Palmer (Ambrose), Eleanor (c.1720–1818), celebrated beauty, was born Eleanor Ambrose , daughter and heiress of Michael Ambrose, a wealthy Roman catholic brewer and merchant, and his wife, the daughter of Richard Archbold, a Dublin brewer; nothing is known of her mother. She came to prominence in 1745 when Philip Dormer Stanhope (qv), 4th earl of Chesterfield, was sent to Ireland as lord lieutenant. Chesterfield was then 49 years old, and had secured additional status in society through his marriage in 1733 to Melusina de Schulenberg, the illegitimate daughter of King George I. His indiscretions were notorious, and he had previously offended George II by paying court to his mistress. Samuel Johnson wrote of him that he was ‘a wit among lords and a lord among wits’ but also noted that he had ‘the morals of a strumpet and the manners of a dancing master’ (G.E.C., Peerage, iii, 183). Arriving in Ireland, he was sworn in on 31 August 1745, and soon became enamoured of the Dublin belle, Miss Ambrose.
Renowned for her ready wit as much as for her beauty, Eleanor made an immediate impression on the new viceroy and they were soon inseparable. She attended his state councils and accompanied him everywhere in public; she was a popular favourite and received cheers from the gallery at the theatre. The only source of tension was Ambrose's devout catholicism, which she made no attempt to disguise. On one famous occasion, at a ball to celebrate the birthday of the late King William (qv), she provocatively wore orange lilies on her bodice in a gesture of defiance. Chesterfield was bemused by her attitude, and responded with an epigram that quickly added to his dashing reputation:
Tell me Ambrose, where's the jest
Of wearing orange on thy breast,
When underneath that bosom shows
The whiteness of the rebel rose?
On a visit to London to report to the king, Chesterfield was asked about the state of the catholics in the country. To provoke a reaction, he declared that he had only found one ‘dangerous papist’. There was some confusion at this statement and he was asked to explain. Chesterfield then revealed that he was referring to his Irish favourite, remarking: ‘She is a beautiful young lady, [and] the brightness of her eyes and the charms of her conversations are indeed perilous’ (Gerard, 19). The description reached Ireland and Ambrose was soon known popularly as ‘the dangerous papist’.
In March 1746 Chesterfield took a leave of absence from Ireland and never returned. Her patron and protector gone, Ambrose decided to find a husband and in 1751 she married Roger Palmer (1729–90), a wealthy young politician from Castle Lackin, Co. Mayo. He was later MP for Jamestown, Co. Leitrim (1761–8), and Portarlington, Queen's Co. (1768–83), and was created a baronet on 3 May 1777; he died on 25 January 1790. They had three sons. After his death Eleanor Palmer lived alone at a small lodging on Henry St., Dublin. Her fame continued to spread, and in the early nineteenth century she was visited by a curious Richard Lalor Sheil (qv), who revealed that almost everything she said was ripe with sedition. She died 19 February 1818 at her home. Her portrait was displayed in Dublin at an exhibition in 1872 but it was later destroyed by fire. Frances Gerard, her romantic biographer, later described the countenance: it was ‘a face to haunt the memory; a patrician style of beauty, with long seductive eyes, dazzling complexion . . . The lips parted in half mocking smile’ (Gerard, 29).