Chudleigh, Elizabeth (1720–1788)
Chudleigh, Elizabeth (1720–1788)
English adventurer and bigamist. Name variations: Elizabeth Chudleigh (1720–44); Mrs. Hervey (in secret, 1744—); Duchess of Kingston (1769–1788, she continued to call herself duchess and expected others to do likewise even after her conviction for bigamy); Countess of Bristol (her actual title after 1775 but one she refused to acknowledge). Born Elizabeth Chudleigh in Devonshire, England, in 1720; died in France in 1788; daughter of Colonel Thomas Chudleigh and Harriet (nee Chudleigh); married Augustus John Hervey, in 1747; married the duke of Kingston, in 1769; children: (first marriage) son, Henry Augustus Hervey (b. 1747, died in infancy).
Elizabeth Chudleigh is the only woman in British history to be tried and convicted of bigamy in an open trial before the House of Lords. Long known as an "adventuress" and sexual intriguer at the courts of kings George II and George III, her trial for wrongful marriage to a duke when she was already wife of an earl was the scandal-sensation of 1776.
She was born, probably in 1720, to a minor but honorable family of the English gentry, in Devonshire. Her father was lieutenant-governor of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea but died when she was still a child, after losing most of his money in a wild speculation scheme of the era, the South Sea Bubble. Her childhood and early teens were spent, therefore, in straitened conditions of genteel poverty. Her doughty mother once calmly withstood the threats of a highwayman until her lagging escort could come up and shoot the villain dead.
Elizabeth grew into a strikingly beautiful girl and had the luck to survive an attack of smallpox at age 15 without losing her good looks. She was high-spirited, witty, playful, and flirtatious. Soon afterwards, she attracted the notice of a leading Whig politician, William Pulteney (later the earl of Bath), a 50ish man who had a large fortune, a seat in the House of Commons, and a wife of long standing. Alleging that he aimed to further her education, he spent hours alone with her. "This intimacy," said her first biographer John Fyvie, "notwithstanding the difference of age between the parties, was not considered by all as being strictly platonic." Her mother co-operated with Pulteney's suggestion that they move to London and go to court. He was made earl of Bath by King George II, and Elizabeth was given an income of £400 and a job as maid of honor to Augusta of Saxe-Gotha , wife of the prince of Wales.
At the prince's court—which had a reputation for vice and sexual intrigue—Elizabeth met the wealthiest and most eligible men of her generation, one of whom, James, duke of Hamilton, proposed to her in 1743, asking her to wait until he returned from his Grand Tour of the Continent. But when she met another young suitor, Augustus John Hervey, at a horse-race, they fell madly in love and married, even though he was a poor younger son and had to earn his living as a naval officer. The service took place secretly at 10 PM on an August night of 1744, in an isolated Hampshire church, lit only by a single candle and in the presence of a few close friends and servants. They kept the wedding secret—even from Elizabeth's mother—as she would lose her job and income if known to be married. But the couple fell out very soon after the wedding, possibly due to some form of sexual abuse on his part, and when Hervey returned to the fleet she resolved to have nothing more to do with him.
At the prince's court, her intrigues continued and her name was linked romantically (or sexually) with those of many prominent courtiers. Gossips wrote, claimed Fyvie, that she always had "a train of captives at her heels." King George II was also strongly attracted to her, but, rumors notwithstanding, she does not seem to have had an affair with him. Even so, through his favor she was able to secure for her mother a job as housekeeper at Windsor Castle, which she held for the rest of her life with the princely stipend of £800 per year. Elizabeth was a witty speaker and provocatively flirtatious. She appeared at a court masque as Iphigenia, so scantily clad that even the more rakish courtiers were shocked. One observer, Mary Wortley Montagu , wrote that "her dress, or rather undress, was remarkable. She was Iphigenia for the sacrifice, but so naked that the Maids of Honor, not of maids the strictest, were so offended that they would not speak to her." Princess Augusta, to whom she was still maid of honor, hastened to cover her with a blanket.
