Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Tragic Tale of the Diplomat's Daughter

Benjamin Bathurst, wherever and however he went, left behind a wife and three children – a son and two daughters. 

The middle child, Rosa, was known as the ‘the Angel Girl’ for her beauty and grace. In the Roman season of 1823-1824, she was staying with her uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Aylmer, at their home in Rome. It had been a particularly severe winter, so Spring was gratefully welcomed and on the morning of March 16th 1824, the Aylmers, their niece and the Duc de Montmorency-Laval, the French Ambassador, gathered to enjoy a ride on the Campagna. When the horses were brought out, it was noticed that Lord Aylmer’s was lame, so Montmorency kindly offered to lend a horse to the Lord. Aylmer, who was recovering from a recent illness, was disinclined to risk taking their planned ride on an unfamiliar mount, so it was decided that the party would take a gentler route. Montmorency’s groom dismounted and gave his horse to Aylmer, then left on foot for the French embassy where he would take another horse, arranging to meet the rest later at the Ponte Molle. 

Rosa Bathurst

With Rosa and Montmorency out in front, and Lord and Lady Aylmer following, with a nervous English girl who was also staying with Lady Aylmer, and her English groom, bringing up the rear, the riders made their way round by Villa Borghese and by the Austrian College, a longer route which would give the Duc’s man time to make his rendezvous. The younger riders were keen to ride their horses at a canter, so the Duc offered to guide them through a vineyard to some open land, but when they arrived at it, the gate to the vineyard was unexpectedly locked. The Duc knew of a narrow path around the vineyard, between it and the river Tiber, and he led them to it, going in front with Lord Aylmer, Rosa following, with Lady Aylmer and the nervous English girl and her groom at the rear. Lady Aylmer asked the girl to dismount and lead her horse along the narrow path, which was overhung with bushes and wound from side to side. 

English Tourists on the Campagna

Lord Aylmer had ridden back, to assure the women that only a few yards ahead the path widened and was much easier going, but as he did so, Rosa’s horse took fright and tried to turn around. Lady Aylmer called out to Rosa, warning her not to let the mare turn, but it was halfway round when it lost its footing and it started to slide off the path and down the steep bank into the Tiber. Lady Aylmer jumped from her horse and tried to grab Rosa, but it was too late. Still in the saddle, Rosa fell into the river, which was swollen with Spring melt water from the mountains and running in spate. Still in his coat, Lord Aylmer dived into the waters and attempted to reach his niece, but the flow was too strong for him, although he was a good swimmer he had been weakened by his recent illness. He made for the shore, stripped off his coat and waistcoat and went back in, but the girl was gone. Lady Aylmer ordered the nervous English girl and her groom back to Rome, to raise the alarm, and, their own horses having run off, the Aylmers set off on foot for the Ponte Molle. 

Ponte Molle by Piranesi

The Duc, suspecting nothing, had ridden ahead to meet his groom. In great distress, with old Lord Aylmer suffering from the cold and wet and from his great exertions, the couple stumbled on, until they met Lady Coventry, whom in their grief they barely recognised, who rode ahead and returned with a carriage, into which they were hardly able to mount. Lady Aylmer lay upon her husband, to try to warm him, and they were brought to home, where the servants cut off his sodden clothes and got him into bed. It was many months before he fully recovered. Boats were sent out to search for Rosa, and the Duke of Devonshire organised men to look for her. A reward of £50 was posted, but there was no sign of the girl. Roman society went into mourning, and many elegiac verses were written about the tragic loss. The Aylmers felt they could no longer live in Rome, so with Mrs Bathurst and Emmeline, her remaining daughter, they retired to Geneva.

The following October, Sir Charles Mills, a friend and admirer of Rosa, was returning to Rome from Naples, and passing the Ponte Molle he stopped his coach, and went to walk on the banks of the Tiber, in memory of the lost girl. Coming to the point of the bank where the horse had fallen, he noticed two peasants on the opposite bank pulling a piece of blue cloth in the sand. He called to them to stop and made his way back to the bridge, crossed the river and went down to the place. He called for spades to be brought, and carefully uncovered the body of Rosa Bathurst, still dressed in her blue riding habit, with her bonnet still knotted under her chin and her rings still on her fingers. It appeared she was sleeping – her hair and clothing were just as they had been in life, apart from a small bruise on her forehead. The Minister of Hanover and the Charge d'Affaires of France took charge of the body until the family arrived back in Rome, when the girl was buried at the spot where she had perished, and where her mother placed a monument in her honour. On it was written,
“Beneath this stone are interred the remains of Rosa Bathurst who was accidentally drowned in the Tiber on the 16th March 1824, whilst on a riding-party, owing to the swollen state of the river and her spirited horse taking fright. She was the daughter of Benjamin Bathurst, whose disappearance when on a special mission to Vienna some years since was as tragical as it is unaccountable—no positive account of his death ever having been received by his distracted wife. His daughter, who inherited her father's perfections, both personal and mental, had completed her sixteenth year when she perished by as disastrous a fate.”

The Monument to Rosa Bathurst

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