Duchess. Bigamist. Hustler. Criminal. Say what you want about her, Lady Elizabeth Chudleigh definitely made an impression. This scandalous courtier has gone down in history for the 18th century’s most shocking trial—but few people know about her other jaw-dropping claims to fame. Raise your champagne glass and give a toast to Lady Chudleigh, the provocateur of the 1770s.
Elizabeth Chudleigh Facts
1. Humble Beginnings
Born on March 8, 1721, Elizabeth Chudleigh entered a comfortable life in Devonshire. As the daughter of a prominent colonel, Thomas Chudleigh, and his first cousin, Henrietta (kind of gross, but it was normal back then), Elizabeth was primed to live a conventional country life—or so it seemed.
2. Best Dad Ever
When Elizabeth was only five years old, tragedy struck. Her father Thomas, on whom the family depended for that sweet, sweet cash, lost a whole bunch of money when the South Sea Bubble burst. Then he promptly died, leaving his burgeoning family bereft and without almost any fortunes to their name. Now, that’s no way for a Duchess to start.
3. Ain’t No Shame Ladies, Do Your Thing
Elizabeth’s single mother searched for a way to make ends meet without her husband, and ended up becoming a genteel landlady, one of very few quasi-respectable ways for women to earn a living back in the day. Oh, and of course, setting up your sons to make lucrative career choices and your daughters to marry super rich men.
4. Listen up Fives, a Ten Is Speaking
Scholars don’t know very much about Elizabeth’s adolescence, but one oft-told anecdote claims that Elizabeth came very close to losing her money-maker: her wildly beautiful face. Apparently, young Elizabeth came down with smallpox, a disease that caused terrible facial scars that could doom a woman’s chances on the marriage market.
However, Elizabeth somehow managed to survive the illness without a single blemish.
5. Friends in High Places
When Elizabeth’s father died, her mother asked for help from a fancy friend: the Earl of Bath, William Pulteney. He came through in a big way. He managed to get Elizabeth a cushy position as the Princess of Wales’ Maid of Honor. Not only did this job pay a handsome salary, it also kept the family in the loop of the aristocratic social calendar.
6. French Kissing 101
Some sources claim that William Pulteney’s help wasn’t caused by the goodness of his heart. Apparently, even though Pulteney was both married and firmly in his 50s while Elizabeth had barely entered her 20s, the two might have been a romantic item. Pulteney was entranced by Elizabeth’s beauty and flirtatious quips, often going over to “educate” her. Bow chicka wow wow.
7. And I Oop
Poor Earl Pulteney. Little did he know, getting his hot young girlfriend a job at court meant that she’d be surrounded by London’s most eligible bachelors. Dude really didn’t think that one through. Almost immediately after entering court, Elizabeth became the hot girl at the office. She was renowned for both her beauty and her wit.
8. Eligible Bachelor
After Elizabeth landed her job as Maid of Honor, all the eligible young men came out of the woodwork, including a 1740s’ version of People’s Sexiest Man Alive: James, the Sixth Duke of Hamilton. He was incredibly wealthy and handsome—and he only had eyes for Elizabeth. Sadly, the couple was doomed to a heartbreaking end.
9. Eurotrip: Regency Style
In the 18th century, it was a tradition for rich guys to go on an elaborate road trip called “The Grand Tour.” The tour was basically an excuse for young noblemen to travel through Europe, party hard, look at art, and then come home and settle down. James was no different. He begged Elizabeth to wait for him while he went on his tour, promising her that he’d write.
But Elizabeth never received a single letter. Pretty soon, she thought of herself as single and ready to mingle…
One of Chudleigh’s gentlemen callers, Lord Bute, was very, shall we say, generous. Not only did he buy her jewellery and carriages, he got her a full-on estate. Chudleigh House became Elizabeth’s lavish home. She would host extravagant parties and soirees there, along with quirkier activities like a Ladies’ Cricket match.
One summer day in 1744, Elizabeth Chudleigh decided to go out to the Winchester races. While at the racetrack, she met Augustus John Hervey. Not only was Hervey a prominent Navy lieutenant, he also came from a noble family, and Elizabeth and John immediately hit it off. Chudleigh couldn’t have known it then, but she’d regret that day for the rest of her life.
12. The Proposal
Hervey was in so deep that he even cancelled his next voyage and decided to put his career on the line for a shot at Elizabeth’s heart. He went over to Elizabeth’s residence and asked her to marry him then and there. Elizabeth, equally young and short-sighted, said yes.
