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date: 27 February 2024

Villiers [née Twysden], Frances, countess of Jerseyfree

(1753–1821)

Villiers [née Twysden], Frances, countess of Jerseyfree

(1753–1821)
  • Martin J. Levy

Frances Villiers, countess of Jersey (1753–1821)

by John Hoppner, c. 1795

private collection; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Villiers [née Twysden], Frances, countess of Jersey (1753–1821), royal mistress and courtier, was born on 25 February 1753 at Raphoe, Donegal, the only daughter (posthumous) of Philip Twysden (1713–1752), bishop of Raphoe, and his second wife, Frances, daughter of Thomas Carter of Robertstown and Rathnally, co. Meath, and his wife, Mary. Her father was descended from the Twysdens of Roydon Hall, in East Peckham, a long-established Kentish family. At his death he was bankrupt. On 26 March 1770 Frances married George Bussy Villiers, fourth earl of Jersey (1735–1805), extra lord of the bedchamber, of Middleton Park, Middleton Stoney, Oxfordshire, at the house of her stepfather, Colonel James Johnstone, in St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. The couple had at least seven daughters and three sons, including the fox-hunter George Villiers (1773–1859) [see under Villiers, Sarah Sophia Child-], who succeeded to the earldom.

From the mid-1770s Lady Jersey was closely associated with the whig Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, and the ‘Devonshire House circle’. She was intelligent and witty, and in 1777 Richard Brinsley Sheridan satirized her (and Lady Melbourne) as the venomous Lady Sneerwell in The School for Scandal. With Georgiana she campaigned for Charles James Fox at the famous 1784 Westminster election. In 1782 she had attracted the amorous attentions of George, prince of Wales (1762–1830): 'If he is in love with me I cannot help it', she remarked. 'It is impossible for anyone to give another less encouragement than I have' (BL, Hickleton MS A1.2.7). However, during the spring of 1793 she embarked on an affair with him. She was a noted coquette and her other lovers included Frederick Howard, fifth earl of Carlisle (1748–1825); Georgiana's husband, William Cavendish, fifth duke of Devonshire (1748–1811); and the diplomat and clerk to the privy council, William Augustus Fawkener (1747–1811), who was said to be the father of one of her daughters (Diaries of Sylvester Douglas, 1.88–9). Yet she remained close to her husband, and genuinely grieved when he died. In spite of her affairs, he had been her 'constant companion'. She told Georgiana's sister, Lady Bessborough, 'when all the world deserted her', Villiers had continued to show her 'undiminish'd and unremitting kindness' (Lord Granville Leveson Gower, 2.109).

During 1794 Lady Jersey encouraged the prince of Wales to marry his German cousin Caroline of Brunswick, and in 1795 she was appointed as one of the future princess's ladies of the bedchamber. Her motives for encouraging the marriage puzzled contemporaries, but presumably she wanted to embarrass the prince's ‘unofficial’ wife, Mrs Fitzherbert. From the first she ridiculed the princess's rough naïvety. Lady Jersey was late for her arrival at Greenwich on 4 April, and she censured her costume. When the prince was condemned for immuring the princess in Carlton House, Lady Jersey shared in his unpopularity. 'I thought Lady Jersey was as cunning as a serpent, though not quite as harmless as a dove', remarked Lady Palmerston, prophetically, during May. 'She must feel like her cousin Robespierre (for I am sure they are related) and that ere long she may not be murdered but she will be driven from society' (Connell, 319).

During the spring of 1796 Caroline of Brunswick pressed the prince to have Lady Jersey removed from Carlton House, and she became the subject of an extraordinary private correspondence. Caroline's letters infuriated the prince, who denied that Lady Jersey was his mistress. At the same time she also became the target of a virulent newspaper campaign accusing her of stealing compromising letters from Caroline to her mother, which had been entrusted to her care by Caroline's English tutor, Francis Randolph, and of passing them to the queen, who appears to have favoured her. Day after day she became increasingly vulnerable: a mob forced her to abandon her house in Pall Mall for her daughter Anne's in Berkeley Square, and in the streets she was hissed and insulted. On 29 June she proffered her resignation. She would have resigned her place far earlier, she told the princess, had not the prince insisted that the step would be regarded as a 'confirmation of every absurd & abominable falsehood'. However, the time had now arrived when she could 'with propriety, withdraw from such persecution & injustice, with the conscious satisfaction of knowing' that she had given the 'strongest proofs' of her duty to the royal family (Add. MS 27915, fol. 26). Lord Jersey attempted to defend his wife's reputation from the charge of stealing Caroline's letters, but the matter was never satisfactorily cleared up, and in some circles Lady Jersey remained persona non grata. During July 1796 she was burnt in effigy at Brighton. Her life was 'intolerable to endure and more than insipid to describe', she told her friend Edward Jerningham, and her nights were 'sleepless and weary' (Bettany, 247–8). Afterwards she escaped London for Bognor Rocks. The prince arrived in September, and the couple made plans to spend Christmas at Critchell House, near Wimborne Minster. Meanwhile, the prince settled her and her husband in a house in Warwick Street, adjoining Carlton House, which provoked another furore.

