When writing about the courts of the Hanoverian monarchs, I often come across women whose lives would make fascinating stories all on their own. In the course of my career, I hope to branch out and give these lovely ladies a novel for themselves. The one uppermost in my mind at present is Molly Lepell, later Lady Hervey. The darling of George II’s court, wife to a handsome wit, she seemed to have it all. But if you scratch beneath the beautiful surface, you find a very different story.
Right from her birth in 1700, Molly was placed in the role of courtier. Her father was Nicholas Wedig Lepell, who had come over to England with Queen Anne’s husband Prince George of Denmark. Mr Lepell, although partial to King James II, managed to survive the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and stay with the court all the way to the end of the Stuart reign, having won the highly prized favour of Queen Anne’s bosom pal, Sarah Churchill. The friendship of this important lady, along with Lepell’s German blood, ensured that when George I came to the throne in 1714, Molly secured a place in the royal household as Maid of Honour to the Princess of Wales, Caroline.
Nowhere could be more exciting to a teenage girl than Caroline’s witty, fashionable court. The Maids of Honour were known trouble makers, waking up in the night to rattle on windows, involving themselves in endless scandal and even flirting with the young men of the court throughout divine service, forcing Caroline to build a screen over their pew! Although they were all young and beautiful, the two stars were Molly and her friend Mary Bellenden. Molly’s court nickname was the Schatz, which is German from Treasure. Thanks to their friendship with poets such as John Gay and Alexander Pope, Molly and Mary were immortalized in verse at this time, described as the perfect nymphs. Indeed, Molly was once suspected of being mistress and spy to George I, although these claims are largely unfounded.
Beneath the gaiety, Molly was prone to bouts of depression. But it seemed she had put lonely times behind her when, in April 1720, she secretly married John Hervey, second son of the Earl of Bristol. Femininely pretty, full of wit and ability, Hervey was considered the perfect match for such a beautiful star of the court. The couple told their families but did not formally announce the wedding until October of the same year, presumably in fear of royal anger.
At first the couple were very much in love, embarrassing other courtiers with their affection. Lord Bristol wrote to tell Molly that his son “loves you so much above himself”. However, the marriage was not to be everything Molly hoped.
Although she had little fortune, Molly managed to win over Hervey’s devoted father, Lord Bristol. The two remained close until his death. She did not succeed in the same way with Hervey’s fractious mother. Before long the two were arguing like Billingsgate fishwives, though one is tempted to side with Molly in every squabble. Lady Bristol was, by all accounts, a most unreasonable woman. Hervey once described his mother as being like Mount Vesuvius, throwing out fire and rubbish.
The two ladies argued about the upbringing of Molly’s children. Molly was forced to send her first son, George, to the Hervey estate of Ickworth to be with his over-protective grandmother long before she was recovered enough from childbirth to make the journey with him. It isn’t surprising that, with a throb of possessiveness, Molly wanted to at least have some influence over her first daughter by calling her Lepell. Lady Bristol objected strongly – she was the girl’s godmother, and should be her namesake. At last Molly carried her point and managed to call her daughter Lepell, but it was a hard won victory and left a taint of bitterness.
Before long, Hervey’s health problems drew him to Europe. Rather than taking his devoted wife with him, he chose as a companion Mr Stephen Fox. Hervey had a long standing close relationship with both Fox brothers, but his relationship with “Ste” rapidly turned into something more. It is hard to tell whether Molly knew her husband had fallen in love with another man, but I believe she did. It is immensely to her credit that, despite the jealousy she must have felt, she remained on good terms with the Fox brothers even after their common link, Hervey, had passed away. It is tragic to see Molly’s needy correspondence from this time, as she writes to Stephen to beg for news that Hervey will not send her. After a long entreaty for information about the state of his health, she finishes by telling Stephen, “I beg my lord mayn’t know about this letter”. Indeed, in his voluminous correspondence, Hervey barely refers to his wife at all, as if she was a thing of no consequence.
Back in England, marooned in Ickworth with her husband’s family, Molly had few comforts. Her friends all accused her of taking on her husband’s affected mannerisms. If they had known the whole story, they might’ve realised Molly’s attempts to be witty and scathing like Hervey were a desperate woman’s tactics to win back his love. Books were her only companions in the long days she spent nursing Hervey’s sickly sisters. “My spirits,” she wrote to Henrietta Howard, “which, as you know were once very good, are so much impaired that I question if even Hampton Court breakfasts could recover them or revive the Schatz, who is extinguished in a fatigued nurse, a grieved sister and a melancholy wife.”
The death of Hervey’s elder brother, Carr, in 1723 made Molly Lady, rather than Mrs Hervey, and her husband heir to the title and estate. Despite this, and the fact that Hervey became Vice-Chamberlain to Queen Caroline in 1727, Molly didn’t get much chance to return to court and find out if Hampton Court suppers could indeed revive the Schatz. She spent some time in her husband’s chambers when he was in London and visited court to greet Prince Frederick from Hanover in 1728. But after playing second fiddle to Stephen Fox for so long, it became clear that she was now expected to come second best to her former mistress, Queen Caroline. Whenever there was an emotional void in Hervey’s life, he didn’t turn to his waiting and ready wife – he found someone else.
To top it all off, Hervey continued to take mistresses, such as Anne Vane, and other male lovers. It is hardly surprising that Molly grew to resent him, finding solace instead in gossip at Bath, fashionable saloons and her children. As the end of Hervey’s life approached, their marriage deteriorated rapidly. Molly was at Ickworth trying to nurse her husband in his final days, but he refused to have her near him. As a further slap in the face, he cut her out of his will, leaving all the money to her younger children “born in wedlock”. This implies Molly had been unfaithful to him (and I for one wouldn’t blame her!) but there is no gossip or evidence from the period I have found yet to suggest a lover. Could it be that it was all in the ill and crotchety Hervey’s drugged mind? Either way, he also sought to separate Molly from her youngest daughter Carolina, who he wanted to be raised by a Mrs Horner. Luckily for Molly, sense prevailed and Mrs Horner refused to obey Hervey’s will.
Considering all of this, it must have been some relief for Molly when her once beloved husband finally passed away on 5 August, 1743. She was to outlive her spouse by 28 years, although she never married again – once bitten, twice shy, I presume! Molly spent her widowhood traveling, gossiping, flirting and caring for her wayward children.