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The Wives of the Georgian Kings: Maria Fitzherbert & Caroline of Brunswick

King George IV had an extremely scandalous private life. Not only did he have two wives, which in itself was unusual for that day and age, but one of them was a “secret”. As it had happened with King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, the marriage of The Prince of Wales, as George was then, to Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert was shrouded in secrecy. However, unlike Edward, George never publicly acknowledged his wife, and even remarried at the prospect of an increased annuity. Undoubtedly, the intrigue that revolved around the wives of George IV was greater than any other Georgian King.

Portrait of Maria Fitzherbert

Portrait of Maria Fitzherbert

Firstly, let’s look at George’s ‘secret’ wife, Maria Fitzherbert, in further detail. Born Maria Smythe, she was the eldest daughter of Mary Ann and Walter Smythe, the son of a knight. Maria was raised as a Roman Catholic, and received an adequate education at a convent in France. When she was 18, Maria was married for the first time, to Edward Weld, a wealthy landowner. The marriage lasted barely three months, before Edward was thrown of his horse and died from the injuries sustained by the fall. His sudden death meant that he didn’t even have time to update his will to include Maria in it, and upon his death all his lands passed to his younger brother, leaving Maria widowed and penniless. Now in a desperate situation, Maria married for a second time, to Thomas Fitzherbert. Within three years, he too was dead – killed in the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780. Fortunately for Maria, the provisions of his will left her with a town house in Park Street, and an annual income of £1,000.

It was under these circumstances that Maria first met the 22 year-old Prince of Wales when she visited the opera one night. Prince George immediately fell in love with her, and proposed that she become his mistress. This went against Maria’s Catholic upbringing, and she refused him. But the Prince was adamant, and offered to marry her if that was what it took. When Maria refused him yet again, the Prince served her with an ultimatum – if she didn’t marry him, he would kill himself. His threat worked, because Maria agreed to marry him on the spot. The Prince of Wales and Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert were wed on 15th December 1785. The ceremony was conducted in secret by Robert Burt, who was paid £500 for his silence.

George and Maria’s wedding was not just a secret – it was also illegal. The Act of Settlement of 1701 forbade a Roman Catholic from sitting on the throne, and since George had not given up his place in the line of succession, his Catholic wife would prove to be a problem when he eventually ascended the throne. In addition, the couple had also ignored the Royal Marriage Act of 1772, which requires all members of the Royal Family to ask the Sovereign’s permission before marrying. King George III would never have approved of Maria as a bride for his eldest son. In fact, the King was so opposed to his children marrying Roman Catholics that a number of them had to give up their place in the line of succession for that exact reason.

Nevertheless, Maria and the Prince lived together as a married couple for nearly ten years. They spent most of their time at Brighton Pavilion, their residence in Brighton. But George had begun to accumulate massive debts, amounting to over £600,000 (approximately £65 million today), more than he could ever hope to pay off. He appealed to Parliament to help him, and they agreed to increase his allowance if, and only if, he agreed to leave Maria Fitzherbert and take a Protestant wife of their choosing instead – Caroline of Brunswick.

Enter wife number two. Caroline of Brunswick was the daughter of Charles, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and Princess Augusta of Wales. Her mother was the eldest child of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and sister to King George III, making Caroline and Prince George first cousins. Despite the fact that they had never met before, the couple were engaged in 1894. After all, what choice did George have?

Upon seeing his prospective bride for the first time, Prince George was disgusted, and announced: “I am not well. Pray get me a glass of brandy.” His repulsion was perhaps justified – Caroline was supposedly short and ugly, lacked judgement and discretion, and rarely washed or changed her undergarments. But Caroline wasn’t too fond of George either. She confided in the Earl of Malmesbury that the Prince “was very fat and nothing like as handsome as his portrait”.

