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The much maligned mistress who helped create one of Britain’s most popular kings

Dorothy Jordan
By American Art Association - https://www.flickr.com

I’ve always felt rather sorry for the mistress known as Mrs Jordan. For two decades, she lived alongside the third son of King George III. Her partner is known to history as King William IV but for their duration of their relationship he was the somewhat dodgy Duke of Clarence who had champagne taste and no money, having spent most of it. Dorothea Jordan was the main breadwinner for much of their time together and yet after 20 years, she parted from him only for him to begin a path towards kingship. It’s hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Dorothea.

Whether Mrs Jordan was actually badly treated by the man who went on to become William IV is still a matter of speculation.  The fact that Sailor Bill, who loved to spend money and accumulated debts on a regular basis, relied on his lover for financial support for part of their time together but then cut off the cash he promised her after their spilt when she tried to resume her career to help one of her daughters doesn’t look good for him.  But on the other hand, the couple had been very happy for twenty years before going their separate ways and the duke had shown kindness to the four children that his actress girlfriend brought with her to their relationship.  As with all partnerships that last for a couple of decades, the only people who can really know are those who were involved.

Despite being known to history as Mrs Jordan, Dorothea was never married.  She was born in County Waterford in Ireland in November 1761 to a stagehand and his lover, Grace, who had been an actress.  Her early life was relatively poor and low key and became more impoverished when Francis Bland left his family and only sporadically sent them money.  Grace thought that Dorothea would make a good actress and she ended up going to work in her early teens to help feed her family. 

She got good reviews for her comic performances but in 1781 her career almost faltered when she became pregnant by her married boss.  Dorothea Bland, at the age of twenty, now had another mouth to feed – her baby daughter, Frances Daly, whose father was the manager of the Theatre Royal in Cork.  She left for England and went on the stage under the name Mrs Jordan – Mrs implied marriage which gave an air of respectability to a woman with a child.  Jordan symbolized her crossing a body of water (in this case the Irish Sea) to her new life in a new country.  And whatever magic the name was meant to give, it worked.  The good reviews rolled in as did the parts and Mrs Jordan became a popular figure on the London stage.  Jane Austen mentioned her as one of her favourite actresses and again, her strong performances in comedy roles helped her build a successful career.

But professional success hid personal unhappiness.  She began a relationship with fellow actor George Inchbald who she left when marriage seemed to be far from his mind. Her next partner was a lawyer, Sir Richard Ford. They had three children but again, Dorothea was left waiting for a wedding.

But for the first time in her life, romantic turbulence did Mrs Jordan a favour.  In 1791 she met William, Duke of Clarence and soon the legal eagle was history.  Dorothea went into her relationship with the prince knowing that there would be no wedding.  He was third in line to the throne and the Royal Marriage Act meant that he needed the king’s permission to marry.  Dorothea and William knew that George III would never sanction a wedding between them and settled down to live together instead.  They had three children together before the king conveniently made number three son ranger of Bushy Park – a job that came with a rather nice mini mansion attached – and that’s where the couple set up home and had another seven children.

The FitzClarence family was, by all accounts, a happy one and the children grew up in comfort – in part, thanks to their mother.  For while William received a generous allowance from parliament as the son of the king, he spent it faster than he got it and his debts were legendary. To help keep the family going, and to keep parliament happy, he needed to bring in money of his own and so Dorothea went back on the stage from time to time to pay the debts and bills.  The Duke of Clarence seemed quite happy about that and her semi regular appearances on the stage became a solid money spinner for the pair.

But when their youngest child, Amelia, was just four the relationship splintered and fell apart.  Mrs Jordan blamed her partner’s worries over money on the arguments and division that led to their separation.  There was talk of William pursuing heiresses to marry around 1811 as his debts became an even greater concern and parliament became even more worried about the amount of money the royal family was taking and demanding on an annual basis.  By then the succession was semi-secure – William’s oldest brother, George, had married and had a daughter. However, the heir to the throne and his wife had famously fallen out and now no longer lived in the same country. Their daughter, Charlotte, was the only legitimate grandchild of King George III.

Next in line after her was George III’s second son, Frederick, whose own marriage was almost as miserable as that of his older brother. After him, the succession came to William.  Some historians see his split with Dorothea as the beginning of his path towards marriage as he began to realize that the future of the Hanoverian dynasty might rest on his shoulders.

Dorothea was given custody of their five daughters.  Sophia was 15, Mary was 13 and Elizabeth was aged 11.  Little Amelia’s nearest sister in age was Augusta who was eight when their parents split up. Their brothers went into the custody of their father.  Eighteen year old George had little to do with his mother after his parents’ separation but the other boys retained some degree of contact.  Henry, 17 at the time, only outlived Dorothea by a year.  His younger brothers were Frederick (who was aged 12 in 1811), Adolphus (9) and Augustus who at the age of six was parted from his mother.  All, except Henry and Adolphus, went on to marry.

Dorothea was granted a Georgian form of maintenance for herself and her daughters with one condition.  She was never to take to the stage again.  Despite the fact that her acting had helped pay William’s debts, he barred her from resuming her profession if she was to keep her separation settlement intact.  But in 1814, the husband of one of her daughters from her previous relationships got into debt and to help, Dorothea did what she knew best.  She pulled on her costume and went to work.  The teenager who had trod the boards in Dublin to pay for her family’s food had turned into one of the best known women in Britain whose children had a king and queen as grandparents but when things got tough she did what she had always done and went out to work.  William was furious.  She lost her money and her daughters and fled to France where she died in poverty in 1816.

William married in 1818 and he and his wife, Adelaide, had two daughters but they both died very young. He became King in 1830 but, with no legitimate heir, the throne passed to his niece, Victoria, when he died in 1837. William was buried at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, a stark contrast to the simple funeral Dorothea had been given in Saint Cloud in France where she spent her last months.

She had been forced there by her former partner’s actions and in her final days, spoke of the pain she felt being parted from her children. King William IV was a popular, capable king who helped stabilise the throne and pave the way for the historic reign of Queen Victoria. But it’s hard not to feel that his treatment of one of the women who helped create his royal success story was rather ill treated herself.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton, a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. June has been a reporter, producer and editor, picking up several awards over the years. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.