King George II was having a glorious time.
The 65-year-old monarch was in disguise at a masked ball for the cream of London’s aristocracy — and he’d just been mistaken for a waiter.
One of the noble ladies beckoned to him. Failing to recognise His Majesty dressed as an English peasant, she assumed he was a servant and ‘desired him to hold their cup, as they were drinking tea’.
The king was delighted. He gazed around at the sultans, the Cossacks, the nuns, the figures from myth, literature and history. One lady, in cascades of jewels, was ‘a starry night’. Another — in white satin and mountains of pearls — was modelled on Van Dyck’s portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I.
It seemed as though every diamond in London was on display. And then Elizabeth Chudleigh walked in, to a collective gasp of astonishment. A royal maid of honour, she was widely feted as the most beautiful woman in England. And at first glance, she appeared completely naked.
Elizabeth Chudleigh's flirtations with some of the most powerful and wealthy men at court were notorious
Elizabeth’s flirtations with some of the most powerful and wealthy men at court were notorious. She was rumoured to be married to a minor aristocrat, the grandson of the Earl of Bristol, but they shunned each other. Her complexion was so flawless that her name was used to promote a brand of face cream.
But it was the moment in April 1749 when King George beheld her nude at a masked ball that transformed her into one of the most famous women in Europe.
Elizabeth later said she was playing the role of Iphigenia, daughter of King Agamemnon, who was sacrificed naked to the gods in Greek mythology before the siege of Troy. In the candlelight of the room’s chandeliers, she appeared to be wearing nothing at all.
Actually, she did have a gauze chemise or slip, either flesh-toned or completely transparent.
Around her waist, in the merest hint of modesty, hung a garland of ivy. Her fellow maids of honour, the attendants to the Princess of Wales, were so scandalised that they refused to stand anywhere near her, or even look at her.
The men, on the other hand, crowded around. The king’s younger son, the immensely corpulent Duke of Cumberland, was said to be agog.
So was George. Stretching out a hand, he asked whether he might touch Elizabeth’s bare breast.
She took hold of his wrist gently and promised to put his fingers in ‘a far softer place’. Then she lifted his arm, and dropped his hand onto his own bald head.
That story became the talk of society.
The king certainly was captivated. He ordered another masquerade: diarist Horace Walpole told a friend it was done ‘for the maid of honour with whom our gracious monarch has a mind to believe himself in love’. The usually tight-fisted George even gave her an expensive present, a watch on a chain, worth 35 guineas — about £7,350 today.
But as fast as she gathered admirers, Elizabeth made enemies. They predicted this promiscuous man-hunter would come to shame. And so she did — but no one could have predicted the sheer scale of the scandal that was brewing.
She was born in 1721, the daughter of a distinguished soldier named Colonel Thomas Chudleigh, a baronet’s younger son, who was lieutenant governor of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.
The colonel was no businessman: he squandered the family’s money by buying into the ‘South Sea Bubble’, a speculative venture, mainly slave-trading, that ruined thousands of English investors. He died when Elizabeth was five. The family lost their London home and retreated to their estate in Devon, where Elizabeth grew up in genteel poverty. In 1743, aged 22, her sensational adventures began.
The Earl of Bath, William Pulteney, who was a Whig politician (and, very briefly, a Prime Minister), became mentor to Elizabeth. His own child, Anna Maria, had just died, but gossips immediately decided that she was less a replacement daughter than a mistress.
One account described her ‘provoking beauty, the combined brilliancy and delicacy of her complexion, her sparkling eyes and natural wit. She had little of the goddess and plenty of the woman,’ and ‘she had a temper’. Another praised her ‘blue eyes like stars’, pure white skin and petite figure.
The earl recommended her for a position at court, as maid of honour to Princess Augusta, wife of the then heir to the throne (Frederick, who would go on to predecease his father) and already mother of five children, including the future George III.
To be a maid of honour not only brought a substantial salary of £200 (about £40,000 today), but the prefix of ‘The Honourable’ and an enviable public position. The maids were favourites of painters, poets and balladeers.
