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Britain's First Black Aristocrat

Posted by Caribbean World Magazine on 8 January 2021 | 0 Comments

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8 January 2021

Now available in podcast form, the fascinating tale of Dido Elizabeth Belle is compelling listening, and one of British nobility’s most extraordinary stories.

Captured now in podcast form, the colourful history of one of the chatelaines of the UK's grandest stately homes has been wonderfully retold by Lady Mansfield of Scone Palace.Speaking on the Duchess podcast about Dido Elizabeth Belle, Lady Mansfield detailed the life of a woman who was born in 1761 to an enslaved woman and a British Naval officer stationed in the West Indies. At the age of four, Dido was taken to England and placed in the care of the officer's uncle, Lord Mansfield, at Kenwood House, in Hampstead. Here she was raised as a lady alongside Lord Mansfield's great niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray with allthe privileges and entitlements to boot.

A portrait of Dido and her cousin Lady Elizabeth, once thought to show the lady with a maid, is now in Scone Palace and was described by the current Lady Mansfield as one of their most precious possessions. Lady Mansfield describedhow Sir John Lewis captured a Spanish slaver near Cuba whilst in the Navy, falling in love with a black woman called Maria Belle who bore him a daughter, Dido. When Maria died just a few years later, Lindsay, who was knighted and promoted to admiral, took the unusual step of bringing her back to England, asking his uncle Lord Mansfield if he would take her into his household and bring her up. In Kenwood House in Hampstead, her great uncle and great aunt raised her alongside their great niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, and highly educated in a range of subjects including French and music.

Belle was often shunned by the high society figures she encountered and upper echelons of the noble classes were shocked to see her walking arm in arm with Lady Elizabeth. She was gossiped about, and an object of curious fascination in London society. However, Lord and Lady Mansfield were never ashamed of Belle, and wanted to show visitors that she was very much part of the family.

This isn’t the first broadcast version of the story - in 2014, the tale of Belle's life as Britain’s first black aristocrat was brought to the big screen in the film Belle, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the lead.

In 1784 Lady Mansfield died, leaving her husband devastated. A year later Lady Elizabeth, who had been Belle's friend since childhood, left to marry George Finch-Hatton, the future 10th Ear of Winchilsea and 5th Earl of Nottingham. Lord Mansfield updated his will on a number of occasions to ensure Belle would be taken care of after his death. In 1793, Lord Mansfield died and his estate was inherited by his nephew Lord Stormont. Belle went on to marry a servant, John Davinier, with whom she had three sons. She died of unknown causes in her thirties after just a few years of marriage - many of Britain’s High Society mourned her passing.