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The Duchess of Marlborough and the Aylesford Affair

The 11th Duke of Marlborough, who recently died on October 16th, left a widow, Lily. Now the Dowager Duchess, over thirty years the Duke’s junior, she married him in 2008 and became his fourth wife and second duchess. It was she who was instrumental in reconciling the Duke with his son, Jamie, now the 12th Duke – for historically it seems that relationships have rarely run smoothly in this family, including for the duchesses themselves.

Born to John Spencer-Churchill and his first wife, Susan, when they were Marquess and Marchioness of Blandford, Jamie was six when his parents divorced; Susan had left Spencer-Churchill for another man, as did his second wife. In 1972, the year he became Duke, he married for a third time. His Duchess, Rosita, the daughter of a Count, reportedly said there had been three great loves in the Duke’s life: ‘Blenheim, Blenheim and Blenheim.’  By 2007 they were living separate lives and the Duke met his next duchess, Lily.

Jamie’s drugs habit and criminal record are no secret, and led to his father starting legal proceedings to disinherit him. Eventually a compromise was reached, enabling Jamie to inherit the title and live in Blenheim Palace as controlled by a Board of Trustees. His second wife, Edla, a Welsh artist who he married in 2002 and with whom he has two children, is the new Duchess of Marlborough.

Edla will follow a line of interesting, if ill-fated, duchesses in the title, as I discovered when researching the historical chapters for my book Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain. One of the best-known Marlborough duchesses is Consuelo Vandebilt, the American heiress who, despite being in love with another, was forced by her mother into marriage with the 9th Duke; he too was in love with someone else, but his family desperately needed the money.

Fewer people may know about Consuelo’s mother-in-law Albertha, Duchess to the 8th Duke, who unwittingly became embroiled in an unpleasant piece of Victorian scandal.  In the days when duchesses still tended to be aristocratic by birth, Albertha was certainly noble.  Born in 1847, she was the ninth of fourteen children of James Hamilton, Marquess of Abercorn, and his wife Louisa Russell, daughter of the 6th Duke of Bedford and a friend of Queen Victoria.

In 1869 Albertha married George Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford, heir to the 7th Duke of Marlborough; Blandford was the older brother of Lord Randolph Churchill and uncle of Winston. Between 1870 and 1875 they had three girls and a boy, the future 9th Duke. Good-natured Albertha, known to her family as ‘Goosie’, was very fond of practical jokes, unsurprising in an age when women of her social position often had boredom as their companion. As well as the usual apple-pie beds she amused herself by putting inkpots over the door when her husband walked in, and placing a celluloid baby on his plate instead of a poached egg.

Blandford found what he really wanted with their friend Edith, Countess of Aylesford.  She and the 7th Earl were part of the ‘set’ of the Prince of Wales. Albertha knew something was afoot in autumn 1874, when she and Blandford visited the Aylesfords at their home, Packington Hall in Warwickshire. After that, her husband’s manner towards her changed. In June 1875, Albertha raised with Blandford over breakfast the matter of his association with Edith, whereupon he hit her. She was pregnant with their fourth child.  After that they lived separately. Lady Norah was born that September; Blandford did not see his daughter for two years.

That November Lord Aylesford went to India with the Prince on a royal tour. In early 1876 Aylesford  received a letter from Edith, saying she wanted to elope with Blandford; at the same time Blandford told Albertha he no longer wanted to live with her, later admitting the reason. On swiftly returning to England, Aylesford petitioned for divorce, citing Blandford as co-respondent.

Alarmed for his brother’s reputation, Lord Randolph Churchill asked the Prince to use his influence to persuade Aylesford to drop the case on the ground that His Royal Highness must take some responsibility for the situation. He had insisted on taking Aylesford to India with him, even though that would leave the field clear for Blandford’s adultery.

When he refused to intervene, Edith gave Randolph letters that the Prince had written to her years before. Randolph confronted his future King, increasing the pressure on him to persuade Aylesford to drop the case with a message that amounted to blackmail: that, if revealed to the public, the letters would ensure the Prince never sat on the throne.  The Lord Chancellor adjudged that the letters had been written ‘in a strain of undue familiarity’ and ‘must, when displayed to the public, be injurious and lowering to the writer’.

