An obelisk in Yorkshire celebrating the achievements of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who introduced smallpox inoculation to Britain in the 18th century, has been awarded a higher listing status and named as one of England’s most important historic sites.
Erected in the gardens of Wentworth Castle, near Barnsley, in the 1730s or 1740s, and dedicated to Lady Mary’s memory between 1762 and 1785, the monument was listed at grade II in 1968.
The upgrade to grade II* by the government, on the advice of Historic England, means the obelisk, known as the Sun Monument, is considered to be among the top 10 per cent of England’s most significant heritage landmarks. Conservators said this doesn’t only reflect Lady Mary’s contribution to tackling the deadly disease but also the obelisk’s rarity as an early landscape monument to a woman who was not royalty.
The monument was probably erected by William Wentworth, second Earl of Strafford, who had met Lady Mary in Italy as a young man. It is possible he had been inoculated on her advice as a child, as his parents were neighbours of Lady Mary in their London house in Twickenham. The obelisk was conceived as part of an elegant unified landscape that included a palatial stately home, fine gardens and parkland and architectural follies.
It served as a visual terminus to the rising vistas of two avenues and was said by a 1750s visitor to have been inspired by the Flaminio obelisk brought to Rome from Egypt by emperor Augustus. The original inscription, replicated in a 20th-century slab, reads: “TO THE MEMORY OF THE / RT HON LADY MARY / WORTLEY MONTAGU / WHO IN THE YEAR 1720 / INTRODUCED INOCULATION / OF THE SMALLPOX / INTO ENGLAND FROM TURKEY”.
Born into the aristocratic Pierrepont family, Lady Mary (1689-1762) was famed for her beauty and wit and took a keen interest in culture and politics. In 1712 she married Edward Wortley Montagu and four years later moved with him to Constantinople where he had been appointed British ambassador to the Ottoman court.
While living in Turkey, Lady Mary observed the local method of inoculating against smallpox, which involved scratching the skin and introducing a small amount of the virus taken from the pus of someone with a mild form of the disease. This, in turn, provoked a mild form of smallpox, leaving lasting immunity.
In one of her famous letters describing her life in the Ottoman empire, dated 1717, she wrote: “The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless, by the invention of engrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox; they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of smallpox, and asks what vein you please to have opened.”
Smallpox first appeared in Europe around the early medieval period and caused an estimated 60 million deaths between 1700 and 1800. Survivors were often left scarred and with longterm health conditions, including blindness. The disease had killed several of Lady Mary’s relatives, including her brother, and she herself had nearly died after contracting the disease in 1715. She lost her eyebrows and long eyelashes as a result and was left with pockmarked skin. She later lamented: “No art can give me back my beauty lost.”
After looking into inoculation with Charles Maitland, surgeon to the British embassy, she organised for the procedure to be carried out on her five-year-old son by a skilled local woman. Although she was not the first Western European to have a child inoculated while living in Turkey, she was the first to bring the practice home, declaring: “The smallpox, so fatal and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless by the invention of ‘ingrating’, which is the term they give it. I am patriot enough to bring this useful invention into fashion in England.”
Back in London in spring 1721, with another epidemic raging, Lady Mary persuaded Maitland to inoculate her daughter. She then used her daughter’s immunity to promote inoculation, which rapidly gained popularity. In 1722, two of King George I’s granddaughters were treated.
While inoculation was generally successful, it remained controversial and carried some risk. The prominent physician William Wagstaffe condemned the procedure as “an Experiment practised only by a few Ignorant Women”. Those who recognised Lady Mary’s brilliance included the French philosopher Voltaire who hailed her, in a letter of 1733, as “a woman of as fine a genius, and endowed with as great a strength of mind, as any of her sex in the British Kingdoms”.
After describing how Lady Mary had persuaded the Princess of Wales, to have her daughters Amelia and Caroline inoculated, he wrote: “A great part of the kingdom followed her example, and since that time ten thousand children, at least, of persons of condition owe in this manner their lives to her Majesty and to the Lady Wortley Montague; and as many of the fair sex are obliged to them for their beauty.”
From the late 18th century Edward Jenner’s vaccination for smallpox derived from cowpox, a similar but much less virulent disease, began to replace inoculation and Lady Mary’s achievement was overshadowed.
Sarah Charlesworth, Historic England’s listing team leader for the North, said: “Lady Mary is one of the overlooked heroines in the history of medicine. Smallpox was raging at the the time and she saw the real benefits of what they were doing in the Ottoman empire, she got her son inoculated and later her daughter, and back in Britain she made it her mission to educate people. She received quite a lot of flack because people saw it as anti-religious and because it was brought over from a Muslim nation — and the fact that she was a woman. But she encouraged all her aristocratic friends and the royal family and lots of others as well. And in the end, she saved a lot of lives.
“We made an amendment to our Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest entry for Wentworth Castle, to update it because there has been a lot of restoration work recently by the National Trust. So we took that opportunity to reassess the obelisk and give it the level of protection that it fully deserves — and to give Lady Mary Wortley Montagu the recognition she deserves too.”
Torri Crapper, general manager for the National Trust at Wentworth Castle Garden said: “We’re delighted that the Sun Monument has received this recognition. Sitting within South Yorkshire’s only grade I listed parkland, it’s such a prominent feature in the landscape. Wentworth Castle Gardens is home to no fewer than 26 listed buildings and monuments, each of them with a different tale to tell. Lady Mary’s story is such an important part of history that deserves to be told, and that we are proud to share it with our visitors.”
It is possible that the obelisk carries additional layers of meaning. Its entry in the National Heritage List for England notes that the brass sun that topped the monument might have been a Jacobite symbol representing James Stuart, the Old Pretender, son of the deposed King James II. Another obelisk in the estate certainly carries a pro-Jacobite inscription and the earls of Strafford were dukes in the Jacobite peerage.
Nevertheless, any Jacobite associations of the Sun Monument are speculative and another theory holds that the finial was emblematic of the “Light of Reason” and the 18th-century Enlightenment. The finial was missing by the time the obelisk was listed in 1968 and local tradition suggests it was removed by soldiers stationed on the estate during the Second World War. It was replaced when the obelisk was restored in 2008.
The image at the top of the article shows the Sun Monument at Wentworth Castle Gardens in South Yorkshire. Photo: Andrew Butler, National Trust Images