In the middle of all the conversation about what an unlikely choice Meghan Markle is for the British Royal Family let’s take a moment to remember the time George III’s younger brother married the illegitimate daughter of a shop girl. Notably, the marriage was one of the liaisons that prompted the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, a fairly useless piece of legislation that didn’t do anyone much good.
Prince William was born on November 25, 1745 at Leicester House in London to the Prince and Princess of Wales. His grandfather was King George II and his father, Frederick, was his loathed eldest son and heir. His mother, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, was a diminutive figure who was mostly ostracized by her in-laws due to her unwavering loyalty to her husband.
William was his parents’ fifth child – he joined in the Wales nursery his elder siblings, Augusta, George, Edward and Elizabeth. Within two years of his birth, he was followed by a younger brother, Henry, and then three more siblings, Louisa, Frederick and Caroline Matilda.
When he was eight years old, his father died from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 44. The succession was then plunged into a tricky situation. George II still sat on the throne, but his able-bodied adult heir was replaced by that of his not yet 13-year-old grandson, Prince George. The domestic makeup of the Wales household was thrown into jeopardy and Augusta was only able to keep custody of her children by playing a completely subservient role with her father-in-law, constantly afraid he would remove George or her younger children from her home. And all the while, the threat of a regency government hung over the family balance should George II should die before his heir reached legal majority.
As it happened, the King didn’t pass away until 1760 when the new George III was 22. For William, then 17, it was a notable change of lifestyle as he stood poised to mark his entry into adulthood with his brother on the throne. Four years later, George made William the Duke of Gloucester and it was around this time that William approached a beautiful society widow, Maria Walpole, and asked her to become his mistress.
Maria was seven years older than the 21-year-old Prince and the mother of three young children. She was born to Sir Edward Walpole via his mistress, Dorothy Clement, in 1736, while Sir Edward was a son of the famous British politician and Hanoverian Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. Despite the respectable lineage on her father’s side, her mother was a lower-class young woman working in a dress shop near Sir Edward’s home. At some point the two met, began a romantic relationship and she eventually moved in with him, ran his household and gave birth to his four children.
When Maria was about three, Dorothy died and the children were raised from then on by their maternal aunt, Jane, in Sir Edward’s home. Sir Edward, to his credit, refused to let his children’s illegitimate status hold them back in society and was convinced that the combination of providing his daughters with handsome dowries and their own physical beauty would ensure respectable marriages. To a certain extant he was right, but this was most clearly seen in Maria, the most beautiful of his daughters.
In 1759, when she was 22, Maria married James Waldegrave, 2nd Earl Waldegrave. Middle-aged and in need of an heir, he was willing look past his wife’s status in light of her fertility and the small fortune Sir Edward promised him. Over the next three years she gave birth to three daughters, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Anna. Then, while pregnant with her fourth child, Earl Waldegrave died on April 28, 1763. It’s unclear exactly what happened to Maria’s pregnancy, but no child appears to have been born. It’s likely she miscarried, but gossip spread at the time that she “held on” to the pregnancy in the hopes of keeping her house. Because the Earl died without a male heir, his widow and daughters had no claim to his lands, homes or title.
Even so, during her brief marriage Maria had successfully launched herself into British society thanks to her husband’s respectability and her own physical appearance. Now on the market, it was within months of her husband’s death that Prince William began writing and visiting her, a flirtation that culminated in a request to become his mistress in 1764.
However, despite his royal status, mistress was hardly the lifestyle choice Maria’s father and uncle, Horace Walpole, wanted for her. Horace drafted a response for Maria to send to William politely rejecting him in such a way as to keep her reputation and position intact. It read, in part:
“My vanity was not blind enough to make me aspire to a situation for which I am not proper, and which, if I could attain, nothing but ruin could happen to me and my children, and misery to your Royal Highness. Let me therefore with all humility intreat your Royal Highness never to think of me more.”
And yet…within two weeks of sending the letter, William was calling upon Maria at her home and the two were certainly involved in a romantic relationship. Whether it was sexual is unclear, but it was certainly emotional and the two spent nearly all of their time together. On September 6, 1766 the two were secretly wed at Maria’s house in London.
Initially the union was kept quiet, but it soon became common knowledge that the two were married and living together. The only catch was that William didn’t declare it, knowing it wouldn’t meet his brother’s approval. That all changed five years later when William’s brother, Henry, Duke of Cumberland married Anne Horton, a beautiful society fixture who, despite being the daughter of an earl, was also far below Henry’s station. Unlike William, Henry claimed the marriage and the following year Parliament passed the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 at the King’s behest.
