A while ago I wrote about an article about the ‘scale of Bon Ton’ which was used to rank twelve high society ladies for their ‘virtues’. It was subsequently published in the Morning Post of 2 October 1776. Coming in at number 4 was Mrs Harriet Bouverie, one place above the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
I was then contacted by Avril Gilbert, who is a volunteer at Delapre Abbey in Northampton where Harriet Bouverie lived. During lockdown, Avril was part of a group that researched her life and she’s with us today to tell us more about their scandalous findings, but to begin with, we have a portrait of Harriet.
So who was Harriet, a mere ‘Mrs’ surrounded by five Duchesses, a Countess and three Ladies?
In Northampton, a group of volunteers at Delapré Abbey, the home of Harriet’s husband Hon Edward Bouverie, spent lockdown piecing together her life story and we think that the scandal we discovered makes for very interesting reading!
Harriet was born in 1750 to Sir Everard Fawkener and his wife Harriet Churchill. However, in 1758 Sir Everard died leaving his widow with a mass of debts. It was probably due to this that Harriet needed to marry at just fourteen. Whilst she had no wealth to offer a husband, Harriet certainly had the right family connections; through her mother’s line, she was related to the Churchills of Blenheim and connected to the Spencer’s of Althorp.
Harriet’s prospective husband was Mr Edward Bouverie, an eligible bachelor from a wealthy Huguenot refugee family.
Edward’s grandfather had purchased the title Viscount Folkestone and his older brother was the first Earl of Radnor. Although Edward did not have a title, his mother had left him her land and property in Northamptonshire and when neighbouring Delapré Abbey came up for sale, it was purchased, creating an estate of considerable size. All that he needed was a suitable bride, someone with the right connections.
On 17th June 1764, the twenty-six-year-old Hon. Edward Bouverie married the fourteen-year-old Harriet Fawkener by special license at St George’s Church in Hanover Square, Westminster.
Aged 16, Harriet fell pregnant and delivered Edward an heir, the healthy baby boy shown in the Reynolds portrait above. Over the next twenty-two years, Harriet had 7 more children, five daughters named Harriet, Frances, Mary Charlotte, Jane, and Diana, and two sons named John and Henry Frederick.
This is where the story gets really interesting! During our research, we discovered a letter written by Lady Louisa Stuart in 1802 which stated
Mrs Maxwell is the tell-tale Bouverie, for there never was such a perfect indisputable Spencer, Lord Robert’s walking picture, the very prettier creature that ever was seen.
We realised that Mrs Maxwell was Harriet’s fourth child, Mary Charlotte, who married William Maxwell Esq in 1799. This raised a number of questions:
- Who was Lord Robert Spencer?
- How did he and Harriet meet?
- Was there any evidence of an affair?
- What was Edward’s reaction?
- If Robert was the father of Mary, which other Bouverie children did he father?
Robert was the youngest son of Charles Spencer, the third Duke of Marlborough who lived a very privileged life. Educated at Harrow then on to Christ Church College, Oxford, where he met and made a lifelong long friend, Charles James Fox. In 1766, Robert went on a grand tour arriving back in England in 1768 when he was ‘elected’ MP for Woodstock.
Harriet and Robert must have met at some point afterwards. By the 1770’s they were both key members of the Devonshire House ‘circle’, Robert a close relative of Georgiana and Harriet a member of Georgiana’s inner circle. (Edward also hovered somewhere in ‘the circle’).
Both Robert and Harriet shared a passion for Whig politics. Whilst researching her life, we uncovered the following in a letter dated 1793 written by Sylvester Douglas, Baron Glenbervie:
“Mrs Bouverie… looked very handsome and is still armed with a great deal of matron-like seduction….Lord Orford (Horace Wimpole) said a good, though very severe thing about her… Mrs Bouverie had been talking a great deal of democratical language and had declared that she hoped to see the time when there would be no overgrown fortunes, and when the poor would be in easy circumstances and the fine ladies would lay down their coaches and walk the streets.”
Had she been allowed to stand for Parliament, we would have voted for her!
However, Lord Orford went on to say:
“he had no doubt a great deal of regard for his relation Mrs Bouverie”, but that he “always thought she had turn for street walking”.
Ouch! Was he hinting at her adultery?
In 1784, Harriet and Robert must have spent a lot of time in each other’s company owing to the snap general election that was called. The ladies of the Devonshire House Circle were determined to get Robert’s great friend and fellow Whig, Charles James Fox, elected as MP for the Westminster constituency and they canvassed hard for him, perhaps even more so than the men!
