Many of the Garter knights have performed noble deeds and service, but not all of them have led exemplary and well-regulated lives. One of the most colourful of the 18th century knights was Evelyn Pierrepont (1711-1773), the second Duke of Kingston upon Hull. His father, William Pierrepont, died the year after his birth, so he grew up without what might have been a restraining paternal influence. His early education seems to have been deplorable, and after some kind of schooling at Eton College, he took off on the grand tour of Europe in 1726, aged only about fourteen. The same year, he succeeded his grandfather as Duke of Kingston upon Hull, an inheritance which was to have a major bearing on his lifestyle.
The ‘grand tour’ was an almost obligatory initiation for young men from aristocratic families. In most cases, the tour would last a few years, usually taking in France, Italy, and possibly the Germanic lands. Evelyn Pierrepont chose to stay away for ten years, during which he acquired a scandalous reputation, a French mistress (already married with three children), and a love of sport and gambling. Whilst abroad, he came of age, which meant he inherited Thoresby Park and Holme Pierrepont Hall in Nottinghamshire, plus estates in seven other counties, stretching from Yorkshire to Somerset.
And so in 1736, the young duke arrived back from France with his mistress, Marie-Therese de Fontaine de la Touche, in tow. She later became a British subject and joined the Church of England. Their relationship lasted about fourteen years, though at one time he may have dallied with Frances Anne Vane (1715-88), the memoirist and serial sexual adventurer. On the domestic economy front, his lucrative estates were just what he needed to finance his extravagant and rakish lifestyle, and so he spent without restraint. By 1745, his debts were four times his income.
His grandfather, the first duke, had been a Garter knight, and this may have been the reason why he also received the Garter, in April 1741. On the day of his installation, he folded back the front of his coat to hide the star, perhaps feeling slightly embarrassed by the honour. Politics was of scant interest to him, but he did hold several local offices, such as head ranger of Sherwood Forest, and master of the staghounds north of the Trent. In 1745, though heavily in debt, he raised a regiment of light cavalry in response to the Jacobite threat, and his troops saw action at the decisive battle of Culloden in 1746. Afterwards they burnt every house they could find and seized cattle. He actually reached the rank of general in 1772, though could hardly be termed an active soldier.
Around 1750, he broke up with Marie-Therese and found a new mistress, Elizabeth Chudleigh (c.1720-1788). She was a notorious society figure and unbeknown to him, had secretly married the future earl of Bristol in 1744. There seemed to be some doubt about the marriage’s validity and it was eventually declared unlawful by the courts. So, on 8 March 1769, he was at last able to marry Elizabeth. By this time, she had become seriously overweight, a result of excessive eating combined with fondness for the bottle. The duke’s valet claimed he was never to have a week’s happiness again.
Evelyn Pierrepont died at his home in Bath on 23 September 1773, and was buried at the family seat, Holme Pierrepont. In default of a male heir, his titles became extinct. Three years later, his widow was declared a bigamist by the House of Lords. The writer Horace Walpole summed him up as a very weak man, but also one of great beauty and the finest man in England – a suitably ambiguous verdict upon an extravagant grandee.
Simon Harrison (Archives volunteer)