Lady Diana Spencer captured the hearts and minds of millions across the globe before a dreadful accident claimed her life too soon. But two and half centuries earlier, another Lady Diana had the world eating out of the palm of her pretty little palm. Clearly, however, the Fates don’t favor anyone named Lady Diana.
Diana Russell, Duchess of Bedford was born as the youngest member of the illustrious Spencer family in July of 1710. Her father was Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, but it was really her mother, Anne Spencer, who had all of the right royal connections. Sadly, no amount of favoritism would save her from a tragic life.
When she was just a baby, the Spencer family gave Diana the affectionate nickname, “dear little Di”. That nickname might sound familiar for good—and very ominous—reasons. Diana wasn't just a direct ancestor of the tragically-fated Lady Diana Spencer, she was actually her namesake. As we'll see, that wasn't all they shared.
Despite her ultimate fate, Diana's early childhood was actually mostly sunshine and rainbows. As the baby of the family, she was firmly the favorite child. In fact, her mother Anne had also been the favorite child of her own mother, the powerful Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, who was herself Queen Anne’s favorite courtier.
But coming from a long line of favorites meant nothing when tragedy finally did strike.
Diana's misfortunes started pretty early on—and then just kept coming. Only a few months before her sixth birthday, she got horrific news. Her mother passed away. The Countess was only 33 years old at the time, and her unexpected and sudden passing left "little Di” without a loving mother. But things didn't stay this way for long.
Diana's father was quick to remarry. In fact, his deceased wife’s corpse had barely even set into rigor mortis before he tied the knot with the little-known Judith Tichborne just a few months later. It would have been a hard transition for a six-year-old to bear, but there was so much more upheaval ahead for little Di.
In just six short years of marriage to her father, Tichborne managed to give Diana three more siblings. Then it turned dark again. Not one of those little angels survived past infancy. Losing loved ones was now practically a hobby for Little Di. But as it turned out, the worst was yet to come.
Almost six years to the day of her mother’s passing, Diana officially became an orphan. That summer, her father followed her mother into the grave. And once more, it was sudden and unexpected; the duke was only 46 years old, and left behind his wife and a gaggle of children. But there was also something scandalous about that day.
Just before his passing, Diana's father had been a key player in a treasonous plot. The so-called "Atterbury Plot" was a conspiracy to restore the House of Stuart—Queen Anne’s royal household—to the throne. Before the conspirators could put their plan into motion, however, the Earl kicked the can—a turn of events that actually helped expose and doom the plot.
Amidst all this drama, Diana found a powerful ally.
Diana's family may have been dying around her, but she still had her powerful maternal grandmother, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. And the cunning woman knew just what to do. She took Little Di under her wing and groomed the budding girl for success. And boy, did Diana ever get it.
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Under her grandmother’s careful protection and watchful gaze, Diana grew into a proper woman. From an orphaned little girl, she became her grandmother's favorite descendant, and then one of the most eligible bachelorettes in the Kingdom. Of course, it helped that her guardian the Duchess of Marlborough was one of richest women in the country, too. But Diana had more than that.
It’s so rare that someone as beautiful as Diana would also be kind-hearted. But, just like her famous descendant Princess Di, Diana’s contemporaries commented on her gentle disposition, agreeing that she was both sympathetic and charismatic. But even if Diana had it all, she wouldn’t have it all for long.
As she came of age, Diana blossomed into the good looks the Spencers have continued to be famous for. Like the future Princess Diana, she was tall, blonde, and had an open, innocent-looking face. The effect her beauty had was astounding. Men began falling over themselves just to pay her a compliment. And this is where her trouble began.
The first of Diana’s many suitors wasn't exactly the romantic fairy tale prince you might imagine. The Duke of Somerset approached the young girl not to marry him, but with the business-like intent to broker a union for his grandson. He failed. And as more suitors came, they failed too. Soon, the problem became obvious.
