"You are ALL to me. You can always make me happy in circumstances apparently unpleasant and miserable... Indeed my dearest angel, the whole happiness of my life depends on you." Charles James Fox to the courtesan Elizabeth Armistead on 7 May 1785.
Imagine you are a politician of some renown, in fact some consider you to be one of the greatest politicians ever in English history, you come from an aristocratic family descended from Charles II. Now imagine that you fall madly in love with a woman who has been the mistress of several titled gentlemen, so much in love that you do the unthinkable, and you secretly marry her. Sounds like historical romance doesn't it?
Well, in this case the story is real. Charles James Fox, aristocratic man about town, Whig politician and one of the most brilliant and charismatic men of his day, and Elizabeth Armistead, is one of the greatest love stories of the eighteenth century, if not ever. In some ways, it was inevitable that Charles James Fox, or CJF as I like to call him, would fall madly in love. His family's romantic history alone is littered with people falling in love with what society would consider inappropriate people and living happily ever after.
His own mother, Lady Caroline Lennox, daughter of the Duke of Richmond, married Henry Fox, Lord Holland against her parents wishes. Henry Fox was 18 years older than Lady Caroline, and had alreaady run through one fortune. The couple eloped when Caroline was 21, and lived happily together until Lord Holland's death.
The Duke and his Duchess had been an arranged marriage and had fallen in love, so naturally they reserved the right to make brilliant matches for their children. After all it worked for them. In fact the story of the Duke and Duchess of Richmond is another wonderful love story. The Duke, a grandson of Charles II through his mistress, Louise de Keroualle, had married Lady Sarah Cadogan when she was thirteen and he was eighteen. The marriage had been arranged by their parents to settle the gambling debts of his father. Apparently the newly married couple disliked each other on first sight. Soon after the marriage, the Duke took off for the continent. When he returned three years, he attended an evening at the theater, where he saw a beautiful woman in a box surrounded by admirers. When he inquired who it was, he was informed that it was his wife! This time he wooed her properly and they fell deeply in love. The couple were known for being very affectionate with each other, which was not the norm in aristocratic marriages.
Lady Caroline's sister, Emily, the Duchess of Leinster, remarried her children's tutor, William Ogilivie after her husband's death. And the younger sister, Sarah, after surviving not just the disappointment of being rejected by George III as a bride, but having her first marriage end in divorce, found happiness married to an impoverished soldier, George Napier. With the examples of his mother and his aunts, is it any wonder that when Charles James Fox finally fell deeply in love, there would be nothing to stop him from finally making 'his Liz' his lawful wife?
At the time that Elizabeth and Charles James Fox became reacquainted, she was thirty-three and CJF was thirty-four. Elizabeth had spent the past ten years as one of the most famous courtesans in London. She had appeared upon the stage for a short-time (as most courtesans did at one time or another) before deciding there was more profit to be had from the life of a Cyprian. She had caught the eye of the Prince of Wales after his affair with Mary Robinson, but discovered that Prince was not a good bet since he had a hard time paying his own bills, let alone hers. She moved on to others, finally securing two annuities for her favors. Elizabeth's string of fashionable and aristocratic lovers included two dukes, an earl, a viscount as well as the aforementioned Prince of Wales when she became reacquainted with Charles James Fox. They had mutual friends in common in Whig Society. Charles James Fox had recently ended an affair with Mary Robinson, and Elizabeth had been the mistress of several of his friends (London society was small and notoriously incestuous, everyone was either related to, having affairs with, or married to each other).
She was born Elizabeth Bridget Cane on July 11, 1750. No one is sure if there was a Mr. Armistead or not. It could be that she took the name to spare her family from finding out about her life in London but more than likely he was an early protector of hers. No one knows quite how Elizabeth Armistead came to be 'on the game' as they called it. It wasn't unusual for a girl to be seduced and than abandoned, leaving her no choice but to turn to a life of prositution. The newest neighborhood for the high class brothels of the era or 'nunneries' as they were called was around St. James. It is possible that Elizabeth started her career in one of the brothels before being set up in her own establishment by a protector which was the goal of most women (far better to service one man than several). In a courtesan's lifetime, she might have been kept at various times by several men, either singularly, or at the same time.
