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; he died while she was a small child.
Chudleigh did not lack admirers, among them 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 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, a naval officer, rejoined his ship, returning to England toward the close of 1746.
The marriage was unhappy, and for years, the pair did not live together. Married in secret, their marriage did not seem to need to be dissolved.
Chudleigh "cut a prominent figure" in British society, and in 1765 in Berlin, she had the honor to meet Frederick the Great. Then, she became the mistress of Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull, and married him in 1769. However, before Hervey could succeed his brother as Earl of Bristol, Chudleigh established proof of their marriage 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 initiated a suit of jactitation against him, requiring him to cease claiming marriage to her unless proved. After 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 she remain a widow. She travelled abroad. Visiting Rome, she was received with the honor due a duchess by Pope Clement XIV.
In 1775, her first husband's brother died, and Hervey became Earl of Bristol. Chudleigh's marriage to Hervey was legitimate, despite her denials, and she was therefore, legally, Countess of Bristol.
The Duchess / Countess was forced to return to England after her late husband's nephew, Evelyn Medows (died 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. Absconding with 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, and became mistress to Stefano Zannowich. 1777, after her acceptance by Russian royalty, the two had a boat built then 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, consolidating them into an estate she named "Chudleigh". She planned to create a 'model Brit estate', imported spaniels and pointers and a collection of plants. She lived there in a clifftop house with a view of the Baltic Sea.
In 1777, Hervey gained legal recognition 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 parade as Duchess of Kingston, residing in her Paris estate 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 / Countess was said to be coarse and licentious, and was ridiculed as the character Kitty Crocodile by the comedian Samuel Foote in a play A Trip to Calais, which, however, he was not allowed to produce. She is rumored to be the idea behind the character 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, which began as a hoax. 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)
This article includes a list of general references, but it remains largely unverified because it lacks sufficient corresponding inline citations. (September 2019) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
- Chisholm 1911.
- Heppenstal quotes a detailed account of this incident from Melville, L, Notable Brit 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.