|Lady Elizabeth Foster by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1787|
Not so long after sharing the final hours of the iconic Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, we find ourselves returning to Chatsworth to meet her friend and the woman who followed her as Duchess, Elizabeth Cavendish. Her relationship with the Devonshires was a far from orthodox one, as we will see!
Lady Elizabeth, known to her friends as Bess, was born to Frederick Hervey, later to be 4th Earl of Bristol, and his wife, Elizabeth Davers and was the fourth of their seven children. The family took up residence in Ireland and despite their illustrious family tree, were far from wealthy throughout her childhood. A bright and beautiful young lady, at the age of just 17 she married politician John Thomas Foster. The couple had three children, two of whom lived to adulthood but their marriage was not a happy one.
Just five years after they were wed, the couple seperated. Gossips whispered that Elizabeth had been enjoying the odd dalliance elsewhere and this was given weight when Bess fled Ireland and left her children in the custody of the Earl; she would not see them again for many years. Our Bess was not to be laid low for long though and in spring 1782 she met the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire whilst attending a social engagement in Bath. Unsatisfied and just a little lonely, Georgiana adored Bess from that first meeting and the two women became firm friends, with Bess swiftly moving into the family home, where she remained for a quarter of a century save for occasional and unhappy continental sojourns!
|Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, with Lady Elizabeth Foster by Jean-Urbain Guérin, 1791|
The three lived together and Bess enjoyed a long affair with William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire and Georgiana's husband. Together the couple had two children, a boy and a girl, though their true parentage was concealed from the children for many years. Indeed, the first child Bess had with Cavendish was born in a miserable Sicilian brothel and initially left in Europe to avoid embarrassment and scandal to either parent.
Eventually though, the two children joined the household to play alongside William and Georgiana's own offspring, utterly unaware that Bess and Cavendish were their true parents until after Cavendish's death in 1811. When she became aware of the affair between her husband and best friend Georgiana accepted it, happy to have her friend close by regardless of what this might mean for her own marriage.
Rumour has it that Bess was a busy girl and indulged in a affairs with all manner of illustrious gents and she hoped for a proposal from her long term lover, Charles Lennox, Duke of Richmond, but it is for her relationship with William that she is remembered. Indeed, it was this affair that eventually resulted in matrimony, many years after it had begun.
In 1809, three years after Georgiana died, Bess married Cavendish to succeed her friend as Duchess of Devonshire. She herself was widowed just two years later and eventually left England behind and went to Rome, where she lived happily as a patron of the arts. On the anniversary of Georgiana's death, Bess herself passed away and was returned to England to be interred in the Cavendish vault beside her husband and the woman who had been her most faithful friend.