A Georgian Love Story: The Aristocrat and His Courtesan

Charles James Fox

Noblemen in Georgian England visited houses of prostitution. Noblemen of Georgian England typically kept mistresses. But noblemen of Georgian England rarely formed lasting attachments to one particular courtesan – and it was even more rare for a nobleman to offer marriage to a courtesan.

The charismatic leader of the Whigs, Charles James Fox, risked the censure of Society and took for his wife Mrs. Elizabeth Armistead, his longtime mistress, a former courtesan who is alleged to have been a mistress of Fox’s friend, the Prince of Wales (who later became regent).

Theirs is one of the great love stories of Georgian England.

Fox, the Prodigy

Charles James Fox (1749-1806) was the second son of the 1st Baron Holland, was grandson of the Duke of Richmond, and was a direct descendent of Charles II. His fabulously wealthy father indulged his boys, and he was particularly proud of the precocious Charles James. With good reason. Charles James was brilliant.

At Eton, and later at Oxford, Charles James was a classics scholar of some repute, and he “vastly” enjoyed mathematics. He read Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and later in life, Spanish. And this he did for the enjoyment of it.

Edmund Burke said he was “the greatest debater the world ever saw.” At the tender age of 19 he was elected to Parliament, and from then until his death the Whig party was guided by the extremely personable Charles James Fox. At 21, he took a cabinet post under Lord North, and at his death at 57, he was Foreign Secretary in the “Ministry of All Talents.”

Elizabeth Armistead

The Popular Mr. Fox

The friends Fox made at Eton – all of them from England’s most noble families – would remain close friends throughout his life. But almost everyone who came into his sphere adored the kindly, portly man who was a brilliant conversationalist.

In one matter, his intelligence failed him: he recklessly spent money, could never manage money, and spent almost all of his adult life deeply in debt.

It was said his good friend Lord Carlisle (owner of Castle Howard, the spectacular setting of Brideshead Revisited) spent one fifth of his income helping to pay off Fox’s debts. In 1793 members of the ton got up a “subscription” to help pay Fox’s debts. The subscription brought in £61,000 to establish an annuity for Fox. (That would be several million dollars today.)

Fox’s followers were known as Foxites, and during one particularly contested campaign, his supporters donned buff and blue clothing and sported fox tails. Fox himself had adopted wearing buff and blue clothing during the American War of Independence to show his support for the colonists. Needless to say, George III hated Fox and would continue to oppose him in any way he could.

 The Profligate Fox

In addition to loathing Fox’s politics, the king may also have blamed Fox for his dissipating influences on his heir, the future regent.

Fox rightfully earned his reputation for profligacy. When he was but 14 years of age, his father took him to France where he introduced him to high-stakes gambling, and encouraged him to lose his virginity. When he returned to Eton four months later, he wished to continue those two vices and was asked to leave.

One of Lord Holland’s last acts was to settle a staggering £140,000 (about $20 million today) of his son’s debts, but the indulged Fox continued to win and lose huge fortunes in a single sitting. He once gambled from Tuesday night until Friday with no sleep, taking time off one evening to debate in the House of Commons. He played hazard from Tuesday evening until five Wednesday evening, covering £12,000 he had lost, but losing that and £11,000 more before going to Parliament. At eleven that night he went to White’s and drank all night, returning in the morning to Almack’s (later to be known as Brook’s), where he won £6,000, then rode to the races at Newmarket, where he lost £l0,000 (over $1 million today).

 Mrs. Armistead

The woman known throughout the ton as the courtesan Mrs. Armistead is believed to have been born Elizabeth Bridget Cane in 1750. Some reports say her father was shoemaker, and others say he was a market porter. Her origins are obscure.

How did she become a courtesan? That, too, remains obscure. The Town and Country Magazine, much like today’s National Inquirer, said that she was seduced by a hairdresser when she was 16 and when he tired of her, he set her up in a fashionable place where she could not help but succeed at prostitution.

A contrary report in Tete-a-Tete claims her father abandoned her, and the teen-ager had no other recourse than to sell herself.

She may have worked at Mrs. Goadby’s famed high-end house of prostitution. It is unknown how she got the name Mrs. Armistead. A Mr. Armistead could have been one of her early protectors. Courtesans often used the surname of a protector. Most courtesans also adopted the use of Mrs. even though many of them never married.

