Ugly is a Place

In the non-metropolitan district of Uttesford in the questionably fair county of Essex; a mile north of Stanstead Mountfitchet, and loitering between Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford, lies a tiny hamlet glorying under the name of Ugley.

Ugley has been Ugley since the Domesday book at least. It has several buildings which have survived from the 16th and 17th centuries, and the local church, St Peter’s, has a nave dating from the 13th century and a Tudor brick tower.

The toponymists have a perfectly good explanation for why Ugley is called Ugley. Once upon a time, they tell us, someone called Ugga lived there. The name means ‘woodland clearing of a man named Ugga.’

But while Ugley is a place, it is not the quintessence of British ugliness.

No: but we win international awards for our ugliness, you know.We are basking in the reflected glory of a small four-legged ambassador of British ugliness. And his name is Mugly.

Mugly is a Chinese crested dog. This means he has no hair. His skin is like that of a human, but a muddy grey. He has a large protruding forehead, bulgy eyes and the facial hair of a young adolescent boy: scraggly and unimpressive.

Not only did Mugly sweep UK’s ugliest dog award away ย in 2005; but now he has thrashed global unsightliness in the Worlds’s Ugliest Dog competition, held in California this past week.

Being ugly can pay dividends in this day and age. But I have been digging for a week or so now into an age-old story where being ugly may have been the downfall of the man who would once have had Ugley in his jurisdiction: an Earl of Essex.

The portrait of a woman hangs on the wall at The Vyne, a great mansion in Sherborne St John, Hampshire.

She is classed as unknown. Portraits would change hands in batches when new owners moved into a home: and they weren’t always correctly identified. The Victorians were not perturbed by this: they labelled her Frances, Countess of Essex.

Who was the woman for whom she was named?

She was a stunningly beautiful member of the catholic Howard family, promised to another English dynasty: the Devereaux.

But she was trouble from the moment she stepped into the third Earl of Essex’s life. Not that he was a model of calm and good sense: they were gossip fodder for the court from the moment their match was announced.

That was in 1606: Robert was not even 15, and his consort only a few months older. He was sent abroad for a Grand Tour, and returned to find his wife ย the toast of the town, a true society beauty, who had already attracted the attentions of Prince Henry.

And then, Fate intervened most cruelly.

Robert contracted the smallpox. It was a severe bout: and his face was left severely scarred and pock-marked. His beautiful wife grew quickly to hate, despise and cuckold him, finally petitioning to have the marriage annulled.

It does not do to squabble with a Prince, even is he is coveting your wife. In the first of a chapter of indiscretions Devereux quarrelled with the prince and hit him round the head with a tennis racquet.

His life from that time on led inexorably downhill: from becoming embroiled in public brawls, being branded impotent in a case brought by the Howards in the law courts, and causing general distaste in the court of first James and then Charles I, his greatest successes were as a military leader. His men would attest to his skill as a tactician and loyalty to his own.

But this has been lost, it seems. The image of a pock-marked malcontent persists to this day.

Ugliness served Robert as badly as it has served Ugley, and indeed Mugley, well.

Material on Robert Devereaux from the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography. Picture source here


30 thoughts on “Ugly is a Place

    1. I do not know, Roger, though if Ugga was the bloke involved I’d guess it’s going to be central to the pronunciation. I shall e mail the WI of Ugley immediately to ask. Thanks to Lynne Robinson (@LynneRobbo) who tweeted a Guardian piece on naughty names I now know the WI changed their names because they were fed up of being called the Ugley WI. It’s here:

    1. Good point, Sidey. Poor old Essex. He had tremendous good qualities; but it would be inaccurate to blame the way his life turned out on his ugliness. He was a hothead, and made some disastrous decisions…personally I believe that was just the way he was. There are people who would not win beauty contests who have gone on to do all sorts of amazing things…

  1. There is something quite appealing about Mugly with his sprouts of white hair.
    You mention some dogs whose front end you can’t tell from the back. Our nephew had a dog, they called ‘The Mop’, and he was sent under the bed to perform the dusting and cleaning task. It was fine as long has he shook himself outside!!! He had an embarrassing tendency to attempt copulation with anything that moved, which made him even less appealing.

    1. Indeed. Although I feel sure he will enjoy the year’s supply of doggie treats. Not sure he’s the best one to appreciate the resulting champion’s limousine ride, though….

  2. The admonitions abound: pretty is as pretty does; don’t judge a book by its cover; a face only a mother could love, etc. Unfortunately, there are too many of us who heed none of them and refuse to look beyond the surface!

    1. I think it might be programmed in, Karen, but that’s just a hunch. I know symmetry is a selection criteria when we’re choosing a mate. Hard to be branded because of one’s appearance, though.

  3. I’ve missed my lively history lessons by you! This was a particularly interesting one. Couldn’t but help feel sorry for the long-dead Earl! As it is often said — ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and, obviously this woman he loved was ugly on the inside.

  4. Were I my father, I would take over this whole post to proclaim the glories of Uga, the mascot for his alma mater, the University of Georgia. Maybe there is a correlation somewhere in the annals of history, though I highly doubt it.

    Those Howards were always scheming, weren’t they?

  5. I’d forgotten about Ugley, Kate, I used to get a query for there every now and then when I worked on Directory Enquiries a lifetime ago (I always used to spell it wrongly as well, without the E!) Never heard of Ugga though. Things could have been completely different if the place had been called Uggaham or similar… The hairless dogs seem to frighten me for some reason, but I wouldn’t say they were ugly.

  6. I read this a couple of days ago on Twitter…but didn’t get around to commenting. I’ve had the benefit of a little time to think about it. I found it such a fascinating post, thinking about how beauty opens doors, and the reverse of that comment is also true. But here’s a very random remark that I will add…I have also noticed on many occasions that some very unattractive people have had the most beautiful children. My data is collected from rather random samplings among people I know! ๐Ÿ™‚ But it makes me wonder about the gene pools. I told you it was a random commment…don’t try to make any more sense of it! Ha! D

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