On this day in history : 15th December 1785 – The Prince of Wales (the future King George IV) secretly marries Maria Fitzherbert – a marriage not only secret but also illegal….

NPG 5389; King George IV by Richard Cosway
Miniature by Richard Cosway, watercolour on ivory, 1792 – Public domain

Maria was born Maria Smythe – and was raised in the Catholic faith…. She had already been widowed twice when she met a 22-year-old George at the opera one evening…. Maria was a few years older than the Prince….

George had always liked the ladies and was prone to falling in love easily – when he met Maria he was instantly smitten…. He asked her to become his mistress – an invitation she demurely declined…. Unthwarted, George proposed marriage….but once again Maria refused…. It is said George then threatened to kill himself if she did not become his wife….

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Maria Fitzherbert – by Joshua Reynolds – Public domain

George and Maria were married in a ceremony conducted by Robert Burt – who was paid £500 to keep quiet…. The Royal Marriage Act of 1772 required members of the royal family to seek the permission of the Sovereign to marry…. King George III would never have allowed his son to marry Maria….the Act of Settlement 1701 forbade Roman Catholics from sitting upon the throne….

For nearly ten years George and Maria lived together at Brighton Pavilion, as husband and wife…. George liked to live an extravagant lifestyle and managed to get into considerable debt – (equating to more than £65 million in today’s terms)…. He could never have hoped to pay this kind of sum back – and so he approached the government for help…. Parliament agreed to increase his allowance….but there was a condition…. In exchange he had to give up his life with Maria and marry a Protestant of their choice – Caroline of Brunswick…. He had little alternative….

Caroline was also his first cousin, although the pair had never met…. By all accounts Caroline was quite disgusting – she was ugly, lacked discretion, rarely changed her underwear and hardly ever washed…. She didn’t fancy George much either – saying he looked “nothing like as handsome as his portrait”….

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Caroline of Brunswick – by James Lonsdale – Public domain

Nevertheless, the reluctant couple married on the 8th of April 1795….nine months later they had a daughter, Charlotte Augusta…. After the birth George distanced himself from his wife….and a year later took their daughter away to be brought up by a governess….

Charlotte had a lonely, loveless childhood – eventually she rebelled and ran away to be with her mother…. George managed to persuade his daughter to return to Windsor – but was always worried his estranged wife would coax her away again…. So he made Caroline an offer she could not refuse….an allowance of £35,000 per year if she left Britain for good….

Sadly Charlotte died in childbirth in 1817…. George tried to rekindle his relationship with Maria after his separation from Caroline…. In 1800 they did indeed reunite – but things became strained between them, especially when George began to take mistresses…. In 1811 she decided enough was enough and leaving him a farewell letter departed for good….

George became King in 1821…. Caroline, demanding her position as Queen, returned to British shores – even turning up at Westminster Abbey on the day of the Coronation….but to no avail…. Ironically, she died three weeks later….

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Coronation of George IV – James Stephanoff – Public domain

King George IV died in 1830….his brother King William IV succeeded the throne…. Eager to make amends to Maria he offered her Brighton Pavilion as a home….where she lived until her death in 1837….

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