Chudleigh at first refused to see her husband on his return to England, but he threatened to expose their real relationship. When they met alone, Hervey apparently forced himself upon her, and nine months later she gave birth to a son, after an unexplained absence from court. She tried to scotch rumors by exaggerating them, telling Lord Chesterfield, for example: "The world says I have had twins." Chesterfield answered, dead pan: "Well, I make a point of believing only one half of what the world says." In any event, the child, who had been consigned to a wet nurse, did not long survive.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth was becoming involved with the Duke of Kingston, a man of ancient lineage, vast estates, and the immense income of £17,000 per year. He had raised a regiment to help suppress Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion in 1745, was still nominally in the army, but was more of a sportsman and dandy than an officer. He dismissed his long-term French mistress, who returned to Paris and later wrote a malicious book about Elizabeth, and devoted himself to his new love. It was 1750 and Elizabeth was now aged 30. She settled down with the duke, and, despite her numerous flirtations with other men, he loved and kept her in fine style. She was an extravagant spender, filling the duke's houses, and the houses he gave her, with gaudy, costly ornaments. Horace Walpole,
whose massive collection of gossipy letters is one of our best sources on her life, wrote a friend, after one of Elizabeth's lavish parties thrown to celebrate the queen's (Caroline of Ansbach ) birthday: "Oh, that you had been at her ball t'other night! History could never describe it and keep her countenance…. A scaffold was erected in Hyde Park for fireworks. To show the illumination without to more advantage the company were received in an apartment totally dark, where they remained for two hours. If this gave rise to any more birthdays, who could help it?" She heaped up cherries and strawberries for her guests and presented elaborate illuminated tableaux of the royal family, who willingly turned a blind eye to her shady reputation for the sake of enjoying her entertainments.
Elizabeth and the duke split up for a few months in 1764 when he had a fling with a hatmaker. She spent the time touring Europe, got drunk at a dance in the court of King Frederick II of Prussia, and befriended Maria Antonia of Austria , electress of Saxony (1724–1780), before responding to the duke's entreaties for her return. Then, to her dismay, her husband showed up again, saying he planned to sue her for divorce (an elaborate, highly public, and costly procedure in that era) because he wanted to marry someone else. She would have liked to be divorced but was determined not to appear as the guilty party, lest it jeopardize her prospects of getting the duke to marry her. She warned Hervey that if he tried to publicize their marriage he would recover not just his bride but her £16,000 in debts, which he was quite unable to pay. They now colluded in a legal scheme. She sued him on grounds of his "jactitation of marriage." Jactitation is the malicious declaration that you are married to someone when you are not. Hervey put up a deliberately weak defense and so, in 1768, the court found in her favor and declared that the couple had never been married.
But there is an extra ironic layer to this part of the story. According to one of the many rumors that swirled about her, Elizabeth had heard in 1759 that Hervey's childless older brother, the earl of Bristol, was on his deathbed. If he died, Hervey would become the new earl and gain a huge fortune while his wife would become a countess. Enticed by that prospect, she gathered the surviving witnesses to her original marriage and got them to sign an oath that it had taken place. But fortune deceived her, the earl recovered, and now, nine years later, she was swearing in public that she had not married Hervey. At different moments, in other words, she was determined to prove both that she had married Hervey and that she had not.
If she was not married to Hervey, as the 1768 court had declared, Elizabeth was free to marry the duke of Kingston. She did so, in 1770, and they lived on together, entertaining in the finest style as before. Society letters of the time describe her as bossing the duke around and denying him even the liberty to take a breath of fresh air without her express permission. In 1773, however, the old duke died. He left his estates and income to Elizabeth, the duchess, for the duration of her life, specifying that on her death it would all go to Charles Medows, the younger of his two nephews. The older of the two, Evelyn Medows, had fallen out with the duke years before and now found himself excluded from the will. This exclusion gave him a motive to prove that Elizabeth's marriage to the duke had been bigamous, and that, by law, the will was invalid.
Another sordid episode of the early 1770s was Samuel Foote's play, A Trip to Calais. Foote, an unscrupulous popular writer of the times, had talked with one of Elizabeth's servants (who had herself attempted unsuccessfully to blackmail her mistress), and now wrote a thinly veiled account of her life, naming the Chudleigh character Lady Kitty Crocodile. Foote anticipated that she, hearing of its rehearsals, would pay him to suppress it rather than be held up to the ridicule of London society. Sure enough, she summoned him, asked him to read some of it, and, after hearing the more incriminating passages, asked him in a tone of barely suppressed fury how much it would cost to suppress. He suggested £2,000, which further enraged her. An unseemly bargaining period followed, in which she offered as much as £1,600, but Foote stubbornly held out for the full amount.