Charles James Fox, was a rising star in the Whig party, and a close friend of the Duchess of Devonshire and the Prince of Wales. While his reputation is not what it once was compared to his rival Pitt, Fox was still one of the most beloved politicians in the late 18th and 19th Century. He was born on January 24, 1749, the second surviving son of Henry Fox and Lady Caroline. His parents spoiled him immensely, particularly his father, who indulged him. 'Let nothing be done to break his spirit,' he used to say, 'the world will do that soon enough.' Fox was a child prodigy, who at Eton and Oxford devoured books the way he devoured food. He could read in Greek, French, Latin, Italian, as well as English, and had a passion for mathematics of all things.
His father contributed to his dissipation by taking him off to the continent and introducing him to all manner of vices, including gambling. He was first elected to parliament in 1768 at the tender age of 19 which he was technically ineligible to be a member. Fox was a staunch adversary of George III, he supported the colonists during the American Revolution, dressing in the colors of Washington's army in Parliament. He served briefly as Britain's first Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in 1782, before the fall of North's government and the election of William Pitt, the Younger, as Britain's youngest Prime Minister.
His private life was notorious in an age of licentiousness. He was famed for his drinking and gambling. Although he was very good at card games, what got CJF into trouble were the betting books at his club. They would be on sometimes the most nonsensical things like how long it would take for a drop of rain to make down a window pane, or more serious bets such as how long Lord North would be First Lord of the Treasury. Between 1772 and 1774, his father, Lord Holland had to pay off 120,000 pounds of Charles James's debts, the equivalent today of $11 million dollars! Fox twice went bankrupt in 1781 and 1784 (at one point during their time together, Elizabeth sold her annuities to pay their debts). Although he could best be described as dark, fat, and hairy, he was also a notorious womanizer, who preferred women of easy virtue, which can't have been good for his health. He had two illegitmate children that he supported, Henry, who was deaf and Harriet who may have been dim-witted. He was also a bit of a dandy, one of the leaders of the 'Macaroni' set of followers of continental fashions.
Looking at his portrait, you can see why not just Elizabeth, but everyone loved him. His eyes are kind, and there is a sweetness about his expression. His luxuriant eyebrows made him known among the Whigs as 'the Eyebrow.' He was not just a gifted orator but also a great ranconteur. As for Elizabeth, she seemed to have a stillness about her which calmed CJF's more frenetic energy. She also, according to Katie Hickman, had a genius for friendship. Fox once said that 'friendship was the only real happiness in the world.' Most of her former protectors stayed friends, after CJF's death, they kept her afloat until her death. While not considered to beautiful (although her portrait above by Reynolds suggests that she was quite lovely), she was a good listener, which a trait which can never be underestimated. Soon after they became lovers, it was clear from his letters that she had his absolute confidence and trust, that he treated her like an equal. Unfortunately, most of Elizabeth's letters to Fox haven't survived, so we are missing one part of the equation. But it is clear from his letters to her that she had quickly become indispensible to him. They were two mature people who were delighted to find each other, not two kids in the first flush of infatuation.
Soon after they met and became lovers, they settled down into a monogamous relationship, but sometime after, Elizabeth had a moment of panic. It was the first time in her career that she had no protector to pay the bills. Being a courtesan was an expensive lifestyle, appearances had to be kept up. How did Elizabeth know that Fox's ardor would last? While several courtesans had ended their careers with a stable union, more often then not, they ended ignobly, dying in poverty. Elizabeth had no real ambitions to go on the stage, nor did she harbor literary ambitions like Mary Robinson. Instead, she made the momentous decision to break things off with him, planning on moving to the continent, whether it was because living was cheaper or she thought she could restart her career on the continent.
But Fox would not have it. He wrote her one of the most beautiful love letters that a man could write:
'No my dearest Liz, you must not go indeed you must not, the very thought of living without you so totally sinks my spirits that I am sure the reality would be more than I could bear....I have examined myself and know that I can better abandon friends, country and everything than live without Liz. I could change my name and live with you in the remotest part of Europe in poverty and obscurity. I could bear that very well, but to be parted I can not bear...'
