The Minx of Middleton Park
"Princess Caroline of Brunswick could never hope to compete with the dazzling charms of Lady Jersey. Vulgar, plain, and—to be perfectly frank—a bit whiffy, poor Caroline had to endure the humiliation of Lady Jersey’s appointment as Lady of the Royal Bedchamber"
It would be unfair to brand Frances Villiers of Middleton Park, near Middleton Stoney, a tart. After all, Lady Jersey didn’t sleep with her friends’ husbands for personal gain - she did it just for the heck of it. Having worked her way through society, she eventually became the mistress of the Prince of Wales, the future Prince Regent. She was forty years old and a grandmother.
Of course, Frances had an unfortunate start in life. Her father Philip Twysden was shot while attempting to hold up a stagecoach on Hounslow Heath. Embarrassing enough, you might think, but her father was also a bishop. Having frittered away the family fortune, he had fixed upon this desperate course. The bishop died the day after the robbery, and Frances was born three months later in February 1753. Just after her seventeenth birthday in 1770, Frances married the thirty-four year-old Earl of Jersey, George Villiers. The couple had ten children, though it seems entirely possible that they may not all have borne a close resemblance to the Earl. For Frances’s lovers included Frederick Howard, fifth Earl of Carlisle; the Earl’s son Lord Morpeth; diplomat and clerk to the Privy Council William Augustus Fawkener; and the husband of Frances’s friend Georgiana, William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire.
Frances was said to embody “a heady mix of charm, beauty, and sarcasm”. She was described in the journal of Mary Frampton as “a clever, unprincipled, but beautiful and fascinating woman, though with scarcely any retrieving really good quality”. And Harriet, Lady Bessborough, claimed that Lady Jersey was never happy unless she had “a rival to trouble and torment”.
All of these traits, good and bad, were mobilised when Frances became mistress of the Prince of Wales in 1793. The Prince had already been lusting after Frances for several years, during which time he had contracted an invalid marriage with his primary mistress, the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert. Determined to establish her own supremacy and compromise Mrs Fitzherbert’s position into the bargain, Frances came up with a wheeze. She would urge the Prince to make a legal marriage with a woman she could control.
Princess Caroline of Brunswick could never hope to compete with the dazzling charms of Lady Jersey. Vulgar, plain, and—to be perfectly frank—a bit whiffy, poor Caroline had to endure the humiliation of Lady Jersey’s appointment as Lady of the Royal Bedchamber. And Frances did nothing to alleviate the Princess’s suffering, allowing her talent for spite and cruelty free rein. She paraded around London in the Prince’s coach, escorted by the Prince’s liveried servants just as if she were the Princess of Wales herself.
When Caroline begged her husband to remove Frances from her household, Lady Jersey decided to ramp things up a bit. Exploiting her privileged access to Caroline’s private apartments, naughty Frances smuggled out some of the Princess’s letters complaining about the Prince. Somehow the letters then found their way into the hands of the Prince’s mother, Queen Charlotte. All this simply served further to endear Caroline to a sympathetic public who already appreciated her unstuffy manner and friendly nature, and abhorred the Prince of Wales’s shabby treatment of her. He restricted her freedom to travel and limited her access to her only daughter, Princess Charlotte. Caroline was cheered whenever she appeared in public; the Prince and Lady Jersey were booed—and worse. Rotting vegetables were among the missiles aimed at the Prince—unthinkable today. In Brighton in 1796 Frances was burned in effigy. And when her London house was pelted with stones, she became genuinely frightened even within her own home.
Former friends of her own class began to drop her too. Famously, upon arrival at the Duchess of Gordon’s ball, she received no greeting. When she approached people in an attempt to join the party, they simply turned away. She was shunned by society, and her time at the top was running out.
In June 1796 she resigned from her post as Lady of the Bedchamber, and over the next few years she lost her grip on power over the Prince’s household. He had tired of Lady Jersey, and turned his wandering eye elsewhere. As you may imagine, Frances was not prepared to go quietly. When her husband the Earl of Jersey was threatened with debtor’s prison, she hounded the Prince of Wales until he paid what was owed to the Earl so that he might clear his debts.
She worked hard to ensure that her own ruined reputation did not scupper the chances of her beloved children making good marriages. And in spite of her disgraceful behaviour, the long-suffering Earl stood by her to the end. To the considerable surprise of society, Frances was devastated at the Earl’s death in 1805. She was also pretty miffed at the consequent curtailment of her own lifestyle, and badgered the Prince of Wales into paying her a pension. Even so, she was a stranger to financial prudence, and had regularly to be bailed out by her son, the fifth Earl of Jersey.
Frances sallied on causing trouble for everyone around her until July 1821, when she died four days after the Prince of Wales’s coronation as George IV. She was sixty-eight.
• This is an extract from Scandal in High Society Oxfordshire, twenty tales of bad behaviour among the upper-classes told by Julie Ann Godson, available later this year. Keep an eye on her website at www.julieanngodson.com.