When William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, married Lady Georgiana Spencer in 1774, he hoped he would soon have a male heir. However, years quickly passed by with no sign that the pitter patter of tiny feet would soon be heard at Devonshire House. In the meantime, Georgiana spent time partying and gambling and those around her soon started to blame her erratic lifestyle for her inability to bear children. Her husband’s family was particularly furious (and let Georgiana know it) because they felt that not only the Duchess was failing in what was her duty towards her husband, but she was also gambling away the family’s fortune.
Georgiana too had her reasons for wishing to have a son soon. She had accumulated enormous debts and the birth of a son meant that the estates would stay in that branch of the family, hence a mortgage could be raised to pay them off. After 16 years, 2 daughters and countless miscarriages, on 21st May 1790, Georgiana finally gave birth to a son. In Paris. During the French Revolution. How could that have happened? Why was an English Duchess giving birth in the French capital at such a dangerous time? To answer that question, we need to go back nine months before the birth.
In the summer of 1789, The Duke of Devonshire had decided to take Georgiana and their “friend” Bess to Spa, in Belgium, hoping the therapeutic waters there would help his wife to conceive. So, they set sail for Calais and decided to head to Paris and visit their friends there before continuing their journey. But they didn’t stay there long. Pretty soon the Duke had had enough of the riots and revolts in Paris so the Devonshires left the city, just a few days before the storming of the Bastille and headed to Spa. To everyone’s surprise, Georgiana got pregnant. The peaceful atmosphere and therapeutic waters must have helped her conceive. All plans to return to England were quickly abandoned for fear Georgiana would miscarriage during the trip.
They did move to Brussels though, were Georgiana spent most of her pregnancy, but had to leave when she was almost due. Revolutionary fever had spread there too. Although Georgiana was sympathetic to the patriot cause in Brussels, the Belgians were suspicious of her royal links and the Devonshires (Georgiana’s children and their entourage had arrived in Brussels by this point) were ordered to leave immediately. She was due any time now and she obviously had difficulty walking, but that didn’t move the Belgians to allow her to stay. So, the family returned to France (Lafayette promised them they wouldn’t be hurt there but it must have been worrying anyway), not knowing where they would stay once there. During the trip, they bumped by chance into the Duc d’Ahrenbeg. He was fleeing away from the country and offered the Devonshires his house at Passy, just outside Paris.
A few hours after their arrival at Passy, Georgiana went into labour. Lady Spencer (Georgiana’s mom) was with them and took charge of the situation. She summoned Lord Robert Fitzgerald, the secretary of the British embassy, and the dowager Duchess d’Ahrenberg, to be witnesses of the birth. Only the Duchess made it in time though. Finally, on 21st May, just after two in the morning, Georgiana gave birth to a baby boy. He was named William, like his father, and given the title Marquess of Hartington. Hart soon became his nickname. Everyone was overjoyed. Messengers were sent to England and church bells rang in Debyshire all day to spread and celebrate the news. Finally, the Devonshires had an heir!
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman