Saturday, 13 October 2012

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806)

Georgiana Cavendish in the "picture hat"  after Thomas Gainsborough c1785-7    from The Two Duchesses,   Family Correspondence (1898)
Georgiana Cavendish in the "picture hat"
after Thomas Gainsborough c1785-7
  from The Two Duchesses,
 Family Correspondence (1898)


Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (7 June 1757 - 30 March 1806), was a leading member of late Georgian society, famous for her extrovert personality, her extravagant fashions and her championing of the Whigs led by Charles James Fox. She lived in a notorious “ménage à trois” with her husband and his mistress, and had an affair with the future prime minister, Charles Grey, which almost ruined her.

Born to privilege

Lady Georgiana Spencer was born in Althorp, Northamptonshire, on 7 June 1757. She was the eldest daughter of John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer, one of the richest men in England, and Margaret Georgiana Poyntz. She had two siblings, George and Henrietta, known as Harriet, later Lady Bessborough.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and her sister Harriet, Countess of Bessborough from Lord Granville Leveson Gower's private correspondence 1781-1821 (1916)
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
and her sister Harriet, Countess of Bessborough
from Lord Granville Leveson Gower's
private correspondence 1781-1821 (1916)
Her father’s temper was somewhat uncertain, but her mother doted on her and remained jealous for her affection throughout her life. Georgiana was brought up to be accomplished, but not too bookish, with a keen emphasis on etiquette. In short, she was raised to make a brilliant marriage.

An illustrious marriage

Georgiana married William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, on 7 June 1774, her 17th birthday. The Duke was extremely reserved and ill-matched to the emotionally demonstrative Georgiana.

William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire  after Sir Joshua Reynolds    stipple engraving pubd 1808    NPG D13723 © National Portrait Gallery, London
William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire
after Sir Joshua Reynolds
  stipple engraving pubd 1808
  NPG D13723 © National Portrait Gallery, London
She in turn was unprepared for her duties as Duchess and hungry for affection. The Duke already had a mistress, Charlotte Spencer, with whom he had a daughter, Charlotte Williams. All he required of Georgiana was to provide him with an heir and this she seemed unable to do.

Queen of fashion

Starved of the affection she craved, Georgiana threw herself into the fashionable world. The Duchess became the darling of the Beau Monde. Where Georgiana led, the ton followed. She set the fashions, whether for three foot high ostrich feathers or tall towers of hair with elaborate decorations or, later, the penchant for free-flowing muslin dresses tied simply with ribbon round the waist.

Devoted Whig

Georgiana enthusiastically embraced her husband’s politics and became “a zealous advocate of the Whigs”(1). Devonshire House became the hub of the Whig party and Georgiana their leading hostess.

In 1780, Georgiana appeared on the hustings for the general election beside Charles James Fox, leader of the Whig party. In 1784, when Fox was struggling to keep his seat in the Westminster election, Georgiana and her sister went amongst the electorate, canvassing for votes for Fox. Their actions were successful and Fox held his seat, but the press was humiliating, accusing Georgiana of exchanging kisses for votes and forcing her to take a less visible role in the future.

Charles James Fox  from The History of White's   by Hon Algernon Bourke (1892)
Charles James Fox
from The History of White's
 by Hon Algernon Bourke (1892)
Many years later, Georgiana was instrumental in persuading the different political factions to work together, eventually forming the Ministry of All Talents in 1806.

The Devonshire House Circle

The Devonshire House Circle was a wild set with loose morals that drank heavily and played deeply. It included Charles James Fox, the Prince of Wales, the Countess of Jersey and Viscountess Melbourne who became Georgiana’s intimate friends.
George, Prince of Wales  from La Belle Assemblée (1830)
George, Prince of Wales
from La Belle Assemblée (1830)
Within the set, Georgiana popularised the Cavendish drawl – an affected manner of speaking that bespoke the aristocrat which she had learnt from the Duke.

Debts, debts and more debts

Georgiana was extravagant and gave the most splendid parties. But her real downfall was her addiction to gambling, resulting in ever-increasing debts which she did her best to hide from the Duke, placing a constant strain on her life. When she eventually confessed to her debts, it seemed for a while as if the Duke would divorce her, but instead he treated her with great forbearance.


In 1782, the Duke and Duchess went to Bath, where they met the fascinating Lady Elizabeth Foster. She was separated from her husband and living in restricted circumstances and eagerly seized the opportunity to improve her situation. Lady Elizabeth, known as Bess, attached herself to Georgiana and was invited to return home with them.

Lady Elizabeth Foster  from La Belle Assemblée (1810)
Lady Elizabeth Foster
from La Belle Assemblée (1810)
Bess succeeded in making herself indispensable to both Duchess and Duke, as friend to one and mistress to the other. Whether Georgiana’s emotional dependence clouded her judgement or whether Bess was blackmailing her over her ever mounting debts, Georgiana supported the strange “ménage à trois” that resulted.

Bess bore the Duke two illegitimate children, Caroline St Jules and Augustus Clifford, and became the Duchess of Devonshire after Georgiana’s death.

