade her from becoming involved in any plot to save Marie Antoinette. Thus, he wrote to her in the following tone, stating:
“You will hardly have arrived before innumerable embarrassments will crop up; if you leave your hotel three times in the day, or if you see the same person thrice, you will become a suspect.”
But, Charlotte was persistent, and her persistence eventually convinced Peltier about her plot to save the Queen, because even “he admitted that the moment was relatively favourable.” However, events were moving quickly in Paris. Before Charlotte could implement her plan, she too began to doubt it’s feasibility, particularly after word reached her that another plot to free Marie Antoinette had recently failed. This resulted in Peltier trying again to dissuade Charlotte from making any attempt to save the Queen:
“If you wish to be useful to that family, you can only be so by directing operations from here (instead of going there to get guillotined), and by making those sacrifices which you have already resolved to make.”
Charlotte, it seems, was not put off by any of Peltier’s words. Instead, it was claimed that she reached Marie Antoinette anyway. For her story to match other facts, it appears that her meeting with Marie Antoinette would have had to occur after Marie Antoinette had been moved from the Temple to “the Conciergerie; that is to say, after August 2, 1793.” Moreover, this meeting occurred because apparently Charlotte “won over a municipal official, who consented to open the doors of the Conciergerie for her, on the condition that no word should be exchanged between her and the Royal prisoner … [and to] wear the uniform of a National Guard.”
Charlotte, supposedly, agreed to these conditions and on the proposed day of her meeting, she appeared carrying a bouquet, which she offered to the Marie Antoinette. However, because of the stress of the event, Charlotte accidentally dropped a note that was to be presented with the bouquet to Marie Antoinette. As the municipal guard rushed forward to pick it up, Charlotte bent down, grabbed, it and swallowed it. Unsurprisingly, she was immediately ordered out. However, despite this failure, she did not give up. Through friends and persistence, she was able to obtain another meeting. This one was said to be a private interview with Marie Antoinette, and it was reported that Charlotte “had to pay a thousand louis for that single hour.” This time she planned to change clothes with Marie Antoinette so that the Queen would leave the Conciergerie undetected while Charlotte remained behind. If she thought her plan would ever work, she misjudged an obstinate Marie Antoinette:
“[Marie Antoinette] would not, under any pretext, sacrifice the life of another, and to abandon her imprisoned children was equally impossible to her. But what emotion she must have felt at the sight of such a love … She could but thank her friend with tearful eyes and commend her son, the Dauphin, to that friend’s tender solicitude.”
All this, and much else, was done at the expense of her large fortune which enabled her to bribe officials, pay messengers to travel between London and Paris and charter a ship to hover near the coast for months waiting to transport possible fugitives. Charlotte, apparently, would take no rest until she had expended all her energy and her wealth trying to free Marie Antoinette and those close to her. This quest of hers, however, failed and her ‘friend’ the Queen was executed by the guillotine at 12.15pm on 16th October in 1793, famously apologising to the executioner for stepping on his foot while climbing the scaffold. After Charlotte’s husband, Edward, died in 1794 she may again have gone to France to attempt further rescues of the remaining family, but if there were any attempts they were unsuccessful. But, she continued to promote the émigré cause and mortgaged Ketteringham in 1799 to raise funds for this purpose.
Hers remain a wonderful and somewhat dramatic story – given her past background as an actress, – but unfortunately it is one with more than a few holes in it. Many people, in fact, have claimed that Charlotte’s story, about attempting to rescue Marie Antoinette, was false and that the story came from a “cracked old woman who dreamed that she had been the friend of Marie Antoinette.” Ultimately, it seems, that all the source material for Charlotte’s ‘adventures’ come from Charlotte herself. Backing up all this are indications that Charlotte wasn’t even in Paris in 1793 as she claimed. Also, there is no independent evidence of her ever having been at Versailles, or even meeting Marie Antoinette; the only reference to their friendship appear in letters, apparently from eminent people but which Charlotte actually wrote to herself. As it was, papers from Frotté show that he believed her story and there was also, supposedly, a mysterious Countess McNamara, who had spoken of Charlotte’s plot; but, both Frotté and McNamara had, apparently, obtained their information from Charlotte herself! Since then, one 20th century investigation of her story also came to the conclusion that the book written by Frédéric Barbey about Charlotte’s plot relied on faulty evidence:
“There is no other evidence of her [Atkyns] ever having been at Versailles, or ever having seen the Queen, except a few allusions to their friendship in some letter addressed to Mrs. Atkyns, of which M. Barbey has found a large collection in the office of an unnamed Paris lawyer ….., assuming their existence and authenticity. His quotations from these letters suggest that Mrs. Atkyns was in the habit of writing letters from eminent persons to herself.”
As for being the “daughter of Robert Walpole” – as her 1907 memorial in Ketteringham’s church of St Peters has it – it seems to be an assumption by subsequent generations that Charlotte was related to the man who became Britain’s first Prime Minister. It is an assumption without any basis in fact; not only did Walpole never have a daughter called Charlotte, he died 13 years before Charlotte was born. His son was also named Robert, but he had no daughter either. All one can say is that the ‘real’ Charlotte and her husband certainly spent time in France from November 1784, shortly before the Revolution, but they were more concerned with getting out of financial difficulties than political intrigue.
After the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814 Charlotte petitioned unsuccessfully for reimbursement of more than £30,000 which she claimed to have expended in the Bourbon cause.
Charlotte’s petitioning took place around 1823 and it was in that year when she gave Ketteringham Hall to her sister-in-law, Mary Atkyns, in return for an annuity, such were Charlotte’s reduced circumstances. Then, about 1830, Charlotte moved permanently to Paris, where she died on 2 February 1836 with her loyal German maid by her side. Charlotte was buried somewhere in Paris in an unmarked grave, knowing that her fortune had all but gone having remortgaged Ketteringham and spent the modern-day equivalent of £15 million during her, supposing, reign as a female Scarlet Pimpernel. Charlotte Atkyns Will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 26 July 1838.
The marble plaque inside St Peter’s at Ketteringham reads:
“In memory of Charlotte, daughter of Robert Walpole and wife of Edward Atkyns esq of Ketteringham. She was born 18 and died at Paris 1836 where she lies in an unknown grave. This tablet was erected in 1907 by a few who sympathised with her wish to rest in this church. She was the friend of Marie Antoinette and made several brave attempts to rescue her from prison and after that Queen’s death, strove to save the Dauphin of France.”
FOOTNOTE: During the French Revolution, various tales circulated about Charlotte and her activities. Some claimed she acted as a spy for counter-revolutionaries; others that her heart was set on freeing Marie Antoinette from imprisonment and spiriting her and her son out of the country to safety. Unfortunately, the sources for most of these tales date from long after the Charlotte’s death and are heavily laced with romanticism. All that matters now is for readers to note that Lady Charlotte Walpole Atkyns did gain something of a reputation for being an enthusiastic supporter of causes close to her heart; all be it in an eccentric and ‘fanciful’ manner. She did so in comfort and until she had spent most, if not all, of her husband’s money!