'Bigamy, it seems, is a greater crime than simple fornication or fashionable adultery,' The Times of London in June 1788.
Gossip has been around for centuries, but it wasn't until the 18th century with the rise of the printed media, like newspapers and magazines that gossip reached a mass audience. It seemed that everyone loved to read the titillating tidbits about the aristocracy. New magazines like Town and Country, printed a monthly article on certain aristocrats and their mistresses. The trial of Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston for bigamy provided the lower classes with confirmation that the ruling class of England was made up of a group of degenerates, and revealed a secret that the aristocracy had known for years.
The Duchess of Kingston was born plain Elizabeth Chudleigh on March 8, 1721. She was the only daughter of Thomas Chudleigh, who was the administrator of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea at the time of his death in 1726, at the relatively young age of 38, when Elizabeth was five. The Chudleigh's were an old Devonshire family, whose ancestors had fought on both sides of the English Civil War. Thomas Chudleigh's mother Lady Mary Chudleigh, had been a writer of some note. Her most famous work was The Ladies Defence, a satire on marriage. Some scholars believe that Lady Mary must have been married to an overbearing husband to have written The Ladies Defence, but biographers believe the marriage was relatively happy, if only because her husband allowed her to publish at all.
He married his first cousin Henrietta, after making his way as a soldier, rising to the rank of Colonel of his regiment. After several babies died soon after birth, they were finally blessed with a son, Thomas in 1718. Three years later, Elizabeth was born, completing their little family. Although the Chudleigh's owned property in Devon, they were not rich. Thomas Chudleigh had invested one thousand pounds in the South Sea Company, only to see the bubble burst on the investment.
After her husband's death, Elizabeth's mother was forced to remove the family to the edge of a newer section of London, called May Fair (named after a local fair that was held there every May) which had only recently been developed as a residential area. Soon the area was flooded with arisocrats fleeing the crowded areas of Soho and Covent Garden. Like most aristocratic women who were left in genteel poverty, she could hardly go out to work for a living, she took in a lady lodger. The location was also convenient because it was close to her brother and his family, which included several children, to be playmates for Elizabeth and Thomas.
Tne next several years of Elizabeth's life remain a blank until she arrives at court. No letters survive and there is little in the public record. Her later biographers managed to embroider fanciful tales of Elizabeth coming down with smallpox but escaping without a single mark, that she grew up like a mini-savage in the wilds of Devon. One can assume that she spent most of her time traveling amongst the homes of various relatives around the country, spending weeks or months at a time, until she moved onto the next. She probably also spent time at the little country manor that her family still owned in Devon. Her education was probably minimal at best, since there wasn't much money to hire tutors or governesses. Her mother probably taught her a little needlework, given her books to improve her mind, a little dancing instruction, if she was lucky, she might have been able to sit in on classes with her more well off cousins, while staying with them. Apparently she also managed to learn enough French to speak it tolerably well.
The years were not quite kind to the Chudleigh family as one by one the men in the family began to die off, including Elizabeth's brother Thomas, who died in 1741 at Aix-la-Chapelle during the war of the Austrian succession. Her mother Henriette turned to a friend of her husband, William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, who managed to find Elizabeth a position as a maid of honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales in 1743 when Elizabeth was 22. The position paid two hundred pounds a year, but it required Elizabeth to have a wardrobe suitable for the position. Fortunately for Elizabeth, court dress hadn't changed much since the late 17th century, necessitating dresses that required less fabric than the more fashionable sacque dresses that had come into vogue.
Elizabeth was considering to be very pretty, with a ready wit, and the ability to tell a story that captivated audiences. She didn't lack for admirers, from among the aristocratic gentleman at court. Elizabeth met the man she eventually married, Augustus John Hervey, the future 3rd Earl of Bristol while at the races down in Winchester. It was a whirlwind courtship, the young couple barely knew each other before Hervey proposed. Her aunt, Mrs. Hamner tried to persuade the couple to wait, until Hervey returned from a 2 year tour of duty in the navy, to see if they would still feel the same. But the young couple was impetuous and in love (or highly infatuated) and insisted on marrying before he left. It was a rash decision, Hervey only had fifty pounds a year to his name, hardly enough to support a wife and a home. There was also the possibility that his grandfather would object to the union, thereby cutting him out of the will and the succession. His prospects at the moment were slim, his older brother while suffering from ill-health, might live for many years, meaning that Hervey would not inherit the earldom and the money for a good while. Divorce, if the marriage turned bad, was not really an option. Divorce was expensive and required a private act of Parliament. They were stuck with each other for life. Elizabeth would have to leave her position as a Maid of Honor (as a married woman she would no longer be a Maid) and her two hundred pounds a year.
