Cornelia Lee's Wedding
Ludwell Lee Montague
Note: The following is taken from the October 1972 issue of The Virignia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 80), pp. 453–60
CORNELIA LEE'S WEDDING
As Reported in a Letter from Ann Calvert Stuart
to Mrs. Elizabeth Lee, October 19, 1806
edited by LUDWELL LEE MONTAGUE*
CORNELIA LEE was born in Brussels in May I 780. Her father was William Lee, a son of Thomas Lee of “Stratford.” Her mother was Hannah Philippa Ludwell, a daughter of Philip Ludwell III of “Green Spring,” and also of Stratford-Bow, a suburb of London. Her parents were married at Stratford-Bow in 1769.
William Lee went to London in 1768, when he was twenty-nine, and became there a successful merchant in the Virginia trade. In 1775 he was elected an Alderman of London precisely because he was an American, as an expression of the city's support for the cause of the American colonies. In due course he would have become Lord Mayor. In 1777, however, he abandoned that prospect and entered the service of the Continental Congress as its emissary to Austria and Prussia. His mission was frustrated by the coincident outbreak of war between those two powers. In those circumstances neither was willing to antagonize Great Britain by receiving Lee. The Austrians required him to reside in Brussels, then the capital of the Austrian Netherlands.
In June 1783 William Lee left his wife in Brussels, with their two small daughters, Portia (six) and Cornelia (three), and sailed from Ostend for Virginia with their son, William Ludwell Lee (eight). He went to see to the rehabilitation of his wife's war-ravaged estate, “Green Spring.” In August 1785, in failing health, she sought to reach London, but died in the home of an English friend in Ostend. She was buried in the Ludwell family vault at Stratford-Bow. Friends in London took care of her two little girls until they could be sent to their father in Virginia.
Portia and Cornelia were ten and seven years old when they finally arrived at “Green Spring” in November 1787. Two months later their father sent them to his childless sister-in-law, Rebecca Tayloe, the wife of Francis Lightfoot Lee, to be brought up by her to be proper young ladies. Thus they grew up at “Menokin,” in Richmond County, and were only occasional visitors at “Green Spring.” Their father died there in June 1795 and was buried in the old churchyard at Jamestown.
Portia and Cornelia were nineteen and sixteen in January 1797, when their Uncle Frank and Aunt Becky both died within a few days of each other. Their brother then sent for them to come to live with him at “Green Spring.” The girls, however, decided that it would be better for them to live with a married woman, rather than with a twenty-one-year-old bachelor. The married woman with whom they chose to live was Elizabeth Collins Lee, the wife of their second cousin, Richard Bland Lee, of “Sully” in Fairfax County.1
Portia and Cornelia knew what they were doing when they made this choice. They had already been visitors at “Sully.”2 As young ladies with substantial fortunes, they were no burden upon Richard Bland Lee. Rather the contrary. Moreover, they were welcome company for Elizabeth Collins Lee, a native of Philadelphia, who often remarked upon the solitude of “Sully.” She was not much older than they—twenty-nine in 1797. And it may be that they were already attracted by the liveliness of cosmopolitan Alexandria, which Cornelia later contrasted with the decadence of provincial Williamsburg.3
Among the “Sully” family's nearer neighbors and close friends were the
Stuarts of “Hope Park.” Mrs. Stuart was Eleanor Calvert. She had married,
first, John Parke Custis, the son of Martha Washington. When he died in 1781, George Washington adopted his two younger children, Eleanor (“Nelly”) and Washington.4 His widow subsequently married Dr. David Stuart. Ann Calvert Stuart, born in December 1783, was the first child of this second marriage.
Portia Lee was two years older than Nelly Custis. They exchanged visits, at “Mount Vernon,” “Hope Park,” and “Sully,” and became intimate friends. Cornelia Lee was three years older than Ann Stuart. Cornelia (“Corny”) became the particular friend and confidante of Ann (“Nancy“).
