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Sunday, 16 October 2011

Mrs Fitzherbert (1756-1837)

Mrs Fitzherbert  from The Creevey Papers (1904)
Mrs Fitzherbert
from The Creevey Papers (1904)
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Maria Fitzherbert (26 July 1756 - 27 March 1837) was the secret wife of George, Prince of Wales, the future George IV.

Early life

Maria Fitzherbert was born Maria Ann Smythe on 26 July 1756, the eldest daughter of William Smythe and Mary Ann Errington. She came from a respectable family: William was the son of Sir John Smythe, Baronet, of Acton Burnel in Shropshire and her mother was related to the Earl of Sefton. She was strictly reared as a Roman Catholic and her education was completed in France.

Twice widowed

In July 1775, Maria married Edward Weld, a wealthy Catholic landowner of Lulworth Castle, who was sixteen years her senior. The marriage did not last long; Weld died after falling from his horse just a few months later, having failed to sign a new will in Maria's favour.

Lulworth Castle
Lulworth Castle
In 1778, she married again, this time to Thomas Fitzherbert of Swynnerton in Staffordshire. This marriage was also short-lived; Fitzherbert died from wounds inflicted during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780, leaving Maria Fitzherbert a widow for the second time.

Lady of fashion

Huish described Maria Fitzherbert as a woman of “great accomplishments and beauty”. He continues that she was “unquestionably, a most beautiful woman, but perhaps too much inclined to fullness of figure; and yet it may be said that she was indebted to that prominence of habit for a great portion of her personal loveliness and attraction.” (1)

La Belle Assemblée  described her thus:
“Mrs Fitzherbert is universally acknowledged to be a woman of refinement and elegant manners, of accomplishments equally solid and fascinating, and acquirements of a very high degree in the intellectual scale.” (2)
Wife or mistress?

In 1783, Maria became the object of royal attentions. George, Prince of Wales became infatuated with her, wanting her to become his mistress but Maria’s devout Catholic beliefs would not allow it. George decided that marriage was the only way to secure Maria's affections. On 15 December 1785 the Prince of Wales married Mrs Fitzherbert in a secret ceremony conducted by Robert Burt, an impoverished curate who set aside his scruples for the £500 fee.
George, Prince of Wales  from Memoirs of her late royal highness  Charlotte Augusta by Robert Huish (1818)
George, Prince of Wales
from Memoirs of her late royal highness
Charlotte Augusta by Robert Huish (1818)
The marriage however was not legal. Not only did it contravene the Act of Settlement of 1701, preventing a Roman Catholic from ascending the British throne, but it breached the Royal Marriage Act of 1772. As a descendant of George II who was under 25 years of age, the prince required the king’s consent for the marriage to be legal; his consent would never have been given, because George III was vehemently opposed to his children marrying either Catholics or commoners, and Maria Fitzherbert was both.

Queen of Brighton

Brighton Pavilion
Brighton Pavilion
George and Maria spent much of their time in Brighton where Mrs Fitzherbert was treated as queen. They had separate houses which together formed the heart of fashionable society there. Mrs Fitzherbert’s house, Steine House, was a modest residence which boasted a long veranda overlooking the Steine; the Prince of Wales lived at Brighton Pavilion.

The inconstant prince

However, by 1794, George and Maria's relationship was showing signs of strain, and the prince’s affections were wandering towards an older woman, Frances, Countess of Jersey. On 24 August, at Weymouth, George told his father that all connection with Mrs Fitzherbert had ceased and that he was ready to seek a Protestant bride, namely, his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. By agreeing to this marriage, George hoped to appease parliament so that they would pay the huge debts he had amassed as well as shielding his relationship with Lady Jersey.

After their separation, the prince treated Mrs Fitzherbert with callous coldness, although his brothers continued to honour her with respect, especially the Duke of Kent who bought her a house, Castle Hill in Ealing, in 1798.

