A BIGAMOUS COUNTESS? Author Catherine Ostler has been Editor-in-Chief of Tatler magazine and the Evening Standard magazine; Editor of The Times Weekend; and written for publications including Newsweek, Vogue and the Financial Times. She read English at Oxford University, specializing in 18th century literature.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Catherine Ostler, Simon Sebag Montefiore describes the subject of your new book “The Duchess Countess” – published by Simon & Schuster – as “Utterly gripping… a fascinating woman in a dazzling world soaked in sex, money and ambition.” Why did you dedicate a biography to this apparently bigamous woman known as “The Duchess Countess”?
I came across Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston and Countess of Bristol, in a book called Catherine the Great and Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair by Simon Sebag Montefiore. He describes her sailing into St. Petersburg on an extraordinary yacht full of monkeys, parrots, priests and an orchestra. This over-the-top character had fled London in disgrace but was determined to become friends with Catherine the Great. She sent two masterpiece paintings ahead and managed to be received at the Summer Palace with great ceremony. I was fascinated not only by this woman – her scandal, and her courage in the face of adversity – but also by the 18th Century period which is the birth of modern Britain.
Born into a good family, she lost her father when she was very young and then lost her brother when she was a bit older, so she had no social protection. Was she driven by a great ambition not to have a banal existence?
There were few options for women. In her class, gentry with little money, you might have a good education at home but there was only one career available, at Court. She became a maid of honour. As we know from Jane Austen’s novels, it was marriage or nothing. It’s easy to forget the claustrophobic world that women lived in.
Beautiful and well mannered, she becomes the Countess by marrying secretly in the middle of the night a sailor called Augustus Hervey. Later he was 3rd Earl of Bristol, but at the time he was just the younger grandson of the 1st Earl. Neither of them tells anybody they are married, and he then sails around the world for two years. Is this marriage the beginning of her scandalous existence?
Yes. In a split second the course of the rest of their lives changed. It should have been a holiday romance. It was an incredibly beautiful setting, in Hampshire – the most perfect red brick Queen Anne house with an exquisite garden full of roses and the longest avenue of lime trees in England. There’s this ancient medieval chapel, now in ruins, and you could easily imagine how you might get caught up in the heat of the moment and make a terrible mistake. Part of the problem was that the marriage laws in England were unclear as to what constituted a legal marriage and what didn’t. Current British marriage law came into effect partly because of her, nine years after this ceremony: you have to have two witnesses; the banns read in your parish a few weeks beforehand; the church door has to be left open so it’s a public event. None of that existed then. As long as you could find a priest or even someone who said they were one, you could get married. People made mistakes all the time. I discovered that 50 percent of these clandestine weddings involved a sailor, because they were so reckless before they went to sea that they didn’t care. They thought they might get killed in the West Indies or wherever, and they often did.
Elizabeth marries but continues her life at court. He’s away and she flirts here and there. Then he comes back, so why don’t they really get together?
They do briefly reunite, but he doesn’t have any money and you can’t be a maid of honour at Court if you’re married. To keep up the lie so she could draw her salary she has to carry on flirting with the other men at Court. She starts turning down proposals, and no one understands why. By the time he comes back after two years they have cooled on each other. He was a womanizer before he even met her. Later in life he is named “the English Casanova”.
As long as you could find a priest or even someone who said they were one, you could get married.
The Duchess Countess by Catherine Ostler. When the glamorous Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston, Countess of Bristol, went on trial at Westminster Hall for bigamy in April 1776, the story drew more attention in society than the American War of Independence.
Catherine Ostler, the “Duchess Countess” has a long affair with the Duke of Kingston, but by going from the court of Frederick in Potsdam to Carlsbad she makes him jealous, because they are not married?
She’s very adventurous, a thrill-seeking hypochondriac. There’s a very sad episode in which she has a baby in secret and it dies. After that she’s never quite the same again. Even though she falls madly in love with the Duke and ends up marrying him, she is always seeking something that will make her feel better, be it the validation or the protection of a foreign Court. People speculated that she travelled to make him jealous, and it did make him jealous, because he was very loyal to her for over 20 years.
Who was this Duke of Kingston?