In May 1799 Portia Lee married William Hodgson, an English merchant resident in Alexandria5 At first they lived at 207 Prince Street, but Portia, remembering the “Trees, turf, and pure Country air” of “Menokin” and “Sully,” found intolerable the heat, dust, and noise of the town.6 At twenty-two, she realized that she must maneuver delicately to persuade her thirty-four-year-old merchant husband to share her desire for a place in the country,7 but two years later the Hodgsons moved to “Bellevue,” a plain but commodious house in a twelve-acre yard overlooking the river about a half-mile north of Alexandria.8
After Portia's marriage, Cornelia spent much of her time with the Hodgsons, although she still regarded “Sully” as her home. A result of this separation was that both Portia and Cornelia wrote frequent letters to Elizabeth Lee at “Sully.” In 1804, when the Stuarts moved from “Hope Park” to “Ossian Hall,”9 Ann Stuart also became a correspondent. These letters bear eloquent testimony to the devotion of all three young women to Elizabeth Lee.10
In January 1803 William Ludwell Lee died, unmarried, at the age of twenty-eight, and his sisters became joint heiresses of their father's fortune. Elizabeth Collins Lee reported the news to her brother in Philadelphia.11
As Mother is very fond of and interested in Portia and Cornelia, tell her as she knows them to be the best girls in the world, I must tell her now that they are amongst the richest. Their rich Brother died lately and has left between them an unencumbered fortune of at least fifty thousand pounds, half of which is in money in England.
Thereafter Cornelia Lee, who was the executrix of her brother's will, spent much of her time at “Green Spring” in company with her brother-in-law, William Hodgson, and John Hopkins, a Richmond banker who had an active part in the administration of William Ludwell Lee's estate.12
Ann Stuart complained repeatedly to Elizabeth Lee regarding Cornelia's prolonged absences at “Bellevue” and “Green Spring.” On one occasion she remarked: “Mr and Mrs H are always sick when Corne wants to go anywhere. She might as well have a husband to command her and a family to take care of.”13
At twenty-six in 1806, Cornelia herself must have been thinking about that. It appears that she and Ann had earlier resolved to marry only learned men.14 None of her young beaux, who included a Fitzhugh and a McCarty,15 had measured up to her standard, the memory of her first cousin, Cassius Lee, who had died at Princeton in 1798.16 She had attracted the attention of older men also, including a doctor and a Congressman.17 In 1806 she engaged herself to marry John Hopkins, a widower of forty-six.18
The marriage settlement signed on October 7, 1806, provided that Cornelia Lee's fortune would be held in trust for her by Bushrod Washington and William Hodgson. (Hopkins could not touch it.) The education of Cornelia's children would be the first charge upon Hopkins' own estate, in return for which she waived her right of dower. Finally, John Hopkins contracted to provide Cornelia with a house and carriage in Alexandria, with the requisite number of servants and horses.19
On October 17, 1806, the Alexandria Daily Advertiser contained the following announcement:
Yesterday evening was married, by the reverend Mr. Davis,20 at Bellevue, the residence of William Hodgson, esq., John Hopkins, esq., of Richmond to, Miss Cornelia Lee, daughter of the late William Lee, esq., of Greenspring, in Virginia.
The original of the letter which follows, giving a more circumstantial account of that occasion, has been presented to the Virginia Historical Society by Eleanor Lee Templeman, a great-great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Collins Lee, the lady to whom it was addressed.21
October 19th, 1806
On Thursday the 16th, I left home accompanied by my Sisters22 and Knight;23 we proceeded direct to Bellevue and he went on to Town. Cornelia was busy in decorating her mantlepiece with flowrs, and arranging her Toilet. Mrs Hodgson was employ'd in making, and seeing made, dainties for the evening. That evening, the event of which, has fixed the fate of our amiable Cornelia, most ardently do I hope she may at every future period of her Life, look back and bless the day that saw her Mrs Hopkins. We all dined together and then proceeded to dress, the Miss Fitzgeralds24 and myself were Brides Maids. Cornelia wore a white saten short dress25 and over it a Lace Frock the Sleaves looped up with Pearl, her Necklace and Earrings and a Crape Cap with one white Flower in it, her dress, though expensive, was neat and simple. She looked remarkably well. The Miss Fitzgeralds were in white and your eccentric Friend, wore a Ruby Crape dress, very long train, and trimmed with Lace as she saw a dress of Mrs. Merry's last winter.26 A Brides Maid in Ruby—was exclaimed, by all the party to be a strange event, and surely not proper, but the dress was a very beautiful one, I might not have another opportunity of wearing it, it was a very becoming dress, and Mr R had never seen me in company, therefore, notwithstanding the objections that were made the garment was put on, it had the desired effect, was pronounced elegant, and the wearer most charming.
