Maria Anne Fitzherbert (née Smythe, previously Weld; 26 July 1756 – 27 March 1837) was a longtime companion of George IV of the United Kingdom before he became king. In 1785, they secretly contracted a marriage that was invalid under English civil law because his father, King George III, had not consented to it. She was a Roman Catholic and so had the marriage been approved and valid, George would have lost his place in the line of succession since the law then forbade Catholics and spouses of Catholics from becoming monarch. Before marrying the prince, Fitzherbert had been twice widowed. Her nephew-in-law from her first marriage, Cardinal Weld, persuaded Pope Pius VII to declare the marriage sacramentally valid.
Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1788
Maria Anne Smythe
26 July 1756
|Died||27 March 1837 (aged 80)|
|Resting place||St John the Baptist's Church, Kemp Town, Brighton|
(m. 1775; died 1775)
(m. 1778; died 1781)
George, Prince of Wales (m. 1785)– unrecognized
Fitzherbert was born at Tong. She was the eldest child of Walter Smythe of Brambridge, Hampshire, younger son of Sir John Smythe, 3rd Baronet, of Acton Burnell, Shropshire. Her mother was Mary Ann Errington of Beaufront, Northumberland, maternal half-sister of Charles William Molyneux, 1st Earl of Sefton. She was educated in Paris at a French convent.
Fitzherbert married Edward Weld, 16 years her senior, a rich Catholic landowner of Lulworth Castle in July 1775. Weld died just three months later after a fall from his horse and having failed to sign his new will, his estate went to his younger brother Thomas, father of Cardinal Weld. His widow was left effectively destitute, had little or no financial support from the Weld family and was obliged to remarry as soon as she could.
She married a second time, three years later, to Thomas Fitzherbert of Swynnerton, Staffordshire. She was ten years younger than he. They had a son who died young. She was widowed again on 7 May 1781. He left her an annuity of £1000 and a town house in Park Street, Mayfair.
Relationship with GeorgeEdit
The twice widowed Fitzherbert soon entered London high society. In spring, 1784, she was introduced to a youthful admirer: George, Prince of Wales, six years her junior. The prince became infatuated with her and pursued her endlessly until she agreed to marry him. Secretly, and – as both parties were well aware – against the law, they went through a form of marriage on 15 December 1785, in the drawing room of her house in Park Street, London. Her uncle, Henry Errington, and her brother, Jack Smythe, were the witnesses. This invalid marriage ceremony was performed by one of the prince's Chaplains in Ordinary, the Reverend Robert Burt, whose debts (of £500) were paid by the prince to release him from the Fleet Prison.
The marriage was not valid under English law because it had not received the prior approval of King George III and the Privy Council as required by the Royal Marriages Act 1772. Had approval been sought, it might not have been granted for many reasons including, for example, Fitzherbert's Roman Catholic allegiance. Had consent been given and the marriage been legal, the Prince of Wales would have been automatically removed from the succession to the British throne under the provisions of the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement 1701 and replaced as heir-apparent by his brother, Frederick, Duke of York and Albany. His brother, Prince Augustus Frederick, contracted an invalid marriage with Lady Augusta Murray in 1793 without the King's consent and had two children with her.
On 23 June 1794, Fitzherbert was informed by letter that her relationship with the Prince was over. George told his younger brother, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, that he and Fitzherbert were "parted, but parted amicably", conveying his intention to marry their first cousin, Duchess Caroline of Brunswick. According to King George III it was the only way out of a hole: his heir apparent's enormous debts of £600,000 would be paid the day he wed. So the Prince married Caroline on 8 April 1795. However, in 1796, three days after Caroline gave birth to their daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales, on 10 January, the Prince of Wales wrote his last will and testament, bequeathing all his "worldly property . . . to my Maria Fitzherbert, my wife, the wife of my heart and soul". Although by the laws of the country she "could not avail herself publicly of that name, still such she is in the eyes of Heaven, was, is, and ever will be such in mine…". However, this did not lead to a reunion. The Prince finally sought a reconciliation with his "second self" during the summer of 1798. By then, he had separated from Caroline for good and was bored with his mistress, Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey.
During the first few years of his reign as King George IV, he turned violently against Fitzherbert and several of his former associates. Whenever he mentioned her name it was "with feelings of disgust and horror", claiming that their union "was an artificial marriage… just to satisfy her; that it was no marriage – for there could be none without a licence or some written document." Fitzherbert was in possession of documents and after their final break her demands for her annuity payments were often accompanied by veiled threats to go public with her papers if she did not receive the funds. In June 1830, when the King was dying, he eagerly seized her "get well soon" letter and, after reading it, placed it under his pillow. Fitzherbert – who had no idea just how ill he was – was deeply hurt that he had never replied to her final letter. However, before dying, the King asked to be buried with Fitzherbert's eye miniature around his neck, which was done.
