The Great Loves of John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey (1696-1743)

By Amy-Jane Humphries 

For our last #Pride posts, we have a two-parter on the courtier John Hervey, his relationship with Caroline of Ansbach, queen of Great Britain and Ireland, and his role in LGBTQIA+ history!

Pride Month provides a wonderful reminder that our world has been shaped by queer lives all over the world and throughout human history. These stories can be found in all of our histories, and royal history is no exception. Time and later prejudices can often obscure some of the lives that turned the wheels of history but there are individuals who have withstood the test of time and remain as vivid to us today as they were when they lived. John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey, is one such person. He was a prominent—one may even say infamous—courtier during the reign of George I and II. In the latter’s reign particularly, he was a royal favourite—the “child, pupil, and charge” of Queen Caroline.[1] By 1734, Hervey had found himself “in greater favour with the Queen, and consequently with the King, than ever; they told him everything, and talked of everything before him.”[2] The topics of these discussions were painstakingly, and often ruthlessly, recorded by Hervey and have survived to us in the form of his memoirs, which document the King’s reign until the death of Queen Caroline in 1737. Hervey is a more compelling character than your typical royal favourite, though. He was demonstrably, if not openly, bisexual and did not conform to the gendered expectations of the early eighteenth century. He was described by Sir Charles Hanbury Williams as being “excessively handsome, but so effeminately affected that it brought even his sex into question.”[3] Hervey’s androgyny made him the victim of vicious attacks by his political and romantic opponents both in the popular press and in poetic satire, with Alexander Pope penning the one of the most famous attacks on this courtier.[4] John Hervey was a fascinatingly complex character, and it is impossible to do him justice here alone. To celebrate Pride Month, though, we are going to have a look closer at four of the most important relationships in John Hervey’s life: that with his wife, Mary ‘Molly Lepell; the love of his life, Steven ‘Ste’ Fox; the Prince, Frederick of Wales; and the Queen, Caroline of Ansbach.

‘Now trips a lady, and now struts a lord’[5]: The Origins of Lord Hervey

Lord Bristol.

            A word or two must be given first to the early life of one of the eighteenth century’s most famous individuals. John Hervey was born on 15th October 1696 in a house on Jermyn Street in London. His courtly trajectory was perhaps then destined from birth, as Jermyn Street was built by and named after the 1st Earl of St Albans, Henry Jermyn, whom the Herveys were related to. Jermyn was a courtier and politician during the reign of Charles I and he was the life-long favourite of Queen Henrietta Maria. John was the eldest son of at least seventeen children born to Elizabeth Howard and John Hervey, the future Earl of Bristol. Lord Bristol also had three children from his previous marriage to Isabella Carr. One might imagine, therefore, that the Hervey house in Ickworth, Suffolk was a loud and raucous place to grow up. The young John was plagued by ill-health, but he did not allow it to hold back. Certainly, it did not prevent him from frequently accompanying his father to Newmarket for the races, nor did it stop him from becoming an able jockey in his own right.[6] Much of his youth was spent in the company of his mother, however. Unlike her husband, the Countess thrived in the court environment. She became one of Queen Caroline’s bedchamber women when the Hanoverians first came to Britain and Caroline was made Princess of Wales. She remained in post until Caroline’s death in the 1730s. Though she adored the court, her great love was cards and Hervey could often be found at the gaming table with her, learning how to play quadrille and other “games of skill.”[7]

Countess Bristol.

            The extended time that Hervey spent with women in his youth has been attributed to his later androgyny and the perceived eccentricities that he displayed—particularly his penchant for using face powder.[8] It is worth noting with regards to his use of cosmetics that it was not unusual for men in this period to utilise powders and rouges to enhance their beauty. A pale face paired with rouged lips and cheeks was considered the height of fashion and it is reflected in many of the portraits created during the first half of the century. However, the excessive use of cosmetics was derided and the fact that this was a notable part of Hervey’s appearance does imply that his usage teetered on excess. By the middle of the century, such individuals who displayed themselves in an outlandish, colourful manner as Hervey did would be unkindly referred to as Macaronis. Hervey also had other motives for using cosmetics, though. During his trip to Italy in 1728, he underwent surgery which left him with a facial scar. For courtiers of any period, not least in the eighteenth century, appearances were everything. Thus, while we can certainly see this as evidence of Hervey possessing a fluid gender identity, other factors saw him utilise these products.

Owing to his precarious health, Hervey was educated by tutors at Ickworth and it was not until 1712, when he was fifteen, that he finally began to attend the Westminster School. He then matriculated at Clare College, Cambridge and graduated in 1715. Afterwards, Hervey embarked on a grand tour of Europe. This had been a fashionable adventure for young aristocrats since the seventeenth century and a stay in Rome and Venice was considered the cornerstone of the trip. Hervey began his in Paris before moving onto the unusual destination of Hanover, which looks less like a strange detour when one realises that his arrival coincided with one of the many extended visits that George I made to the electorate over the course of his reign in Britain. It was there that the twenty-year-old Hervey met two of the people who would come to dominate his later life: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Prince Frederick, the son of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Lord Bristol’s hope was that by enabling his son to pay court to both the King and to the young prince, he might thereby secure the prominence of the Hervey family well into the future. Lady Mary and Prince Frederick were complicated figures in Hervey’s life and the exact nature of his relationship to both, but more importantly to Frederick, has remained elusive to historians. His return to court after the tour brought him into contact with a young woman with whom he had a relationship that is much more visible to us: his wife, Mary Lepell.

