George Iv And Mrs Fitzherbert
In the last decade of the eighteenth century England was perhaps the
most brilliant nation of the world. Other countries had been humbled
by the splendid armies of France and were destined to be still further
humbled by the emperor who came from Corsica. France had begun to
seize the scepter of power; yet to this picture there was another
side--fearful want and grievous poverty and the horrors of the
Revolution. Russia was too far away, and was still considered too
barbarous, for a brilliant court to flourish there. Prussia had the
prestige that Frederick the Great won for her, but she was still a
comparatively small state. Italy was in a condition of political chaos;
the banks of the Rhine were running blood where the Austrian armies
faced the gallant Frenchmen under the leadership of Moreau. But England,
in spite of the loss of her American colonies, was rich and prosperous,
and her invincible fleets were extending her empire over the seven seas.
At no time in modern England has the court at London seen so much real
splendor or such fine manners. The royalist emigres who fled from France
brought with them names and pedigrees that were older than the Crusades,
and many of them were received with the frankest, freest English
hospitality. If here and there some marquis or baron of ancient blood
was perforce content to teach music to the daughters of tradesmen in
suburban schools, nevertheless they were better off than they had
been in France, harried by the savage gaze-hounds of the guillotine.
Afterward, in the days of the Restoration, when they came back to
their estates, they had probably learned more than one lesson from the
bouledogues of Merry England, who had little tact, perhaps, but who were
at any rate kindly and willing to share their goods with pinched and
The court, then, as has been said, was brilliant with notables from
Continental countries, and with the historic wealth of the peerage of
England. Only one cloud overspread it; and that was the mental condition
of the king. We have become accustomed to think of George III as a dull
creature, almost always hovering on the verge of that insanity which
finally swept him into a dark obscurity; but Thackeray's picture of him
is absurdly untrue to the actual facts. George III. was by no means a
dullard, nor was he a sort of beefy country squire who roved about the
palace gardens with his unattractive spouse.
Obstinate enough he was, and ready for a combat with the rulers of the
Continent or with his self-willed sons; but he was a man of brains and
power, and Lord Rosebery has rightly described him as the most striking
constitutional figure of his time. Had he retained his reason, and
had his erratic and self-seeking son not succeeded him during his own
lifetime, Great Britain might very possibly have entered upon other ways
than those which opened to her after the downfall of Napoleon.
The real center of fashionable England, however, was not George III.,
but rather his son, subsequently George IV., who was made Prince of
Wales three days after his birth, and who became prince regent during
the insanity of the king. He was the leader of the social world, the
fit companion of Beau Brummel and of a choice circle of rakes and
fox-hunters who drank pottle-deep. Some called him "the first gentleman
of Europe." Others, who knew him better, described him as one who
never kept his word to man or woman and who lacked the most elementary
Yet it was his good luck during the first years of his regency to be
popular as few English kings have ever been. To his people he typified
old England against revolutionary France; and his youth and gaiety made
many like him. He drank and gambled; he kept packs of hounds and strings
of horses; he ran deeply into debt that he might patronize the sports
of that uproarious day. He was a gallant "Corinthian," a haunter of dens
where there were prize-fights and cock-fights, and there was hardly a
doubtful resort in London where his face was not familiar.
He was much given to gallantry--not so much, as it seemed, for
wantonness, but from sheer love of mirth and chivalry. For a time, with
his chosen friends, such as Fox and Sheridan, he ventured into reckless
intrigues that recalled the amours of his predecessor, Charles II. He
had by no means the wit and courage of Charles; and, indeed, the house
of Hanover lacked the outward show of chivalry which made the Stuarts
shine with external splendor. But he was good-looking and stalwart, and
when he had half a dozen robust comrades by his side he could assume
a very manly appearance. Such was George IV. in his regency and in
his prime. He made that period famous for its card-playing, its deep
drinking, and for the dissolute conduct of its courtiers and noblemen no
less than for the gallantry of its soldiers and its momentous victories
on sea and land. It came, however, to be seen that his true achievements
were in reality only escapades, that his wit was only folly, and his
so-called "sensibility" was but sham. He invented buckles, striped
waistcoats, and flamboyant collars, but he knew nothing of the
principles of kingship or the laws by which a state is governed.
