“Be careful, I’ll put you in my memoir.”
~Harriette Wilson, probably
Lovers of history and juicy scandals, celebrate! The inaugural #MistressMonday has arrived and we are starting off with a BANG! This series will discuss the women (and sometimes men) who have made their mark on history by playing it smart on the streets and in the sheets. From medieval side chicks whose children later founded dynasties, to women who gained unprecedented political power as a result of wild love affairs, no stone will go unturned. You know them, you love them…and so do I.
Our first famous mistress may be unfamiliar to you but her level of petty was so epic, she deserves our attention! London-born Harriette Wilson was born in 1786 to a clock-maker and his wife who ran a strict, conservative household and a little shop in Mayfair. At the age of fifteen, Harriette saw a chance to escape her overbearing parents and took her first lover, William the 1st Earl of Craven. They moved to Brighton where Lord Craven spent his time painting pictures of cocoa trees, sailing boats, and apparently wore a quaint but “ugly” cotton nightcap – an accessory his young, rebellious mistress found disenchanting. It’s hard to believe any teenager would be interested in any of those activities and by Harriette’s own admission her new life was a “dead bore.” Thankfully, it took no time at all for Harriette to realize Lord Craven wasn’t the only man who found her irresistibly beautiful.
The Lord’s small, but elite group of friends would shamelessly flirt with Harriette, some even begged her to leave her Lord and become their mistress—so relatable, right? Eventually, the adoration and attention went to Harriette’s head and she wondered if Lords and Dukes were really the best she could get. With the gumption of a headstrong teen dying to test the limits of her wiles, Harriette composed a letter to the Prince of Wales (later King George IV). It read:
“I am told that I am very beautiful, so perhaps you would like to see me… so, if you pity me, and believe you could make me in love with you, write to me…”
When the Prince replied he would very much like to have an “interview” with Harriette at his London residence, she responded that she was too beautiful to travel to see him when plenty of suitors would come to her. She then presented the Prince with a challenge:
“So, if you can do anything better in the way of pleasing a lady than ordinary men, write directly: if not, adieu, Monsieur le Prince.”
Are you obsessed yet? This Regency-era thirst trap was just the beginning of Harriette Wilson’s whirlwind career as a mistress to Britain’s elite men that spanned nearly 20 years! The Prince of Wales is never identified as one of Harriette’s intimate affairs but her later, more public affairs were with highly ranked politicians and military-men such as George Campbell the 6th Duke of Argyle and Arthur Wellesley the 1st Duke of Wellington. In the instances of her later affairs, her role as a mistress was in a more official capacity, meaning there were elements of privacy and even financial arrangements associated with her role as “mistress.”
Harriette added one powerful name after another to her “list” and it was clear she had a good mind for securing financial support from her lovers-turned-exes. When her high-profile affairs ended, she secured gifts and financial contributions in exchange for her silence on matters of romance. However, when her efforts to blackmail eventually failed and her lovers refused to pay her, Harriette did what any scorned woman would do; she wrote her memoirs. Tired of dealing with his former mistress, Arthur Wellesley 1st Duke of Wellington famously exclaimed, “Publish and be damn’d!” when he learned Harriette planned to put their secrets in print.
The stories of Harriette’s affairs, glamorous friendships, and letters to and from Regency-era elites filled two volumes and were published in 1825. The memoirs were scandalous, to say the least, and readers went wild for the book. Print copies were in such high demand that the volumes required 30 editions in the first year of print and were illegally copied and sold by other publishers eager to cash in on Harriette’s tell-all. Her ability to recall conversations with such precision brought her stories to life. Harriette was clearly pleased with herself and took joy in recounting affairs and conversations centered on her beauty and wit.
Ultimately, Harriette got the last laugh when she married a man by the name of Colonel Rochfort and moved to Paris, leaving the destruction of her social bombshell behind for all her lovers to sort out. Not much is known about Harriette’s private life after 1825 but, at some point, she returned to London where she died in 1849. Here’s to hoping she died on a big, warm pile of money- you go, girl!
Christine Morgan for History Lair
All quotes are sourced from the free, digitized version of The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson