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