Heart-Wrenching Facts About Harriet Spencer, Countess of Bessborough

March 1, 2023 | Brendan Da Costa

Heart-Wrenching Facts About Harriet Spencer, Countess of Bessborough

The Countess of Bessborough was born into the illustrious Spencer family. But the only thing she inherited in life was a predisposition to heartbreak and a penchant for scandal. Despite a long list of lovers (and we mean, long), Harriet never actually found love...not until the very end.

1. She Fell Far From The Tree

Henrietta Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough—or just “Harriet” as her friends and family liked to call her—was born in June 1761. She was the youngest surviving child of John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer, and Margaret Georgiana Poyntz. Unlike her parents, however, Harriet would not have a storybook romance. Far from it.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

2. She Wasn’t Loved

Harriet’s parents had a loving and lasting marriage. Her mother thought that her father was “handsomer than an angel,” and even wrote to her friend, “I will own it, and never deny it that I do love Spencer above all men on Earth”. But despite all the love in the house, Harriet received very little of it. In fact, she received basically none of it.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

3. She Wasn’t The Favorite

Even before she was born, Harriet’s mother confessed that her heart was full of love for her eldest daughter Georgiana, who she affectionately called "little Gee". But because her mother had already found her golden child, there was very little room in her heart for poor baby Harriet. In fact, the way she treated her youngest daughter was downright shocking.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

4. Her Mother Called Her Ugly

Harriet’s own mother mistreated her from the time she was a baby. She even called her a “little ugly girl” who had “no beauty to brag of but an abundance of fine brown hair”. The favoritism within the Spencer family was brutal—and it didn't stop there.

If Harriet thought that she could find comfort from her father, she was so wrong.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikimedia Commons

5. Her Father Was Loaded (With Rage)

Harriet’s father was the great-grandson and principal inheritor of the fabulously wealthy Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill. Allegedly, he inherited by far and away the largest fortune in all of England along with a terrible and unpredictable temper. Not that Harriet spent too much time around him anyway to experience it first-hand.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

6. She Was Home Alone

In addition to his incalculable fortune, Harriet’s father inherited poor health. Oftentimes, he would have to seek medical help on the European mainland and uproot the entire family. Well, that is, the entire family except for Harriet, who they'd leave behind all on her own because she was the runt of the litter. She undoubtedly suffered for it.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikimedia Commons

7. She Spied On Her Parents

Despite their outward appearance of strict morals, piety, and stiff-lipped conservatism, Harriet’s parents were, in fact, notorious gamblers.

Harriet witnessed her otherwise perfect parents indulging in their vice. But that wasn't the worst part. Her father even hired people to teach him how to cheat at gambling. The Spencer family had an undeniable dark side—and Harriet had a front-row seat.

Harriet Spencer FactsPicryl

8. She Was Lovesick

Much like her father, as a young child, Harriet was always “frail and sickly”. It might have had something to do with the fact that she was starved of love.

Harriet’s mother eventually grew tired of her youngest daughter’s sad disposition and thought that “foreign air” might cure her. The consequences were stunning.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikimedia Commons

9. She Blossomed Into A Beauty

The “foreign air” had its intended effect as, upon her return, Harriet had blossomed into a beautiful young woman. And, unlike her older sister, she had the brains to back up her looks.

Sources described her as being tall and thin “with dark eyebrows and pale skin," not to mention, she was “quieter, more analytical and less prone to flights of fancy”. Oh, but her attraction went so much deeper than her sweet appearance.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikimedia Commons

10. She Had A Way With Words

Harriet’s friends described her as passionate, funny, and intuitive with a “well-read wit”. She'd certainly grown out of her childhood woes, boasting a proficiency in languages and letter writing. Now, she just had to find a man who could appreciate all of her many talents.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsPicryl

11. She Misjudged Her Match

Harriet chose to give her hand in marriage to Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough (or simply, the Viscount Duncannon). The decision baffled many but she explained to her friends that “he was very sensible and good tempered”.

Sadly, she had completely and gravely misjudged the man—and she would learn this the hard way.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsWikimedia Commons

12. She Married Into The Family

Harriet’s adoration for her sister might have been another reason why she overlooked Duncannon’s many shortcomings.

