It was 1776 and although there was a considerable amount going on between America and Great Britain, much of England’s attention was turned to the Duchess of Kingston, Elizabeth Chudleigh, with her acts of shame and deceit. Though the Duchess was publicly married to the Duke of Kingston, she was secretly married to the Earl of Bristol, thus making her bigamy trial “the event of the year” to the press, British public and royal courts.
Elizabeth Chudeigh, an English beauty whose adventures were the subject of much speculation during the year 1776, may have been born in 1720. Much in her life is unknown, but it is certain that she had a penchant for scandal and luxury. In 1744, this young woman of little education whose father had lost his fortune in the South Sea Bubble was appointed (probably thanks to the good offices of an older lover) a maid of honor to the Princess of Wales. This post was so important to her that when she married Augustus John Hervey, who had little money, she insisted that the union be kept secret lest she lose her post. All the while, she enjoyed being at the center of a court life that Lewis Melville, editor of TRIAL OF THE DUCHESS OF KINGSTON, describes as “not immaculate.” She “chose her friends,” he writes, “with that lack of discretion which always characterized her own behaviour.” The Duke of Kingston became a special friend. For years Elizabeth was openly his mistress, eventually becoming his wife four years before his death in 1773.
The TRIAL OF THE DUCHESS OF KINGSTON recounts, through court documents, Elizabeth’s trial for bigamy after the duke’s death, when his heirs contested his will. The book provides insights into a scandal that obsessed London in 1776 and it also shows how “the benefit of the peerage” worked in practice for the well born or well married.