Mary Lepell (1700-1768)

by James Heath, line and stipple engraving, published 1798

Mary Lepell, affectionately known as Molly, was an animal of the court just like her future husband and mother-in-law. She was a Maid of Honour in the Princess of Wales’s household and was considered to be one of the great beauties of the Georgian court. The Maids of Honour provided George I’s court with some of the glitz and glamour it was so often in want of. Molly and her friends were frequently the subject of romantic verses and their exploits filled the gossip columns of the popular press. In Molly, Hervey felt that he had found someone who understood him, someone he could connect with about the trials and tribulations of court life. Moreover, he believed that he had come to love her more than he had ever loved himself.[9] When they married in the summer of 1720, neither of them had much money at their disposal. Molly came from a relatively impoverished background and Lady Bristol’s penchant for cards had much depleted the Hervey finances over the years. Thus, they were forced to keep their union a secret as they depended upon the salary Molly earned from her position at court. Admitting to their marriage would have left them in a dire financial state but the lie could not last forever as the marriage proved particularly fecund in its early days. Between 1720 and 1724, Molly had four children in quick succession. Several others would be born at less regular intervals in the ensuing years, reflecting that the lustre of first love had worn off quicker than either of them would have liked. The truth appears to have been their undoing, however. It may have been the clandestine nature of their match which had enthralled them and when reality caught up with them, they no longer savoured each other as they had once done. By 1726, the pair had begun to grow apart, and Hervey had moved on to other loves.[10]

Steven Fox (1704-1776)

Steven Fox.

In 1728, a year after his great patrons, George II and Queen Caroline, had come to the throne, Hervey abandoned his political career and his wife to go to Italy. Publicly, this trip was for Hervey’s health, which had grown precarious and unreliable once more. Privately, though, it was a chance for him to further cultivate his relationship with Stephen Fox, the future Earl of Ilchester. Undoubtedly, the relationship with Stephen Fox was the defining romance of Hervey’s life. Over the course of the following decade, the pair often lived together, but their relationship does not seem to have been a constant one as Hervey pursued other liaisons in this period and infrequently returned to the bed of his wife. The pair wrote passionate, and sometimes explicit love letters to one another, a number of which were removed from Hervey’s letter book by his descendants.[11]  They had an intense sexual and emotional relationship and Stephen completely eclipsed Molly in Hervey’s affections; Hervey wrote to him in 1731 that he loved him “more than he thought I could ever love anything.”[12] He had thought that of Molly too, once. His wife certainly came to tolerate, even accept the affair. The pair had three more children during Hervey’s decade with Stephen, and one last child followed after it concluded. It was Stephen to whom Molly wrote in 1728 to enquire as to her husband’s health while they were on the Continent.[13] Later, she even sold Stephen her house in London, which suggests that they were at least cordial, or perhaps even had a tentative friendship of their own.[14] Hervey and Stephen’s relationship did not withstand the test of time, however. In 1735, Stephen married the thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Horner, the only heir of Thomas Strangways Horner. Though it must have initially been a marriage of convenience, Stephen was reportedly “distressingly affectionate” towards his young wife.[15] Having thrown away his relationship with his wife and losing his great love to the institution of marriage, Hervey found himself alone by the mid-1730s. Two other significant relationships had failed by this point, too—that of Hervey with Anne Vane and, more importantly, Frederick, Prince of Wales.

Come back on Thursday for the second part of the life of John Hervey!


[1] John Wilson Crocker, editor., Memoirs of the Reign of George II from his accession to the death of Queen Caroline, vol 2, (London: Bickers, 1884), 46.

[2] Crocker, ed., Memoirs, 46.

[3] Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, quoted in Lord Hervey’s Memoirs, edited by Romney Sedgwick (London: William Kimber, 1952), 14.

[4] See Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot where Alexander Pope figures Hervey as Sporus, the young man who was castrated and then married to the Emperor Nero. In doing so, Pope is making clear statements about Hervey’s gender and sexuality which would have been clear to eighteenth century readers who understood who he was referring to.

[5] Alexander Pope, Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot, 1735, accessed, 14th June 2021, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44895/epistle-to-dr-arbuthnot.

[6] Sedgwick, ed. Lord Hervey’s Memoirs, 14.

[7] Sedgwick, ed. Lord Hervey’s Memoirs, 14.

[8] Reed Browning, “Hervey, John, second Baron Hervey of Ickworth (1696-1743, courtier and writer,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004-), accessed 14th June 2021, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-13116.

[9] Lucy Worsley, Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), 52.

[10] Worsley, Courtiers, 108.

[11] Worsley, Courtiers, 205.

[12] SRO 941/47/4, John Hervey to Stephen Fox (26 August 1731), 295.

[13] Worsley, Courtiers, 207.

[14] Matthew Kilburn, “Hervey [née Lepell], Mary, Lady Hervey of Ickworth (1699/1700-1768), courtier,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004-), accessed 16th June 2021, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-13118.

[15] Worsley, Courtiers, 253.

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