St Germain and the Great Secret
A letter from Lady Anson to Thomas Anson sheds light on one of the most intriguing and notorious characters of the 18th century, Count St. Germain. He was a composer and violinist, and was reputed to be an alchemist who had discovered the secret of eternal life. He claimed to be three hundred years old. He made every effort to create an aura of mystery around himself and his origins, admitting that “Count St Germain” was a pseudonym. Most recent writers believe him to have been the son of the deposed Prince of Transylvania, which would explain his convincingly aristocratic manner and his wealth.
Lady Anson’s letter had gone unnoticed until the present writer stumbled across it in the bound volume of her letters to her husband. It had been written to Thomas as an appendix to a letter to Admiral Anson, who was in Bath taking the waters for his gout. After a couple of pages addressed to her husband she says that was follows is for Mr Anson and she adds some racy gossip, which was obviously more to Thomas’s taste than George’s.
The most significant part of it is her comments on St Germain. She is extraordinarily indiscreet. What she tells is taken from the mouths of the secret service, then operating in the Admiralty building where she was living. St Germain may seem tohaveb een a harmless eccentric but for a few weeks he entangled himself in international politics. His behaviour and what he had to say could have had serious implications.
Though she treats the affair as simply gossip Elizabeth was in a position to know more than most women of what was going on in the world. In the case of St Germain doubly so as her brother, Joseph Yorke, was directly involved in the case in his capacity as Minister Plenipotentiary at The Hague.
Lady Anson and Thomas would have been interested in his political intrigues in 1760, but in the 1740s they are very likely to have known him as a musician. They could well have heard him and met him at London society gatherings and private music making. He had first appeared in London in 1745. Horace Walpole wrote of him: “He sings, plays on the violin wonderfully, composes, is mad, and not very sensible.”
By chance the most detailed source of information on this man of mystery in that period is Lady Anson’s sister in law, Jemima, Countess Grey.
St Germain had already become known as a composer before Lady Grey invited him to perform at her St James’ Square house in 1749. He had contributed some arias to a “pasticcio” opera, “L’infedelta delusa” for the Haymarket Theatre in 1745.
Jemima Grey knew about music. Shortly before her encounter with St Germain she had witnessed the spectacle of the great firework display to celebrate the Peace of Aix La Chapelle with music by Handel. Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot were also there in the crowd. Miss Talbot’s mother was terrified by the explosions.
In May 1749 Lady Grey heard St Germain perform in a private recital at Lord Morton’s house. Lord Morton had invited Lady Grey’s family, resident at their London Home, Powis House. As everyone was in London for the peace celebrations this would have included her husband, Sir Philip Yorke, Lady Anson’s brother, and it is possible that the Ansons were there as well. Lady Grey described St Germain in a letter to Lady Mary Gregory on 8th May 1749.
“But now I think of it I forgot in my last to mention a great & extraordinary Event, one of those unexpected fortunate Events which may happen perhaps once in a whole Life, & which help’d among other new & surprizing Things to make the last Thanks-giving Week so memorable. Guess it if you can? Nothing less I assure you than the Hearing St.-Germain Play. …
“We went accordingly, met him at Dinner & spent the whole Evening together. After Tea, Coffee &c, his Violin, a Harpsichord & two or three other Instruments appeared & they began. But unfortunately he had a dress’d Coat on which confin’d his Arms, & makes him always very miserable, & there followed many Ceremonies & variety of Consultations about getting a Habit more to his Mind. At last a little Linen Bedgown of LcIy. Browne’s was proposed by her Ladyship (who was come in to be of the Party as well as Sr. Robert) a Messenger dispatch’d for it into the next Street, & le Comte when attir’d in it made as much the figure of a Harlequin as you ever saw.
“But his Play indeed is delightful! The Violin in his Hands has all the Softness & Sweetness of a Flute, & yet all the Strength of the loudest Strings: his Execution is not of that rapid prodigious kind as Veracini & Geminiani; but his Play is more easy & harmonious & his Excellence is Softness. He piques himself you know upon the Expression of the Passions in his Music especially the Tender Ones, & both his Composition & his Manner are almost all Affettuoso: for his Musick is entirely fitted to his own way of Performing & would be nothing I am convinced from anybody else.”(1)
This very expressive, emotional, style of performing seems very similar to the style of Anton Kammel who was in London twenty years later and who became a close friend of Thomas Anson’s. There was clearly a fashion for romantic and expensively dressed virtuosi.
