The trial of the Duchess of Kingston (born Elizabeth Chudleigh in 1721) for the crime of bigamy was one of the sensations of the Georgian Age. The Press devoted endless column inches to the trial and its aftermath – to the lower orders it confirmed what they had always known: that their supposed social superiors were a load of lying degenerates. Even The Times was moved to comment in June 1788 that ‘Bigamy, it seems, is a greater crime than simple fornication or fashionable adultery.’
Elizabeth had risen from fairly humble origins – the family owned a small estate in Devon, but they were not wealthy. Her father had unwisely invested what family money there was (£1000) in South Sea Stock, and when the Bubble burst in 1720 he lost the lot. Her father died when he was only 38, leaving the five year old Elizabeth to be brought up in genteel poverty. Mother was forced to take in lodgers at her home in the newly-developed, but not yet fashionable, area of Mayfair in London.
Elizabeth’s childhood seems to have involved little formal education. She was passed like a baton from the care of one country relation to another, until her mother used her friendship with the Earl of Bath to secure a position at Court for Elizabeth as maid of honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales. The year was 1743 and Elizabeth was 22. She desperately needed the annual sum of £200 which went with the position.
When she wanted to shock she could be coarse and vulgar. For instance, she developed a reputation for flatulence at the dinner table, and took repeated pleasure on blaming it on the dogs. She was however a popular figure at Court – vivacious, bright and witty. One day at Winchester Races she encountered a young naval officer called Augustus John Hervey. The two fell impetuously in love, and Hervey proposed marriage almost immediately. His prospects were not good – his salary was a paltry fifty pounds a year, and marriage would automatically mean that Elizabeth would have to abandon her position as Maid of Honour (since married ladies were no longer considered to be maids). More to the point he was about to leave on a two-year tour of duty. A long engagement might have been prudent, not least because it would reveal whether his prospects were ever likely to materialize. He was the second son of the Earl of Bristol but his elder brother was alive, albeit in bad health, and it was by no means certain that Augustus John would ever inherit either the title or the money which would go with it. But the headstrong couple rushed into marriage, deciding to keep it a secret from the outside world. That way, she kept her position at Court, and he was able to avoid the risk of alienating his family. The wedding took place at Lainston in Wiltshire, on 4 August 1744, and he left to join his squadron, en route to the West Indies, two days later.
When the time came for Hervey to return to England, he found that his bride had not exactly been pining away during his absence. She had developed a close friendship with James, Sixth Duke of Hamilton, and her flirtatious behaviour had attracted a host of other admirers, none of whom were aware of her marriage. Proposals from both the Duke of Hamilton and the Duke of Ancaster had been turned down. Hervey was shocked and appalled at her reputation, and the couple did not even meet up for three months. It appears that Elizabeth was keen to see that her debts were paid by Hervey, but not so keen to have to have anything else to do with him. According to later reports, Hervey engineered a private meeting at his apartments by threatening to go public about the marriage if Elizabeth refused to see him. She turned up, was locked inside, and in the words of the time “he would not permit her to retire without consenting to that commerce, delectable only when kindred souls melt into each other with the soft embrace.” In other words, he forced himself upon her. The report continued “The fruit of this meeting was the addition of a boy to the human race.”
This was in 1747. In order to conceal the pregnancy Elizabeth discreetly moved to Chelsea where she could have the child, away from the prying eyes and ears of the Court. But the child, a boy, only lived a few months. The couple agreed to separate a year after the birth, but, since the marriage was a secret, so was the news of the separation. From that point in time, Elizabeth could no longer look to Hervey for financial support and protection, leaving her in a most vulnerable position. Her impetuous behaviour and lack of decorum caused difficulties at Court – especially when she turned up at a masquerade ball at the end of April 1749, during the Jubilee celebrations of George II, wearing … virtually nothing.
Her fellow Maids of Honour were outraged at her bare-chested appearance. She went in the character of Iphigenia, who in Greek mythology was offered as a sacrifice to appease the gods offended by her father Agamemnon, and one of the guests remarked that she gave the appearance of being ‘so naked ye high Priest might easily inspect ye Entrails of ye Victim.’ As The Life and Memoirs of Elizabeth Chudleigh, published in 1788, put it:
“… it has been asserted this lady appeared in a shape of flesh-coloured silk so nicely and closely fitted to her body as to produce a perfect review of the unadorned mother of mankind, and that this fair representative of frailty … had contrived a method of giving as evident tokens of modesty, by binding her loins with a partial covering, or zone, of fig-leaves.”
The King was, as might be expected, far from disinterested in her appearance and asked if he might touch her breast, only to be met with the response that Elizabeth knew of something softer – and promptly placed the King’s hand on his head. His Royal Highness was enchanted by the near-naked nymph, and the gossip-mongers had a field day. Clearly she had the opportunity to become a royal mistress, but for Elizabeth this prospect did not feature in her long-term quest for security. Besides, the Hanoverian kings were notoriously parsimonious when it came to mistresses…
Instead she befriended the shy but rather well-connected Evelyn Pierrepont, Second Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull. A cousin of Lord Bute (future Prime Minister) he was considered one of the most handsome men in England. Not for him the outrageous extravagances of Court – his interests were simple: fishing and cricket. Surprisingly, Elizabeth was happy to share these passions and by 1752 it was noted that the pair were an item. Their union meant that Elizabeth was able to spend money like water. A fine new house was built in London – called initially Chudleigh House, but later renamed Kingston House. Parties for their rich and influential friends were held, and Elizabeth was granted a fair amount of personal freedom, travelling on the continent, where she became a particular friend of the Electress of Saxony. When in England with the duke she was content to spend her time fishing and sharing his other interests – she reportedly even arranged a Ladies Cricket match in his honour.
The question of her marital status became an issue. Hervey had settled in England and wanted a divorce, which could only be obtained by a private Act of Parliament. Such a step would inevitably mean public gossip and adverse comments in parliament. If granted, the divorce would have meant that on any remarriage she would be seen to be “second hand goods”. Elizabeth therefore objected to the whole idea of a divorce and instead petitioned the Ecclesiastical Court for a declaration that she had never been married. The onus was on Hervey to prove that the marriage had taken place – but whereas servants were produced to say that they had heard of the wedding, no-one would testify that they had been present at the ceremony. Elizabeth swore blind that there was no such wedding. On 10th February 1769, sentence was pronounced, “that the said Elizabeth Chudleigh was and now is a Spinster, and free from all matrimonial contracts and espousals with the said Augustus John Hervey “ A month later, on her forty-eighth birthday, Elizabeth married the duke.
Oddly, polite society turned against the couple. Everyone knew that she had been married, and whereas it was one thing to be the Duke’s mistress, received at Court and by the great and the good, it was another to be seen as a flagrant bigamist. Elizabeth found herself shunned, and she and her husband retreated to their country estates. All was well for a few years, but the Duke suffered a series of strokes and died in 1763. Under his will, everything passed to his widow, on condition that she did not remarry. Enter the jealous relations, outraged at either having to wait, or worse still, having to be cut out of their inheritances altogether.
Elizabeth set out for the continent. She was received with the courtesies due to a duchess by the Pope, Clement XIV. Meanwhile, March 1775 saw her first, and therefore legal, husband succeed to the Earldom of Bristol, making her the Countess of Bristol. It was not a title she wished to be known by!
Later in 1775 she was forced to return to England because the Duke of Kingston’s nephew, Evelyn Meadows, brought proceedings against her based on the fact that she had married bigamously. He wanted to show that the Will should be set aside, either on the basis that there was no marriage, or that Elizabeth had used undue influence. In vain Elizabeth sought to have the hearing set aside by virtue of the earlier decision of the Ecclesiastical Court. In vain she tried to get George III to intervene, or to help her get the case transferred to the House of Lords. All this was duly reported in the papers of the day. Worse still, the actor play-wright Samuel Foote tried to put on a play called A Trip to Calais, in which the thinly disguised figure of the Duchess was represented by a coarse, avaricious woman named Kitty Crocodile. Foote’s purpose may have been no more than to extort money from Elizabeth – he reportedly turned up at her house and read aloud passages to the mortified lady, and demanded two thousand pounds in return for agreeing not to have the play published. By all accounts Elizabeth tried to outflank Foote by using her influence with the Lord Chamberlain, who was happy to have the play banned. Outraged, Foote took the story to the papers. Matters were made worse when Elizabeth responded to a letter written by Foote – he simply published the exchange of letters, which brought the entire saga out into the open. The whole story became public property.
The bigamy trial in April 1776 was a sensation: Elizabeth was unwell and therefore escaped being locked up in the Tower prior to the trial. Instead, she was in effect put under house arrest. 350 tickets were printed granting entrance to the court – even Queen Charlotte turned up one day. The general consensus was that Elizabeth would be found guilty –and there was much conjecture as to whether she could be sent to a penal colony, given that Britain was by then at war with her American colonies.