During the summer of 1798 the first observable cracks began to appear in Lady Jersey's relationship with the prince; he had an affair with Elizabeth Fox, a former mistress of Lord Egremont, and there was talk of a reconciliation with Mrs Fitzherbert. Determined to separate from her amicably, the prince sent Edward Jerningham, his private secretary Colonel John McMahon, and other friends to negotiate with her. However, Lady Jersey was reluctant to be cast off, and it was not until 1799 that the relationship was unambiguously ended. During the summer of 1799 she moved out of Warwick Street into Stratford Place, and in December there was mention of a settlement. Finally, in January 1800, her husband was dismissed from his position as the prince's master of the horse (a position which he had held since 1795), and she went abroad. On returning to London, she resolved to 'plague' the prince, and they never re-established their former intimacy.

Subsequently Lady Jersey suffered financial problems, and in 1802 her husband was threatened with imprisonment. The earl's death on 22 August 1805 left her without a 'sufficient income to support [her] rank', and during 1811 McMahon encouraged her to apply for a pension. However, the request was ill-received, and she was distressed to appear 'in the disgraceful shape of a beggar!' (Letters of George IV, 1.216–17). Her son the fifth earl of Jersey raised her jointure from £1100 to £3500 per annum and paid off her debts 'at different times' (Creevey Papers, 368), but her attempts to economize appear to have been unavailing. She died at Cheltenham on 25 July 1821 and was buried in the family vault at Middleton Stoney. Shortly afterwards her papers, including 'great abundance' of letters from George IV, were burned by her executor, Lord Clarendon (ibid., 367).

Lady Jersey was a scintillating society woman, a heady mix of charm, beauty, and sarcasm. Lady Bessborough once remarked that she could not be happy 'without a rival to trouble and torment' (Lord Granville Leveson Gower, 1.359), and clearly she was a practised intrigante. Yet there was also a softer side to her character; she was much concerned with the welfare of her children, and she could be charitable. She relished sophistication and wit, and even her worst enemies acknowledged her intelligence. Her personal attractions were widely admired: Horace Walpole described them as superior to those of the duchess of Devonshire (Walpole, Corr., 25.411); in her prime, she was thin, soignée, and elegant. Although the satirists made much of the fact that she was already a grandmother when she began her affair with the prince, even in old age she never straitened her urge to dazzle and sparkle. In 1816 she reportedly said, 'It were better to go to Hell at once than live to be old & ugly' (Farington, Diary, 14.4912).

Sources

  • The correspondence of George, prince of Wales, 1770–1812, ed. A. Aspinall, 8 vols. (1963–71)
  • Georgiana: extracts from the correspondence of Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, ed. E. Ponsonby, earl of Bessborough [1955]
  • C. Hibbert, George IV, 1: Prince of Wales (1972)
  • A. Foreman, Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire (1998)
  • M. J. Levy, The mistresses of King George IV (1996)
  • L. Bettany, ed., Edward Jerningham and his friends: a series of eighteenth century letters (1919)
  • Lord Granville Leveson Gower: private correspondence, 1781–1821, ed. Castalia, Countess Granville [C. R. Leveson-Gower], 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1916)
  • B. Connell, Portrait of a whig peer (1957)
  • The letters of King George IV, 1812–1830, ed. A. Aspinall, 3 vols. (1938)
  • The diaries of Sylvester Douglas (Lord Glenbervie), ed. F. Bickley, 2 vols. (1928)
  • BL, Hickleton MS A1.2.7
  • BL, Add. MS 27915, fol. 26
  • The family of Twysden and Twisden: their history and archives from an original by Sir John Ramskill Twisden, ed. C. H. Dudley Ward (1939)
  • G. Villiers, The correspondence between the earl and countess of Jersey, and the Rev. Dr. Randolph, upon the subject of some letters belonging to H. R. H. the princess of Wales (1796)
  • GM, 1st ser., 91/2 (1821), 180

Archives

Likenesses

Wealth at Death

straitened finances: Creevey papers, ed. Maxwell

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J. Farington, ed. K. Garlick, A. Macintyre, K. Cave, & E. Newby, 17 vols. (1978–98)
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London Metropolitan Archives
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Royal Archives, Windsor Castle, Berkshire [with gracious permission of her majesty the queen]
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British Library, London
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H. Walpole, ed. W. S. Lewis & others, 48 vols. (1937–83)
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Gentleman's Magazine
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British Museum, London
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private collection