Mary Anne (Maria) Smythe was born on 26 July 1756. She was the eldest daughter of six children born to Walter Smythe of Brambridge House near Southampton, Hampshire. Her mother was Mary Errington.
Mary Anne Smythe - known as 'Maria' - was educated in Paris. In June 1775, at the age of eighteen, she married Edward Weld of Lulworth Castle, a widower of 34.
Within a short time of the marriage he died and three years later she married Thomas Fitzherbert of Swynnerton, Staffordshire. He was ten years her senior. Although a son was born to the Fitzherberts he died in infancy. On 7 May 1781, Thomas Fitzherbert also died - in Nice, leaving his widow a London house - in Park Street, Mayfair - and an income of more than £1,000 a year. When she came out of mourning she entered London society under the aegis of her uncles, Lord Sefton (who had abandoned the family religion for the Church of England) and his half-brother Henry Errington. She was still only 27, and a very attractive woman. In the spring of 1784, she went to the opera with Lord Sefton and at the request of George, the Prince of Wales, was introduced to him by Henry Errington. The Prince was not yet 22 - charming, pleasure-loving and inconstant - but his wandering affections were at once engaged, and so began the one enduring passion of his life.
Maria Fitzherbert was painted by the notable artists of the day - Gainsborough, Romney, Hoppner, Cosway - but their works do little to explain her effect on the volatile Prince. She had an aquiline nose - what, to her amusement, her adoptive grandson called in later life her 'Roman Catholic nose' - and strong chin, and she was not intellectual or witty. It was apparently her vivacity, directness and warmth, with her golden hair and fresh complexion, that made her attractive even with increasing years and weight. There is one early miniature, painted by Cosway before her first marriage, which captures her charm.
Lord Stourton, a relative of Mrs Fitzherbert who had many conversations with her about her life, wrote 'Mrs Fitzherbert was first acquainted with the Prince when residing on Richmond Hill, and soon became the object of his most ardent attentions'.
During this period she was made the subject of a popular ballad, which designated her under the title of the Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill - " I would crowns resign to call her mine, Sweet lass of Richmond Hill." She was assiduously courted by the Prince. The obstacles to marriage, and her own outright refusal - firmly rooted in her religious principles - to accept any other relationship, kept him at bay, but on 8 July 1784 she was summoned to Carlton House with news of his attempted suicide. In the face of his distress, she agreed to accept a ring, which he regarded as a symbol of marriage, but immediately after she left for the continent, whither George, with the assistance of his friend the Duke of Orléans (father of Louis Philippe) traced her, and bombarded her with letters imploring her to return. Eventually, in December 1785, she returned to London to marry him.
Such a marriage was forbidden by two laws. The first was the Bill of Rights of 1689, whereby anyone marrying a 'Papist' was excluded from the succession. The second was the Royal Marriage Act of 1772, passed at the behest of George III, whereby any descendant of George II was forbidden to marry under the age of 25 without the monarch's permission. This had been drafted as a result of royal displeasure at the marriages of two of the King's brothers to commoners - the Duke of Gloucester to Lady Waldegrave in 1766 (though this was not admitted at the time), and the Duke of Cumberland to Anne Horton in 1771. Anyone involved in a marriage contravening this Act would incur the penalties of praemunire, though what these were was somewhat uncertain.
On hearing of the proposed marriage, the Prince's friend Charles James Fox wrote to him, on 10 December, a long letter, full of wordly wisdom, urging him not to carry out his intention of 'a mock marriage (for it can be no other)' adding 'if I were Mrs Fitzherbert's father or brother, I would advise her not by any means to agree to it, and to prefer any other species of connection with you to one leading to so much misery and mischief'. The next day George sent him a reply which, though very evasive in wording, denied the intention.
Nevertheless, the Prince had already asked Colonel Gardner, his private secretary, to find a clergyman to solemnise the marriage. He first tried the Rev Philip Rosenhagen, born in Isleworth in 1737, who had a notorious reputation as a gambler, but proved unwilling to hazard himself too far in this venture, and declined to act. The second choice was the Rev Samuel Johnes (1756-1852) - he later took the additional name of Knight - who had been Vicar of All Souls, Barking, since 1783. He was called to Carlton House to see the Prince, who asked him to perform the ceremony. He at first agreed, then made excuses and was allowed to withdraw. The third choice, who accepted, was the Reverend Robert Burt.
ROBERT BURT - The Reverend Robert Burt's career was summed up by V.H. Wilkins in his book "Mrs Fitzherbert and George IV". He was the first writer to have documentary proof of Burt's part in the marriage, as 'a young curate, who had recently been admitted to priest's orders, (who) consented to run the risk ... in return for £500 paid down and the promise of future preferment ... The Prince of Wales faithfully kept his promise ... he appointed him one of his domestic chaplains, and obtained for him the comfortable living of Twickenham (the parish in which Mrs Fitzherbert's villa was situated)'. Shane Leslie added - 'according to tradition ... was bailed out of the Fleet Prison, his debts to the amount of £500 were paid, and he himself was promised a Bishopric'. This rather scathing collection of rumours, half-truths, and errors has been repeated or further corrupted in every book on Mrs Fitzherbert or George IV since.
