Thirteen Men Who Loved Courtesans
During the flamboyant Georgian era,
enjoying the favors of a celebrated courtesan was the ultimate status
symbol. These thirteen men were infamous
for their liaisons…
1. Peniston Lamb, Viscount Melbourne
(the man sitting on the horse is Lord
2. Lord George Cavendish – Brother of the Duke of
Devonshire, Lord George was an intermittent patron of courtesan Elizabeth
Armistead before his marriage. In one
comical incident, he called upon his mistress late one evening only to discover
the Prince of Wales hiding in her closet, stark naked!
3. Lord Robert Spencer – Brother of the Duke of
Marlborough, Lord Robert was a charming wastrel known as Comical Spencer. He lost his fortune at the gambling tables,
yet managed to secure the favors of such celebrated courtesans as Polly Jones,
Perdita Robinson and Mrs. Armistead in the strength of his charm alone.
4. Frederick St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke – His marriage to
Lady Diana Spencer ended in divorce for her infidelity, a blatant double
standard considering Bolingbroke (known as Bully) consorted with some of the
most notorious courtesans of the era including Nelly O’Brien, Polly Jones and
7. Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby– A famous horseracing enthusiast, for whom the Derby Stakes was named. After Lord Derby’s wife left him for The Duke
of Dorset (see below), the earl embarked on a highly publicized affair with Dorset’s former mistress, Mrs. Armistead. He later married actress Elizabeth Farren.
8.George, 1st Marquess of Cholmondeley – Cholmondeley was notorious for his affairs with
actresses and courtesans, including Mrs. Armistead, Perdita Robinson and Grace
Elliott. Sophia Baddeley was one of the few to refuse him. His impressive “manly
dimensions” were satirized in a poem, The Torpedo. They may have been the reason the Duchess of Bedford, thirty years his senior, besieged him with marriage proposals
9. Duke of Wellington – The Iron Duke paid £500 to be introduced to the notorious Regency
courtesan, Harriette Wilson. She was not
impressed with his skill as a lover, claiming the great general had no merit
“for home services or ladies’ uses.”
Later she tried to blackmail the Duke to omit any mention of him in her
autobiography. Wellington’s famous response was, “Publish
and be damned!
10. Augustus Henry FitzRoy 3rd Duke of Grafton --The Duke served as British Prime Minister from 1768-1770. Besotted with courtesan Nancy Parsons, Grafton flaunted their four-year affair much to the disgust of King George III and the Duchess of Grafton, who left him for another man.
11. John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset-A handsome aristocrat who popularized cricket and served as Ambassador to France, Dorset took courtesan Nancy Parsons on his Grand Tour of Europe. Upon his return to England he took up with the celebrated Mrs. Armistead but left her to pursue Lady Derby. His most famous mistress was Venetian ballerina Giovanna Baccelli, whom he painted by Gainsborough.
12. Charles James Fox – Whig politician and twice British Foreign Secretary, Fox lost an enormous fortune at the gaming tables. He had several mistresses of obscure origins, two of whom bore him children. He was reputed to have had a brief liaison with Perdita Robison before taking celebrated courtesan Elizabeth Armistead as his long-time mistress and later his wife.
13. The Prince Regent-The Prince's first mistress was actress Perdita Robison, to whom he promised a handsome settlement but later reneged. He then took up with Mrs. Armistead and Grace Elliott, who bore a daughter which might have been his. He went on to have affairs with a number of musicians and married aristocrats as well as a long relationship with Catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert.
I enjoyed discovering the scandalous side of these famous men while researching Confessions of a Courtesan, my historical novel based on the life times of Elizabeth Armistead. Here is an excerpt in which Mrs. Armistead confronts several of these gentlemen at their club:
Upon reaching the second floor, I pushed open a set of double doors that stood ajar. I strode into a large, brightly lit room furnished with a great number of tables. Around each table, playing cards lay upon the floor in deep drifts.
The place was crowded with gentlemen dressed in the oddest assortment of garments I had ever seen. Some had on coarse woollen frieze coats, while others wore their own coats turned inside out. Several had on leather sleeve guards such as footmen wore for cleaning silver. Many sported high-crowned straw hats trimmed with flowers and ribbons.
