Royal shenanigans and courtesans

Newbury Branch meeting 12th September 2018

Speaker: Mike Rendell

Courtesans serving the aristocracy and royalty were the celebrities of the Georgian era, rather as the Kardashians are today. They set fashions, took the best opera boxes, were painted by the likes of Joshua Reynolds, and courted publicity as they moved from patron to patron.

         Hanoverian monarchs were serial adulterers, with the sole exception of George III. The tone had been set by the Stuart monarchy in Charles II’s court, and was maintained by the tendency for high-society marriages to be power and property alliances rather than love matches.

         George I brought two mistresses to London in 1714, one dubbed the Elephant, but he took exception to his wife Sophia taking a lover. The man was murdered, and Sophia was sent back to Hanover for lifelong incarceration.

George II fathered six children on his wife Caroline, but also kept a succession of mistresses. He was succeeded by his grandson, George III, a beacon of fidelity in this century of promiscuity; he fathered 15 children on Queen Charlotte. His sister, however, contracted the pox from her Danish husband and subsequently took her doctor as her lover, resulting in divorce and exile. Three brothers, Prince Edward and the dukes of Cumberland and Gloucester, also maintained the Hanoverian tradition of sexual profligacy.

         The exploits of the Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent and finally George IV, were so excessive as to earn him public loathing. After a series of mistresses the prince secretly and illegally married Maria Fitzherbert, a Catholic commoner, which prompted his father to pass the Royal Marriages Act. The prince’s gambling, drunkenness, wild extravagance and general hell-raising were compounded by particularly savage treatment of his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, whom he found repulsive (and he made no secret of the fact). Caroline travelled abroad, and took an Italian lover, for which act her husband sought to divorce her.

         The cartoonists prospered with such a wealth of material, although one satirical poet was convicted of seditious libel, and went to gaol for two years.

         When the Prince Regent became George IV in 1820, his barring of Caroline from his coronation roused country-wide indignation. Petitions in support of her flowed in from all over the country but she died, possibly poisoned, within months. George reigned for another seven years fat, addicted and hated.

         Without issue, George was succeeded by his brother William, the sailor-king well known for his fondness for Jamaican brothels. He fathered 10 children on his long-term mistress, the actress Dorothy Jordan, but failed to produce any legitimate children. Thus when he died he was succeeded by his niece Victoria, under whom the licentious court experienced a distinct change of tone.

         It has been estimated that in 1837, the year of Victoria’s accession, there were 5,000 brothels in London, and prostitution practised by one in five women. There was almost no alternative employment for a woman without means or the financial security of a husband. Harris’ List was a kind of Which guide to commercial sex, listing names, physical features, prices and professional specialisms. At half-a-crown it sold about 8,000 copies a year. Kitty Fisher, one of the most notorious courtesans, charged £100 a night. Very few such lives had happy endings, but Elizabeth Armistead died as a woman of property at 91, having eventually married Charles Fox for love. Fanny Murray, orphaned at 12, progressed from the streets of Bath to London to become the toast of the town (and possibly the inspiration for Fanny Hill), ending her days in another love-match with the Duke of Marlborough’s grandson. Harriette Wilson, one of four courtesan sisters, monetised her career in print, having serviced Lord Craven, the Prince of Wales and four future prime ministers before marrying a Frenchman. Her pre-publication attempt to blackmail the Duke of Wellington earned the much-quoted response “Publish and be damned!"

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