To most of the country he was Wicked Lord Lyttelton of Hagley Hall – a Georgian hellraiser who shocked the nation.
In the late 1700s, he created a sensation with his gambling and fornication – and was dead by 35.
Eventually the salutary tale of his life faded from memory, until now.
Through the Keyhole, by academic Dr Susan Law, probes the foibles of the Georgian era, when secrets were impossible to keep in a household of servants and the burgeoning print media served up juicy tales of adultery and wrongdoing among the aristocracy.
Dr Law said: “ Media interest in celebrity sex scandals is nothing new .
“It started way back in the Georgian era, when the first gossip columns appeared in the press and exposed all the juicy secrets of the ruling nobility. The more sordid and shocking the better.
“I really enjoy the historical detective work and real-life stories are so much more fascinating than fiction.
“They make TV dramas like Downton Abbey and Poldark look very tame.”
Dr Law completed a PhD in History at Warwick University and has spent five years researching the book, travelling all over the country to unearth old letters, diaries and newspapers to piece together the stories of sexual passion and political intrigue.
One such tale is that of Thomas Lyttelton, who, at the height of the scandal, was apparently warned by a ghostly figure in a dream he was about to die.
Dr Law wrote: “Three days later the premonition came true. His sudden death at the age of 35 immortalised him as the original hellraiser whose wickedness shocked the nation.
“And although his behaviour was no worse than many other men of the time, this intervention of fate cast him as the villain in a morality tale of divine retribution which fascinated generations of readers.”
Lord Lyttelton of Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, had everything in life – he was handsome and spirited – but he had a wild side which soon became apparent.
Speaking of himself he claimed: “My character is divided between an ardent desire of applause and a more than equal love of pleasure… I will freely own that my life has been marked with an extravagance of dissipation.”
Many of his letters survive and show him to be a charming character, who was often affectionate. He sometimes pledged he would reform his dissolute life, and in a note to an uncle from Naples while he was on a notorious tour of Europe, he wrote: “I do give you the most solemn and sacred assurances that you have nothing to fear… Gaming I hold in detestation, and if again I ever relapse in that most absurd Vice I will forfeit my Life and my Estate, or what is as dear to me as either the good opinion of Men, and will allow myself patiently to be treated with universal contempt.”
Sadly, his promises were soon broken and his European adventure ended in ignominy amid crippling gambling losses.
In 1772 Lyttleton married Apphia Peach, the wealthy widow of the governor of Calcutta, with her fortune of £20,000 – roughly £1.2 million today.
However, the signs were not good, as Dr Law revealed: “As they left the parish church of Hales Owen after the wedding ceremony, he strode back to the carriage alone, oblivious to his new bride.
“Recollecting himself just as he mounted the step, he turned back to apologise but compounded the mistake by addressing Apphia as Mrs Peach instead of Mrs Lyttelton.
“He later told a friend, ‘This fit of absence was as strange as it proved ridiculous – an omen, perhaps, of all the ungracious business which is to follow.”
Although initially happy, Lord Lyttelton soon lost interest, and after three months had gone away to London his father reported the marriage was ‘in a very uncertain and dangerous state’. The socialite Mrs Mary Delany blamed Thomas: “The adventurous widow, I am afraid, at Hagley, will fail in her hopes of reforming a rake, and dearly pay for her presumption.
“Everybody is sorry, as she is well spoken of and much liked; but it is manifest that his whole scheme was to cheat her of her fortune… he has no doubt already sunk it.”
A family friend added: “He has lived for these last two months with only laying at home now and then, at the gaming table, at the Savoir Vivre, and with women.
“His treatment of his wife upon many occasions has been harsh and brutal. I think there is a mixture of insanity about him that drives him to perdition.”
By February 1773, the couple had separated, and in the spring, Thomas eloped to Paris for a wager of a hundred guineas, with the barmaid of Bolton’s Inn at Hockerell.
The escapade was quickly immortalised in print as a ribald poem The Rape of Pomona, followed soon afterwards by press reports in the Morning Post of another prank when he got into a brawl over an actress in Vauxhall pleasure gardens.
Soon afterwards his father died, elevating him to the peerage as the 2nd Baron Lyttelton.
He wrote: “I awoke, and behold I was a Lord! It was no unpleasant transition … from insignificance and dereliction, to be a Peer of Great Britain, with all the privileges attendant upon that character.”
He moved into the grand Palladian mansion of Hagley Hall, built for his father in 1760, but quickly found: “I have suffered great ennui at seeing the vast expense that Hagley runs me into, and the little pleasure it affords me.
“I love the country at times, but I consider it a place for retirement, and am surprised to find myself 130 miles from the metropolis in an immense palace without company, and surrounded, like a deposed nabob, by a set of blackguards.”
More affairs and bad behaviour followed and he was immortalised in a satirical picture with Lady Abergavenny, another famed sinner of the age.
Dr Law wrote: “His sudden demise in November 1779, and the fact that it came following the appearance of a female apparition predicting his death within three days, cast him forever as a prototype of aristocratic vice.”
Through the Keyhole is published by The History Press and is available in hardback and ebook.