He was the second and last Duke of Kingston-Upon-Hull. His grandfather, the first Duke, had been a prominent politician and courtier, and his father had died young of smallpox.
Was he a very wealthy man?
Extremely wealthy. When his father died he went on a ten year grand tour. Three brilliant trustees looked after his estate, and they made it the one of the most profitable in England.
Was his financial support how Elizabeth managed to have such an extravagant life?
Yes, and she also became an entrepreneur in her own right. She bought a plot of land in London’s Mayfair, built a house and then sold it five years later. The building was something she would repeat all over Europe, but without the sale. She was better at spending money than making it.
Was she very pretty?
Very beautiful. Joshua Reynolds painted her and 30 years later was still talking about how she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She was small, with brown hair and blue eyes, charismatic and very sharp, an amusing conversationalist.
How did she manage to go from one European court to another?
She was close to Augusta, the Princess of Wales, who never became Queen, (George III’s mother) and by leveraging that powerful relationship she became good friends with the Dowager Electress of Saxony. Once you were in one court in Europe you were into all of them, the British royal family then being German. Catherine the Great was a German princess, and the Electress was great friends with the Pope. Elizabeth got the Electress to introduce her to everybody else, and traded off the fact she was her friend.
Did Elizabeth dress in a very scandalous way and was this something that was looked on as being great fun but also with great criticism?
When peace broke out in 1749, King George II had a masquerade at the Haymarket Theatre. Everybody went in fancy dress, and Elizabeth cooked up this outfit which was supposedly Iphigenia from Greek myth. It was sheer flesh-colored silk, draped with ivy, and when she walked in, to all appearances it looked as if she was naked. Everybody went wild. The men were absolutely transfixed, the women furious. A hundred years later, engravings of this costume were still being printed in England.
Was she aware that she was creating scandal?
Yes. She’d fallen out with Augustus Hervey, the secret husband. She’d been a maid of honour for years. She was stuck, and so she made this calculated decision to seek attention. In one way it worked, because the King gave her mother a job as housekeeper of Windsor Castle. Her mother didn’t have any money, so she got something material out of it.
Eventually Elizabeth married the Duke, but sadly by then were they rather old and couldn’t have children anymore?
By the time she married him she was in her late forties and had been with him for nearly 20 years. What prompted the marriage was that Augustus Hervey tried to divorce her, and she was so desperate for her name not to be dragged through the courts for adultery that she went along with an arcane legal process, whereby the courts decided she wasn’t married. Otherwise, she just would have stayed living with the Duke forever, but as it was, she did marry him, and for four years they had a very happy time in Nottinghamshire. They went fishing together and she set up an orchestra. She loved music. It was all late in life and she was very sad not to have any children. Then he died, and that’s when the trouble really started.
There was enormous sympathy for her, but unfortunately not amongst the people who were deciding her fate.
Catherine Ostler, you dedicate a large part of the book to Elizabeth Chudleigh’s trial for bigamy, a huge event involving Parliament, Ministers, the Court, all the Lords. This scandal is so interesting for the press that the War of American Independence, a major fact in international politics, is somehow not as important?
It reminds me of when we fell upon royal gossip during Brexit or the coronavirus. The American War of Independence was much the same, in that everybody disagreed about it. Nobody could decide what to do. It was a polarizing issue, and in the end everyone just got fed up and the press were very excited to write about something else. It is extraordinary that at the last minute that peace could have been negotiated, the whole of the House of Lords formed the jury for this bigamy trial. They spent hundreds of pounds and weeks of time fitting seating into Westminster Hall. It looked like an amphitheater covered in red cloth, and four thousand people crammed in, dressed in silk and glinting with diamonds, to watch her being humiliated. Every Peer in the land got seven tickets and a black market opened up, with people selling and reselling them. Enterprising publishers printed programmes saying where people were going to sit. The Queen came, even though she was only two weeks off giving birth. Two future British monarchs (the future George IV and William IV) were there, as well as Queen Victoria’s father. Every newspaper promised its readers that they would feel like they had a front row seat, just as they would now.
Did the British people want her to be released or found guilty?
