We have a very specific image of an 18th-century noblewoman: Elegant, dressed in the most decadent of dresses, and…white. Yet although Dido Elizabeth Belle had the bearing, breeding, and money of the finest ladies of her day, she was also a mixed race woman. Her very existence flew in the face of her culture’s prejudices, but Belle didn’t mind that one bit. In fact, this feisty aristocrat had one dramatic life.
1. Her History Is Tragic
Dido Elizabeth Belle was born into tragedy. In 1761, the little girl came into the world in the British West Indies as the daughter of an enslaved Black woman named Maria Belle. Because of her unjust lineage, the innocent, newborn Dido was also a slave herself according to the laws of her time. But that’s just one half of the whole story.
2. She Was Illicit
If Dido Elizabeth Belle’s mother had a heartbreaking history, her father was downright scandalous. Dido’s Daddy was actually the 24-year-old high-ranking British officer Sir John Lindsay, who fell into bed with Maria Belle during his time overseas in the Navy. Yep, Dido was an illicit love child…and it gets worse than that.
3. She Had A Teen Mom
The thing is, Dido Elizabeth Belle wasn’t just a lovechild, she was also the product of a teen pregnancy. When Sir John Lindsay first met Maria, historical records indicate that she was somewhere around 15 years old, and barely mature enough to carry a healthy baby to term. Well, I wish I could say it doesn’t get creepier, but it totally does.
4. Her Father Committed A Shameful Act
Grossly enough, some experts suggest that Daddy Warbucks first laid eyes on Maria when his forces captured a Spanish slave ship. Though we have little record of Maria’s consent, it was lust at first sight for John Lindsay. He likely took her as a concubine, as one does when they’re an 18th-century white dude-bro. Only, he had some surprises up his sleeves.
5. Her Dad Was Disgraceful
To be honest, Dido was far from the apple of her father’s eye. Oh no, John Lindsay had a lot of his, er, "quills" in a lot of inkpots. In fact, before she was even a toddler, Dido had a handful of half-siblings, many of them mixed-race like her, because of her father’s romps around town. Not exactly a stable environment…and neither was her future.
6. She Had A Chaotic Childhood
Around 1765, when Dido was a five-year-old toddling girl, Sir John Lindsay took his daughter and possibly her mother back home with him over to London, England. According to the historical records, Lindsay baptized Dido and even supported Mama Maria for the next decade or so. Okay, he’s not as bad as I thought. But Dido was still in for heartache.
7. Her Father Traded Her Off
In the end, Dido’s father did not want family life to tie him down, and instead of starting a little English love nest with his girl and Maria, he...basically abandoned them. He dumped Dido off with his powerful uncle, the judge William Murray, and continued on with his illustrious Navy career around the globe. And as for her mother? Well…
8. Her Mother Abandoned Her
Although some records indicate that Maria Belle might have died just before, during, or right after Sir John Lindsay took the young Dido to England, contemporary records tell a much different story. In 1774, evidence indicates that Lindsay helped pay for Maria to go seek prosperity all the way in America…leaving little Dido completely on her own at Murrays’ Kenwood House.
9. Her Family Had High Expectations
Although we don’t know the Murray family’s immediate reaction to the news of their new ward Dido, it probably wasn’t enthusiastic. As the Lord Chief Justice, William Murray was famous as a brilliant politician and reformist, but that didn’t mean he was ready to take on the education of a foreign girl. And there was one other huge problem.
10. She Was One Of A Kind
Dido also had to contend with her lovechild status in England. Although noblemen would sometimes support their illegitimate children in the 18th-century, these children were not usually mixed race daughters of the West Indies. Dido presented a huge scandal for "polite society"—so the Murrays came up with an "ingenious" plan.
11. She Accomplished Great Things
In the end, the Murrays settled for a surprising approach when it came to Dido. They took her in as a ward and began to teach her the standard accomplishments for a lady of the time, including reading, writing, and playing music. They also gave her companionship in the form of Dido’s cousin Elizabeth Murray, who also lived at their house. Then they upped it a notch.
