As it’s Valentine’s Day, we’re looking at some of the more unusual love stories from our exhibition. The story of Christian Cavanagh is one of love, deception and adventure. And like all good love stories it contains plenty of drama, a disappearance, adultery and a female soldier masquerading as a man in order to find her husband.
The Dublin born lady grew up on a farm in Leixslip, Kildare. She took many names including Christian Davies, Kit Cavanaugh, Mother Ross and surnames – Welsh, Welch, Jones, and Davies. The romance began when Cavanagh met Richard Welsh whilst living with her aunt, who ran a public house in Dublin. Welsh was working for her aunt as a servant at the time. After her aunt’s death Cavanagh inherited the pub, and ran the pub as her own with Richard as a waiter. They married and had two children. In 1691 Cavanagh was pregnant with their third child when Richard went out on an errand never to return.
After several months of no contact, Cavanagh received a letter from him out of the blue, explaining that he had been forced into the Army and shipped across the sea. Although some recollections of the event have documented that Richard had gone drinking with a friend, ended up on board a ship and enlisted in the Army with no means of getting back home.
Either way Cavanagh went off in search of her husband, a journey that would last for the next 13 years. Cavanagh enlisted in the British Army under the name of Christopher Welch and began a life that saw her serving in the War of Spanish Succession, being detained as a prisoner of war in France, courting women including a Burgher’s daughter, fighting duels and being accused of fathering a child, and paying for child support as not to reveal her female identity.
Eventually she found her husband Richard Welsh at the regiment at the Battle of Blenheim, where she was serving as French guard to the prisoners. Welsh was then a private in the 1st Regiment of Foot. Having found her husband with another woman, she refused to go back to him, preferring to remain a dragoon in the Scots Greys.
In 1706 Cavanagh, now known as Christopher Welsh and pretending to by her husband’s brother, was wounded at the Battle of Ramillies, and she could contain her secret no longer. Word of the discovery quickly spread among the camp, and while her bravery and skill on the battlefield were not in doubt, she was not to fight as a soldier again. Cavanagh was allowed remain with the army of as a wife to Welsh and sulter to the regiment.
Although accounts list her as being a faithful wife, her husband’s reputation is the opposite. Even after being reunited with his wife, Richard Welsh continued to see other women. When Cavanagh discovered one of his mistresses was still following the regiment, Cavanagh attacked the woman, cutting off her nose. At the Battle of Malplaquet, where Welsh died, Cavanagh turned over as many as two hundred bodies before finding him so that she could bury him.
Cavanagh married twice more after the death of Welsh, both to soldiers. Cavanagh returned to England in 1712 after the War of Spanish Succession. Her extraordinary story meant she presented at court to Queen Anne, and was granted a bounty of £50 and a shilling a day for life as a pension.
Settled life didn’t suit Cavanagh, now known as Mrs Davies, and her third husband, spent their lifes criss-crossing between Ireland and England working a variety of jobs. Eventually she was admitted to the Royal Hospital Chelsea as a pensioner. She was buried, at her request, with full military honours.
Cavanagh’s story is part of our Conflict gallery at our museum, one of 20 interactive galleries that bring the stories of Irish emigration to life. Find out why people left, see how they influenced the world they found, and experience the connection between their descendants and Ireland today. Open daily in The chq Building from 10am, last entry 5pm.