Hitherto, George III had been well aware of William’s marriage, but it was unacknowledged between them. Seeing Anne Horton acknowledged as the Duchess of Cumberland – a woman Maria thought beneath her – was too much and she began pressuring William to follow suit, but with a catch. Maria was insistent that she, unlike Anne, deserved to be received at court. While William delayed, he did give his wife permission to tell her family, however the letter she wrote to her father ended up published in a newspaper two weeks later. William was livid, Maria blamed her father (though she had more to gain than he) and it’s unclear who exactly ferried the letter out of Sir Edward’s house.
The matter solved itself when Maria became pregnant in August 1772 with the couple’s first child together. The timing of this is interesting given that Maria delivered three children in as many years during her first marriage and yet there was a six-year gap in conception during her second. Even more, the timing was beneficial to Maria in that it forced her husband’s hand – William wrote to George to tell him of the pregnancy, thus formally announcing his marriage. It read:
“Sir, I am grieved much at finding myself obliged to acquaint your Majesty with a thing which must be so disagreeable to you; but I think the world being so much acquainted with my marriage, whilst your Majesty is still supposed to be ignorant of it, is neither decent nor right. I will not pretend to justify the action. It is now six years since, being September sixty-six; and I hope you will believe, Sir, it would never have been made public, had it not been for a variety of accidents which have made it necessary for me now to declare it to you.”
Unfortunately, George was livid and personally wounded. Of all his siblings, he was the closest to William and while he had turned a blind eye to the marriage he couldn’t continue to do so once it was a matter of official record. He refused to recognize the Cumberland and Gloucester marriages, so that while both women became royal duchesses they received none of the perks, no real status and their husbands were denied any additional Parliamentary allowance. Maria tried as hard as she could to distance herself from Anne Horton, but the two were often seen as birds of a feather.
On May 29, 1773, Maria gave birth to a daughter, Princess Sophia, in Mayfair, London. She was followed by another daughter, Princess Caroline, on June 24, 1774. Caroline didn’t live long – she died at the age of nine months after a smallpox inoculation on March 14, 1775 and Maria, then furious with George for denying her what she felt was her due, spread the rumor that the King had refused her daughter burial on royal grounds. Caroline was buried at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor.
The following year, strapped for cash, William and Maria left for Rome, though it felt like exile to the Duchess. There she became pregnant with the couple’s third child and gave birth to a son, Prince William Frederick, on January 15, 1776 at Tiddoli Palace.
Soon William took ill and, believing he had only days to live, George was informed. He wrote to him from London assuring him of his unwavering love and promising that he would look after his family – though, to be clear, he was known to remark at various points that he would take care of the children, not Maria. William pulled through his illness and, believing there was a road to reconciliation, returned to England.
It was a mistaken gamble. George was tied up in the outbreak of the American Revolution and was still unmovable about receiving Maria. William, his career in tatters, without an acceptable allowance, began to regret his marriage. Simply put, he fell out of love with Maria, went out of his way to humiliate her in public and took no interest in defending her reputation when she was spoken ill of in his presence, including by members of his family.
He took a mistress in 1780, Almeria Carpenter, and had a daughter with her, Louisa Maria La Coast, in 1782. Almeria had been one of Maria’s ladies-in-waiting and was a pretty teenager when she first met the duke. In 1783, the Gloucesters left England once more, spending the next few years in Switzerland, Germany, France and Italy. On the continent, William didn’t bother to hide his relationship with Almeria and the two lived openly in the same household as Maria, relegating her to the role of a glorified house manager.
The family returned to England in 1787 and William began keeping their children from Maria at various points, mostly just to be vindictive. As he wrote to his brother, “I am indeed severely punished for my juvenile indiscretion.”
William died on August 25, 1805 at his London home of Gloucester House, aged 61. Maria died two years later at Oxford Lodge in Middlesex (now London), aged 71. The couple are buried together at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.
Their daughter, Sophia, never married, and lived until the reign of Queen Victoria, dying at the age of 71 in 1844. Their son, William Frederick, succeeded his father as the Duke of Gloucester and in 1816 married one of George III’s daughters, Princess Mary, with the King’s permission. The couple lived at Bagshot Park in Surrey, however given that they didn’t marry until they were 40, there were no children from the union. William Frederick died in 1834 at the age of 58.
As for Maria’s three eldest daughters, the Waldegrave girls, the first, Elizabeth, married one of her paternal cousins in 1782 and eventually became Countess Waldegave. She had five children of her own and ended up finding her own place at court as a lady-in-waiting to George III’s granddaughter, Princess Charlotte, and his wife, the Queen. She died in 1816.
Her second daughter, Charlotte, married the 4th Duke of Grafton in 1784 and had 11 children. She died in 1808 at the age of 47.
The youngest, Anna, married Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour, son of Francis Seymour-Conway, 1st Marquess of Hertford. Through that marriage, Maria is an ancestor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and therefore the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry.