In the middle of the 18th century polite society was both shocked and entertained by the lurid details following on from the breakdown of the marriage of the 3rd duke and duchess of Beaufort. Dr Robin Eagles considers how the case first came to light and the effects it had on those caught up in it.
In 1746 the artist Thomas Gainsborough married Margaret Burr, who was by common fame believed to be the illegitimate daughter of Henry Somerset, 3rd duke of Beaufort. Mrs Gainsborough certainly seems to have believed she was the duke’s daughter and there is some evidence to suggest that he set her up in life with an annuity. Which would not be nearly so significant but for the fact that, just three years previously, Beaufort had agreed to undergo an embarrassing demonstration to prove that he was not impotent, as the indelicate details of the breakdown of his marriage entertained society first in the Court of Arches (the ecclesiastical court) and latterly in Parliament.
The Beauforts had married in 1729. It was an entirely predictable marriage for one of the most eligible bachelors in the country as his bride, Frances Scudamore, daughter of Viscount Scudamore, was a substantial heiress and seemed an appropriate choice. The summer after their marriage they appeared at the races at Monmouth, where Beaufort was a regular visitor, both because of his interest in horses but also because race gatherings were important opportunities for politicians to concert strategy in advance of elections and Beaufort was a prominent Tory leader in the west of England and Wales.
For the next few years the marriage appeared to be secure enough, though there were no children, but by the late 1730s the duke and duchess appear to have been operating rather separate existences. In 1740 they had effectively separated and the duchess embarked on a highly charged relationship with Lord Talbot, who just happened to be one of the duke’s principal political rivals in Wales. In June a formal separation was agreed on between the duke and duchess, but Beaufort expected his wife to be discreet in the way she behaved. She was not. Over the next few months, the duchess and Talbot (who was also married) indulged in a risky liaison and were forced to buy the silence of some of their servants, who were more than aware of what was going on. Spied on in their chambers, they resorted to meeting out of doors. Bemused yokels observed them having sex in fields and woods, and watched them clamber in and out of each other’s carriages, parked for suspiciously long periods in country lanes.
By 1742 Beaufort’s patience had run out and that year he sued for divorce in the Court of Arches. The duchess, unwilling to take the matter lying down, counter-sued and accused her husband of impotence. At this point one might have expected Beaufort to produce Margaret Burr as proof of his fecundity but, perhaps significantly, he did not. Instead, he opted to prove his wife’s accusations false by submitting to a humiliating demonstration of his manhood. Two options were open to him. One was to visit a brothel in the company of witnesses; the other was to invite trained medical men to observe him masturbating. He chose the latter.
Beaufort retreated behind a screen until the most opportune moment, when his witnesses were summoned to certify that he was indeed capable of achieving an erection and ejaculating. The duchess’s case was thrown out, Beaufort’s honour was both restored and tarnished at one and the same moment, and his triumph left him free to sue Talbot for substantial damages.
The case did not remain there, however. The Ecclesiastical Courts could grant a divorce, but to ensure the bastardization of any children born to the duchess – and thus protect Beaufort’s family name – and to allow Beaufort the chance to remarry an act of Parliament was required. And so the drama moved on to the House of Lords. In December 1743 Beaufort’s friend, Lord Gower, presented the bill to the Lords and in January 1744 the peers and bishops went into the case in detail. The previous hearings had, according to Horace Walpole, made for ‘delectable reading’ and it is clear that the case now before the Lords provided the upper chamber with some much needed light relief. It was noted in particular that there was a very good turnout on the bishops’ benches to hear the evidence presented against the duchess. It was also noteworthy that no counsel appeared for her at second reading. The bill went on to pass the Lords with just a half-hearted effort at amending the text brought on behalf of the Digby family, who considered themselves involved in the separation. From thence it was sent to the Commons, who spent all day sitting on the bill, no doubt also savouring every morsel, before passing it with a handful of minor amendments, which the Lords accepted without demur. The divorce became law early in March 1744.
After all the hullabaloo, Beaufort did not have long to celebrate his success. Under a year after the bill was enacted he died at Bath in February 1745, thereby narrowly avoiding becoming embroiled in the Jacobite rebellion, in which some had expected him to play a key role. In time, the duchess was able to recover from her very public disgrace. By the time the case had come before the Lords Talbot had tired of her and they had split up. She eventually married again, this time to Charles Fitzroy, an illegitimate son of the duke of Grafton. Talbot separated from his wife and never remarried, though he was said to have fathered as many as 16 illegitimate children. He went on to be appointed Lord Steward and was promoted to an earldom, but suffered a miserable humiliation at George III’s coronation feast. Riding into the hall mounted on a charger, his horse, specially trained not to turn its rump to the king, opted to make its entrance backwards:
‘at his retreat the spectators clapped, a terrible indecorum, but suitable to such Bartholomew-fair doings’. [Horace Walpole]
Lawrence Stone, Broken Lives: Separation and Divorce in England, 1660-1857 (1993)
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