Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Mayfair Secret

By Catherine Curzon

In 1785 two people, deeply devoted and unquestionably in love, were married in a secret ceremony at the bride’s house in Mayfair’s fashionable Park Street. The bride was Maria Fitzherbert, née Smythe, a 29-year-old, twice-widowed Roman Catholic woman and the groom none other than George, Prince of Wales, the man who would one day rule as Prince Regent and, eventually, King George IV.

George IV, 1798,
Salomon Jomtob Bennett, after Sir William Beechey
(via Wikimedia Commons)
The scandalous clandestine marriage was forbidden in law by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, that stated:

‘That no descendant of the body of his late majesty King George the Second, male or female, (other than the issue of princesses who have married, or may hereafter marry, into foreign families) shall be capable of contracting matrimony without the previous consent of his Majesty, his heirs, or successors, signified under the great seal, and declared in council, (which consent, to preserve the memory thereof is hereby directed to be set out in the licence and register of marriage, and to be entered in the books of the privy council); and that every marriage, or matrimonial contract, of any such descendant, without such consent first had and obtained, shall be null and void, to all intents and purposes whatsoever.’

Those over 25 did enjoy a small loophole in that, if they were refused permission to marry, they could give notice of the intended wedding to the Privy Council. One year after that notice was given they would be allowed to marry, on condition that Parliament had not refused the match.

In keeping with his carefree, selfish character, George had neither sought nor gained permission from his father, George III, for the wedding. Though it’s unlikely that the permission would have been given, even if it had, any children that resulted from the marriage would have been forever disqualified from wearing the crown.

Maria Fitzherbert, 1788,
Joshua Reynolds
(via Wikimedia Commons)
How, though, did the heir to the British throne come to meet this Shropshire widow?

Mrs Fitzherbert was born Maria Anne Smythe and was just 19 when she wed Edward Weld. Just three months later, an equestrian accident left the new bride a widow and the lack of a will meant that his considerable estate passed to his brother, leaving Maria with nothing.

Still, Maria was not a lady to mope and three years later had found herself a second husband, Thomas Fitzherbert. Once again the fates were not smiling and three years after the marriage, she was a widow once more. But this time the newly bereaved lady was left a very generous bequest and, still only 24-years-old, Maria spread her social wings. Thanks to the influence of her relative, the Earl of Sefton, society welcomed her with open arms and in 1784, during a visit to the opera, she met the Prince of Wales.

For George it was infatuation at first sight though Maria was somewhat more circumspect. When George sent Maria jewellery, she promptly returned it; in reply, the devastated young man sent word that he had attempted suicide and languished on the threshold of death. She must come to Carlton House with all haste, he begged, and see him one last time.

It is perhaps surprising that the worldly Maria fell for this ploy but fall for it she did and the shocked lady hurried to the royal bedside in the company of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. The women found the prince pale, weak and wrapped in bloodstained bandages. He implored her to take a ring borrowed from the duchess and when she did so, told her that he now considered them betrothed. As soon as Maria reached home she and Georgiana wrote out a statement denying any connection and Mrs Fitzherbert made preparations to leave England.

Maria’s getaway only made her more attractive and through a combination of tenacity and romance, George finally managed to woo her. Upon her return to England, Maria and George entered into a morganatic, secret and illegal marriage. The couple were wed at Maria’s home on 15th December 1785 before her uncle and brother in a ceremony officiated by a Reverend Burt. Though rumours persist that Burt was an inmate of the Fleet Prison, records of the Fleet Prison contain no mention of his name. Scandalous though the tale is, it appears that it contains no basis in fact.

At first Maria and George enjoyed a surprisingly loving marriage and London gossips assumed that Maria was nothing more than another royal mistress. The prince was happy to string the king and Parliament along, encouraging them to settle his ever-increasing debts on the understanding that one day he would marry and secure the line of succession for the House of Hanover.

George IV, 1785,
Samuel William Reynolds
(via Wikimedia Commons)
Charles James Fox brokered a deal with George, securing him the cash he needed to satisfy his creditors in return for a public denial of the widespread rumours that he was married to a Catholic widow. Despite his declaration of undying adoration to Maria, George agreed.

On 30th April 1787, Fox gave a speech to Parliament that included the following passage, its meaning in little doubt:

‘ [The rumours of marriage] …proved at once the uncommon pains taken by the enemies of his Royal Highness to propagate the grossest and most malignant falsehoods with a view to depreciate his character and injure him in the opinion of his country. […] a tale in every particular so unfounded, and for which there was not the shadow of anything like reality.’

For all Fox’s delicacy of language, the damage was done and Maria was furious. She was left to lick her unhappy wounds as George gadded off to Carlton House with nearly £170,000 safe in his coffers.

