How a ‘bigamist’ duchess became most notorious lady in England

April 15, 1776: The American colonies were on the brink of revolt. George Washington had gathered his band of revolutionaries in New York City. And King George III over in England anticipated war to break out any day.

Yet in London, all eyes were on a 56-year-old widow named Elizabeth Chudleigh, as she faced trial for bigamy.

That morning, a pale, weak-looking Chudleigh, clad in an elegant black silk gown and hood, arrived at Westminster Hall, accompanied by an apothecary, physician, chaplain and usher, there to prevent her flight. Thousands of onlookers shoved one another to get a view of the spectacle, pushing one gawker to his death under a moving cart outside. Some stragglers haggled with blackmarket racketeers for a coveted ticket for the public trial, while others paid a guinea just to peek through the window. Meanwhile, 4,000 audience members packed the rafters of the courthouse, including some 2,000 ladies, Chudleigh’s frenemies, dripping in diamonds and jewels. 

One foreign visitor described the event as “a festival for the whole nation.”  Even Queen Charlotte Sophia — eight months pregnant with her 11th child — couldn’t keep herself away.

Elizabeth as the Greek mythological figure Iphigenia in 1749. In real life, she was known to wear see-through clothing.Wikipedia CommonsKnown alternately as the Honorable Elizabeth Chudleigh, the Duchess of Kingston, the Countess of Bristol, and sometimes as the Duchess Countess, she was the most notorious woman in England, and she boasted an impressive resume: former courtier, extravagant hostess, flamboyant fashion plate, enterprising vodka distiller, shameless self-promoter and the first woman to be tried and convicted of bigamy in Great Britain. She clawed her way from genteel poverty to fame and fortune, picking up husbands and titles along the way. Her salacious life later inspired writers such as Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and William Thackeray who modeled several characters — including “Vanity Fair’s” social-climber Becky Sharp — after Chudleigh.

Scandal aside, Chudleigh was viciously, maybe unfairly, vilified. A new biography by Catherine Ostler remedies that. “The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalized Eighteenth-Century London” (Simon & Schuster) paints a more sympathetic, feminist portrait of this Georgian-era antiheroine as a “forward-thinking woman in a society undergoing the birth pangs of modernity” who navigated London society not through evil machinations but through charm, wit and an impulsive, irrepressible lust for life. 

“Vanity Fair’s” social-climber Becky Sharp (portrayed by Reese Witherspoon) is said to be based on the exploits of real-life bigamist Elizabeth Chudleigh.Chudleigh “was obviously flawed and complex — by turns brave, reckless, insecure, loving, greedy, resilient, depressive,” Ostler writes in the introduction to her book. But she also admirably refused “to accept the female status of underdog or to hand over all the power, the glory, and the adventures of life to men.”

Elizabeth Chudleigh was born March 8, 1721, to a family outside of London. Her father, Thomas Chudleigh  — “companionable, hearty and fond of brandy” — fought in the army and ran the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. He married his first cousin, Henrietta, a “child of the court,” when he was 24, and the pair had two children, Elizabeth and her older brother Thomas.

Though the Chudleighs came from good stock — they were a military family with ties to the monarchy — they barely had money. Elizabeth’s father was the second son, so the bulk of his parents’ fortune went to his older brother. Then, just before Elizabeth’s sixth birthday, he caught a cold and died, at the age of 38. Suddenly, Henrietta and her two children found themselves evicted from their free Royal Hospital apartment in bucolic Chelsea and moving into a noisy rented house in London’s Mayfair. 

Augustus John Hervey was Elizabeth’s first husband, whom she married in haste. He set sail for the West Indies soon after their wedding.Historia/ShutterstockHenrietta spent what little money she made from her paltry estates to fund her son Thomas’ posh education. (He died prematurely, in battle, at 20.) That left Elizabeth with only one hope: to get a rich husband. 

“The aim was to train her to impress the people of fashion, the beau monde, and thereby find herself a secure marriage,” writes Ostler. Not an impossible task: Elizabeth could speak and write fluent French, dance and play music and apparently converse with anyone anywhere about anything; even her detractors would call her a “great wit.”

Elizabeth (above) hawked her favorite face cream by the king’s pharmacist to the general public, making it a bestseller, and grabbed headlines for her frequent fainting in public and melodramatic antics.Hulton ArchiveAt 22, Elizabeth charmed her way into court when one of her admirers secured her a position as a “maid of honor” to Princess Augusta, wife of the Prince of Wales. The job mostly consisted of being entertaining and looking pretty, and the vivacious Elizabeth — with her slim figure, “glowing complexion” and “blue eyes like stars” — immediately caused a sensation. She captured the eye of James Hamilton, a “hot, debauched [and] extravagant” duke, and the two fell in love. But then Hamilton went off on his “Grand Tour” through Europe, and their romance dissipated, perhaps due to his numerous infidelities.

