Tone, Matilda (c. 1769–1849)

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Tone, Matilda (c. 1769–1849)

Wife of Irish nationalist Wolfe Tone. Born Martha Witherington, exact date and place unknown, around 1769; died on March 18, 1849, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of William Witherington and Catherine (Fanning) Witherington; married Theobald Wolfe Tone (the Irish nationalist), on July 21, 1785; married Thomas Wilson, on August 8, 1816; children: (first marriage) Maria Tone (1786–1803); William Tone (b. 1791); Frank Tone (b. 1793).

Matilda Tone was born Martha Witherington around 1769. Her father William Witherington has been variously described as an English naval officer, a woolen draper, and a wine merchant. Her mother Catherine Fanning Witherington was the daughter of a wealthy Church of Ireland cleric, Edward Fanning, who was well-connected socially and politically. After the death of Catherine's mother, Catherine, William, and their two sons and four daughters went to live with Edward Fanning in Grafton Street, Dublin. It was there, one day at the beginning of 1785, that a young law student, Theobald Wolfe Tone, glimpsed Martha Witherington through a window of the house. "I soon grew passionately fond of her," he recalled, "and she was also much struck with me…. She was, at this time, not sixteen years and as beautiful as an angel." Tone soon insinuated himself into the family by making the acquaintance of Martha's brother Edward. After a courtship of a few months they eloped and were married in July 1785. As Tone's biographer Marianne Elliott notes, the elopement must have seemed like an appalling betrayal of trust to the Witheringtons, and, although there was a temporary rapprochement after the marriage, this did not last long. Relations between the two families, particularly between Tone and his brother-in-law Edward, deteriorated. Martha remained close only to her sister Kitty Witherington .

One of Tone's first actions after the marriage was to rename his wife Matilda. It was a bizarre yet eerily prescient gesture for Matilda would be a dramatic role played by Eliza Martin with whom Tone had been passionately in love before he met Martha. In the play Douglas, by John Home, Matilda was the virtuous widow of a fallen hero who remarried after his death but gave her new husband nothing more than companionship and respect. After their marriage, the Tones lived with his parents at their farm in County Kildare. Tone continued his university studies at Trinity College, Dublin, and graduated in February 1786. Their first child, Maria Tone , was born later that year. In October 1786, there was a violent robbery at the family home during which Matilda behaved with conspicuous bravery. "I can imagine no greater effort of courage," her husband wrote. There is little evidence about the early years of their marriage but what does exist indicates that it was uneasy. Tone spent long periods away from home (including two years pursuing his legal career in London between 1786 and 1788), leaving Matilda in Kildare. He also embarked on impetuous plans and projects without any consideration for what they would mean for her. One such example was his plan to set up a military colony in the Sandwich Islands. When this failed he considered in 1788 enlisting as a soldier with the East India Company. Elliott observes that while Tone criticized other men for neglecting their wives "he did so himself in the grandest of manners." When he returned from London in December 1788, Matilda was in poor health, but a gift of £500 from her grandfather eased their immediate financial problems. However, when her grandfather died a few years later they learned that Matilda had been cut out of his will, to the fury of her husband who blamed it on his brother-in-law's machinations.

The family spent the summer of 1790 at Irishtown, just south of Dublin city on the coast, and Tone remembered their sojourn there as the happiest days of his life. Their son William was born in April 1791, but Matilda saw little of her husband over the next year. He had become involved in a new radical group called the United Irishmen, who were inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, and was spending most of his time in Dublin and Belfast. Matilda, still living in Kildare, sometimes accompanied him to Dublin, but she disliked large social gatherings. Another son, Frank, was born in 1793. In 1795, Tone's revolutionary activities led to him being exiled from Ireland. He, Matilda, their children and his sister Mary Tone left for America in June 1795 and made their way to Philadelphia. Their stay in America was unhappy. Tone hated America and Americans—"the most disgusting race, eaten up with the vice of commerce and that vilest of all pride, the pride of the purse." Matilda was in poor health and found their home near Princeton, New Jersey, inconvenient and uncomfortable. Tone did not want to bring up his children in America and longed to return to Ireland.

