Elizabeth Cane was born July 11, 1750. Few will recognize the name but she was to become one of the most fascinating and notorious women of the century. Little is known about her early years but it is likely that she came to London when about sixteen, and either became a hairdresser or a hairdresser´s model. The one thing which is clear is that her talents extended far beyond a spot of back-combing, and within a few short years she had transformed herself into Elizabeth Armistead, high class courtesan and confidante of the Prince of Wales. Was there ever a Mr Armistead? I have no idea, and it may just have been a name chosen to give her an air of respectability. She quickly became one of the richest and most celebrated beauties of the Age – with a string of lovers from the upper echelons of the aristocracy. Two Dukes, an Earl, a Viscount – and the Prince of Wales – all succumbed to her charms. Each in turn lavished her with jewels and expensive gifts.
Elizabeth Armistead by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
She knew her worth, and certainly was not going to waste what she had on one man alone. That is, until she was 33 and met the charming and enigmatic Charles James Fox. The Whig aristocrat was a couple of years her senior, and their love affair was to scandalize society and prove that love could overcome all obstacles.
Elizabeth and Charles did not fall for each other straight away, but their love developed into something quite special. From the start Charles treated her as his equal, often writing to her about politics while at the same time declaring his undying love for her. She had been used to being supported financially by her lovers – now the boot was on the other foot and within a year she had reportedly sold both of her town houses and her two handsome annuities (gifted to her by wealthy admirers) – allegedly in order to stave off Fox´s creditors. She retired from her chosen profession and took up residence at St Anne’s Hill which she purchased in 1785 in her own name, albeit with a mortgage of £2000 granted by the Duke of Marlborough. The house was near Chertsey in Surrey and had extensive gardens. Much of the lovers´ time together was spent gardening and enjoying the walks which the property offered. Fox was often called away to London for days and weeks on end and there can be few more poignant letters than the ones written by Fox at this time. On occasions Elizabeth accompanied Charles to London, but the doors of fashionable society were closed to her. They could be seen in public – in the parks or at the theatre, but never could she be entertained in any of the grand houses which would otherwise be open to Charles.
They had first met in 1783 by which time Fox had gambled away a vast fortune. He was no longer the youthful dandy but a political figure of reduced means, although for all that, a brilliant orator. Fox had been in Elizabeth´s circle for some time – he had just had an affair with her close friend the actress/courtesan ‘Perdita’ Robinson. Equally, she had granted her favours to a succession of Whig politicians in Fox´s circle including Lord George Cavendish (brother of the Duke of Devonshire), Lord ´Bob´ Spencer (third son of the Duke of Marlborough), Lord Cholmondley and of course the Prince of Wales (although the latter was not in the right league, financially, to be able to afford her services for any length of time).
But as time passed it became increasingly apparent that their union was both stable and permanent. Fox begged Elizabeth to marry him and at first she accepted but later broke off the engagement. It was obvious to everyone (well, everyone except Fox) that such a union would be an absolute scandal, and liable to be the ruin of his career. Finally they agreed to marry but to keep the union a secret. They wed in 1795 and it was only in 1802 that the news was officially confirmed. Meanwhile Elizabeth´s sheer charm and capacity for friendship slowly but surely captured the hearts of all around her – she became socially acceptable. This must have been a hugely significant achievement for the couple. Sadly Charles died in 1806 and his beloved Liz carried on living at St Anne´s Hill until 8th July 1842 when she died just days before her 92nd birthday. Her popularity is reflected in the fact that not only did she receive a pension on the orders of her former lover the Prince of Wales (once he became King) but this was increased by his successor William IV – and even continued by Queen Victoria. She remained discreet about all her previous lovers, never threatened to ‘kiss and tell’ and died a well-respected and much-loved old lady.
Theirs was a remarkable love match, a true story of the Beauty and the Beast. Elizabeth’s story appears in Kate Hickmann´s fascinating book “Courtesans” published by Harper-Collins, and I certainly had no hesitation about including her story in my book “In bed with the Georgians – Sex, Scandal and Satire” because she really was a quite amazing woman. Many happy returns Lizzie – 268 and still as gorgeous as ever!
[This repeats a blog which I did six years ago, and dusted off/modified to mark the occasion.]