THE BELVEDERE STORY
A Gothic Family Drama of Cruel Honour
“‘Mary Rochfort’s story is one that moves and resonates so much with us today.”
Sitting majestically on the edge of beautiful Lough Ennell, it’s hard to imagine that Belvedere House was once home to a story of malice and cruelty. This is a tale of a man embittered by jealousy, a woman robbed of her life and a family at war in the worst of ways.
A family of wealth and influence, the Rochfort family came to Ireland in the 13th Century, and Robert Rochfort would later become the 1st Earl of Belvedere and a Member of Parliament for Westmeath.
Robert was known to be selfish and unkind, but under pressure from her family to marry well, Mary Molesworth accepted his proposal, and they married in 1736 when Mary was just 16 years old. Mary was a talented woman, known and admired in the theatrical circles of Dublin, but her life was to be transformed forever.
The couple settled at the Rochfort’s ancestral home, Gaulstown House, with Robert’s younger brother Arthur living nearby at Belfield House with his wife Sarah.
Mary gave birth to daughter Jane in 1737 – a disappointment to Robert who longed for a son and heir. He grew cold towards Mary who felt lonely and neglected as Robert began to frequently stay away from home. Family life had no appeal to him.
While Mary enjoyed the tranquillity of Gaulstown and was a good mother, as an artist, she longed for the company of other creative people, and spent much time at Belfield House. Malicious gossip began to spread at Gaulstown and Robert accused Mary of having an affair with Arthur. Arthur was horrified that the pity and concern he had shown his sister-in-law was interpreted as adultery, and matters became worse when Mary admitted to the affair – though it is believed this admission was made on the promise of favourable terms for a divorce.
The social shame and stigma of a divorce was too much for Robert – and he set about imprisoning his wife in Gaulston, destroying her life and her future. Meanwhile, Robert pledged to find and kill his brother Arthur who had absconded abroad.
Robert moved into Belvedere House full time – and set about adapting and embellishing it to reflect his perceived importance. Under permanent house arrest, Mary grew old and tired – many said she had become insane. She pleaded for release, but Robert refused.
Robert’s brother George built a fine mansion – Tudenham – close to Belvedere, with the added insult of servant quarters facing on to Belvedere. The brothers’ relationship soured, and Robert built a huge Gothic ruin or folly to completely block the view from Belvedere to Tudenham. This became known as The Jealous Wall.
In 1757, Arthur Rochfort returned, was arrested, sued for adultery and imprisoned.
A Tragic End
Robert continued to live a life of luxury and decadence until his death in 1774, aged 66 – the cause of which is not clear.
After Robert’s death, Mary was released – an old and scared woman who had lost everything. It is believed that when she was freed, she asked only ‘is the tyrant dead?’; she knew her release was only possible upon the death of her husband. Mary lived out her last days at her daughter’s home, affirming her innocence on her death bed.
Today, the House and its follies stand not only as a grim reminder of what suspicion and envy can do, but also of the importance of guarding love, trust and freedom above all else.
Learn about the other owners of Belvedere House below.