The Two Wives of
By Cheryl Bolen
Before England's King George IV became prince regent (a title more
identifiable with him than his eventual monarchy)at age 48 in 1811, he
had taken two wives--and neither of the marriages were ever dissolved
and neither woman ever truly shared his reign.
How can he have legally had two wives? He didn't. One of his wives
was illegal. As a young man of 21, he fell madly in love with Maria
Fitzherbert, a wealthy and beautiful widow six years his senior. The
fact that she was a Catholic was not the only obstacle in their path of
matrimonial harmony. There was also the Royal Marriage Act prohibiting
any member of the royal family from marrying without the king's
permission. As an act of Parliament, the Royal Marriage Act superceded
any law of church; to violate it would be a crime.
For over a year the Prince of Wales courted Mrs. Fitzherbert and
even resorted to a botched suicide attempt to gain her hand. Eventually
she relented, and in 1785 they were secretly wed by an Anglican minister
and fancied themselves married. But cognizant of the criminal act they
had committed, the two never publicly acknowledged the marriage, nor did
they ever live in the same residence. The prince was willing to let his
brother Freddie (the Duke of York) sire children who would be heirs to
the throne, and he planned to do away with the Royal Marriage Act when
he became king.
Troubles precipitated by Mrs. Fitzherbert's hot temper, the
prince's wandering eye, and--most of all--his vast debts sent the
marriage into the skids less than a decade later. Prinny had decided to
take Brunswick's Princess Caroline for his wife, an action that would
increase his annual income and clear his exorbitant debts.
Though he had never met Caroline, the prince married her in 1795.
He took such an instant dislike to her slovenly appearance he had to get
himself excessively drunk in order to beget a child on her (Princess
Charlotte, who died in childbirth in 1817). With that duty dispatched,
he turned his back on his true wife, and they lived apart for the
remainder of their lives.
Five years after his "legal" marriage, the prince
persuaded Mrs. Fitzherbert to return to him. They stayed affectionate
for almost a decade, parting ways because of his infidelity the year
before he became regent.
Caroline died shortly after his coronation as King George IV, but
he never remarried, and when he died ten years later in 1830 he wore
about his neck a miniature portrait of Mrs. Fitzherbert.
This article first appeared in The Regency Reader in