March 29 – Catholic Wife of Prince of Wales

March 26, 2018

Maria Anne Fitzherbert

Wife of King George IV; b. 26 July, 1756 (place uncertain); d. at Brighton, England, 29 March, 1837; eldest child of Walter Smythe, of Bainbridge, Hampshire, younger son of Sir John Smythe, of Eshe Hall, Durham and Acton Burnell Park, Salop, a Catholic baronet. In 1775 she married Edward Weld, of Lulworth, Dorset (uncle of Cardinal Weld), who died before the year was out. Her next husband was Thomas Fitzherbert, of Swynnerton, Staffordshire, whom she married in 1778 and who died in 1781. A young and beautiful widow with a jointure of £2000 a year, she took up her abode in 1782 at Richmond, Surrey, having at the same time a house in town. In or about 1784 happened her first meeting with George, Prince of Wales, then about twenty-two years of age, she about six years older. He straightway fell in love with her. Marriage with her princely suitor being legally impossible, Mrs. Fitzherbert turned a deaf ear to the prince’s solicitations, to get rid of which she withdrew to the Continent. However, on receipt of an honourable offer from the prince, she returned after a while to England, and they were privily married in her own London drawing-room and before two witnesses, 15 Dec., 1785, the officiating minister being an Anglican curate.

King George IV of the United Kingdom (1762-1830). The King, with the Royal Stewart tartan and and the green sash of the Order of the Thistle, was painted by Sir David Wilkie during the King’s visit to Scotland in 1822.

Thenceforth, though in separate houses, they lived together as man and wife, she being treated on almost every hand with unbounded respect and deference, until 1787, when, upon the prince’s application to Parliament for payment of his debts, Fox authoritatively declared in the House of Commons that no marriage between the prince and Mrs. Fitzherbert had ever taken place. However, upon the prince’s solemn and oft-repeated assurance that Fox had no authority for this degrading denial, the breach between the offended wife and her husband was healed. So they continued to live together on a matrimonial footing until 1794, when, being about to contract a forced legal marriage with his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, the prince very reluctantly cast Mrs. Fitzherbert off, at the same time continuing the pension of £3000 a year, which he had allowed her ever since their marriage.

Maria Fitzherbert memorial in St John the Baptist’s Church, Brighton. Photo by AndyScott.

Shortly after the birth of Princess Charlotte in 1796, the prince, who hated the Princess of Wales, separated from her and besought the forsaken Mrs. Fitzherbert to return to him. This, after consultation with Rome, she at length did in 1800, and remained with him some nine years more, when they virtually parted. At last, in 1811, because of a crowning affront put upon her on occasion of a magnificent fête given at Carlton House by the prince, lately made regent, at which entertainment no fixed place at the royal table had been assigned her, she broke off connexion with the prince for ever; withdrawing into private life upon an annuity of £6000. Her husband, as King George IV, died in 1830, with a locket containing her miniature round his neck, and was so buried. Mrs. Fitzherbert survived him seven years, dying at the age of eighty, at Brighton, where she was buried in the Catholic church of St. John the Baptist, to the erection of which she had largely contributed, and wherein a mural monument to her memory is still to be seen.

Kebbel in Dict. Nat. Biog., s. v.; Gillow, Bibl. Dict. Eng. Cath., s. v.; Annual Register for 1837 (London); Langdale, Memoirs of Mrs. Fitzherbert (London, 1856); Wilkins, Mrs. Fitzherbert and George IV (London, 1905).

C. T. Boothman (Catholic Encyclopedia)


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