Mrs. Armistead soon found favor with several men of high rank. The Duke of Ancaster set her up in a house in Portman Square. He was followed b the Duke of Dorset, then the Earl of Derby. She had a most profitable liaison with the fabulously wealthy nabob Gen. Richard Smith.
Many of her patrons and protectors were associated with Whig society. This included Lord Cholmondley, the Prince of Wales, and Fox.

She was intelligent enough to secure annuities from two of her protectors. It is thought they were from Smith and from Lord George Cavendish, brother of the Duke of Devonshire.

Settling with Fox

Elizabeth and Fox had known each other for many years before they officially became lovers. She was 32 when she began living with Fox. Past her prime, she lived comfortably because of the annuities she had secured. It is said she sold her annuities as well as some of her property to bail Fox out of some of his debts.

It is surprising – because of her origins – that she was literate. She must have been possessed of intelligence in order to have held Fox’s interest. She and he took comfort in reading to one another, and when he was away from her he would write long letters telling her of all the ministrations in government, and he would tell her how dear his Liz was to him.

Though she may have been shrewd, she was truly humble, and she adored Fox.

And he adored her. Living with her tamed him. His favorite place on earth was her house, St. Anne’s Hill in Surrey, which became their house.
In 1788, six years after they had been living together, the 22-year-old daughter of the wealthy banker Thomas Coutts asked for a lock of Fox’s hair. That was a clear sign that the young woman would look favorably upon his suit. It is understandable how the young woman could have a crush upon him. He was one of the most well-known men in all of England.

Marrying an heiress such as she would secure the financial future of the 38-year-old Fox, who was mired in debts.

The very notion terrified Elizabeth, and when Fox got wind of his Liz’s distress he wrote her a beautiful love letter. Here’s part of it:
I love you more than life itself indeed I do, and I can not figure to myself any possible idea of happiness without you . . . any trifling advantage of fortune or connection as weighing a feather in the scale against the whole comfort and happiness of my life. Even if you did not love me I could not endure the thought of belonging to any other woman, but my Liz does love me and will make me happy by living always with me.

He begged her to marry him. As much as she loved him, she declined. She was afraid marriage to her would ruin him and would destroy the love they shared.

She finally consented to marry him, providing it was a secret ceremony, and they tell no one. They wed on September 28, 1795. It was seven years before they ever revealed that they had married.

She had grown accustomed to meeting only his male friends because her “station” prohibited her from being accepted by respectable females. In most cases, that same ostracism would have been expected to continue even after their marriage became known. But because Fox was so beloved by so many, most of his aristocratic friends and relatives embraced the woman he had honored with his name.

Because of Elizabeth’s sweet nature, his family grew to love her.
Few marriages between parties from such diverse stations ever succeeded, but Mr. and Mrs. Fox enjoyed a happy and harmonious marriage until his death in 1806.

He once wrote to his nephew, Lord Holland, “You were never more right than in what you say of my happiness derived from her.”

His dying words were, “dearest, dearest Liz.”

She lived on at St. Anne’s Hill and died at 92.

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11 thoughts on “A Georgian Love Story: The Aristocrat and His Courtesan

  1. It is a great love story but the idea of all that money just tossed away appalls me.
    Also, despite the Act for the prevention of Clandestine Marriages, there does seem to have been quite a few secret marriages anyway.

  2. Didn’t one of Harriette Wilson’s younger sisters marry a title? I can’t seem to find much comment on it, but every data point in support of true love breaking the rules warms my heart. Thanks for another great post.

    • Yes, Grace, Harriette Wilson’s youngest sister, Sophy, married Baron Berwick in 1812. It is estimated he was 20 years her senior, though her exact birth date is not known. It is believed she wed him when she was in her teens. She DID NOT marry for love. She could barely tolerate bedding him when he wanted her for a mistress. But she wanted to be addressed as a lady…

  3. Great post, Cheryl! I got hooked on the story of Elizabeth Armistead and wrote a novel based on her story, Confessions of a Courtesan. I found Fox’s best friend, Gen. Richard Fitzpatrick a particularly fascinating character.

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