He was the first cousin of her sister’s husband, William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire. By Harriet's reasoning, she'd share the same connections as her sister. But even Georgiana had her qualms about her sister's choice of husband.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

13. She Married A Pauper

As happy as Georgiana was to have Harriet around, she found her sister's decision baffling. Georgiana didn’t consider Duncannon to be Harriet’s type as he was quiet and “not particularly good looking”.

Additionally, everyone knew that Duncannon’s branch of the Cavendish family was heavily indebted—and this kind of poverty was contagious.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

14. She Wanted To Make Her Parents Proud

As surprised as everyone else was by Harriet’s decision, none were perhaps as surprised as she was herself. After Duncannon proposed, she confessed that she hadn't had any clue that he'd been the least bit interested in her, at least not until her own father had told her. The proposal came as a total shock.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsWikimedia Commons

15. She Knew It Was Wrong

Even before she walked down the aisle, Harriet knew that she may have been making a mistake. “I wish I could have known him a little better first,” she lamented, “but my dear Papa and Mama say that it will make them the happiest of creatures, and what would I not do to see them happy, to be sure the connections are the pleasantest…”

From the sounds of it, Harriet's marriage seemed doomed before it even began—and it gets worse.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikimedia Commons

16. She Looked Past Appearances

Apparently, Harriet thought that Duncannon wasn't much of a looker. In a letter to her cousin, she confessed that she selected her beau because she prioritized a man's inner qualities over his outer qualities. This sounds quite moral and sound, but her letter also revealed a huge red flag.

Harriet Spencer FactsFlickr, Jim Surkamp

17. She Knew He Was No Good

In the same letter to her cousin, Harriet also expressed her doubts: “But there are some things which frighten me sadly, he is so grave and I am so very giddy”. She would have been right to listen to her spiraling inner thoughts, but instead, Harriet decided to take the biggest risk imaginable.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsWikimedia Commons

18. Her Marriage Was Hot And Cold

Despite her many reservations and concerns, Harriet married Duncannon in November 1780. Right from the beginning, however, the marriage was a total nightmare.

Duncannon vacillated between showering Harriet with “obsessive attentiveness” and utter neglect. There was no in-between and the two extremes took their toll on her.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsWikimedia Commons

19. Her Husband Gambled Their Money Away

Much like Harriet's parents, Duncannon had a bad gambling habit that he couldn’t control. He only seemed to love Harriet when the cards were running in his favor—but, when they weren’t, Harriet suffered the worst of his maltreatment.

In fact, it’s fair to say that she was the real loser when Duncannon didn’t get his way.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikimedia Commons

20. Her Husband Wanted Her Money

On a bitter February morning in 1782, Duncannon returned home in an apoplectic rage. He informed Harriet that he had lost a massive amount of money in a bad game of faro.

Figuring that Harriet could dip into her substantial dowry, he ordered her to come up with the money—and warned her that if she failed, she'd surely have regrets.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsGetty Images

21. She Was Trembling With Fear

After he stormed out, Harriet’s brother, George, just so happened to pass by. He found Harriet in a mess, weeping in utter fear.

Unsure of what to do, he wrote to their mother saying, “Harriet was quite at a loss, as well she might, and was very apprehensive of the consequences of his disappointment”. Her mother, however, was less concerned.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

22. Her Mother Didn’t Care

Harriet’s mother's response was completely cold-hearted. Instead of rushing to protect her daughter, she advised George against giving her the money to pay off her husband’s gambling debt. Fortunately for Harriet, her brother had a softer heart than her unforgiving mother.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikimedia Commons

23. Her Brother Saved Her Life

In the end, Harriet’s brother gave her the money to pay off Duncannon’s gambling debt. Nevertheless, they kept the sources of the funds a secret from their in-laws in case they started to think that Harriet was some kind of bottomless ATM. But they couldn’t keep everything a secret—their marital problems were too big to hide.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

24. She Went Looking For Love

Harriet and Duncannon’s marital problems were common knowledge in the upper-crust circles that they moved in. In fact, both Harriet’s and Duncannon’s parents tried in vain to constrain Duncannon’s outbursts. Sadly, however, Harriet continued to suffer, trapped in her husband's vicious web.