12. She Was A Spoiled Girl
In some ways, the Murrays completely doted on Dido Belle, paying for expensive medical treatments when she needed it, and even decorating her bedroom in the finest styles. She also dressed herself in some of the latest fashions and could indulge in other vanities while she lived with them. But there was a dark side to her life.
13. Her Family Mistreated Her
For all her fine accomplishments, the color of Dido’s skin prevented her from receiving the same treatment as her cousin Elizabeth, and the family never quite accepted her on her own terms. The family treated her just fine in private, but when important company was around, the Murrays shunted her to the side. And that’s not even the worst part.
14. She Was A Secret
Whenever the Murrays had elaborate dinner parties, evidence suggests that they barred even Dido from sitting down with everyone and enjoying the meal. One guest at the house recalled Dido entering only after the dinner had finished to take coffee with the group and talk with the women of the house. As it happens, though, her relationship to these women was even more tense.
15. She Had A Rival
Because of her uncertain, in-between position in the house, the Murrays likely treated Belle less like an equal relation, and more like a lady’s maid or a lady’s companion for her cousin Elizabeth. And that’s not all. Some have suggested that they only took her on in the first place so she could act as a playmate for the more "traditional" lady. Ugh.
16. She Didn’t Fit In
One other sore spot between Elizabeth and Dido? Elizabeth was much richer, with a healthy inheritance that made her a very eligible bachelorette. Dido Belle, meanwhile, was in a much different position. She was an illegitimate child of color, yet she nonetheless had some money and good breeding. This made it extremely difficult to find a husband…though as we’ll see, Dido managed it in the end.
17. She Had A Cinderella Story
To go along with her difficulty finding a paramour, Dido Belle had a real-life Cinderella story. For example, she often had to tend to the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood House, though her uncle did pay her a tidy sum to take care of the chickens. Still, Dido must have known she was better than this—and she set out to prove it.
18. She Had A Stand-Out Talent
If the first thing strangers noticed was the color of Dido’s skin, the second thing was always her wit. By the time she was 10 years old and had lived in England for over half her life, she could recite poetry from memory with an elegance that surprised everyone around her, and rivaled the elocution of any other English child. And when she turned into a woman? Hold onto your hats.
19. She Had A Strange Power
According to one account, Dido was vivacious and charming. One man described her as "pert," though in full disclosure he also called her "neither handsome nor genteel". Still, given that tastes of the time leaned white, white, and extra-soft Wonderbread white, I have trouble imagining Dido as anything less than a total knockout.
20. She Got Turned Into Art
Today, Dido Belle’s claim to fame is in a notorious painting. In 1779, the Murray family commissioned a portrait of Elizabeth alongside Dido, and the resulting painting depicts the mixed race Belle right alongside the white Elizabeth, and almost on equal footing with her. To say this was scandalous would be an understatement—and one detail proves it.
21. She Was Immortalized
Although Dido holds a plate of fruit in the portrait, perhaps suggesting she is on her way to serve someone, Elizabeth’s hand is on her arm like a companion, and both women are dressed in equally lavish clothing that shows they are both of noble, high birth. In fact, Dido’s garb is even more fashionable than Elizabeth’s more staid clothing.
22. She Proved Her Worth
With her charming demeanor and her intelligence to match, Dido started to seriously catch the eye of her uncle William Murray, who began to depend on her for dictations and other administrative duties for even his most important cases in court. In this, Belle was yet again a rule-breaker: Usually this position would have gone to a man. But the good times wouldn’t last.
23. She Was A Scapegoat
Although the Murrays didn’t exactly treat Dido Belle ideally, their peers considered them scandalously progressive and even dangerous. As a judge, William Murray got extra scrutiny, and many people saw his obvious softness for his mixed race ward as an indication that he wasn’t able to be objective about abolition issues; they even called his bias "criminal". As we’ll see, this would have big consequences.
24. Her Uncle Gave A Controversial Ruling
In 1772, Dido’s uncle William Murray presided over the infamous Somerset v Stewart case, where the owner of an escaped slave wanted to send his victim back into slavery. Murray’s decision sent shockwaves through England. The judge ruled in favor of the freedman, saying that slavery was "so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it". But that wasn’t all.
