Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Frances Jennings, Duchess of Tyconnel (1647-1730), c.1675 

Henri Gascars (1634/51701)

Portrait of Frances Jennings, Duchess of Tyconnel (1647-1730), c.1675, Henri Gascars
Oil on canvas
17th Century
24 x 20 in. (61 x 50.8 cm.)
Lord Beaulieu at Ditton Park, Bucks
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Known as La Belle Jennings, the sitter was one of the most celebrated beauties at the court of Charles II. Gramont compares her with Aurora, or the goddess of spring and says of her: Miss Jennings ... had a complexion more dazzlingly fair than had ever yet been seen. Her tresses were a perfect blond.'

Frances was one of nine children (four sons and five daughters) of Richard Jennings of Holywell House, near St.Albans by his second wife Frances, daughter of Sir Giffard Thornhurst, Bart, of Agnes Court, Kent. Her younger sister Sarah was later to marry John Churchill and became the famous Duchess of Marlborough.

At the age of about 15, Frances became a Maid of Honour to the Duchess of York and her appearance at court caused a sensation. The French Ambassador Courtin described her thus: She is small but has a fine figure, a splendid complexion, hair like Madame de Longueville''s (you will remember), quick brilliant eyes and the finest and whitest skin I have ever seen.

Frances and her fellow Maids of Honour gained a reputation of some notoriety for their behaviour at Court. Samuel Pepys records the incident of Miss Jennings and Miss Price disguising themselves as orange girls:
'What mad freaks the Mayds of Honour at Court have that Mrs.Jenings, one of the Duchesse's mayds, the other day dressed herself like an orange wench and went up and down and cried oranges; till falling down, or by such accident, though in the evening, her fine shoes were discerned and she put to a great deale of shame.'

Her admirers included James, Duke of York, Marquis de Berni, Henry Jermyn and Richard Talbot but all of them were rejected. She was almost alone among her competitors in maintaining a reputation of chastity. In the spring of 1666 she married George Hamilton, an officer and a Roman Catholic. The King showed his approval by bestowing on Hamilton a pension of 500 a year and their first child, a daughter Elizabeth, was born a year later.

As a result of increased religious tension following the Great Fire, Catholics were forced to retire from the English army. As a consequence, Hamilton and 200 other Catholics in the Lifeguards transferred their services to France but not before he was knighted by the King in 1667. The Hamiltons quickly established themselves at the French Court. Hamilton raised a regiment of 1,500 Irish recruits and successfully took part in the victories at Sintzheim and Entzheim but was later killed at the Battle of Savarne in 1676. Frances was widowed with three children and Madame de Sevigne wrote that she was inconsolable and ruined beyond all hope. 4 The diarist John Evelyn met her in the same year at the house of the Countess of Berkeley, whose husband was Ambassador Extraordinary at Paris:
'There was in my Lady Ambassadress's company Lady Hamilton, a sprightly young lady, much in the good graces of the family, wife of that valiant and worthy gentleman, George Hamilton, not long after slain in the wars. She had been a Maid of Honour to the Duchess, and now turned papist.'

She petitioned the English court and secured for herself an annuity and the title of the Countess of Bantry. In 1679 she married in Paris, Colonel Richard Talbot, one of her early suitors at the Court of Charles II, but continued her court duties, attending the Queen at the Coronation in Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1685 and in the earlier lists of Queen Mary's household she appears as a Lady of the Bedchamber. Three months after the accession of James II, her husband was elevated as the Earl of Tyrconnel and given command of the army in Ireland.

His activities in Ireland aroused considerable controversy and as Commander of the Army in Ireland he disarmed the Protestants and filled the ranks with Catholics. He succeeded Clarendon as Viceroy in January 1687 and the following year he sent three thousand Irish troops to England. He fought courageously when his cause was shattered at the Battle of the Boyne. Tyrconnel decided to continue the struggle and returned to Ireland in 1691 but he died suddenly of apoplexy in Limerick after the defeat of Aughrim.

Frances was with the exiled court of James and Mary at St.Germain, when her husband died. She spent the following years in France, England and Holland before finally settling in Dublin where she lived in a house in Paradise Row, Arbor Hill, near Phoenix Park. She founded a nunnery in King Street for the Order of Poor Clares. She died as a result of falling out of bed and was buried in a vault in St.Patrick's Cathedral.

By Tyrconnel she had two daughters, of whom lady Charlotte was married to the Prince of Vintimiglia. Three of her daughters by Hamilton, Elizabeth, Frances and Mary married respectively Viscounts Ross, Dillon and Kingsland and were well known in Ireland as the Three Viscountesses.
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