Monday 12 December 2011

Famous Royal Mistresses – Prinny and Mrs Fitzherbert

When is a famous royal mistress not a royal mistress? When perhaps, like Mrs Fitzherbert, she may actually have been a royal wife? The British Royal Family has been much in the news recently, with the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton having just taken place at Westminster Abbey, but members of our Royal Family have throughout history found themselves the centre of attention, written about in newspapers and pamphlets and even finding themselves in the centre of a scandal. One royal who was no stranger to scandal was George, Prince of Wales, the son of King George III and Queen Charlotte, who went on to become Prince Regent and then King George IV. Known to his friends as ‘Prinny’, Prince George led a decadent life at the head of a group of beaus and dandies known as the Carlton House Set, spending his days gambling, drinking, decorating his houses and running up a huge amount of debt. When he was a young man, George was handsome and a great favourite with the ladies, but as he grew older the ravages of his lifestyle caused him to become bloated and pile on the weight, prompting Beau Brummell to utter his famous caustic remark ‘Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?’  Prince George also enjoyed an extensive and varied love life and had many mistresses throughout his life, but perhaps he ever only truly loved one of them?

Mrs Fitzherbert

The lady in question is known to history as Mrs Fitzherbert, although she was born Maria Ann Smythe on 26th July 1756.  She was the eldest child of William Smythe and Mary Ann Errington, who were Roman Catholics and well-connected with the British aristocracy, as her mother was a half-sister of the Earl of Sefton. She was sent to Paris for her education, but was married at the age of 18 to Edward Weld, a wealthy Catholic landowner who was 16 years her senior. Unfortunately for the young Maria, her new husband was thrown from a horse only three months after their wedding, without having yet made a new will. This left the young widow in dire financial straits and in desperate need of a new husband to support her, so three years later she wed another older man, Thomas Fitzherbert of Swynnerton in Staffordshire. This time she was ten years younger than her spouse, and the couple had one son who tragically died very young. She was widowed again on 7th May 1781, but this time she was more fortunate in the inheritance stakes as she gained a smart house in Park Street, Mayfair and a healthy annual income.

When she came out of mourning, Mrs Fitzherbert was sponsored into the glittering whirl of London Society by her uncle Lord Sefton and her half-brother Henry Errington. She was now a very eligible young widow, and probably had many suitors. But in the spring of 1784 she was introduced to the very cream of this Society, when Maria Fitzherbert caught the eye of the 22 year old Prince of Wales when she attended the opera in the company of Lord Sefton. Although, at 27, Mrs Fitzherbert was older than Prince George, the impressionable young prince was smitten and immediately began to pursue her. Rumours soon started flying around Polite Society that Mrs Fitzherbert was the Prince’s latest mistress. The pair seemed to be genuinely in love, and in July 1784 her besotted prince offered her a ring as a gift. The ring was initially refused, but Mrs Fitzherbert finally accepted the gift, after Prince George threatened to commit suicide. The ecstatic Prince believed that this acceptance of his ring meant that Maria Fitzherbert had agreed to marry him,  and knowing that marrying the Prince would be nigh on impossible she escaped to Europe.  Maria Fitzherbert’s whereabouts were eventually traced, and she returned to London in December 1785. It was at this point that the couple underwent a secret marriage ceremony in the drawing room of Mrs Fitzherbert’s house in Park Street.

So why was there so much secrecy surrounding this wedding? It was because under English law the marriage was regarded as invalid. This was because George was the Prince of Wales and the 1689 Bill of Rights stated that any heir to the throne who married a Roman Catholic would be lose their place in the succession and the Royal Marriage Act of 1772 required that the King’s consent had to be obtained before one of his children could wed. As Mrs Fitzherbert was a Roman Catholic and it was highly unlikely that King George III would give consent to his eldest son and heir marrying a Catholic widow, the couple can have been only too aware that it was unlikely that their marriage would ever be recognised by the Royal Family and legitimised. We may never know why the couple took the risk of getting married in secret, but there were rumours flying around Society at the time that Mrs Fitzherbert was pregnant, and being a Roman Catholic may well have been deeply worried about having a child out of wedlock. It must be remembered that before she met the Prince of Wales, Maria Fitzherbert had led the life of a very respectable woman and had a high standing in the Society of which she was a part. In fact, they had to approach three different clergymen before they found one who would perform the ceremony, and it was one of the Prince of Wales’s own chaplains, the Reverend Robert Burt who finally agreed. There has been speculation that Reverend Burt only agreed because the Prince had agreed to pay off his debts or even got him out of debtor’s prison, but there is no real evidence to support this, and Burt came from an affluent family who had made their fortune in the West Indies.