Half the newspapers supported her and half were against her. People started off quite sympathetic, but most of the Lords were not. Bigamy bothered them because of inheritance – the thing they didn’t want more than anything was unclear bloodlines in the great titles and country houses of England. The people on the streets could see that it was unfair, and warmed to her because she was so extravagant and courageous. There was enormous sympathy for her, but unfortunately not amongst the people who were deciding her fate.
Elizabeth defends herself brilliantly, it is not enough and she’s condemned, but at the end of the day does she just lose the title of Duchess?
Yes. She remains legally a Countess because she’s still married to her first husband, who in the meantime has become the Earl of Bristol. But she’s very shrewd. She commissions a yacht, takes furniture, jewels and paintings, and escapes with all these belongings to Russia. In Saint Petersburg she becomes friendly with the famous Potemkin, the most powerful man in Russia, and with the Empress, Catherine the Great.
Before that she conquers the Pope and the city of Rome, also arriving in Rome in spectacular style by boat?
Born into another era, she would have been an actress. She knew how to put on a show and she used the money that the Duke had left her to create attention. These were late in life versions of that outfit in which she appeared naked. She wasn’t going to do that anymore but she had these magnificent boats.
Was Elizabeth still beautiful in her 60s?
She was still beautiful and she suited Russia perfectly because she wore grand clothing and lots of jewellery. She was elaborate in her presentation. The one punishment she’d had was that she couldn’t use the title of the Duchess of Kingston, and she thought this was a great injustice because she had loved the Duke. As her boat sailed into St. Petersburg, the name painted on its side was the Duchess of Kingston.
Did they call her Duchess in Russia?
Yes. She was determined to find somewhere where they would let her use her title, which they didn’t everywhere. She tried Vienna and Berlin, and they wouldn’t receive her because they knew what had happened in England. Catherine the Great didn’t really care. She knew her story, but she was intrigued. She loved a character.
By this time she is a very wealthy woman, but still involved in intrigues over money all the time?
She was in self-imposed exile. She felt humiliated in England. She’d also been brought to trial because the Duke’s nephews felt that if the marriage was shown to be bigamous then they would get his money, which didn’t actually happen. But the money tap kept being turned on and off by his executors in England. Sometimes estate rents were forwarded to her, sometimes they weren’t. Although legally the money was hers, everyone was trying to get their hands on it.
Does Elizabeth spend all her life on the edge?
She was burning through money because she hated the nephews who put her into the trial. When she died it would be left to them, and she didn’t want there to be anything left. So she kept buying property, in Paris and Estonia and Russia, spending and spending and spending. She was always on the edge. She was always seeking the protection of another Court, because she had no children, no husband, no siblings, and no parents. She was looking for something that she never quite found, be it in the Pope or Catherine the Great.
Elizabeth’s first orphan duke: the 6th Duke of Hamilton, ‘hot, debauched, extravagant’.
Elizabeth dressed as Iphigenia at a masquerade in 1749. But one of many depictions of her startling outfit.
Elizabeth’s second husband Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston, became a Garter Knight in 1741. Horace Walpole said of the shy, sporty and loyal Duke that he was ‘a man of great beauty and the finest person’.
The signature of Elizabeth as ‘Duchesse de Kingston’.
Lady Frances Meadows, sister of the Duke of Kingston. Her husband and eldest son bought the bigamy trial against Elizabeth.
The Chateau de Saint-Assise on the banks of the Seine outside Paris, which Elizabeth bought at vast expense and renamed Chudleigh with the permission of King Louis XVI. When she died on the eve of the French Revolution she had not finished paying for it.
We’re talking competitive diamond sizing.
Catherine Ostler, when writing your book did you feel sympathy for the “Duchess Countess”?
Immense sympathy. I was intrigued by her chutzpah, her determination to recover from extreme public humiliation. It was also a way into that period, the birth of modern Britain, and the idea of early celebrity. I wanted to examine how fair the portrayals were of her. People were vicious and misogynistic about her.
Today when Meghan and Harry talk in the Oprah television interview the whole world watches, even if we have pandemia, even if there are plenty of other important things. Did you want to prove that apparently frivolous or gossipy stories are very much loved by people of any class because they relieve the tension of bad news and the tragedies of the world?