Desperate, she looked for love anywhere she could find it.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsWikipedia

25. She Was Lonely

Within a year of saying their “I dos," Harriet’s and Duncannon’s marriage was all anyone could talk about—and not in a good way. The Duchess of Portland, for example, commented that Harriet “leads a melancholy life, at home always, and literally alone”. But she did, eventually, find some company. Heck, she found a lot of company.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

26. She Made A Splash

Just as Duncannon had taken to publicly embarrassing his wife, Harriet got a little naughty herself. She began indulging in some pretty public affairs.

One of her earliest trysts even landed in the pages of the press. Lady Mary Coke even wrote about it in a private letter saying, “I am sorry to say Lady Duncannon [Harriet] and Charles Wydham seem to be good friends”. Well, they were far more than friends.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikimedia Commons

27. She Had Forbidden Love

At the time, the press erroneously claimed that Harriet and Wyndham had eloped. Afraid of the scandal, Harriet’s brother, George, and her mother intervened and whisked her off to St Albans.

In addition, they forbade her from ever seeing Wyndham again before sending her back to London under her in-laws’ strict supervision.

Harriet Spencer FactsPicryl

28. Her Husband Went After Her

By 1791, Duncannon’s mistreatment of Harriet had gotten so bad that people began to suspect the worst.

Their friends and peers began to believe that Duncannon was actively poisoning Harriet—presumably in an attempt to get at her family’s vast fortune. But even so, Harriet wasn't doing too badly. Not too badly at all.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

29. She Had The Luck Of The Irish

Even though she did, at times, look haggard because of Duncannon’s treatment, Harriet was still beautiful. And she had no trouble finding other men who would treat her far better than he did.

Her second biggest—and by far her most ruinous—affair was with the Irish writer, charmer and theater owner, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

30. Her Lover Was A Tease

Even though Sheridan was Harriet’s main affair, she carried on multiple romantic relationships with other men. And everyone except for Duncannon seemed to know it. Sheridan, for example, teased Harriet about her other affairs, writing, “Do not listen to Jack’s elegies or smile at F’s epigrams or tremble at CW’s frowns”.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsWikimedia Commons

31. Her Husband Walked In On Her

At first, Harriet and Sheridan managed to carry on their affair in secret. But it became public knowledge in the most dramatic (but simultaneously predictable) way imaginable.

During one of their many “encounters," Duncannon actually walked in on the adulterous couple. And that’s when the drama and scandal really erupted.

Harriet Spencer FactsLook and Learn

32. She Faced Ruin

In a fit of rage, Duncannon threatened to divorce Harriet. Despite the fact that he had been a bad husband (maybe the worst ever), the divorce would have ruined Harriet and she would have become a social pariah.

In an act of desperation, she vowed never to see Sheridan again if he promised to stay with her. But the heart wants what it wants.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsWikimedia Commons

33. She Covered Her Tracks

To preserve her marriage, Harriet and Sheridan agreed to end their affair. They even tricked Sheridan’s sister who commented at a dinner party that she observed Harriet “casting many tender looks across the table [at Sheridan] which to my great joy did not seem much attended to”. Of course, it was all an elaborate cover.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

34. She Kept The Affair Going

Before long, Sheridan’s wife and sister figured out that Harriet still had the Irishman wrapped around her finger—and legs. Shortly after that, Duncannon found out and immediately began divorce proceedings.

In all likelihood, Sheridan’s sister was the one who tattled on Harriet. But, frighteningly, Sheridan wasn’t out of her life quite yet.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

35. Her Brother-In-Law Took Her Side

Harriet pleaded with Duncannon not to go through with the divorce but he was determined. Still, fate granted her a stroke of luck. Her brother-in-law, the Duke of Devonshire and Duncannon’s cousin, returned to England.

He sided with Harriet and convinced Duncannon to stop the proceedings, or else face social ruin himself.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsPicryl

36. She Was A Homewrecker

In the end, Harriet’s affair with Sheridan fizzled out—perhaps because she realized that she had become a homewrecker. Sheridan’s wife wrote about the damage that Harriet had caused, saying, “I don’t know in my [life] that ever I [passed] so many [miserable hours]”. Or, even more likely, Harriet simply found a new flame.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsLook and Learn

37. She Found A Boy Toy

Following her affair with Sheridan, Harriet found a new love interest. But this wasn't just any new fling; this was the man who would become the love of her life. Behind Duncannon’s back, she started having a torrid affair with Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Earl Granville.