Queen Victoria was angry and upset. Appalled by the behaviour of the Duke of Marlborough’s family, she called upon Disraeli to help. He arranged for the Duke to have the post of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, taking his son Lord Randolph with him; as it required residence in Dublin, it effectively removed them from English society. In fact, the post was already held by Albertha’s father, James, but (as Disraeli was no doubt aware) he was weary of it and happy to resign.

Total disgrace was avoided only when, after great pressure from his peers, Aylesford agreed to drop the action for divorce. Instead, he and Edith, who had two daughters, agreed to a formal separation in 1877. Later Aylesford presented the petition again, but for various reasons it was dismissed.

Albertha’s position must have been upsetting for her parents, who also had connections with the Prince. James had held important posts in the household of his late father, Prince Albert, and in 1866 had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Queen Victoria’s representative there. He and Louisa had entertained the Prince and Princess of Wales at Dublin Castle in 1868, the Prince publicly praising James for doing a good job at a sensitive time. That year, Victoria elevated him to Duke of Abercorn.

The bond between Victoria and Louisa increased, the Queen addressing her friend in letters as ‘Dearest Duchess’. Perhaps Victoria confided to her the difficulties of having a son – the future King – whose extra-marital relationships with women were so regrettable, at the same time consoling Louisa over her daughter’s miserable marriage into the now disgraced Spencer-Churchill family. But that cannot be known, for in her Will Louisa ordered that the content of their correspondence must never be divulged.

In March 1878 Albertha and Blandford signed a formal deed of separation but then she heard he had left Edith and was living alone in the South of France. Anxious for the sake of their children, Albertha contacted him and they agreed to resume co-habitation. They took a house in Cadogan Square, London, and life went on amicably. However, when Albertha objected to the portraits of Edith that Blandford kept about the place, quarrels ensued. In 1882 she confronted him with the latest scandal she had heard – that Edith had given birth to Blandford’s child – and he confirmed its truth. Assuming the name of Mrs Spencer, in 1881 Edith had given birth in Paris to a son, Guy Bertrand.

It was the final straw. Albertha petitioned for divorce on the grounds of Blandford’s cruelty, desertion and adultery. The decree nisi was granted in February 1883. That year, to escape misery and scandal, the Earl of Aylesford started a new life as a rancher in Texas, where he died two years later, aged 35.

Matters were complicated in July 1883 by the death of the Duke of Marlborough. Blandford was now 8th Duke, and Albertha was made his Duchess, for until the decree absolute they were still married. She had been granted custody of their children, but now their son Charles, 12, was heir. Although his grandfather had made provision for Charles’ upbringing which involved Albertha, the Court said his death changed things. In December 1883, following the decree absolute, the Court ordered that the boy remain at Blenheim to be raised by Albertha’s mother-in-law, the Dowager Duchess. He would be allowed to spend time with his mother during the holidays, whilst Albertha’s daughters would remain with her.

Although after divorce Albertha’s courtesy title remained the Duchess of Marlborough, she referred to herself as Marchioness of Blandford. The Duke went on to marry Lily Price Hamersley, an American widow, and died in 1892.

Many lives had been damaged by the Aylesford Affair, as it became known. When Consuelo Vandbilt married the 9th Duke in 1896 and experienced her own problems, she found Albertha an empathic mother-in-law.  They were two unhappy duchesses, but Albertha understood the younger woman’s situation and supported Consuelo’s formal separation from her son. Later able to divorce, Conseulo remarried. However Albertha did not, but she enjoyed two grandsons from Consuelo and Charles, one of whom would become 10th Duke, and her daughters’ children. She died in 1932 aged 84.

Jane Dismore’s book, Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain, was published by Blink Publishing and is out now to buy in stores and online. You can read Royal Central’s review of Jane’s book here.

Featured photo credit: Sheila Sund via photopin cc

  • Dennis Pelletier

    Interesting to say the least!

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