Sunday 30 March 2014

Death of an Icon: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (née Spencer; Althorp, Northamptonshire, England, 7th June 1757 – London, England, 30th March 1806) 

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds,1780-81
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1780-81

Recently I had the honour of spending a glorious day at Chatsworth, the beautiful Palace of the Peaks. Like so many others, I have long been fascinated by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and have always intended to produce a post of two telling the tale of her remarkable life. Today marks the anniversary of the last day of Georgiana's life and as a special request for a regular visitor, my article today is an account of the death of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Since 1774, Georgiana had been the wife of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire. Noted for her exquisite taste and beauty, the Duchess also had a keen and intelligent political mind and was a devoted and loving mother as well as a gambler who had amassed a mountain of debt by the time of her death. The Duke and Duchess did not have a happy marriage and the couple lived in a ménage à trois with her friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, who would one day become the second wife of the Duke of Devonshire.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds,1775-1776
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1775-1776

Georgiana had always suffered from fragile health and in early 1806, it appeared from the hue of her skin that the 48 year old Duchess had contracted jaundice. This in itself was not a cause for great concern but as March wore on, Georgiana's condition began to worsen. As her doctors proclaimed that she would no doubt make a full recovery they failed to recognise that the true cause of her illness was an undiagnosed abscess on her liver. Confined to bed in Devonshire House, Georgiana was tended by members of her family and every day visitors called at the house to enquire after the sickly woman. When it became apparent that Georgiana's condition was declining rapidly, the physicians began a programme of aggressive and painful treatment, none of which did anything to address the liver ailment that was killing her.

Devonshire House from The Queen's London (1896)
Devonshire House from The Queen's London (1896)

As word spread throughout London that the Duchess of Devonshire was dying, Georgiana began to suffer from seizures and spent the final days of her life in a state of insensibility. She passed away at half past three in the morning on 30th March, surrounded by her grief-stricken family. Despite their differences, the Duke was utterly inconsolable at the loss of his wife and her death plunged society into deep sorrow. Just as the people of the capital had enquired daily as to her health, now innumerable residents of the city crowded into Piccadilly to mourn before the gates of Devonshire House for the woman who had been so famed throughout the land. 

The Duchess of Devonshire was laid to rest at All Saints Parish Church, now Derby Cathedral; her memory lives on vibrantly today, a true icon of Georgian England.

Chatsworth House
Chatsworth House by yours truly!


Debra Brown said...

Hmm. Thought she had died ofan eye ailment.... Where did I get that from?

Catherine Curzon said...

She suffered from a nasty eye ailment in the late 1790s, but survived it!

Regan Walker said...

I always felt sorry for her being forced into that marriage with a man who could not appreciate or love her. What a waste. No wonder her son, the 6th Duke, never married.

Catherine Curzon said...

I have to say though, I do suspect she was no easy housemate either!

Unknown said...

I read that Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire was very early in her marriage an alcoholic in fact had cirrhosis of the liver with the added complication of a liver abscess. What a terrible way to die the pain was horrendous the poor poor unhappy child and woman. Death was a blessed relief RIP

Anonymous said...

There hasn't been, any indication that she was difficult to get along with. Accounts have indicated that she was very agreeable and of pleasant demeanor. You can remain calm and still be an alcoholic.
She must have used alcohol to numb her broken heart? It was easily available and, not that I condone drinking, she used it as a coping mechanism and camouflage to hide her deep pain.
I think she made such a n incredible impression on those who came to know her and an amazing impact on society of her time. I think she paved the way for women of her time and did more in the political arena than has been indicated, because women were not versed in politics back then or allowed to be an active participant. She was allowed to make comments because of who she was. This must have given other women, who otherwise wouldn't be considered, a voice.
She was held in high esteem. If there wasn't truth in what they published, back then, there would be little indication of her political views.

Anonymous said...

Women back then, rarely married for love. Most marriages were prearranged. As time took it's course, love came later, if you were fortunate. Love to people of that time, a silly notion.