J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 16, 2023

“The duchess’s trial for bigamy commenced…”

I recently enjoyed the History of Parliament’s recounting of the 1776 trial of Elizabeth Chudleigh (1721–1788, shown here) for bigamy.

The legal issue, which determined where a couple of large inheritances would go, was: Had Chudleigh been legally married to (though long estranged from) the third Earl of Bristol in 1744? Or, based on a marriage in 1769, was she the legal widow of the second Duke of Kingston?

Because this matter involved the wife of at least one peer, it was tried before the House of Lords.

The webpage says:
…the duchess’s trial for bigamy commenced in Westminster Hall on 15 April 1776. It quickly became the event of the season. Horace Walpole was expectant, as he was sure ‘her impudence will operate in some singular manner’, and he provided his correspondents with detailed and mocking commentary. He had to admit though that ‘The Duchess-Countess has raised my opinion of her understanding… for she has behaved so sensibly and with so little affectation’. . . .

The moralist Hannah More was less impressed by the spectacle. ‘You will imagine the bustle of five thousand people getting into one hall’, she wrote to a friend. ‘There was a great deal of ceremony, a great deal of splendour, and a great deal of nonsense’. Of the duchess’s performance, More pronounced ‘Surely there never was so thorough an actress’, and her friend the actor David Garrick even commented that the duchess ‘has so much out-acted him, it is time for him to leave the stage’.
The House of Lords reached a unanimous verdict on Lady Bristol or Lady Kingston. However, as Lord Chief Justice Mansfield had predicted, she pled her privilege as a lady and escaped punishment, beyond having to travel Europe with a large fortune.

The History of Parliament page comes to a fitting close: “She died in France on 26 August 1788, from bursting a blood vessel while in a rage after hearing she had lost a legal action.”

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