Southside House on the edge of Wimbledon Common boasts, among other curios, a string of pearls said to have been worn by Marie-Antoinette on the day of her execution. The pearls were presented to the owner of the house, John Pennington, by the Empress Josephine. They were a reward for the help that he had given to fleeing émigrés when he was a young official at the British Embassy in Paris. The necklace is presumed to have been a gift to Josephine from Paul Barras. Napoleon, it was said, could not bear the presence of so tragic a momento. The pearls were apparently happily worn by John Pennington's wife. Only a single string remains since the rest of the gems were doled out by the unhappy French queen as bribes to her gaoler.
A bit of a tall story? Well, let's say more of a family legend...
Southside House has been in the Pennington family since the 17th-century. In 1910 Hilda Pennington Mellor married the Swedish doctor and philanthropist Dr Axel Munthe, author of the bestselling The Story of San Michele, and the house is now run by the Pennington Mellor Munthe Trust. It is open to the public. Visitors are treated to a guided tour, which has a something of a reputation for historical creativity. There is an amazing collection of furnishings, art works and momentos accumulated over the years. (The family obviously had a predeliction for tragically condemned women; also on display is Anne Boleyn’s vanity case, which she had with her in the Tower of London before her execution.) The pearls now reside in a "cabinet of curiosities" in the so-called Royal Bedroom, named - depending on the tour guide - either for Frederick Prince of Wales or Edward VII. Isabelle Janvrin and Catherine Rawlinson, authors of a recent book on the French in London, note that there are also two gold candlesticks in the case. These belonged to a set of eighteen given to Marie-Antoinette by the City of Paris - a more prosaic but perhaps a more likely gift of gratitude to John Pennington.
Unsurprisingly, I haven't been able to find any documentary evidence to verify the story of John Pennington and his meeting with Josephine. More disappointingly it doesn't seem possible to trace the 18th-century John Pennington who worked at the British Embassy: there are Johns in the family tree, but not one who was in his teens in the 1790s.
But why cast doubt on family tradition? I am hoping to make it to Wimbledon next Spring since the house seems well worth a visit!
Southside House website
Entry for Southside House on the Blue Guide website.
Isabelle Janvrin, Catherine Rawlinson, The French in London: From William the Conqueror to Charles de Gaulle, Bitter Lemon Press 2016, p.113
Tall tales from Southside... The Brimstone Butterfly blog has several nicely illustrated posts on the house; the author notes that :"the history of the house, as given on the guided tour, has significantly changed over the years"
The most extended version of the necklace story that I have been able to find is this one, from The Country House Guide:
On special written request, visitors to Southside House may be shown the last necklace Queen Marie-Antoinette ever put on. Picked up from the scaffold after she ws guillotined, it now forms part of the contents of Southside's special treasure chest: its fabulous Cabinet of Curiosities.
The necklace's companions behind the Cabinet's barred glass are almost as extraordinary. One of them is Anne Boleyn's vanity case, rescued with her other personal effects from the Tower of London after her death.....
...even among such peers as these, Marie-Antoinette's pearl necklace still reigns supreme in its hold on the imagination. Its story did not end when the executioner salvaged it from beside the guillotine. Very briefly, it became the property of the government representative who had supervised the execution, Paul François Barras. Then, over dinner that night, he gave it to his mistress, Josephine Beauharnais. Several months later, Josephine found herself closely affected by the Terror. A near relation had to leave France fast and secretly and, being a friend of the British Ambassador's wife, Josephine took him and his family to the British Embassy. For their clandestine voyage to Britain, the Ambassador entrusted them to a junior — indeed, sixteen-year-old — member of staff, John Pennington. He was also a member of the family that, over a century before, had created Southside House out of a rambling farmstead near the then country village of Wimbledon.
In spite of his youth, John acquitted himself brilliantly on his mission, and was given several more like it - all with Josephine as their ultmate instigator. Her courier read of her marriage to the celebrated General Bonaparte, but never met her until, one day, the Ambassador sent for him. He was to dress in his best uniform and make his way to the Bonaparte home of La Malmaison, so that Mme la Générale could thank him personally for his help. On his arrival, John was disappointed not to find the General there. However, it soon became apparent why he bad been summoned during Bonaparte's absence. Nothing, Josephine said, could really repay the young man for what he had done - but, as a token of gratitude, she wanted to make him a present. And she handed him the pearl necklace.
On hearing its history, John was dismayed. The gift was much too good, he said. How could she part with it? For answer, Josephine led him out into the park. There, away from listening ears, she told him the truth: Napoleon would not allow the necklace to be kept in the house. When, on her marriage, she had shown it to him, his reaction had been one of horror. "Ah, ça - non!", he had exclaimed, retreating from the object. "Ça, non!"
John took the pearls back to England. After his marriage, his wife — who was not afraid of the invisible blood still clinging to them — wore the necklace regularly. It has since been restrung from time to time but, on each occasion, a little loop of six pearls has always been kept separate.
As Josephine explained to young Pennington their history is more poignant still. Marie-Antoinette had used them as a bribe for one of her wardresses. Her young son, the Dauphin, was also a prisoner; what the six jewels bought was the chance of a last glimpse of him, being exercised in a prison courtyard.
Anna Sproule and Michael Pollard, The Country House Guide: family homes in the Historic Houses Association (1988) p.239-42.