In 1786 Elizabeth Vassall aged just fifteen was married by special license to Sir Godfrey Webster an MP aged forty nine. Elizabeth’s parents had made their money from trade and property including slave plantations in the Caribbean and it was a typical marriage of the time with wealth becoming intimate with breeding. As might be expected it was not a happy union from the start as is apparent from her diaries and journals with frequent entries lamenting her life to a drunken, irascible old man. She even went so far as to consider suicide on several occasions.
We know a lot about Elizabeth’s married life because as noted above she kept a record particularly about her travels around Europe with her husband and other upper class families. These were later published with the title ‘Journal of Elizabeth Lady Holland’ using her subsequent married name. The journal , published in various parts according to the years covered,is a fascinating account of what life was like for a lady in her station and it is full of descriptions of events and places as well as her own personal feelings. Sir Godfrey was a frequent visitor to France, Switzerland and especially Italy and extended visits especially during 1791 and 1793 gradually raised the spirits of Elizabeth so much that she began to hate the prospect of periods back home with just Sir Godfrey for company. And then he was beginning to get very jealous because Elizabeth was not only flirting but having full blown affairs. This circumstance, often occurring when ladies travelled to the Continent, was remarked on frequently both in whispered conversations and in the male dominated press as women were not thought have the liberty that gentlemen had to spread their sexual favours – as the weaker sex they were considered the property of the man. But many, such as Elizabeth, decided that they too had freedom of action and if this involved scandal so be it.
So Elizabeth began a string of relationships both at home and abroad and when she arrived in Naples in February 1794 she was pregnant by a Thomas Pelham whilst staying with him at his estate in England. In Naples she shunned the wild excesses of her companions and withdrew into herself but she met a Lord Holland whom she described as ‘quite delightful’ being ‘exactly what all must like, esteem and admire’. Lord Holland was Henry Richard Fox (1773-1840) a nephew of the politician Charles James Fox and when Elizabeth moved to Florence to give birth Lord Holland followed her and in the absence of Sir Godfrey during 1795 Henry ‘ dined and supped with me every day’ Soon a new relationship began and, as it appears that contraceptives were rarely used, by April 1796 Elizabeth was pregnant with Henry’s child. Pelham’s girl could be passed off as Sir Godfrey’s but she risked public humiliation and divorce with this child. Her response was to return to England and cohabit with Henry knowing that Sir Godfrey would initiate divorce proceedings and sue her lover for ‘criminal conversations’ with his wife. Elizabeth and Henry considered eloping but in the end they suffered the consequences of their actions which included on Elizabeth’s part the shunning by the ‘Bon Ton’ of her society and on Henry’s part a fine of £6000. In July 1797 despite public disapproval Elizabeth married Henry and the couple were reported as having ‘such perfect happiness…scarcely ever instanc’d before’. As the now Baroness Holland Elizabeth started a new phase in her life which now she controlled. As for Sir Godfrey he was found dead with a pistol by him in June 1800.