The year 1776 is usually associated with the worsening crisis in the American colonies. Yet for one week in April the House of Lords, and the British public, turned their attention to Westminster Hall to concentrate on the sensational trial for bigamy of Elizabeth Chudleigh, the self-styled ‘duchess of Kingston’. Dr Charles Littleton examines the background to the sensational case.
In 1743, at the age of 22, Elizabeth Chudleigh, whose late father had been lieutenant-governor of Chelsea Hospital and a Devon landowner, was appointed a maid of honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales. She soon caught the eye of Augustus John Hervey, third son of John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey. A 20-year-old naval officer, he had already started the many liaisons that would earn him the title the ‘English Casanova’. But for Elizabeth he settled down, at least initially. They married secretly on 4 August 1744, but the union quickly faltered. A son was born in 1747, but died young, and from about 1749 the couple remained separated. All along both parties had kept their marriage secret so that Elizabeth could maintain her place as a maid of honour.
Elizabeth became a well-known figure among the Leicester House circle. Her most notorious appearance was when she dressed as the Greek heroine Iphigenia at a masquerade in May 1749. ‘Dressed’ may be overstating it, for there was very little costume apart from an almost transparent flesh-coloured silk and some strategically-placed foliage. The other guests were agog, and rushed to comment on it in their letters, while pamphleteers and printmakers did a brisk trade titillating the public with describing her scanty attire. It even inspired George II to proposition Elizabeth, which she skilfully deflected.
In about 1750 Chudleigh began a liaison with Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd duke of Kingston. He had inherited the title from his grandfather in 1726 aged 15, and when he reached his majority he came into one of the most lucrative estates in England. As a young man he was also reputed to be ‘the handsomest man in England’, and one of the most sought peers on the marriage market. That he took up with Elizabeth, about a decade younger, and co-habited with her unmarried for close to 20 years suggests that there was a genuine and secure devotion between them.
This was in contrast to her relationship with Hervey, who in 1768 re-entered her life requesting a formal separation. They colluded in a legal subterfuge which in February 1769 resulted in a decision from the ecclesiastical courts that their marriage had never existed. The following month Elizabeth married Kingston, but the union only lasted four years, as Kingston, who had long been in ill health, died on 23 September 1773.
Kingston bequeathed Elizabeth his entire landed estate, on the condition that at her death or remarriage it was to go to Kingston’s nephew Charles Medows. Charles’s elder brother Evelyn Medows was disinherited and sought to undermine the will by contesting the validity of Elizabeth’s marriage to his uncle. His efforts led to Elizabeth’s indictment and a decision to try her for bigamy.
On 18 March 1775, however, Augustus John Hervey had succeeded his elder brother as 3rd earl of Bristol, meaning Elizabeth would be the wife of a peer whichever man was ultimately determined to be her legal husband. And as a peeress her cause would be heard in the House of Lords. It immediately caused controversy in the House. The lord chief justice, William Murray, Baron (soon to be earl of) Mansfield, argued that the proceedings should be heard privately at the bar of the House, and admitted he could not see the point of the trial at all. He predicted that ‘the duchess’, as she termed herself, would merely escape any punishment for felony by claiming her privilege of peerage. What would be the result? Merely that ‘she makes your Lordships a curtsy, and you return the compliment with a bow’. [Almon, Parliamentary Register (1776) v. 103]
Despite his reservations Mansfield was overruled and the duchess’s trial for bigamy commenced in Westminster Hall on 15 April 1776. It quickly became the event of the season. Horace Walpole was expectant, as he was sure ‘her impudence will operate in some singular manner’, and he provided his correspondents with detailed and mocking commentary. He had to admit though that ‘The Duchess-Countess has raised my opinion of her understanding… for she has behaved so sensibly and with so little affectation’. Furthermore:
The doubly noble prisoner went through her part with unusual admiration. Instead of her usual ostentatious folly and clumsy pretensions to cunning, all her conduct was decent, even seemed natural. [Horace Walpole, Correspondence, xxiv. 191-96; xxviii. 261-66]
The moralist Hannah More was less impressed by the spectacle. ‘You will imagine the bustle of five thousand people getting into one hall’, she wrote to a friend. ‘There was a great deal of ceremony, a great deal of splendour, and a great deal of nonsense’. Of the duchess’s performance, More pronounced ‘Surely there never was so thorough an actress’, and her friend the actor David Garrick even commented that the duchess ‘has so much out-acted him, it is time for him to leave the stage’. [Quoted in Lewis Melville, ed., Trial of the Duchess of Kingston, 37-39]
On 22 April, all 119 lords pronounced Elizabeth Chudleigh guilty of bigamy. Walpole, More and others delighted in her descent from being, as More termed it, ‘a shameful duchess to a shameful countess’. Little did their disapproval concern Elizabeth, and she was resourceful enough to escape the verdict’s worst consequences. As Mansfield had predicted, she claimed privilege of peerage to escape physical punishment, and she left England the day following the verdict, absconding with much of Kingston’s fortune. She spent the next decade in Paris, St Petersburg and elsewhere as one of the most talked about women in Europe. She died in France on 26 August 1788, from bursting a blood vessel while in a rage after hearing she had lost a legal action.
Catherine Ostler, The Duchess Countess (2021)
Lewis Melville, ed., The Trial of the Duchess of Kingston (1927)