Following the death of George IV on 26 June 1830, it was discovered that he had kept all of Fitzherbert's letters, and steps were taken to destroy them. Fitzherbert told George IV's brother, King William IV, about their marriage and showed him the document in her possession. He asked Fitzherbert to accept a dukedom but she refused, asking only permission to wear widow's weeds, and to dress her servants in royal livery. Architect William Porden designed Steine House, on the west side of Old Steine in Brighton, for Fitzherbert. She lived there from 1804 until her death in 1837. She was buried at St John the Baptist's Church in the Kemp Town area of Brighton.
Possible children by George IVEdit
Some scholars have suggested that Maria Fitzherbert had one, possibly two, children by her marriage to the future king. "In 1833, after the King's death, one of [his] executors, Lord Stourton, asked her to sign a declaration he had written on the back of her marriage certificate. It read: 'I Mary Fitzherbert ... testify that my Union with George P. of Wales was without issue.' According to Stourton, she, smiling, objected, on the score of delicacy." Indeed, during her early days in Brighton with the Prince of Wales, his uncle the Duke of Gloucester and other friends believed Mrs. Fitzherbert to be pregnant.
Members of the Wyatt family claim to being descendants of George IV by her. On Fitzherbert's death it is stated that her children were adopted by a Scottish family, named Wyatt, whose name they assumed. Afterwards they came south settling in Erith, Kent. The Wyatt family, in the person of J.G. Wyatt, a former Erith man who later moved to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada and Isabella Annie Wyatt claimed title to a portion of the Fitzherbert estate in 1937.
One suggested child of the Prince and his longtime paramour was James Ord (born 1786), whose curious history of assisted relocations and encouragement has been chronicled; Ord eventually moved to the United States and became a Jesuit priest (but appears later to have married, see article on American Civil War General Edward Ord).
In addition to James Ord, the longterm relationship between Fitzherbert and George, as prince and king, appears to have led to more than a dozen claims of children conceived out of wedlock. These join the many additional catalogued cases of George's liaisons, some of which have received further discussion vis-a-vis largely inexplicable financial care given the immediate purported descendant by King George IV or his peers. These lineages include the Herveys (from 1786 liaison with Lady Anne Lindsay, subsequently Barnard), the Croles (from 1798 liaison Eliza Crole, which the generally sceptical A.J. Camp considers "fact"), and the Hampshires (from 15-year mistress Sarah Brown).
The second codicil to Maria Fitzherbert's will outlines her two principal beneficiaries, and includes a personal note, "...this paper is addressed to my two dear children... I have loved them both with the tenderest affection any mother could do, and I have done the utmost in my power for their interests and comfort..."
Their married names were Mary Ann Stafford-Jerningham and Mary Georgina Emma Dawson-Damer. Stafford-Jerningham was nominally Fitzherbert's 'niece', and was raised as Mary Ann Smythe. Dawson-Damer was nominally the daughter of Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour and Lady Anna Horatia Waldegrave. Seymour had been a close associate of George IV since their youth, and Seymour's son George was an executor and minor beneficiary of Fitzherbert's will. There is no evidence that either of these women were the natural children of Maria Fitzherbert – indeed the reference to 'the affection any mother could do' (with stress on mother) could indicate she only saw herself as a mother-figure to them, and no more. The will makes no reference to any sons, though this observation must be seen in its historic context; of the ten illegitimate children of Dorothea Jordan, Irish actress and mistress of 20 years to the Duke of Clarence, care for the five boys was initially assumed by their father and his households, and custody and care for the girls given to Jordan.
Notably, any such historical claim of descent is accompanied by controversy, and many of the preceding have been challenged. Given the death of Princess Charlotte without surviving children, should the Ord link be substantiated, the line descended through them would join a large number of claimed surviving descendants of King George IV.
Nature and appearanceEdit
Fitzherbert was described as having an aquiline nose and loose teeth. She had hazel eyes, silky blonde hair, and a flawless complexion.
- Richard Abbot, "Brighton's unofficial queen," THE TABLET, 1 September 2007, 12.
- Carrol, Leslie. "A problem like Maria" (PDF). p.14.
- Maria Fitzherbert at the Encyclopædia Britannica
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- Saul David, The Prince of Pleasure: The Prince of Wales and the Making of the Regency (Grove Press, 2000), page 75
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- Royal mistresses and bastards
- Will of Maria Fitzherbert, approved for probate 20 Apr 1837, The National Archives (UK), record PROB 1–86
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