Daughter of Colonel Thomas Chudleigh
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About Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston
Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston (1720 – 26 August 1788), sometimes called Countess of Bristol, was the daughter of Colonel Thomas Chudleigh (died 1726), and was appointed maid of honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales, in 1743, probably through the good offices of her friend, William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath.
Being an attractive woman, Chudleigh did not lack admirers, among whom were James Hamilton, 6th Duke of Hamilton, and Augustus Hervey, afterwards 3rd Earl of Bristol. Hamilton, however, left England, and on 4 August 1744 she was privately married to Hervey at Lainston House, a private stately home with its own church and parish (St Peters, now a ruin), near Winchester. Lainston is now a luxury hotel and one of its wings is called Chudleigh Court. The wedding was held at night to preserve the secrecy. Both husband and wife being poor, their union was kept secret to enable Chudleigh to retain her post at court, while Hervey, who was a naval officer, rejoined his ship, returning to England towards the close of 1746.
The marriage was a very unhappy one, and the pair soon ceased to live together, but, when it appeared probable that Hervey would succeed his brother as Earl of Bristol, his wife took steps to obtain proof of her marriage. This did not, however, prevent her from becoming the mistress of Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull, and she was not only a very prominent figure in London society, but in 1765 in Berlin she was honoured by the attentions of Frederick the Great.
Charges of bigamy
By this time, Hervey wished for a divorce from his wife, but Chudleigh, although equally anxious to be free, was unwilling to face the publicity attendant upon this step. However, she began a suit of jactitation against Hervey. This case was doubtless collusive and, after Chudleigh had sworn she was unmarried, the consistory court in February 1769 pronounced her a spinster. Within a month she married Kingston, who died four years later, leaving her all his property on condition that she remained a widow. She travelled abroad and, visiting Rome, the Duchess was received with honour by Pope Clement XIV. Meanwhile, in March 1775, her first husband's brother died and Hervey became Earl of Bristol. Chudleigh's marriage to Hervey was a legitimate one, despite her denials, and she was therefore legally Countess of Bristol.
The Duchess was forced to return to England to defend herself against a charge of bigamy, which had been preferred against her by Kingston's nephew, Evelyn Medows (d. 1826). She attempted to have the charge set aside in December 1775 by reason of the previous judgment in her favour, but this failed and she was tried as a peer in Westminster Hall in 1776 and found guilty. Retaining her fortune, she hurriedly left England to avoid further proceedings on the part of the Medows family, who had a reversionary interest in the Kingston estates.
Later life and legacy
She lived for a time in Calais, and then repaired to Saint Petersburg, near which city in Governorate of Estonia she bought 3 estates: Toila manor, Ontika manor and Voka manor, which she named "Chudleigh". Hervey did eventually gain legal recognition in 1777 that his marriage to Chudleigh was legitimate, but he did not pursue divorce proceedings, probably because of his involvement with the suit of jactitation. Chudleigh continued to style herself Duchess of Kingston, resided in Paris, Rome, and elsewhere, and died in Paris on 26 August 1788, still legally Countess of Bristol.
The Duchess was said to be a coarse and licentious woman, and was ridiculed as Kitty Crocodile by the comedian Samuel Foote in a play A Trip to Calais, which, however, he was not allowed to produce. She is reputed to have been the original of William Makepeace Thackeray's characters, Beatrice and Baroness Bernstein.