Madame Marie de Tocqueville

(Mary Mottley)

A Remembrance

Here is the story of a young woman named Mary Mottley, the daughter of George and Mary Martin Mottley, who was born at the Royal Haslar hospital on August 20 1799, and baptized at St Mary’s church by the Rev: John Hall March 2 1801. She would become the wife of a young French aristocrat, a man who possessed one of the finest minds of the 19th century, and whose writings continue to influence much of the world in the 21st century. This was Alexis de Tocqueville, known among other things for his book Democracy in America, which he wrote following his visit to America in 1831.  It has been read and re-read, praised and re-printed over and over again, even more today than 100 years ago.  He is recognized for the extraordinary richness of his insights, which are manifested in so many of his writings.  Democracy in America is a rare example of a most important book written about a country by a foreign visitor.  Tocqueville saw that a system of democratic government and a democratic society would spread across the civilized world.  He warned that the pursuit of equality and liberty were not necessarily the same.  Throughout his life Tocqueville was a profound admirer of England.  But it is likely that, without the support of his wife Mary, he would never have achieved so much. Yet up to now, history has largely ignored this fascinating woman, who came from Gosport.

George Mottley, Mary’s father, was the agent at the Royal Haslar hospital.  His family occupied one of the residences in the officer’s compound.  Twelve other children were born to the couple.

Mary’s mother named Mary Martin Mottley came from Hambledon.  She died on January 19 1863 at the age of eighty-nine.  Her will gives a picture of a very able woman.  She left instructions that her household was to remain intact for one month following her death to allow her maids’ time to find other employment.  At the time of her death only five of her thirteen children were living, one of whom was Mary.  There is no evidence that Mary attended her mother’s funeral but the reason may have been that she was in poor health.

George Mottley was also an investor, involved in business with his brother in-law Thomas Belam.  George Mottley remembered all of his children in his will, including his daughter Mary, who was known to the world as Marie de Tocqueville.  His bold and flamboyant signature speaks of a gregarious man.  Later in his career he was promoted to the Royal Naval Hospital in Stonehouse, Devon, where he retired and eventually died.  His obituary notice appears in the Gentlemen’s Magazine: `April 10 1840 at Stonehouse, age 73, George Motley, Esq. late agent of the Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar'.

Mary’s brothers had professional careers.  The Mottley family certainly had their share of sorrows and deaths.  Anna and Caroline died within a year of their birth.  Roger, the Mottley’s eldest child died at Haslar in 1802, only six years old.  The Mottley family name can be traced back to the 1700’s and are remembered still as prominent residents of the Portsmouth community in the 19th century.  Among them were booksellers, writers, publishers, and patrons of the arts.  They left behind detailed records that exist even now.

Mary was sent to live with her Aunt Elizabeth Mottley Belam and her Uncle Thomas Belam in Petersfield.  The reason for this is unknown.  Her parents may have decided that Mary, a bright child, would benefit from the loving and undivided attention offered by her aunt and uncle who were childless and longed for a child of their own.  Thomas Belam died prematurely at the age of thirty-nine and buried April 3 1815.  The cause of death on the death certificate was a ‘"tired body’."

Is it possible to interpret a person’s character from their last will?  In addition to providing an annuity for his parents, Mary’s Uncle Thomas Belam cancelled the £300 debt he had advanced to them for a mortgage on their house in Sussex.  He ensured that his business interests would continue after his demise.  He appointed his brothers-in-law Samuel Mottley and George Mottley to be his trustees and named his wife as residuary legatee.  He bequeathed £1,000 to his niece Mary when 21 or when married with her father’s permission.  Mary also received a cottage with a garden in Chalton.  She was 16 years old when her uncle died.  Mrs. Belam still a young woman in 1815 moved to Paris and settled at Versailles, where living was cheaper than in England.

Mary Mottley has often been described as a governess or as a "Governante" which was a more responsible position-describing housekeeper.

The pedigree of Alexis de Tocqueville, future husband of Mary, was impeccable.

His father Hervé –Louis – François –Jean – Bonaventure Clérel was of Norman nobility.  His mother Louise Madeleine Le Peletier, was the granddaughter of Lamoignon de Malesherbes, the famous lawyer, statesman and liberal thinker, executed during the French Revolution.  The Tocquevilles were imprisoned and  narrowly escaped execution.  His mother was haunted by those memories.  The Tocquevilles were close knit and religious.

In 1828 Alexis had joined two other friends renting a house close to the Belam home.  Consequently Alexis and Mary met and began spending evenings together.  Alexis was attracted to Mary’s qualities.  She had learned to speak French fluently, perfectly and gracefully.  Alexis spoke English fairly well.  He seized the opportunity to share his thoughts with her.  An amorous friendship between Mary and Alexis deepened into true love.  She understood why he wanted to travel with Gustave de Beaumont to America in 1831.  Their official reason was to study and report on the American penitentiary system but Tocqueville’s main concern was to explore the new American form of government and American democracy.  Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey lasted nine months.  While he was away, Alexis and Marie corresponded frequently, though sadly some of the letters they exchanged have been lost.  Before he left, they both sensed that their relationship was serious but this presented some problems.

Mary was often dismissed as being of a lower class, plain, a foreigner, Protestant and poor.  Alexis de Tocqueville was determined to overcome the obstacles. The divide was class and religion.  Mary was well aware of the prejudice.  She converted to Catholicism before the marriage.

The marriage took place at St Thomas d’ Aquinas church in Paris on October 25 1835. Protestant, Gosport-born Mary Mottley had become Madame Marie de Tocqueville … and a devout Catholic!  Alexis and his wife began their married life at the home of his brother Edouard and his wife Alexandrine.  As Mary suspected it was not the happiest arrangement, because it was clear to her she was not welcome in the Tocqueville family.  When Alexis’s mother died in January 1836 he inherited his grandmother’s home in the village of Tocqueville in Normandy.  Mary set about refurbishing the old chateau, which had been vacant for, fifty-years.

In time she assumed the responsibility for the management of the estate, collecting the rents and seeing that some of the old customs were maintained, such as baking fresh bread for the poor every Friday.  Essentially Mary relieved him of many a landlord’s responsibilities.  Above all she made it easier for him to have the freedom to write and pursue his political aspirations.  Mary spent most of her time at the chateau.  She was not attracted to the salon life in Paris.  She had no tolerance for frivolities.  Mary devoted her life to Alexis; they encountered and overcame many obstacles.  For Tocqueville she was a wife and hostess to their various visiting friends.

Their personalities complemented each other.  They struggled with his frequent mood changes from high to low.  She was determined and loving.  They had no children.  But both of them were disappointed and had hoped for a family.

Mary suffered from rheumatism, lumbago and renal disease.  Alexis who from childhood had respiratory infections eventually developed pulmonary tuberculosis.  There were many ineffectual therapies even though they had access to the best physicians of the day.  In 1859, the final days of his life, he was concerned with Mary, whose sight was affected.  She survived him by five years and was buried beside him in the churchyard in the small village of Tocqueville, where her birth date inscribed on the tomb is incorrect.

Alexis de Tocqueville and his wife Mary were extraordinary human beings.  Researching their lives I learned of St Mary’s church.  I had the pleasure of visiting St Mary’s and the Royal Haslar hospital.  I also visited Highland cemetery in Portsmouth where the family plot is.  The day was cold and dreary; birds circled overhead no doubt curious to see a visitor in this forlorn and nearly forgotten place.  Many of the tombstones had crumbled and fallen to the ground.  Other graves were breaking open.  Across the street I noticed a pub with the sinister name of the "Grave Diggers".  When I stood beside the Mottley grave, whose headstone has long since disappeared, I knew below me were the remains of Mary’s brother and sister.  I longed to ask them questions about this woman who has been the constant companion of my thoughts for eight years.  I hope that she would have been pleased to know that I am now telling her story.  Alexis never regretted their marriage and I hope that he also would be pleased with my tribute to Mary.



Closing thoughts on a more personal note.

Mary Mottley, the wife of Alexis de Tocqueville was lost in the dust of history because no one cared about her.  For reasons I will never be able to explain I knew I must and would find her.  I found myself embarking on a journey few have the opportunity to travel.  Often when it would seem hopeless, another door would open, to reveal a new friend, a special person to join in the search, and all of them filled with enthusiasm.  And who now share my joy of having brought Mary safely to her proper place in history.

Mary has been my reason for living, my full time job, my teacher, who has opened my mind, taught me to think, try harder and to be so thankful.  She has become my sister, and my friend. I  have travelled miles to find her, and walked in her footsteps without feeling tired.

I am indebted to so many wonderful people who have been with me on this journey.  It has been like a daisy chain never broken, one coincidence after another and each one more wonderful than the one before it.  My heart is full with the warmth of new and old friends.  And they all care about Mary, her life, her story and now she will never be forgotten.

And that is the reason I wrote her story.

© Sheila Le Sueur

Mesa, Arizona.


September 7 2005


To find out a little more about Sheila here is a link to her website about a book she has written -