They were married on August 4th 1744, in private at Lainston, near Winchester. Their union was kept secret to enable Elizabeth to retain her post at court, while Hervey, who was a naval officer, rejoined his ship. The old saying, 'marry in haste, repent at leisure' could be applied to Elizabeth and Hervey. While Hervey was gone, Elizabeth led an active social life, being eventually courted by James, the 6th Duke of Hamilton, among others. Due to her secret marriage, of course, she had to turn any offers of marriage down. Hervey, when he returned to England in 1746, was appalled to hear rumors of his wife's flirtatious manner while he had been abroad. He was also upset to discover that his wife was not so eager to see him. It was three months after his return before Elizabeth finally agreed to meet with him. They immediately quarrelled, Hervey was pissed that she wouldn't come to him, and Elizabeth was pissed because he didn't immediately run to her in the country. It was pretty clear that the two were hopelessly incompatible. Still, Hervey was willing to give the marriage ago, but Elizabeth was more reluctant. However, she wasn't reluctant to take his money to pay her debts which were considerable, life at court not being cheap.
The situation got stickier when Elizabeth found herself pregnant in the summer of 1747. She retired to Chelsea (which was a country retreat at the time) to await her confinement and to hide the pregnancy. She gave birth sometime in late October to Augustus-Henry Hervey, but the baby didn't live long, dying a few months later in January of 1748. Elizabeth was distraught but relieved. A child would have tied her to Hervey for life. The marriage limped along for another year, before they finally agreed to seperate in 1749. This wasn't a formal seperation since the marriage was still basically a secret. Elizabeth was now in a quandary, now that her marriage was over, she couldn't count on Hervey to continue to support her.
The time had come to find a protector. Elizabeth was now almost 28 years old, long past the time most women of her station were married. She had already rejected the Duke of Hamilton, and the Duke of Ancaster as husbands which must have caused comment, and her removal to Chelsea in the summer of 1747 hadn't gone without notice. She caused a stir at a subscription masquerade ball at the King's Theater in the Haymarket during the King's Jubilee Celebration. Costumed as Iphigenia, her dress caused one guest to remark that it left her 'so naked ye high Priest might easily inspect ye Entrails of ye Victim.' The other Maids of Honor, many of whom were no better than they ought to be, were highly shocked at Elizabeth's costume, so much so that they refused to speak to her.
George II was not shocked, he was delighted at her costume, and asked Elizabeth if he might touch her breast. Elizabeth replied that she knew something softer to the touch, and placed his hand on his head! Far from being offended by her remark, the King appeared infatuated. Although Elizabeth contemplated the pros and cons of being a royal mistress, she decided against that avenue. Royal lovers were notorious for being cheap, or at least the Hanoverians were. At the most she would have gained a title, perhaps some jewelry, but her bills would not have been paid. Until she came up with another plan, she took comfort in the fact that she was one of the few people welcome at both the court of the King and the court of the Prince of Wales (George II notoriously hated his son and heir and ridiculed him at every opportunity).
Elizabeth found her protector and the love of her life in Evelyn Pierrepont, the 2nd Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull. The Duke's grandfather, also named Evelyn had served as Lord Privy Seal and Lord President of the Council. He married twice, one of his daughters was the noted playwright, Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, who later spent time in Turkey where her husband was appointed Ambassador at Istanbul, and who fought to bring inoculation for small pox to London. Evelyn's cousin was Lord Bute, who became Prime Minister under George III. Evelyn was shy and retiring, but he was considered one of the handsomest men in England, he was also interested in fishing and cricket, in fact the Duke was the subject of the first extant reference to the game of cricket in Nottinghamshire. It is not certain exactly when the Duke and Elizabeth made their acquaintance but by 1752, there were references to the relationship in letters from various courtiers.
