On 28 September 1795, Charles James Fox and Elizabeth Bridget Cane (AKA Mrs. Armistead), were quietly in Wyton by Rev John Pery. The only attendees at the ceremony were the bride’s literal maid, Mary Dassonville, and Rev Pery’s clerk, Jeremiah Bradshaw, who signed the marriage certificate as witnesses.
Why such a hush-hush wedding?
Because the groom was one of the most famous politicians in Georgian Britain and the bride was one of the country’s most famous courtesans.
Their relationship was already being lampooned and served as fodder for Fox’s political enemies, and the last thing Mrs Armistead wanted to do was to create further scandal by making their union common knowledge. She was as loyal to the progressive Whig party as Fox, and rather more careful of its reputation than the man who was its most well-known firebrand. Fox’s foes had made enough hay out of the fact the couple had been happily living together in a bucolic home in St. Ann’s Hill for more than a decade. The press would have had a field day if they knew one of the most libertine liberals in London had wed his mistress, none other than the celebrated light-skirt Mrs Armistead.
Very little is known about Elizabeth Cane before she assumed the name Mrs Armistead and started working in a posh brothel. She had probably begun her career by 1771, since Sir Joshua Reynolds’s appointment book for that year mentions “Mrs. Armistead at Mrs. Mitchell’s, Upper John Street, Soho Square.” Mrs Mitchell was a well-known Madam and brothel owner, specializing in providing beautiful ‘ladies’ rather than mere bawds.
To pass muster in a place like Mrs Mitchell’s, Elizabeth had to have been both beautiful and chic. Additionally, she would have had to have been either born into a middle-class family or have been trained to be lady-like for her customers. Since her one attempt at a stage career wasn’t stellar (although her looks were greatly praised), it makes me wonder if she hadn’t been born a tradesman’s daughter and fallen on hard times or even sold to a Madame by unscrupulous relatives.
It was in a brothel, probably Mrs Mitchell’s establishment, that she met her first exclusive ‘protector’, Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke.
Many years later, George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont recalled how he and a group of young friends, including Charles James Fox, had taken a visiting French nobleman to a bawdy-house. On learning that their friend Bolingbroke was being entertained by one of the girls, Egremont, Fox and the others kicked the door open. The girl was Elizabeth Armistead
Viscount Bolingbroke had recently divorced Lady Diana Spencer, with much brouhaha, after she left him for another man, and he felt it behooved him to have only the best, brightest, most beautiful mistresses. Mrs Armistead was all of those things, and had a sweet nature to boot.
Mrs Armistead was also, like Bolingbroke and his former wife, a devotee to the Whig party and committed to progressive issues. She soon became good friends and allies with most of the Whig politicians, particularly Fox. Although Mrs Armistead had many clients/lover/protectors from their mutual circle of friends – by 1776 she could “claim the conquest of two ducal coronets, a marquis, four earls and a viscount” — she and Fox remained platonic allies. Her home on Clarges Street, which had been a gift of John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset during their time together, became a regular meeting place for the Foxite Whigs.
Her known allegiance to the Whigs made her a target of scandal sheets when she took up with the future George IV during his tenure as Prince of Wales. He was already sympathetic to the Whigs, mostly to spite his profoundly Tory father, and it was suspected Mrs Armistead was using her womanly wiles to further lure the prince into progressive clutches.
Mrs Armistead, naturally, did not like seeing herself described as a mattress-vote, and since the prince did not pay her household, milliners’, or mantua makers’ bills in a timely manner (he never paid ANY bills in a timely manner) she decided to break off their relationship. She couldn’t offend the prince by openly dumping him, of course, so she went off on a long Continental Tour with the expectations he’d quickly get board and replace her … which he did.
The loss of the prince’s affections were no loss at all for Mrs Armistead. She was still spoiled for choice when it came to lovers/protectors, almost all of whom would remain her good friends and speak of her with the utmost approbation. During her Tour, her “former lover, Lord Derby, took her to Paris and then to Spa, Belgium. Later she was accompanied by the Earl of Cholmondeley to Italy, then by Lord Coleraine back to Paris.” Clearly she was not hurting for suitors.
It is around this time that Mrs. Armistead was given the lease of a modest house near Chertsey in the Surrey countryside, called St. Ann’s Hill. It was part of the estate of the Duke of Marlborough, it “likely came to her attention though his brother Lord Robert Spencer who was one of her Whig friends and a rumoured lover.” Mrs Armistead, who was an avid gardener and fond of the outdoors, loved St Ann’s Hill and greatly preferred it to London.
However, it was in London that she must make her living, so she still spent most of her time in the city. That changed around 1782/1783, when she and Charles Fox finally became lovers after ten years of friendship.
Fox was not in a position to support her financially, being heavily in debt thanks to gambling and riotous living, thus she regretfully explained that she needed to find another lover, and because her protectors paid for exclusive rights to her boudoir, she and Fox must return to their friendship without benefits. Fox, though, begged her not to end their relationship. He was madly in love with her, and wanted nothing more than to be with her. He wrote:
“You shall not go without me, wherever you go … I have examined myself and know that I can better abandon friends, country, everything than live without Liz.”