The fact that he had promiscuous affairs with women appealed at first
to the popular sense of the romantic. It was not long, however, before
these episodes were trampled down into the mire of vulgar scandal.
One of the first of them began when he sent a letter, signed "Florizel,"
to a young actress, "Perdita" Robinson. Mrs. Robinson, whose maiden
name was Mary Darby, and who was the original of famous portraits
by Gainsborough and Reynolds, was a woman of beauty, talent, and
temperament. George, wishing in every way to be "romantic," insisted
upon clandestine meetings on the Thames at Kew, with all the stage
trappings of the popular novels--cloaks, veils, faces hidden, and armed
watchers to warn her of approaching danger. Poor Perdita took this
nonsense so seriously that she gave up her natural vocation for the
stage, and forsook her husband, believing that the prince would never
weary of her.
He did weary of her very soon, and, with the brutality of a man of such
a type, turned her away with the promise of some money; after which he
cut her in the Park and refused to speak to her again. As for the money,
he may have meant to pay it, but Perdita had a long struggle before she
succeeded in getting it. It may be assumed that the prince had to borrow
it and that this obligation formed part of the debts which Parliament
paid for him.
It is not necessary to number the other women whose heads he turned.
They are too many for remembrance here, and they have no special
significance, save one who, as is generally believed, became his wife so
far as the church could make her so. An act of 1772 had made it
illegal for any member of the English royal family to marry without the
permission of the king. A marriage contracted without the king's consent
might be lawful in the eyes of the church, but the children born of it
could not inherit any claim to the throne.
It may be remarked here that this withholding of permission was strictly
enforced. Thus William IV., who succeeded George IV., was married,
before his accession to the throne, to Mrs. Jordan (Dorothy Bland).
Afterward he lawfully married a woman of royal birth who was known as
There is an interesting story which tells how Queen Victoria came to
be born because her father, the Duke of Kent, was practically forced
to give up a morganatic union which he greatly preferred to a marriage
arranged for him by Parliament. Except the Duke of Cambridge, the Duke
of Kent was the only royal duke who was likely to have children in the
regular line. The only daughter of George IV. had died in childhood.
The Duke of Cumberland was for various reasons ineligible; the Duke of
Clarence, later King William IV., was almost too old; and therefore, to
insure the succession, the Duke of Kent was begged to marry a young and
attractive woman, a princess of the house of Saxe-Coburg, who was ready
for the honor. It was greatly to the Duke's credit that he showed deep
and sincere feeling in this matter. As he said himself in effect:
"This French lady has stood by me in hard times and in good times,
too--why should I cast her off? She has been more than a wife to me. And
what do I care for your plans in Parliament? Send over for one of the
Stuarts--they are better men than the last lot of our fellows that you
In the end, however, he was wearied out and was persuaded to marry, but
he insisted that a generous sum should be settled on the lady who had
been so long his true companion, and to whom, no doubt, he gave many a
wistful thought in his new but unfamiliar quarters in Kensington Palace,
which was assigned as his residence.
Again, the second Duke of Cambridge, who died only a few years ago,
greatly desired to marry a lady who was not of royal rank, though of
fine breeding and of good birth. He besought his young cousin, as
head of the family, to grant him this privilege of marriage; but Queen
Victoria stubbornly refused. The duke was married according to the rites
of the church, but he could not make his wife a duchess. The queen never
quite forgave him for his partial defiance of her wishes, though the
duke's wife--she was usually spoken of as Mrs. FitzGeorge--was received
almost everywhere, and two of her sons hold high rank in the British
army and navy, respectively.
The one real love story in the life of George IV. is that which tells of
his marriage with a lady who might well have been the wife of any king.
This was Maria Anne Smythe, better known as Mrs. Fitzherbert, who was
six years older than the young prince when she first met him in company
with a body of gentlemen and ladies in 1784.
Maria Fitzherbert's face was one which always displayed its best
advantages. Her eyes were peculiarly languishing, and, as she had
already been twice a widow, and was six years his senior, she had the
advantage over a less experienced lover. Likewise, she was a Catholic,
and so by another act of Parliament any marriage with her would be
illegal. Yet just because of all these different objections the prince
was doubly drawn to her, and was willing to sacrifice even the throne if
he could but win her.
