Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Chudleigh, Elizabeth
CHUDLEIGH, ELIZABETH, Countess of Bristol (1720–1788), calling herself Duchess of Kingston, the only child of Colonel Thomas Chudleigh, lieutenant-governor of Chelsea Hospital, the younger brother of Sir George Chudleigh [q. v.] of Ashton, Devonshire, and Harriet, daughter of Mr. Chudleigh of Chalmington, Dorsetshire, was born in 1720. On Colonel Chudleigh’s death in 1726, she and her mother were left badly provided for, and her youth was spent in the country. She was a beautiful girl; her first serious love affair took place when she was about fifteen, and an attack of small-pox from which she suffered at about the same age left her attractions unimpaired. William Pulteney, afterwards earl of Bath, having met her by chance while he was shooting, took a strong interest in her welfare, and endeavoured, though with no great success, to induce her to improve her mind by study. It was probably due to his good offices that she and her mother returned to London in 1740, and in 1743 she was through his interest appointed maid of honour to Augusta, princess of Wales. About this time James, sixth duke of Hamilton, fell in love with her. He was scarcely nineteen, and as he had not made the usual tour on the continent, left England for that purpose. Although he wrote to Miss Chudleigh his letters were intercepted by her aunt, Mrs. Hanmer, with whom she spent the summer of 1744, and the duke afterwards married Miss Elizabeth Gunning. While staying with her aunt at the house of her cousin, the wife of Mr. John Merrill of Lainston, Hampshire, Miss Chudleigh in the course of the summer went to Winchester races, and there met the Hon. Augustus John Hervey, a lieutenant in the navy, second son of John, lord Hervey, and grandson of the, first earl of Bristol. Hervey obtained leave of absence from his ship (the Cornwall) and paid his addresses to her at her cousin’s, house. Piqued at the apparent neglect of the Duke of Hamilton, she consented to marry him, and, as they were both poor, and she could not afford to lose her place as maid of honour, they were married privately, though in the presence of witnesses, in the extraparochial chapel of Lainston, by the rector, a Mr. Amis, at 10 or 11 pan. on 4 Aug. 1744. A few days afterwards Hervey joined his ship and sailed for the West Indies, and his wife, when not in attendance at Leicester House, lived with her mother in Conduit Street. Her husband returned to England in October 1746, and in the summer of the next year she was secretly delivered of a male child at Chelsea. This child was baptised at Chelsea old church on 2 Nov. 1747 as Henry Augustus, son of the Hon. Augustus Hervey. It was put out to nurse at Chelsea, and shortly afterwards died and was buried there. Prom the time of Hervey’s return to England there had been frequent quarrels between him and his wife, and after the birth of their child they had no further intercourse. Miss Chudleigh, as she was still called, kept her marriage secret, and continued to hold office as a maid of honour in the court of the princess. She was remarkable even there for the freedom and indelicacy of her conduct, appearing on one occasion in 1749 at a masked ball in the character of Iphigenia, ‘so naked that you would have taken her for Andromeda’ (H. Walpole, Letters, ii. 153; Mrs. Montagu, Letters, iii. 158; Wraxall, Historical Memoirs, ii. 73). George II pretended to be in love with her, and gave her a watch ‘which cost five-and-thirty guineas out of his own privy purse and not charged on the civil list,’ and made her mother housekeeper at Windsor, a place of considerable profit (H. Walpole). Besides this income Mrs. Chudleigh and her daughter had a farm of 120 acres called Hall, in the parish of Harford, Devonshire, which Elizabeth kept during her life and which appears in her will. She is said to have assisted the Prince of Wales (George III) in his love affair with Hann Lightfoot in 1754 (Monthly Mag. li. 532).