The rumours continued to fly about the Prince of Wales and Mrs Fitzherbert, but they lived together as a married couple until 1794. It was Prinny’s extravagance and decadent lifestyle that was to be their undoing as he had reached a point where he was unable to discharge his debts. He had already once been financially bailed out by his father, the King, and so to ensure that he stayed in his father’s good books, Prince George finally agreed to marry a foreign, protestant princess called Caroline of Brunswick. To complicate matter further, in 1794 George started a romantic liaison with Frances Villiers, the Countess of Jersey, who was strongly counselling him to marry Princess Caroline and get rid of his mountain of debts. Lady Jersey was very keen on retaining her status as his royal mistress, and felt that Caroline of Brunswick was much less of a threat to her position than Mrs Fitzherbert, a lady who he had been in love with for nearly a decade. The question has to be did Prince George really believe that he was already married, and if so was he worried and unhappy that in some people’s eyes he was committing bigamy by marrying another woman? Although how do you divorce someone that you may or may not be legally married to? When the Prince broke off his relationship with her, Maria Fitzherbert fled first to Margate, and then to Marble Hill in Twickenham, ending up in Ealing in the October of 1795.

It is quite safe to say that the Prince’s marriage to Caroline of Brunswick was a disaster, and by 1799 Prinny was once more back in the arms of Mrs Fitzherbert. They lived together in Brighton until around 1807 where Mrs Fitzherbert owned a house called Steine House that had been designed for her by the architect William Porden, and the Prince was building his fantastical piece of Eastern architecture, the Brighton Pavilion. The couple seemed to have had a shaky relationship for the next two years, but it seems that they had finally parted forever by 1811, the Prince having embarked on what would be a 12 year long affair with the somewhat curvaceous Lady Hertford.

Mrs Fitzherbert continued to live quietly in Brighton in Steine House until her death in 1837, and she was buried in the Roman Catholic church of St John the Baptist in the Kemp Town area of the town. One of the big questions asked about Mrs Fitzherbert was whether or not she ever bore the Prince of Wales any children? There were those rumours of her pregnancy at the time of her morganatic marriage, and many people believe that James Ord, who was born in 1786, was that child. James Ord was taken to the United States and became a Jesuit priest there, but left the order to first join the US Navy and then the US Infantry. However, In Maria Fitzherbert’s will there is no mention of a son, but in the second codicil she does make references to ‘two dear children’ who were Mary Ann Smythe and Mary Dawson-Damer. Mary Ann Smythe became Mary Ann Stafford-Jerningham after her marriage and was nominally a niece of Mrs Fitzherbert, and Mary Ann Dawson-Damer was known as the daughter of Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour and his wife Lady Anna Horatia Waldegrave. The Seymour’s son was one of the executors of Mrs Fitzherbert’s will and received a minor bequest from her, and his father has been a lifelong friend and confidant of the Prince of Wales. However, until concrete historical evidence comes to light, the question of whether Mrs Fitzherbert had any natural children with the Prince Regent will remain unanswered. The two women mentioned in her will may well just have been children that she had been very attached to and felt motherly towards, and we perhaps may never know the truth about James Ord either.

So to the world, Mrs Fitzherbert, may have been nothing more than another famous royal mistress, but I think that she sincerely believed that she was the true wife of the Prince of Wales. And although Prinny left her to make a marriage of convenience with a foreign princess, and enjoyed several other mistresses during his lifetime, it does seem that Mrs Fitzherbert was the woman who held his heart and whom he loved until his dying day. After his death in 1830, it was discovered that the recently deceased monarch had kept all of the love letters and correspondence that had passed back and forth between him and his beloved Mrs Fitzherbert, but, unfortunately for us, these undoubtedly fascinating documents were then destroyed. The new king was William IV, a brother of George, who offered Mrs Fitzherbert a dukedom when he came to the throne, to compensate her for all of the trials and tribulations that she had suffered at the hands of his sibling. Maria Fitzherbert turned this honour down stating that ‘she had borne through life the name of Mrs Fitzherbert; that she had never disgraced it, and did not wish to change it’. This was a lady who had done what she did for love and not to gain money or fancy titles; she just wanted to live her life as the beloved wife of her prince.

Image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

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