Before George IV married Caroline of Brunswick and embarked on one of the most disastrous and humiliating royal matches in British history, he took another wife, one of his own choosing. The problem was that she was Catholic, and not of the Stuart variety, but rather a nice Englishwoman who was only noble adjacent. Neither her social position nor her financial situation made her a viable contender for a royal marriage, and the prince who fell in love with her was none other than the heir to the throne.
Maria Fitzherbert, as she became known, was born Maria Smythe on July 26, 1756 in Shropshire. Little is known of her upbringing save that she spent part of her education in a Parisian convent and her parents had loose familial ties to aristocracy. All in all, she was perfectly positioned to make a decent match with a wealthy man and spend her adulthood comfortably. At the age of 19 she married the much older Edward Weld, who likely recommended himself as a well-to-do Catholic landowner. Unfortunately, he died three months after their wedding and the entirety of his estate and fortune was left to his brother, not his new wife.
Effectively left destitute, she remarried three years later to Thomas Fitzherbert. That marriage lasted four years, during which time she gave birth to a son who died young. Widowed for a second time in May 1781, she at least had the comfort of a generous annuity and a London townhouse in Mayfair.
She made her way slowly from Nice, where Fitzherbert died, to Paris and finally landed in London. It was one night at the opera in 1784 that she caught the eye of none other than the Prince of Wales, who quickly pressed her companion, Lady Anne Lindsey, to make an introduction. George began to pursue her relentlessly, no doubt believing that they would follow a similar pattern – he courted, he won and the lady in question became his mistress for whatever span of time she held his interest. Unfortunately for George, Maria was having none of it.
Flattered by the Prince’s attention, Maria was also well-aware that her reputation was her collateral – as a widow and as a Catholic. Knowing marriage was out of the question, she did everything she could to deter his advances, at various points doing so strongly enough that he raised the question of marriage. Thanks to the Royal Marriages Act and the Act of Settlement, such a match was out of the question legally – marriage to a Catholic meant he would leave his place in the succession, while at the age of 22 he was also dependent on his father’s permission, which George III was certainly not going to give.
After several months of this dynamic, four of George’s friends showed up at Maria’s house in November 1784 and told her that the Prince had stabbed himself in a suicide attempt while claiming she was the only one who could save him. Even then Maria hesitated, but when a chaperone was procured in the form of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, the party set out for Carlton House. The extent to which George actually “stabbed” himself is debatable – some claim it was a sword, others a dagger, while there is another school of thought that he simply tore off bandages from being blooded by a doctor and smeared the blood across his chest and shirt. Frankly, knowing what a drama queen George was, my instinct tells me the last isn’t far off.
Feverish and drunk, George pleaded with Maria to marry him and she finally relented, accepting a proposal of marriage that was cemented by Georgiana taking off one of her own rings and handing it over. After the fact, both women claimed that such a promise was null and void in the face of such a ridiculous situation. The episode behind her, Maria promptly left England, choosing to spend the majority of 1785 in Antwerp, France and Switzerland.
Back home, George deteriorated. Already at odds with his father over his massive debts, he further undermined his position by regularly appearing drunk in public. He was seen with a slew of disreputable women. And he continued to spend despite acknowledging he had no way to pay his creditors. He also spent his time writing long screeds to Maria abroad, referring to her as his wife and promising that he would find a way for them to be married – giving hope to the idea that it could be possible.
Maria, for her part, was only doing marginally better. Once famous for her good humor and charming company, she became high-handed with her maids and rude to her hosts, including her friend, Lady Anne Lindsey, who turned on her and began urging George to marry a suitable Dutch princess. Finally in November she returned to England, telling Lady Anne on her way back that that she had promised to marry George after all.
On the evening of December 15, 1785, after a long search for a clergyman willing to conduct the ceremony, George and Maria were married in her drawing room in front of witnesses. The couple departed from their makeshift wedding for a short honeymoon in Richmond before returning to London in time for Christmas. A handful of friends and family were told straight away of the marriage, while several others suspected it – in short, it wasn’t long before half of London assumed Maria had illegally married George. He refused any invitation on which she wasn’t included and they were seen in public together. With a few notable exceptions, Maria retained the majority of her friends, including Georgiana, a famous hostess.
Nevertheless, there were many that thought Maria’s situation needed to be clarified. Was she George’s legal wife? Would she be made a duchess? Was she in line to become the next queen consort? As for George, he seemed insistent that he had already spoken at length to his younger brother, Prince Frederick, the Duke of York, and there was an understanding that George would never legally marry and instead the throne would pass to Frederick and his children.
In the summer of 1786 George acquired a home in Brighton and established Maria at a nearby villa. He drank and gambled less. Outside of London, he spent less money. He was seen out and about in the town, smiling and nodding at people as he walked by. All in all, Maria was apparently a good influence on him. Both were given a pass by Parliament, which would normally have been a bigger hurdle than the opinion of the King, because George had long ago established himself as the royal figurehead of the Whig Party. Knowing that his marriage to a Catholic would never be stomached, they were (at first) effective in quashing official discussion of the situation.
The issue was brought to a head in the spring of 1787 when one MP urged that something be done to rectify George’s embarrassing finances. Addressing that situation, however, raised the possibility of having to acknowledge Maria’s presence. To avoid a reckoning, George urged that a lie be brought forth, one which denied that such a marriage had ever taken place. Within that came room for Maria’s character and religion to be maligned, so much so that she was furious with George and refused to see him for an extended time. To rectify the situation, another MP was called in to deliver a speech that said the matter was none of their business and that “the other person” in question was honorable and a private citizen. Somewhat mollified, Maria still wouldn’t see George, angered that he had jeopardized her reputation for the sake of a larger allowance.
