Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Trouble with Duchesses in Queen Anne's Court

by Margaret Porter

'Perhaps . . . in the reign of Queen Anne ’tis a sign the power of women will increase.' Sarah Cowper, April 1702

Queen Anne by Godfrey Kneller
The average follower of English history, when confronted with the equation Queen Anne + Duchess + Trouble, would assume the resulting total to be Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Of all the non-royal females of her era, she is surely the most famous--or infamous. Sarah published various editions of her memoirs (a form of self-justification and self-defence), she's the subject of scholarly biographies and entertaining novels, she was the heroine of the television series The First Churchills, she and Anne are currently the main characters in a play on the London stage, and a film about their relationship is reportedly on the horizon.

But Anne's childhood friend, confidante, and eventual enemy was not the only duchess frequenting her court. Although the others did not leave so indelible a mark on the historic record, they are worthy of interest and scrutiny.

Elizabeth, Duchess of Somerset


Duchess of Somerset by Kneller
Young Elizabeth Percy seemed destined to challenge Sarah for Most Interesting Courtier. At age twelve she became Countess of Ogle, and was widowed the following year. The year after that the immensely wealthy Thomas Thynne lured her into a secret marriage. Not long afterwards he was murdered at the instigation of Count von Konigsmark, a Swede who was infatuated with Elizabeth. Within five months the double widow married again. Her third husband was Charles Seymour, Duke of Somerset, 'The Proud Duke'--a dynastic marriage rather than a love match. After that her marital history was far from scandalous, and probably not the happiest.

During Princess Anne's quarrels with her sister Mary II and brother-in-law William III, when they demanded she dismiss Sarah from her household, the Somersets were her firmest allies. Forced to relinquish her Whitehall lodgings, Anne accepted her friends' offer to take sanctuary with them at Syon House, where she suffered through one of her many stillbirths. She remained forever grateful for their support.

On Anne's accession in 1702, Elizabeth joined the royal household as a Lady of the Bedchamber. She was a witness to the protracted and nasty breakdown in Anne's relationship with Sarah Churchill, and was ultimately a beneficiary. In 1710/11 she succeeded Sarah as Mistress of the Robes and Groom of the Stole. Her prominence stirred up old scandals--her unusual and colourful past had for many years provoked rumour and innuendo. Because of her red hair, she was sometimes lampooned as 'Carrots.' The cruelest accusation--that she might do harm to the Queen--was penned by Jonathan Swift in The Windsor Prophecy:

Beware of Carrots from Northumberlond.
Carrots sown Thynne a deep root may get,
If so be they are in Somer set:
Their Conyngs mark thou; for I have been told,
They assassine when younge, and poison when old.

Although the Duke incurred the Queen's displeasure and was removed from office, Elizabeth retained the royal favour, vying with Abigail Masham as chief confidante. Wisely she refrained from employing Sarah's bullying tactics. According to one observer, 'She never pressed the Queen hard; nothing makes the Queen more uneasy than that.' A daughter of the ancient aristocracy, she maintained a graciousness and dignity that the Queen must have appreciated greatly after the strife Sarah stirred up.

She retained her positions of authority until Anne's death in 1714, and was present as the Queen lay dying. A witness described the 'soft, courteous way of the Duchess's speaking to the Queen, and her majesty's look and motion of her face in receiving it, though so ill.' Elizabeth was designated chief mourner for the funeral but was herself indisposed and unable to participate.

Mary, Duchess of Ormonde


Duchess of Ormonde by Michael Dahl
Following the death of his first wife, whom he mourned deeply, the 2nd Duke of Ormonde married Lady Mary Somerset, the Duke of Beaufort's daughter, in 1685. Like the Duchess of Somerset, she was named a Lady of the Bedchamber at the outset of Anne's reign and held that position till its end.  

She allegedly lined her pockets by brokering places in the royal household. When selecting her maids of honour, the young unmarried women who attended the Queen, Anne wanted girls who 'had good education and beauty.' The stipend and the visibility to prospective husbands was tempting, and parents were very eager to place their daughters at court. Christian Temple's entire marriage portion was £2000, and apparently £1200 of it was paid to Mary as a bribe to obtain her place. The duchess then paid the all-powerful Sarah £500 for acquiescing to the appointment!

Mary was in waiting at Kensington when the Queen suffered the convulsions and stroke that resulted in death. It was she who replaced the ailing Duchess of Somerset as chief mourner at Anne's funeral. Her life changed drastically the following year when her husband was impeached for high treason, as a supporter of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. He fled to France rather than stand trial in Parliament. Subsequently he was attainted, and his estate was forfeited.

Catherine, Duchess of Buckingham


Duchess of Buckingham
Catherine Darnley was the illegitimate daughter of James II by his mistress Catherine Sedley, and she was therefore Queen Anne's half-sister. She first married the Earl of Anglesey, and the union did not prosper--in 1701 she petitioned the House of Lords for a separation, on the grounds of cruelty. The next year he died. Her second husband was John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby, and she was his third wife. At one time he had courted Anne, resulting in his dismissal from court. Anne was fond of her former suitor Buckingham, who had proved himself a fast friend of her father's prior to his exile. He also shared her strongly Tory sympathies. She merely tolerated Catherine.