Elizabeth Chudleigh, the bigamous Duchess of Kingston, in the costume designed and worn at the Venetian Masquerade at Ranelagh in 1749
Elizabeth’s most ardent admirer at court was James, 6th Duke of Hamilton and 3rd Duke of Brandon, who was described by Walpole as ‘hot, debauched, extravagant’ — a rake who was rarely sober and frequently in brothels.
He wanted to marry her: they may have been secretly engaged. But his relatives would not hear of it, and made sure Elizabeth was told rumours about the duke’s penchant for prostitutes. The duke, who was three years her junior, departed for his Grand Tour, and their romance fizzled out.
Instead, she visited a cousin’s estate in Hampshire, where she met the 20-year-old Augustus Hervey, grandson of the Earl of Bristol and already what we would now call a sex addict.
Since his first serious affair with an opera singer in Lisbon when he was 16, he had acquired a reputation as a tireless lothario. He once wrote in his diary that he had bedded 30 prostitutes in a single morning — a claim no one need doubt, since his nickname was ‘the English Casanova’.
Slim, athletic and good-looking, Hervey was a crafty, articulate young man, as well as a serial seducer. He rode, danced, fenced and played the harpsichord.
He was also expected to succeed to the earldom because, although his older brother George was first in line, he was also sickly and intermittently thought to be at death’s door. However, Augustus was about to depart for the Caribbean, a graveyard for young English sailors as yellow fever and malaria were rife. Elizabeth and young Hervey embarked on a whirlwind affair that culminated in an illicit marriage ceremony, in a garden chapel that was part mausoleum, part summerhouse.
There was no marriage certificate, not even an entry in a register, because the chapel did not have one.
Elizabeth’s cousin gave her away, and her aunt, Mrs Hanmer, played witness. The couple spent much of the next three days in bed, until they were disturbed stark naked by a shocked servant. An hour later, Hervey left for Jamaica.
The Prince of Wales detested the Hervey family. It was rumoured that Augustus’s father and the prince had once been lovers, and a royal clique now spread every kind of venomous rumour about him — gossip that prompted poet Alexander Pope’s line about breaking ‘a butterfly upon a wheel’.
For that reason, and because they had wed without family permission and she wanted to keep her salary (maids of honour had to be single), Elizabeth kept the marriage secret. The witnesses and the vicar were sworn to tell no one.
Two years later, her husband returned home penniless. To his humiliation, Elizabeth wanted nothing to do with him and ignored his letters. They were finally reunited in Aunt Hanmer’s drawing room, where ‘mutual reproaches’ ensued — but they ended up in bed from midnight till 5am, before slipping out of the house at dawn.
The Duchess Countess by Catherine Ostler, the story of a woman who scandalised a nation
Before he set sail again, Hervey enjoyed a drunken rampage at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and gave his wife an onyx watch set with diamonds. He paid her debts, then left. Confused and distraught — particularly as the Duke of Hamilton had returned and proposed, and she was forced to turn him down — Elizabeth took an overdose; possibly an accident, more probably an impulsive act of self-harm or attempted suicide.
She survived, and in the spring of 1747 discovered she was expecting Hervey’s baby. Since the world did not know of her marriage, she hid herself in Chelsea during her confinement, but she did spill her secret to the Princess of Wales. The baby boy was placed with a wet-nurse. To Elizabeth’s intense grief, her child died at four months.
Soon, the whole court had heard the rumours. The infatuation of King George, following that infamous ball, went a long way to protect her from gossip-mongers. He approached her in a crowded palace drawing room and announced that, as she had requested, he was appointing her mother, Harriet Chudleigh, housekeeper at Windsor Castle. The price he demanded was a kiss, which she gave him in front of all the courtiers.
Augustus Hervey, in his diary, noted irritably that he suspected the king might privately have got more than a kiss.
By now, the couple were permanently separated. Elizabeth soon had another admirer — the Duke of Kingston, who was said to be not only ‘the handsomest man in England’ but also the best shot.
Kingston was sensitive and polite, a loyal lover with a tender heart, as opposite a character to Hervey and Hamilton as it was possible to be. He also had a vast income.