A few of the gentlemen turned to glance at me when I entered, but most kept on playing. The buzz of voices, the clink of coins and the rattle of dice filled the air, together with wine fumes and clouds of pipe smoke. I peered around anxiously for the porter. Finally, I spotted him at a nearby table speaking to a masked man.
“Mrs. Armistead?” Bully pulled off his mask as I approached. “What the deuce are you doing here? And what great calamity is this fellow blathering about?”
“Only that your friends’ rowdy prank last night cost me my place at Mrs. Goadby’s!” Enraged that some of them ignored me to continue playing cards, I grabbed the deck out of the dealer’s hand.
That got me their attention. More masks came off to reveal what I’d suspected. Lord Bolingbroke was happily amusing himself with the very men who’d burst in on us the night before.
“Is that all?” Bully puffed out his broad lower lip. “Then I shall take you into keeping. I was getting tired of my latest mistress, anyway.”
His offer surprised and touched me. But going into Bully’s keeping would be a temporary solution at best. I knew about his money troubles and had no faith at all in his far-fetched enclosure scheme. Moreover, he might cut me loose at a moment’s notice, like his current mistress, of whom I’d known nothing.
My best hope was to pursue my original plan. “I thank you for your generous offer, my lord. But your friends are more to blame for my situation than you are. I think it only fair they should contribute to my rescue.”
They stared at me as if I was mad, in an amusing way.
“What would you have us do, ma’am?” cried one. “Set you up as our banker at quinze? I would not mind losing so much if it was to a beautiful woman.”
His quip eased my sense of desperation. “It is a tempting offer, sir. But I have another position in mind. One I believe you can assist me to obtain, if you are equal to the challenge.”
“Challenge?” Another man flicked a golden rouleau, worth twenty pounds, in the air and caught it again. “Good Lord, Bully, your lady friend has taken our measure to the groat!”
“Hasn’t she just?” agreed the swarthy man with thick brows, whom I now recognized as the celebrated politician, Charles Fox. “The only thing we have a harder time resisting than a challenge is temptation. What are you angling for, my dear, a place in the Treasury?”
“Hardly, sir.” Their amusement at my intrusion boosted my confidence. “I seek a place I am well qualified to fill.”
“What a novel idea.” Mr. Fox chuckled. “Giving places to people qualified to fill them, rather than those who can bring the most influence to bear. You must be a Wilkesite, madam.”
Did these men take anything seriously except indulging their own reckless pleasure? I reminded myself how well that qualified them for my purposes.
“My aim, gentlemen, is to become the most sought-after courtesan in the kingdom. With a little assistance, I believe I can do it.” I spread their cards like a fan and fluttered them in front of my face. “May I count on your support?”
“Courtesan, eh? Like the exquisite Mrs. Baddeley?”
“Better,” I declared, made bold by a potent brew of hope, “for I am prettier.”
“Damned if you aren’t.” A smile of radiant sweetness lightened Mr. Fox’s swarthy features. “This challenge sounds like fine sport. Are we in, gentlemen? It seems the least we can do for the poor lady after the trouble we caused her. Would that all our scrapes could be so easily remedied.”
“She must have French lessons,” said one of his friends.
“And her portrait painted by Reynolds,” suggested another. “Don’t you agree, Charles?”
Mr. Fox nodded. “What about the stage? Have you ever acted my dear?”
They were going to do it! I wanted to toss my handful of cards in the air and dance around the room, but I managed to restrain myself. “I’m certain I could learn.”
“It is settled, then,” said Mr. Fox. “Bully will set her up in lodgings. Richard will find her a French master. Bob will arrange her display in gallery and I shall manage her acting debut. She will soon be all the fashion!”
His friends murmured in agreement.
“In that case,” Bully plucked the cards from my hand, “can we get back to our game before my luck sours?”
The gentlemen turned their backs on me like children who had suddenly lost interest in some passing novelty. I followed the club porter out of the gaming room, not certain whether to be elated or terrified by what I’d just done.
If you’d like to find out more about Confessions of a Courtesan or Elizabeth Charles check out: http://www.deborahhale.com/echarlespage.htm