After seeing the Bride array'd I went to see the Groom, he was dressed in a dark blue Coat, white vest, brownish colour'd inexpressables and white silk Stockings. I was manager of the procession, and having given some instruction to him proceeded to the drawing room to inform the groomsmen of their duty. Frank Lee,27 Dr Daingerfield,28 and Mr Fowle29 were the favoured swains. I took Frank for my partner, and gave Daingerfield to Betsy & Fowle to Fanny; as the stair case is very inconvenient we proceeded down alone. Mr Hopkins then met Cornelia and led her to the drawing room door where we were met by our partners, paired, and followed the Bride. I stood near her, the ceremony proceeded without interruption,30 I took off her glove, the magic ring was put on, and Cornelia Lee pronounced to be the Wife of John Hopkins. We seated ourselves, the Sun set, benignly bright were the last rays that shone on my Cornelia, may the evening of her Life be closed with like serenity.31
About seven the company collected,32 refreshments were handed around, and we commenced dancing in the portico, which was enclosed by Linen ornamented with white paper reaths and lighted up, the effect was very pretty. The Bride danced with Mr Fowle, & Ann Stuart by the recommendation of her partner with John Fitzgerald,33 Betsy Fitz- with the Dr and as the Bride had possession of Fanny's partner I gave her my William.34
A mere enumeration of the Names of the company would afford you no entertainment. I shall therefore only say, that most of the young Men and Women who visit Bellevue were there and the evening passed away very pleasantly, even Frank Lee was galant and appeared quite charming. Mr and Mrs Dick35 were the only married persons present except my dear Sister Law.36
At eleven oclock there was a side Table set with cold Meats and about 1 the company had all left us, and we retired.37
The next day we had to dinner38 Mr & Mrs Herbert,39 Dalton,40 Deblois,41 Dick, and Patten.42 The grooms Men and Mr & Mrs Chevallie,43 my William and Hiort,44 dined very merrily at a side Table. Mr Charles Lee looked very grave, it was wondered what could be the matter with him, I told him it was because I was soon to be married and laughing asked him if he would have objected to becoming my spouse, he hesitated for an answer, Frank laughed, and Hopkins wondered I had not thought seriously of being Mrs Lee.45 Frank awakened in my mind a train of thought which I cherished with great pleasure. He told me that Mr Maffitt46 intended to leave the place where he now resides and purchase a small Farm, that he intends to do the same, that they were to spend their time in the pursuit of agriculture, botany, philosophy & I exclaimed immediately, Oh! I am delighted to hear it, and if I could but persuade Mr M to live in Westmoreland how happy I should be.47 He gave me a very affecting description of his last visit to the seat of your nativity48 and I promised to visit it, and think of what he told me. We did not leave the Table untill sunset, and then returned home, where I fear I shall be obliged to remain untill I leave it for another, if I could but see you! It is too much to expect you to visit me again, and I have it not in my power to visit you, yet only for one day, but I will not urge you, my wishes you must know, William says he had rather have you here than any other person when we are made one. The day is now fixed to be the 30th of this Month. I shall go away in three days and get home as speedily as possible49 to prepare to receive Mr and Mrs Hopkins on their way to Williamsburg. With what delight do I look forward to the time when it will be in your power to visit me. Tell Mr Maffitt I shall hold him to his promise, and feel great confidence in the acceptance of his prayers for the happiness of your
A C STUART
One further note may be added regarding the marriage of Cornelia Lee and John Hopkins. In February 1807 Ann Stuart Robinson, from Westmoreland, and her mother, from “Ossian Hall,” were both visiting Nelly Custis Lewis at “Woodlawn.” Together they went up to the Assembly in Alexandria. Eleanor Calvert Stuart reported on that occasion to Elizabeth Collins Lee at “Sully.” “Cornelia as Bride led off the dance. She looks well and seems quite happy as does her Husband who looks much younger since his Marriage.”50