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Painting of Lord Mytton riding a bear

Are these the most eccentric aristocrats from British history?

Image: Painting of Lord Mytton riding a bear | Public Domain

Tally ho! The British aristocracy have always had a reputation for being a touch ‘different’ to the rest of us mere mortals. Some, however, take being unique to another level. From hosting lavish dinner parties for dogs to converting cars into musical instruments, here are some of the most eccentric aristocrats from British history.

1. Matthew Robinson, 2nd Baron Rokeby

It was a visit to Germany as a young man that changed Robinson’s life and earned him a reputation as one of the 18th century’s most eccentric aristocrats. It was there that he learned about the ‘health benefits’ of saltwater bathing and it became an obsession that dominated the rest of the nobleman’s life.

Eschewing the London high life, Robinson lived on the Kent coast where he became something of an attraction, swimming in the icy water of the sea with scant regard for his safety. Indeed, he had to be rescued on several occasions. As he grew older, he let his beard grow down to his knees, further enhancing his reputation as a mad old recluse. Rumours circulated that he was insane and even a cannibal; in reality, Robinson was just a harmless old toff with an incredibly stubborn commitment to one particular thing. And who knows? He might have been right about this saltwater bathing thing all along as he lived to the grand old age of 88.

2. Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater

Francis Egerton was a reclusive aristocrat who shunned the company of others but, bizarrely, still loved a dinner party. His solution to the problem of not wanting people there was typically eccentric - he threw parties for his dogs instead.

Egerton filled his house with cats and dogs and treated the dogs to formal dinners. The pampered pooches would be dressed up in elaborate costumes and fed the finest foods before being allowed to lounge around on the Earl’s expensive furniture. It was certainly one way of avoiding his fellow humans.

Towards the end of his life, Egerton became a fan of hunting. Unfortunately, due to being confined to a wheelchair, his new hobby involved blasting rabbits and birds to bits as they were released from cages in his garden. He died in 1803 at the age of 64, taking his dukedom with him as the last of his line.

3. John ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton

Inheriting his fortune aged 20 in 1818, John ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton became one of the most notorious boozers, womanisers, gamblers and all-round hellraisers of the early 19th century. His exploits were legendary, from riding his horse around fashionable hotels and doling out extravagant sums of money to strangers, to performing stunts such as naked horse-riding and arriving at his own dinner party atop a bear. Towards the end of his life, he even attempted to cure a bout of hiccups by setting himself on fire.

Sadly, his life as a boisterous roustabout couldn’t last. By 1831, Myttin had burned through his money. He ran off to France for three years, and upon his return, he was slung in debtor’s prison. He died of alcohol-related complications in 1834 at the age of 38.

4. William John Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland

Painfully shy and stinking rich, Cavendish required his servants and staff to communicate with him mainly through notes posted in boxes throughout his residence, which he had stripped bare of fittings and fixtures.

The true extent of his introversion and eccentricity manifested itself in his country house, Welbeck Abbey. As his paranoia intensified, Cavendish had 15 miles of tunnels constructed under his house and grounds so he could get about without ever going outside. He also had several rooms constructed underground including an observatory, a library and a vast ballroom, all of which were painted bright pink.

Rumours dogged the duke for decades that he was stark raving mad, but throughout his life, he ran his businesses well and was seen as a good employer. He died in London in 1879 at the age of 79.

5. Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey

Paget inherited his title and a network of vast estates that brought in an enormous income at the age of 24. This meant he could indulge his passion for being one of the great show-offs, scandalising high society with his penchant for feminine fashion and the lavish sums he spent on clothes and jewellery.

Paget was a lover of the performing arts, so much so that he blew a huge fortune founding his own theatre company and building a no-expense-spared theatre at his country house, where he was, of course, always the star of the show. It couldn’t last. By 1904 he was out of money and vastly in debt. He passed away in Monte Carlo with his ex-wife - who had divorced him for his outrageous behaviour - by his side. He was just 30 years old.

6. Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson

Tyrwhitt-Wilson’s eccentricities emerged at an early age when, after finding out that dogs quickly learn to swim if you throw them in water, he threw a dog out of a window to see if it would learn to fly. It didn’t. He inherited the family estate at the age of 35 and shared his mansion, Faringdon House, with his male lover, his lover's wife and their son.

Perhaps to atone for his earlier treatment of dogs, he filled his home with dogs that he would dress up in elaborate costumes and hosted lavish dinner parties for them. He also dyed pigeons bright colours and threw tea parties for horses, because why not?

Another one of his favourite pastimes was driving around his estate, in a Rolls Royce that he had fitted with a clavichord so he could play music on the go while wearing a pig mask to scare the locals. Tyrwhitt-Wilson died in 1950 at the age of 66 and left his estate to his lover who was almost three decades his junior.

7. William Francis Brinsley Le Poer Trench, 8th Earl of Clancarty

Unusually for the son of a wealthy aristocrat, William Trench was encouraged to make his own way in the world. He did just that, working for many years in advertising. However, when the time came to put the world of ordinary mortals behind him and enter the House of Lords, Trench brought his eccentric hobby along with him to the mother of parliaments.

Trench had developed a keen interest in UFOs, becoming the editor of Flying Saucer Review in the 1950s and founding the UFO organisation, Contact International. He entered the Lords in 1975, and soon set up the UFO Study Group, which brought his obsession into the heart of government. Often ridiculed, especially for his firm belief that the Earth is hollow, Trench stuck to his guns in the face of much derision from peers and the public alike. He died in 1995 and is seen by many as one of the world’s foremost experts on UFOs.

8. Alexander Thynn, 7th Marquess of Bath

The most recent aristocrat on this list, Thynn was a free-loving hippy who also happened to be the owner of one of the most successful stately homes in the UK - Longleat and its attached safari park. The money he made from Longleat allowed him to indulge in his favourite hobbies: art and womanising on an almost industrial scale.

Thynn covered the walls of his private apartment in Longleat with brightly-coloured, papier mache and sawdust scenes from the Kama Sutra and portraits of the over 70 mistresses he called ‘wifelets’, many of whom were housed in grace-and-favour cottages on his estate. The Marquess passed away in 2020 at the age of 87. Much of his peculiar artwork has disappeared from the walls of the vast country house he once called home.