This extremely ill-matched couple were married on 8th April 1795. Prince George drank throughout the day, and on his wedding night, he collapsed drunkenly into an open grate, where he lay until morning. Yet, surprisingly, Caroline fell pregnant, and almost exactly nine months after the wedding, she gave birth to a daughter. The little girl was christened Charlotte Augusta after her two grandmothers.

Caroline of Brunswick, as imagined by an unknown artist.

Caroline of Brunswick, as imagined by an unknown artist.

Immediately after the child’s birth, George distanced himself from Caroline. A year later, Princess Charlotte was taken away from her mother and placed under the care of a governess, and Caroline moved to a private residence in Blackheath. There she adopted a young boy, William Austin, who was assumed to be Caroline’s illegitimate son. An investigation was launched, but nothing could be proved. But when Prince George got wind of the matter, he restricted Caroline’s visits to their daughter, and especially forbade mother and daughter from ever being together in the absence of any one else.

In 1811, The Prince of Wales was appointed as Regent, and he moved his daughter to Cranbourne Lodge at Windsor, where she was forced to stay without any company. Princess Charlotte rebelled against her father’s orders, and ran away to her mother’s house in Bayswater. George eventually convinced Charlotte to return to Windsor, but remained in constant fear of Caroline taking away his only child and heir. He made his estranged wife an offer – he promised her an annual allowance of £35,000 if she left Britain for good.

And so she did. Caroline travelled all over Europe – to Italy, Switzerland, and the Mediterranean, among others – where she shocked the people with her behaviour, which was hardly befitting of a married woman. In truth, Prince George had sent her a letter following their separation, saying that he no longer wanted to maintain “relations” with her, and that Caroline was free to do as she liked. She went on cruises and she danced gaily – it is even rumoured that she took her dashing servant Bartolomeo Pergami as her lover.

In the meantime, Princess Charlotte got married and was expecting her first child with Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Caroline had not attended her daughter’s wedding or even met her new husband. Tragically, Charlotte died in childbirth in 1817, casting the whole country into mourning. Prince George didn’t so much as write Caroline a letter informing her of the sad news, and as a result, Caroline had to learn about the death of her only child from a letter carrier, who passed by her bearing information about the Princess’ death.

When King George III died in 1820, George IV became King. Technically, this made Caroline Queen of the United Kingdom, and in June 1820, she arrived on the English shore, demanding to be recognised as Queen. She gathered a large number of supporters, who launched riots in London in her favour, much to the displeasure of the new King George. On his advice, Parliament tried to persuade Caroline to leave England forever, offering her an increased annuity of £50,000, which she reluctantly accepted.

But Caroline was determined that she at least be crowned Queen, and on the day of King George’s coronation in 1821, she arrived at Westminster Abbey. “The Queen…Open,” she shouted, demanding to be let in. “I am the Queen of England.” But all doors were slammed in Caroline’s face that day, and she stormed away in humiliation, without being allowed to enter the Abbey. That evening, she complained that she was feeling unwell, and three weeks later, she died, aged 53. In her will, she expressed her desire to be buried in her native Brunswick, in a tomb bearing the inscription “Here lies Caroline, the Injured Queen of England”.

After his separation from Caroline, Prince George had made attempts to rekindle his relationship with his previous “wife”, Maria Fitzherbert. At first Maria was reluctant, but just as he had before, George showered her with gifts, and they were reunited in 1800. But the passing of time and George’s remarriage had put a serious strain on their relationship, and when the Prince started to take other mistresses, Maria had had enough. She wrote George farewell letter in 1811, and the couple parted ways for the last time.

King George IV died in 1830. The new King William IV, was keen to make amends with his late brother’s first wife, and offered her the use of Brighton Pavilion as a home. Maria Fitzherbert stayed in Brighton until her death in 1837, just a few months before King William himself.

Like his brother, King William IV had many mistresses – but only one wife. Read about Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in the next, and final, installment in this series.

Photo credit: By (“In the manner of”) George Romney (1734-1802) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and the lost gallery via photopin cc

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