In 1791 an actress by the name of “Mrs. Jordan” became acquainted with William, Duke of Clarence, third son of King George III. She was 30-years-old and the mother of four illegitimate children via two different men. Three of them were fathered by Sir Richard Ford, who she moved in with after he promised to marry her. He didn’t and once she met William she promptly jumped ship.
The great love of her life was George Inchbald, another actor, who left her brokenhearted when he failed to propose, and before him came an army lieutenant, Charles Doyne, who did propose and was roundly refused. Her first illegitimate child was fathered by Richard Daly, the manger of an Irish theatre company in Cork. Their child, a daughter named Frances, would eventually follow her mother on the stage.
Mrs. Jordan was born Dorothy Bland, a name by which she was known until she left Doyne for Inchbald and reinvented herself, taking the name from the River Jordan which she claimed to have metaphorically crossed when she left Ireland for England.
To transition from the mistress of a magistrate to a royal duke was quite the leap in lifestyle for Mrs. Jordan – for all that it afforded her newfound financial comfort, it also raised her profile and made her a figure of notoriety. And while it may be thought associating himself with an actress – with illegitimate children at that – would have caused a scandal for the Duke of Clarence, the fact was that by the 1790s George III’s sons had long ago given up the pretense of maintaining any sense of respectability around the throne.
In 1772, following the secret and questionable marriages of his brothers, the King had instituted the Royal Marriages Act via Parliament, a law which forbade members of the Royal Family from marrying without the sovereign’s permission before the age of 25 and, after that, to give Council at least one year’s notice. Some 20 years later, William could theoretically have married Mrs. Jordan, but, like so many of his brothers, he chose instead not jeopardize his public allowance and instead went through the motions of domesticity without ever making it legal.
Between 1894 and 1807 William and Mrs. Jordan had 10 children. They lived at Bushy Park, their residence and lifestyle seemingly blessed by the King, though it’s worth noting that by the 1790s, while not completely “mad,” he increasingly suffered from mental instability. Accepted by British society and on friendly terms with various siblings, the couple entertained frequently and seemed to enjoy a relatively happy home life together.
Money, however, continued to be a problem, particularly as their family grew. Officially, William’s allowance was based on what a prince of his rank needed to maintain himself – and him alone. Traditionally, that amount was raised when sons of the king married, their new funds meant to reflect a need to provide for a wife and children. Mrs. Jordan and the 10 “FitzClarences” as they were known, were not deemed necessary to fund with public money.
It is also worth understanding that at this point in William’s life there was no expectation that he would ever inherit the throne. The third son of his father, his oldest brother, the Prince of Wales, had “done his duty” and married a German cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, and produced an heir: Princess Charlotte. If that line faltered, the second son was Frederick, Duke of York, who may have been childless, but had been married to Princess Frederica of Prussia since 1791.
With mounting debts, the affair was abruptly ended by William in 1811. At the time, Mrs. Jordan described the cause with: “Money, money, my good friend, has, I am convinced made HIM at this moment the most wretched of men.” At the outset of their separation, she was given custody of their daughters and a relatively generous allowance to care for them, with the stipulation that she not return to the stage, an occupation not deemed appropriate for the mother of half-royal children. Three years later, however, when one of her sons-in-law fell into debt she took an acting job and was promptly cut off.
William took their daughters from her and, debts building up, Mrs. Jordan was forced to flee to France in 1815, where she died the following year, impoverished and alone.
Whatever mourning the Duke felt was offset by his desire to marry money and solve his financial issues. Believing that his title was an attractive enough prospect for a British heiress or a foreign princess, he found himself on the receiving end of multiple rejections. It wasn’t until November 1817, when his niece, Princess Charlotte, unexpectedly died in childbirth that the succession was blown wide open and William suddenly had something to offer a potential bride.
The Prince of Wales was still nominally married and thus couldn’t take a younger wife and produce another legitimate child. The Duke and Duchess of York had never had children and were no longer able to. Suddenly, William had a very good chance of inheriting the throne or, if he died before his brothers, of fathering the next king or queen of England. His younger brothers had the same thought and 1818 saw three royal weddings for George III’s unfortunate sons, though only two were significant.
One was the marriage of the King’s fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent, and Victoire of Saxe-Leiningen, a union which resulted in the birth of the future Queen Victoria. The other was that of William to Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, a rather plain, kind-hearted young woman who was about 30 years younger than her new husband. At 26 and still unmarried, it’s unclear what exactly Adelaide was looking for in a spouse, but it was unlikely to have been a man old enough to be her father with 10 motherless, illegitimate children.
The couple initially settled in Hanover where the cost of living was settled. Adelaide quickly conceived, however at seven-months pregnant she fell ill and prematurely gave birth to a daughter who only lived a few hours. When she became pregnant again a few months later, they returned to England, but Adelaide miscarried during the journey home in September 1819.
On December 10, 1820 Adelaide was finally delivered of a healthy baby, a daughter christened Elizabeth. Unfortunately, she died of an “inflammation of the bowels” three months later and was buried in St. James’s Palace in March 1821. Stillborn twin boys were born on April 8, 1822 and there may have been an additional short-lived pregnancy the following year. In any event, before the mid-1820s, it was acknowledged that William and Adelaide wouldn’t produce healthy children and Princess Victoria of Kent was seen as the eventual heir to the throne.
When George IV (formerly the Prince of Wales) died in 1830, the throne passed to William, who ascended as King William IV. His seven-year reign was brief, but he clearly delighted in being king. Whether he had the temperament, intellect and experience that would produce a worthy monarch is debatable, but certainly his time on the throne wasn’t the unmitigated disaster that it could have been.
Unless, of course, you asked his sister-in-law, the Dowager Duchess of Kent, who had been widowed when her infant daughter was less than a year old. Paranoid and isolated as a foreigner alone in England, receiving bad advice and possessing only modest language skills in the beginning, the Duchess made the mistake of choosing to set herself up apart from the new king and queen. Adelaide, who genuinely sought to be a generous and interested aunt to Princess Victoria, was viewed suspiciously by the girl’s mother and the Duchess declined to allow her daughter to become a regular fixture at William’s court.
Part of her reasoning, which appears to have been genuine, was an absolute horror at the idea of letting the Princess socialize with the FitzClarence children, or even near them for that matter. During his reign, William elevated his eldest illegitimate son to the peerage, a line that continued uninterrupted with the Earls of Munster until 2000, while a number of his daughters were married to nobles. It was a practice and a level of social fluidity that the Duchess found abhorrent and flew in the face of her desire to protect her daughter’s outlook and experiences.
When William died on June 20, 1837 at Windsor Castle, the 18-year-old Princess Victoria ascended the throne. Daughter, however, was not like mother and as part of an effort to distance herself from her upbringing and correct what she viewed as a smothering level of over-protection, the new queen took several measures to ensure her new life and court ran according to her own preferences. One of them included making the FitzClarence offspring, who could have found themselves in an uncomfortable social position with the passing of their father, welcome in London. The eldest son, George FitzClarence, continued his work as an aide-de-camp to his cousin until his death, and the rest of the siblings were always viewed as family by Victoria, even if not royals.
It was an attitude that betrayed a liberal strain of thinking in the young queen and a level of generosity that she had little trouble showing those that weren’t her own children as the rest of the 19th century unfolded.
The FitzClarences continued to make up an established part of British society and their descendants are sprinkled through noble families today. Two such members include Princess Alexandra, Duchess of Fife and Princess Maud of Connaught, granddaughters of Edward VII, whose eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, married Alexander Duff, Duke of Fife.