Of all the society beauties of her day, few, if any, were more beautiful than Lady Diana Spencer. Born into one of the grandest families in the land and raised in one of its finest houses, Lady Di, as she was popularly known, mingled with royalty and looked destined to enjoy a trouble-free and gilded life of privilege, security and enormous wealth.
But it was not to be. She married young, to a man who cheated on her ceaselessly. Much to the opprobrium of society – and the gossip columns – Lady Di was not the type of shrinking aristocratic violet who knew her place. Instead, she successfully divorced, and caused further scandal by embarking on a series of affairs with wealthy and attractive men.
Yet this Lady Di was not the same Lady Diana Spencer who married Prince Charles.
Princess Diana’s personal life was revealed in an explosive biography in 1992, but the life of her namesake years before is startlingly similar.
This Lady Di was born nearly three centuries before, and scandalised Georgian Britain in a remarkably similar way to how her namesake drew endless publicity as a result of her own marital strife.
The extraordinary parallels between the two women are revealed in a new biography about Topham Beauclerk, the original Lady Di’s second husband and the father of her illegitimate daughter.
Splendidly entitled Dr Johnson’s Friend And Robert Adam’s Client Topham Beauclerk, it tells the story of ‘our’ Lady Di’s first cousin six times removed, who was the eldest daughter of the 3rd Duke of Marlborough, Charles Spencer, and sister of the 4th Duke, George Spencer.
‘Both Lady Dis were trapped in unhappy marriages, found well-connected lovers who were more interesting than their husbands, and caused gossip in high society about the paternity of their children,’ observes the book’s author, Dr David Noy.
According to Dr Noy, the connections between the two aristocratic women date back to the 3rd Earl of Sunderland, who, like the brother of the late Princess of Wales, was called Charles Spencer. He was grandfather of the first Lady Di, and the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of our Lady Di.
Born in 1735 and brought up at Blenheim Palace, the first Lady Di got married in 1757 aged 22 to a Viscount, who, like Prince Charles, refused to give up the perks of bachelorhood – including a previous lover.
However, Charles’s affair with the future Duchess of Cornwall pales into insignificance compared to the behaviour of the 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, Frederick St John.
Nicknamed Bully, he was a serial philanderer, party animal and a notorious gambler.
The couple had two sons – George and Frederick – and settled in a smart townhouse in fashionable St James’s Square in Central London, as well as a magnificent country estate in Wiltshire. As a sign of her elevated status, the new Viscountess Bolingbroke was appointed Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte.
Lady Diana Spencer shocked Georgian Britain by leaving her husband after he decided not to give up his lover after they wed.
But while other aristocratic women would turn a blind eye to the infidelities of their husbands, she refused to tolerate her husband flouting his mistress, whom he had set up in a house in Windsor Forest. Instead, she walked out on her marriage and started a relationship with Topham Beauclerk, a great-grandson of King Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwyn. Beauclerk was also a great friend of the writer Dr Samuel Johnson and the Whig politician Horace Walpole.
In an age when women did not divorce their husbands – let alone have a child with another man – Diana’s behaviour made headlines. Despite his friendship with her lover, Dr Johnson branded her ‘a whore’.
‘Infidelity on either or both sides of an aristocratic, mid-Georgian marriage was in itself scarcely noteworthy,’ says Dr Noy. ‘But when divorce brought all the prurient details into the open there was an opportunity for publishers, a demand among readers, and a chance for hypocritical condemnation within the beau monde.’
Charles and Diana’s marriage ended in divorce but it was her namesake’s three centuries before that caused a greater stir in society.
According to Dr Noy, an academic at the University of Buckingham, it was inevitable that Viscountess Bolingbroke and Beauclerk, who was five years her junior, would have met ‘from time to time’ in London as they mixed in the same social circles.
Her brother George, the 4th Duke of Marlborough, was married to Caroline Russell, daughter of Beauclerk’s patron, the Duke of Bedford. It was not the only connection: her brother Charles was married to Beauclerk’s cousin, Mary.
However, it is not known exactly when the couple met. The relationship only became public at her trial for adultery in 1767, and during her subsequent divorce.
There is no suggestion the couple had an affair before Viscountess Bolingbroke walked out on her husband. Even when she moved to Charles Street, Piccadilly, and became a neighbour of Beauclerk, there was still no impropriety. It was only after she stayed with her sister in Tunbridge Wells in 1766, that the relationship became sexual.
A footman claimed during her trial that he found the couch rumpled and the shutters closed in the parlour to which they had withdrawn. By the end of that year, when Beauclerk’s mother had died, leaving him ‘free of any financial restraints’, the relationship became more rooted – not least because Viscountess Bolingbroke had fallen pregnant.
That Christmas she went to stay in a house in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, and her suitor followed, staying at the Orkney Arms in nearby Maidenhead, before renting a grand house in Cookham. Within a month she was consulting an eminent gynaecologist, Dr William Hunter, who paid her and her lover a secret visit. Gradually throughout 1767 the couple became increasingly open as the Viscountess lived between her townhouse and country mansion with its ‘great parlour’ overlooking the garden, stable and coach-house.
During that spring, Beauclerk visited daily, sharing breakfast with her before taking her out in his coach. By now her pregnancy had become obvious to the servants, as her clothes needed to be let out.
On August 20, she gave birth to their baby daughter, Mary.
‘While living in the same street, he and Lady Di sent each other notes by their servants,’ writes Dr Noy. ‘If a couch needed to be moved, the footman was called in, although he was locked out when the couch was put to use. Attempts to maintain secrecy did not go as far as Topham brushing his own hair-powder off the couch.’
During the later trial for divorce, it would emerge that the couple’s newborn daughter, almost certainly named after Topham’s mother, was smuggled out of the house to a wet nurse as soon as possible, on the orders of Dr Hunter.
Diana’s namesake had to go through a three stage divorce from her husband including a petition to the courts.
‘Care was taken that the blood-stained bedclothes were not washed by the regular washerwoman,’ adds Dr Noy. ‘Secrecy was ostensibly preserved, particularly from Bolingbroke, but the pregnancy was fairly common knowledge among the servants, none of whom admitted to being paid hush-money.’ The birth finally motivated Bolingbroke to divorce his wife. A week later, he sent his valet John Dupont to Charles Street with a note enquiring as to her wellbeing. When she replied she was feeling better, he immediately informed her brother that he intended to start proceedings.
In those days a divorce involved three stages: a petition to the ecclesiastical courts for ‘separation from bed and board’ on the grounds of adultery or life-threatening cruelty; a civil case in the Court of King’s Bench against the wife’s lover for ‘criminal conversation’; and a private act of Parliament enabling both parties to remarry.
The first stage began on December 5, 1767, in the Consistory Court of the Bishop of London, known as the Doctors’ Commons. At that same time, Bolingbroke brought a case against Topham at King’s Bench for ‘crim con’ and was awarded £500 damages and costs. Two months later, on February 9, 1768, Bolingbroke obtained a sentence of separation from bed and board and mutual cohabitation. Finally, on March 10, the act received Royal Assent. Two days later, Diana and Topham were married at their parish church – St George’s in Hanover Square in Central London. ‘The witnesses were her brother Charles and his wife from whose house they went to the church and returned to dine afterwards,’ says Dr Noy. ‘There were probably few, if any, other people present. The Duke of Marlborough was not there, but Lady Di gave her surname as Spencer, first prematurely signing it as Beauclerk in the register.’
However, instead of following protocol and moving abroad while the dust settled, the couple brazened it out. The new Diana Beauclerk ‘paraded about the streets in her coach’ and her husband was spotted at the same opera as Bolingbroke.
They settled on Wandsworth Hill with their child, and went on to have another two children – a daughter Elizabeth, in 1769, and a son Charles, in 1774. Beauclerk became renowned as a witty hostess, championed by Walpole, who admired her gifts as a designer. He was particularly complimentary about her ‘charming drawings of children’.
She even won around Dr Johnson. When Beauclerk fell seriously ill in 1775, Johnson wrote: ‘Poor Beauclerk is so ill, that his life is thought to be in danger. Lady Di nurses him with very great assiduity.’ After just 12 years of marriage, Beauclerk – whose main claim to fame was his dirty wig causing an infestation of lice at Blenheim Palace – died at the age of 40, leaving his widow to survive in straitened circumstances.
She finally retired from wider society, and died in Richmond-upon-Thames in 1808, aged 74. She may have lived longer than her more famous namesake, but it was Princess Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris that would make headlines, while the first Lady Di’s obituary was barely more than a footnote.
Dr Johnson’s Friend and Robert Adam’s Client Topham Beauclerk is published by Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars.