The young Mona Josephine Tempest Stapleton captured the sympathy of people across the world after a tragedy that struck Carlton Towers made her England’s youngest peeress.
Miles Stapleton, Mona’s father, became the 10th Baron Beaumont after his older brother, Henry, died without an heir in 1892. Miles was a cavalryman and a battle-proven veteran who led his dashing Hussars against the German and the Boers in present-day Botswana. After he inherited the family title, he assumed the Barony with energy. He resigned his commission, served as a justice of the peace, and set about modernizing the estate with energy and skill.
Miles married Ethel Mary Tempest soon after he became the Baron of Beaumont. Ethel gave birth to a daughter, Mona Josephine Tempest Stapleton, in 1894. For the first time in decades, a young growing family gave life to Carlton Towers. On one autumn day, Ethel was resting because of her advanced second pregnancy when Miles ventured out after breakfast to go shooting and range the fields. When a passing farmer heard the sudden report of a gun and went to investigate, he found Miles dead, his body lying across the fence he had been climbing when his gun accidentally fired and a bullet barrelled through his right eye and shattered his skull. His body was carried back to Carlton Towers where his wife and young daughter waited for him unprepared for the tragic news.
Just two weeks later, Ethel gave birth to Ivy Mary Stapleton. With two girls surviving the 10th Baron, there was no male heir and the future of the Beamont Barony languished in uncertainty. In the 15th century, the title of the Baron of Beaumont had fallen into abeyance in the absence of a male heir. It took 400 years for a monarch to lift the family from obscurity; Queen Victoria acknowledged the Stapleton family’s claim to the title and restored them to their place in the nobility. After just 50 years of restoration, the Barony of Beaumont once again tottered on the edge of oblivion for nine months until Queen Victoria graciously revived the barony in favor of Mona, the older daughter. “Naturally, a boy had been desired; but failing sons the elder girl became Baroness in her own right, and her sister is heir-presumptive,” summarized a London society magazine.
The House of Beaumont became something of a matriarchy. There were four Baroness Beaumonts living at the same time: The widow of Mona’s grandmother; the widow of her uncle; her mother, Ethel; and the Ethel herself, the child-peeress. Mona, who was too young to even remember her father, was the youngest peeress in England. At just two years old, the toddler Baroness captured the imagination of people across the English-speaking world. The Bethel News in rural Maine and the Chicago Daily Tribune both rejoiced when Queen Victoria bestowed the title on the “diminutive peeress.” A London magazine fawned over Mona, “a winsome little maiden,” who at eight years old debuted as the prettiest of bridesmaids at a high society wedding.
The young Baroness came of age in a period when the role of women in British society was one of the most fraught domestic and political issues. Just before her wedding, a society magazine lauded the 19-year-old Mona for her mild, old-fashioned charm. “One type of modern young woman is apt to look for other kinds of praise: she likes to be called wild, Bohemian, lancée, très moderne; she is abrupt, off-hand, and a little rude when she wants to please (and there is the paradox) after the new fashion.” Baroness Beaumont, to the author’s approval, had not fallen under fashion’s spell. She did not use bad language, and she maintained the mellow dignity expected of a wealthy young noblewoman of a passed generation.
Yet, despite herself, the young Mona embodied one of the many debates over gender and power. She was a “peeress in her own right”: She did not depend on a father or a husband for her title. “No woman, perhaps, has quite such good reason for grumbling at the established order as a peeress in her own right,” reported a London society magazine. She held the hereditary title and would pass it to her children, but she could not serve in the House of Lord’s—as was the birthright of any male peer. “Masculine guardians of masculine law” would not give way to any peeress in her own right.
During her long and happy marriage to the Honorable Bernard Fitzalan-Howard, 16th Duke of Norfolk, Mona had eight children, compensating for the decades of premature death and childlessness that had followed her family for generations. In World War II, she abandoned the role of the typical lady of the nobility and dedicated herself to nursing the wounded as a lauded nurse in the Red Cross.