“After he had Play’d a considerable time, Frasi who had been appointed to meet him arrived after the Opera. She is his Favourite Singer I find, he teaches her his Songs & sings Duetts with her & her Only: but he also sung some Songs alone & his Manner then is past all Description…He has absolutely no Voice, what he sings with is entirely Feign’d & so low that in a large Room it is quite lost, yet he will raise it sometimes to Thunder out a Song of Rage as much as he will Languish in One of Love: for his Action is still more Expressive than his Sounds. He Accompanies himself without Book, & addresses himself in all he has to express to the Company: he Frowns & Scowls & Threatens & looks like a Fury when he is to be in a Passion, & is so terribly soft & languishing in his Tender Fits that there is no supporting it. – Woe! be to the Person within the reach of his Eye! for he makes Love so violently they must have a most Inflexible Countenance to stand it. As he is wholly possess’d by the part he is Acting, I believe it would be address’d equally to an Old Man or a Young Woman who was his next Neighbour, but poor Miss Yorke who happened to be in that Situation, & not much used to be so address’d nor understanding what he was saying, would have been very glad to be out of it, & look’d so Embarrassee we were not a little diverted. – In short we stay’d there till Twelve o’clock at Night, & were very much entertain’d either by him or at him the whole Time. – I mean the Oddness of his Manner which is impossible not to laugh at, otherwise you know he is very sensible & well-bred in Conversation.”
Lady Grey invited St Germain to play at her own house in St James’ Square.
“He [Saint-Germain] was here at the Concert on Wednesday, & as a great Favor staid late on purpose to give us a Couple of Songs when most of the Company were gone. It is vastly agreable as well as Odd to hear him. His Skill is certainly very great, & his Songs are as much suited to his Expression in Singing as his Solos are to his Playing. I had never heard Justice done them before, even by his Other favorite Disciple. She fritters them & makes them so fine that they are nothing: she apes his Manner without having his Force. But I have persuaded myself since I heard him to wonder less at her being so Caught. No Fine Lady can stand at his Elbow while he Sings, & fancy herself a real Object of all that Languishment without its going to her Heart.
“He is an Odd Creature, & the more I see him the more curious I am to know something about him. He is everything with everybody: he talks Ingeniously with Mr. Wray, Philosophy with Ld. Willoughby , & is gallant with Miss Yorke, Miss Carpenter & all the Young Ladies. But the Character of Philosopher is what he seems to pretend to, & to be a good deal conceited of: the Others are put on to comply with Les Manieres du Monde, but That you are to suppose his real Characteristick; & I can’t but fancy he is a great Pretender in all kinds of Science, as well as that he really has acquired an uncommon Share in some. – Well! so much for Monsr. le Comte de St. Germain….”
For many years the only book about St Germain was by Isabel Cooper-Oakley. She did not know of these detailed descriptions of his social and musical activities which bring him to life so vividly. Her book mixes history with the wild fantasies that grew up around him after his (presumed) death. St Germain is believed by some to be still alive and all kinds of esoteric legends are associated with him. Cooper-Oakley does, helpfully, give incredibly detailed background of his political activities, which directly relate to Lady Anson’s letter.
St Germain claimed to have been to India with Clive in 1755 and brought back secrets, including what he claimed was a method of purifying diamonds. After 1757 he was becoming a well known figure in Paris. Cooper-Oakley suggests that some of the more scurrilous stories which circulated at the time were started by an imposter, who pretended to be St Germain in the Paris Salons.
She quotes a “Heer van Sypesteyn”:
“Many of the wild stories had probably nothing to do with M. de St Germain and were invented with the object of injuring him and making him ridiculous. A certain Parisian wag, known as “Milord Gower”, was a splendid mimic, and went into the Paris salons to play the part of St Germain – naturally it was very exaggerated, but very many people were taken in by this make-believe St Germain.” (2)
She mentions other sources that confirm that the bogus St Germain was Lord Gower.
