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Frederick Ponsonby, a politician and landowner, was born on 24 January 1758, at 1 Cavendish Square, London. He was the fifth and only surviving son of William Ponsonby, second earl of Bessborough (1704–1793), and his wife, Lady Caroline Cavendish (1719–1760), daughter of the third duke of Devonshire. Ponsonby was baptized at St Marylebone on 21 February 1758. He was given the courtesy title of Viscount Duncannon, which he held until his father's death on 11 March 1793. He then inherited the Bessborough title and lands but did little to make an impact on political or social life. He is better known as the husband of Lady Bessborough.
He was educated privately and then attended Christ Church, Oxford from 1774 to 1777. He then went on the grand tour. On 27 November 1780, Duncannon married Lady Henrietta Spencer daughter of John Spencer, first Earl Spencer, and sister of Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire.
Also in 1780, Duncannon was elected as MP for Knaresborough through the influence of the Duke of Devonshire. He held the seat until he was elevated to the House of Lords in 1793. He supported Charles James Fox on the American War of Independence and he was briefly a lord of the Admiralty in the Rockingham and Fox–North administrations.
In 1794 he followed the duke of Portland and seconded the address in support of the war with France, but when his brother-in-law William, third Earl Fitzwilliam (1748-1833) was recalled from his post as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, he returned to supporting the opposition.. He remained in opposition; he declined the postmastership in the "Ministry of All the Talents" formed in 1806 and then refused the lord stewardship to accommodate others. On Irish matters he opposed the Union and the 1807 Insurrection Bill.
Duncannon and his wife had three sons and a daughter who were born between 1781 and 1787. Both he and his wife gambled and the couple ran up huge debts. In 1793 he succeeded his father as third earl of Bessborough (Irish peerage). He took over the Bessborough estates in Co. Kilkenny but he found the income disappointing because the 27,000 acres were let on long leases. He took his seat in the Irish parliament but was an absentee, since he lived in London and Surrey. In 1801 he sold the family picture collection, and in 1810 a £100,000 legacy from Henry Cavendish, a relative, relieved him from financial embarrassment.
Contemporaries said that Bessborough had a kind and amiable temperament but in the early years of his marriage he was known to scold his wife in public, and his Spencer in-laws complained that he neglected her by staying out all night. The couple had numerous extra-marital affairs. Lady Bessborough had a brief affair with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, which Bessborough discovered in 1789 and thereupon, started divorce proceedings. He was persuaded by his brother-in-law the Duke of Devonshire to forgive his wife. Lady Bessborough's fifteen-year long affair with Lord Granville Leveson-Gower produced two children.
Bessborough does not seem to have been very bright or ambitious. He seemed unable to deal with being married to a clever, emotional, witty woman and retreated into his hobbies of playing cards, sketching, and print collecting. During the scandal of their daughter Lady Caroline Lamb's affair with Byron he appears to have been sympathetic but to have left the burden of intervention to his wife.
From 1798 Bessborough suffered bad fits of gout. He was fond of his children, especially his youngest child, William, Lord de Mauley. After his wife's death he handed over his properties to his eldest son and lived with William at Canford House, Dorset, where he died on 3 February 1844. He was buried there but was later reburied alongside his son at Hatherop, Gloucestershire, where de Mauley had moved after selling Canford House.
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