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Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1775 The Devonshire Collection
Born 7 June 1757(1757-06-07)
Died 30 March 1806 (aged 48)
Spouse(s) William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire
Children 6th Duke of Devonshire,
Lady Georgiana Cavendish,
Lady Harriet Cavendish,
Eliza Courtney
Parents 1st Earl Spencer
Margaret Georgiana Poyntz

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (7 June 1757 – 30 March 1806), formerly Lady Georgiana Spencer, was the first wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire and mother of the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Her father, the 1st Earl Spencer, was a great-grandson of the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Her niece was Lady Caroline Lamb. Among the descendants of her family are the present Duke of Devonshire (via her granddaughter); the late Diana, Princess of Wales (born Lady Diana Spencer); and Sarah, Duchess of York (via her illegitimate daughter Eliza Courtney).



With her siblings, Henrietta and George, by Angelica Kauffmann, c. 1774. The painting was painted just before Georgiana's marriage to the Duke of Devonshire
"THE DEVONSHIRE, or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes", by Thomas Rowlandson, 1784

Georgiana (pronounced /dʒɔrˈdʒeɪnɛ/ or "jor-JAY-na" by those in the Cavendish circle) was a celebrated beauty and a socialite who gathered around her a large circle of literary and political figures—a salon. She was also an active political campaigner in an age when women's suffrage was still over a century away. Both the Spencers and the Cavendishes were Whigs. Georgiana campaigned for the Whigs—particularly for a distant cousin, Charles James Fox—at a time when the King (George III) and his Ministers had more direct influence over the House of Commons, principally through their power of patronage. During the 1784 general election, the Duchess was rumored to have traded kisses for votes in favour of Fox and was satirised by Thomas Rowlandson in his print "THE DEVONSHIRE, or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes".

Famously, when she was stepping out of her carriage one day, an Irish dustman exclaimed: "Love and bless you, my lady, let me light my pipe in your eyes!”, a compliment which she often recalled whenever others complimented her by retorting, "After the dustman's compliment, all others are insipid."[1][2]


Husband and children

Georgiana married the Duke of Devonshire on her seventeenth birthday: 7 June 1774. The original wedding date was 9 June, but they decided to marry two days earlier to avoid being mobbed at the church by curious onlookers.

She had numerous miscarriages before giving birth to four children; three with her husband the Duke of Devonshire, as well as an illegitimate daughter fathered by the 2nd Earl Grey. She also raised the Duke's illegitimate daughter, Charlotte, who was conceived with a maid.

Georgiana introduced the Duke to her best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, and endured their ensuing affair for the rest of her life. Lady Elizabeth had a son (Augustus William James Clifford) and a daughter (Caroline Rosalie St Jules) by the Duke.

Fashion and debt

Georgiana is famous not only for her marital arrangements, her catastrophic affairs, her beauty and sense of style, and her political campaigning, but also for her love of gambling. She was reported to have died deeply in debt, even though her own family, the Spencers, and her husband's family, the Cavendishes, were immensely wealthy. She died on 30 March 1806, aged 48, from what was thought to be an abscess of the liver; she was buried at All Saints Parish Church (which is now Derby Cathedral).

During her years in the public eye, Georgiana was painted by Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Gainsborough's famous painting of her in a large black hat (a style which she made sensationally fashionable, and came to be known as the 'Gainsborough' or 'portrait' hat) was lost for many years. It had been stolen from a London art gallery by Adam Worth then somehow restored to Agnew's Art Gallery by Allan Pinkerton of the American detective agency Pinkerton's. It turned up again at Sotheby's a decade ago and was purchased by the 11th Duke of Devonshire for the Chatsworth collection.

Georgiana managed to keep a "natural relationship"[3] with the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette; the similarity of the lives they led is often observed. Also it was known that Georgiana would believe she saw the ghost of Marie Antoinette in her bed chambers leading some to believe that she was mad.

Titles and styles

  • Miss Georgiana Spencer (7 June 1757 – 3 April 1761)
  • The Hon. Georgiana Spencer (3 April 1761 - 1 November 1765)
  • Lady Georgiana Spencer (1 November 1765 - 7 June 1774)
  • Her Grace The Duchess of Devonshire (7 June 1774 - 30 March 1806)

In popular culture

Contrary to popular belief, the play The School for Scandal was not written about Georgiana's scandalous affairs. Despite interacting with Sheridan, the playwright, the inspiration for the play's various characters came from actors Sheridan knew personally.

The Duchess, with Georgiana portrayed by Keira Knightley, was filmed in 2008 and based on her marriage.

The UK tagline, There were three people in her marriage, was a reference to a quote by her relative, Diana, Princess of Wales, about her own marriage.

Film portrayals



Further reading

  • Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Amanda Foreman (1998) ISBN 0-00-655016-9

Now published as The Duchess

  • Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Brian Masters, Hamish Hamilton, 1981.
  • Georgiana, The Earl of Bessborough (editor), John Murray, London, 1955.
  • The Two Duchesses.., Family Correspondence relating to.., Vere Foster (editor), Blackie & Son, London, Glasgow & Dublin, 1898.
  • An Aristocratic Affair - The life of Georgiana's sister Harriet, Countess Bessborough, Janet Gleeson, 2006, ISBN 0593054873
  • Portraits of Georgiana by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Romney, Cosway and others.
  • Extra material not included in Amanda Foreman's book


  1. ^ "Beauty — A natural compliment", The Every-day Book and Table Book; or, Everlasting Calendar of Popular Amusements, Sports, Pastimes, Ceremonies, Manners, Customs, and Events, Each of the Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Days, in Past and Present Times; Forming a Complete History of the Year, Months, and Seasons, and a Perpetual Key to the Almanac, Including Accounts of the Weather, Rules for Health and Conduct, Remarkable and Important Anecdotes, Facts, and Notices, in Chronology, Antiquities, Topography, Biography, Natural History, Art, Science, and General Literature; Derived from the Most Authentic Sources, and Valuable Original Communication, with Poetical Elucidations, for Daily Use and Diversion. Vol III., ed. William Hone, (London: 1838) p 344. Retrieved on 2008-06-11
  2. ^ "The Disappearing Duchess", The New York Times, 31 July 1994. Retrieved on 2008-06-11.
  3. ^ Antonia Fraser


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