Profile of a duchess

Charlotte, Duchess of Somerset (1711-1773), was the first lady of quality and distinction to sign Thomas Coram’s petition to the King to establish the Foundling Hospital.

Married to the richest man in England and just 18 years old, she had recently had her first child. Coram’s story clearly moved her as on 9 March 1729, in the face of male indifference and risking society’s disapproval, she put her name to his petition.

Charlotte Seymour, née Finch, was one of at least eighteen children of Daniel Finch, 7th Earl of Winchilsea, later 2nd Earl of Nottingham and his second wife Anne, née Hutton. Charlotte’s father’s first wife had died in childbirth in 1684, during her eighth labour, although only one daughter survived. Charlotte’s mother, Lady Anne, married the Earl in 1685 and served as Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Mary from 1691, while bearing at least 17 children (5 sons and 12 daughters), of whom the majority seem to have survived into adulthood.

Lady Charlotte’s husband, Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset (1662-1748), a staunch supporter of Prince William of Orange and later of the Hanoverian succession, was 63 at the time of his second marriage, having been widowed in 1722. His first wife, Elizabeth Percy, had been heiress of the vast estates of the Duke of Northumberland and had herself been widowed twice by the age of 16, when Lord Somerset married her in 1682. The notoriously proud Duke allowed the superiority of his first wife to weigh on his second, admonishing his young bride for touching him playfully with her fan with the remark that his first wife would not have dared to do so, even though she was a Percy. He was listed as one of the Governors of the Foundling Hospital in October 1739.

Lady Charlotte’s spinster sister Lady Isabella ‘Bell’ Finch (1700-1771) was made of sterner stuff. Intellectual, financially independent and known as a fierce business woman, she was a professional courtier, and spent her life as First Lady of the Bedchamber to Princess Amelia. Not only does her name not appear among any supporters of the Foundling Hospital, but Coram’s own hand in the Hospital’s minutes tells that ‘On Innocents’ Day, 28 December 1737, I went to St James’s Palace to present this Petition, having been advised first to address the Lady of the Bedchamber in waiting to introduce me. But the Lady Isabella Finch, who was the Lady in waiting, gave me rough words, and bid me begone with my Petition, which I did, without Opportunity of presenting it.’

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