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  • The Countess 'Frances Villiers' by Tim Clarke

    The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey

    I did not really mean to write the biography of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey (1753-1821).

    At school I had enjoyed history. So when I went to university to study law with a view to becoming a lawyer, I promised myself that I would retire early from the law and once more become a historian. I even identified the lady whose biography I would write.

    Unfortunately, some years before I could achieve my ambition, someone else wrote that biography – and there was no room for another.

    Frances, Countess of Jersey, mezzotint by Thomas Watson, after Daniel Gardner, (1774). (c. National Portrait Gallery, London, The Countess, Amberley Publishing)

    But in fact I was lucky. Somehow I lighted instead on Lady Jersey, an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life, a leader of Society in the late 18th century. Writing her biography, the first one ever, was a wonderful journey of discovery which took me to some marvellous places, including the bowels of Chatsworth, the Round Tower at Windsor Castle, Duke Humfrey’s Library in the Bodleian and the private side at Castle Howard. From these and other collections I used, in writing the book, some 500 printed sources dating back to the 18th century, many hundred contemporary press reports and thousands of original manuscripts.

    My research showed that the Countess was the victim of history. Mention her name and everyone thinks ‘Ah yes, the mistress of King George IV when he was Prince of Wales – the one who behaved so badly’. She was, they say, the woman who amongst her many other sins spiked Princess Caroline’s drinks to get her drunk, put Epsom salts in the Princess’s food to make her sick, tormented her by curtailing her liberty and in jealous pique at her dismissal by the Prince hounded him for years in revenge. In short, she is seen as a disreputable footnote to history with no more to be said.

    Based on that research my biography, whilst telling the untold story of her life, demolishes the pantheon of mythology which surrounds the Countess, even in the highest academic circles. Disreputable she was indeed. But she was also beautiful, witty, the epitome of style, and charming beyond belief. Indeed the press of her day christened her ‘the Enchantress’ – she could bend others to her will even against their better judgment. And I show that many of the specific stories which surround her to this today are false. In some cases they are just made up – for example she is accused of humiliating Princess Caroline by making her dress in white, a colour which did not suit her. In fact, Caroline’s mother, the Duchess of Brunswick, had recommended that she dress in white for the very reason that that colour did suit her. In other cases the acts of another Countess of Jersey are wrongly attributed to Frances. So it was not Frances Jersey who waltzed with the Emperor of Russia to annoy the Prince of Wales, it was her daughter-in-law, Sally, Countess of Jersey who did that. Wrong-doing was attributed to the lady with the reputation.

    George IV as Prince of Wales, by John Hoppner. (c. Trustees of the Wallace Collection, The Countess, Amberley Publishing)

    Still, there is no denying that she was disreputable. She lived in the fast set of Society. Her children had at least four different fathers and she had a continuous stream of lovers over 40 years. One was the Earl of Carlisle and another was his son, 30 years Frances’ junior. Another she discarded so he could marry one of her daughters. The most famous lover, when Frances 18 years his senior and was already a grandmother, was the Prince of Wales and this was where her reputation really suffered.

    Whilst mistress of the Prince, she became the most hated woman in the land, burned in effigy, her carriage pelted by the mob and ostracized by Society. Her actions whilst his mistress, and the Prince’s behaviour at her behest, destroyed forever the reputation of an already unpopular Prince, leading to the Times describing his death as King in 1830 as unregretted by his subjects. Indeed, his reputation, as a result of the Countess’s actions, was so bad that one future Prime Minister, Robert Peel, feared that the monarchy itself might fall.

    Frances Jersey, though, was not all bad. She was not, in a lot of respects, much worse than many of her contemporaries, just less discreet – even if some described her as Satan’s Representative on Earth. She was brave to the point of foolishness. She lived for the moment, and for herself. She fought for her children and she helped both the poor and her (rich) friends when they were in trouble. Her life had many ups and downs, and many dramatic twists, but she did what she thought was right, even if she was wrong – or Society thought she was wrong.

    History has been unkind to the Countess, she was vilified on her death and in the 200 years since no one has challenged the myths which surround her. Whilst another prime minister, Lord Melbourne, did indeed say to Queen Victoria when comparing the Countess to her contemporary beauties ‘she was a handsomer but a wickeder woman… little with large black eyes… very handsome’, for the first time since her death my biography of the Countess puts the record straight and tells the true story of a remarkable woman and a remarkable life.

    Tim Clarke's new book The Countess: The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey is available in a new paperback format now.

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