Elizabeth Chudleigh born in 1720, was the only child of a Colonel Thomas Chudleigh, the lieutenant-governor of Chelsea Hospital. Her father died in 1726 and failed to adequately provide for his wife and daughter who were therefore forced to retire into the country into genteel poverty. However a chance meeting with William Pulteney, afterwards Earl of Bath brought a change in Elizabeth's fortunes. It was through the influence and patronage of William Pulteney that Elizabeth and her mother were able to return to London in 1740, and afterwards in 1743 procured for Elizabeth the post of maid of honour to Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Princess of Wales.
Elizabeth's most notable and probably only talent was her physical beauty and even an attack of smallpox at the age of fifteen did little to diminish her charms. She was therefore not short of admirers, amongst which we should probably include the aforementioned William Pulteney, but her first serious affair began in 1743 with the nineteen year old James Douglas-Hamilton, 6th Duke of Hamilton. James was however sent abroad to continue his education and although he wrote to Elizabeth, the letters were intercepted by her aunt.
However it was in the company of her aunt that, in the summer of 1744, she paid a visit to Winchester races, and there met Augustus John Hervey, then a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Believing that she had been abandoned by the Duke of Hamilton she agreed to marry Augustus. They were married on the 4th of August 1744 in a private ceremony held at the extraparochial chapel of Lainston near Winchester by the rector a Mr. Amis, and as neither Elizabeth nor Augustus had any money they decided to keep the marriage secret so as to enable Elizabeth to retain her post at court.
Keeping the marriage secret was relatively simple as within a few days of the marriage Augustus joined his ship the Cornwall and set sail for the West Indies where he remained for the next two years. It was not until October 1746 that Augustus returned to England, and in the summer of the following year Elizabeth bore a son who was baptised at Chelsea church on the 2nd November 1747 as Henry Augustus Hervey. Unfortunately the young Henry died shortly afterwards and thereafter the marriage rapidly deteriorated with frequent quarrels and they were soon separated.
As it happens Augustus was a grandson of the first Earl of Bristol but as a younger son he had no apparent prospects of inheriting the title. However by 1759 it appeared that the failing health of his elder brother George William Hervey, 2nd Earl of Bristol together with the latter's failure to marry suggested the possibility that Augustus might enjoy a rapid elevation to the peerage. Therefore in order to protect her interests Elizabeth paid a visit to Winchester, where she found Mr Amis the rector of Lainston on his deathbed. She neverthless persuaded him to enter the details of her marriage in the register-book of Lainston chapel.
As it happens the 2nd Earl of Bristol doggedly held onto life but it wasn't long before a better prospect than becoming Countess of Bristol presented itself. Later that same year Elizabeth became the mistress of Evelyn Pierrepoint, 2nd Duke of Kingston. She was soon living quite openly as the Duke's concubine; a position which does not appear to have had any effect on her position at court. She hosted a rather grand party for the birthday of the Prince of Wales in 1760, and George II is said to have given a watch "which cost five-and-thirty guineas" and appointed her mother to the lucarative position of housekeeper at Windsor. She also managed somehow to gain possession of a 120 acre farm in Devonshire.
As the years went by the 2nd Earl of Bristol remained alive, he also remained unmarried and Augustus' succession to the title appeared ensured.
In anticipation of his becoming the 3rd Hervey Earl of Bristol, Augustus now wished to marry again and ensure the succession to the earldom. In 1768 he therefore contacted Elizabeth to seek her agreement to a divorce. Elizabeth was similarly anxious to dissolve the marriage but was unwilling to incur the scandal of a divorce in case it jeopardised her chances of marrying the Duke of Kingston. She therefore instituted a suit of jactitation against Augustus in the consistory court. Augustus appears to have colluded in the whole affair and raised no objection when Elizabeth appeared before the court to swear an oath that there had been no marriage.1
On the 11th February 1769 the court gave judgement in her favour, declared her to be a spinster and formally ordered Augustus to maintain his silence on the matter. A few weeks later on the 8th March 1769 she was duly married by special license to the Duke of Kingston.
The Duke of Kingston died on the 23rd September 1773 and in accordance with his will dated 5th July 1770, Elizabeth inherited all of his personal property together with a life interest in his estates on the condition that she did not marry again. (A provision that was no doubt intended to 'protect' the duchess against any future predators.) After a short period of mourning the duchess sailed off to Italy in her private yacht and set up home in Rome where she was well received by the Pope Clement XIV.
Now the late Duke's sister Frances Pierrepont had married a Philip Meadows and their sons had the reversionary interest in the Kingston estates. One of these nephews named Evelyn Meadows obtained a good deal of information regarding the Duchess from a certain Ann Cradock who had been in the Duchess' service. Based on this information Mr Meadows was able to procure a bill indicting Elizabeth on the charge of bigamy.
