Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Villiers, Elizabeth

VILLIERS, ELIZABETH, Countess of Orkney (1657?–1733), mistress of William III, born about 1657, was the daughter of Colonel Sir Edward Villiers of Richmond, Surrey, knight-marshal of the household, by his first wife, Frances, youngest daughter of Theophilus Howard, second earl of Suffolk [q. v.] Sir Edward was a younger brother of the second Viscount Grandison. Elizabeth was thus first cousin to Barbara Villiers, the notorious mistress of Charles II. Her mother was governess to the young princesses Mary and Anne, daughters of James, duke of York, and Elizabeth was an associate of the Princess Mary from early years. When, therefore, the marriage was arranged between Mary and the Prince of Orange, Elizabeth went over to The Hague as maid of honour in Mary's suite (November 1677) in company with her sister Anne Villiers, a general favourite, and her brother Edward Villiers (afterwards first Earl of Jersey) [q. v.], who no doubt owed his rapid advancement in large measure to her influence. Far from beautiful, but quick and clever, the Villiers family seem to have fascinated William and his favourites, and they soon intercepted princely favour to an extent which was to prove a lasting source of chagrin to the princess. Mrs. Villiers accompanied Mary to England (February 1689), and William, shortly after his coronation, settled upon his mistress a large portion of James II's Irish estates (over 90,000 acres in all, valued at 26,000l. a year), but the grant was saddled with rent-charges in the interests of James's discarded mistresses and others, and Elizabeth's revenue did not perhaps greatly exceed 5,000l. a year; the grants were revoked by parliament in 1699 (cf. Guizot, Hist. chap. xxxii.). The mistress ‘en titre’ was a considerable intrigante. The Villierses hated the Churchills, and Elizabeth carefully retailed to William all the gossip to Marlborough's detriment, of which there was no lack (Wolseley, Life, ii. 120, 244, 260). She was jealous of her younger sister, Anne, who had married the Earl of Portland, and is said to have pushed forward Keppel as a counterpoise to the latter. In November and December 1693 she acted as an intermediary between the king and Shrewsbury [see Talbot, Charles, Duke of Shrewsbury]. When Mary died, however, William was touched by remorse, and, it is said, specially moved by a letter from his wife imploring him to discontinue an intercourse which she had ever bewailed. Tenison bore the letter after the queen's death, and exacted a promise from William to break off his connection with his mistress, preaching upon the occasion a sermon ‘Concerning Holy Resolution,’ which was printed by the royal command (30 Dec. 1694). Within a twelvemonth of Mary's death William arranged a match between Elizabeth Villiers and Lord George Hamilton [q. v.] The pair were married at St. Martin's, Ludgate, on 25 Nov. 1695, and Hamilton was on 6 Jan. 1695–6 created Earl of Orkney. During Anne's reign Lady Orkney was a wise counsellor to her husband. Swift termed her the wisest woman he ever knew, and she was frequently consulted by Harley during the crisis of 1709–1710. She assisted at the entertainment of George I and George II at Cliefden, and was present at the coronation of George II, at which ceremony Lady Mary Wortley Montagu gives a ludicrous description of her appearance ‘in the train of a protuberance,’ ‘a mixture of fat and wrinkles.’ A story is told of a meeting between her, the Duchess of Portsmouth, the Duchess of Kendal, and Catharine Sedley, countess of Dorchester, who commented broadly upon the unique character of such a gathering. She died in Albemarle Street on 19 April 1733. In 1709 she founded an English school at Middleton, co. Cork (Smith, Hist. of Cork, i. 153). Lord Lansdowne celebrated in his ‘Progress of Beauty’ the graces of her mind; in person she was not prepossessing, and, according to Swift, ‘squinted like a dragon.’ No portrait of her has been engraved.

[Gent. Mag. 1733, p. 215; Collins's Peerage, iii. 791; Jesse's Court of England, 1688–1760, vol. i.; Shrewsbury Corresp. ed. Coxe, chap. ii.; Burnet's Own Time, iii. 130, iv. 425; Ralph's History, ii. 716; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope, viii. 389; Stanhope's Reign of Queen Anne, 1870; Strickland's Queens of England, vol. vii. passim; Suffolk Corresp. ed. Croker, 1824; Tidjspiegel, October 1892, p. 159; Tenison's Memoirs; Granville's Poems ap. Anderson, vol. vii.]

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