25. Her Uncle Helped Start A New Era
As it turned out, the Somerset v Steward case was the beginning of a new world order in England. Although it did not completely abolish slavery in England, and Murray himself said he only wanted his ruling to apply for this specific case, it did set a precedent that put a fire under abolitionists and became their rallying cry. And Dido may have been at the center of this change…
26. She Influenced Her Uncle In Powerful Ways
At the time, many argued that Murray’s ruling had everything to do with his ward Dido Elizabeth Belle, and that his bias toward the freedman was because of his bias toward his great-niece. As one critic sneered about the case, "He will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family". Yet if you think Dido should have been proud of her uncle, just you wait.
27. Her Father Met A Sad End
In 1788, tragedy struck Dido Belle. That year, her father John Lindsay perished at the relatively young age of 51. While Lindsay hadn’t exactly been in his daughter’s life for a good, long while—remember, he’d had several other illegitimate children since then—it was yet another severing from her past. And then his last will and testament came out…
28. Her Father Forgot About Her
Although Sir John Lindsay didn’t have any bonafide heirs, he did leave 1,000 pounds for his children to share amongst themselves. The catch? The name "Dido" wasn’t in his will. Instead, he left it to two children, "John" and "Elizabeth". On the surface, it looked like Lindsay forgot completely about Dido—but the story may be more complicated.
29. She May Have Had A Code Name
According to historian Gene Adams, the name "Elizabeth" might really refer to Dido, and might have actually been her real name, with her uncle changing it to "Dido" when the girl came to England. Then again, maybe not: Another historian claims another of Lindsay’s daughters was named Elizabeth, and the money went her. Ouch.
30. Her Father Didn’t Want Her
In another huge "that’s gotta hurt" move, Sir John Lindsay’s intervening years away from his daughter Dido were both surprising and heartbreaking. The former lothario actually settled down and married a woman named Mary Milner in 1768. He was apparently even faithful to her. What, was Dido’s mother not good enough for him?
31. She Lost Her Father Figure
Just a few years after her biological father’s passing, Belle then had to deal with the death of her real father figure, William Murray. She had spent nearly all her life in his care, and had learned from him as well as worked for him. So when Murray breathed his last in 1793, it must have devastated Belle. Yet, once more, the contents of his will tell a dark story.
32. Her Uncle Snubbed Her
Because William Murray was such a prominent man, his last testament was actually published for all to see in the Gentleman’s Quarterly of 1793. Because of this, the article displayed Dido’s dirty laundry for all to see, including the fact that while Murray left her cousin Elizabeth 10,000 pounds, he left poor Dido…500 pounds. Oh, but that’s not all.
33. She Wasn’t As Free As People Thought
Anyone who looked at the pages of Gentleman’s Quarterly that year might have noticed something strange: In his will, the great judge William Murray does his precious Dido Belle a supposed solid by…releasing her from slavery. Maybe at first glance that seems generous, but it was actually royally messed up. Allow me to explain…
34. Her Uncle Treated Her Horrifically
If William Murray was conferring freedom upon Dido Belle in his will, that means that she had been a slave the entire time she was a "member" of his family, and he only waited until he died to release her. This puts an entirely new, very creepy spin on Dido’s time with him. Of course, some historians have a much different interpretation…
35. She Was Put In A Dangerous Position
According to Paula Byrne, this last will and testament is actually a heartbreaking gesture. Far from proving that William Murray was a heartless jerk who didn’t care about Dido’s wellbeing, Byrne argues that Murray’s will only made doubly sure that after he was gone, people would treat his niece like the freedwoman she already was. But if that’s true, that’s not quite what ended up happening.
36. She Fell In Love
If people expected Dido Belle to fade into obscurity after her important Uncle Murray passed, our girl definitely didn’t get the memo. Belle had spent most of her life in Kenwood House and away from company. So is it any surprise that one of her first actions after her relative passed was to jump into the arms of a man?
37. She Had A Meet-Cute
Belle’s new lover was a dashing Frenchman by the name of Jean Louis Charles Davinière, who later anglicized his name to just John Davinière. Although the circumstances of their meeting are mysterious, they likely locked eyes while Davinière was working as a steward for one of the families the Murrays were connected to. And once that happened, love came on hot and fast.
