The 5th Duchess of Devonshire - 1757 - 1806


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    The strange relationship of the fifth Duchess of Devonshire, her husband and the Lady Elizabeth Foster has fascinated historians for decades, and there have been at least three major biographies written on their relationship in the last twenty years. Even on her own though the Duchess would have been a fascinating character to study.

    She was born into priveledge, the first child of three of John, the first Earl Spencer and his ambitious wife, Georgiana Poyntz. The Countess encouraged the friendship with the Devonshire's which led to Georgiana's marriage at the age of 17 to the fifth Duke of Devonshire.

    Georgiana was accounted a great beauty as the picture at the top of the page by Reynolds from 1780 attests. She matched that with an easy going nature. She remained in constant correspondence with her mother throughout her life and the early letters show some signs of her mother's uneasiness at Georgiana's malleable nature and the influences she was allowing herself to be drawn under, such as Charles Fox, the renowned politician and gambler.

    The fourth Duke of Devonshire had been both politically ambitious and astute, his son did not inherit these energies or ambitions he was a man of few words who was happiest at home with his dogs, a habit that in the Devonshire house set earned him the nickname of 'Canis'. Devonshire house remained the centre of whig politics, a place for politicians of the day to meet socially and indeed they did, many meetings were achieved under the informal auspices of a Devonshire house party. During one of the Duchess's lying-in periods at the end of a pregnancy one ambassador complained in a letter that he was unable to conduct his business as he could not meet those politicians that he wanted to because he could not casually come across them as he was used to at the house parties.

    She was also the first woman to campaign for an candidate in an election in 1784, Charles Fox Georgiana wrote one novel in 1780, 'The Sylph' which has been described as being above the ordinary. It is possible that her inability to become pregnant after 6 years of marriage and her husband's lack of demonstrative affection was a key motivation to write. There is no reference to writing it in any of her letters to her mother at the time.

    Georgiana did immerse herself in the social whirl, an acknowledged beauty and leader of fashion she developed the extreme style of high wigs topped with long feathers. These head-dresses were so cumbersomely large that women would have to crouch on the floor of couches to prevent them being crushed against the roof, and were in danger of catching on fire in ballrooms as they brushed the ceiling chandleliers.

    The Devonshire House group set fashion, and they had their own 'slanguage' which altered words, or provided nicknames for people they knew. It was known as the 'Devonshire Drawl' and those in fashion affected it, so such words like yellow became pronounced 'yaller'.

    In 1782 the Devonshire's travelled to Bath and their met the woman that would be with them for the rest of their lives, Lady Elizabeth Foster, or 'Bess' as she was known.

    Bess ingratiated herself into the Devonshire household, became the Duchess's lifelong confidant and later mistress to the Duke. They lived together as a menage a trois for 25 years, and soon after Georgiana died, Bess persuaded the duke to marry her and finally legalise their relationship, but that is in the future.

    The Duchess had her first child, Georgiana (or little G as she was known in the family) in 1783. In 1785 both Bess and the duchess were pregnant by the duke, both had daughters. Harriet (or Hary-O as she was called) was named for her aunt, the duchess's sister Henrietta, Lady Bessborough. Bess's daughter, Caroline St Jules, spent her first few years in Europe and France until Bess could bring her back.

    Bess had a son, Augustus, 2 years later, but the Duchess failed to get pregnant again, a problem shared by the three and probably much discussed if their correspondence is anything to go by, Bess refers to it also in her diaries. So when the Duchess and Bess decided to travel to Paris in 1789 and the future sixth Duke of Devonshire was born there, it aroused gossip that the child was perhaps the love child of Bess and the Duke, and not in fact the Duchess's at all. It was certainly an odd time to pleasure tripping in France. Georgiana was an intimate of Marie-Antoinette but France was in political unrest and hardly the place for a pregnant woman to be travelling without the protection of her husband too. In May 1790 the Duchess was delivered of a son, the Marquis of Hartington, later the 6th Duke of Devonshire.

    An interesting link here is that the doctor in attendance, Dr Croft, to the Duchess's lying-in was not well known at the time, which added to the gossip - (why was a top doctor not attending the birth?). 28 years later he was the man in charge of Princess Charlotte's bungled child-birth, and bore the responsibility for her death, commiting suicide soon after.

    It is probably unlikely that the Marquis of Hartington, or Hart as he was known, was illegitimate, but the strange circumstances did not help to dispel rumours which lingered up until Hart's death in 1858.

    The Duchess was haunted by debt all her life. Her addiction to gambling and the extravagent parties were pleasure and her bane. She borrowed heavily from her friends, and used her influence to borrow more from such people as Thomas Coutts of Coutts bank. She borrowed money on the tacit agreement that she would introduce Coutts' daughter's into society. On her death she left a note to her son to pleading that he should make sure the Duke honoured her debts which amounted to almost 20 thousand pounds.

    One other scandal accompanies the Duchess. She had one known affair, with the Charles Grey later 2nd Earl Grey. Their was one child from this union, Eliza Couteney, who was brought up by the 1st Earl Grey as Charles' sister.

    The household settled down into a semblance of domestic bliss and quietitude in the mid 1790's. The Duchess's health had not been good and there had been some problems in the late 1780's. Now she seemed fail suddenly. She had some kind of ulcer or infection in one eye and their were worries that she wouldn't regain her sight, she was frequently bled and leeches were applied to eyeball. Her appearance contemporaries noted was 'much altered'. Her complexion coarse, one eye gone and her neck immense, she was only 40.

    Headaches and failing eyesight plagued her for the rest of her life. The Duchess's fame was so great that when news that she was dying spread in 1806 a large crowd gathered at the gates to Devonshire house in Picadilly for news.

    The above picture by Dighton done around the Regency period is one of a series of fashionable men of the period. It is of "Hart" the 6th Duke of Devonshire - Georgiana's youngest child and only son. He died childless.


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    Sources

    Georgiana - Duchess of Devonshire by Brian Masters
    The Two Duchesses - Correspondence edited by Foster Vere
    The Two Duchesses - by Arthur Calder-Marshall
    Georgiana - Amanda Foreman
    In Whig Society - Marjorie Villiers
    Lord Granville Leveson Gower - Private Corresponsdence, Ed. Castalia, Countess Granville
    A Regency Chapter, Ethel Colbourn Mayne

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