Yes: the mystique and the spectacle of royalty is such a relief. I would go so far as say it’s essential. Life becomes unbearable without a more frivolous, gossipy side, which often isn’t particularly frivolous to the person concerned, but to everybody else serves a purpose. There was definitely a bread and circuses element to watching one ageing widow, quite alone, with the entire British aristocracy ranged against her.
Why do people like the Duke of Windsor and the Duchess Countess become the object of great curiosity?
They become mythic. After she died, she was written about and written about, just as the Duke of Windsor is, to the point where she inspires Thackeray to write Vanity Fair. She acquires this afterlife.
She is a dramatic star. When she puts together this huge boat with all her belongings, going to St. Petersburg with musicians, suddenly there is a terrible storm that destroys the boat?
This great arrival in Russia in her wonderful boat, it was meant to be a two week triumphant visit and then sail out again. But the worst storm of 18th century St Petersburg wrecks the boat, which is then lying on the sandbank and has to be repaired by Catherine. The Duchess Countess has to go back overland on a hellish journey, but that didn’t make her give up. The next time she came, she managed to get one of the admirals to bring her in on a battleship. She was always finding a backup plan. It was very rare for a woman who wasn’t born a monarch or married to one to have any form of self-actualization, but she decided what to do. She didn’t always get what she wanted, but she did try and control her own destiny.
Whenever she’s put down she rebounds. You use the word chutzpah, shrewdness in Yiddish, in the sense that she is an adventuress, but she’s also self-indulgent in food and drink and has a lot of pleasures?
The 18th century is the beginning of consumerism on a grand scale, and she’s a real example of that. She drives everyone nuts because she’s always eating and drinking in the theatre. She wears all her jewels all at once. The buckles on her shoes are priceless diamonds. She’s wears a picture of the Electress, pinned it onto her shoulder. Then there’s a diamond necklace from Augusta. She gets a costume made which is an imitation of a dress that belongs to Catherine the Great.
Some people think so, because of her excessiveness. In her manners she’s not, but she can’t resist food and drink.
Is she a kind of Elizabeth Taylor?
One reviewer said she might have been Elizabeth Taylor. The men; the jewels. She undoubtedly would have been wandering around in kaftans with a huge diamond on her finger if she’d been living in the 20th century. Real rocks, like Taylor. We’re talking competitive diamond sizing.
Does she have this Kardashian kind of thing, somebody who ultimately does nothing particularly worthwhile but becomes a character because of what she is?
Some women become projections of everybody else’s fantasy and interest, be it an object of lust or derision or disapproval or sympathy. They become a cipher for everybody else.
Did she love anyone?
Yes, she loved the Duke of Kingston very much, and she loved her friends. She was slightly naive. She was incredibly forgiving of the nephew who drove her into court for bigamy. She ended up paying for him, even though he had tried to destroy her. She wasn’t vicious at all. She was almost too forgiving.
Maybe she was insecure?
Definitely, and always writing about Christianity in her letters. Towards the end of her life she tries to settle the ledger. She thinks if she leaves enough money to charity then she will come good in the eyes of God.
When this overdressed woman goes on trial at Westminster she is simply dressed in black, so she knows the power of appearance. You were the editor of Tatler, you have worked for Vogue, you were the editor of the Evening Standard magazine, were you fascinated by this ancestor of today’s world of appearance?
Yes: one recognizes an archetype. One reason history is interesting is because we want to know what’s new to our age, and what isn’t. She proves that the Tatler people, the it-girls, the young royals, are an eternal breed. You mentioned the Kardashians. In another decade it might have been Elizabeth Hurley wearing her Versace dress, or Lady Gaga in one of her amazing outfits. It is a constant theme.
You give life and rebirth to the Duchess Countess. Do you think she is quite contemporary?
Very contemporary. A woman using her appearance, her fame, manipulation the media; she’s like somebody from our age; although some of what we think forms our age is actually for all time.
Despite Zoom the world hasn’t changed so much since the 18th Century?
The press and the gossip is just as we hear on social media now. This echo chamber effect, the constant assessment, the admiration that turns to criticism.
If the Duchess Countess was here today, would she be a celebrity?
Yes, probably. Her choices were limited, so she was early in choosing that kind of ‘famous for being famous’ route.
Portrait of Catherine Ostler © J P Masclet
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