For her part, Mrs Armistead had fallen in love with Fox as well. They retreated to St Ann’s Hill, where they could live at little comparative expense to London, and Fox returned to the city only when his duties as MP called him. As it became clear that Fox was sincere in his love for her, Mrs Armistead took the dangerous (potentially foolish) step of selling her her annuities and properties in London to alleviate Fox’s debt, and in 1785 she bought St Ann’s Hill outright for a mortgage of £100 per annum.
Armistead’s risk was well repaid. Fox ceased gambling, womanizing, and heavy drinking, preferring to read, garden, and take long, rambling walks with his “dear Liz”. They hosted genteel house parties and dinners for their friends and political allies, and brought Fox’s illegitimate children, Harry Fox and Harriet Willoughby, to live with them, as well as Robert St John, the grandson of Mrs Armistead’s first patron. After more than a decade together, Fox wrote of his happiness with his dear Liz to his nephew, boasting that:
“I think my affection for her increases every day. She is a comfort to me in every misfortune and makes me enjoy doubly every pleasant circumstance of life. There is to me a charm and delight in her society which time does not in the least wear off, and for real goodness of heart if she ever had an equal she certainly never had a superior.”
In 1795 Mrs Armistead learned that a wealthy Whig banker named Thomas Coutts had suggested that Fox, who had become quite respectable for a liberal MP, should marry Coutt’s daughter, Frances, who came with a whopping dowry and connections in the highest circles. Mrs. Armistead, more intent of Fox’s happiness than her own, offered to free him from any obligation he felt for her so that he could wed the lovely young heiress. Fox rejected any such notion vigorously and vehemently, declaring, “I cannot figure to myself any possible idea of happiness without you … and being sure of this is it possible that I can think of any trifling advantage of fortune or connection as weighing a feather in the scale against the whole comfort and happiness of my life?”
So that Mrs Armistead would never be tempted to make such an offer again, or perhaps leave him ‘for his own good’, Fox put all of considerable persuasiveness into getting her to agree to marry him. Mrs. Armistead eventually agreed, but fearful that the scandal could hurt his political standing, demanded that they tell no one that their union had become official. Willing to agree to anything that would get his dear Liz in front of a parson, Fox promised to keep their marriage on the down low. As far as the world knew, she was ‘merely’ his mistress and the love of his life.
However, seven years later Fox would break his promise – he insisted on making their legal union public knowledge in 1802 before a trip to France. He was going to honored by Napoleon, and he wanted dear Liz by his side as his wife to be honored too. With such a romantic reason to recend his oath, the former Mrs Armistead agreed to let the world know she was now Mrs Fox.
Although Mrs. Fox would never be accepted at King George III’s court, she was accepted nearly everywhere else. She might have once been a prostitute, but she was also renown for her kindness, charity, and sincere religious beliefs. When Fox became Foreign Secretary during the reign of the Ministry of All the Talents, his dear Liz was able to host events with ease and enjoyed almost universal popularity. Lady Elizabeth Foster wrote that “ Mrs Fox is happy … but has the most perfect good sense as well as good nature in her new situation.”
Mr and Mrs Fox remained deeply in love with one another for the rest of their lives. Sadly, in the summer of 1806 Fox’s health began a rapid decline, probably from liver disease developed during his earlier, hard-drinking lifestyle. Even though Fox was (at the most!) agnostic, he allowed scriptural readings at his bedside to make his dear Liz happy and to relieve her fears as to his final destination. When he died at Chiswick on 13 September 1806, her name was the last word he ever spoke. His nephew, Henry Vassal Fox, 3rd Baron Holland, wrote that, “If we had not known it before … his last hours would have convinced us that the ruling passion of his heart was affection and tenderness for her.”
Elizabeth Fox would outlive her husband by 34 years, but she neither remarried or took another lover. Instead she devoted her life to friends, family, and charity, spending her days at St Ann’s Hill in the midst of the many people who loved her for her profoundly good heart.
As the Victorian era dawned, the world conveniently forgot her notorious past. Instead she was regarded as one of the few remaining links with the Foxite Whigs, whose reforming zeal had finally begun to bear fruit.
Mrs Fox died on 8 July 1842, shortly before what would have been her 92nd birthday on 11 July. She was mourned by multitudes. She could not be buried with her husband in Westminster Abbey, so she had planned a small, private funeral at the local church. However, she had no counted on how much she was admired by so many. The Windsor and Eton Express reported that, “persons of all classes were anxious to show their respect for one who has been so long and justly beloved, and who by her urbanity, kindness, and excessive benevolence, has acquired the esteem of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood of her own residence, St.Ann’s Hill.” Even the Duke of Bedford sent an empty carriage to join the funeral cortege.