Although wealthy Viscounts and Earls were lining up around the block to ask for Diana's hand in marriage, none of them seemed to make it very far. The reason why was simple. Diana's grandmother the Duchess of Marlborough had already decided they weren't good enough for her girl, and she held out for something better. But Diana's next option was the worst by far.
Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was as enamored of Diana as seemingly every other straight man in the land, but he had an ace up his sleeve. A middle-aged man, he was actually friends with her grandmother Sarah Churchill, and thought that this would up his chances of winning her hand in marriage. So he put a bloodless plan into action.
Writing from The Hague directly to the Dowager Duchess, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote in not-so impassioned tones about “The person, the merit and the family of Lady Diana Spencer" when he asked for her hand. He was in for a huge disappointment. Sarah Churchill was having none of him either, friend or not, and turned him down.
Sadly, Diana and her grandmother were about to find out there's such a thing as too little, too late.
Good things come to those who wait—unless they wait too long. In the middle of husband shopping, a terrible and disfiguring affliction struck Diana. She developed a case of tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis, better known as scrofula or the king’s evil, which produces huge, unsightly lesions around the lymph nodes.
Terrified Diana was going to lose her good looks and thus one of her main attractions in the marriage market, the Dowager Duchess came up with a desperate plan.
The Dowager Duchess of Marlborough couldn’t stand to see her favorite grandchild disfigured. So, like any doting grandmother would, she opened up her purse and spent a fortune to “fix” little Di’s disfiguration. She hired the most prominent surgeon she could find and had him conceal the injury, and it worked.
Just like that, Little Di was back on the market and more eligible than ever. But apparently, her grandmother hadn't learned any lessons, because her next plot was the most ambitious yet.
Growing up, Diana had become close to the royal family through her grandmother's connections, and had played with King George II's children when she was still in the nursery. This turned into a vital asset. Now that the Prince of Wales, Frederick, was grown, the Dowager Duchess thought she finally had a suitor worthy of her granddaughter. She was embarrassingly wrong.
Not all princes are Prince Charming, and no one proved that point better than Frederick. While he certainly had the royal connections Diana and her family wanted, he was also a grade-A jerk who was completely estranged from his father and would go on to spread rumors about the king's early death just to destabilize the throne.
Yeah, this was the guy Diana and the Duchess were after. It ended as badly as you' think.
The Duchess of Marlborough was one canny lady, and she had the Prince of Wales's number. Knowing he loved money and power above all else, Diana's grandmother came up with a brilliant idea. She posted up a massive dowry for her granddaughter, using it to entice Frederick with visions of paying off his substantial debts. But there was a huge complication.
A Prince of Wales is a hot commodity, and many other people, not mention entire countries, were hoping to snag Frederick for a husband. Because of this, Diana and her grandmother conducted most of these marriage meetings in secret, even going so far as to arrange a clandestine ceremony in Windsor Great Park. At first, it went perfectly.
For Diana, everything was finally falling into place. Her dear grandmama had all but secured her future safety and success. The secretive marriage plans were moving ahead at full steam. According to the Dowager Duchess, Diana was to marry the Prince of Wales come hell or high water, and even the date had been set. And then it all began to fall apart.
Not everyone thought that Diana and the Prince of Wales were a match made in heaven. In fact, for the Dowager Duchess’ enemies, having little Di married to the heir apparent spelled certain doom, at least for England's influence over in the continent if Frederick didn't marry a European princess.
So they began plotting to ruin her marriage plans—and what may have been her only chance at a happy life.
Diana's secret wedding day plans crashed and burned thanks to one very powerful man. Prime Minister Robert Walpole was one of the people who thought Frederick should make a continental union, and he wasn't about to let all of that slip away. After hearing about the plans from his “infallible spy system,” Walpole kiboshed the wedding.
It was a crushing blow to the Spencer family, and they didn't take it well.
After weeks of plotting and holding out to marry Diana to a prince, the Dowager Duchess was back at square one. Her next actions puzzled everyone. Perhaps thoroughly downtrodden, the Duchess reached out to the 21-year old Lord John Russell as a suitor for Diana. He was an odd choice.
