As obituaries go, this one from the 1821 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine is perhaps the least revealing: the Countess of Jersey, mother of ten children, died on 25th July. “She was very unpopular at the period of the unhappy marriage of our present Sovereign.” The “why” is not explained, but actually there is an awful lot more to the story of Frances, Dowager Countess of Jersey, than appears in this death notice.
For a start, look at the circumstances of her birth. Her father the Right Reverend Philip Twysden was well-connected and had been made Bishop – O.K., an Irish bishopric, but a Bishop nonetheless. But as rough diamonds go, he was quite something. Unfortunately, successful and solvent he was not – he became bankrupt. Unlike other bishops, he decided to do something about his parlous financial straits – not for him hand-wringing and whingeing. He took his destiny into his own hands – and turned to …. highway robbery!
Apparently he was staying the night of 1st November 1752 at Royden Hall in Kent, where he met a doctor. The good medic was apparently engrossed in treating a sick man, while the Bishop surreptitiously contrived to remove the charge from the doctor’s pistol. Unfortunately for his Right Reverence, the manoeuvre was noticed by the patient. Later, the patient alerted the doctor – who therefore re-loaded his pistol and on the next day set forth for Wrotham Heath. There, in some remote spot, the Bishop suddenly appeared from the undergrowth and demanded that the medicine man should hand over his valuables, while advancing towards him with all the menace that comes from knowing that the victim was unarmed. Bad mistake! The doctor shot the Bishop dead, which, as ways to go and meet your Maker, is an unusual ending for a man of the cloth. Not good news for his unfortunate widow, who was already pregnant and who later gave birth to a girl destined to make her mark in the gossip columns of the nation.
Frances, Countess of Jersey, by Thomas Watson after Daniel Gardner, mezzotint published in 1774
Fast forward from 1752 to 1780 and an attractive young lady is about to make her mark on the world…
It seems strange that with her infamous father she ever made it down the aisle with anyone respectable, let alone on the arm of the 34 year-old (4th) Earl of Jersey, George Villiers. She was just seventeen years old.
George Villiers, 4th Earl of Jersey by Ozias Humphry RA. © National Trust, Osterley Park
There then followed the baby-farming years – ten sprogs in the period between 1771 and 1788. To outward appearances, all seemed respectable, but having hit her fortieth year and become a grandmother she cut the traces and began an affair with the Prince of Wales. Well, in fairness she had already been “romantically linked” to one or two (well, four or five) other members of the aristocracy, but clearly the son of the reigning monarch was a better catch, even if he was “married” to his long-term mistress Maria Fitzherbert. Within a year this rocking granny had prised the Prince away from Maria. She helped push the Prince into a marriage with his cousin Caroline of Brunswick (1794). As the Queen Consort hated her new husband, and had very little to do with him once she had produced an heir, it left the way clear for Lady Jersey to tighten her grip on the Prince, and she became “the paramount paramour” for at least five years.
‘A lady putting on her cap, – June 1795’ by James Gillray, showing the Countess of Jersey putting on her head-dress/ setting her cap at the Prince. © National Portrait Gallery, London
What of her husband? Well, in 1795 he was no doubt consoled by the fact that he was rewarded with being made up to Master of the Horse to the Prince of Wales. “Cuckold-in-Chief, more like.
This Gillray from 1796 shows Caroline bursting in onto the embedded Prince and the Countess, in a print called “The Jersey smuggler detected; – or – good causes for discontent [separation]”
© British Museum
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes her as “a scintillating society woman, a heady mix of charm, beauty, and sarcasm”. That barely does justice to a woman renowned for her scheming. In the Journal of Mary Frampton she is described as being “a clever, unprincipled, but beautiful and fascinating woman, though with scarcely any retrieving really good quality.” To Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, she was “la Peste” – in other words “the Plague.”
Her ability to spend money – buckets and buckets of it – was legendary and she made no effort to reduce her extravagance even when the Prince ended their affair in 1799. She was a constant thorn in his side, continuing to meddle and manipulate, causing mischief at every turn. The Prince responded by referring to her as “that infernal jezebel.”
Throughout this time her husband continued to put up with her shenanigans even though her extravagance led to him being threatened with imprisonment on account of his debts.
On 22 August 1805, the Earl of Jersey died. The impoverished Frances had the bare-faced cheek to apply to the Prince for a pension. Reluctantly he eventually agreed. Still her debts mounted, but from time to time her son the 5th Earl would wipe the slate clean, as well as allowing her a jointure of £3,500 a year. So, she struggled by into her 69th year, when she died at Cheltenham on 23 July 1821. Her obituary really doesn’t do justice to her, so instead I will finish with another caricature from Gillray…
The Prince is shown holding up two fingers while being carried by the Earl towards the figure of the Countess of Jersey, who is attempting to hide under the bedclothes. “Buck, Buck, how many Horns do I hold up?” enquires our fashionable jockey, to which the cuckolded Earl replies “E’en as many as you please!” On the wall a picture shows a fat old sow dancing to an angelic tune…