A devoted mother

Finally, in 1783, Georgiana, known as Little G, was born. Her sister, Harriet, known as Harryo, followed two years later, but it was not until 1790, when the hope of her ever producing an heir had almost disappeared, that William, Marquess of Hartington, known as Hart, was born.

The love of Georgiana’s life

The true love of Georgiana’s life was the handsome young Whig politician, Charles Grey. She embarked upon an affair, but in 1791 she faced the worst crisis of her life when she discovered that she was carrying his child. The Duke gave her an ultimatum: give up Grey and the child or she would never see her three children again. Grey was furious when she chose her children over him.

Charles Grey  by Thomas Lawrence 1828  from The History of White's   by Hon Algernon Bourke (1892)
Charles Grey
by Thomas Lawrence 1828
from The History of White's
 by Hon Algernon Bourke (1892)

Georgiana fled abroad giving birth to Eliza Courtney in January 1792 and then handing her over to Grey’s parents to be brought up. She was never able to openly acknowledge her motherhood, although she did visit her daughter.

Eventually, the Duke sent word that she could return and in the autumn of 1793, she arrived in England after a two year absence.


For several years following her exile, Georgiana lived a quiet life at Chatsworth House. She suffered a severe eye infection, possibly a tumour, which left her blind in one eye and her face scarred from the primitive treatment that she had received.

Chatsworth House  Country seat of the Duke of Devonshire  from The Lady's Magazine (1789)
Chatsworth House, country seat of the Duke of Devonshire,
from The Lady's Magazine (1789)
It was not until Little G was to be launched into society that Georgiana overcame her disability and once more entertained at Devonshire House. She rekindled her friendship with the Prince of Wales and became one of his main advisors.

Chatsworth House today
Chatsworth House today
See more of Chatsworth in my photo tour of Chatsworth.

An intelligent woman

Georgiana is usually associated with her extravagant behaviour, but there is a different side to her which is often overlooked. She was both a writer and a scientist.

In 1779 (2), she published a satire, The Sylph, and she also wrote a number of poems, including The Passage of the Mountain of St Gothard and verses to accompany the bust of Charles James Fox at Woburn.

Find out about the plot of Georgiana's novel in my Regency History guide to The Sylph.

Discover more about Georgiana in my blog post: what The Sylph can tell us about Georgiana's life and feelings.

Whilst in exile abroad, Georgiana met the scientist Charles Blagden and developed a keen interest in chemistry. She also built a mineral collection at Chatsworth.

The library at Chatsworth House
The library at Chatsworth House

Georgiana died on 30 March 1806 from a liver complaint. She was buried in the family vault at St Stephen’s Church, Derby, on 8 April, and all society mourned her passing.

"There is no part of the world, I believe, where the angelic Duchess will not be deeply regretted; her kindness and beneficence were wound up with the happiness of so many."(3)

(1) From La Belle Assemblée (1806).
(2) A newspaper report quoted in Amanda Foreman's biography suggests that The Sylph may have been published in December 1778 rather than in 1779.
(3) From a letter to Lady Elizabeth Foster from her son Augustus 28 May 1806, from The Two Duchesses, Family Correspondence (1898).

Sources used include:
Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée (John Bell, 1806, 1810, London)
Bourke, Hon. Algernon, The History of White's (1892)
Cavendish, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and others, The Two Duchesses, Family Correspondence ed by Vere Foster (Blackie & Son, 1898, London)
Foreman, Amanda, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (HarperCollins, 1998, London)
Hibbert, Christopher, George IV (1972, Longmans, 1973, Allen Lane, London)
McCalman, Iain, Devonshire, Duchess of, An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age (OUP 2009 Oxford Reference Online, accessed 14 November 2011)

All photographs © Andrew Knowles -


  1. I love your blog. Thank you for posting these.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement - I'm so glad you like my blog. :)

  2. I loved this! I have heard of all these people_yet you put it in a way that for me was a most enjoyable read!! Thank You!.

    1. I'm glad you found the blog enjoyable, Cindy. Georgiana is a fascinating character and it was particularly interesting to discover her love of science.

  3. It never ceases to amaze me the loose morals of that period, seems everybody of note had a relationship with anybody but their spouse.

    Was Georgiana any relation to Charlotte Spencer? And whilst on the Spencer's I don't suppose this is the same line that the late Lady Diana, Princess of Wales belonged to by any chance.

    Very interesting post as usual, thank you very much

    1. Georgiana was no relation to her husband's mistress Charlotte. It seems a bizarre coincidence that they should have shared the same surname!

      Diana, Princess of Wales, was from the same Spencer family; she was a direct descendant of Georgiana's brother, George Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer.

  4. Thank you.
    How could we make her hat?
    Anyone know? Or where to buy?

    1. Some of the best historical reproduction hats I have seen are by Farthingale - this is the link to their website:!the-hats/vstc2=georgian-hats

      I could see Georgiana wearing several of these hats. :)

  5. Thank you. I look forward to your posts.
    About the infamous Gainsborough hat,
    where could one be purchased?
    any info on how to sew one?