13. An Exclusive Engagement
Like Elizabeth, Hervey’s claim to nobility was adequate at best. His family was fancy, but John was a younger son. He didn’t have a lot of cash (thus his work in the Navy) and his marriage to Chudleigh didn’t make much financial sense. But come what may, young love barrels along. The couple got married in a secret moonlit ceremony in August of 1744.
14. It’s Me, Not You
Elizabeth Chudleigh definitely had a way with men, but even she couldn’t ensnare everyone. Though Chudleigh was involved with Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia, the relationship never worked out. Centuries later, historians finally believe they know why. While Frederick had some interest in women, he mostly identified as homosexual. That explains things.
15. Hot Mess: Activate
After secretly marrying Hervey, Chudleigh returned to court with a real devil-may-care attitude. Unsurprisingly, men couldn’t get enough of her confidence and sass, even including King George II. While historians don’t think the pair actually went all the way, the King did give Chudleigh’s mom a sweet gig in one of his family’s castles. Love a sugar daddy.
16. Secretly Yours
Hervey and Chudleigh had to keep their wedding under wraps. Not only would their families be furious, but Elizabeth would also lose her much-needed job. For a while, the couple managed to keep their marriage both functional and secret—but soon it all came crashing down. #Chudvey’s marriage faltered: Soon, they weren’t living together, and it all but dissolved.
17. Or Else
Years after their midnight wedding, Elizabeth’s husband Hervey, who had been off working, sailed back into town. He wanted to see her and reconcile, but she was just interested in getting him to pay her bills. Darn straight.
18. Got It From My Mama
Chudleigh always managed to get involved in dramatic situations, and it kind of ran in the family. Once, Elizabeth’s mother was held up by a robber while travelling in her carriage. She was then somehow able to hold back the intruder until her companion returned and shot the would-be thief.
19. A Living Nightmare
Three months into his visit to London, Hervey threatened to tell everyone about their secret marriage unless Elizabeth met with him. Desperate to retain her job and social life, Chudleigh agreed to go to her ex-husband’s private chambers. There, he locked the door and forced himself upon her. But then it got even worse.
Elizabeth soon discovered that she was pregnant, all while the father of her child was utterly monstrous.
20. National Lampoon’s Really Sad Vacation
Appearing to be both unmarried and pregnant wasn’t really a workable look in 18th-century London, so Elizabeth quietly headed over to Chelsea to wait for the baby’s birth. When the time came, Elizabeth bore a son—but tragically, he only lived for a few months.
After their infant son died, Hervey and Chudleigh parted ways. This meant Chudleigh was back where she shone; on the market. If she knew anything, it was how to hustle. She surveyed the men around her and chose her target, Evelyn Pierrepont, the Second Duke of Kingston. (Yes, Evelyn is technically a man’s name too).
22. Dominatrix Vibes
According to Regency gossip, Elizabeth used to boss one of her flames around. She even made him ask permission to go outside for fresh air.
One of the most famous stories about Elizabeth Chudleigh comes from what I lovingly call her Hot Mess Phase. Chudleigh, clearly feeling herself, shows up at a masquerade in a startlingly revealing garment. She was dressed as a figure from Ancient Greek mythology, Iphigenia, but she caused a total court scandal.
Apparently, while the flimsiest of beige silk provided technical cover, Chudleigh’s breasts were fully visible.
24. Praise Hands Emoji
Unlike her old flame Hervey, Pierrepont wasn’t just technically noble. He was the real deal. Both incredibly rich and famously handsome (get it, Elizabeth), he was a perfect match for the Regency’s most ambitious party girl.
25. Game, Set, Match
To everyone’s surprise, not only did Chudleigh successfully sink her claws into Pierrepont, the duo actually fell in love, and she became his mistress. Even though Pierrepont was known for being shy and homegrown, the beauty and the geek got along just famously. I guess opposites attract, especially when one opposite has a butt ton of money.
26. Mark Me, Gentlemen
Chudleigh’s infamous, barely-there Iphigenia costume went down in history. If you Google Image Elizabeth Chudleigh, you’ll notice multiple engravings of her costume, or, ahem, lack thereof. A wondrous, double-barrelled legacy.
27. A Voice From the Past
After enjoying a glamorous life with her new man Pierrepont for a brief period of time, all Chudleigh’s lies unraveled. Her ex-husband Hervey reappeared. He had a new reputation as “The English Casanova” and evidently, he wanted to play the field. So, to her horror, he started asking for an honest-to-God divorce.
28. Teaming up
There was just one problem: Getting a divorce would mean everyone finding out about the whole secret marriage thing. That wasn’t good news for either Chudleigh (who wanted Duke Pierrepont for a husband) or Hervey (whose latest girlfriend didn’t get why he wasn’t popping the question). That’s when the exes decided to hatch an ingenious plan.
