Sometimes it’s peculiar how small random things in life line up and coincide. They may have no special significance but just leave you thinking, “Hm, that’s strange.” Today was a bit like that – and what’s more, I ended up knowing a lot more about Earl Grey than I did before.
Random occurrence number one: I was catching up on some TV programmes I’d recorded a while ago, starting with the Keira Knightley film, “The Duchess”. This is based on the true story (told in the book Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire byAmanda Foreman) of the eighteenth century Duchess of Devonshire who, as a seventeen year-old is married to a wealthy duke, solely so she can provide him with a male heir. When she becomes disillusioned with his coolness towards her and his many dalliances with other women, she finds solace in the arms of a promising young politician.
Random occurrence two: on making myself a cup of tea, I found an Earl Grey tea bag in the kitchen cupboard. “How did that get there?” I wondered.
Random occurrence three: still catching up on TV, I watched an episode ITV’s Tales from Northumberland with Robson Green. He was visiting Howick Hall, formerly the seat of the Earls of Northumberland. I listened more closely when I realised that the earl under discussion was none other than Charles Grey, who had also been the politician lover of the duchess of Devonshire, subject of the film I had been watching just an hour ago. But now I could hardly believe my ears as the programme mentioned that this man was none other than Earl Grey of tea bag fame!
Grey was British Prime Minister from 1830 – 1834 and was known as an important social reformer. It was he who was responsible for extending the number of people eligible to vote; for making the British voting system fairer and for introducing the abolition of slavery. All in all, I found out, he was something of a liberal hero and would certainly have turned out to be a worthy suitor for Georgiana, had she not been trapped in a loveless marriage to the Duke of Devonshire.
A number of rumours exist as to Grey’s connection with tea. The most popular theory is that some Chinese diplomats gave Grey a present of tea flavoured with bergamot and it was named in his honour. In Grey’s home area in Northumberland the limestone soil flavoured the water unpleasantly and it is thought that the bergamot was used to disguise this.
Georgiana’s husband forced her to end her passionate affair with Grey, and Grey went on to marry Mary Ponsonby who bore him many children. Georgiana spent the rest of her life in an odd ménage a trois living with her husband the Duke of Devonshire and her friend Elizabeth Foster, who was his mistress and later became the 2nd duchess of Devonshire.
Parallels have often been drawn between Georgiana and Princess Diana: both were married at a very young age to a powerful older man who needed a male heir; both loved their husband but had their love spurned; both had passionate but ultimately doomed affairs; both had “three people in their marriage”. Moreover, Diana and Georgiana were relatives: Georgiana was Diana’s great great great great aunt. Another interesting coincidence in a day of coincidences.