Uncovering family history

Sarah Murden and Joanne Major

Sarah Murden and Joanne Major - Credit: supplied

Two family history enthusiasts uncovered a story of aristocratic lovers, a revolutionary execution and a royal baby, when their research brought them to Norfolk, writes Rowan Mantell

The intriguing life of an 18th century courtesan has been uncovered by two women researching their family trees.

Joanne Major and Sarah Murden (pictured left) were, separately, tracing their families back more than 200 years when they chanced upon the story of Grace Dalrymple Elliott. Grace was the mistress of both British and French royalty, and of the aristocratic owner of Norfolk’s Houghton Hall, near Fakenham. The society beauty was also rumoured to have been a spy for the British while living in Paris during the French Revolution, narrowly escaped the guillotine, and gave birth to the illegitimate daughter of the King, who was brought up at Houghton Hall.

Researchers Sarah and Joanne, of Lincolnshire, met via an online genealogy forum while they were both researching the same family.

“We accidently stumbled into the path of Grace while researching someone completely different,” says Sarah. They were fascinated by this flamboyant character emerging from the archives, and branched out from their own family tree (Sarah turns out to be a distant relative of Joanne’s husband) to begin piecing together information about Grace.

“The more we found out about Grace’s life, the more we felt sure that her story needed to be told more fully than ever before,” says Sarah.

They discovered that Grace was the mistress of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) and also of the French Duc D’Orleans, who was guillotined during the French Revolution, despite siding against the monarchy. She had been living with him in Paris and was imprisoned and sentenced to death herself. She was said to have been spying for Britain, and Sarah says: “We also believe that she may have been involved in preparations for the French royal family’s (ultimately unsuccessful) escape attempt in 1791, working as a form of courier for Marie Antoinette.”

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Before that she had been the mistress of 1st Marquess of Cholmondeley, who had inherited Houghton Hall, near Fakenham, from his uncle, the aristocratic author Horace Walpole.

“He remained a constant presence in her life and, until her death, was always the first person she turned to when she was in need,” says Sarah. “To his infinite credit, and to that of his wife Lady Cholmondeley, they seem never to have refused their assistance.

Grace’s daughter, Georgiana, rumoured to be the child of the Prince of Wales, was brought up at Houghton Hall, and spent time there with, says Sarah, “Her close confidant was none other than the infamous dandy Beau Brummell.”

The Cholmondeleys went on to look after her young daughter, also Georgiana.

When Grace died in 1823 it was Lord and Lady Cholmondeley who sorted out her affairs, but Sarah says: “It would appear that, after a lifetime of supporting Grace, her daughter and granddaughter, the 1st Marquess of Cholmondeley’s patience had worn a little thin at the end – he advanced £100 to Paris to cover Grace’s funeral, but wrote somewhat tartly to the English attorney who was dealing with matters that he expected to be reimbursed.”

Sarah and Joanne carried out part of their research at the Cholmondeley archives in Houghton Hall and also talked to the current Marquess of Cholmondeley about Grace.

They began writing a blog about the Georgian era Grace lived in as they uncovered more about her and her background.

“We also decided it was time to move into the 21st century and social media, so with some trepidation we set up Twitter accounts and started to let people know when we had written a new blog, just in case anyone out there in the ether was possibly vaguely interested. We now have several thousand Twitter followers and have had over 200,000 hits on our twice-weekly blog.”

When they were approached by a publisher Sarah and Joanne had only met once face-to-face. Their second meeting involved a visit to author and historian Hallie Rubenhold, whose biography of Grace’s friend Lady Worsley was made into the television drama The Scandalous Lady W last year.

“Even more wonderfully, Hallie has since given our book a glowing recommendation – it’s all a little overwhelming for us, if we’re totally honest,” says Sarah.

An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott, by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden is published by Pen and Sword Books; www.georgianera.wordpress.com