The woman known to history as Maria or Mary Fitzherbert was born Mary Ann Smythe on 26 July 1756 to a Roman Catholic family in Shropshire, England. Though the Smythes were rich and Mary's uncle was a baronet, at this time both laws and popular prejudice was against English Catholics. Catholics could not hold any office under the English crown, attend Oxford or Cambridge, possess arms or ammunition in England, and officially English law said that no Catholic could inherit property or buy land (though this was not usually enforced unless a Protestant relative wanted to gain something that had been left to a Catholic relation). Catholic marriages were not even recognized as valid in England; everyone had to be married by an Anglican clergyman except the Jews and Quakers specifically exempted in the Marriage Act of 1753.
Nonetheless, the Smythe family was well off and loyal to England and its Kings. Due to the lack of schools for Catholics in England, Mary was sent to Dunkirk, France to a convent for her education. After returning to her home country, she married wealthy widower and fellow Catholic Edward Weld in July 1775. She was eighteen and he was thirty-three. The couple lived in Lulworth Castle in Dorset. Unfortunately, by October of 1775 Edward Weld became seriously ill and died on the 26th of that month, leaving Mary a widow after only a few months of marriage.
After some period of mourning, Mary returned to society. Soon she became involved with another wealthy Catholic, Thomas Fitzherbert, who was just under ten years older than Mary. The Fitzherberts had been friends of the Smythes for a long time; Thomas or his father (also named Thomas) was the godfather of Mary's younger sister Barbara. Thomas and Mary were married in June 1778, and the couple alternated between London society (which called them "The Fitzes") and Swynnerton Hall in Staffordshire. At some point they had a son who died shortly after birth. And around 1780, Mary followed a fashion and started to use the Latin spelling of her name; for the rest of her life she called herself and everyone else referred to her as Maria.
Unfortunately, Thomas was afflicted with tuberculosis. The couple and Maria's brother Jack went to the South of France in hopes of the climate making Thomas's health better, but without any luck. Thomas Fitzherbert died on 7 May 1781. Maria and Jack stayed in France for a while and gave some money to a needy convent, but by the next year Maria was back in England. She was a wealthy woman, with the incomes left to her by both husbands and some from her family as well, and spent time at the sea resort originally called "Brighthelmstone" but by this time often abbreviated to Brighton. She also visited family members and friends, and enjoyed herself, despite saying in a letter to a friend that she was "ashamed almost of being happy again."
London society at this time centered around the fun-loving brothers of King George III, the Dukes of Cumberland and Gloucester. The Prince of Wales who would later be George IV was entering society as well, rebelling against his straight-laced parents. Prince George was six years younger than Maria, and though he was elegant, witty, and charming, he was also lazy and not at all inclined to control himself. This was made worse by the fact that unlike other princes, George was not given military or government duties by his father; he had nothing to do but amuse himself and run up huge debts. Some of his favorite companions were members of political parties opposed to the king's views, which certainly wouldn't have made the king want to involve his oldest son in government.
George had a history of infatuations with women a few years older than himself, especially those possessed of what James Munson describes as a "matronly bosom." -- actresses, countesses, whoever he happened to meet. He would write them passionate letters and fake illness or threaten to harm himself if they did not give in to him, which they almost always did. Around 1784, he met Maria, who was accompanying her uncle and aunt to the opera; shortly afterward he launched a campaign to win her over, presenting her with jewels and commissioning Thomas Gainsborough to paint her portrait.. At first it didn't look like he was going to succeed; the Dutchess Georgiana Devonshire wrote that "Mrs. Fitzherbert is at present his favourite, but she seems, I think rather to cut him than otherwise."
Maria was flattered by his interest, and liked him as a man, but refused to become his mistress. Unfortunately, as she was Catholic, it was flat-out illegal for the Prince to marry her due to the Acts of Succession 1702, and the Prince could not marry anyone without his father's permission, due to the Royal Marriages Act 1772. To try and avoid the whole mess, Maria and her close friend Lady Anne Lindsay planned a trip to Europe. On 8 July 1784, the night before they were due to leave, messengers from the Prince arrived for Maria to say that the Prince had stabbed himself and "only her immediate presence would save him." Maria at first would not go, feeling that she would lose her hold on the situation if she did. Eventually though, she asked the Duchess of Devonshire to accompany her; the two ladies found the Prince lying in bed, bandages across his chest, blood on the bedclothes and the man. (However, Maria also noticed some brandy and water beside the bed.) The Prince said the only thing that would "induce him to live" would be if Maria promised to marry him. He put a ring on her finger, and shortly thereafter she and the Duchess left. Maria said in the carriage home that she didn't consider this to be a valid promise because it had been exerted from her under duress; this was written out and both Maria and the Duchess signed the paper.
