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EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY Englishwoman Elizabeth Chudleigh was a duchess, countess, bigamist, and exhibitionist. But then Georgians were always ones to talk, weren’t they?
I encountered her a few days ago while researching the romantic novel spoof I, Libertine, for which she was artistic inspiration.
Elizabeth’s father, who died when she was five or six, was Colonel Thomas Chudleigh, lieutenant governor of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, a veterans’ retirement home founded by Charles II in 1682. Her mother had no great claims to fame, but this didn’t suit Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s first run-in with Georgian nobility came in 1743 when, at age 22, she was appointed a Maid of Honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales (one of only four Princesses of Wales who never rose to Queen Consort). Augusta spoke no English; Elizabeth, no German. The latter’s English, though, displayed an entertaining combination of being vivacious and witty, yet coarse and vulgar.
You know the type. She also liked flatulence jokes.
In 1744, Elizabeth and young naval officer Augustus John Hervey secretly married, despite the fact that the pair had barely five shillings to rub together. What’s more, if we’re to believe her later claim, they didn’t rub together much at all.
Two days after the wedding, Hervey left for duty in the West Indies. Elizabeth kept the nuptials mum because Maids of Honour, by quaint definition, were supposed to be maids in fact. (Which reminds me of the Abbott and Costello riff: “Did you give the bride away?” “Not me; I kept my mouth shut.”)
Whilst Hervey preserved the West Indian slave trade, back home Elizabeth got proposals of marriage left and right. When Hervey returned to England and heard of this, he was shocked, shocked, and they didn’t talk for three months. When they finally did, it was reported, “The fruit of this meeting was an addition of a boy to the human race.” Alas, the child died after a few months.
Augie and Liz decided to separate. However, what with the wedding having been a secret…. She opted to keep the separation secret as well, and this is when exhibitionism entered her life.
In April 1749, a masquerade ball was held in honor of George II’s Jubilee celebrations. Elizabeth attended as Iphigenia of Greek mythology, whom she portrayed perhaps to minimalist excess.
Elizabeth’s costume went Perrier’s Iphigenia one better. According to a contemporary source, it was “flesh-coloured silk so nicely and closely fitted to her body as to produce a perfect review of the unadorned mother of mankind.” The Georgian Gentleman cites at his most entertaining website that a guest at the ball said “she gave the appearance of being ‘so naked ye high Priest might easily inspect ye Entrails of ye Victim.’ ”
King George was impressed, with the costume, no doubt, and asked Elizabeth whether he might touch her breast. According to the Georgian Gentleman, she responded by suggesting “something softer—and promptly placed the King’s hand on his head.”
You had to be there.
Elizabeth had opportunity to become a royal mistress. However, she knew her English history and also the Hanoverian kings’ notorious habit of stiffing people.
Instead, by 1752, Elizabeth and Evelyn Pierrepont, Second Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull, became an item. Her marriage to Hervey might have been an impediment, but Elizabeth adopted, indeed possibly invented, the practice that the best defense is a good offense. She petitioned the Ecclesiastical Court for a declaration that she had never been married. And, of course, since the marriage had been secret….
On February 10, 1769, the court pronounced “that the said Elizabeth Chudleigh was and now is a Spinster….” A month later, said spinster, age 48, became Pierrepont’s bride and the Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull.
Georgian customs being what they were, it was okay to be someone’s mistress, but a bigamist?? Quelle scandale!
Evie and Liz enjoyed the country life for a few years, pretty much shunned by the royal court. She came to share his hobbies of fishing and cricket, even to arranging a Ladies Cricket match. However, the good times didn’t last; the duke died in 1773.
When Hervey (remember him?) lost his brother in 1775, he finally inherited the title Earl of Bristol. Elizabeth, at least in one sense, became the Countess of Bristol, and then things got complicated.
A Pierrepont nephew brought a charge of bigamy with hopes of contesting Elizabeth’s inheritance. She played the Spinster gambit again, but was tried and found guilty by a jury of her peers, real Peers, what with her being a duchess or maybe a countess.
Elizabeth managed to retain the inheritance, left town, and hit the royal courts of the continent. There, Pope Clement XIV, Catherine the Great, Stefano Zannowich (aka Hanibal), and others overlooked her earlier peccadillos, or maybe simply were entertained by her reminiscences.
The Duchess of Kingston, her preferred title, died, age 67, at her estate in French chateau country on August 26, 1788.
A life well if complexly lived. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017