His father, the king, called him into the royal presence and said:
"George, it is time that you should settle down and insure the
succession to the throne."
"Sir," replied the prince, "I prefer to resign the succession and let my
brother have it, and that I should live as a private English gentleman."
Mrs. Fitzherbert was not the sort of woman to give herself up readily to
a morganatic connection. Moreover, she soon came to love Prince George
too well to entangle him in a doubtful alliance with one of another
faith than his. Not long after he first met her the prince, who was
always given to private theatricals, sent messengers riding in hot haste
to her house to tell her that he had stabbed himself, that he begged
to see her, and that unless she came he would repeat the act. The lady
yielded, and hurried to Carlton House, the prince's residence; but she
was prudent enough to take with her the Duchess of Devonshire, who was a
reigning beauty of the court.
The scene which followed was theatrical rather than impressive.--The
prince was found in his sleeping-chamber, pale and with his ruffles
blood-stained. He played the part of a youthful and love-stricken wooer,
vowing that he would marry the woman of his heart or stab himself
again. In the presence of his messengers, who, with the duchess,
were witnesses, he formally took the lady as his wife, while Lady
Devonshire's wedding-ring sealed the troth. The prince also acknowledged
it in a document.
Mrs. Fitzherbert was, in fact, a woman of sound sense. Shortly after
this scene of melodramatic intensity her wits came back to her, and she
recognized that she had merely gone through a meaningless farce. So
she sent back the prince's document and the ring and hastened to
the Continent, where he could not reach her, although his detectives
followed her steps for a year.
At the last she yielded, however, and came home to marry the prince
in such fashion as she could--a marriage of love, and surely one of
morality, though not of parliamentary law. The ceremony was performed
"in her own drawing-room in her house in London, in the presence of the
officiating Protestant clergyman and two of her own nearest relatives."
Such is the serious statement of Lord Stourton, who was Mrs.
Fitzherbert's cousin and confidant. The truth of it was never denied,
and Mrs. Fitzherbert was always treated with respect, and even regarded
as a person of great distinction. Nevertheless, on more than one
occasion the prince had his friends in Parliament deny the marriage in
order that his debts might be paid and new allowances issued to him by
George certainly felt himself a husband. Like any other married prince,
he set himself to build a palace for his country home. While in search
of some suitable spot he chanced to visit the "pretty fishing-village"
of Brighton to see his uncle, the Duke of Cumberland. Doubtless he found
it an attractive place, yet this may have been not so much because
of its view of the sea as for the reason that Mrs. Fitzherbert had
previously lived there.
However, in 1784 the prince sent down his chief cook to make
arrangements for the next royal visit. The cook engaged a house on the
spot where the Pavilion now stands, and from that time Brighton began to
be an extremely fashionable place. The court doctors, giving advice that
was agreeable, recommended their royal patient to take sea-bathing at
Brighton. At once the place sprang into popularity.
At first the gentry were crowded into lodging-houses and the
accommodations were primitive to a degree. But soon handsome villas
arose on every side; hotels appeared; places of amusement were opened.
The prince himself began to build a tasteless but showy structure,
partly Chinese and partly Indian in style, on the fashionable promenade
of the Steyne.
During his life with Mrs. Fitzherbert at Brighton the prince held what
was practically a court. Hundreds of the aristocracy came down from
London and made their temporary dwellings there; while thousands who
were by no means of the court made the place what is now popularly
called "London by the Sea." There were the Duc de Chartres, of France;
statesmen and rakes, like Fox, Sheridan, and the Earl of Barrymore; a
very beautiful woman, named Mrs. Couch, a favorite singer at the opera,
to whom the prince gave at one time jewels worth ten thousand pounds;
and a sister of the Earl of Barrymore, who was as notorious as her
brother. She often took the president's chair at a club which George's
friends had organized and which she had christened the Hell Fire Club.