In reality, he was ordained, and presented to a living, as Vicar of St Martin's West Drayton, and also of Harmondsworth, on 28 September 1779. Resuming University studies, he received a degree from Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 1781 was made Batchelor of Laws. By June 1784 he had been appointed one of the four Chaplains in Ordinary to the Prince of Wales. The reason for his selection is not known, but his whole career up to this date suggests that he had the support of a wealthy and influential father and friends in London.
THE MARRIAGE - The wedding took place in the drawing room of Mrs Fitzherbert's house in Park Street on the evening of 15 December 1785. Her uncle Henry Errington gave her away and was one witness; her brother Jack (aka John) Smythe was the other. Both signed a certificate, written out by the Prince himself though later, fearing the consequences for them, Mrs Fitzherbert cut out their names. It is said, though no evidence exists, that the honeymoon was spent at Richmond, and that the carriage broke down on the way, at Hammersmith or Twickenham.
Wilkins concluded his thorough survey on the status of this wedding - According to the civil law of England the ceremony was illegal and the marriage was null and void. According to the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, and also of the Church of England, it was valid. Mrs Fitzherbert certainly acted as though she was married to the Prince, and as early as December 28 rumours that this was so were circulating. London society was puzzled by the situation, and Horace Walpole made several references to current gossip in his letters. In March 1786 a cartoon 'Wife & No Wife' was published, depicting the marriage of the Prince and Mrs Fitzherbert. Its artist was James Gillray, who in the next twenty years was to caricature Mrs Fitzherbert mercilessly on many occasions, exploiting his prejudices against foreigners, Roman Catholics, and the North-Fox coalition.
Meanwhile, Mrs Fitzherbert was prominent in society. She lived in St James Square, and the Prince settled £3,000 a year on her. In 1786, however, his debts led him to move to Brighton; Mrs Fitzherbert of course followed, and for the rest of her life had a particular affection for the town. During the following winter he spent periods in houses lent to him, including Bushey, and in the next year his debts became so much of a problem that they were discussed in Parliament in April. In the course of these debates Fox categorically denied the wedding, not merely in terms which could be justified by its illegality, but 'The fact not only never could have happened legally, but never did happen in any way whatsoever'. Mrs Fitzherbert, who had a strong temper on occasion, was furious with Fox, declaring that 'he had rolled her in the kennel like a streetwalker'. Sheridan endeavoured to smooth over the matter by a somewhat ambiguous reference in a debate a few days later to 'another person ... whose character claimed, and was entitled to, the truest and most general respect'. The Prince's debts were paid, but the marriage question came up again, inconclusively, in the Regency debates of 1789.
THE PRINCE AND HIS WIVES - At this period, Mrs Fitzherbert is said to have had a house in the Richmond/Twickenham area, as well as one in Pall Mall. She was popular with the Royal Family, and the Prince's brothers invariably ended their letters to him with some message to 'Fitz'. There were rumours of the birth of children to them, but the possible complications arising from children of a marriage which, though illegal, might be canonically valid, would have necessitated fostering any such children; and no certain evidence has ever been produced. Both Minney Seymour and Marianne Smythe have been suggested as their children; there have been others mentioned. (qv 'Maryanne Smythe' link)
Matters came to a sudden end in June 1794; one day Mrs Fitzherbert received an affectionate letter written by the Prince from Brighton; the same evening, while dining with the Duke of Clarence at Bushey House, she was handed an abrupt note from him breaking off their relations. There were two reasons - the growing influence over him of Lady Jersey, and the magnitude of his debts, whose payment depended on his pleasing his father by making a suitable marriage for dynastic purposes. His choice, if it can be so described, fell on his cousin Caroline of Brunswick, who satisfied George III's requirements for 'a Protestant and a Princess'.
George tried uneasily to justify his actions by dwelling on Maria's faults of temper, endeavouring to mollify her through the diplomacy of Captain Jack Payne, and writing to his brother, the Duke of York 'you will not lay the fault, whatever it may be at my door'. The Duke reassured him 'I am rejoiced to hear you are now out of her shackles. As for the Princess, she is a very fine girl and in every respect a very proper match for you'. George maintained Mrs Fitzherbert's allowance, and even obtained the King's assurance that, should he die first, the payment would be continued.