Under this provocation, Chudleigh appealed to the duke of Newcastle, one of the political grandees of the Whig Party, describing the blackmail. Foote retaliated by telling a political friend of his own, Lord Hertford, that Chudleigh was indeed a bigamist and that there were living witnesses who could prove it. With Evelyn Medows, the disinherited nephew, and Samuel Foote forcing
the issue, a Grand Jury considered the evidence and found reason to proceed with a trial. Messengers took the summons to Elizabeth, who was on one of her periodic tours of the Continent, and warned her that if she did not go back to England to face the prosecution she would be made an outlaw. First, she met with one of her bankers in Rome to collect some money and jewels to pay for her defense, then threatened him with loaded pistols when he declined to hand them over forthwith. She returned to England, where she appealed, as a member of the nobility, for the right to be tried by her peers, the House of Lords in Westminster Hall. But if she was not in fact a duchess, was she part of the nobility? Yes, ironically, for in 1775 the earl of Bristol had finally died, which made Hervey the new earl and herself the new countess. This was a vital matter: in the 18th century, the punishment for bigamy was to have one's hand seared by fire unless one belonged to the aristocracy.
"The trial," wrote historian Lewis Melville, "was a tremendous affair—it was the event of the year. A peeress, a reputed duchess who was at least a countess, a woman of immense notoriety in more than one country, charged with bigamy, and tried by her peers. There had never before been anything like it, nor was such an affair likely to happen again. Everyone begged, coaxed, or threatened those in authority to be allowed to be present. It was joyously anticipated that there would be 'scenes' in court."
Elizabeth, now aged 56, was no longer much of a beauty. One witness of the case, Hannah More , wrote that "she is large and illshaped. There was nothing white but her face and had it not been for that she would have looked like a ball of bombazine." She had gained weight steadily but was still an artful manipulator of occasions and persons. She appeared at court dressed in modest black clothes, avoided the selfish tantrums for which she was also becoming notorious, and prompted the Law Lords to treat her courteously. The trial lasted for a week in April 1776 (and caused a far greater stir than the war then raging in England's American colonies), but the evidence against her was overwhelming, whereas her own defense was flimsy. She was convicted of bigamy but, because of her rank, spared the grisly punishment she would have suffered if still a commoner.
Chudleigh realized that Evelyn Medows would now sue for the old duke's will to be overturned and that he would try to prevent her from leaving the country. To outwit him, she invited a large group of friends and sympathizers to a dinner party at her London house and told her coachman to drive her well-known coach around the popular streets of town, so that Medows would think she was still accessible. Meanwhile, she fled to Dover in a hired coach and then sailed across the English Channel to France, carrying as many assets from her estates as she could liquidize. Medows was thwarted. So was her one real husband, the earl of Bristol. Hervey tried to revive divorce proceedings in 1777, but his legal advisors told him that his earlier legal misconduct, when he had tried to obtain Elizabeth's collusion to a divorce bill, would prejudice his case.
Chudleigh spent the remaining 12 years of her life traveling throughout Europe. She had houses in Paris and Rome, befriended the pope and the Russian royal family, and bought a large estate outside St. Petersburg. She became increasingly tight-fisted, despite her ostentatious wealth, and often tried to leave her lodgings without paying the bill. Strong in constitution and untiring in her travels, she enjoyed almost constant good health and was still drinking and eating heartily the day before her sudden death in 1788. "According to one account," wrote Melville, "the immediate cause of death was the breaking of a blood-vessel as the result of a violent outburst of rage on hearing that a lawsuit in Paris had gone against her."
Elizabeth had little education, and what letters we still have over her signature were probably drafted by her lawyers rather than by Chudleigh herself. In fact, our only sources on her life are the gossipy letters of her detractors and the record of her scandalous court case—no sympathetic account of her life by a contemporary survives, and it may be that a modern biographer would interpret her life less harshly than those of her own time and place.
Chudleigh's reputation lived on, partly because William Thackeray based two of his characters on her: first Beatrix in Henry Esmond and later Baroness Bernstein in The Virginians. She had seemed larger than life in her own times, and, after the earnest evangelical reforms of the early Victorian era, she became, in retrospect, a representative symbol of the fascinating, sexy, decadent world of 18th-century society.
Fyvie, John. Wits, Beaux, and Beauties of the Georgian Era. London: John Lane-Bodley Head, 1909.
Melville, Lewis, ed. The Trial of the Duchess of Kingston. Edinburgh, UK: William Hodge, 1927.
Patrick Allitt , Assistant Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia