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Maria Fitzherbert:
The Secret Wife of George IV
by James Munson

Review by Cheryl Bolen
 

Maria Fitzherbert:
The Secret Wife of George IV
by James Munson
Robinson, London, 2002
Price 7.99 pounds
372 pages

Since there's such a scarcity of work on Maria Fitzherbert, I was eager to get my hands on this new book, which I purchased in Great Britain. But after reading all 372 pages, I still don't feel all that well acquainted with the woman who secretly married the Prince of Wales (later to be prince regent, and later still, King George IV) in 1785.

One of the reasons for this scarcity is the absence of the lady's letters and diaries, which have enriched other biographies of Mrs. Fitzherbert's contemporaries, such as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. In fact, I felt somewhat cheated by Munson, who touted his work as the only one having the letters from Mrs. Fitzherbert's intimate friend, Lady Anne Lindsay. "Previous biographers knew nothing of these letters or of Lady Anne's journal," Munson tells us. Oh boy, I thought, new information!

Very few of Mrs. Fitzherbert's letters to Lady Anne are revealed in these pages. There are, however, snippets from Lady Anne's diaries which give some insight into Mrs. Fitzherbert.

Another disappointment was lack of details about the relationship between the prince and Mrs. Fitzherbert, a twice widowed Catholic he married in a secret, illegal Anglican ceremony. They acted as husband and wife for almost twenty years (non-consecutively), yet there is little information about this remarkable relationship. The first 150 pages of the book are background on the two; the last 50 pages deal with the years after the couple's final break. That leaves about a third of the book to deal with the 20 years they were together.

Not all of the blame for this vagueness rests on Munson's shoulders. Credit Mrs. Fitzherbert herself and her "husband" when he became George IV for ordering the destruction the evidence of their illegal marriage. Upon George IV's death he entrusted the Duke of Wellington, then prime minister, with the task of burning all correspondence between himself and Mrs. Fitzherbert.

Mrs. Fitzherbert complied, asking that only four documents be spared. The duke and Lord Albermarle met at her residence, she handed them packets of papers, then left. Her actions prompted Wellington to say she, "was the most honest woman he'd ever met." The two peers burned letters in her fireplace for many hours afterward. It is said her house smelled of burnt paper and sealing wax for many weeks, and the stain to her white mantel stayed for years. Five years later, Wellington was still burning the prince's love letters to Mrs. Fitzherbert.

The four documents she insisted on keeping were the mortgage on the Royal Pavilion at Brighton (which the prince claimed to have given her but which she never took possession of); her marriage certificate; a will the prince wrote when they were estranged in 1796 (a year after he legally married Caroline of Brunswick) in which he said Maria Fitzherbert was his true wife; and an affidavit from the clergyman who performed their marriage ceremony. These documents were deposited in Coutts bank, where they stayed until the early twentieth century when they were placed in the Royal Archives.

So why all the bloody secrecy? From the very beginning of their love affair both the prince and Mrs. Fitzherbert knew they could never legally marry, not just because of her Catholicism, but because the Royal Marriage Act adopted by Parliament at the behest of King George III forbade any member of the royal family from marrying without the king's permission.

Because an act of Parliament took precedence over any church law, this illegal marriage was a criminal act.

When the twenty-one year old prince met the twenty-seven-year old wealthy widow (how they met is not revealed in this book) he fell madly in love with her. She was flattered but not interested. Then he attempted to stab himself to death to show that if he couldn't have her, he did not wish to live. Drenched in his own blood, he summoned her. She did not come. Ever mindful of her unblemished reputation, she finally consented to come if the Duchess of Devonshire (who was close to the prince but not to Mrs. Fitzherbert) would accompany her. Thus, properly chaperoned, Mrs. Fitzherbert approached his bedside, the duchess produced a ring, Mrs. Fitzherbert agreed to take the ring as a symbol of being pledged to the prince, then she promptly fled the country with her friend, Lady Anne.

A constant flurry of letters from the prince besieged her wherever she went. When she returned a year and a half later, they wed in a secret ceremony. Within months all of London knew of the secret wedding, but neither party ever publicly admitted it, nor did they ever live together in the same house. For the next nine years, Mrs. Fitzherbert would be the chief woman in the prince's life. As time went by, his affairs with other women and her bad temper transpired to cool off the relationship, which terminated when Frances, Lady Jersey became his lover. Under Lady Jersey's influence, he agreed to legally marry Caroline of Brunswick in order to have his monstrous debts settled and to acquire a larger annual income.

Even before his marriage, he missed Mrs. Fitzherbert. Before he had been married a year, he rued his real marriage and hungered for the renewal of his sham marriage. It took him another four years before he won Mrs. Fitzherbert back. There is some evidence that when she returned to him in 1800 she stipulated that theirs be a non-sexual relationship.

This second time they were together also lasted just under a decade, at which time the prince took up with the married Lady Hertford and dropped Mrs. Fitzherbert. A year later, he was named regent.

He and Mrs. Fitzherbert would never speak again, but financial settlements to Mrs. Fitzherbert increased.

There is no evidence that Mrs. Fitzherbert ever bore a child, though she did adopt two daughters to whom she was very kind and who were devoted to her.

Shortly after he became king in 1820, his legal wife died, but he never remarried. When he died 10 years later, he wore about his neck a miniature of Mrs. Fitzherbert, the wife of his heart.

Mrs. Fitzherbert died in 1837 and was buried in Brighton.

This review first appeared in Quizzing Glass in August 2006.
 

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