Could this possibly be true?
In 1757 Lord Gower was Granville Leveson-Gower, (1721-1803) who had been First Lord of the Admiralty in 1749, and briefly MP for Lichfield, in the second seat, side by side with Thomas Anson, in 1754. Though from a Tory family he was a supporter of the Duke of Newcastle, as were the Ansons. He became an increasingly powerful figure, later becoming Marquess of Stafford. Outside his political role he was an important influence in Staffordshire industry, supporting Wedgwood and the development of the canals.
Could he have been this frivolous young imposter in Paris in 1757?
He was not particularly young. He would have been 36, but that was probably a similar age to the real St Germain. His later career suggests a man of seriousness and dignity.
Whoever the impersonator was he must have been someone who knew a lot about the real St Germain in order to act a convincing parody. A genuine English gentleman who had moved in the same social circles as Lady Grey and the Yorkes a few years earlier certainly could have known the Count well enough to imitate him but it does seem rather unlikely behaviour for a serious politician. Perhaps someone was masquerading as Lord Gower masquerading as St Germain?
Curiously Anton Kammel, the composer who was a close friend of Thomas Anson in the last few years of his life, mentioned a “Lord Thenham” as a supporter. This could have been Earl Gower who was commonly known as Lord Trentham. In his time as an MP Lord Trentham’s patronage of the opera had been used as reason to attack him by political opponents as it meant he encouraged foriegners!
In March 1760 St Germain arrived at The Hague claiming to be on a secret mission on behalf of King Louis XV. The King of France was keen to negotiate with England to break up the system of alliances that lay behind the Seven Years War. This devastating war involved all the European powers and spread to the New World and India. England was opposed to France, who had planned to invade England in 1759 but who were pushed back at the battle of Quiberon Bay on November 20th. This defeat may have been a reason for the King of France to try a new approach.
By 1760 St Germain had become an intimate of King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. The king had given him the Chateau de Chambord as a base for his mysterious experiments. Some sources give the impression that these were purely scientific, others that St Germain was being kept by the king as a pet alchemist. The truth would reveal a lot about the King’s character in this supposedly rational age.
There is an enormous amount of documentation about St Germain’s mission. Cooper-Oakley includes letters from both sides, and, of most interest here, letters from and to Lady Anson’s brother Joseph Yorke who was Minister Plenipotentiary at the Hague and who was directly involved with St Germain when he arrived.
The most important question, of course, was whether St Germain had any authority at all to act as an official representative or whether he was simply mad.
The Comte D’Affry, French ambassador at the Hague, was strongly opposed to St Germain. He did everything he could do undermine the Count. The evidence on St Germain’s side does suggest that he did believe he was acting for the king, but in his own letters he does talk about the King’s weakness and lack of decision. It is always possible that St Germain simply imagined that what he was doing was what the king really wanted.
The King’s reputation was at stake, not only his political reputation but also his credibility. The official French views tend to support the image of the Count as a scientist whom Louis XV was enthusiastically, and expensively, supporting. If people in France and England were to believe that the Count was a charlatan it would imply that the King was gullible or foolish.
By March 21st the Prime Minister, Lord Holdernesse, had written a secret letter to St Germain by way of Joseph Yorke. The King and the British Government were interested in discussions but very wary indeed. By March 28th Joseph Yorke had told St Germain that he needed to produce proof that his mission was legitimate. The ambassador, D’Affry, had received a letter from the Duc de Choiseul at Versailles claiming that there was no truth in St Germain’s claims. Joseph Yorke, who referred to the “romance of Count St Germain” wrote that on talking to St Germain about this “for the first time, I caught him wavering a little.”
Nothing more was done about any official negotiations. Cooper-Oakley gives further letters from an English diplomat, Mr Mitchell, to Lord Holdernesse, which refer to the Count amusing the French King with “experiments in Chemistry and that French King had him a present of the Chateau de Chambord.”
The Count moved on to Paris and the affair seemed to have died down, but at the end of April or the beginning of May 1760 St Germain, though no longer treated seriously as a French agent, turned up in London. Lady Anson noted his arrival in a letter to Admiral Anson, who was at Bath with Thomas, at the beginning of May:
“St Germain is come, & has been with Ld Holdernesse, he is not confined, & the present Idea seems not to be that he has acted a deceitful part.”
