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Are we more or less immoral than the Georgians?

Blog | By Catherine Ostler | Jun 01, 2021

Gin Lane by Hogarth

Adulterous prime ministers, philandering Royals… The Georgians had all our moral failings – and more, says Catherine Ostler

Accused of laziness, the subject of satire, member of an aristocratic drinking club, compulsively unfaithful to his wife and - whilst in Downing Street – both divorced and remarried:that was the Georgian Prime Minister, Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton.

Thus far, level pegging. We have a Prime Minister with six children by three different mothers, the first to live with his girlfriend inside number ten; now, by some sophistry, married, third time round, in Westminster Cathedral. We have a future King married to his former mistress.

As I discovered when I wrote my new book, The Duchess Countess – the story of a maid-of-honour, Elizabeth Chudleigh, accused of bigamy – in a battle for the moral high ground between us and the Georgians, it is a pretty close run thing.

The agreed first holder of the highest position in the land, Sir Robert Walpole, was a rotund, peace-loving bundle of wiles, cronyism and corruption, who perhaps set the tone when he separated from his wife, the mother of his first five children, to live with his mistress in Richmond Park and at Houghton Hall. A flow of public cash was diverted to the latter remote pile in Norfolk, with palatial results.
But it is to Grafton where we must look for real entertainment. He was a member of the art-loving bacchanalian Society of Dilettanti, Georgian London’s answer to the Bullingdon (actually, they make those white tie bread-roll throwers look like choirboys); the mistress for whom he left his wife, known as Mrs Houghton, was described by the chronicler of the century, Horace Walpole (son of Sir Robert) as ‘the Duke of Grafton’s Mrs Houghton, the Duke of Dorset’s Mrs Houghton, everybody’s Mrs Houghton.’ Luckily for Grafton, his wife was having an affair with an Irish peer, and when she became pregnant, divorce and remarriage were the obvious step for her. That left Grafton free to ditch the courtesan Houghton – who ended up in a menage a trois with a Viscount and another duke thirty years her junior – and marry another woman entirely, although he still found time to attend the notorious masquerades thrown by the impresario Mrs Cornelys in Soho.

I chose the subject of my book precisely because it is from this period, so often overlooked in the British curriculum (which favours Tudor bloodletting or Victorian industry) that so much of what came to form Britain – constitutional democracy; a muscular press; international trade; Empire; consumerism, museums, opera - was born under a Georgian star.
Like us, they occupied a period of what we might call moral panic, or as we call it, culture wars. If our battle is about the woke, theirs was about the yoke. The question, with an ever-shifting answer, being whether marriage was for dynastic or romantic purposes. Elizabeth Chudleigh, the aforementioned ‘Duchess Countess’, earned her nickname because it was believed that she was married to an Earl (the admiral Augustus Hervey, 3rd Earl of Bristol) and a Duke (Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston) at the same time. She saw herself (with some justification) as a victim of uncertain marriage laws, and a border dispute between the church and state courts. Those putting her on trial just saw her as an outrageous aristocrat-hunting criminal. That the legal system would be weighted against women was to be expected; but I was struck by the rank hypocrisy of those who judged her.

The Town and Country magazine had a running kind of ‘morality check’ column called the Tete a tete which – like an old-fashioned News of the World Cabinet minister or clergy romp splash – would expose the private lives of those in power. Lord Thurlow, as he became, was the Attorney General at Elizabeth’s trial: he thundered at her that her behaviour was ‘cold fraud,’ and a crime ‘of the blackest dye’, yet he had three illegitimate children with the barmaid at Nando’s coffee house in Fleet Street and another with the daughter of the Dean of Canterbury. Dunning, later Lord Ashburton, the prosecutor, meanwhile, had a long relationship with a famous prostitute.

Morality often took its tone from Royalty. The America question and his own sanity eclipsed such matters for the unusually faithful George III. He was the Hanoverian outlier:George I had arrived in London with his two mistresses, nicknamed the Elephant and the Castle, while the mother of his children was incarcerated for decades because of an affair; his son George II was in awe of his wife Caroline, but that didn’t stop a march of mistresses, whom she tolerated to a remarkable degree. His son Frederick, Prince of Wales, who never became King, was known as the most uxorious sort – but even he had a succession of courtiers’ wives as mistresses.He may also have had a male lover in the form of Lord Hervey, father of Elizabeth’s first husband Augustus. Augustus in turn became known as the ‘English Casanova,’ so prolific was his womanising. (On one morning alone in Lisbon he went to ‘thirty ladies’ houses’ – ie brothels.) George IV of course reverted to the family mean, with a succession of other men’s wives preferred to Caroline.

In the final analysis, the Georgians have the edge on us in immorality. Public office then – be it the navy, or government – could be unimaginably profitable. Venality and alcohol ran in the veins of the powerful to an extraordinary degree. Newspaper loyalties could be bought; clergymen side-hustled as publicists. Whatever lows we think we have come up with – vicious gossip, blind items, press manipulation – the Georgians got in there first.

The Duchess Countess by Catherine Ostler is out now, published by Simon & Schuster (£25)