Though born on the wrong side of the blanket, Catherine was ever at pains to remind everyone of her royal blood, 'exhibiting a love of display, a violent temper,' and frequently travelling to France to kneel at the tomb of her father, 'shedding tears over the threadbare pall which covered his remains.' Because of her husband's position as Lord Privy Seal (prior to 1703) and later Lord President of Council, Catherine frequented the court. At the Queen's birthday celebration in January 1711, 'The Duchess of Buckingham and Lady Paulet were scarce able to move under the load of jewels they had on.'

After Anne's death, Catherine's drawing room was a magnet for Tories and Jacobites, as she was in regular contact with her legitimate half-brother James, the Old Pretender, and would doubtless have preferred him as King to George I. She was buried with other Stuarts at Westminster Abbey, where her splendid funeral effigy can be found in the museum.

Adelhida, Duchess of Shrewsbury


Duchess of Shrewsbury
This lady's father was Marquis Andrea Paleotti and her mother was Maria Cristina Dudley, daughter of the titular Duke of Northumberland--an Englishman who was also a Tuscan nobleman. She grew up in Italy and was apparently an engaging and accomplished young woman, but also a scandalous one. She might or might not have been married to Count Brachiano, and she might or might not have been the Duke of Shrewsbury's mistress before their 1705 marriage in Rome. (Lady Cowper spitefully recorded that her brother forced the nobleman to wed her 'after an intrigue together.')

Shrewsbury, a one-eyed aristocrat known as the 'Duke of Hearts' for his good looks, brought his duchess to England, where she caused a stir in society. She won the favour of the newly widowed Queen Anne by expressing her sympathy: 'Oh, my poor Queen, I see how much you do miss your dear husband.' This was in contrast to Sarah, who was very unfeeling towards her grieving mistress.

In 1712 Shrewsbury served as Ambassador to Paris, where his duchess was appreciated for her hospitality and conversation, though she was also regarded as an eccentric. This did not prevent her becoming a Lady of the Bedchamber to Caroline, Princess of Wales, after the accession of George I, a post she held until her death in 1726.

Diana, Duchess of St Albans


Duchess of St Albans by Kneller
The eldest daughter of Aubrey de Vere, 20th and last Earl of Oxford, Diana was very much a child of the court. During her infancy, her father and Charles II supposedly discussed a possible marriage between Diana and Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St Albans, the King's illegitimate son by Nell Gwyn. Diana grew up to be an ornament of Queen Mary II's court. At the same time, the young duke won the favour and patronage of of William III. Neither fact would have endeared them to Anne, who was estranged from her sister and loathed her brother-in-law. But the de Veres were courtiers for centuries. And the Duke was a Whig, the party in power at the outset of Anne's reign, so he held various appointments.

In the course of researching my latest novel, I stumbled upon an intriguing mystery. On 26 March, 1702, Luttrell the diarist reports, 'The dutchesses [sic] of Ormonde and St Albans are made ladies of the bedchamber to the Queen.' Yet Diana's name never appears again, and cannot be found in the official or unofficial lists of Anne's attendants. If Anne reconsidered, it could have been for any of four reasons, or a combination. Diana and her husband supported William and Mary in their quarrels with Anne, doubtless provoking her resentment. As well, Anne never much cared for her uncle's bastard offspring and that attitude might have extended to their wives. Alternatively, Sarah 's enmity towards one or both Beauclerks (she famously feuded with their son and heir) was such that she persuaded Anne to revoke the appointment. Or else Diana declined the position after rumours about it circulated--which is the unlikeliest explanation, as it was a prestigious and salaried post, ensuring access to the monarch.

With a change from Whig to Tory government in the last years of Anne's reign, the duke lost his court position. At the accession of George I, the Beauclerks were restored to high favour. Diana was chosen by Caroline, Princess of Wales, as First Lady of the Bedchamber and Groom of the Stole, and her husband was a Gentleman of the Bedchamber and captain of the King's personal guard.


When the meddlesome, overbearing, battle-tested, impulsive Sarah toppled from her perch, the Duke of Beaufort told Anne, 'Now is your Majesty Queen indeed!' None of the other duchesses who served in her household or who appeared at court attempted to rival or rule the ruler as Sarah had done for so long. Consequently, they are far less familiar--the price they paid for their discretion, submissiveness, and loyalty turned out to be their obscurity!

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough by Kneller


Image credits: Petworth House, The National Trust; Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons;; Private Collection

Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of twelve period novels, nonfiction and poetry. Lady Diana de Vere's association with Queen Mary's court, and Queen Anne, is featured in A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of 17th century courtiers the 1st Duke and Duchess of St. Albans (available in trade paperback and ebook). Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.


  1. Fascinating - I only knew about Sarah Churchill, so it was nice to discover these other ladies. Thanks for a very informative post.


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