29. Keep Your Friends Close
Chudleigh and Hervey worked together to get out of their marriage with minimal fallout. They decided that Hervey would tell everyone they were married, then Chudleigh would charge Hervey with slander. When they went to court, Hervey would pretend like he couldn’t find the paperwork, which would make it look like he was lying and Chudleigh was an innocent victim.
After the theatrics, the court would declare that the duo had obviously never been married. Pretty clever, right?
30. Wasn’t Me
Elizabeth Chudleigh was known for a lot of things. The Iphigenia dress, her many flirtatious quips, and her dazzling beauty come to mind. But she also gained fame for a distinctly less attractive reason. Chudleigh often passed gas at court dinners and, after fanning her skirts around, would blame the odors on dogs. Weird flex, Elizabeth.
31. Happiness Is Fleeting
Chudleigh and Hervey pulled off their scheme. It looked like a happy ending for Chudleigh, who finally made things official with her longtime boyfriend Pierrepont in 1770. But things wouldn’t be rosy for long. In 1773, Pierrepont passed away and everything fell apart. Again.
Back when Elizabeth was a young woman, she fell in love with James, the Sixth Duke of Hamilton. As you might recall, he went on a long trip and promised he’d write, but Chudleigh never got a single letter. In a heartbreaking twist, it turned out that he had been writing, but Elizabeth’s interfering aunt, Mrs Hanmer, had snatched James’ snail mail.
33. Passed Over and Pissed
When Pierrepont kicked the bucket, he gave everything to Chudleigh with the idea that when she died, it would all go to Charles Medows, his younger nephew. Well, the older nephew, Evelyn Medows, was pissed about this, and decided to throw a grenade in this will business, come what may. So he hit Chudleigh right where it hurt most.
34. The Event of the Year
The ticked-off nephew presented enough evidence of Chudleigh’s double marriage for the Grand Jury to take the case. This trial was, as one historian said, “the event of the year.” Because Chudleigh was technically nobility, her jury was composed entirely of the esteemed House of Lords. Everyone involved was fancy. It was a perfect recipe for a huge social scandal.
35. Brains and Beauty
On the night of the infamous, nearly topless Iphigenia costume, King George II approached the scantily-clad beauty and requested to handle the goods. Chudleigh put on her best dulcet tones and replied that she knew an even softer place. Then she coyly placed the King’s hand upon his own bald patch. This girl’s got moves.
36. The Ugly Truth
Some historians believe the affair between Elizabeth and Hervey was entirely based on something between passion and puppy love. Others credit a far darker reason. Elizabeth was badly hurt by the Duke of Hamilton’s apparent rejection. She figured that marrying Hervey would show James that she’d moved on. Yeah, this strategy did not work out for her.
37. Burn Baby Burn
Chudleigh had a good reason for requesting the House of Lords as her judges. Unless you were noble, the punishment for bigamy was mutilation. Without the House of Lords presiding, Chudleigh would be branded with fire, her scarred hand marking her as a criminal until her dying day. Yeah, I think I’d want to avoid that too.
38. Playing for Keeps
Tragically, the courts found Chudleigh guilty of bigamy—but that’s not the worst part. She also knew it was all her fault. You see, back in 1759, she had actually rounded up a bunch of witnesses to her secret marriage and made them sign a document. Why the heck do that? She thought she might be able to inherit some of Hervey’s money.
Spoiler: She didn’t, and now she was paying for it.
39. Scam Me Once
After Chudleigh heard that the court found her guilty of bigamy, she planned one final scam. She got out her most ostentatious carriage and told the driver to cart her around town for hours. Or so it seemed: Chudleigh wasn’t in the carriage at all. She just wanted to give the appearance of going on a bender while she did something far cleverer.
She actually packed up all her jewels and got the heck out of town.
40. Eat It
While Chudleigh and her longtime boyfriend Pierrepont really did love each other, the couple went through a devastating rough patch. It turned out that Pierrepont had been having an affair with a local hat-maker. Chudleigh found out and left to party away her sorrows in Europe. When Pierrepont came crawling back, she begrudgingly accepted his apology.
In retrospect, this is deeply ironic. Chudleigh was full-on married for their entire relationship!
While no one knows exactly why Chudleigh and Hervey fell apart so soon after their passionate moonlit wedding, some historians believe the worst. They think that Hervey may have abused his young wife.
42. RIP to a Real One
For the last years of her life, Chudleigh toured around Europe and continued the hard-partying, plentiful farting ways of her youth. When she suddenly died of a burst blood vessel in 1788, it seemed like a part of history ended with her. The all-out party of the 18th century was symbolically over, about to be replaced by the high necklines and repression of the Victorian Era.