Despite the distance or perhaps because of it, their attraction continued to flare and soon Maria had forgiven her prince. Setting up individual residences in Brighton, George and Maria sat at the heart of fashionable society, hosting some of the most illustrious names in the country whilst at his father’s official court, things were less than happy.

George and Charlotte loathed the open liaisons between their son and his Catholic lover, but Maria struggled to retain her allure.

Almost ten years after the wedding, George sent a letter to Maria in which he explained that their marriage must end. With no excuses left, the time had finally come for him to make an official marriage to Caroline of Brunswick.

Maria Fizherbert
(via Wikimedia Commons)
Maria was heartbroken by the end of the relationship. Though the couple attempted to reconcile once his disastrous union with Caroline of Brunswick collapsed, the happy times they had known were far behind them. George hammered the final nail into the coffin when he snubbed Maria at a Carlton House dinner in 1811, when he told her to sit away from him ‘according to her rank’. Maria and George never met again and as the years wore on what had once been love turned to animosity.

Maria threatened to expose their marriage if she did not receive an annuity whilst George came to believe she had married him only for advancement. This seems disingenuous to say the least as Maria already enjoyed social standing and financial independence and being the illegal, secret wife of the debt-ridden George brought little to Maria that she could not have achieved with a good, legal marriage.
When Maria heard that George was unwell in 1830 she sent him a final note yet he was too frail to respond. Before George’s death, he asked to be buried with Maria’s eye miniature around his neck. This final wish was granted, perhaps proving how deeply George rued the loss of the scandalous Mrs Fitzherbert.


Anonymous. George III: His Court and Family, Vol I. London: Henry Colburn and Co, 1821.
Baker, Kenneth. George IV: A Life in Caricature. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.
Black, Jeremy. The Hanoverians: The History of a Dynasty. London: Hambledon and London, 2007.
David, Saul. Prince of Pleasure. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
Hadlow, Janice. The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians. London: William Collins, 2014.
Hetherington Fitzgerald, Percy. The Life of George the Fourth. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1881.
Huish, Robert. Memoirs of George the Fourth: Vol I. London: Thomas Kelly, 1830.
Irvine, Valerie. The King’s Wife: George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert. London: Hambledon, 2007.
Lloyd, Hannibal Evans. George IV: Memoirs of His Life and Reign, Interspersed with Numerous Personal Anecdotes. London: Treuttel and Würtz, 1830.
Smith, EA. George IV. Bury St Edmunds: St Edmundsbury Press, 1999.

About the Author
Catherine Curzon is a royal historian and blogs on all matters 18th century at A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to Life. Her work has been featured by publications including BBC History Extra, All About History, History of Royals, Explore History and Jane Austen’s Regency World. She has also provided additional material for the sell-out theatrical show, An Evening with Jane Austen, which she will introduce at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, in September (tickets are available here). 

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, she lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill. 

Her book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository and all good bookshops!


  1. Excellent post,Madame.I have another reference book written by Mrs Fitzherberts niece-quite enlightening! In Brighton she lived next to the Countess of Berkeley-another"used woman".I wonder what their close conversation concerned? Brighton folk always treated her as"Royalty".

    1. One of those open secrets. The denial wasn't precisely a lie for the marriage wasn't valid. If the marriage was declared valid George would have been ousted from his position as next in line to the throne. It wasn't just his children who would be deprived of a position, but George himself. I think that was the settlement of 1707. Mrs. Fitzherbert considered herself married . She had obtained permission from the Pope to marry in a Protestant ceremony and the marriage would have been valid for anyone except a member of the royal family. Still, Mrs. Fitzherbert fared better than The wife of Prince Augustus who became Duke of Sussex. She was married to him in two different ceremonies and bore two children only to have the marriage declared invalid due to the royal marriage act. When the Duke finally died, his only son wasn't even allowed to be considered his legal descendent for non royal purposes. I don't know if the duke included the children in his will.
      The Prince of Wales violated the royal marriage act and the act that said he couldn't marry a catholic and keep his place in the line of succession. In other words he pretended to get married to get a virtuous woman into his bed-- He definitely couldn't afford to have the marriage declared valid.

    2. I posit in my book that George didn't consider the lie a lie at all for just that reason - he didn't consider the marriage binding.

  2. ...he snubbed Maria at a Carlton House dinner in 1811, when he told her to sit away from him ‘according to her rank’

    Ouch. Hardly sounds like the fellow who declared he would die if she did not surrender!

    Great article!

    1. Thank you! For George, the thrill seemed to be in the chase; once his prey surrendered, she lost all her appeal.

  3. I get the feeling that Maria is much maligned; I think that George IV was the scandalous one, just lucky that he out ranked her!


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