Eilzabeth decided to return to England to answer these charges. She had a little trouble raising the necessary cash to fund her trip. Having lodged her property with an English banker in Rome, she naturally approached said banker with a view to obtaining an advance, which was refused. Elizabeth therefore returned armed with a gun and got her money. Once she had arrived in England Elizabeth set about the business of getting the bigamy charge thrown out of court. Her argument (and indeed her only defence) was that the previous judgement of the consistory court was a bar against any proceedings for bigamy. But her application was rejected as it was decided that as the Crown had not been a party to the jacitation suit it was not prevented from prosecuting her and secondly that even if it wanted to, the Crown had no power to set aside the operation of an act of parliament that had created the offence.
So the trial of the duchess began on 15th April 1776 at Westminster Hall, before the Lord High Steward, Earl Bathurst. During the course of the proceedings the whole story of her marriage with Augustus Hervey and the birth of her child was revealed and the testimony of Anne Cradock and the widow of Mr. Amis and the surgeon Caesar Hawkins (who had attended at the birth of her child) left no one in any doubt about the truth of the matter. Unsurprisingly the assembled court of peers unanimously pronounced her guilty, the sole dissenting voice being the Duke of Newcastle who added the qualification "but not intentionally". The standard punishment of the time for bigamy was to have been burned on the hand but Elizabeth claimed the privilege of peerage, which exempted her from corporal punishment. Although the Attorney-General argued against this claim for privilege, it was allowed by the peers.
Despite being convicted of bigamy Elizabeth still retained possession of the Kingston fortune. However she soon heard that Evelyn Meadows was planning to commence further legal proceedings against her to seize her property and so she loaded all her cash, pictures and valuables aboard her private yacht and fled abroad.
Elizabeth settled for a time in Calais before sailing for St. Petersburg in 1777 where she found favour with Catherine the Great, and spent £12,000 on acquiring an estate near St. Petersburg, which she called 'Chudleigh’ and there set up a business manufacturing brandy. However she soon grew bored with life in Russia, and returned to France where she bought a house at Montmartre and a country residence just outside Paris named 'St. Assise' which she acquired from the French king's brother for £50,000. The attractions of Paris soon palled after a time and she travelled once more to Rome and from there to a number of other continental capitals, all the while living what her contemporaries would have regarded as a scandalous life. She eventually died at Paris on the 26th August 1788, at the age of sixty-eight.
Described by the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica as "a coarse and licentious woman" and by the Dictionary of National Biography as "self-indulgent and whimsical", Elizabeth Chudleigh has not been judged kindly by history. Incidents such as that of 1749, when she appeared at a masked ball in the character of Iphigenia, "so naked that you would have taken her for Andromeda" (according to Horace Walpole) or the incident in Germany when she was recorded as staggering around the dance floor having downed a couple of bottles of wine, have inevitably coloured the judgements made upon her character.
She became an object of ridicule to many and she was notably lampooned as 'Kitty Crocodile' in the play A Trip to Calais written by one Samuel Foote. Elizabeth offered him the sum of £1,600 not to perform the work, but Mr Foote politely declined the offer, not because of any high principle but because he was holding out for the sum of £2,000. In the event Elizabeth was able to pull a few strings and persuaded the Lord Chamberlain to ban the production. (Samuel Foote simply re-wrote the play under the title of The Capuchin and produced it the following year.) Whilst the works of Samuel Foote may now be largely forgotten, William Thackeray is also said to have used Elizabeth as the inspiration for his character of Beatrice in Esmond] and of the Baroness Bernstein in The Virginians.
One final point worth making is that the Meadows family were annoyed that Elizabeth continued to use the title of Duchess of Kingston, despite the fact that her marriage to the Duke had now been declared unlawful. They therefore sued in the King's Bench in an attempt to prevent her using the title. However the court held that the title was a mere name, and that there was no property in a name. Thus Elizabeth was quite entitled to call herself the 'Duchess of Kingston' if she so willed. 2
Thus Elizabeth Chudleigh is generally known as the Duchess of Kingston
rather than the Countess of Bristol, although some peerage pedants have argued that as she was still legally married to Augustus when he became the 3rd Earl of Bristol in 1775 she should be known under the latter style.
1 At the time divorce was only possible through a private act of parliament which was a very public and costly affair. Jacitiation was a cheaper and less public alternative that involve suing someone for falsely claiming that you were married.
2 Which incidentally remains the law in England and Wales; anybody may style themselves in any fashion, which is the 'loophole' exploited by those who prey upon the ignorant by 'selling' titles.
- The entry for KINGSTON, ELIZABETH, DUCHESS OF (1720-1788)
from the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica
- The entry for Chudleigh, Elizabeth, Countess of Bristol
from the Dictionary of National Biography
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)