Witnesses who had previously denied the wedding suddenly appeared out of the woodwork and agreed that they had been present at the ceremony. Others, who might have helped Elizabeth, simply declined to give evidence or went on long holidays abroad. The result was inevitable – she was found guilty, probably not helped by the fact that in 1759, before her bigamous union, she had taken the extraordinary step of registering the original marriage in the Parish Church at Lainston. Quite why she had done this was unclear – maybe it was a safety precaution in case the Duke did not marry her, perhaps she wanted to be able to fall back on the idea of being a Countess if and when Hervey became Earl. Whatever the reason, it hardly helped her case, although she personally addressed the court for three quarters of an hour. The decision of the Lords was unanimous – 119 peers took it in turns to give a verdict of guilty. Only her rank (i.e. as Countess of Bristol) spared her from imprisonment. Instead she fled to the continent, her fortune intact but her reputation in tatters.
Within days, pamphlets giving lurid details of the trial appeared not just in London but across the country. One ran to thirty-two pages and was published by Joseph Harrop, printer and proprietor of the Manchester Mercury. He sold it for three pence, or offered it for free to subscribers of his newspaper. In effect it was the forerunner of the free supplements which accompany today’s gossip magazines.
The run-in with Samuel Foote led to a secondary scandal, which was to ruin the poor playwright. Elizabeth employed the Reverend William Jackson as her secretary. He wrote articles in the ’Public Ledger’ suggesting that Foote was a homosexual. Foote successfully sued for libel, but the Reverend, probably bankrolled by Elizabeth, and using the nom de plume of Humphrey Nettle, published a lengthy attack on Foote under the title of ‘Sodom and Onan.’ It contained a recognisable portrait of Foote, together with an illustration of a large naked foot. The satire attacked Foote as a sodomite, using language which was neither subtle nor appropriate for a man of the cloth. Foote responded by re-writing A Trip to Calais as The Capuchin, with William Jackson lampooned as Dr Viper. The bitter exchange of vitriol was followed by criminal charges being brought against Foote in late 1776. He appeared before the Kings Bench to answer allegations, made by his former footman John Sangster, that Foote had attempted to “commit an unnatural act upon his person” twice in May 1775. Lord Mansfield heard the case, and concluded that the whole thing was a conspiracy to blacken Foote’s character, and Foote was acquitted. But the damage had been done, and Foote died, a broken man, shortly afterwards. He was 57.
On the back of the bigamy trial the Meadows family sought to have the Will set aside. A suit in the Court of Chancery would inevitably take many years, and during this time Elizabeth drifted from one European court to another. To her great consternation, she was not an honoured guest at Maria Theresa’s court in Vienna, thanks in part to the intervention of the British Ambassador. She found greater favour at the court of the Russian Empress, and bought an extensive estate near St Petersburg which she named Chudleigh. She also had residences in Rome and in Paris, finally dying in the French capital in 1788, still legally the Countess of Bristol but denied the title of Duchess of Kingston. The Meadows family descended on her assets like vultures, reclaiming what they saw as rightfully theirs. News quickly crossed the Channel, and in death the bigamist Elizabeth became famous once more, with pamphlets and newspapers reviving public interest in her scandalous life. One book ran to 252 pages and bore the title “Authentic Particulars of the Life of the Late Duchess of Kingston During Her Connection with the Duke: Her Residence at Dresden, Vienna, St. Petersburgh, Paris and Several Other Courts of Europe, Also a Faithful Copy of Her Singular Will”
Was she a gold digger, a callous woman who lied through her teeth and enjoyed a status to which she had no entitlement? Or was she simply a woman who genuinely did not regard herself as being married (whatever the letter of the law) when she had spent so little time with Hervey as man and wife? Perhaps she had simply convinced herself that she was entitled to regard the order from the ecclesiastical court as binding. Having been raped by Hervey, who can blame her? Certainly she appears to have been a loving and devoted partner to the Duke – he was clearly the love of her life, and vice versa. In the event it did not really matter – the public were able to indulge their appetite for scandal, gossip and intrigue, and the case sums up much about Georgian attitudes and hypocrisy towards marriage, infidelity, the courts and money. As such, she earns her place in my forthcoming book, ‘Sex Scandal and Satire, in bed with the Georgians’.
The Author Mike Rendell