Could this royal secret have changed the course of history? In March 1784, the Morning Herald announced: “Mrs Fitzherbert is arrived in London for the season.”
Four months later, when she declined his proposals of marriage, George the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne of England, staged a pathetic suicide attempt. He had heard of Maria Fitzherbert’s plans to go abroad, no doubt to escape the pressure from his advances. So one evening he decided to try some dramatic emotional blackmail and used a sword to wound himself, enough to draw blood. Maria was notified and, together with the Duchess of Devonshire, rushed to the Prince’s side.
In that moment the Prince somehow persuaded Maria to agree to a betrothal and ceremoniously placed the Duchess’s ring on her finger. The two women then left and, next morning in the new light of day, the Duchess penned this letter which was signed by both of them.
“On Tuesday 8th July 1784 Mr Bouverie and Mr Onslow came to me and told me the Prince of Wales had run himself through the body, and declared he would tear open his bandages unless I would accompany Mrs Fitzherbert to him. We went there and she promised to marry him at her return, but she conceives as well as myself that promises obtained in such a manner are entirely void.”
Then Maria left for France. In spite of allowing the Prince to place a ring on her finger that night, Maria continually maintained her opposition to a formal marriage, writing to the Duchess “that from the first moment it was proposed my sentiments have never varied; does not the same reasons now subsist and must they not always be the same?”
The Prince even spoke of giving up the throne in favour of his brother Frederick and living the rest of his life with Maria in America. The Duchess declared that the Prince was no longer welcome at her home and urged Maria not to see him for a while. She wrote to the Prince:
“I write to you my dear brother, terrified out of my senses. I have [been] in a dreadful state of agitation ever since I saw you, and now I must tell you and Mrs Fitzherbert too that I never thought this would take place and therefore acquiesced, but it is indeed madness in both. I have not wrote [sic] to her to tell her so and will not if you will delay it and consult Charles Fox – for God’s sake do – je tremble, je vous des suites affreuses. I cannot be present for it is not a marriage, and I cannot be by at what I do not think one … indeed I have been quite wild with horror of it ever since. I never thought it could come to this – pray see Charles Fox tomorrow or let me write to him. Let me beg you over and over to see C.F., see him tomorrow.”
Charles Fox (leader of the opposition Whigs party in Parliament) had this to say to the Prince: “If such an idea be really in your mind, and it be not now too late, for God’s sake let me call your attention to some considerations … that a marriage with a Catholic throws the Prince contracting such a marriage out of the succession of the Crown … that the marriage would be a real one; but your Royal Highness knows as well as I that according to the present laws of the country it cannot; and I need not point out to your good sense what a source of uneasiness it must be to you, to her, and above all to the nation …”
In a second letter to the Prince, Charles Fox “warned that her situation as well as that of the Prince would be perilous if they went through a ceremony of marriage. A marriage with a Catholic would remove the Prince from the succession to the throne – if it were a real marriage; but that was just what it could not be … Fox went on to explain the anomalous position that any children of the marriage would be in; illegitimate when born, but possibly legitimised in later life, if the Prince were to give himself permission under the Royal Marriage Act to repeat the marriage when he became King.”
The Prince ignored Fox’s warnings claiming that “there not only is, but never was, any grounds for these reports, which have of late been so malevolently circulated.” Then for some reason Maria did a complete about face and agreed to go ahead with the marriage and, in November, returned to England.
“I have told him I will be his,” she wrote to Lady Anne Lindsay, her traveling companion who had returned to England ahead of her. “I know I injure him and perhaps destroy for ever my own tranquility.”
A secret marriage took place on the evening of 15 December 1785 in a Mayfair drawing room with a small group of people who were witness to the event. The ceremony was conducted by an Anglican clergyman, the Reverend John Burt.
A Certificate of Marriage, written by the Prince, is still in existence today, although the signatures of the witnesses have been removed (apparently by Maria before she died). So was it a legitimate marriage? The Pope declared that it was.
After the death of the Prince, the Duke of Wellington is reported to have asked Maria to write on the back of their Marriage Certificate that there was no issue of this marriage. She refused. It’s very possible, although unproven, that Maria gave birth in the autumn of 1786.
In the light of her earlier insistence and against all the advice to the contrary, her high morals and staunch Catholic beliefs, I wonder what caused her to suddenly change her mind and reverse her original firm stand?
PS. Read the full story of what happened to the ‘lost children’ of George IV and his secret wife Maria Fitzherbert in ‘Back to the Wall’.
Reference: CAMPBELL, Cynthia. ‘The Most Polished Gentleman: George IV and the Women in His Life,’ Kudos Books, UK, 1995.