Temporary reconciliation

In August 1798, George suddenly sought reconciliation with his former mistress. Maria was understandably sceptical. The prince characteristically sought to wear down her resistance. He revealed a will he had written in 1796 which left everything to Maria, “my real and true Wife” and showered her with presents. The couple were reunited in June 1800, though their relationship was not on as secure a footing as before.

Mrs Fitzherbert  from Memoirs of George IV by Robert Huish (1830)
Mrs Fitzherbert
from Memoirs of George IV by Robert Huish (1830)
By 1807, the prince’s affections were wandering again, this time towards Lady Hertford. Unable to bear any further humiliation, on 18 December 1809, Maria sent George a farewell letter and after 1811, she did not return to the Pavilion until after George's death. However, she was more fortunate than many of George’s other mistresses; she received financial provision by way of a pension.

Minney Seymour

Mrs Fitzherbert had a young ward who lived with her, Minney Seymour. La Belle Assemblée reported that: “Her conduct towards this young orphan seemed to be affectionate and tender without example.” (2)

Life after George

After George’s death in 1830, William IV, was anxious to make amends with his brother’s long-term mistress. He invited Mrs Fitzherbert to the pavilion and offered her the title of Duchess. Although initially disinclined, Mrs Fitzherbert was persuaded and, from this time, her servants wore royal livery and she visited the Pavilion regularly. Maria Fitzherbert died on 27 March 1837 and was buried in Brighton.

Notes
(1) From Memoirs of George IV by Robert Huish (1830).
(2) From La Belle Assemblée (May 1810).

Sources used include:
Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée (1810)
Chedzoy, Alan, Seaside Sovereign - King George III at Weymouth (2003)
Creevey, Thomas, The Creevey Papers, A selection from the correspondence & diaries of the late Thomas Creevey, MP, edited by Sir Herbert Maxwell (John Murray, 1904, London)
Dinkel, John, The Royal Pavilion, Brighton
Fry, Plantagenet Somerset, The Kings & Queens of England & Scotland (1990)
Huish, Robert, Memoirs of George IV (1830)
Huish, Robert, Memoirs of her late royal highness Charlotte Augusta (1818)
Parissien, Steven, George IV, The Grand Entertainment (2001)
Watson, J. Steven, Oxford History of England: The Reign of George III 1760-1815 (1960)

All photographs © Andrew Knowles - www.flickr.com/photos/dragontomato

20 comments:

  1. She must have had something extraordinary going for her, in 1830 when William IV made amends she was 74 and one must imagine that she way past her prime.
    Very interesting indeed, thank you

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  2. Fascinating article: thank you for sharing this. I believe the marriage was a bit of an open secret; certainly quite a lot of people seem to have known about it (including the prime minister, whose brother was friends with one of Maria's relatives and managed to get the whole story out of him). It was probably only the fact that the Prince of Wales really needed his debts paid that saved the whole thing becoming a massive constitutional crisis! Do you think they had any children? I've seen various rumours.

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    1. I don't think so. Mrs Fitzherbert had been married twice before and neither marriage had produced any children so I am inclined to think that she was not able to have children. Not conclusive evidence, but certainly an important factor.

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  3. This woman has always fascinated me. From time to time, I have read that there was speculation that she had a son with Prinny who was adopted out and sent to America. I find this hard to believe and have seen nothing to substantiate it. But, she must have been a very special lady to keep the attention of the notoriously fickle prince. And, too, she was always spoken of with respect by those who knew her. Thank you for this excellent post. I was unaware of her first husband.

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    1. I don't think Mrs Fitzherbert had a son with the Prince either - I think it is more likely that she was barren. I don't know what it was about her that kept the Prince's interest - maybe she was more forgiving of his failings! I was delighted to discover the Weld connection as Lulworth is quite local to me.

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  4. Mrs. Fitz. was educated in France. Most of the posters here seem to catch on the idea that she must have had something going on with her. Well, I know-- Like Anne Boleyn, she was educated in France. She had the alluring, bewitching quality that only a French woman or someone with French culture would be familiar with. All the How to catch the best bachelor man, just ask the French. lol

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    1. It would be very interesting to travel back in time and see for ourselves just what it was about her that was so alluring!

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  5. The vastly entertaining Creevey Papers is available in a Folio Society 1970 edition

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    1. Thanks for the information. :)

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    2. She did have a child, or so i was recently told by one of my uncles who conducted detailed research into our ancestry, visiting archives both in France and UK. She is one of my get grandmothers. I never took the time to look into it. But will now as my curiosity has been ignited.

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    3. I wonder what you will find! Do let me know if you find out anything more.

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    4. A fifth cousin of mine Peter (recently discovered through DNA) in Tazmania has an ancestor who the family knew to be the son of George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert, his name was George Frederick Read. Peter is trying to find a direct male line descendent of the Hanovarian royal family with DNA matching in mind to prove or dispel.

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    5. Thanks for sharing. It would be very exciting if he were able to use DNA testing to prove that George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert had a son.

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  6. I'm very interested in this particular time in history, as I'm basing a book set in 1820 and my hero's father is in Parliament during the trial. I wonder just how secret the marriage between Mrs. Fitzherbert and Prinny was. Of course, we know about it now, but I wonder how many of Society knew at the time.

    I also wonder, as I'm Catholic, too, whether she considered herself Prinny's wife until she died. They didn't annul the marriage in the eyes of the Church, did they? I may have missed something in my research.

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    1. The marriage between Mrs Fitzherbert and the Prince must have been widely talked about as Charles James Fox denied it having taken place in Parliament in order to scotch the rumours. However, this upset Mrs Fitzherbert as it reduced her to the state of royal mistress and the Prince had to persuade Sheridan to combat this in Parliament. He did this admirably with one of the vaguest speeches ever where he defended Mrs Fitzherbert's integrity without actually saying that the wedding had indeed taken place.

      I think that Mrs Fitzherbert considered herself married to the Prince throughout. At one stage, I believe she asked the Pope himself to verify that she was still married to the Prince despite his marriage to Caroline of Brunswick.

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    2. *grin* Thank you! It's a small part of my story, and actually more the social climate, but the more research I have for the time, the more authentic my story will feel, right? I appreciate your time in responding!

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    3. Lots of research is our only hope when it comes to writing historical fiction! Immersing ourselves in our period is the safest way to get things right. :)

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    4. To answer a question above - the Pope at the time of the Prince of Wale's marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert declared their union valid. In the eyes of the Roman Catholic church the marriage was sacramentally very much a real marriage - and binding. As far the RC church was concerned the Prince was a bigamist (due to his marriage to Caroline of Brunswick). I personally feel that as two consenting adults (and with modern eyes) that their union was indeed valid in spite of what any law of the land might say. Such laws would be considered prejudiced today imo and against common human rights. Thank you for this very interesting read on Mrs. Fitzherbert!

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    5. Thank you Margaret for clarifying that point. I think George acted very badly towards Mrs Fitzherbert - I think it highly unlikely that he ever meant to give up the throne because of her. I believe that she at least regarded it as a true marriage.

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    6. I am a non-official historian,writer, artist and medicine keeper for an Ojibwe tribe way up north in upper MI.
      In 1837, James Ord became our Indian Agent. He was the adopted son of a u.s.general Ord. Ord allegedly was sent the boy to raise for a "highly placed person" in England.
      SOme of our family ran dogsleds of mail in winter when the route to some areas opened when the waters froze over. They said that young Ord recieved letters from England full of imperial seals and even showed the fancy mail to some. It became an open secret that Ord was the child of Mrs.Fitzherbert and the prince of England. There is even a street named after him at his post in Sault ste. Marie, MI. He was supposed to have resettled in California.Im 75 and not good at this electronic stuff, I hope this doesnt erase. I will have to sign as anon, but my name is Elisabeth D.

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