The Catholic church of our Lady and the English Martyrs is a major landmark in the city of Cambridge. Completed in 1890 when it was known as the pro-cathedral because of its size, the church was built at the sole expense of a Frenchwoman, Mrs Yolande Lyne Stephens.

Countless scandals in Victorian England involved sex; others involved money; and the juiciest scandals involved both sex and money. Of these, the story of Yolande Lyne Stephens (Yolande Duvernay), the ballerina who became the richest woman in England, is perhaps the most extraordinary.

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The church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs in Cambridge. (© John Hagger)

Born in poverty in Paris in 1812, Yolande Duvernay entered the School of Dance when she was six years old. Under the control of a powerful stage mother, she was sold for sex when she reached puberty, and after the revolution of July 1830 toppled the Bourbon monarchy, she became the mistress of a new director of the Paris Opéra.

Described as ‘the most ravishing woman you could wish to see … with charming eyes, an adorably turned leg, and a figure of perfect elegance’, she became a star of the Opéra at the age of nineteen. She conquered London too, appearing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, and soon became the favourite dancer of Princess Victoria.

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Yolande Duvernay in ballet costume, painted ‘from recollection’ by Princess Victoria, 5 April 1837. (© Royal Collection Trust, The Beauty of Her Age, Amberley Publishing)

In 1837, her favours were bought by the sole heir to the largest industrial fortune in England, an unassuming young man who paid the equivalent of £1.5 million in today’s money for the privilege of keeping her as his mistress. This was scandalous enough – but society was scandalised still further when she trapped him into marriage a few years later. It was acceptable – if improper – to keep a mistress with a sexual history; to marry her was social disaster.

There is a rumour in Cambridge, still prevalent today, that Yolande’s husband made his money by the invention of moveable eyes for dolls. The legend had its roots in the words ‘Dolls’ eyes for idols’, a catchphrase used by Protestants in the city offended at the building of a large Catholic church. The words referred to the manufacture of glass, the source of the Lyne Stephens fortune, and the legend became enshrined in literature when E. M. Forster’s novel The Longest Journey was published in 1907.

The Beauty of Her Age 4 Yolande by Carolus-Duran
Yolande Lyne Stephens, painted by Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, spring 1888. (© private collection, The Beauty of Her Age, Amberley Publishing)

Like many such rumours, the story has no basis in fact. Yolande’s husband never worked for a living and had no interest in inventing anything. He was a cultured but indolent man who enjoyed spending money; his activities were restricted to hunting, shooting, building grand houses and buying expensive works of art, a lifestyle subsidised by a fortune made in Portugal.

The wealth had been accumulated by his one of his grandfather’s cousins, the illegitimate son of a schoolmaster and a Cornish servant girl. William Stephens was sent to Portugal as a boy, survived the earthquake which destroyed Lisbon in 1755, and scraped a living during the next fourteen years burning lime to provide mortar for rebuilding the city. In 1769 he was asked by the Marquis of Pombal, first minister and virtual dictator of Portugal, to reopen a derelict glass factory in the village of Marinha Grande, ninety miles north of Lisbon.

William was given ownership of the factory, together with 15,000 acres of land, and Pombal granted him a number of important – and lucrative – privileges: exemption from all domestic taxes; a monopoly of glass supply in Portugal and its colonies; freedom to set his own prices; and free use of fuel from the royal pine forest.

Pombal fell from power when the king died in 1777, succeeded on the throne by his eldest daughter, Maria I, who loathed the minister and all his policies. In order to retain his privileges, William set out to woo the new queen. He charmed her so successfully that she not only renewed his privileges, she also made two visits to the glassworks – the second of which lasted for three days.

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William Stephens’s house in Marinha Grande, Portugal. (© Câmara Municipal da Marinha Grande)

Maria was an absolute monarch, ruling by divine right. Yet she was happy to sleep for two nights in the house of an Englishman, a man who was not only low-born and illegitimate, but also a Protestant, a heretic in the eyes of the Portuguese. As William’s sister wrote a few days after the visit: ‘My brother has attained what nobody else in the Kingdom can boast of, the honour of entertaining the Royal Family and all the Court for three days, and given universal satisfaction to everybody from the Queen down to the scullions and stable boys.’

These royal visits added prestige to the factory and ensured that William retained his privileges for almost forty years. This enabled him to accumulate one of the largest industrial fortunes in Europe. After he died unmarried and childless, his massive wealth was bequeathed to a cousin in London, Charles Lyne, who added the name Stephens to his own and became the richest commoner in England.

Charles Lyne Stephens died in 1851, followed nine years later by his only son, Yolande’s husband, who bequeathed her a life interest in the entire fortune. This gave her three stately homes in England and Paris, and an income of almost £7 million a year in today’s values. With an excess of income over expenditure, she soon built up a fortune of her own, allowing her to subsidise the Catholic diocese of Northampton, building churches and chapels and a new bishop’s house.

In Cambridge, for the pleasure of ‘indulging my own taste and fancy,’ she paid for the entire cost of the church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs, together with its adjacent rectory. She paid for the furniture and furnishings in both buildings and selected the design of every detail, including the shape and size of the altar rails, the style and decoration of vestments for the clergy, and the rugs laid on the floors of the rectory.

To give some credence to the legend, it would be nice to think that William Stephens made glass eyes for dolls in his factory in Portugal. But sadly not.


Jenifer Roberts new book The Beauty of Her Age is available for purchase now.