Love’s Secret: Affairs in Georgian London

“Behind the Masquerade: setting the eighteenth-century scene”

During the period 1670-1857 divorce was only obtainable by an Act of Parliament or by the church courts. From an early date both men and women were able to seek separation on the grounds of cruelty and adultery. This was extremely expensive and from 1750 to 1857 on average only about three such Acts of Parliament was passed each year. Before obtaining a private Act of Parliament, the husband was expected to obtain a divorce from his wife in a church court and to seek damages in the Court of King’s Bench from his wife’s lover for criminal conversation or ‘Crim Con’.

Matrimonial causes which provide further detail on individual cases at the Consistory Court of London are held at the London Metropolitan Archives. One such case is that of Lady Penelope Ligonier and the Count Vittorio Alfieri in eighteenth-century London. Within 5 years of marriage, Penelope Pitt indulged in an affair with the Italian dramatist. Their affair provoked a duel in Hyde Park in 1771: following this Alfieri was made to leave the country. The couple divorced by Act of Parliament in November 1771.

The newspapers of the day had a fascination with the love affairs of the aristocracy who were the celebrities of the time. The London Evening Post informed its readers in 1771:

“When the first report of Lady Ligonier’s infidelity was carried to the Queen’s Palace, their Majesties were at cards…The King, who sincerely loves Lord Ligonier, was much affected with the news; on which her Majesty observed, that it was no wonder such things happened, when the greatest encouragement was given to places, which were only calculated to increase female licentiousness (alluding to a certain place of polite entertainment).”

These places of entertainment referred to are likely to be the popular site of the Pleasure Gardens. Vauxhall Gardens at Lambeth and Ranelagh at Chelsea often played host to masquerades which were a significant part of eighteenth-century culture. The idea of dressing up in the guise of a particular character and putting on the face of another could invite intrigue and dangerous encounters.


Collage: 7274, View of the Canal, Chinese Building and Rotunda in Ranelagh Gardens, Chelsea, during a masquerade (1750)

The masquerade became a hot bed for deception and enabled a certain anonymity to people that might not be afforded this in everyday public life. The Evening Post picked up on this:

“The Masquerade on Monday night was extremely splendid at Soho, though the company was by no means so numerous as upon some former occasions; the many dangerous intrigues, at present the subject of conversation in high life, at is said, determining several husbands of fashion to keep their ladies as much as possible from that vortex of dissipation…” (May 14, 1771)

You can explore related images on the image library, COLLAGE Some examples follow:


Collage: 17337
View of figures dressed in masquerade costume at Vauxhall Gardens.(1782)

The mood of Vauxhall Gardens is conjured up in this print:


Collage: 19371 Scene at Vauxhall Gardens showing a fashionably dressed woman shielding herself with a fan from the gaze of three men. (1780)

The following print which is entitled, A Bagnigge Wells Scene, or No Resisting Temptation shows one woman being suspicious of the other in the grounds of this once popular spa. One woman picks a rose which symbolises the deflowering of virginity and a loss of innocence. The fountain in the background is hugged by a cupid-like figure another allusion to sexual connotations. Classically speaking it could imply the story of Leda and the Swan, where Leda is raped by Zeus having an all the more sinister tone.


Collage: 17028 ‘A Bagnigge Wells scene, or no resisting temptation’. (c.1780)

For further revelations regarding the high profile love affairs of the eighteenth-century and an exploration of the matrimonial causes then book for the event on Thursday 11th February at Guildhall Library: Love’s Secret: Affairs in Georgian London

By: Charlotte Hopkins, Information Officer, London Metropolitan Archives


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