As, in 1759, the failing health of the Earl of Bristol seemed to promise the speedy succession of his brother Augustus Hervey, Elizabeth thought it well to take means to enable herself to establish her marriage should she wish to do so. She is said to have told her secret to the princess and to have acted by her advice. Early in February she went down to Winchester, where Mr. Amis then lay on his deathbed, and in the presence of his wife and Mr. Merrill caused him to enter her marriage in the register-book of Lainston chapel. The book, on Amis's death, was delivered by his wife into the custody of Merrill. About this time Elizabeth became the mistress of Evelyn Pierrepoint, second duke of Kingston, and her connection with him was a matter of notoriety when, on 4 June 1760, she gave a splendid ball in honour of the birthday of the Prince of Wales. Her parties were now the best arranged and most fashionable in London, and were much frequented by the ambassadors of foreign courts. In 1765 she was travelling independently in Germany, and stayed for a while at Berlin. Frederic II, writing in July to the Electress Dowager of Saxony about the marriage of his nephew the prince royal, says that nothing particular happened save the appearance of an English lady, Madame Chudleigh, who emptied two bottles of wine and staggered as she danced and nearly fell on the floor (Œuvres de Frédéric II, xxiv. 90). Frederic paid her some attention, and in after days she used to show some scraps of notes he had sent her. After she left Berlin she went to Saxony and stayed some time with the electress dowager. On her return to England she led a life of extreme dissipation. Hervey, who was anxious to marry again, sent a message to her in 1768 by Cæsar Hawkins, the surgeon who had been present at the birth of her child, to say that he purposed applying for a divorce. In order to obtain a divorce, however, it was necessary to prove the marriage, and as Elizabeth was not willing to incur the scandal of a divorce, she refused to allow that a marriage had taken place. At the same time she was as anxious as he was for the dissolution of the marriage, in order that she might become the wife of the Duke of Kingston. Accordingly in Michaelmas term she instituted a suit of jactitation against him in the consistory court, and the answer made by Hervey was so weak that there is good reason to believe that the whole proceeding was collusive. Elizabeth, however, was unhappy, so she told Cæsar Hawkins, at finding that she had to swear that she was not married. However, she took the required oath, and on 11 Feb. 1769 the court declared her a spinster and free from any matrimonial contract, and enjoined silence on Hervey; and on 8 March next she was married to the Duke of Kingston by special license. While she had been the duke’s mistress she had, when in England, lived much in a villa at Finchley, and then at Percy Lodge, near Colnbrook, and she was now building a house in Paradise Row, Knightsbridge, which was finished after her marriage to the duke, and was accordingly called Kingston House.
The duchess was presented on her marriage to the king and queen, who wore her favours, as did the officers of state. In May 1773 Hervey renewed his matrimonial case by presenting a petition to the king in council for a new trial, and the matter was referred to the lord chancellor. The duke died on 23 Sept. following, leaving to the duchess, by his will dated 5 July 1770, his real estate for life and the whole of his personalty for ever, on condition that she remained a widow, the reason of this restriction being her liability to be imposed on by any adventurer who flattered her. The extravagant signs of mourning displayed by the duchess were much ridiculed. Shortly after the duke’s death she sailed to Italy in her yacht; she received many marks of favour from Clement XIV, and delighted the Roman people by having her yacht brought up the Tiber. During her absence Mr. Evelyn Meadows, the duke’s nephew, on information obtained from Ann Cradock, who had been in her service, caused a bill of indictment for bigamy to be drawn up against her. On hearing of this she determined to return to England at once, and finding some difficulty in obtaining the money she wanted from the English banker at Rome with whom she had lodged her valuables, went down to his office with a pistol and compelled him to supply her. On her return to England she busied herself in taking measures for her defence. On 20 March 1775 her first husband, Hervey, succeeded his brother as Earl of Bristol. The duchess appeared in the court of king’s bench on 24 May, before Lord Mansfield, to answer the indictment preferred against her. She was attended by the Duke of Newcastle, Lord Mountstuart, and others, and entered into a recognisance (herself in 4,000l. and four sureties in l,000l. each) to stand her trial by her peers in parliament assembled. In the course of this year Foote the comedian ridiculed her under the character of Kitt Crocodile in his play ‘A Trip to Calais,' which he proposed to bring out at the Haymarket. The duchess offered him 1,600l. to suppress the play, and when he refused to do so her friend Lord Mountstuart prevailed on the lord chamberlain, Lord Hertford, to forbid its production. The friends of the duchess, and among them her chaplain Foster, declared that Foote attempted to extort 2,000l. from her. Fearing that he would publish the play, the duchess on 15 Aug. wrote him an abusive letter. Foote replied, and the letters, which were published in the ‘Evening Post,’ show that the actor had by far the best of the encounter. The play was produced the next year with many alterations and under the title of ‘The Capuchin.’ Although the duchess declared that she was anxious that her case should be settled, she nevertheless on 22 Dec. applied for a nolle prosequi, on the ground of the sentence of the consistory court. The attorney-general, however, held that the crown had no power to grant this, as the offence with which she was charged was created by act of parliament, and to stay proceedings would therefore be an infringement of the Bill of Rights. The trial of the duchess began on 15 April 1776, on which day the peers went in procession from their house to Westminster Hall, together with the judges, the Garter king of arms, and other attendants on the lord high steward, Earl Bathurst. In the course of the proceedings, which extended over 16, 19, 20, and 22 April, the marriage with Hervey, the birth of the child, and the registration of the marriage in 1659 were clearly proved by Anne Cradock, by the sergeant-surgeon Cæsar Hawkins, and by the widow of Mr. Amis, who had since married a steward of the Duke of Kingston, and a verdict of guilty was unanimously pronounced by the peers, the Duke of Newcastle alone adding 'but not intentionally.' As bigamy was a clergyable offence, the duchess might have been burned on the hand, but she claimed the privilege of her peerage, which exempted her from corporal punishment, and though the attorney-general argued against her claim it was allowed by the peers.
