FANNY JENNINGS / The duchess nun

FANNY JENNINGS, Duchess of Tyrconnell

St Albans / Dublin / St Germain

1647 – 1730

Fanny Jennings, was an intriguing woman whose sobriquets included ‘the duchess nun’ and ‘the white milliner.’ Born near St Albans in England in 1647, at sixteen she was appointed maid of honour to Anne Hyde, Duchess of York. Miss Jennings quickly earned a reputation as one of the fairest and most beautiful ladies ‘who robbed men of their hearts, women of their lovers, and never lost herself as she moved through the glittering court of Charles II, in unblenched majesty.’ Noted for rebuking the advances of James Duke of York and his brother the king, Fanny Jennings married twice.  Her first husband was George Hamilton whom she married when she was seventeen and with whom she had at least three daughters. After George was killed in battle in 1676, Fanny was left a young widow of little means.

As one of the most ‘conspicuous ornaments’ at the Duchess of York’s court, it was not long before the widowed Mrs Hamilton remarried.  From the multitude of eager suitors who fawned over her, Fanny married Richard Talbot in 1679. In 1685, Richard was sent to Ireland to take command of King’ James II’s forces and to support the Roman Catholic influence. Fanny and her three daughters from her first marriage, went with him.  While in Ireland, the king created Richard Talbot, Duke of Tyrconnell.  As Duchess, Fanny held ‘her state as vice – queen with much state and magnificence’.

At Dublin Castle, she entertained the king with ‘French urbanity and Irish hospitality’ in 1689. Following his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne the following year, King James returned to the castle where it is alleged, the Duchess in ‘all the splendour of court etiquette’ greeted him at the top of the staircase in her full robes and ‘with all her attendants’ knelt on one knee and ‘congratulated the king on his safe return to Dublin, and respectfully inquired what refreshment he would be pleased to take at that moment’.

After James’s defeat, the Tyrconnells followed the exiled court to St Germain, where Fanny remained for several years.  Following the death of the duke, Fanny once more found herself impoverished. Records of the English Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre in Liege, note the demise of the widowed duchess’s finances. She was also among recipients of a pension which James II received from the Pope, her share amounted to no more than 3,000 crowns or £400. 

By 1705, Fanny resorted to desperate measures and hired a stall under the Royal London Exchange, a fashionable haunt of wealthy ladies, from which she sold hats and some small items of general ‘haberdashery.’ However, keen to hide her identity, Fanny wore a full length white dress and a white lace mask to conceal her face. Her experience was dramatized in the 1840s as a successful play, ‘The White Milliner’ and performed at Covent Garden.

The following year, Fanny returned to Dublin and eventually obtained some of her deceased husband’s property.  Her days of entertaining the king at Dublin Castle were long gone, and Fanny, a widow, poor, penniless and proscribed, withdrew from the world she once knew, and took up residence in her husband’s former house on North King Street where she established a nunnery for the Poor Clare sisters.

As a devout Catholic she travelled with her many books of devotion, and endowed the Scots College in Paris for the saying of masses for ever, for the souls of her dead husbands and herself. 

In Ireland, she was among a coterie of women whose names became associated with the ‘gallant efforts that were made by religious orders of women to offset the worst effects of the penal laws in the field of education for the children of the Irish Catholic aristocracy’. Some years before her death, Fanny became a nun with the Poor Clares, some of her granddaughters subsequently joined the same order.  In the late 1680s, Fanny had incurred a debt with a ruthless creditor from whom she borrowed for the ‘purpose of helping out the newly founded Royal Benedictine Community of Benedictines’ at Ship Street in Dublin. 

The celebrated beauty and remarkable lady that was Fanny Jennings, ended her days as a nun with the Poor Clares on North King Street, where she died aged eighty-two on 6 March 1730. Her body was laid to rest across the city in St Patrick’s Cathedral three days later on 9 March.

Thanks to herstorian Damien Duffy for this herstory.