Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire

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Her Grace
The Duchess of Devonshire
Joshua Reynolds - Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.jpg
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1775, The Devonshire Collection
Personal details
Born Georgiana Spencer
(1757-06-07)7 June 1757
Althorp, Northamptonshire
Died 30 March 1806(1806-03-30) (aged 48)
Devonshire House, London
Resting place Derby Cathedral
Spouse(s) William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire
(m. 1774–1806; her death)
Children Georgiana Howard, Countess of Carlisle
Harriet Leveson-Gower, Countess Granville
William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire
Eliza Courtney
Parents John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer
Margaret Georgiana Poyntz

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (née Spencer; /ɒrˈnə/ jor-JAY-nə; 7 June 1757 – 30 March 1806) was the first wife of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, and mother of the 6th Duke of Devonshire.

Her father, John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer, was a great-grandson of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. Her niece was Lady Caroline Lamb. She was the great-great-great-great-aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales.

She attained a large amount of fame in her lifetime.[1][2][3] She became notorious for her marital arrangements, her catastrophic love affairs, and her love of gambling; she was famous for her beauty and her political campaigning; and she was a leader of fashionable style.

Family and early life

With her siblings, Henrietta and George, by Angelica Kauffman, c. 1774. The painting was painted just before Georgiana's marriage to the Duke of Devonshire

Lady Georgiana Spencer was born on 7 June 1757 to John Spencer and his wife Margaret Georgiana Poyntz (later Earl and Countess Spencer). After her daughter's birth, her mother wrote that "I will own I feel so partial to my Dear little Gee, that I think I never shall love another so well".[4] She had two younger siblings, Henrietta and George. She and her mother were very close and she was said to favour Georgiana over her other children. [4]


Lady Georgiana Spencer married the 5th Duke of Devonshire (then 25 years old) on her seventeenth birthday, 7 June 1774, at Wimbledon Parish Church.[5] He was one of the period's most eligible bachelors.[6]

She had a number of miscarriages before giving birth to four children: three with her husband, and an illegitimate daughter fathered by Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. She also raised the Duke's illegitimate daughter, Charlotte, who was conceived with a mistress.

  • Eliza Courtney (20 February 1792 – 2 May 1859), daughter of the 2nd Earl Grey. Georgiana was forced to give her to Grey's parents. Eliza married Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Ellice and named her eldest daughter Georgiana.

The duchess introduced the duke to her best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster (who later married the Duke), and lived in a triad with them for the next 25 years. Lady Elizabeth had two illegitimate children by the Duke, a son, Augustus Clifford and a daughter, Caroline Rosalie St Jules.

Politics and social and cultural life

"THE DEVONSHIRE, or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes", by Thomas Rowlandson, 1784

The Duchess of Devonshire was a celebrated beauty and socialite who gathered around her a large salon of literary and political figures. She was connected to key figures of the age such as the Prince of Wales and Marie Antoinette.[7]

She was an active political campaigner in an age when women's suffrage was still more than a century away. The Spencers and the Cavendishes were Whigs. The Duchess of Devonshire campaigned for the Whigs—particularly for a distant cousin, Charles James Fox—at a time when the King (George III) and his ministers had a direct influence over the House of Commons, principally through their power of patronage. During the 1784 general election, the Duchess was rumoured to have traded kisses for votes in favour of Fox, and was satirised by Thomas Rowlandson in his print "THE DEVONSHIRE, or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes".

Famously, when she was stepping out of her carriage one day, an Irish dustman exclaimed: "Love and bless you, my lady, let me light my pipe in your eyes!", a compliment which she often recalled whenever others complimented her by retorting, "After the dustman's compliment, all others are insipid."[8][9]

The duchess was instrumental in formulating, with Thomas Beddoes, the idea of establishing the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol.[10] Her interest arose in part as she was related through marriage to the pneumatic chemist Henry Cavendish.


Cavendish wrote a number of works of both prose and poetry during her lifetime.

In 1779, she anonymously published the epistolary novel The Sylph. It has been speculated that The Sylph was written by Sophia Briscoe. A receipt at the British Library suggests that Briscoe was paid for The Sylph, but it is thought more likely that Briscoe may have served as an intermediary between the duchess and her publisher, so that Georgiana could keep her anonymity.[11]

Fashion and debt

The Duchess of Devonshire is famous for her marital arrangements, her catastrophic love affairs, her beauty and sense of style, her political campaigning, as well as her love of gambling. Even though her own family, the Spencers, and her husband's family, the Cavendishes, were immensely wealthy, she was reported to have died deeply in debt due to her excesses. She died on 30 March 1806, aged 48, from what was thought to be an abscess on her liver; she was buried at All Saints Parish Church in Derby. At her death, she owed the equivalent of £3,720,000.[12] She was so petrified of her husband discovering the extent of her debts that she kept them secret; the duke only discovered their extent after her death and remarked, "Is that all?"....[12]


The Duchess was a frequent sitter in portraits, including a 1787 work by Thomas Gainsborough that was once thought lost. In 1786, Susanna Rowson, who went on to become a bestselling author, dedicated her first published work, Victoria, to the Duchess of Devonshire,.

Film portrayals

Works by Georgiana Cavendish

  • Emma; Or, The Unfortunate Attachment: A Sentimental Novel (1773)
  • The Sylph (1778)
  • Memorandums of the Face of the Country in Switzerland (1799)
  • The Passage of the Mountain of Saint Gothard (1803)

Titles and styles

  • 7 June 1757 – 3 April 1761 : Miss Georgiana Spencer
  • 3 April 1761 – 1 November 1765 : The Honourable Georgiana Spencer
  • 1 November 1765 – 7 June 1774 : Lady Georgiana Spencer
  • 7 June 1774 – 30 March 1806 : Her Grace The Duchess of Devonshire




  1. Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. Modern Library. ISBN 0375753834. Retrieved 25 June 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[page needed]
  2. Blasberg, Derek (2011). Very Classy: Even More Exceptional Advice for the Extremely Modern Lady. Penguin. ISBN 1101563060. Retrieved 26 June 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[page needed]
  3. Hastings, Chris. "Princess Diana and the Duchess of Devonshire: Striking similarities". The Telegraph. Retrieved 26 June 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Foreman 1998, p. 4.
  5. Foreman 2004.
  6. Gleeson 2008, p. 18.
  7. Foreman 1998, pp. 40, 313.
  8. "Beauty — A natural compliment", The Every-day Book and Table Book. Vol III., ed. William Hone, (London: 1838) p 344. Retrieved on 2008-06-11
  9. "The Disappearing Duchess", The New York Times, 31 July 1994. Retrieved 11 July 2008.
  10. Bergman, Norman A. (April 1998). "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Princess Diana: a parallel". J R Soc Med. 91 (4): 217–219. PMC 1296647. PMID 9659313.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Cavendish 2007, p. 11.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Michael Hellicar (29 August 2008). "Diana and me - by Keira... or how movie marketers used the princess' troubled marriage to promote The Duchess". Daily Mail. Retrieved 23 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Works cited

Further reading

  • Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Brian Masters, Hamish Hamilton, 1981.
  • Georgiana, The Earl of Bessborough (editor), John Murray, London, 1955.
  • Some Old Time Beauties by Thomson Willing Featuring a different version of her picture as well as written material on her reputation.
  • The Two Duchesses.., Family Correspondence relating to.., Vere Foster (editor), Blackie & Son, London, Glasgow & Dublin, 1898.
  • An Aristocratic Affair - The life of Georgiana's sister Harriet, Countess Bessborough, Janet Gleeson, 2006, ISBN 0-593-05487-3
  • Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, The Sylph, ed. Jonathan David Gross (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2007),

External links