After receiving that letter, what choice did she have but to throw her lot in with Fox, and only him? What woman in her right man would leave a man who could write like that (no British stiff upper lip for him). She had broken one of the cardinal rules of being a courtesan, she had fallen in love with a poor man (Fox had lost all his fortune by now, and he refused to use his office for profit). Instead, Elizabeth sold her houses in London, and moved permanently to Queen Anne's Hill in Chertsey, which she later was able to purchase with help from the Duke of Marlborough.
Deeply in love, they were also best friends. Elizabeth spent most of her time at her home outside of London at Queen Anne's Hill, unless Fox needed her in London. She made him keep regular hours, made sure that he ate, and that he cut back on his drinking. They lived a thoroughly domestic life, in fact their friends were surprised to find out how much they enjoyed little things like shopping together for crockery. They shared an interest in gardening. The only flaw as far as Elizabeth could see was that Fox had no interest in music, a particular love of hers. In town, due to late sessions of Parliament, Fox found it hard to keep on the straight and narrow in regards to his drinking and late nights. She was his sounding board, listening to his speeches, darning his shirts. Their house became a gathering place for the Whig politicians. Fox's nephew, Lord Holland, his elder brother's son, was a frequent visitor from nearby Eton. Elizabeth apparently was a great reader, and they would read aloud to each other from the poets and writers of the day.
Elizabeth would occasionally escape abroad for small holidays or day trips to Bath to take the waters for her rheumatism. Due to their relationship, while in London, they could only been seen in public, in the Park, shopping or at the theater. They couldn't attend social functions together unless they were also public occasions like a public masque. Elizabeth didn't mind, she was a woman of the world, and she knew the rules.
The early years of their life together were notoriously busy for Charles James Fox. He became Secretary of State, not once but twice, the second time in a coalition government, headed by the Whig Duke of Portland. Fox was working on a bill to reform the East India Company, which passed through the House of Commons relatively easy but was stopped cold when it got to the House of Lords. Fox had been done in by Pitt and the King who had formed a plot to sabotage it.
Although they were devoted to each other, Fox was still considered an eligible man, and daughters were pushed at him, even though he was a younger son. Thomas Coutts, the banker, hoped that Fox would marry one of his daughters, Fanny, which would have solved all of his problems. Elizabeth, all together more practical then her lover, resolved to leave him so that he would be free to marry. Once again, he refused to let her leave him. He wrote her this letter:
"I can never be happy without you and you have promised to be ruled in this instance by my determination. That is fixed and if you love me, I shall be happy, if not, I shall be miserable, but still with my Liz, for never can I give my consent to part with her. Do repeat to me my dearest love that you love me tenderly, dearly and fondly for it is such a comf to me to hear it and read it; and it is true, my deatest Liz, is it not?"
It was after the Coutts affair that in 1795, Fox decided it was time for he and Elizabeth to wed. There had been a precedent for courtesans marrying their protectors. Kitty Fisher, one of the most famous courtesans of the 18th Century, married a member of Parliament, and retired to his country estate, until her death 5 months later from using lead-based face paint. There was still the problem of whether or not, Elizabeth would be received, if they married. Elizabeth was also worried that Fox might regret marrying her, but he assured her that after twelve years of connubial yet unmarried bliss, his love for her was as strong as ever. So they married, but Elizabeth insisted that the marriage be kept a secret.
It was only revealed to the public in 1802, after the couple embarked on a trip to France, so that Fox could work on a biography of James II. He wanted to avoid a repeat of their last trip to Europe, where Elizabeth had been snubbed by English travelers that they had met. If it was known they were married, the English abroad would be hard pressed to refuse. There was a brief peace in the hostilities between France and Britain and the English were flocking to France having been denied her pleasures for a number of years. Fox was pleased that Elizabeth was, if not warmly received, that she was not snubbed either. In fact most found it hard not to like Elizabeth when they met.
