The bigamy trial that captivated Britain

With the American colonies in open rebellion against the Crown in April 1776, members of the British ruling class had far more serious matters to concern them than whether, 32 years previously, a young woman and a young man had legally wed, in secret, in the middle of the night, in a Hampshire mausoleum. And yet the bigamy trial of Elizabeth Chudleigh is what preoccupied aristocrats and politicians, along with a good portion of the British populace, at the time.

Chudleigh, a former maid of honor to the Princess of Wales, had by this point attained a secure position in society. Although she had grown up with slender means, the daughter of a baronet’s second son who had died when she was a small child, she had become a popular maid of honor, “a unique position between debutants and lady-in-waiting, the first step on a well-trodden ladder to an advantageous marriage,” as the job is described in The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalized Eighteenth Century London by Catherine Ostler.

Chudleigh achieved this thanks to her lovely looks, enormous charm, and daredevil spirit. For a masquerade in the Haymarket, where King George II was a fellow guest, she dressed as the Greek princess Iphigenia, wearing a gown of sheer, flesh-colored silk, appearing, in the candlelight, to be clad in nothing at all. The monarch, far from feeling offended, openly proclaimed his admiration for his son’s wife’s lady, and ordered up another masquerade in her honor.

But this boldness, so helpful in attracting the royal eye — one thinks of Kate Middleton’s now-famous appearance in a see-through minidress at a charity fashion show when she and Prince William were students at St. Andrews University — had a downside. On summer holiday five years before, Chudleigh had fallen for a hotblooded but penniless naval officer she encountered at the Winchester Races — Augustus Hervey, grandson of the Earl of Bristol. On the spur of the moment, they hauled the local vicar out of bed and, in front of a handful of witnesses, exchanged vows. When Hervey returned to sea, Elizabeth kept her impetuous marriage a secret, thus preserving the 200 pounds she earned annually as a maid of honor, a job open only to spinsters.

In this skillful and highly entertaining biography, Ostler theorizes that the uninhibited Chudleigh was a bit unhinged. Having lost a previous love interest, and experiencing at an early age the deaths of both father and older brother, this young woman may have suffered from what today would be labeled borderline personality disorder. Citing psychiatrist James Arkell, the author writes that those with the disorder “are often charismatic performer types, like Elizabeth.” Notably, this same diagnosis has been applied posthumously to Diana, Princess of Wales, the child of a painful divorce. While it’s intriguing to speculate on modern interpretations of Chudleigh’s behavior, the real strength of the book is the author’s painstaking effort to corral all the facts in recounting a life that even her contemporaries found wildly improbable.

Living for years in the highest echelons of London society, supposedly as a single woman, Chudleigh avoided contact with her groom, who took up with numerous other women during his travels abroad. But eventually Hervey, back in Britain, desired to marry again. Chudleigh had by then attracted the attention of the fabulously wealthy Duke of Kingston. In the ecclesiastical courts, she argued that her union with Hervey was never legal: There were no reliable witnesses to the alleged wedding, it happened after canonical hours, and no banns were read. The church lawyers agreed and, thanks to a special license granted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Chudleigh married Kingston in 1769, on her 48th birthday.

The two might have lived happily ever after but for the duke’s death four years later, at which time his family, led by a resentful, disinherited nephew, sought to prove the ducal marriage invalid on the grounds that Chudleigh was already someone else’s wife. The case went to the House of Lords, and for the trial spectators packed Westminster Hall to the rafters. Among the onlookers were Queen Charlotte, accompanied by five of her children, including the future King George IV, then aged 13, and the future King William IV, 10. Newspapers devoted endless inches to this woman who had climbed from undistinguished beginnings to become one of the richest ladies in Britain. Society gossip and man of letters Horace Walpole dubbed her the Duchess Countess, and the snarky nickname caught on because Hervey had by now rather unexpectedly inherited his grandfather’s title.

Chudleigh dressed for her trial in black with a black hood, in the manner of Mary Queen of Scots going to her execution, and testified at length in her own defense. But the sole living witness to the events in question, a vengeful servant called Ann Craddock, gave damning evidence. When the guilty verdict was announced, Chudleigh sank “lifeless to the ground,” according to a witness. She recovered her composure sufficiently to ask for leniency, and the Lords agreed not to brand her thumb with a letter “M” (for malefactor), the statutory punishment for having two spouses simultaneously. Chudleigh, enlisting a look-alike cousin to ride around town in her distinctive carriage, was able to travel to Dover incognito, and escape to the Continent. She retained a portion of the rents from Kingston’s estates and used that money to start over.

The last years of Chudleigh’s life — spent in St. Petersburg, Estonia, and Paris — are colorful, but less interesting than the account of the trial, which Ostler carries off masterfully. Bridgerton fans take note: For sheer incident and drama, Chudleigh’s story rivals any episode of the popular Regency era Netflix series. And it’s all true.

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