    1. I'm glad you like my blog. Thank you :)

  6. What happened to Charlotte williams ?.

    1. Charlotte went to live with the Duke and Duchess in 1780, after her mother's death. She spent most of her childhood abroad and married the Rev Jonathan Kendall, the nephew of John Heaton, the Duke of Devonshire's agent in 1793. She lived to the age of 82.

  7. Noor-Jehan Yoro Badat3 September 2013 at 23:21

    I just watched the film The Duchess for the second time, and remembered why I enjoyed it so much. So when I came across your blog, I was thrilled to read more about the fascinating Georgiana. Thank you for such a lovely read. It's interesting to note that Diana, Princess of Wales, was a descendant of G's family. Two strong and enchanting women who made such an impact on society, leaving quite a memorable legacy behind.

  8. Lady Colin Campbell claims that Georgiana had an affair with The Prince of Wales/George IV and even had his child. Is that true?

    1. I do not know what source Lady Colin Campbell is basing her claims on, but from what I have read, I do not believe that Georgiana had an affair with George although she was a very close and influential friend for many years. Considering the way that the Duke treated her when she was pregnant with Grey's child, it does not seem likely she could have had another child without a similar reaction.

  9. I watched The Duchess for the first time last night and really enjoyed it and wanted to find out more about this lovely lady {played very well by Keira Knightly}. I was so pleased to know she really did find true love, albeit for a short time, with Charles Grey. Thank you.

    1. I wonder how Georgiana's life would have turned out if she had married Grey and not the Duke of Devonshire? I guess we will never know...

    2. I wonder if she had a son first would her life be different... i love the story of her life for some reason.. Great blog btw..

    3. I think that things would have been easier for Georgiana if she had not found it so difficult to conceive. It was nine years before Little G was born and another seven before Hart was born. Her husband might have been more tolerant of her gambling etc if she had given him the heir he required earlier in their marriage. But I don't think it would have fundamentally changed their relationship. The Duke seemed to be one of the few men who were immune to her charms.

    4. Didn't she have several miscarriages among them male babies? So didn't the duke have a chance to hope she would have one?

    5. I'm sure the Duke did hope that she would have a son, but Georgiana certainly didn't find producing children as easy as some of her contemporaries.

  10. I have just seen The Duchess actor Keira Knightly, according to the movie - IF she had chosen a life with charles grey it would had been a life in "poverty" and without her children

    1. If Georgiana had left her husband, she would have lost all rights to her children by the Duke. I suppose she would have lived in relative poverty - after all, Charles Grey was not a Duke - but I think it was the thought of losing her children that made her stay. Of course, she still lost her daughter by Grey in the process. :(

  11. I am a descendent of Eliza I would like to find out note information on her how do I do this my family name is sharman could anyone please help

    1. I would try searching on one of the family history sites eg Ancestry. You could try this link to start with - you might recognise the family names and work out where you fit in. You could also do a Google search on Eliza Courtenay daughter of Charles Grey and see what information comes up.

    2. Its so sad how she loved to late :(

    3. I think it is even sadder that her husband seemed to be one of the few men who was not in love with her. :(

    4. Rachel I totally agree with you because the Duke's only desire and mission with G was for her to give birth to his son and heir. The movie portrays the Duke as an abusive, arrogant and ignorant man. And her mother was just as abusive and insensitive. She pawned G off to the Duke, forcing her to go through hell and disgrace with no one trustworthy to turn to. I wanted so much for G to leave the Duke and marry Charles Gray. I think of all the women married to mentally and physically abusive men like the Duke who count the cost and decide to stay and adapt to a life in misery because of what they believe to be benefits. Peace and happiness are priceless.

    5. I agree that peace and happiness are priceless but I don't think that Georgiana would have got them if she had run off with Charles Grey. She would have had to forfeit all rights to her children and would have been shunned by society for leaving her husband.

  12. I would just like to say THANK YOU oh my goodness just one of your references completed a huge gap in the puzzle of one of my dissertation chapters. Thank god for you!

    1. I'm so glad you found my work useful, Sarah. I hope the rest of your dissertation goes well.

  13. I just saw the movie for the second time and couldn't help but do further research on Georgiana like I did the first time. But this is the first time I'm coming across your blog. It helped me fill in some blanks. Thank you. And I just can't help but notice the slight similarities between the Duchess and Princess D especially in their marriages and effects on people.

    I truly enjoyed your article. Thank you very much. Its just an irony what was tolerated back then that won't even survive 5 seconds in our modern world

    1. Thanks - I'm glad you found my blog. It was very hard for women in Georgian times who were in unhappy marriages - they have virtually no rights.
      You might be interested to consider the similarities between Princess Di and Princess Charlotte, George IV's daughter. The reaction of the public on their deaths was very similar. I have blogged about it here

  14. I bought the movie "he Duchess", starring Kiera Knightly, as Georgiaina, and simply LOVE how they told this remarkable story of history. A must see!

    1. I think the film gives a good feel for what the Duchess of Devonshire was like.

  15. Currently reading The Sylph. Would like to find letters. On-line publishing is meagre. Physical media hard to come by and/or expensive. Suggestions appreciated.