Clearly she knew who the Count was and there was no need to explaint the background to the Admiral. Lady Anson, living at the Admiralty, was in an ideal position to pick up the details of the story and pass it on, even though she admitted herself that it was secret. The letter to Thomas she enclosed with her letter to her husband on May 2nd 1760 (only a few weeks before her death) gives more details:
“M St Germain is I believe under some kind of civil custody of a Messenger, & has been desired to leave this Country soon, for he cannot be permitted to stay in it. I am whispered, as a secret, that he tells some odd things, & says more: shows letters from many people of fashion in France, but rather of Friendship than of business, & some from people of Family whom he appears to have asked for money. He talks of his own general Benevolence, meaning no harm to any country; wishing well to France; would have assisted the French King if he would have followed his advice & relieved his subjects from the weight of Taxes; says he has it in his power to give the K. of France more than his Majesty can give him; with other such hints that seem to mean the Great Secret…..” (3)
This gives an insight into the Count’s own view of the situation. He would have assisted the French King “if he had taken his advice”. This may be the case in his failed peace negotiations. Perhaps he had acted on behalf of the King without the King being aware of it. But the most dramatic claim here is that the Count’s advice would have relieved the King’s subjects “from the weight of Taxes” and giveN him more “than his Majesty can give him.”
These hints Lady Anson interprets to mean “The Great Secret.”
In other words, the Count seems to be confirming everyone’s suspicions that his work for Louis XV was not simply a matter of entertaining chemical experiments but included alchemical projects to create limitless wealth. If this were made common knowledge people would believe that Louis had fallen for the charismatic Count’s ideas and had been supporting him at great expense. This would have been seen as hugely wasteful in terms of money but it would also have made the King seem extremely foolish. It may have been in many people’s interest to suppress an embarrassing truth.
Lady Anson continues, saying that the Count
“….owns the fluctuating state of French Politicks, and the present ascendant of the D. of Choiseul, to whom he hasforetold that (which?) would ruin France: Madame de Pompadour is, he says, against to-morrow what she was for to-day. He talks of Chambord & the money he has laid out there, butthat he is very indifferent about, tho’ he supposes the Castle is already taken from him; he had a Guard allowed him there, but he despises, he says, those little greatnesses. This is a small, & I conclude a very trifling sample of what he has said, & yet is not to be talked of I believe. I understand it comes of MrWood who was sent to him in consequence of his writing a letter to throw himself at Mr Pitt’s feet. Upon the whole it seems, like all the rest relating to the Man, odd, inconsistent and wild.”
“This, tho. it may appear to you a small matter, is my best anecdote.”
This suggests that St Germain had lost his support and that he was looking for a new home, as he suspects “the Castle is already taken from him.”
St Germain may not have been welcomed by the political world but he did stay in London for a while. The “London Chronicle” of June 3rd included an account of the “mysterious foreigner.” There is a set of violin solo sonatas published in London “c1758” which might date from this visit, but, given the slow process of musical publication, more probably date from a few years earlier.
Lady Anson finishes her gossip with:
“Don’t you tell your Batchelor Freinds these strange stories. Indeed I do not know why I tell them you.”
In later years the Cont wandered Europe and apparently finally settled in the German town of Eckernforde where he died in 1784. Reports of his wanderings refer to his alchemical experiments, but it is very difficult to separate fantasy from reality. He does seem to have had some genuine scientific knowledge and used it for down to earth commercial work, including the manufacture of face cream. Perhaps he had no clear idea himself of what was real and what was not, but there is no doubt that he was a moderate composer and violinist and the town of Eckernforde promotes performances of his music.
A quick search on Google will reveal the mind boggling after life of the Count in esoteric legend and fiction.
1) David Hunter: M. St Germain, the Great Pretender.(Musical Times, Winter 2003)
2) Isabel Cooper-Oakley: The Count of St-Germain (Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1970)
3) Staffordshire Record Office. Anson Papers. D615/P (S)/ 1/2/462)