If it seems like Harriet moved on from Sheridan too quickly, it’s easy to understand given Granville’s reputation.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

38. Her Lover Was An Adonis

Even into her middle age and older years, Harriet was celebrated for her beauty, and so was Granville—12 years Harriet’s junior. In a reference to one of history’s most beautiful men, Granville’s contemporaries described him as “Hadrian’s Antinous”. And Harriet had clearly fallen under his spell and into his bed.

Harriet Spencer FactsPicryl

39. She Hid Her Pregnancies

During her affair with Granville, Harriet gave birth to two illegitimate children. Despite her massive baby bumps, she managed to keep Duncannon in the dark about the whole affair.

Whenever she became pregnant, she would simply escape to a friend’s country home for months at a time. Duncannon probably never even noticed she was gone.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsWikipedia

40. Her Lover Didn’t Love Her

For a while, Harriet and Granville enjoyed their little side romance. But, before long, it became apparent to Harriet that the affair meant more to her than it did to him.

Even though she once thought that Granville shared her strong affection, she soon realized that out of all the men in her life, he loved her the least. It was a recipe for heartbreak.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsPicryl

41. She Knew It Was Coming To An End

Despite the fact that they had two children together, Harriet knew that her affair with Granville couldn’t go on forever. She knew that, eventually, Granville would have to marry for the sake of his reputation and career—and he couldn’t very well marry her. She just didn’t think that he would marry the younger version of her.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsLook and Learn

42. She Helped Her Lover Marry Her Niece

When the time came for Granville to get married, he could have chosen anyone. So, it was awkward for Harriet when he opted to marry her niece and namesake, Lady Harriet Cavendish. Nevertheless, Harriet put on a brave face and even helped to make the marriage arrangements to secure the match...even if it shattered her heart.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

43. She Idolized Her Lover

Harriet knew that Granville didn’t feel for her as she felt for him. Years later, she lamented that she had “loved [Granville] to idolatry for seventeen years”. Funny enough, though, the awkward love triangle between herself, Granville, and her niece wasn’t the most awkward love triangle of her life.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsPicryl

44. Her Daughter Married Her Lover

As a beauty, Harriet attracted many young suitors and admirers—not just Granville. One of her younger admirers, William Lamb, for example, was hungry for some Harriet, that is, until he met and fell in love with Harriet’s daughter, Caroline.

Out of fondness for Lamb, she agreed to give him her daughter’s hand in marriage.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikipedia

45. She Had A Stalker

Unexpectedly, one of Harriet Spencer's former flames reappeared in her life—and turned it upside down. Sheridan, perhaps emboldened by his old age and driven mad by love, began stalking and harassing Harriet.

The Irish writer sent her anonymous letters with an ominous tone. Of course, Harriet immediately recognized the handwriting behind these passionate threats.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikimedia Commons

46. She Was Forgiving

In public places wherever she went, Sheridan would follow her and confront her. On several occasions, he made public scenes, admonishing her for not reciprocating his adoration and making declarations of his fervent love for her.

Ever tender-hearted, however, Harriet managed to forgive Sheridan for his threatening behavior. But this was a mistake.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsWikimedia Commons

47. She Was Haunted

Harriet visited Sheridan in his final days. After she forgave him he “grasped her hand hard and told her he intended to haunt her after his death”. Mortified, Harriet asked why he would say something like that, to which he replied, “Because I am resolved you shall remember me”. In a fit of terror, Harriet fled the room and never saw him again.

At least, not alive.

Harriet Spencer FactsWikimedia Commons

48. She Finally Found Love

Miraculously, in 1820 and after 40 years of marriage, Duncannon rounded the corner. Without explanation, he began treating Harriet with the love and respect that she had never received from anyone else. But it was too little, too late.

Harriet passed the very next year. Despite her life of turbulence and scandal, the Countess had no regrets when she came to breathe her final breath.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsPicryl

49. She Loved Too Much

The historian Lord David Cecil called Harriet Spencer a woman of "indescribable distinction”. She was also a woman of indescribable hardship. In the end, Harriet likely suffered so much at the hands of her family and flings because she loved them so much. In her own tragic words, she said, “I can never love anyone just a little”.

Henrietta-Countess of Bessborough FactsWikimedia Commons

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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