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26 Mar 2020

The benevolent Elizabeth, Duchess of Gordon

Written by Jamie Barron
An oil painting of a lady with short brown hair (in ringlets), seated outside, wearing a white gown with a navy blue shawl wrapped around her.
Elizabeth, Duchess of Gordon
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re publishing a series of blog posts written by our volunteers and staff, highlighting both historical female characters and their influences at their properties.

In the seventh of these posts, Jamie Barron, Collections Care Assistant at Brodie Castle, delves into the life of Elizabeth, Duchess of Gordon, and her bequest to Brodie Castle.

Elizabeth’s story begins with her parents – her mother, Elizabeth Wemyss, was descended from two aristocratic Scottish families – the Earls of Sutherland and of Wemyss. Her father, Alexander Brodie, was a younger son of Clan Brodie, whose elder brother would go on to inherit the castle and estate of Brodie. In the 1770s he went to Madras to work for the Honourable East India Company, working his way up from commissary’s assistant to extremely rich nabob and, upon his return to the UK, a Member of Parliament.

Elizabeth was their only child, a pious, industrious woman who knew her own mind. In 1813, the elegant and fashionable spa town of Bath was witness to Elizabeth’s marriage to George, Lord Huntly, heir to the Duke of Gordon – one of the greatest Scottish landowners of the era. Her marriage settlement was £100,000 – around £5 million in today’s money.

She set about using her position and wealth to do good for all those around her. It was said that George – whose life hitherto had been spent in a rather dissolute manner – was unlucky in everything except his wife, for she not only paid off his most pressing debts but, more importantly, made him very happy.

A coloured sketch of both a king and queen sitting on thrones in full royal regalia. Under the left-hand throne, the text reads, " King William The Fourth" and under the right-hand frame, the text reads, "Queen Adelaide".
King William IV and Queen Adelaide

It was not only her husband to whom she brought a better kind of life – the people on the Gordon estate, the wider community, and many of those with whom she had dealings, benefited from this most benevolent and kind-hearted of women. She had strong religious convictions, and because of this many churches and schools were built, including the charming Gordon Chapel in Fochabers (thought to include the most northerly example of Burne-Jones stained glass) and the buildings surrounding Holyroodhouse which now house the Queen’s Gallery exhibition space.

Modest, sensible Elizabeth was about to unexpectedly take centre stage in one of the most important ceremonies in the country. Shortly before the coronation of King William IV and his wife Queen Adelaide, the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes fell ill. This pivotal role had to be filled – the Queen’s long, grand robes needed somebody trustworthy to tend to them. Elizabeth stepped into the role at the last minute, being the only person to keep the King and Queen company inside the state coach en route to Westminster Abbey. As a token of her gratitude, the Queen gave Elizabeth her coronation robe, thought to be the only such item not in of the Royal Collection.

A coloured picture of an elderly lady, seated, in a brown dress with with a blue shawl framed in a gold gild and brown wood frame.
Elizabeth, Duchess of Gordon in old age

Following the death of her husband, the Duke’s entailed estates passed to his nephew, Charles, 5th Duke of Richmond, and Elizabeth gratefully retired to the house she liked best, Huntly Lodge (now the Castle Hotel). From here, she was able to support her religious and charitable causes.

In 1843, when the Free Church of Scotland broke away from the established Church of Scotland, she let ministers hold services at her house, being aware that they had nowhere else to worship. In the following years, her religious sympathies leaned more and more towards the Free Church of Scotland, to which she converted and of which she was an industrious and generous supporter for the rest of her life.

She died at her beloved Huntly Lodge aged 69. Having no children, she left the majority of her personal goods – furniture, silver, jewels, books, pictures, etc – as well as £6,500 (about £400,000 in today’s money) to Elizabeth Brodie of Brodie, her cousin’s wife, ‘independently and exclusively of her husband’. One Elizabeth Brodie helping another Elizabeth Brodie to lead a happy and independent life. These items now form part of the collection at Brodie Castle.