38. She Rushed Into Marriage
Less than a year after the passing of her Uncle William, Belle made it official with her new man, tying the knot with Davinière on December 5, 1793 in an idyllic, bucolic ceremony in their local parish at St. George’s Hanover Square. It was hardly a fate the young girl from the West Indies would have imagined herself having, and it was beautiful—at least while it lasted.
39. She Almost Had A Happy Ending
In the beginning, Davinière and Belle looked like they were in for a long life of matrimonial happiness and domestic bliss. Over the next 10 years, Belle and her husband produced a big brood together, having at least three children—all sons—including a pair of twins who Belle gave birth to shortly after her wedding. But before long, tragedy came for her.
40. She Suffered A Mother’s Worst Nightmare
Giving birth to twins in the 18th century was no small feat, as childbirth was dangerous for even the most simple of pregnancies. Yet somehow, Belle pushed through—only to lose one of the twins in the process. Although one of the boys, Charles, made it into adulthood, his twin brother didn’t make it past his sickly infancy.
41. She Became An Heiress
In 1799, a stroke of good luck finally hit Belle, though possibly for the last time. That year, one of her relatives, Lady Margery Murray, passed, and this time, she didn’t snub Belle in any way. The powerful woman bequeathed Belle with a comfortable legacy "as a token of her regard" for the girl. Even so, Belle’s final troubles were about to begin.
42. Her Body Started To Fail Her
For all that she led an incredible life, Belle was doomed to a cruel end. One of the last of Belle’s children, William Thomas, was born around 1800—yet even though Belle was only in her early 40s at the time, she would only have a handful more years to live out her happily ever after with John Davinière. Because by 1804, she was gravely ill.
43. She Met A Sudden End
In the summer of 1804, Belle succumbed to an unknown illness and passed, leaving her husband to take care of their two young children. Sadly, we still have almost no clues about what her final moments looked like and what fatality took her. She was only 43 years old, which was still relatively young for the time. We do, however, have some idea about what happened after her death…and it wasn’t pretty.
44. She Died In Obscurity
First of all, for a woman so singular and unique in Georgian society, Dido Elizabeth Belle suffered an ignominious end. We don’t even know the day she was laid to rest, since the chapel at St. George had seen many burials that season and no one had thought to date them in the ledger. But that wasn’t even the worst part.
45. Her Final Resting Place Is A Mystery
Today, it is difficult for us to commemorate Dido Elizabeth Belle in person, because we can’t even be sure where her grave is. Common lore says that one day, developers moved Dido Elizabeth Belle’s grave entirely, but other evidence suggests she might still be under St. George’s Fields, which is now home to modern housing developments.
46. She Received High Praise
For all Belle’s obscurity, there was some kind of recognition during her lifetime, at least: Her father John Lindsay’s obituary mentioned her explicitly and confirmed Lindsay as her biological father. The paper also went so far as to say that Belle‘s "amiable disposition and accomplishments have gained her the highest respect from all his Lordship’s relations and visitants".
47. She Has A Legacy
In many ways, it was a triumph for Dido Belle—an illegitimate, mixed-race lovechild of the colonies—to even have children and a legacy to leave. Yet her children did that legacy one better. Charles and William Thomas grew up to be prominent men, with Charles even serving in the army with the East India Company and living to a ripe old age.
48. She Is Not Forgotten
Dido Belle’s story still captivates people to this day, and there have been a handful of fictional forays into her life, including the 2013 Amma Asante film Belle, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido in a lavish cinematic story. Aside from that, however, Dido has also received artistic treatments in musicals and novels alike.
49. She Received A Touching Gift
Sometimes, it’s the smallest traces that show the biggest parts of a life. Although William Murray was by no means a perfect man or a perfect uncle to Dido, he did give her a heart-warming present until the day he died. Every year on Dido’s birthday, Murray would commemorate the date by gifting the girl with five guineas.
50. Her Husband Betrayed Her
Although Dido Belle came to a sadly obscure, silent, and mysterious end, we do know where her husband John Davinière ended up—and he dealt his late wife a heartbreaking betrayal. Not long after Dido Elizabeth Belle’s passing, John Davinière took another wife, Jane Holland, and later had two children with Holland as well.