The next day Maria and Lady Anne set out across the English Channel. Lady Anne kept a diary and there was a lot of time for the women to talk; the diary seems to reveal that Maria had very conflicted feelings about the Prince. She complained when he didn't write her but then seemed overwhelmed by his long, passionate letters. He proposed that the two marry in Holland (though the marriage would not be legal there either, and the Dutch would certainly have tried to avoid the diplomatic consequences of being involved with the Prince of Wales disobeying the King of England). Prince George was in an unpleasant situation over his finances, trying to persuade his father or Parliament to allot him more money to cover his debts, and both for this reason and to be with Maria wanted to go to Europe, but the King refused.
The English ladies stayed in Europe until June 1785, when an inheritance forced Lady Anne to return to England to take care of her new financial situation. Maria sent for her brother Jack to keep her company, and the Prince got all the latest news of Maria from Anne. Homesickness forced Maria to make a decision, and she decided that marrying the Prince, though "according to law in England is not valid, yet a Marriage it certainly is according to every other law both human & divine." In response to her agreement to marry him, Prince George wrote a letter of 43 quarto pages discussing all the possibilities, even including the idea of abandoning the succession to his younger brother Frederick. Finally in the first week of December 1785, Maria returned to England.
It was difficult for the couple to find a clergyman willing to break the law to marry them, but by 15 December they had found the Reverend Robert Burt (an Anglican priest) after being turned down by several others. The witnesses to the small ceremony were Maria's brother Jack and uncle Henry Errington. It was all meant to be a secret, but gossip had been flowing about George and Maria since he first started to pursue her, and the rumors that they had gotten married leaked out. The Prince told a few of his relatives; his parents were not among them but they eventually heard about it anyway. George and Maria acted like a couple in public, and this confirmed the rumor in most people's minds. Other rumors, such as that Maria was pregnant or was to be given a noble title, also circulated without any supporting evidence. Her social station was elevated as an unofficial princess, but events such as having "No Popery" chalked on her front door and being caricatured in newspapers as "The Royal Toast. Fat, Fair, and Forty." can't have been pleasant for her. (A friend rebutted that the correct description was "round, lovely, and twenty-nine.")
But the Prince was spending even more money maintaining a separate household for Maria as well as his own, and by 1787 when Parliament discussed giving him more money, the rumors of the marriage came up. Whig minister Charles Fox went to the Prince to ask about it, and Prince George flat-out denied being married. Fox repeated this in the House of Commons. Maria cannot have enjoyed having Parliament told she was essentially the Prince's mistress, but the alternative was increased scandal and possible criminal charges against her. As it worked out, the Prince got his increased allowance, at the price of having Maria and Fox dislike each other afterward.
The next year was the first time King George III became seriously ill for so long a time that it was necessary to think of who would take over his duties. By late October 1788 one of the king's doctors described him to the Prime Minister as "nearly bordering on delusion." The Prince of Wales was the logical person to take over as regent, but his longtime connection to this Catholic woman provided material for people who wanted to limit his powers. The eventual Regency Bill offered in Parliament that December left control of the King's person to his wife Queen Charlotte and put other limits on Prince George's powers; in any event, the king's recovery in February 1789 made the regency a moot point until later. Attacks on Maria and Catholicism continued in the newspapers, though.
The couple continued their relationship, but it had its ups and downs. Maria was seen as a welcome rein on the wildest of the Prince's activities, but those friends she did not approve of merely met with him when she was not around. George was not always faithful, but he became extremely jealous if Maria so much as flirted with another man. In 1793, the Prince began an affair with the Countess of Jersey, and Maria retaliated by spending a lot of time with the French aristocrat Charles de Noailles (who later supposedly described her as a "fat old turkey," so he couldn't have been all that serious). George, however, took it to heart, and his and Maria's relationship deteriorated throughout 1794. It couldn't have helped that the King and Queen were negotiating to find George an official bride; by November it was settled that he was going to marry Caroline of Brunswick (supposedly Lady Jersey's recommendation). By the time Caroline arrived in England in April 1795, George and Maria were essentially broken up. George and Caroline did not like each other, but went through with the marriage, though George is supposed to have asked his brother before the ceremony to "tell Mrs. Fitzherbert she is the only woman I shall ever love." George and Caroline lived separate lives as much as possible after conceiving an heir (a girl, Princess Charlotte, who died young), and Caroline is supposed to have remarked about Maria that "it is a great pity for him he ever broke vid her."
The Prince eventually approached Maria for a reconciliation. Maria was certainly not happy that George was now publicly married, which seemed to indicate that his bond to her was not really a marriage in his eyes. However, she seems to have missed George terribly and wanted him back. She wrote to the Pope through her confessor, Father John Nassau; in several months the reply from Pius VII arrived in England. The exact wording has been lost, but it seems to have said that the earlier marriage was valid. Maria said when she and George started their relationship again that they were living "like brother and sister . . . I did not consent to make it up with the Prince to live with him either as his wife or as his mistress" -- this may have been the Catholic Church's condition to deal with the second marriage, or it may have been their own way of salving their consciences.
During this time Maria was taking care of the daughter of friends, Lord and Lady Seymour. When both parents died, Maria kept little Mary "Minney" Seymour, but some of the Seymours' relatives felt that Minney should not be in the care of a woman who was both Catholic and involved with a married man. The case was brought to the House of Lords in 1806, and the Prince's support undoubtedly helped swing the decision in Maria's favor. Minney was Maria's adopted daughter from then on, although given a Protestant upbringing. Minney's company probably helped when the Prince was away, especially when he was with other women. By 1810, this was a lot of the time. In 1811, the King became ill again and the Prince formally became regent; at a dinner for the French King-in-exile, Maria was insulted that the Prince did not seat her at his table, though Lady Hertford, a mistress of the Prince, and her husband were seated there. This was the last straw for Maria and there was another separation, which would turn out to be a final one.
Maria had always had enough social life on her own to continue keeping herself amused, and being a mother to Minney and later her brother Jack's illegitimate daughter Marianne gave her companionship. She was financially well off, though she sometimes wrote letters trying to get the Royal Family to give her the full annual sum of 10,000 pounds per year which had been promised her when she and the Prince married (she always got money from him, even after their breakup, but it was generally more on the order of 6,000 pounds per year). She was also very kind to her other nephews and nieces.
In 1820, George III died and George IV became King of England. He set about trying to get rid of Caroline, who had been living in Europe but now came back to England to assume her rank of Queen. Maria took care to be in Europe during Caroline's trial in Parliament, lest any of Caroline's supporters try and call in Maria to prove that George was just as guilty of infidelity as he claimed Caroline was. Caroline died shortly after, and rumor claimed that George and Maria might reconcile again, but this never happened, possibly due to the influence of the royal physican and private secretary, Sir William Knighton. George was also in very bad health by this time. In May 1830 Maria heard that "the King is in the act of dying from a Dropsy" and wrote to him, though the gout in her hands made this difficult. Her letter was given to George, but he was probably too sick to read it himself. He died without being able to dictate a reply, but was buried with her miniature picture (which his brother, the new King William IV later told Maria).
William also ensured that Maria's royal pension
would continue, even after his own death, and commanded her to put her servants into royal livery
and to go into mourning for her husband. He also offered her the title of Duchess
, which she refused. She and William remained friends as long as they both lived. By 1833
she came to an agreement with the government as to what would happen to her papers relating to her husband George; "essential" ones such as her marriage certificate were to be kept and others burned (so many that the Duke of Wellington is said to have remarked some hours into the burning process, "I think, my Lord, we had better hold our hand for a while, or we shall set the old woman's chimney
Maria became ill in March 1837
and died on the 27th of that month at the age of 80.
Munson, Robert. Maria Fitzherbert: The Secret Wife of George IV. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001.
Williamson, David. The Kings and Queens of England. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1998.