Such persons were not the only visitors at Brighton. Men of much more
serious demeanor came down to visit the prince and brought with them
quieter society. Nevertheless, for a considerable time the place was
most noted for its wild scenes of revelry, into which George frequently
entered, though his home life with Mrs. Fitzherbert at the Pavilion was
a decorous one.
No one felt any doubt as to the marriage of the two persons, who seemed
so much like a prince and a princess. Some of the people of the place
addressed Mrs. Fitzherbert as "Mrs. Prince." The old king and his wife,
however, much deplored their son's relation with her. This was partly
due to the fact that Mrs. Fitzherbert was a Catholic and that she had
received a number of French nuns who had been driven out of France at
the time of the Revolution. But no less displeasure was caused by the
prince's racing and dicing, which swelled his debts to almost a million
pounds, so that Parliament and, indeed, the sober part of England were
set against him.
Of course, his marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert had no legal status; nor is
there any reason for believing that she ever became a mother. She had
no children by her former two husbands, and Lord Stourton testified
positively that she never had either son or daughter by Prince George.
Nevertheless, more than one American claimant has risen to advance
some utterly visionary claim to the English throne by reason of alleged
descent from Prince George and Mrs. Fitzherbert.
Neither William IV. nor Queen Victoria ever spent much time at Brighton.
In King William's case it was explained that the dampness of the
Pavilion did not suit him; and as to Queen Victoria, it was said that
she disliked the fact that buildings had been erected so as to cut
off the view of the sea. It is quite likely, however, that the queen
objected to the associations of the place, and did not care to be
reminded of the time when her uncle had lived there so long in a
morganatic state of marriage.
At length the time came when the king, Parliament, and the people at
large insisted that the Prince of Wales should make a legal marriage,
and a wife was selected for him in the person of Caroline, daughter of
the Duke of Brunswick. This marriage took place exactly ten years after
his wedding with the beautiful and gentle-mannered Mrs. Fitzherbert.
With the latter he had known many days and hours of happiness. With
Princess Caroline he had no happiness at all.
Prince George met her at the pier to greet her. It is said that as he
took her hand he kissed her, and then, suddenly recoiling, he whispered
to one of his friends:
"For God's sake, George, give me a glass of brandy!"
Such an utterance was more brutal and barbaric than anything his bride
could have conceived of, though it is probable, fortunately, that she
did not understand him by reason of her ignorance of English.
We need not go through the unhappy story of this unsympathetic,
neglected, rebellious wife. Her life with the prince soon became one
of open warfare; but instead of leaving England she remained to set the
kingdom in an uproar. As soon as his father died and he became king,
George sued her for divorce. Half the people sided with the queen,
while the rest regarded her as a vulgar creature who made love to her
attendants and brought dishonor on the English throne. It was a sorry,
sordid contrast between the young Prince George who had posed as a sort
of cavalier and this now furious gray old man wrangling with his furious
Well might he look back to the time when he met Perdita in the moonlight
on the Thames, or when he played the part of Florizel, or, better still,
when he enjoyed the sincere and disinterested love of the gentle woman
who was his wife in all but legal status. Caroline of Brunswick was
thrust away from the king's coronation. She took a house within sight of
Westminster Abbey, so that she might make hag-like screeches to the
mob and to the king as he passed by. Presently, in August, 1821, only
a month after the coronation, she died, and her body was taken back to
Brunswick for burial.
George himself reigned for nine years longer. When he died in 1830 his
executor was the Duke of Wellington. The duke, in examining the late
king's private papers, found that he had kept with the greatest care
every letter written to him by his morganatic wife. During his last
illness she had sent him an affectionate missive which it is said George
"read eagerly." Mrs. Fitzherbert wished the duke to give up her letters;
but he would do so only in return for those which he had written to her.
It was finally decided that it would be best to burn both his and hers.
This work was carried out in Mrs. Fitzherbert's own house by the lady,
the duke, and the Earl of Albemarle.
Of George it may be said that he has left as memories behind him only
three things that will be remembered. The first is the Pavilion at
Brighton, with its absurdly oriental decorations, its minarets and
flimsy towers. The second is the buckle which he invented and which
Thackeray has immortalized with his biting satire. The last is the story
of his marriage to Maria Fitzherbert, and of the influence exercised
upon him by the affection of a good woman.
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