In February 1796, he went to France on a mission to persuade the French government to support an insurrection in Ireland. Matilda was pregnant again but did not tell him until he was about to leave so that he could not change his plans. Tone secured French help for an expedition to Ireland in December 1796, but the expedition collapsed due to severe storms and an apathetic response in Ireland. Matilda, who had miscarried, left America with the children at the end of 1796 and arrived in Hamburg in January 1797, after a terrible Atlantic crossing. They lived happily outside Paris until September 1798, when Tone embarked on another expedition to Ireland. In her analysis of their correspondence before this event, Elliott concludes that both of them knew he would not come back, as the expedition was plagued by leaks of information, changes of plan and a lack of money. It was galling to Matilda to learn later that one of the leaks had come from Thomas Reynolds, husband of her sister Harriet Witherington Reynolds . Tone was captured when the expedition landed in Ireland, and on November 11 he learned that he was to be publicly hanged the following day. That night he slit his throat and died a week later. Suspicions of foul play were put forward at the time and since, but Matilda never doubted that it was suicide and wrote later: "he told me he knew his life was gone, but that executed he would never be."

Matilda's life after Tone's death was hard. Her brother Edward had promised Tone while he was in prison in Dublin that he would look after her but did not. She received some money from the French government, but the promised pension did not materialize until 1804 as a result of her personal appeals to Napoleon and Talleyrand. The pension was paid to her until her death by successive French governments. Her daughter Maria died of tuberculosis in 1803 and was followed three years later by her youngest child Frank, also of TB. This left only William who studied at the French military college at St. Germain and joined the French army. He fought in Napoleon's campaigns in 1813–14 and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur. He served under the brief Bourbon Restoration in 1814–15 but supported Napoleon during the Hundred Days in 1815.

Following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, Matilda and William applied for permission to return to Ireland, but the name Tone was still considered too dangerous for the authorities and they were refused. In August 1816, Matilda married an old friend of Tone's, Thomas Wilson, who was a Scottish doctor. The marriage would only last eight years until Wilson's death in 1824, but it was happy and gave Matilda much-needed stability and comfort. In 1817, she and Wilson joined William in America. In 1824, after Thomas Wilson's death, she and William started compiling a biography of Wolfe Tone based on his memoirs, journals and writings. The two-volume Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, published in 1826 in Washington, was a work of great historical significance. However, Matilda and William made some key excisions: notably Tone's contemptuous comments on the Witheringtons; his criticisms of Americans and America (where his widow and son were now living happily); and Tone's references to other women and to such frivolous pursuits as theater, opera and ballet. The excised passages are included in Thomas Bartlett's 1998 edition of the Life.

William died of the family scourge, tuberculosis, in October 1828, leaving a daughter. Matilda stayed on in Washington, becoming something of a celebrity. A visitor from Ireland meeting her in 1836 noted that "both on the tongue and heart—her feelings are enthusiastically Irish." In the mid-1830s, R.R. Madden, who was writing his monumental history of the United Irishmen, arrived in America where many of the surviving exiles now lived. For some reason historians cannot explain, he never spoke to Matilda Tone and since she never wrote her memoirs ("a misfortune," as Frank MacDermot wrote in his 1939 biography of Wolfe Tone), Madden missed a major opportunity. When Matilda died in March 1849, in her 81st year, according to the obituaries, her funeral was attended by the French ambassador, French and American generals and a huge number of representatives from Irish-American societies.


Curtin, Nancy J. "Matilda Tone and virtuous republican femininity," in The Women of 1798. Edited by Daire Keogh and Nicholas Furlong. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998, pp. 26–46.

Elliott, Marianne. Wolfe Tone: Prophet of Irish Independence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

MacDermot, Frank. Theobald Wolfe Tone: A Biographical Study. London: Macmillan, 1939.

Reynolds, Thomas. The Life of Thomas Reynolds, Esq. By his son. London: Henry Hooper, 1839. 2 vols.

St. Mark, J.J. "Matilda and William Tone in Washington after 1798," in Eire/Ireland. Vol. 22, no. 4. Winter 1987, pp. 4–10.

Tone, William T.W. Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone: Memoirs, Journals and Political Writings, compiled and arranged by William T.W. Tone, 1826. Edited by Thomas Bartlett. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1998.

suggested reading:

Jacob, Rosamond. The Rebel's Wife (novel). Tralee: The Kerryman, 1957.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland