Amelia's Claim


Did Amelia really have a claim to the Radcliffe lands? Was she really descended from the Earl of Derwentwater? Her story certainly appeals to the more romantic side of our nature and many of us would love to think that she really was who she claimed to be.

However, Ralph Arnold has devoted the last chapter of his book, 'Northern Lights', to trying to establish the answers to these questions. His conclusion is that she was almost certainly not. Many of the heirlooms were clearly faked. Most of the pictures seem to have been done by Amelia herself. She was never able to provide convincing evidence of her own identity. The key piece of evidence, William Radcliffe's will, contains several basic mistakes and anyway ignores the known hostility between William Radcliffe and his cousin John. Several parts of the story, such as the failure of Palmerston to return the crucial letters, seem remarkably convenient for Amelia. It has proved impossible to trace anyone resembling the people Amelia claimed were her mother and grandmother.

Most damning of all is Amelia's complete failure to pursue her claims in court. If her evidence was really as good as she claimed, she could easily have settled the matter by proving her lineage before a court. Not only did she fail to do this, she never really managed any effective defence against the prosecutions of the Commissioners in front of the Hexham and Durham magistrates. The Case of the Tichborne claimant, which was going through the courts at this time, shows both the penalties awaiting false claimants (the so called Sir Roger Tichborne got 14 years for perjury and fraud) and the Victorian fashion for celebrated lost claimants.

Amelia would never have won a court case over her identity. It seems likely that she was a schoolmistress or governess who read Gibson's book and then set about creating a new identity for herself as Countess Amelia Radcliffe. She collected old antiques, painted pictures of her supposed ancestors, forged documents and read very widely on the Radcliffe Family. She was clearly a very remarkable woman.

Whether she really believed her claims herself is another matter. She was obviously very determined and refused to give up. In the end her battle was basically responsible for her bankruptcy and death. Arnold argues that by 1870 at least she was delusional and genuinely believed her own claims. We will probably never know the truth. All that we can say is that the story of Countess Amelia provides a fascinating and intriguing final chapter in the Radcliffe saga.