Unfortunately, our research didn’t lead us to a love letter, but we did find further gossip about Harriet and Robert’s relationship in letters from the time.
Our earliest source was a letter from 1777 in which George Selwyn, a well-known gossip, mentioned that Robert, Edward and Harriet had been at Brighthelmstone together at the home of Lady Holland.
In November 1781, Selwyn wrote:
“Bob’s political tenants will be very tardy in remitting him their rents. but between Foley House and the run of Mrs Bouverie’s kitchen, with his own credit at Brookes’s and his shares in and an affinity to an opulent bank, and flourishing trade, he may find subsistence.”
Selwyn certainly knew that Robert was very well acquainted with Harriet!
Although a few years after the deaths of Harriet and Robert, in 1844 letters of the former celebrity gossip Beau Brummell were published. He wrote:
“Mrs Bouverie was a very attractive and engaging woman, and her conduct when living with Lord Robert, who was very constant to her, was in other respects so amiable and exemplary, that it elicited from Charles Fox, the paradoxical remark that “they made adultery respectable”.
In Brummell’s collection there was also this poem about Harriet written by Charles James Fox.
She loves the truth, though she lies till she’s black in the face;
She loves virtue, though none in her conduct you trace;
Her delicate feelings all wickedness shocks;
Though her lover’s Lord Robert, and her friend is Charles Fox!
Whilst we discovered much about Harriet and Robert, very little was written about Edward, perhaps because he was a very quiet man, never once speaking in all his years in Parliament.
We found a letter written in 1803 by the MP Thomas Creevey which stated that he had supped with Fox and the Whig leaders at Mrs Bouverie’s house and noted that Mrs Bouverie lived in tranquil amity with Lord Robert, Mr Bouverie raising no objection.
Brummell wrote that, sometime after her last child was born, Harriet “placed herself under the protection of Lord Robert”. This was not as harsh as it sounds. Harriet went to live with Robert, yet Edward still spent a lot of time with them both! A letter written in 1808 by Lady Lyttleton following a visit to Robert’s house at Woolbeding in Sussex revealed that Edward was there too and told us more about him:
“The honours of the house were done by Mrs Bouverie, a lady still very beautiful though past fifty, and who is in more than one sense the mistress of that abode. Her ill-fated husband, a poor old twaddler, was there too.”
Edward died in 1810 and a year afterwards, Harriet finally married Robert, the love of her life. They had a further fourteen years together before Harriet passed away in 1825. Robert lived on until 1831 and was buried next to Harriet in the grounds of All Hallows Church on his Woolbeding estate.
In Lady Lyttleton’s letter, she also wrote
“Papa saw several children playing about but thought it not prudent to inquire minutely into their heritage for fear of getting into some scrape.”
So how many of the children were Edward’s and how many were Robert’s? We know that Harriet fell pregnant with Edward, her first child, in 1767 whilst Robert was on his Grand Tour of Europe, so baby Edward was Edward’s legitimate son.
The first daughter, Harriet, was born in 1771 but we can’t be sure that the affair had started by then. Harriet married James St Clair, the Earl of Roslyn. Although she died before Robert, her husband James is mentioned in Robert’s will. Was that an acknowledgment of paternity?
Frances Bouverie never married. She died in1848 and was buried with Harriet and Robert at Woolbeding. Could she be Robert’s child?
Mary Charlotte, the tell-tale Bouverie, was highly likely to have been Robert’s child.
John Bouverie became the Rector of Woolbeding and was also buried with Harriet and Robert. Given that he was born after Mary, he probably was Robert’s child.
Jane Bouverie was born in 1781, so probably Robert’s.
Sir Henry Frederick Bouverie was born in 1783. At the time it was rumoured that he was Robert’s son, and he probably was. He was also mentioned in Robert’s will.
Diana Bouverie was definitely Robert’s child. What more evidence do you need than the fact that he left Woolbeding to her.
Earlier we mentioned the story of Lord Melbourne, a silent character who visitors to Devonshire House barely noticed, who once Lady Melbourne had presented him with an heir, allowed her the freedom to do and see whom she pleased. Perhaps this was the same for Edward; maybe once he had his heir, he allowed his young wife to follow her heart? We will leave you to make up your own minds!
If you would like to find out more about Delapre Abbey and the lives of the people who lived there, please click on this link.