After her trial the duchess, who should now, speaking strictly, be called the Countess of Bristol, hearing that the duke's nephews were about to proceed against her, left England, being conveyed across the Channel to Calais in an open boat by the captain of her yacht, on the very day that a ne exeat regno was issued against her. She was, however, left in possession of her fortune. Her husband, the Earl of Bristol, obtained the recognition of his marriage from the consistory court on 22 Jan. 1777, as a preliminary step towards applying for a divorce. As, however, there was strong evidence of his collusion, no further proceedings were taken. He died on 22 Dec. 1779. At Calais the duchess, after being plundered by Dessein, the proprietor of the famous hotel, resides in a house she bought from a M. Cocove, sometime president of the town, allowing him and his family to occupy part of it with her. In 1777 she sailed to St. Petersburg in a ship that she bought and fitted up, having obtained leave to hoist the French colours (Sherlock). In order to secure a good reception, she sent two pictures from the duke's collection to Count Chernicheff. After sending them off she found that they were painted by Raphael and Claude Lorrain, and she tried to persuade the count to exchange them for others of less value. This he refused to do, and she declares in her will that she had simply committed them to his care. She received many favours from the czarina Catherine, who had her ship repaired for her when it was injured by a violent storm. Delighted with the attention that was paid her, the duchess bought for 12,000l. an estate near St. Petersburg, which she called 'Chudleigh,' and there she set up a manufactory of brandy; another estate was given her by the czarina. After a while, however, she grew restless, and left her property and her manufactory in charge of an English carpenter to whom she took a fancy. On her return to France she bought a house at Montmartre and a fine place near Paris, called St. Assise, which belonged to Monsieur, the king's brother, for 50,000l., of which she appears to have only paid 16,000l. at her death. She went for a second time to Rome, where she is said to have lived somewhat scandalously, and also visited other continental capitals. Among the various persons who flattered her vanity in order to prey upon her was a notorious adventurer called Worta, who described himself as an Albanian prince, and who was afterwards apprehended in Holland as a forger and poisoned himself in prison. She is said to have actually received an offer of marriage from Prince Radzivil, who entertained her in a regal fashion. She was too restless to remain long in one country, or indeed in one humour. Her habits were extremely coarse; surrounded by unworthy persons, she was self-indulgent and whimsical, and her character was only redeemed from utter contempt by a certain generosity of temper that extended even to her enemies. She died somewhat suddenly at Paris on 26 Aug. 1788, at the age of sixty-eight. Her will, which was made in France on 7 Oct, 1786, is a strange document. Her story is said to have suggested to Thackeray the character of Beatrice in 'Esmond' and of the Baroness Bernstein in 'The Virginians.'
[An authentic detail … relative to the Duchess of Kingston ; Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. Cunningham, passim ; Mrs. Montagu's Letters, iii. 168 ; Sir N. Wraxall's Historical Memoirs, ii.73 ; Monthly Mag. li. 632 ; Trial of Elizabeth, Duchess Dowager of Kingston … before the House of Peers; Whitehead's Original Anecdotes; Sherlock's Letters of an English Traveller, i. 27, ed. 1802 ; Œuvres de Frederic II, xxiv. 90; Histoire de la Vie et des Aventures de la Duchesse de Kingston; Lettre à Madame L—— sur la mort d Elisabeth Chudleigh, autrement Duchesse de Kingston; Collectanea Juridica, i. 323; Annual Register, xii. 73, xvi. 102, xix. 133, 169, 231-6, xx. 164, xxi. 168, xxx. 44-9, 213.]