The only fly in the ointment was Lady Holland, the wife of Fox's nephew. Lady Holland had been married before, when she had embarked on an affair with Holland and become pregnant with his child. After the divorce, they married. Despite Lord Holland's love for his uncle's wife, Elizabeth, Lady Holland refused to meet her. Perhaps, she found Elizabeth's situation too similar to her own. After all, an adulteress and a courtesan are sort of sisters of the same skin.
Lady Holland was also in Paris at this time as well, and was not happy to see Elizabeth such a success. It came that Mrs. Fox was to be presented to Josephine and Napoleon. Elizabeth chose to pretend that her dress was not ready, so that Lady Holland would not be offended. However, Lady Holland left Paris when she found out that she was not invited to any of the private parties.
Back in England, Fox's younger brother Henry, his wife, and Fox's niece Caroline came to call on Elizabeth. Soon other family members followed including, Fox's aunt, the dowager Duchess of Leinster. She soon made a champion out of Lady Holland to everyone's surprise. There were a few hold-outs among Fox's friend's including Thomas Coke of Holkham Hall (who would one day have a granddaughter, Scandalous Woman, Jane Digby). But Whig hostesses Lady Bessborough and the Duchess of Devonshire accepted Elizabeth immediately. Most of Fox's friends, whatever their misgivings, couldn't help but respond to Fox's own happiness at being able to finally show off his Liz.
In 1806, Fox became the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Lord Grenville's new government. His years in the wilderness were over. He threw himself into the job with a vigor belying his age of 57. Fox had two objectives, to negotiate peace with France, and to abolish the slave trade. However, his health was not what it once was. They moved into a house in London, loaned to them by the Duke of Bedford, where they had a steady stream of visitors. Fox was so swamped with official papers that he had to work late into the night.
Elizabeth was now Mrs. Secretary Fox, the wife of a cabinet minister. He would rely on her strength in the coming months. While he had the affairs of state to handle, Elizabeth had her own official business to tend to. She paid calls and made visits of etiquette, arranging small working dinners for Fox, and tried to shield him as much as possible. Fox's legs started to swell. He eventually needed a wheelchair to get around because of gout.
She also decided to hold her first supper and ball, set for the 19th of May. The Duke of Bedford once again came to the rescue, offering her Bedford House, and the Prince of Wales's upholsterers redecorated the state apartments. The only question was, who would come? They needn't have worried. All told 400 people attended the evening. Elizabeth's ball was an unmitigated success.
Fox's health continued to decline to such an extant that his friends thought to find him a less onerous job, by suggesting a peerage, which would have elevated him to the less strenerous House of Lords, but Fox wouldn't hear of it.
Charles James Fox died at the age in September 1806, almost 8 months after his rival William Pitt. His last words to her were 'It don't signify Liz, my dearest Liz." Although Fox had hoped to be buried at Chertsey with Elizabeth, it was decided that he should be buried in Westminster Abbey on October 10, 1806 on the anniversary of his election to Parliament from Westminster in 1780. Unlike Pitt's funeral, Fox's was a private affair. Elizabeth Armistead outlived her husband by almost thirty-six years, dying in July of 1842 at just 3 days short of her 92nd birthday at Queen Anne's Hill. She was buried in Chertsey. In her last days she was surrounded by a meange of Foxes, Hollands, and other friends.
Most of the Scandalous Women written about on this blog have had lives that ended unhappily for one reason or another, as if they needed to be punished for breaking society's rules or stepping out of the box. Elizabeth Armistead was one Scandalous Woman who managed to have a happy ending. It was a happy ending that by rights should never have happened. Although she was never accepted completely by society, she was Fox's best friend and his greatest confidante, the one woman that he couldn't live without. While others may have thought that it was Elizabeth who gained the most by her association with him, Fox always believed that he was the lucky one, to have met and loved his Liz.
Courtesans - Katie Hickman (All quotes from CJF's letters to EA are from this book)
Passion and Principle: Lives and Loves of Women in Regency England - Jane Aiken Hodge
Places Associated with CJF and EA:
The Fox Club - The Fox Club is a membership only club that is housed in the townhouse where Elizabeth Armistead lived happily for a number of years with Charles James Fox.
Foxhills - Now a family oriented golf club this was once the home of CJF and EA.