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Henrietta Frances Spencer (Harriet) later Countess of Bessborough, was born at Wimbledon in Surrey on 16 June 1761. Her father, John Spencer, first Earl Spencer, was a descendant of the first Duke of Marlborough and her mother was Margaret Georgiana Poyntz . Harriet had a brother George John Spencer (1734-83) and a sister Georgiana (1757-1806) later the Duchess of Devonshire. Harriet belonged to a leading Whig family and she was involved in party politics from a young age. Lady Bessborough was involved the the 1784 Westminster election in suppose of Charles James Fox for example.
On 27 November 1780 Henrietta married Frederick Ponsonby, Lord Duncannon, a cousin of the Duke of Devonshire. He inherited his father's title of Earl of Bessborough when his father, the second Earl, died in 1793. Their marriage was a political arrangement and was not a success. They were both avid gamblers and were frequently in debt to the tune of several hundreds of thousands of pounds. Bessborough was also abusive towards Harriet, often humiliating her in public, and also demanding that she find money to pay for the debts he acquired. The couple had four children: .John William Ponsonby, later fourth earl of Bessborough (1781–1847), Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby (1783–1837), Caroline (1785–1828), who married William Lamb ( Lord Melbourne) and William, later first Baron de Mauley (1787–1855).
Lady Bessborough had numerous lovers during her lifetime. One was a very public affair with Richard Brinsley Sheridan which Lord Duncannon discovered only in 1789. Eventually Duncannon began divorce proceedings which were called off after the Duke of Devonshire persuaded him to try reconciliation.
In 1791 Harriet became involved in a shares scandal that resulted in huge financial loss which caused a total physical collapse, leaving her partially paralysed. Her family said that the illness was due to a miscarriage but there is some evidence to suggest that the real cause may have been either a botched abortion or an attempted suicide. Soon afterwards, Harriet, her daugher Caroline, her sister Georgiana and a number of friends left England for Naples. Part of the reason for the journey was so that the Duchess of Devonshire could give birth to Charles Grey's child.
Lady Bessborough and Lord Granville Leveson-Gower (first Earl Granville), a British diplomat, met in Naples, when he was 20 and she 32. He was attracted by her but she urged him to accept her merely as a friend. Eventually the couple began an affair which lasted for fifteen years. Some six years after Lady Bessborough and Granville met, she gave birth to their daughter, Harriet. The child is mentioned only twice in their letters. In the first instance, Lady Bessborough asks Granville to give her a lock of his hair to put in a locket for H. The second reference was after Granville had married Lady Harriet Cavendish (Lady Bessborough's niece) and brought his illegitimate daughter to live with him without acknowledging her. Four years later, a son was born to them, only days after Granville left England to take up an appointment as Ambassador to the court in St Petersburg.
The daughter, Harriet Emma Arundel Stewart became Duchess of Leeds after she married George Godolphin Osborne, 8th Duke of Leeds. The son was George Stewart.
Although being crippled, Lady Bessborough often accompanied her sister to political events and social gatherings. She was a clever woman who was close to Georgiana's best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, with whom she often was seen in public. When the Duke of Devonshire married Lady Elizabeth, Harriet was devastated.
Harriett died on 11 November 1821 in Florence following the death of Henry, her youngest grandchild, in Parma. She was buried in the Cavendish vault at All Saints', Derby.
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