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The Prince and His Lady:
The Love Story of the Duke of Kent and Madame de St. Laurent

Review By Cheryl Bolen

The Prince and His Lady: The Love Story of the Duke of Kent and Madame de St. Laurent
Mollie Gillen
St. Martin's Press, New York, 1970
314 pages

I had always read that the French woman who served as mistress to the Duke of Kent for a quarter of century entered a convent after her royal prince abandoned her to lawfully marry and beget the child who would become Queen Victoria.

Like so many stories—including claims that the French woman and the prince had illegitimate children while living in Canada—this tale has no basis in fact. (For the record, she never gave birth.)

The fact is that very little information was known about Madame de St. Laurent. This prompted biographer Mollie Gillen to spend five years thoroughly researching the lives of Prince Edward (who became Duke of Kent) and Madame de St. Laurent. Much of this research involved the examination of countless letters and records in the Royal Archives.

Gillen learned that the name Madame de St. Laurent was a complete fabrication.  Like so many courtesans of the era, the prince's lady used the prefix of a married woman, though she had never married. No one today knows how she came by the name St. Laurent, either. As did the famed English courtesan Harriette Wilson, this French lady manufactured her surname. She may have done this to protect her respectable family for Therese Bernardine de Montgenet (her real name) was the daughter of a Besancon engineer.

Prince Edward was the fourth son of George III. At the age of 21 he disgraced himself in Geneva by running up debts—and fathering an illegitimate little girl.  The babe's mother died in childbirth, and when the aunt was later bringing the infant to Gibralter to be with her father, the baby girl died in transit. To his credit, the prince had made provisions for the child and had stipulated that it she be brought up Protestant.

He was basically banished to Gibralter, where he commanded the military post. Unlike his brothers, Prince Edward was a temperate man who did not gamble. He preferred a domestic life with regular hours. In fact, when he commanded soldiers, he rose at five o'clock in the morning to inspect the troops.

The manner in which he began his liaison with Madame is not unlike today's computer-generated matchmaking. He put his qualifications in writing to a man addressed in his letters only as M. Fontiny in France. He requested a gracious, attractive lady who loved music to be his companion and serve as mistress of his house. The prince made it clear in his letters (which survive) the woman to whom he would enter into contract would be treated with honor and respect.

Fotiny performed his commission well. Madame, whom the prince at first knew as Mademoiselle, had previously been mistress to the Marquis de Permangle, whom it is believed she met whilst he was a lieutenant in the Royal Regiment posted in her home town.

She spoke English, and the prince—like all European royalty—spoke fluent French.

Some weeks after she settled in with him in Gibralter, he was writing to his brother, the Duke of Clarence, "I have at present a young woman living with me who I wrote over to, to come from France to me, who has every qualification which an excellent share of good temper, no small degree of cleverness, & above all, a pretty face & a handsome person can give to make my hours pass away pleasantly in her company." At the time, the prince was 23, and she was 30. A surviving picture of her at the time attests to her dark-haired beauty.

She accompanied him to Canada, where they lived for several years, in Quebec and Halifax. Because she was not his wife, a few of the ladies refused to share their hospitality, but most treated her with the same respect accorded her by the prince.

The duke was exiled for 13 years before returning to England. As anxious as he had been to return home, he soon realized he could not afford to live there. His income was much less than his brothers, and he had suffered enormous losses in shipwrecks. Much of his income went to pay off debts, a cycle from which he would never recover.

Soon, he and Madame were back at Gibralter. The mutiny that occurred during this posting there would haunt him for the rest of his life. Upon taking the post, he had been charged with disciplining the troops who were given to heavy drinking which led to much crime. He instigated practices which cut down on the rampant availability of liquor, even though the fewer licensees reduced his own income. Deaths, which had averaged 140 a year before he came, were cut in half. He was able to shape up the troops while limiting floggings. Nevertheless, some disgruntled soldiers mutinied. His brother who commanded the armies, the Duke of York, recalled him. From thence forth, the Duke of Kent would unfairly be labeled an inflexible sadist.

Despite all his pleas, the Duke of Kent would never again command soldiers. The rest of his life was filled with doing charitable work and writing letters—as many as 4,500 a year! He and Madame lived much of the year at their Castle Hill Lodge in Ealing, which was equipped with six Patent Water Closets.

That he deeply loved Madame, there is no doubt. Because she could not be received at Court, he was reluctant to spend much time there. When she was sick, he would not leave her, saying she had "no other society than mine." He treated her with the utmost respect and encouraged others to do the same.

Because he worried about what would happen to her if he should die, he had the banker Thomas Coutts establish a fund that could be built into a nest egg for Madame.  "As to the other point," he wrote Coutts, "that of settling something on Mad. de St. Laurent that will put her at least so far in a state of independence as not to reduce her to the necessity of begging her bread should anything happen to me, I own I shall never sleep a night easy until that is adjusted, while I yet have in my power the feeble means of doing something toward it."  Apart from her pin money, payments would be made into her account each quarter.

During his 13-year absence from England when his father ignored most of his letters, he later wrote to one of his brothers that Madame "had been almost the only comfort of my existence."

After they had been together 27 years and the duke was contemplating marriage, he told Thomas Creevey, "She is of very good family and has never been an actress, and I am the first and only person who ever lived with her. . .When she first came to me it was upon £100 a year. That sum was afterwards raised to £400, and finally to £1,000; but when my debts made it necessary for me to sacrifice a great part of my income, Madame St. Laurent insisted upon again returning to her income of £400 a year."

He obviously did not want to part from Madame, but he understood the only way to eradicate his crushing debts was through marriage. "I am to be compelled to a separation which, come when it will, will cost me more than words can describe," he wrote. Contrary to what historians have led us to believe, he had already begun to seek a wife from among European royal houses even before the Regent's daughter, Princess Charlotte, died in childbirth.

Once the Princess of Wales died, all the royal dukes began scrambling for brides to give them legitimate heirs to the throne. And Madame became morose. Whenever the press would speculate that her duke would take a wife, she would sob. Though he would not admit it to her, she knew they would be parting.  Later, he claimed it was his duty to England to wed.

Their last months together were tortuous to both. He secretly made his plans to wed the German sister of Princess Charlotte's widower. He left Madame in Brussels, where they had been living to save expenses, and returned to England to finalize the nuptial plans—without telling Madame the true nature of his business in London. They would never see one another again.

He made provisions for Madame, writing, "Nothing, I hope, has been omitted to give the only solid proof that lies in my power of the affection I have for her and the great longing I have that in every way she will be in a position to undertake all she thinks will contribute to her comfort and wellbeing. . . May she find in all this the proof of how dear she will always be to me, and how much I want her to look on me, to my last breath, as a true and faithful friend in every eventuality."

The two of them wrote gracious letters to one another until he died. In addition, he urged all his friends in France to visit her and to treat her with the same respect they accorded her when she lived with him. But he begged that they not speak to Madame of his wife, for it would upset her.

He married Victoire of Saxe-Coburg in May of 1817, 27 years after Therese Bernardine de Montgenet had come to live with him—though he would say they had been together 28 years. His daughter Victoria was born in 1819, a year before her father died unexpectedly from a cold. He was 52. Madame died in Paris a decade later, just shy of her seventieth birthday.

Gillen has done a painstaking and most admirable job of shedding the lamp of truth on this famed couple. In her five-year quest of knowledge, she obviously grew to admire her subjects, and that admiration shines through on every page.

So it is to Mollie Gillen that the Duke of Kent's reputation has been restored—and we students of the Regency can get the record straight once and for all.

This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in March 2011.


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