Elizabeth, now that she was settled as the Duke's mistress and had no more money worries, began to spend lavishly, buying property in London and in the country. She had a house built in London which she named Chudleigh House (after her marriage, it was renamed Kingston House). She also began to entertain, planning lavish parties for her royal friends. She was still one of the Princess of Wale's Maids of Honor, and her mother had now moved to Windsor as the Royal Housekeeper. Still there were people who were not happy at Elizabeth's good fortune. Lady Mary Coke, the wife of Viscount Coke, wrote virulently and maliciously about Elizabeth over the years. Perhaps motivated by jealously, her own marriage had been particularly strained and after her husband's death she had been infatuated with Prince Edward, the Duke of Albany, she seemed to revel in Elizabeth's later misfortunes.
Despite this, the Duke and Elizabeth were happy together, content to spend time on his country estates fishing (yes I said fishing, apparently Elizabeth's passion for the sport was as great as the Duke's). Over their years together, Elizabeth even travelled abroad by herself, which was unusual at the time when women rarely travelled although it was common for men to take a grand tour of Europe in their twenties (she wasn't really alone, having brought along her servants), spending time in Saxony where she became a particular friend of the Electress. The only fly in the ointment was her marriage to Hervey. Over the years, Elizabeth had been able to put the unfortunate relationship out of her mind. However in 1759, Elizabeth did a curious thing, she had her marriage to Hervey registered in the parish church at Lainton and sealed. Why did she do this? Probably as a safety measure, if the Duke should abandon her, and her husband should succeed to the title of Earl of Bristol, she would at least have the satisfaction of being a Countess.
Hervey had other plans, now settled back in England, decided that he wanted a divorce. Elizabeth decided to turn the tables and took the matter to the eccleseastical court, stating that the marriage had never taken place, therefore there could be no divorce. Why didn't she want a divorce which would have freed her once and for all? Well there was the publicity aspect, and if she were free, the Duke wouldn't have been willing to marry a divorcee. It was now incumbent on Hervey to prove that the marriage existed. Witnesses were provided, including several servants who had worked for Hervey, and the maid of Elizabeth's late Aunt, Mrs. Hamner, testified that the marriage had taken place, although they had only heard about it, they hadn't witnessed the actual marriage. Mrs. Hamner's maid Anne Craddock testified that the marriage hadn't taken place. Elizabeth, although she had qualms, swore that she was unmarried, and the consistory court in February 1769 pronounced her a spinster. Within a month she married Kingston on her 48th birthday.
Elizabeth found a curious thing. Society which had been eager to make her acquaintance, now turned its back her. Apart from a few old friends, no women came to call once she became a Duchess. Adultery, murder, bankruptcy, these could all be forgiven, bigamy however was another story. Despite the findings of the ecclesiastical court, everyone knew that Elizabeth and Hervey were still married. The Royal family still received her, she had been a good friend to the Dowager Princess of Wales, and the old King had found her delightful. The Duke and Duchess removed themselves to their country estates, and rarely came to town. However, it was the same story in country circles. Apart from a few old friends, the new Duchess was shunned. Still, she had married her best friend and the love of her life, so Elizabeth was content to spend most of her time in the Duke's company.
Their happiness was short lived because the Duke died four years later after a series of strokes, leaving her all his property on condition that she remained a widow. It would be only after her death, that his relatives would inherit. His family was outraged, despite the fact that the Duke had made his feelings clear about his relatives long before his death, he disliked them all. What incensed them even more was that the properties would be inherited by his sister's second son, and not the eldest, cutting him out entirely apart from a small sum of 800 pounds.
During her mourning period, Elizabeth travelled abroad, and visiting Rome the Duchess was received with honor by Pope Clement XIV. Meanwhile, in March 1775, her first husband's brother died and Hervey became Earl of Bristol. Elizabeth's marriage to Hervey was a legitimate one, despite her denials, and she was therefore legally Countess of Bristol. The Duchess was forced to return to England to defend herself against a charge of bigamy, which had been preferred against her by Kingston's nephew, Evelyn Meadows. She tried desperately to get the case seen in the House of Lords, but to no avail. She even wrote to George III hoping that he would look favorably on her but it was a difficult time for the King, what with the American colonies rebelling and all. She attempted to have the charge set aside in December 1775 by reason of the previous judgement in her favour, but this failed and she was tried as a peer in Westminster Hall.