See, although Russell was dashing, he was also only a second son of the Duke of Bedford, and his older brother currently held the title. In other words, he wasn't the most eligible bachelor. It was a complete about-face for Diana's highly-anticipated prospects...but things were about to get twisty.
The Dowager Duchess rarely acted without thinking, had fingers in all the pies of England, and hadn't spent a lifetime in court politics learning nothing. So when she told Diana to marry the second son, Diana listened, tying the knot with the lesser noble in October 1731 for a fraction of the dowry she'd needed to tempt the Prince of Wales.
It had been a whirlwind couple of months, and she might have thought it would finally calm down. Nope. Another wrench was about to come into the works.
Diana and her new husband didn’t waste any time consummating their marriage. They were, after all, two of the most attractive nobles in the kingdom with more money than they could count. The consequences were instantaneous. The newly-minted Diana Russell proved fertile and quickly became pregnant with the couple’s first child.
Sadly, her first pregnancy was doomed to a violent end.
In 1732, Diana was heavily pregnant when she took a diverting carriage ride in the crisp November air. It ended in utter disaster. The carriage got into a serious accident, and Diana was sharply thrown from the vehicle with little warning. Fortunately, both mother and child survived the terrible crash. At first.
In those first desperate hours, Diana likely prayed that her baby was safe and all was well. It wasn't. The shock of the fall eventually proved too much for Diana's body, and the ensuing events were harrowing. She went into premature labor, possibly even on the side of the road in a small town named Cheam. She barely had time to think before her whole world changed.
While still recovering from her own injuries in the carriage accident, Diana pushed until she gave birth to a baby boy she named John, who instantly became the Marquess of Tavistock. He was withered and sickly, but he was hers, and Diana intended to keep him alive as long as she possibly could. Tragically, this wasn't long.
After swaddling the baby up, Diana rushed to baptize the premature child, knowing he had little chance of making it to adulthood but hoping and praying all the same. In the end, harsh reality won out: Just a day after his baptism, the little boy passed away. Then the real twist came.
Diana had been through so much in her short life, and she must have been nearly at her wit's end when it came to her premature son. But her friends' reactions were utterly deranged. Apparently fearing for her mental health, Diana's courtiers wanted to cover up the baby's death entirely. And the way they were planning on doing that was even more unhinged.
According to historical records, Diana Russell’s handlers decided that the best thing to do was to grab any old child of around the same age as poor little John. They would then plant him in the family, and everyone would simply pretend he was Diana's real son until "she was strong enough to hear the truth and be told it was only a pretender”.
Before that could happen, though something much weirder did.
Even as Diana was having her terrible carriage accident, a huge surprise was coming for her. In an incredible twist of fate, her husband's elder brother had died in Spain without any children to his name. Although the news hadn't yet reached them, at the very moment Diana had her carriage accident, her husband was actually the Duke of Bedford, and she was the Duchess.
When the news finally did hit them, you'd think it would eventually change things for the better. Unfortunately, it it made it so much worse.
Diana's husband John had been devastated at the loss of their son, and his grief soon took on disturbing dimensions. Once he became the Duke of Bedford, he became obsessed with producing a healthy son and heir for his family. Dutiful as ever, Diana followed him right back into the bedroom to try and try again.
However, she might have been better off waiting before jumping back into the sack.
Diana never seemed to have a problem getting pregnant, and in a few short months after her carriage accident she was showing again—much to the delight of her Duke, though probably not to the delight of her still-recovering body. The couple began planning all the ways they would welcome their new heir into the world...and then once more, tragedy struck.
Sadly for Diana, getting pregnant and staying pregnant were two very different things. Tragically, after only a few months of carrying the baby, the Duchess of Bedford miscarried and lost her second child, this time without even so much as a goodbye or with the baby drawing breath. However, as she lay in bed finally convalescing, that was the least of her worries.
