Home   Newmarket   News   Article

The colourful life of bigamous Duchess Elizabeth Chudleigh whose Bridgerton-esque escapades saw her inherit Newmarket's Kingston House

When 18th century femme fatale Elizabeth Chudleigh agreed to marry her lover the Duke of Kingston there was one small detail she omitted to mention.

Elizabeth was married already… and had been for almost 25 years.

The Georgian socialite was one year off her silver wedding, having secretly tied the knot with aristocratic seafarer Augustus Hervey following a whirlwind romance.

Elizabeth Chudleigh
Elizabeth Chudleigh

After the Duke’s death her secret came out, she was tried for bigamy, and fled the country.

The colourful life of the bigamous Duchess wouldn’t be out of place amid the heaving bosoms, tight breeches, and high society scandals of Netflix hit Bridgerton.

But it has to be said her adventures probably outshine anything seen so far in the drama, which is set several decades later.

The back of the Moon's Toyshop building which is part of the original Kingston House
The back of the Moon's Toyshop building which is part of the original Kingston House

When not causing sensations at Court - in 1749 she stunned onlookers by turning up at a masquerade ball in a flimsy silk costume that left almost nothing to the imagination - Elizabeth’s life played out partly in Suffolk.

Years before their marriage, the Duke built a grand house in the country’s horse-racing capital, Newmarket.

The building linked with possibly the biggest society scandal of the 18th century now hides partly behind façade of a toy shop.

And the upcoming sale by auction of 85 High Street, occupied by Moon’s Toyshop, has brought the story of the Duke and Duchess back into focus.

A map showing where Kingston House is located in Newmarket
A map showing where Kingston House is located in Newmarket

Newmarket, in prime hunting country, had been a favourite haunt of royalty and aristocracy even before the first recorded horse race in 1622.

Kingston House, the Duke’s residence, was built on the site of the old palaces used by Charles I and James II. Charles II later built a new one - the remaining section of which is now Palace House, part of the National Horseracing Museum.

Elizabeth Chudleigh was born in 1720 into a landed Devon family. Her father Thomas was lieutenant governor of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.

But the year she was born he lost a fortune investing in the so-called South Sea Bubble, and died when she was only five, leaving his family impoverished.

Moon's Toyshop, front of the building up for sale
Moon's Toyshop, front of the building up for sale

Elizabeth’s prospects did not look good but family friend the Earl of Bath secured her a position as maid of honour to the Princess of Wales.

The job not only took her to Court it came with a good salary, and she quickly became famed for her beauty, wit and flirtatious manner.

She fell in a big way for James, the 6th Duke of Hamilton, who had just succeeded to his father’s title, but when he went on the Grand Tour and failed to reply to her letters, she resumed her single life.

On a day out at Winchester races she met Augustus Hervey, a naval Lieutenant whose family had owned the Ickworth estate near Bury St Edmunds since the 15th century.

Young and starry-eyed, 20-year-old Augustus rapidly proposed and they married in a clandestine moonlit ceremony in 1744.

Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston
Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston

Financially the marriage was not the best idea because Augustus was a younger son with little income apart from his naval salary, and few expectations.

The wedding had to be kept secret for two reasons. His grandfather might object and disinherit him, and if it became known Elizabeth was married she would have lost her lucrative job.

Not surprisingly their relationship soon fell apart. He rejoined his ship and she returned to Court where she revelled in plenty of male attention.

When Augustus returned home in 1746 he sought a reconciliation. Elizabeth gave birth to a son - moving out of London to conceal her pregnancy - but the baby died soon afterwards.

Elizabeth Chudleigh
Elizabeth Chudleigh

The couple went their separate ways. Because no-one knew of the marriage there seemed no need to divorce.

Elizabeth was one of the few people able to flit between the rival Courts of the Prince of Wales and George II, even catching the eye of the old king himself … although it’s believed she resisted the idea of being a royal mistress.

She continued to charm her way through a succession of rich admirers before falling for Evelyn Pierrepont, the extremely wealthy 2nd Duke of Kingston.

He had inherited his title in 1726, and in his youth was known for gambling and loose living, although he later had a distinguished military career.

They fell in love and she became his mistress. Around the same time Augustus was also thinking of remarrying and he began asking for a divorce.

Eventually the pair colluded to conceal evidence of their wedding, and Elizabeth lied to an ecclesiastical court.

Within weeks she and the Duke were married. By all accounts it was a happy union, but lasted only four years, Evelyn died in 1773.

Elizabeth inherited all his property, including the house in Newmarket, on condition that she did not remarry. She travelled abroad, with her status as a Duchess winning her entry to the highest levels of society.

Augustus Hervey, whose equally colourful life led him to be dubbed “the English Casanova” became a politician after retiring from the Navy.

Commodore The Hon Augustus John Hervey 1724-1779, later 3rd Earl of Bristol, by Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727-1788) from Ickworth
Commodore The Hon Augustus John Hervey 1724-1779, later 3rd Earl of Bristol, by Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727-1788) from Ickworth

He was MP for Bury St Edmunds from 1757 to 1763, and again from 1768 until he succeeded his brother to the family title becoming the 3rd Earl of Bristol in 1775 - making Elizabeth legally Countess of Bristol.

Towards the end of his life Augustus settled down with Mary Nesbitt, a model for artist Sir Joshua Reynolds.

But for Elizabeth, trouble was brewing back in England. One of the Duke’s nephews, Evelyn Medows, brought a charge of bigamy against her.

She successfully argued that she should be tried in the House of Lords - unless you were noble the punishment for bigamy was branding with fire.

All 116 peers found her guilty, and she fled back to Europe taking her fortune with her. She died at her estate near Paris in 1788.

Read more: All the latest news from Suffolk

Read more: All the latest news from Newmarket