Elizabeth Pierrepont, Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull
Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston (8 March 1721 – 26 August 1788), sometimes called Countess of Bristol, was an English noble and courtier, known by her contemporaries for her adventurous life style. She was the daughter of Colonel Thomas Chudleigh (died 1726), and was appointed maid of honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales, in 1743, probably through the good offices of her friend, William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath. She was found guilty of bigamy at a trial by her peers at Westminster Hall that attracted 4,000 spectators.
Elizabeth Chudleigh was born on 8 March 1721. Her father was lieutenant governor of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, but he died while she was still a small child.
Being an attractive woman, Chudleigh did not lack admirers, among whom were James Hamilton, 6th Duke of Hamilton, and Augustus Hervey, later 3rd Earl of Bristol, but at that time a younger grandson of the first Earl. On 4 August 1744 she was privately married to Hervey at Lainston House, a private country house with its own parish church (St Peter's, now a ruin), near Winchester. The wedding was held at night to preserve the secrecy. Both husband and wife lacked the financial support they needed, and their union was kept secret to enable Chudleigh to retain her post at court, while Hervey, who was a naval officer, rejoined his ship, returning to England towards the close of 1746.
The marriage proved to be an unhappy one, and for years the pair did not live together. Having married in secret, their marriage did not seem to need to be dissolved. Chudleigh cut a prominent figure in London society, and in 1765 in Berlin she was honoured by the attentions of Frederick the Great. She later became the mistress of Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull, whom she later married in 1769. However, when it appeared likely that Hervey would succeed his brother as Earl of Bristol, Chudleigh took steps to establish proof of her marriage to him by forging an entry in the parish register at Lainston, unbeknownst to him.
Charges of bigamy
Hervey wanted to end their marriage by divorce, but Chudleigh wanted to avoid any public acknowledgment of their marriage. She therefore initiated a suit of jactitation against him, which required him to cease claiming marriage to her unless proved. When Hervey proved incapable of proving the relationship and Chudleigh swore she was unmarried, the consistory court in February 1769 pronounced her a spinster, free to marry. Within a month, she married Kingston and became Elizabeth Pierrepont, Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull. He built for her a grand townhouse called Chudleigh House (later called Kingston House) on Knightsbridge in the City of Westminster, London. He died four years later, leaving her all his property on condition that she remained a widow. She travelled abroad. Visiting Rome, she was received with the honour due a duchess by Pope Clement XIV.
In March 1775, her first husband's brother died and Hervey became Earl of Bristol. Chudleigh's marriage to Hervey was a legitimate one, despite her denials, and she was therefore legally Countess of Bristol.
The Duchess was forced to return to England when her late husband's nephew, Evelyn Medows (d. 1826), brought a charge of bigamy against her in hopes of establishing a legal rationale for challenging Kingston's will. She attempted unsuccessfully to have the charge set aside in December 1775 by reason of the previous judgment in her favour. She was tried as a peer in Westminster Hall in 1776 and found guilty by 116 peers without dissent. Retaining her fortune, she hurriedly left England to avoid further proceedings on the part of the Medows family.
Later life and legacy
She lived for a time in Calais, where she befriended Stefano Zannowich, and then, in 1777, finding she would be accepted by the Russian court, the two had a boat built and made a spectacular entrance sailing into Kronstadt, the port of Saint Petersburg. In the Governorate of Estonia she bought 3 properties: Toila, Orro, and Fockenhoff, which she consolidated into an estate she named "Chudleigh". She planned to create a model English estate, imported spaniels and pointers and a collection of plants. She lived there for a short time in a clifftop house with a view of the Baltic Sea.
Hervey eventually gained legal recognition in 1777 that his marriage to Chudleigh was legitimate, but he did not pursue divorce proceedings, probably because of his involvement with the suit of jactitation. Chudleigh continued to style herself Duchess of Kingston, resided in her Paris mansion in Montmartre, Rome, and elsewhere, and died at her estate at St. Assise near Paris on 26 August 1788, still legally Countess of Bristol.
The Duchess was said to be a coarse and licentious woman, and was ridiculed as Kitty Crocodile by the comedian Samuel Foote in a play A Trip to Calais, which, however, he was not allowed to produce. She is reputed to have been the original of William Makepeace Thackeray's character Beatrix Esmond, Baroness Bernstein in The History of Henry Esmond and The Virginians.
In popular culture
Chudleigh appears as a character in T. H. White's non-fiction The Age of Scandal and in Theodore Sturgeon's historical romance I, Libertine. She appears as a non-speaking character in the play Mr Foote's Other Leg, in which the controversy surrounding her and Foote is portrayed as central to the latter's fall.
- Heppenstal, Rayner, Tales from the Newgate Calendar: True stories of crime and punishment, Futura 1983
- Jesse, John Heneage, Memoirs of the Court of England 1688-1760, vol. iv. (1901)
- Gervat, Claire, Elizabeth: The Scandalous Life of an Eighteenth-Century Duchess (London: Century, 2003, ISBN 978-0-7126-1451-1)
- Heppenstal quotes a detailed account of this incident from Melville, L, Notable British Trials, vol. 182: The Trial of the Duchess of Kingston (Edinburgh: William Hodge & Co., 1927)
- O'Brien, Michael (2010). Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 71ff., esp. 74.
- T. H. White, The Age of Scandal, Faber & Faber, 2011, ISBN 978-0571274765
- Frederick R. Ewing (pseud. of Theodore Sturgeon), I, Libertine, Ballantine Books, 1956.