‘They were so offended they would not speak to her.’How women reacted to Elizabeth Chudleigh wearing a see-through chemise to a 1749 masquerade ball, according to one witnessWhen the court disbanded for that summer of 1744, a heartbroken Elizabeth went to her cousin’s house in Hampshire. That’s where she met the Honorable Augustus Hervey, a 20-year-old seafaring thrill-seeker known throughout Europe as “the English Casanova.” Within weeks, they married, in a secret candlelit ceremony in the dead of night. Elizabeth’s cousin gave her away.

Her aunt — who strangely encouraged the relationship, even though Hervey, as the second rebellious son of a courtier, was hardly an advantageous match for her niece — was the other witness. Three days later, Hervey set sail for the West Indies. Elizabeth went back to court at the end of the summer. They didn’t see one another for two years.

For two decades, Elizabeth had an affair with Evelyn Pierrepont (above). After first husband, Hervey, emerged asking for a divorce, she had their marriage annulled and then wed her lover.Elizabeth had to pretend she was still single at court, or she would lose her position as a maid of honor, and she needed the small salary that came with the position. So she threw herself into her maid-of-honor duties. She hosted extravagant parties for Princess Augusta and her nine children, including future king George III. She hawked her favorite face cream by the king’s pharmacist to the general public, making it a bestseller, and grabbed headlines for her frequent fainting in public and melodramatic antics.

She earned her reputation as England’s most controversial courtier when she arrived at a 1749 masquerade ball in a completely see-through flesh-colored draped chemise. The other maids “were so offended they would not speak with her,” reported one witness. The king, however, loved it. (Rumors swirled that Elizabeth had seduced the king, unfounded.)

Elizabeth’s trial lasted five days, during which the court invalidated her previous annulment and found her guilty of bigamy — though it spared her the indignity of having her hand burned, the punishment at the time. Historia/ShutterstockOn the surface, Elizabeth seemed to blithely cast aside her marriage, but she did suffer. She had numerous health problems, and survived a drug overdose (a rumored suicide attempt). When Hervey returned two years after deserting her, she fell back into bed with him before he ditched her once more, pregnant. With Princess Augusta’s help, Elizabeth had the baby in secret, but the infant died at just three months. She never recovered from the trauma.

Then in 1750, Elizabeth met Evelyn Pierrepont, the Duke of Kingston, 38 years old and dubbed “the handsomest man in England.” By 1752, their relationship was an open secret in London society, and the two spent nearly all their time together, though Kingston knew of Elizabeth’s illicit marriage. He funded many of her fabulous fetes and travels throughout the continent, gave her money to buy property in the country and showered her with jewels. After nearly 20 years together, however, Hervey emerged asking for a divorce. Elizabeth petitioned to have her marriage annulled, and she won. The Duke of Kingston proposed marriage, and the two wed on March 8, 1769, Elizabeth’s 48th birthday.

Lady Frances Meadows, sister of the Duke of Kingston, whose husband and eldest son brought the bigamy trial against Elizabeth.They lived in wedded bliss until Kingston’s death in 1773, at which point the duke’s family went after Elizabeth and the money that he had left her — an amount that came to about £4,000 a year. They would not rest until they saw the Duchess of Kingston “burnt in the hand,” which was then the punishment for bigamy. Elizabeth was actually living in Rome when she heard, in early 1775, that her late (second) husband’s family had taken criminal action against her. Instead of negotiating a settlement, she decided to stand trial and defend her honor.

The trial lasted five days, during which the court invalidated Elizabeth’s previous annulment, saying that she had deceived the bishops who had given it to her. It found her guilty of bigamy, though it spared her the indignity of having her hand burned. She largely went unpunished — her peers on the court felt she had suffered enough from the humiliation of the whole ordeal — only losing her name, titles and marriage to her “dear Duke.”

Yet remarkably, Elizabeth’s story does not end with her public shaming. Within days, she set sail to France. Instead of slinking away from society, she traveled Europe, befriending the pope in Rome and Russia’s Catherine the Great, who gifted the disgraced duchess an estate in Estonia complete with her own vodka distillery. She continued buying houses in France, attending parties, giving her money away to the poor and needy (as well as to Kingston’s undeserving family) and living extravagantly beyond her means before dying in 1788, at the age of 67. 

Even the enemies who delighted in her downfall found themselves strangely bereft at the loss of such a bright light.

“I have nothing more to say,” her most vicious critic, the politician and man of letters Horace Walpole, wrote after her death. “I was weary of her folly and vanity long ago, and now look on her only as a big bubble that is burst.”

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