In 1877 the Empress again had persuaded the Emperor to allow her to visit England saying that their son, Rudolph, needed to visit Great Britain, and she could then go hunting. Her Secretary, Herr Linger, chose Cottesbrooke as it would be in the heart of the Pytchley Hunt where Earl Spencer was Master of the Hunt.
Cottesbrooke was the home of Mr Herbert Hay Langham and he and his wife would be away on a cruise for the winter months. In his diary he had written:
“…25th December 1877 left
Southampton on the yacht ‘Ibis’
for a Mediterranean tour.”
The Empress and her son arrived in London on the last day of 1877 and drove to a small hotel she liked called Claridges. The next morning she visited the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul in Carlisle Place before taking the train to Northampton and on to Brixworth station where she was driven to Cottesbrooke House. Rudolph stayed in London as his preference was definitely with life in the city.
Cottesbrooke was not as grand as Easton Neston, nor as big, and again several of her party had to be boarded out at nearby houses: Count and Countess Larisch to Guilsborough Grange, Count Kinsky to Brixworth and others to Wansford. The stables were however very good, one of the most important requirements.
On the second day of January Earl Spencer was writing to his wife from Harlestone, where they had been staying for many months during the alterations to Althorp house prior to the visit of the Empress, to tell her that he had ridden over to Cottesbrooke at 5.30 in the afternoon to visit the Empress and that Baron Nopsca, the Master of the Household, had answered the door in his evening clothes and that they had asked him to stay for dinner. He described the Empress as:
“.. dressed in black, a simple high gown with a sort of cherry coloured shirt (most pretty) and with her hair very smartly done without any ornaments and a large white woollen shawl. She likes Cottesbrooke as it so much snugger that Easton Neston but complained that it had no foot stools. So I sent three over by Middleton.”
She had asked him about ‘Yaddy’, his step-mother, Adelaide, who had died the previous October; they had met when the Empress visited Althorp for lunch when she was staying at Easton Neston the previous year.
The alterations he had made to Althorp were considerable as the south wing was largely re-built, the staircase hall enlarged, the staircase changed from white to natural wood and the blue sitting-room with the painted panels re-sited and restored for the use of the Empress. She did come and stay and they were duly invited back to Gödöllő as official guests of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elizabeth.
Her stay at Cottesbrooke was filled with excellent days out hunting far and wide from Shuckborough in Warwickshire in the west to Wellingborough, east of Northampton. The evenings were spent at private parties at the homes of the local carefully selected gentry including Althorp where she had shocked the company by drinking beer and smoking and in front of the ladies! This life made her extremely happy and she was even including her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, telling him in her letters how much he would enjoy it here in England and how popular he would be with his riding skills; and how much he would like Lord Spencer as he is so natural.
However, her freedoms did not go un-noticed back in Austria where it was heard that she had entertained a Mr Jacques Schawell at Cottesbrooke. He was a leading horse dealer in Vienna who imported horses from Ireland and England to sell to the aristocracy and supply the Habsburg stables. Before the Empress’s trips to England he had always chosen horses for her use. Mr Schawell was a very smartly dressed man and a magnificent rider who frequently hunted in the Shires; but for her to personally have him staying at Cottesbrooke caused many society people to raise their eyebrows! Her attempts at having a private life and making her own decisions caused her much grief. She was the wife of the Emperor and that would always be her greatest problem; there were protocols that had to be obeyed and duties to be performed. Life on the hunting field however gave her much freedom and a life away from her rigidly controlled life at court.
The man who was appointed master of the horse and the Imperial pilot in the hunting field also greatly pleased her as Capt. ‘Bay’ Middleton was a charismatic man and wonderful horse rider. He had previously been an ADC to Earl Spencer when the latter was the Ambassador in Dublin during Prime Minister Gladstone’s parliament of 18.. to 18.. He was as fearless in the field as the Empress and they were always to be found in the forefront of the riders. He was also invited to her evening parties and later to stay at Gödölloő in Hungary, the country home of the Habsburgs.
Earl Spencer, like the Empress, felt that fox hunting should not be interrupted by anything, however important. One day when they were out hunting from Stanford Hall the owner, Lord Braye, told the Earl that Pope Pius IX had died and that they should inform the Empress. Earl Spencer did not agree and said that she should not be told until they had finished their day’s hunting as she would have had to return to Cottesbrooke and not finish her day in the field.
At the end of her stay at Cottesbrooke and on the day she left she paid for the grand lunch and all the prizes for the winners of the Steeplechase races held nearby at Hopping Hill, north of Lamport railway station and in the Cottesbrooke valley over the Harborough road. At her own expense she had a marquee set up and invited a large number of royal and noble guests, including the Princess of Wales, to a grand lunch. The Empress shared her carriage with the Princess and Countess Spencer to watch the races; and later to hand out the prizes to the winners. She had the pleasure of handing Capt Middleton the Empress’s Cup, the prize for winning the main race. Before leaving for her journey back to Vienna that day she told Earl Spencer to bring any members of the Pytchley Hunt to her carriage so that she could personally speak to them and give her farewells.
This stay at Cottesbrooke was probably one of her happiest and she presented Earl Spencer, who had organised many of her visits and excursions, a large picture of herself on a horse called “Merry Andrew”, one of her favourite hunters. This picture can still be seen at Althorp House. But she had also liked one of the portraits hanging in the hall at Cottesbrooke as can be seen from the following letters from her Lady in Waiting, Countess Marie Festetics:
April 1877 To Mr Langham from Marie Festetics
Requesting a copy of the painting at Cottesbrooke in watercolour, Folio size and to choose a good painter
April 1877 To Mr Langham from Marie Festetics
Thanking his for his reply but she does not understand the size he has quoted in inches. She encloses a strip of paper and the figure of the lady to indicate the size the Empress requires
June 1878 To Mr Langham from Marie Festetics
She has received the painting and the Empress is delighted with it and encloses the sum he paid the artist and says that Mr Langhamshould visit them they would be pleased to see him
This portrait that the Empress had so admired was of Henrietta Langham, the wife of Sir William Langham 8th Bt. The original was painted by John Hoppner.