Elizabeth Armistead: Courtesan to Charles James Fox

Elizabeth Armistead was born Elizabeth Bridget Cane on 11 July 1750. Little is known about her early years and what is known is debated. Some people say that she was born in a cellar, her father was a cheese-and-bacon vendor, and her mother “addicted herself to the culling and vending of simples.”[1] Elizabeth supposedly first began working in London as a model for a hairdresser and then later became a dresser to the English actress Mary Robinson, who was known as “the English Sappho” and who earned the nickname “Perdita” for her role as Perdita.

Elizabeth Armistead

Elizabeth Armistead. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By the time Elizabeth was twenty-one, she was known as Elizabeth Armistead (or Armstead) and was working at a bawdy house. It was during this time that she met the famous British Whig statesman, Charles James Fox. The meeting occurred when Fox and some friends escorted a visiting Frenchman to where she worked. Upon learning that another male friend, Frederick St. John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke was being entertained, Fox and his friends kicked the door open, and there they discovered that the woman entertaining Bolingbroke was Elizabeth.

Viscount Bolingbroke. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Elizabeth left the bawdy house, she became a high-society courtesan thanks to the aforementioned Bolingbroke, who made her his mistress. He was notoriously unfaithful to his wife, Lady Diana Spencer. Yet, despite his reputation, in February of 1768, he was the one that petitioned for divorce on grounds that his wife had committed adultery.

During Bolingbroke’s relationship with Elizabeth Armistead, he arranged for her to be an actress. Her first appearance occurred at Covent Garden playhouse on 7 October 1774. She was billed as “a young lady never before on any stage.”[2] Her first performance was in The Conscious Lovers with her role as Indiana. She then performed in several other roles that included Perdita in The Winter’s Tale and Miranda in The Busy Body. After her relationship with Bolingbroke ended, she continued to act despite critical reviews of her acting skills. She was, however, praised for her figure and voice. 

As a courtesan, Elizabeth attracted the attention of several well-known men. Among these men was General Richard Smith who had acquired a fortune while heading the East India Company. When he took Elizabeth as his mistress, he provided her with a luxurious lifestyle until he was imprisoned for corruption. She also became mistress to John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset until his patronage abruptly ended. It happened after he began a relationship with the Countess of Derby and that left Elizabeth in sudden financial difficulty. Other well-known lovers were Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby and the British nobleman and politician, Lord George Cavendish.

Fox and Elizabeth did not start out as lovers. They had a decade long platonic friendship before they became lovers. After their love affair began, one person asked Fox why he was suddenly absent so much from the gentleman’s club he attended called Brooks’s. He supposedly replied:

“You know I have pledged myself to the public to keep a strict eye on Lord Shelburne’s motions; and that is my sole motive for being so much in Berkeley-square; and that, you may tell my friends, is the sole reason they have not seen me at Brookes’s [sic].”[3]

Elizabeth Armistead - her husband Charles James Fox

Charles James Fox. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fox had always been considered a rake, a drinker, and a gambler. Moreover, he was a notorious womanizer and was known to have had at time a tremendous crush on an actress named Elizabeth Farren. Because of his womanizing reputation his love affair with the courtesan Elizabeth Armistead became so infamous George Selwyn, a witty Member of Parliament, once observed:

“The connexion was perfectly right, since the Man of the People, and no other person ought to be the Cecisbeo [sic] of the Woman of the People.”[4]

They seemed like an odd couple. In looks he was described as possessing a figure of “robust manhood” and having a swarthy complexion and bushy eyebrows. She, on the other hand, was blessed with small, pretty facial features, and described by her grandson as being large, majestic looking, and having a fine erect carriage.

If Elizabeth planned to have a temporary fling with Fox, it soon turned it a long-lasting and exclusive relationship. However, the exclusivity soon caused her financial hardship and she decided to end it. However, when she attempted to do so, Fox would not allow it as he was too smitten and supposedly said:

“I have examined myself and know that I can better abandon friends, country, everything than live without Liz.”[5]

Fox was so enamored and in love with Elizabeth Armistead, he decided to give up his “irregular habits” and marry her. She initially resisted the idea. However, she eventually agreed and they married secretly on 28 September 1795. The reason for the secretive marriage was because of her checkered past. News of their marriage could not be announced as it would cause a scandal and affect his political career, which also meant Fox could also not introduce her into society (supposedly, she also insisted that he not do so).