They were soon a devoted couple, with Elizabeth nursing her lover through bouts of ill-health. But they could not marry. Little by little, the secret marriage to Hervey had become common knowledge. Anxious that she might lose her lover and her estranged husband, and be left with nothing, Elizabeth decided on an insurance policy.
She found the vicar who married her and, with his wife as a witness, persuaded him to sign a register, to attest that the ceremony had really happened. Then she gave the book to a cousin, for safe-keeping.
With Kingston’s backing, Elizabeth became one of the most fashionable hostesses in society. Her parties were renowned: at one to celebrate her birthday, at her Knightsbridge home, she kept her guests in a darkened room for two hours to watch a fireworks display. Walpole noted acidly that the event seemed designed to encourage clandestine sex.
The new king, George III, adored her almost as much as his grandfather had. She travelled through Europe, befriending nobility, hunting wild boar and creating a spectacle with her ostentatious partying. At one wedding she attended in Saxony, observers noted that her shoe buckles alone cost £8,000 — an incredible £1.6 million today.
But all this splendour was threatened when Hervey petitioned for divorce, citing her infidelities.
Rather than allow him to wreck her reputation, she denied there had ever been a marriage. She bribed the only surviving servant to keep quiet, and hired a team of lawyers to fight her case in an ecclesiastical court.
She won, because she knew Hervey’s weakness: his self-image as a gallant knight. When she challenged him to give the court proof of her sexual misbehaviour, he retorted that he was ‘too much of a gentleman’.
Now that a court had declared her to be single, she wasted no time in marrying the Duke of Kingston. But this also in theory left Hervey free to remarry — and that did not suit his younger brother Frederick, the Bishop of Derry. Hervey was now Earl of Bristol, and he was childless. If he fathered an heir, the bishop’s own son would not inherit the earldom.
The bishop alone was a dangerous enemy. But Elizabeth was surrounded by people who were envious, snobbish or who simply disliked her. When the Duke of Kingston died following a series of strokes in 1773, he left all his wealth to his wife. And now Elizabeth’s enemies turned on her in earnest.
The duke’s nephew, Evelyn Meadows, tracked down the one surviving witness to the Hervey wedding, a servant, as well as the vicar’s widow. Then the signed register was discovered.
Elizabeth was charged with bigamy. Horace Walpole and the scandal sheets bestowed a new nickname on her — the Duchess Countess.
Her trial at Westminster Hall in April 1776 was held in front of the massed peerage, resplendent in velvet and ermine. When the servant who had been present at the first wedding, Ann Craddock, took the witness stand, a burly constable of the court stood in front of her so she would not be intimidated by Elizabeth’s scowls.
The former royal physician was also brought forward to testify that Elizabeth had given birth to a child and that he had acted as go-between with the father, Augustus Hervey.
Elizabeth made an impassioned speech in her own defence, ‘frequently so agitated and distressed that she could hardly see for her tears’, wrote one reporter.
But she knew the case was going against her, and as soon as the guilty verdict came in she was on her way to Calais.
She was no longer entitled to call herself the Duchess of Kingston. The irony was that Elizabeth was now officially the Countess of Bristol — a title she had no desire to claim, having denied the marriage for so long.
Instead, she commissioned a yacht, about the most sumptuous ever seen, with crimson drapes, gilt woodwork and a ballroom big enough for 20 pairs of dancers.
The ship weighed 300 tons, cost £5,250 (£10.5 million today) and even featured a zoo with monkeys and birds of paradise. In a magnificent flourish of defiance, she christened her yacht The Duchess Of Kingston.
She sailed to Russia, where she became a favourite at the court of Catherine the Great.
In Russia she bought an estate, which she renamed ‘Chudleigh’, though she continued to travel and died, aged 67, in Paris. The vengeful Evelyn Meadows, her husband’s greedy nephew, forced his way into the room while her body still lay there and stole her jewellery.
Perhaps it is no surprise that William Thackeray found her story so fascinating he used her as inspiration for one of the most ambitious, charming and seductive heroines in fiction: Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp. Her name may have been largely forgotten — but her extraordinary character lives on.
Adapted from The Duchess Countess by Catherine Ostler, to be published by Simon & Schuster on April 15 at £25. © 2021 Catherine Ostler. To order a copy for £22 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until 20/03/21.