The Most Infamous Duchesses in History | History Hit

The Most Infamous Duchesses in History

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (edited)

Everybody loves a rebel. More the point, everybody loves the gossip that a rebel generates. Throughout history, a number of high-profile, rebellious duchesses have scandalised society, engaged in notorious affairs and even made headlines across the world.

In some instances, as was the case with the infamous Argyll vs. Argyll divorce, a fanfare of scandal and public opinion on par with a modern-day soap opera has followed, while in others, such as Wallis Simpson’s monarch-busting marriage to Edward, Prince of Wales, public fanfare has been accompanied by events that have altered the course of British history forever.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the most infamous duchesses in history.

Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster (1349-1403) was one of the most important female figures of the late 14th century. The daughter of Paon de Roet, a knight of Hainault (today part of Belgium), after being widowed, she became the mistress of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, fourth son of Edward III and one of the most powerful figures of late medieval England. They had at least four children, who received the name Beaufort, a surname given to lowborn children of the Crown.

Gaunt gave Swynford, then not yet a duchess, several estates, and provided her with a generous allowance. This caused public condemnation, and in 1381, the Duke was forced to break up their relationship.

However, in the early 1390s, the love affair between Katherine and John of Gaunt resumed their relationship. After the death of his second wife, Gaunt married Katherine in 1396, which was controversial among the English nobility. However, the same year, a papal bull was received that recognised the marriage and the children born of the partnership as legitimate.

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Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston

Elizabeth Chudleigh was born in 1721. Though her father was the Lieutenant Governor of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, he died while she was young, leaving her without a dowry. Nonetheless, and it was because of other connections and her beauty that she became maid of honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales.

In 1744, she secretly married Augustus Hervey, later 3rd Earl of Bristol, who was at that time a libidinous naval officer. Both husband and wife lacked the financial support they needed, and the marriage was kept secret to allow Chudleigh to retain her position, which was only permitted for unmarried women. The marriage was unhappy, and the pair didn’t live together.

However, upon meeting the man she really wanted to marry, the Duke of Kingston, she had to find a way out of her first marriage. She first initiated a suit of jactitation against him – requiring Hervey to cease claiming the marriage to her, unless he could prove it. He couldn’t, and within a month of the court pronouncing her a spinster, she married Kingston in 1769, becoming Elizabeth Pierrepont, Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull.

However, her day in court came in 1776, after her second husband’s nephew brought a charge of bigamy against her as a challenge to the Duke of Kingston’s will. Though she attempted to have the charge set aside, she was found guilty of bigamy at a trial by her peers at Westminster Hall that attracted 4,000 spectators. However, she had the last laugh: she sailed to Russia on a yacht named after her now-banned title, the Duchess of Kingston, and made friends with Catherine the Great.

Elizabeth Chudleigh at a ball in 1749

Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

In 1774, on her seventeenth birthday, the self-described beautiful, charismatic and intelligent Lady Georgiana Spencer married society’s most eligible bachelor, William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire. The marriage quickly proved to be fractious: the Duke was an emotionally reserved man who didn’t have much in common with Georgiana.

However, the Duchess was the subject of much societal appreciation and gossip, and has been described as the Princess Diana of her age. In addition, she took an interest in political campaigning, chemistry and writing, alongside a less-than-positive ruinous gambling habit. Nonetheless, her home life was unhappy, and she entered into a menage à trois with her husband and the impoverished Lady Elizabeth Foster, whom she had befriended in Bath.

She was a friend of Marie Antoinette and a lover of future Prime Minister Charles Grey, the latter whose child she was exiled to France to give birth to. This exile from society marked the beginning of her decline. Ultimately, her health worsened and her gambling problem intensified, and she died aged 48. Her death prompted an outpouring of grief from both her family and the public at large.

Mary, Duchess of Sutherland

Mary, Duchess of Sutherland, originally married Arthur Kindersley Blair, a former Captain, in 1872. However, her husband mysteriously died in a shooting accident in 1883, leading to speculation that it was either suicide or murder that had caused his death, though the coroner’s official verdict was accidental death. She immediately became the Duke of Sutherland’s mistress.

Mary Caroline Blair or Mary Caroline, Duchess of Sutherland in 1890

Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1889, the Duchess caused a scandal when she married the Duke, a mere four months after the death of his wife, since society convention had it that widowers should not marry sooner than a year after the death of their partner, and it also went against written advice to the Duke from Queen Victoria herself. Though the Duchess was now a highly-ranked member of society, she was not invited to any society event.

In 1892, the Duke died. The Duchess was due to inherit instead of the children, but the will was contested. However, the case was confused as the Duchess had the documents burnt, for which she was sent to Holloway Jail for six weeks. Eventually, an agreement was reached and the Duchess was given enough money to build Carbisdale Castle, which was nicknamed the ‘Castle of Spite’.

Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor

Twice-divorced American fashionista Wallis Simpson caused a sensation when, having already been married twice, she divorced her second husband in order to become engaged to Edward, Prince of Wales. This created a constitutional crisis in the house of Windsor because Simpson had two living husbands. The result was that the king had to abdicate the throne in 1936 to, in his words, marry ‘the woman I love’.

After abdicating, Edward was made Duke of Windsor by his brother and successor, George VI. Wallis became known as the Duchess of Windsor, but was not allowed to share her husband’s title of ‘Royal Highness’. Before and during World War Two, the couple were widely suspected of being Nazi sympathisers, and made an officially unapproved visit to Adolf Hitler in 1937.

The couple lived as socialites between Europe and the US, and after Edward’s death in 1972, Simpson became reclusive. She remains a curious and controversial figure.

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson on holiday in Yugoslavia, 1936

Image Credit: National Media Museum from UK, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll

One of the most famous of the scandalous Duchesses from history, mega-wealthy Margaret, Duchess of Argyll was engaged three times before marrying her first husband, American golfer Charles Sweeny. However, after parting ways with her first husband, she married Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, whose seat was the striking Inveraray Castle in Scotland.

The Duchess poured money into the renovation of the castle. However, the marriage broke down. Margaret unsuccessfully tried to become pregnant by someone else and pass the child off as an heir. Meanwhile, Campbell was an alcoholic with a short temper. In 1943, Margaret experienced a near-fatal fall down a lift shaft, which reportedly ‘turned her into’ a nymphomaniac.

The couple decided to divorce, which led to the high-profile Argyll vs. Argyll case in 1963, which featured pictures of the Duchess in a compromising act with a ‘headless man’, alongside a list of the 88 men with whom the Duke believed his wife to have been unfaithful with.

Lucy Davidson