The Duchess was portrayed as a coarse and licentious woman as Kitty Crocodile in a play A Trip to Calais, by the comedian Samuel Foote, which ridiculed her. However, he was denied a license and was not allowed to produce the play. Foote was incensed and took his case to the press. The Duchess wrote to him protesting his treatment of her, to which Foote then had the letter reprinted in the press along with his response which didn't do the Duchess any good, although the public lapped it up. Not even her lawyer telling the press that the playwright had offered to suppress the play for two thousand pounds helped her cause.
Elizabeth was just barely able to escape being incacerated in the Tower of London during her trial. However, her ill health meant that she was allowed to live at home for the duration under the custody of the Black Rod, in a nutshell, she was under house arrest. The trial was attended daily by the fashionable of London society, with their food and drink (even a heavily pregnant Queen Charlotte attended a session, sitting in the Duke of Newcastle's private area), tickets to the court case were hard to get, while the case received ample amounts of press in all the newspapers, most of them not favorable to Elizabeth. She was seen as a gold digger who had searched for the richest Duke in England and tricked him into a bigamous marriage. Stories were planted about what sort of punishment the Duchess should expect if she should be found guilty. Much was made of the fact that war with the colonies meant that she wouldn't be deported to a penal colony.
Many of Elizabeth's friends who were called as witnesses tried to get out of testifying in court. One peer fled to France rather than testify. Not only did Anne Craddock testify this time that she had actually witnessed the initial marriage, but the doctor who delivered Elizabeth's son testified, as well as the witnesses to Elizabeth's 1759 actions. Elizabeth's protestations of innocence in court held no wait, although she talked for 45 minutes. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, the verdict went against her, and she was found guilty. Only a few members of the House of Lords declined to vote.
However, she retained her fortune, although the Meadows family then brought in a suit in Chancery, to have the will overturned claiming that Elizabeth had unduly influenced the Duke when he made out his will. Elizabeth was assured by her lawyers that the case would drag on for years (anyone who has read Bleak House by Dickens knows this to be true). She lived for a time in Calais, spent time in Saxony although she left when the Elector would not receive her, not wishing to piss off George III, and then made her way to Vienna where she hoped to be received at the court of Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II. However she found that in that conservative court, the British ambassador made it known that she would not be recieved and certainly not as the Duchess of Kingston.
Elizabeth decided to visit Saint Petersburg, where she hoped to be received as the dowager Duchess, feeling that Catherine the Great's court would more lenient towards a bigamous Countess/Duchess. Near which city she bought an estate which she named "Chudleigh". Meanwhile back in England, Hervey did manage to eventually gain legal recognition in 1777 that his marriage to Elizabeth was legitimate, but he did not pursue divorce proceedings before his death. Elizabeth continued to style herself Duchess of Kingston, resided in Paris, Rome, and elsewhere, and died in Paris on 26 August 1788, still legally Countess of Bristol. Before her body was cold, her possessions were being divied up, Evelyn Meadows made off with whatever he could take with him, and her attendents divided up her clothing. When the news reached London, it revived the old interest in her court case. Many column inches were devoted to her, and pamphlets flew off the printing press. Even in death, Elizabeth was big news.
In these years of easy divorce, it might be hard to sympathize with Elizabeth's actions. Women in society were dependent on men. She was a classic illustration of how the law could keep a woman imprisoned in an unhappy situation. Of course, Elizabeth made her situation worse by first denying the marriage to Hervey for years, and then trying to suppress the evidence. But in her mind, since they never really lived as husband and wife, the marriage didn't exist. Elizabeth could be vain and snobbish, but she could also be quite generous. She settled an amount of two hundred pounds a year on Evelyn Crawford, even though his family had sued her for years. She believed not only in espousing forgiveness but also practicing it. She never lost her zest for life or her adventurous spirit, despite the curves that life threw her.
Elizabeth, The Scandalous Life of an 18th Century Duchess - Claire Gervat