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Lord and Lady Conyngham (1766-1832; 1769–1861)

Elizabeth Conyngham, Marchioness Conyngham, the mistress of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) from 1819 to his death in 1830, was born in London. She was born as Elizabeth Denison in 1770; she was the eldest of the three known children of Joseph Denison (c.1726–1806), a cloth merchant and self-made merchant banker, and his wife, Elizabeth Butler.

Elizabeth Denison's father made a fortune in banking, and in 1787 purchased an estate in Surrey and another near Scarborough. Her brother, William Joseph Denison, went into the family banking business, and in 1793 her sister, Anna Maria, married Sir Robert Wenlock. He later was created Baron Wenlock. On 5 July 1794, at the age of 24, Elizabeth married Henry, Viscount Conyngham an Irish peer who was four years her senior. From 1812, the Coyninghams moved in the Prince's circle as friends of the Hertfords.

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Henry Conyngham, first Marquis Conyngham

This article was written by Henry Morse Stephens and was published in 1887.

Henry Conyngham, first Marquis Conyngham, was the elder twin son of Francis Pierrepoint Burton, second baron Conyngham, by Elizabeth, sister of the first earl of Leitrim. Conyngham was born on 26 December 1766. He succeeded his father as third lord Conyngham in 1787, and on 6 December 1789 was created Viscount Conyngham of Mountcharles in the peerage of Ireland. On 5 July 1794 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Joseph Denison of Denbies, Surrey, a lady who had much influence on his future career, and a month later he was gazetted lieutenant-colonel of the Londonderry regiment, raised by himself; it was disbanded in 1803. For this service, and his active influence as a magistrate in troubled times, he was created Viscount Mountcharles and Earl Conyngham in the peerage of Ireland on 5 November 1797. He was a vigorous supporter of the union in the Irish House of Lords and when that act was passed he was elected one of the first Irish representative peers, was made a knight of St. Patrick, and received £15,000 in cash for his close borough of Killybegs in the Irish House of Commons.

After the passing of the union, Conyngham generally voted for the tory and ministerial party, but did not do much in politics, though from his wife's personal friendship with the prince regent he was created Viscount Slane, Earl of Mount Charles, and Marquis Conyngham on 22 January 1816. When the prince succeeded to the throne as George IV, Conyngham's importance greatly increased. He was created Lord Minster of Minster Abbey, Kent, on 17 July 1821, in the peerage of the United Kingdom, and was in the December of the same year sworn of the privy council and made lord steward of the household, and captain, constable, and lieutenant of Windsor Castle.

In the early years of their marriage, the Conynghams were neither particularly wealthy nor particularly well connected. In the closed circles of the aristocracy, Elizabeth's merchant origins were always held against her and she was considered rather vulgar. Creevey said that Lady Conyngham owed her first introduction to Dublin high life exclusively to Lady Glengall.

Lady Conyngham was considered to be a beauty and she acquired lovers and admirers including Lord Ponsonby and Tsar Nicholas I, whom she met during the peace talks following the end of the French Wars, when she was on the continent.  She had five children who survived to adulthood, the second son becoming second Marquess Conyngham and the third, Albert Denison, succeeding to her brother's fortune and being created Baron Londesborough.

According to the Duke of Wellington, Elizabeth Conyngham had decided as early as 1806 to become the mistress of George, prince of Wales. There were rumours that she was becoming his favourite by 1819, but she did not become his mistress until the summer of 1820, when she finally ousted her predecessor, Lady Hertford.

Caricaturists and wits found the idea of the fat, ageing king and his large, ageing mistress hilarious, and the king's behaviour in public fed their humour. He was besotted with his new companion. During his attempt to divorce Queen Caroline in 1820 he could not keep company with Lady Conyngham. He was determined to exclude his wife from the coronation but  desired to have Lady Conyngham close at hand. Lady Conyngham, who quickly earned the nicknames La Regnante and the Vice Queen, wielded great influence over the king. She had no political ambition and used her power only to further the personal and financial ambitions of herself and her family.

Lord Conyngham was given a United Kingdom peerage in 1821, was sworn of the privy council, and appointed lord steward of the household, and captain, constable, and lieutenant of Windsor Castle, while their second son was appointed first groom of the chamber and master of the robes. The entire family lived with the king and at his expense, and Lady Conyngham was the recipient of constant gifts of jewels, including some sapphires from the crown jewels

The Conynghams' supreme influence at court showed itself as early as May 1821, when Lady Conyngham secured for Mr. Sumner (afterwards bishop of Winchester) a canonry of Windsor, because he had been her eldest son's tutor, in spite of the opposition of the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, an appointment which nearly caused a ministerial crisis. The Conynghams always lived with the king, whether at Windsor or Brighton, and Mr. Greville reports a speech of the king's to Lady Conyngham, after she had ordered the Pavilion to be lighted up, which shows how great was the power she exercised over him: ‘Thank you, thank you, my dear, you always do what is right; you cannot please me so much as by doing everything you please, everything to show you are mistress here.’

Her feud with Lady Castlereagh caused constant political difficulties, especially concerning projected royal visits abroad. She also disliked the keeper of the privy purse, Sir Benjamin Bloomfield, and was instrumental in his removal. She struck up a mutually beneficial alliance with his successor, Sir William Knighton.

Her influence remained unbounded to the very last; she used the king's horses and carriages, and even the dinners she gave at her town house were cooked at St. James's Palace. George IV's death early in the morning of 26 June 1830 brought her reign to a rapid conclusion. She spent the remainder of the night packing, and by the following morning had left Windsor for her brother's house, on her way to Paris. Society believed that she was accompanied by ‘wagonloads’ of plunder; but although the king had bequeathed her all his plate and jewels she refused the entire legacy.With the death of George IV. the power of the Conynghams disappeared.

Conyngham was made general in the army in 1830. He broke his staff of lord steward at the funeral of his friend, and was not reappointed. He died at his house in Hamilton Place, Piccadilly, London, on 28 December 1832 and was buried at Patricksbourne church, Kent. He left two sons and two daughters: the second Marquis Conyngham and Lord Albert Conyngham, who succeeded to the Denison property and was created Lord Londesborough in 1849; Elizabeth, Marchioness of Huntley, and Harriet, Lady Athlumney. His widow long survived him, and did not die until 10 October 1861.

Following the death of the king, Lady Conyngham virtually disappears from the historical record. Lady Granville notes that Paris was agog to see her in August 1831, and found her to be ‘still beautiful’. The duke of Wellington was still speaking darkly of her to his friends in the later 1830s.

Lady Conyngham lived for a further thirty years, dying at the age of ninety-two at her home, Bifrons, Patrixbourne, near Canterbury, Kent, on 11 October 1861. She had outlived all but one of her children. Her estate was proved at under £200,000: she left her real estate to her only surviving son, Francis Nathaniel, along with her diamonds, pearls, and emeralds, which she desired should become family heirlooms.

She made provision for her granddaughters out of the £30,000 left to her by her banker brother, and left them her other jewels. Although Lady Conyngham was never accepted at Queen Victoria's court, her son, the second marquess, had been lord chamberlain to William IV, and as such brought news of her accession to the young queen and retained his post until 1839. His daughter, Jane, Lady Churchill, was one of the queen's ladies of the bedchamber and among her closest friends.

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