The Courtesan and the Abolitionist: The Real-Life Love Story of Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox

 

honorable mrs fox by joshua reynolds

The Honourable Mrs. Fox. Joshua Reynolds, 1784-9. Note that they were officially married in 1795, and the marriage was not made public until 1802.

Of all the great love stories in history that ought to be made into movies, Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox must be near the top of the list.

Elizabeth was born in Greenwich in 1750. By the age of twenty-one, she was working at a high-class brothel in Soho run by the infamous Mrs. Mitchell. Her first known patron was the Viscount of Bolingbroke, known to his friends as “Bully,” and it was through him that she met her future husband, Charles James Fox.

Though only a year older than Elizabeth, Charles had had a very different upbringing. His father was Henry Fox, Baron Holland, and his mother, Caroline, was the daughter of the Duke of Richmond. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he got an early start in politics when his father bought him a seat in Parliament at the age of nineteen. It wasn’t long before he made waves. Critical of George III, Charles opposed the American War of Independence and even showed his support for the colonists by wearing the colors of Washington’s army to Parliament. By the time he met Elizabeth, he had already developed a reputation of his own.

Elizabeth and Charles moved in the same circles and became fast friends. They remained close as their respective careers progressed. Elizabeth became an actress, and her considerable success as a courtesan was noted in Town and Country in 1776, when they reported that she had made conquests of two dukes, a marquis, four earls, and a viscount.

The truth was a bit more impressive. Elizabeth was indeed popular among the nobility, and her patrons over the next few years included the Duke of Dorset, the Earl of Derby, Lord George Cavendish, the Earl of Cholmondeley, and the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. She was known for her good nature and intelligence as much as her beauty–she was tall and statuesque, with a strong physique and large bust. She had a sharp wit and a talent for languages that gentlemen found as fascinating as the rest of her.

Elizabeth knew exactly what she was doing. By the time she was thirty, she had a fortune of her own that included at least one residence, carriages, and several servants. Never one to be taken advantage of, she moved from patron to patron as effortlessly as she lived, and she never fell in love.

Unless, of course, she’d been in love all along. In the early 1780s, Elizabeth and Charles became lovers after a decade of friendship. It’s unknown whether it was out of the blue or if they’d had feelings for each other from the start, but they quickly became inseparable. Charles was a rake known for drinking, gambling, and womanizing–he had even been involved with Elizabeth’s rival, actress Mary Robinson–but he soon realized Elizabeth was the only woman for him. He treated her as an equal, encouraging her interest in politics by writing to her about his position and concerns as well as pledging his undying love on a regular basis.

The feeling was mutual. Elizabeth wouldn’t see anyone other than Charles and quickly fell into debt because of it. Their relationship meant the end of her career and may have posed a threat to his. She tried to call it off, but Charles made it clear he was serious about her. In one of his many letters to 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. I could change my name and live with you in the remotest part of Europe in poverty and obscurity. I could bear that very well, but to be parted I cannot bear.”

In spite of his status, Charles was no longer wealthy. He had gambled away most of his money, and he refused to use his political office for profit. Elizabeth didn’t mind. She sold the properties given to her by her former lovers and bought a house in St. Ann’s Hill, where they lived together happily for years. Still unmarried, Charles was considered quite a catch. When Charles was offered the chance at an advantageous marriage with the daughter of wealthy banker Thomas Coutts in 1795, Elizabeth knew it would be better for Charles. She offered to leave, but Charles refused. He wrote:

“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?”

Not only would Charles not consider it, but he married Elizabeth instead. Marrying her was considered more of a scandal than living openly with her as his mistress, so Charles reluctantly agreed to keep the marriage secret for a time. Elizabeth knew that it would hurt his career, but Charles–a radical politician accustomed to doing and saying exactly what he wanted–was less concerned. He made their marriage public in 1802, and although it caused a bit of scandal, Elizabeth was ultimately accepted by society due to her kindness and charm.

When Charles passed away of liver disease in 1806, his last word was her name. He was fifty-seven, and he and Elizabeth had been together for twenty-five years. After his death, Elizabeth remained close with their friends and devoted the rest of her life to charitable works. Though they never had children of their own, Elizabeth supported a school in the nearby parish of Chertsey. By the time Elizabeth passed away in 1842 at the age of ninety-one, her background as a sex worker had been conveniently forgotten. Her funeral was attended by scores of people from all classes who remembered her for her kindness and good works.

charles-james-fox-gs

Charles James Fox memorial. © 2019 Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Charles was buried in Westminster Abbey. His monument is one of the most impressive there, which is no small feat. Completed by sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott in 1822, it shows Charles being mourned by a slave–he was a fervent abolitionist–and another figure representing Peace. He is held in the arms of Liberty, who looks just a little bit like Elizabeth.

Jessica Cale

Further reading

Davis, I.M. The Harlot and the Statesman. The Kendall Press, 1986.

Hickman, Katie. Courtesans. Harper Collins, 2003.

Les Scandaleuses: Histoire d’alcôve. Elizabeth Armistead, Mrs Fox (1750-1842). June 29th, 2013.

Rendell, Mike. In Bed With the Georgians: Sex, Scandal, and Satire in the 18th Century. Pen & Sword, 2016.

Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden Ladies. Tempus Publishing, 2005.

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