By the summer of 1787, the couple had reconciled and once more left London for Brighton to spend the remainder of the year.
In 1788 George III was first struck by the mental disease that would plague the rest of his reign. For his son, however, the moment also represented the potential opportunity to take on the role of Regent, garnering himself more power and money, both of which he needed desperately. The situation backfired – his reputation took a hit, his relationship with his mother, Queen Charlotte, eroded and his appearance to be colluding with Whigs at the expense of his father blew up in his face. When a ceremony of thanksgiving was held in 1789 to celebrate the King’s recovery, the Prince was met with catcalls and jeers. In the midst of the opposition to George’s rise to power was the undeniable hurdle that it was impossible to elevate him when the question of his marriage to Maria had never been satisfactorily answered.
By the early 1790s, the strain of the situation began to take its toll on the relationship. George’s unpopularity continued to rise, as did his drunkenness and the brazen manner with which he conducted his affairs with other women. He and Maria fought more and more frequently and, finally, in 1793 he fell in love with another woman, Frances Villiers, the Countess of Jersey. George had no desire to fully give Maria up, but he also had no ability to see why Maria had no interest in sharing her husband with a rival she detested. As for Frances, eager to solidify her relationship with the Prince of Wales, she took pleasure in telling George that his reputation was only due to Maria’s religion and not his own behavior. Give her up, she said, and you’ll soon be restored in the people’s affection.
Equally as important was George’s ever-increasing debt, which hadn’t been fully addressed by the rise in his allowance – nor helped the rise in his spending. Exhausted by creditors, tired of demanding respect for Maria from his family and ill-equipped to navigate his wife’s expectations of him, he wrote a letter in June 1794 that told her he could never see her again. Upon receiving it, believing Frances to have been behind it, Maria packed up her belongings and left without leaving notice of where she had gone. When George inquired and came up dry, he decided that she could never have really loved him in the first place and felt himself free and clear to marry again.
The possibility of a second marriage was key. George had been disillusioned of the remote hope that Maria could become his public wife after his younger brother’s secret marriage to a Protestant Englishwoman had been squarely rejected by king and Parliament. Marriage to a proper princess, however, was a surefire way to get more money as his allowance would have to account for a massively expanded household, a wife and possible children.
It was under these circumstances, then, that George entered into his union with Caroline of Brunswick. Poignantly, Caroline would later say that she never truly resented her husband’s relationship with Frances, but she feared Maria. Maria, for her part, never referred to her rival as the Princess of Wales, only “Princess Caroline.”
For all of George’s loutishness, he continued to take care of Maria. After their breakup, he still paid her annual allowance and told his friends that they should continue to see and host her uninterrupted. On the eve of his wedding to Caroline, an event which can only have wounded Maria, he sent her a message that she was the only woman he would ever really love. There is even a rumor that he rode to her house in Richmond to try and tell her as much in person, though they never met. Indeed, on the day of his wedding, standing next to his brother, the Duke of Clarence (the future William IV), he said, “William, tell Mrs. Fitzherbert she is the only woman I shall ever love.”
Such would be the case for years – so much so that three days after the birth of George and Caroline’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, on January 7, 1796, George made his will and left the entirety of his estate and fortune to Maria. Furthermore, he wrote that when he died he wanted a modest funeral (first time for everything) and to be buried with her picture.
Horrified by his wife and done with Frances, it was clear George was out for reconciliation, but Maria wasn’t interested. She sold her houses in Brighton and London and settled in Ealing, telling one of George’s brothers that, “The link once broken could never be rejoined.”
In fact, it could be. When George learned that Maria was on death’s door he came close to a nervous breakdown, lost weight and wrote her frenzied and barely legible letters. Unnerved, she requested time to think, while George’s siblings, few of whom were fond of Caroline, urged her to return to their brother. The matter was finally put before the Pope in 1799 who decided that Maria could resume living with her husband with his blessing, his Protestant wife and daughter be damned. By the summer of 1800, the Catholic marriage was back on.
And so it would remain for another eight years until George once more fell in love with another woman. Maria had continued to turn a blind eye to his flings over the years, but the latest relationship was too much even for her. After increasing arguments and threats to leave, she finally did in 1809. George plead with her to return, but she once again refused on the grounds that it was too humiliating. Finally, that December, he accepted her decision – for the first time in their relationship – and they separated.
The following year, George III’s illness returned with even more gusto. By 1811, George was finally made Prince Regent, a position he retained until his father’s death in 1820. By then, however, his daughter, Charlotte, had died and the throne was presumed to pass on to one of his younger brothers, many of whom scurried to marry German princesses and secure a legitimate succession. As for George and Maria, they saw little of one another, and their feelings towards each other ebbed and flowed. For several years once on the throne, George declared the marriage invalid and swore he only entered into it for her sake. Such an idea is negated by his own hand in the countless letters he wrote pleading with her.
Their relationship was further troubled by George’s inconsistency in making sure Maria was paid her allowance, prompting her to threaten to go public with their union.
By the spring of 1830, George was dying after a decade on the throne and Maria wrote to him. He was overjoyed by her letter and placed it under his pillow on his deathbed, too ill to respond. As he had asked back in 1796, when he died, he was buried with her picture around his neck.
After George’s death, Maria went to his successor, William IV, and told him of the marriage, sharing all of the documents in her possession that proved it. Alarmed that she meant to embarrass the family, he offered her a title, but she refused. Instead, she asked only that she be allowed to dress like a widow for the rest of her life and outfit her servants in a royal livery. Her wish was granted, and she lived another seven years in Brighton, passing away just three months before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837.