The story of the Duchess who scandalised Georgian society

Elizabeth Chudleigh

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In the late summer of 1777, anyone standing on the banks of the Gulf of Finland might have beheld a most spellbinding sight: a three-masted maritime marvel of polished wood and golden paint, its sails billowing in the northern wind. On the deck of the yacht, they might have spotted the lone figure of a woman, her eyes fixed on the course of the Neva river flowing towards St Petersburg. If they could have seen inside, they would have found contents as exotic as the ship’s story: a menagerie of animals, including small monkeys; an orchestra; two clergymen (a Catholic for the French crew and an Anglican who doubled up as publicist); a state room, a kitchen, a bathroom and decorative heaters, along with a priceless selection of silver, and art in a picture gallery. The beady-eyed might have caught the name of the ship on the side: the Duchess of Kingston.

For this was the name the woman on deck went by – but it was also the title that had just been denied her by the entire House of Lords and the most senior British judges, in a trial for bigamy that was witnessed by Queen Charlotte, two future monarchs, James Boswell and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, alongside the London literati and the rest of the ton. Just as the American War of Independence might have been turned in Britain’s favour, the British were all distracted, gripped by this scandalous figure, the keeper of any number of secrets.

Interiors of the Winter Palace

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The duchess, as she still styled herself, had swept out of London with her late husband’s money and set off to befriend Catherine the Great, then the most illustrious monarch on earth. As she sailed into St Petersburg, the river gave way to embankments of painted stucco and marble-and-granite palaces. Russia’s new capital was a place of dazzling newness and grandeur, built by Peter the Great at the beginning of the century. The Imperial Winter Palace stood out in this stucco panorama, in its Brobdingnagian scale. ‘It has the appearance of having been transported to the present spot, like the palace in the Arabian tales,’ observed one English visitor.

It is one of the peculiar quirks of history that because of this woman’s erratic romantic life, and the desire of the British establishment to punish her for it, some of the treasures of her family by marriage and pieces she commissioned lie not in a London gallery or some stately home in the shires but far away in that same Winter Palace, now the State Hermitage Museum. They conceal the extraordinary story of the journey that took them there: one that I discovered in writing my book, The Duchess Countess: The Woman who Scandalised a Nation.

The Winter Palace

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Elizabeth Chudleigh, or the Duchess-Countess – a nickname given to her by the omnipresent 18th-century gossip Horace Walpole – caught me by surprise in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s masterful biography Catherine the Great & Potemkin. He described her flamboyance at the Imperial court, her capacity to shock and entrance – even there, a career of ‘seduction, marriage, deception, exhibitionism and theft’. In other words, she was the very best kind of British anti-heroine. In fiction, a Becky Sharp or a Moll Flanders – the sort you can’t help rooting for, however questionable her behaviour, who confounds expectation and fights back with every fibre in her corset. To me, Elizabeth has become not only a complex object of sympathy and fascination, but also a cypher from which to view Georgian womanhood and society, its press, its poetry, the swish of its skirts and the power of its cruel pens, long before Bridgerton’s Lady Whistledown put such things in our collective consciousness. Elizabeth Chudleigh made constant gossip fodder, from her days as the most fascinating of the maids of honour (the It girls of their day), through her various escapades in the marriage market, to her eventual trial in 1776 and the self-imposed exile she embarked upon afterwards.

As a child, she had skipped around the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, where her father was Lieutenant-Governor, though he died when she was only five. Soon, however, she was a creature of the Georgian court, becoming a maid of honour in 1744 to Augusta, the young Princess of Wales from the nowheresburg state of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg.

The exterior of Leicester House in Clapham, London, 1879

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This was the century of rival courts – public strife between father and son being nothing new in the Royal Family. In every Hanoverian generation, there was a staid, unglamorous one, that of the King, and an amusing, lively one, that of the Prince and Princess of Wales. George II had a monotonous setup because he hated male rivalry and drove the wits and thinkers away, so his son Frederick, Prince of Wales, happily received them at Leicester House. Elizabeth, through her considerable powers of courtiership that made her something of a female Machiavelli, was about the only person who managed to stay in favour with both.

The main point of being a maid of honour was, of course, to find a suitable husband. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted Elizabeth, recalled that she was about the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and she had a fluent wit acknowledged even by her enemies. But it was still no easy task: not only was she without a dowry but she didn’t have a father, brother, or the sort of mother who might advise or negotiate on her behalf. She nearly became engaged to the young, orphaned Duke of Hamilton, but his family snaffled him out of her grasp at the last minute.

Elizabeth dressed as the mythical Greek princess Iphigenia for a 1749 masquerade

The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Staying with a cousin in the country in 1744, she met a naval officer at the Winchester races. Though only 20, Augustus Hervey was confident and articulate, already a practised seducer, full of sea stories and swagger. The Earl of Bristol’s grandson, Hervey would become known as the English Casanova and, after a speedy romance in the August heat, he and Elizabeth were married in the middle of the night in a country chapel: a Vegas-with-Elvis-impersonator kind of exploit that they both began to regret almost immediately.

They agreed to pretend it had never happened. Over the years, secrecy became denial but, crucially, they did not divorce. Soon, they met others; in Elizabeth’s case, this was another orphaned duke (she certainly had a type) – Evelyn Pierrepont, the 2nd Duke of Kingston, widely agreed to be ‘the handsomest man in England’. Even Horace Walpole, never known for his kindness, called him a ‘man of great beauty and the finest person’. Much later, in 1769, Elizabeth married Kingston and was briefly happy; but when he died in 1773 and left her everything, his family wanted ‘their’ money back and so pursued her through the legal system with a vigour that took her all the way to trial for bigamy at Westminster Hall.

She was put in the dock in front of 4,000 spectators – at which point, she became one of the three most talked-about women in Europe, along with Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great herself. Newspapers covered every aspect of the trial, giving their readers a front-row seat; the war in America was knocked off the front pages. The chatterati were beside themselves with excitement, the women rising at 5am for coffee and coiffure beforehand. Westminster Hall dropped to silence as Elizabeth, ‘handsome’ in mourning dress, entered with her entourage: two elegant attendants in white, a chaplain, a physician, an apothecary, and Black Rod, there to prevent her from escaping. Initially calm and dignified, by the end of the trial she was accused of ‘making play’ at witnesses, and she collapsed in distress more than once. Secrets, half-truths and conspiracies emerged – there is no room for the details here – but after the verdict, she regrouped, and embarked on a grand tour.

Years after I first heard her name, I stood inside the overheated Hermitage Museum as the snow fell outside in Palace Square. It was 7 December, St Catherine’s Day, on which admission is free to commemorate the feast day of its empress founder’s namesake. I had followed the footsteps of the errant duchess across Europe and was finishing the manuscript of my book when I heard that some of her belongings had been found in St Petersburg and were about to go on show. By then I knew her story in more detail than she probably ever knew it herself, having read old diaries, newspapers and dusty letters while wearing white gloves in archives, on the obsessive trail that goads every biographer.

I wandered through the famous Neva Enfilade, where balls for thousands were once held while the peasants starved outside, and came at last to the Romanov nursery wing, which held her astonishing possessions. There was a ballroom chandelier, almost as tall as me, that played music when its candles were lit; a silver wine cooler big enough to bathe a baby, in which fish soup was once served at a ball to celebrate victory over the Turks; and paintings that Elizabeth had brought over on that yacht.

Copperplate engraving of the Duchess of Kingston’s bigamy trial, circa 1776

Florilegius / Alamy Stock Photo

The descendants of her second husband’s family, the Pierreponts, are understandably irritated that belongings that once graced their family seat are now lost to the state museums of Russia. One suggested to me that Elizabeth had taken from their home in Nottinghamshire the celebrated Peacock Clock, the Hermitage’s star exhibit, with its automated birds and woodland creatures. Museum experts now insist that Elizabeth merely introduced Catherine’s husband and co-ruler, Prince Potemkin, to her friend and confidant, the clock’s designer, James Cox. (‘They would say that wouldn’t they?’ said one cynical Pierrepont.) Some pictures (one by Claude Lorrain she had sent ahead to an admiral, Count Ivan Chernyshev, to smooth the introduction of the most scandalous woman in Europe to its most powerful; another by Pierre Mignard), silver vases, the wine cooler and an organ that she brought to Russia, were still there when she died unexpectedly. Nothing ever left the country, no matter what she wrote in her will.

The duchess’s treasures in the Hermitage have survived two world wars, the Siege of Leningrad, decades of communism and a period of exile in the frozen Urals. They were opened up to me under the auspices of the museum’s director of almost 30 years, Dr Mikhail Piotrovsky, whom I met in his office overlooking the Neva – itself a museum piece, with fading blue-green tapestries lining its walls and piles of books sitting on mahogany with a deep patina. It was his father’s office once; he had grown up in the museum.

It is perhaps surprising that the treasures in St Petersburg are the best-preserved parts of the duchess’s legacy. Most of the buildings associated with her in England have either been demolished, or survive merely as hotels. Still, just as I wanted to read everything written by her and about her, I wanted to visit everywhere she had lived. I began, as she began, in the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, where a kindly red-coated, tricorned pensioner, David Lyall, showed me around Wren’s immaculate hospital, into the panelled apartment where she spent her infancy. I could well imagine Elizabeth playing on the lawns that then led right down to the river, with no road along the embankment. (The river itself was the highway –you could catch a boat anywhere.) Her father’s name was painted in gold on the wall of the Great Hall and, beneath the moss, etched on his headstone in the graveyard.

I saw where her teenage years had been spent in Devon, at her father’s Hall estate, a farmhouse overlooking the wilds of Dartmoor. Nearby were the remnants of her uncle’s house, Haldon, once a titanic, exhibitionist pile (built in imitation of Buckingham House) that dominated the landscape. All that remains is the stable block, now a Best Western hotel.

Leicester House, centre of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s court, is no more: the house of the maids of honour is a Burger King. But her aunt’s house on Upper Grosvenor Street – where she would meet up with Augustus Hervey, her first husband, when he came back from sea – still stands. In a peculiar twist of fate, it was later home to another scandalous duchess: Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, who was accused of adultery with 88 men in her divorce case in 1963. The red-brick trophy house of Lainston that was the scene of her first wedding is now a hotel that still has a scented garden seductive enough to provoke a clandestine marriage; the chapel where it took place is a ruin, although her great-grandmother’s grave is still visible on the ground. Hervey’s estate was at Ickworth, in Suffolk, where the National Trust now runs the Italianate palace built by his younger brother. Even there, the tangled story is present: in the pictures of Hervey as a young naval buck and later, as a portly hero, and in Gainsborough’s touching portrait of his illegitimate son, painted on tin so it could be taken to sea. Elizabeth’s London house on the edge of Hyde Park in Knightsbridge – then a ramshackle road leading out of London – was demolished in the 1930s. Like Marchmain House in Brideshead Revisited, the name was kept even though the building disappeared; Kingston House North and South are now vast, liner-like apartment blocks, almost Soviet in scale, that stand on the site of her house, where so many of her parties were held.

Catherine Ostler’s new biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh

But most of her (openly) married life was spent in Nottinghamshire (or at spa towns like Bath, much of which was owned by Kingston). The duke had inherited Thoresby, an arcadian, oak-lined estate on the edge of Sherwood Forest. It is still there, although their villa-style house, decorated by Elizabeth in bright silks and marble, was replaced a century later with a massive Victorian edifice, now a hotel run by Warner Leisure. His lake – which once had its own navy of sorts, scale models of boats each with their own captain – lies shut off after the coal board dug around it to the point of instability in the 1970s.

I went there to meet Gregor Pierrepont, whose father, a cousin, was chosen to inherit the estate by Lady Rozelle Raynes, last descendant of the last Earl Manvers, himself descended from Elizabeth’s nephew; the condition was that he change his surname from Matheson to Pierrepont. A few miles away lies Holme Pierrepont Hall, a red-brick Tudor manor lived in by another of Rozelle’s heirs, the Brackenbury family. Before Thoresby, this was the Pierrepont home, which then became a shooting lodge; Elizabeth spent one night here but was spooked by thoughts of her own mortality, as the church with the family vault lay – and still lies – so close to the house. Here was a portrait of her sister-in-law, whose oldest son spent most of his life chasing his uncle’s inheritance and drove Elizabeth into court in London.

But it is in Russia that I can most clearly imagine her. She had headed off for the courts of Europe to rehabilitate her ego and her reputation. She dazzled – and became so enamoured of the Russian empire that she even built herself a farm on the coast of what has become Estonia. It is as remote as you can get now; then it was like living on the moon. This was a madly ambitious project – she ran a vodka distillery, and an inn to serve that vodka, alongside her own choir with a musical director. Catherine the Great gave her permission to rename the estate Chudleigh. For Elizabeth, it was not enough. A serial, restless property developer, she soon moved on to her next acquisitions in France, buying a house in Paris, and a château by the Seine. She died near Paris in 1788 on the eve of revolution, leaving her vodka, houses, paintings and dramatic story waiting to be told behind her.

The Duchess Countess: The Woman who Scandalised a Nation by Catherine Ostler is available to buy now (Simon & Schuster, £25)

This piece was originally published in the May issue.

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