She left London for a while, and spent the autumn in Margate. On 7 April 1795 Horace Walpole wrote to Mary Berry that she 'has taken Marble Hill and proposes to live very platonically under the devout wing of Mrs Cambridge' - the wife of George Owen Cambridge, at nearby Cambridge House, Richmond. Miss Henrietta Hotham, who rented Marble Hill to her, had inherited it two years before.
Princess Caroline arrived in England the same month, and the wedding took place on 8 April. The Prince had not been favourably impressed, and Mrs Fitzherbert told Lord Stourton that a day or two preceding the marriage he had been seen 'passing rapidly on horseback before her house at Marble Hill, but that his motive for doing so was unknown to her'. Her stay there was short and in October she moved to 'the Italian villa at Castle Bar Hill', Ealing, which she bought for 9,000 guineas. She also bought a new London house, 6 Tilney St.
The royal marriage was a disaster. On 7 January 1796 the Princess Charlotte was born. Three days later the Prince, in the throes of one of the psychosomatic illnesses to which he was subject, made a verbose will in which he left all his property to 'my Maria Fitzherbert, my wife, the wife of my heart & soul'. In April he formally separated from the uncouth and indiscreet, but extremely ill-used Princess Caroline, and was soon urging Mrs Fitzherbert to return to him. In addition to writing pleading letters, he enlisted the support of his brothers and sisters, and even his mother Queen Charlotte, to persuade her.
For three years she refused, and it was not until she had secured from a papal court in Rome the assurance that the marriage conducted by Robert Burt was still valid, that she agreed to a reunion. This was formally marked by a 'public breakfast' with 400 guests in June 1800. She gave up her Ealing house, which was purchased by the Duke of Kent, one of her closest friends among the royal brothers, who had returned to England from Canada.
'We live like brother and sister', she wrote to her friend Lady Anne Barnard, 'I did not consent to make it up with the Prince to live with him either as his wife or his mistress'. The eight years from 1799 she regarded as the happiest of her life. She and the Prince were growing stout and middle-aged, as the cartoonists emphasised, but they spent much time at Brighton, and she bought Steyne House there. Friends noted the beneficial influence she exerted on the Prince's wilder habits. Among their visitors were the Princes of the exiled house of Orleans. Louis Philippe, Duc d'Orleans since his father was guillotined in 1793 had arrived in England from the USA in 1800 with his brothers the Comte de Beaujolais and the Duc de Montpensier, and settled in nearby Twickenham, until 1808.
During this period Mrs Fitzherbert became involved with members of the Waldegrave family. Maria, 2nd Countess Waldegrave (who in her widowhood married the Duke of Gloucester) was the niece of Robert and Horace Walpole. Of her three daughters, subjects of Reynolds' famous painting, Elizabeth married her cousin, the 4th Earl, and Anne Horatia ('Racy') married Lord Hugh Seymour, younger son of the lst Marquess of Hertford, in 1786. The Seymours were friends of the Prince of Wales and Mrs Fitzherbert, but unhesitatingly took her side after the separation of 1795. In 1801 both died; at the time, Mary Georgina Emma ('Minney'), the youngest of their six children, born in 1798, was in Mrs Fitzherbert's care, and she, devoted to children, wished to adopt her. Some of the family, notably Elizabeth, Lady Waldegrave, strongly opposed Minney's being placed under the guardianship of a Roman Catholic, and legal arguments dragged on for four years. The Prince, who was devoted to Minney, took an active part, and in 1806 guardianship was given to Minney's uncle, the 2nd Marquess of Hertford, who promptly placed her in Mrs Fitzherbert's charge, with the guarantee that she would be brought up as a Protestant.
Despite this satisfactory conclusion for Mrs Fitzherbert, this case was a disaster for her in another way, for it brought George under the influence of Lady Hertford; relations deteriorated in 1807, and in 1809 they separated. Brighton became an unhappy place for her for a while, and though she retained her house there she bought another in the London area, East End House, Parson's Green. Two years later, in 1810, she sold this, and bought Sherwood Lodge, Battersea, where she spent much time in the following fourteen years.
The final break with the Prince came in June 1811 when, just after his assumption of the Regency for his father, George III, he publicly slighted her by the inferior position he gave her at a fête at Carlton House. They probably never met again after 20 June of that year; she was, however, granted an annuity of £6000 a year.
'AN EXCELLENT WOMAN ' - Though she was not to share publicly in the lavishness and artistic flowering of the Regency, Mrs Fitzherbert had an assured and respected place in Society. Indeed, when one considers the virulence of the cartoons by Gillray and others, it is remarkable to find how widely liked and esteemed she was. Tributes were paid by persons as varied as Greville ('of a very noble spirit, disinterested, generous, honest, and affectionate'), Creevey ('the best-hearted and most discreet human being that ever was, to be without a particle of talent') and even the slighted Princess Caroline ('that is the Prince's true wife; she is an excellent woman; it is a great pity for him he ever broke vid her.') She corresponded frequently with the Dukes of York and Kent. Another old friend was Louis Philippe who, exiled for his radical views after the restoration of the Bourbons, returned to Twickenham and lived at Orleans House from 1815 to 1817. On 18 July 1815 he wrote to thank Mrs Fitzherbert for her 'past, present and future kindness'; and two years later (5 April 1817) he wrote from Twickenham hoping she would visit him in France, which she did the following autumn. They also exchanged news through the Duke of Kent.
