Friday, March 20, 2015

Fact or Fiction? The Two Wives of George IV

Maria Fitzherbert, ca 1790

Fact or Fiction? The Two Wives of George IV

Imagine if you found out a high-standing member of your community had a secret wife. Now imagine you are an English subject and that the high-standing person is your King! This was precisely the case during the reign of George IV--though most of English society knew about the first wife of George even while he was still Prince of Wales and then Prince Regent. 

How Did it Happen?
The prince married Maria Fitzherbert because he was in love with her, and had long sought her hand. But his doing so was illegal on three counts, all of which he--and Maria--were well aware of. For this reason, they held a private and secret ceremony. Maria was a twice-widowed devout Catholic who had held off the prince for quite some time. She finally agreed to a wedding on the condition that a priest would officiate. The legal obstacles to the marriage were as follows: 

1. The Prince of Wales could not marry a commoner. This was law.
2. The Act of Settlement of 1701 prohibited the protestant Prince from marrying a Catholic, at cost of his title and claim to the throne.
3. The Royal Marriages Act expressly forbade the Prince to marry without the King’s consent if he was younger than twenty-five. (He was 23.)

These were the legal impediments. There were also ethical and moral ones.
Maria was a deeply religious woman. She would not consent to being the Prince’s mistress. He went so far as to stage a “suicide,” stabbing himself and promising to bleed to death if she did not come to him. He did this knowing all the while that a marriage to her could never be valid in the eyes of the law. Maria consented to a wedding under duress, but then fled his attentions by fleeing to Europe. Yet the Prince hounded Maria, swearing his lifelong love and devotion to her at every turn. 

The Young Prince of Wales ca.1780
Somewhere along the line the principled Maria began to return the Prince’s sentiments, and she finally agreed to return to England and be his wife. They were married in a secret ceremony which was legal in the eyes of both churches (Rome, and the Anglican Church), but not the government. In English high society rumors flew about like bees around a hive, but no one could produce proof that the marriage had taken place. (The couple did not co-habit, since Maria refused to be seen as a mistress when she was a wife. Every night he left her house and returned to his own. ) 

Sadly, George’s “undying devotion,” did not last. By 1788 he had an affair with an opera singer, and was from then on never constant.   
Then, at a time when the prince had fallen into deep debt (a problem that plagued him throughout his life; he was an incurable spendthrift and lover of luxuries) the King (George III) agreed to help him—if he got married. A cousin, an obscure German daughter of a duke from the house of Brunswick was chosen, and the prince, with encouragement from his latest mistress (who wished to alienate him forever from Maria) agreed to the marriage.

The King (ie., Parliament) is estimated to have paid off what would be nearly £18,000,000 in today's money in order to coax the Prince to this legal
Princess Caroline of Brunswick
marriage. In short, the country wanted a legal heir and was willing to pay for it. Moreover, they wanted a royal marriage that wasn't a scandal.  Unfortunately, the ensuing  legal marriage to Caroline of Brunswick Wolfenb├╝ttel was an unmitigated disaster. The couple spent enough time together to have one child--the popular but doomed Princess Charlotte--and then separated for good. 

George, however, never divorced his Catholic wife. The fact that the government didn't recognize the union as legal enabled him to marry again, but Maria considered herself married to George until his death. She had vowed to always believe him her husband and she never remarried or took up with another man. (She had even written to the Pope, who confirmed that the marriage was valid in the eyes of Rome.) 

To his credit (and there is very little to his credit regarding his marriages) George never forgot Maria.  At his death, he was found wearing a miniature portrait of her around his neck, nearest his heart. He had also saved all her letters.

VERDICT: The two wives of George IV was: FACT 

For more information:
For a good post on how George pursued Maria, see this post on "History and Other Thoughts."  

What would you have done if you were Maria? Would you have married the Prince, the most eligible male in the Kingdom? 

Linore Rose Burkard is best known for historical romance novels with Harvest House Publishers, including Before the Season Ends, the award-winning The House in Grosvenor Square, and, The Country House Courtship. As a writer noted for meticulous research as well as bringing people to life on the page, Linore’s books delight fans of the regency with  “Heyeresque” humor and Austen-like manners.  Linore teaches workshops for writers with Greater Harvest Workshops in Ohio, is a homeschooling mother of five, and has multiple new books in the works. Keep up with Linore by subscribing to her free newsletter


  1. That's a fascinating story, Linore. What a tangled web they wove!

  2. Wow! What an incredible story. I love the Fact or Fiction approach.

  3. Fascinating post. But poor Maria! Rebecca phrased it perfectly. What a tangled web!

  4. Thanks, ladies. And yes, poor Maria, indeed! I have yet to read a biography of her, but I intend to. She was really an anomaly to the world of court politics and intrigues, being involved despite herself by the Prince's ceaseless pursuit of her. But even her enemies had nothing bad to say of her. She was truly a sweet saint--I'd love to meet her one day in heaven. :)

  5. Poor Maria, indeed! Thanks for the delightful post, Linore, it's very enlightening. I've seen Maria Fitzherbert: The Secret Wife of George IV by James Munson mentioned in the Quizzing Glass Blog, but haven't seen it reviewed.

  6. I haven't looked at the reviews yet, either. I don't want something that's mostly fictional--she did write many letters to various people, so there should be a good basis for a bio--I would hope some of the letters would be transcribed in the book. You'd get a good feel for what she was like, I think. (Then again, my letters wouldn't be very accurate a picture; but we don't write letters today the way they used to, with precision and care and much thought.) Thanks for stopping by. :)