Despite the fact that he had been the one pushing her to have another child quickly, the Duke of Bedford placed the blame for the miscarriage squarely on Diana's shoulders, claiming she hadn't been taking proper care of herself and that's why she lost the baby. This would have been bad enough, but the Duke didn't stop there.
Not content with merely accusing his wife of miscarrying almost intentionally, the Duke's cruelty soon grew. Eventually, he withdrew almost all his affection from her, excepting his regular bedroom visits to ensure that heir he so desperately wanted. Growing increasingly miserable in her marriage, Diana knew of only one place to turn.
Even though they were living far apart, Diana Russell and the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough still kept in touch. In fact, they wrote to each other practically every day. Their letters contained the most intimate details about marriage, finances and, of course, Diana Russell’s terrible luck with pregnancy. Soon, these words would be all that the Dowager Duchess had to remember her favorite grandchild.
Sometime in the spring of 1735, Diana Russell began experiencing strange symptoms. The Duchess of Bedford assumed that she was, at last, pregnant again with her third child. Her spirits lifted and she believed that she would finally make her husband happy and bring a child to term. But once more, fate had something else in mind for little Di.
It's true that morning sickness is a common symptom of early pregnancy. But other, more disturbing signs were appearing. Soon, Diana Russell began noticing that she wasn’t gaining weight as pregnant ladies so often do. In fact, contrary to gaining weight, she was losing weight. And she was losing weight fast. Eventually, the dark truth came out.
It wasn't long before doctors confirmed the 25-year-old Diana's worst suspicions: The Duchess of Bedford was suffering from a particularly virulent bout of the potentially fatal disease tuberculosis. Her prognosis was dim at best, and Diana's grandmother begged her to go to Bedford House in London to recover. Even that was too much.
Disappointed and dismayed that she was “pregnant” with a virus instead of a baby, Diana Russell began making her way to Bedford House, but by the time she arrived there she was already beyond all help. That September, the beautiful Diana Russell, Duchess of Bedford succumbed to her illness. The aftermath was brutal.
Diana had been the apple of her grandmother’s eye, and her passing was more than the Dowager Duchess could bear. Allegedly, Marlborough read her granddaughter’s revealing letters one last time, then tossed them into a roaring fire and threw herself on the ground in grief. But according to some, this elaborate display of mourning had a dark side.
In her short 25 years of life, Diana had managed to accumulate an enviable jewelry box. In fact, it might have been more like a treasure chest. According to some of the family's enemies. the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough was more interested in getting her hands on her granddaughter’s jewels than anything else.
No matter what her detractors said, the Duchess of Marlborough did appear to be truly destroyed by her favorite granddaughter's death. She not only withdrew from public life, she also loudly accused the Duke of Bedford of causing Diana's tragic end, believing his coldness to her granddaughter contributed to her ill-heath.
But a grief-stricken grandmother wasn’t Diana Russell’s only legacy.
Two and half centuries later, another Lady Diana captured everyone’s heart. In fact, the lives of these two Dianas were so similar that one might be forgiven for thinking that they were the same person. Both were celebrated for their beauty, grew up without a mother from the age of six, were romantically entangled with a Prince of Wales, suffered an accident during their first pregnancy, and died young.
Practically the entire kingdom mourned Diana's passing, and her funeral turned into quite the affair. Mourners would have flanked the streets as her lead-lined coffin made its way through town. Following her demise, she was finally laid to rest in Buckinghamshire. Her poor grandmother never truly recovered from the loss.
Diana Russell received an education befitting someone of her social standing and position. That is to say, she learned about all of the important things in life…like opera. In fact, she actually grew up next to the famed composer George Frederic Handel, just to give you some idea about the rarified circles Diana moved in.
Diana's grandmother the Duchess of Marlborough once noted that her granddaughter had "more sense than any [woman] I know". Accordingly, she trusted the young Diana to write out all of her private communications, particularly when the Dowager Duchess's gout made it nearly impossible for her to write.
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