Monday, August 29, 2011

The bigamous, scandalous, fiesty Duchess of Kingston, Countess of Bristol, Elizabeth Chudleigh as was

Imagine a trial in 1776, so well-attended it was one of the hottest tickets in London, where the judges were over 100 members of the House of Lords. The woman being judged is the wife of the Earl of Bristol and the widow of the Duke of Kingston, known to history as the notorious, infamous, etc. so-called Duchess of Kingston, Elizabeth Chudleigh. She is accused of marrying the Duke while her first husband was still living. The penalty for bigamy is death.

A brief Web search for this lady's story will reveal all the details, and the various accounts are worth reading, for it's quite an extraordinary tale. What I have cobbled together here is an amalgam of several sources, and of course they don't all agree. For those wanting something more substantial and reliable, the most recent comprehensive work I am aware of is this book:

Elizabeth: The Scandalous Life of an Eighteenth Century Duchess, by Claire Gervat (2004, Arrow Books).

I rush to say I haven't read the book but in the course of doing the research for this article, I became so interested in the Duchess that I have just this minute purchased the book and will enjoy reading it as I sip iced tea and eat bonbons on the chaise longue. It was favourably reviewed in the UK paper The Telegraph, with Frances Wilson, the reviewer, commenting that the research is solid.

From the various accounts I have read, and in trying to put more weight on the first-hand and contemporary sources, I have got my own idea of the story, which goes like this.

Elizabeth Chudleigh was almost a simple country lass from a good family. Her widowed mother struggled to survive and to keep up appearances in London society. Fortunately, Elizabeth's good looks and wit got her a place as a Maid of Honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales.

Young Elizabeth, disappointed in love by the Duke of Hamilton and cajoled by a deceptive aunt to marry the second man in line to become the the Earl of Bristol, impulsively and secretly did marry him, Augustus John Hervey by name. They had very little time together, as he was off with the navy right away, but their union produced two things: a conviction in both that they were not all that good together, and a son, who died in infancy. The other thing this marriage produced was evidence: a marriage register, witnesses to the wedding, and a doctor who delivered the baby.

The marriage was secret from the start because a married woman could not be a Maid of Honour, and Elizabeth wanted to keep both the status and the income from the position. It would seem, at least at times in her life, and to certain observers, that she never really accepted the fact of her marriage. It was much more convenient to be a socialite and a climber as a single woman. However, she used the marriage when it suited her, and forgot it, even denied it, whenever it didn't fit her current scheme.

Read that Telegraph review if you want a colourful description of how Elizabeth was at once fascinating and vulgar.

One of her famous stunts was her appearance at a costume party, where King George II, among others, was present, and in fact the good King took quite a personal interest in Miss Chudleigh's original costume. She was semi-dressed as a maiden from Greek mythology, Iphigenia. Whether it was historical faithfulness or mere artistic license at work, readers will have to decide for themselves, but the costume Miss Chudleigh / Mrs. Hervey wore apparently began at the waist and worked its way diaphanously down her legs, declining to travel any distance at all in the northerly direction. Topless, in other words.

Another time she apparently brandished a pistol to make her point in an argument.

Who knows what exactly Elizabeth's amorous history was, but it does seem to have been the best of 18th century tabloid fodder.

Interestingly, Evelyn Medows was cut from not radically dissimilar cloth. Despite the fact that they were opponents in the notorious bigamy trial, and had a longstanding dispute over her inheritance, I think they each recognized in the other a bit of themselves.

The story will continue in another post.

The intriguing life of Mr. Evelyn Medows, late of 51 Charles Street, Berkeley Square, London

A timeline and links for Harriet Maria Campbell, formerly Dickson, formerly Medows, nee Norie

Sir John Campbell's brother-in-law wrote the leading work on navigation: J.W. Norie

From the Royal kalendar, 1820, an interesting charity name

How could Sir John Campbell, K.C.T.S., afford to live on Charles Street, Berkeley Square?

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