Maria Gunning; Croome's great beauty

Maria Gunning

A famous London beauty and society hostess mobbed when she appeared in public in Hyde Park but who tragically died at only twenty eight years of age.

Maria Gunning was born in Hemingford Grey, Huntingdonshire, the daughter of John Gunning of Castle Coote and his wife, Bridget (a daughter of the 6th Viscount Mayo) and the elder sister of Elizabeth Gunning.

The family was poor and their mother encouraged the girls to take up acting. The sisters moved to London from Dublin in 1751, performing in many West End shows and at the New Spring Gardens. They were the most celebrated beauties of their day almost immediately causing a sensation in society.

The sisters were presented at the court of St James. Maria, who was notoriously tactless, was said to have made a notable gaffe by telling the elderly King George II that the spectacle she would most like to see was a Coronation. Fortunately, the King was highly amused.

Within a year, Elizabeth had married the Duke of Hamilton and, in March 1752, Maria married the 6th Earl of Coventry and became the Countess of Coventry.

Maria's popularity was such that she was mobbed when she appeared in public and was once given a guard by the King.

She died at the age of 28 at Croome, having used the fashionable lead-based makeup. Ten thousand people reportedly turned out to watch her funeral at nearby Pirton church.