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Palaces & Buildings

Mistress who cast doubt on a royal marriage returns to Buckingham Palace

Her king called her his ”wife of heart and soul” even though their actual, secret union was declared invalid. Now the woman who cast a shadow over the reign of George IV and even the succession to his throne has returned to Buckingham Palace.

A portrait of Maria Fitzherbert, who wed the future George IV after they fell hopelessly in love, is now displayed at the Queen’s home as part of an exhibition about the king. The pencil drawing of Maria was commissioned by George in 1789 and features in George IV: Art and Spectacle which is open at Buckingham Palace until the beginning of May.

Maria and George met in 1784 and went through a marriage ceremony on December 15th 1785. Both knew it would be illegal under British law. George, who was then Prince of Wales, had to obtain the permission of his father, King George III, to get married and hadn’t even asked as he knew the answer would be no. 

Maria was far from an ideal royal bride. For a start, she had no blue blood of her own and she had already been married twice by the time she fell in love with George. She was also a Catholic so even if George III had been swayed by the young couple’s romance, their wedding would have meant his son and heir giving up his rights to the throne.

George and Maria lived happily together for several years but parted when the future king agreed to marry a distant royal relation, Caroline of Brunswick, in 1795. That union famously fell apart before the couple had even cut their wedding cake and in 1796, George wrote a will leaving everything to Maria who he called ”wife of my heart and soul”. 

When he finally became king, George fell out with Maria who sometimes threatened to go public with their relationship. But as he lay dying in 1830, he asked to be buried with a miniature of Maria around his neck. She died in 1837 in Brighton.

In the centuries that have followed, several people have claimed to be the secret children of the marriage of George and Maria and their story continues to fascinate.

Now, the woman who wed a king in waiting while knowing she would never be queen is now taking pride of place in the royal residence she could never called her own. Mrs Fitzherbert, finally, has arrived at Buckingham Palace.

George IV: Art and Spectacle is at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace is open until May 3rd 2020.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and 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 who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. 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.