Fortunately, their marriage proved to be extremely happy, and, after seven years, he formally introduced Elizabeth as his wife. The introduction occurred on 3 September 1802 when Fox met with Napoleon Bonaparte. Their meeting was awkward and was captured by James Gillray in his caricature, “Introduction of Citizen Vopone and his Suite, at Paris.” Of the meeting, it was reported:

“Mr. Fox said little, or rather, nothing, in reply, — to a complimentary address to himself, he always found invincible repugnance to answer; nor did he bestow one word of admiration or applause upon the extraordinary and elevated character who addressed him [Napoleon]. A few questions and answers relative to Mr. Fox’s tour terminated the interview.”[6]

Elizabeth Armistead - meeting Napoleon

“Introduction of Citizen Vopone and his Suite, at Paris,” by James Gillray, published 15 November 1802. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.

After Elizabeth and Fox married, they retired to St. Ann’s Hill, Surrey. There they lived quietly, and although they had no children, they did claim affection for a nephew, Lord Holland, and Fox’s illegitimate children — Harry Fox and Harriet Willoughby — and had them stay with them on occasion. They were also close to Bolingbroke’s grandson, Robert St. John, whom they practically adopted. Life at St. Ann’s Hill was extremely satisfying, and after ten years of marriage, Fox was as much in love with Elizabeth as ever. Indicative of his love and affection is a portion of a letter he wrote stating:

“I declare I think my affection for her increases every day. She is a comfort to me in every misfortune, and makes me to enjoy doubly every circumstance of life. There is to me a charm and a delight in her society, which times does not in the least wear off, and for real goodness of heart if she ever had her equal, she certainly never had a superior.”[7]

Fox began suffering from what was declared to be dropsy in June of 1806. He was too ill to work and he, his wife, and friends understood his end would come quickly. On the morning of 13 September, he remained motionless and almost unconscious. By 6:00pm, he was dead. Elizabeth was heartbroken and remained loyal to her husband’s memory and his family and friends remained loyal to her. After his death, she received a pension of £1200 per year, and, in 1823, King George IV granted her an annuity of £500 per year. This annuity was continued by the King’s brother and later his niece, Queen Victoria.

Elizabeth Armistead - James Gillray

“In Comforts of a Bed of Roses” (1806), Gillray depicts death crawling out from under Fox’s covers, entwined with a scroll inscribed “Intemperance, Dropsy, Dissolution.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Elizabeth Armistead outlived her husband by thirty-six years and died at the age of 91 in her home at St. Anne’s Hill. She was to be interred at Chertsey, where she had taken an interest in its villagers. Her funeral was also intended to be private, but the Windsor and Eton Express reported:

“[P]ersons of all classes were anxious to show their respect for one who has been so long and justly beloved, and who by her urbanity, kindness, and extensive benevolence, has acquired the esteem of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood of her residence.”[8]

Another paper, the Dublin Morning Register, noted:

“Nearly the whole of the shops in the town were closed as a testimonial of regard to the deceased, who had resided for upwards of forty years, highly respected, in the immediate neighborhood.”[9]

Fox’s namesake and great-nephew, Colonel Charles Richard Fox, and his brother-in-law, Lord Lilford, were chief mourners at Elizabeth’s funeral. The funeral procession left about 1:00pm and was described as “extremely plain and unostentatious.”  It consisted of “the hearse, two mourning carriages, and the private carriages of the deceased.”[9] During the procession one interesting incident was reported:

“[A] little boy was knocked down and ridden over, and much anxiety was manifested for him. He was taken into Mr. Smith surgery, where, upon examination, he was fortunately found to have been but slightly injured; his hand was somewhat lacerated, but not seriously.”[10]


  • [1] Highfill, Philip H., and etal., A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, 1973, p. 97.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 98.
  • [3] Jerdan, William, National Portrait Gallery of Illustrious and Eminent Personages of the Nineteenth Century, 1830, p. 6.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Davis, I.M., The Harlot and the Statesman, 1986, p. 57.
  • [6] Ashton, John, English Caricature and Satire on Napoleon I, 1884, p. 158.
  • [7] Wakeman, Henry Offley, Life of Charles James Fox, 1890, p. 178.
  • [8] “Funeral of the Late Hon. Mrs. Fox,” in Windsor and Eton Express, 16 July 1842, p. 4.
  • [9] “Funeral of the Late Honourable Mrs. Fox,” in Dublin Morning Register, 20 July 1842, p. 2.
  • [10] “Funeral of the Late Hon. Mrs. Fox,” in p. 4.

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