George continued as Prince Regent until George III died in 1820, and he succeeded to the throne; but his only child, Princess Charlotte, the wife of Prince Leopold, had died in 1817. Though there was no reconciliation with Mrs Fitzherbert, the King took a continued interest in Minney Seymour, and gave her £20,000 on her coming of age. Mrs Fitzherbert was distressed by Minney's attachment to George Dawson, a distant cousin by marriage, whom she met in 1819. He was regarded as an unsuitable match, but eventually his persistent devotion, allied to the financial aid promised by a distant kinswoman, Lady Caroline Damer (George Dawson's grand-mother had been a Damer) prevailed, and they were married on 20 August 1825. She had a second adopted daughter, the somewhat mysterious Maryanne (Marianne) Smythe, said to be the daughter of her brother Jack (John), but thought by some to be her own child. She made an acceptable marriage, to Edward Stafford-Jerningham, in 1828.
In 1830 King George IVth became gravely ill. Mrs Fitzherbert wrote him a note of affectionate regard, and travelled to London to be at hand. He died on 26 June, and though he had sent no answer, the Duke of Wellington observed that he still wore Mrs. Fitzherbert's miniature round his neck and it was buried with him.
The new King, William IVth, and Queen Adelaide, treated Mrs Fitzherbert with great kindness and consideration. In 1833 there were negotiations between the Duke of Wellington, executor of George IV, and Lords Stourton and Albemarle, for Mrs Fitzherbert, regarding correspondence between the two, and it was finally agreed that all such papers should be destroyed, except for a few which proved the fact of the marriage, which were deposited in Coutts Bank under conditions which kept them unread for seventy years.
The same year that brought William IVth to the throne saw the final overthrow of the Bourbons and the emergence of Louis Philippe as King of the French. When his son the Duc d'Orleans visited England in 1831 he was instructed to call on Mrs Fitzherbert, whom the King described as 'one of his oldest friends'. During a subsequent visit, Orleans' obvious admiration for Mrs Fitzherbert's niece Georgina, whom he called 'the prettiest girl in England' caused some embarrassment, but she married Augustus Craven in December 1833. In that year Mrs Fitzherbert went to France for several months, and the Duc d'Orleans called to invite her to join the French Royal Family informally, and this she did on several occasions - 'Nothing could exceed the kindness of their reception of me: they are both old acquaintances of mine'.
Mrs Fitzherbert enjoyed a golden autumn; though she was out of sympathy with the political changes of the age, she had much happiness in her adoptive grandchildren and was completely reconciled to George Dawson-Damer. She spent much of her time at Brighton, where she was the uncrowned queen. On his accession to the throne, William IVth , in fact, did all he could - short of a public acknowledgment, which the Duke of Wellington opposed on state grounds - to recognise her position as his brothers widow. He had offered to create her a Duchess, but she declined; she accepted, however, his permission to put her servants in royal livery. It was in Brighton, after a brief illness, that she died at the age of 80, on 27 March 1837. Her memorial, in St. John the Baptist's Roman Catholic Church, shows her wearing three wedding rings.
When Mrs Fitzherbert died, three months before the accession of Queen Victoria, more than fifty years had passed since the marriage which Robert Burt had celebrated, and Burt's widow still lived in Twickenham. Mrs Fitzherbert would never divulge the name of the priest who married her, and various rumours circulated, but as late as 1856 Sir George Seymour did not know his name; Lord Colchester's diary was published in 1861 but it cannot be said how far it was known or believed; Queen Victoria told Chichester Fortescue in 1885 that she 'had no doubt that George IV had married Mrs Fitzherbert' but did not indicate any positive evidence.
The actual existence of the marriage tie and the documentary evidence of her rights were not definitely established for many years. However, in 1905, the sealed packet deposited at Couttss bank in 1833 was finally opened by royal permission and the marriage certificate and other conclusive proofs contaned in it were published in Wilkins's book. Additionally, in 1796, the Prince had made a remarkable will - in Mrs Fitzherberts favour - which he gave her in 1799. This was included among these documents which are now in the private archives at Windsor Castle. In this will he speaks of Maria throughout as "my wife". The will also contained directions that at his death a locket with her miniature - which he always wore - should be interred with him; and this had, indeed, happened.
Grateful thanks are extended in particular to the Early family and to a variety of other internet text sources.