Maria Fitzherbert: A Secret Royal Wife

To celebrate Heritage Open Days 2020 we are publishing a series of blogs researched and written by Brighton Dome's heritage volunteers. The blogs reveal the fascinating stories connecting Brighton Dome's history with the Royal Pavilion Estate and the city.

George, Prince of Wales was first formally introduced to Maria Fitzherbert in March 1784 after an evening at the opera. She was twice widowed and six years his senior, but he became infatuated and ardently pursued her.

Maria was unwilling to become the Prince’s mistress so he proposed marriage, which she declined. As a practising Catholic marriage to a future monarch was prohibited by law. After relentless pleading, she finally accepted his proposal, but promptly left to travel abroad. Maria eventually returned to London to honour her promise and in December 1785, the pair were secretly married in the drawing room of her home in Park Street, Mayfair.

Following the Prince’s move to Brighton in 1787, architect Robert Adam worked on plans known as the ‘Fitzherbert Scheme’, which appeared to include a house for his spouse. It was not clear where the house was to be located and in 1804 she moved into a house on the Steine.

In 1794, the Prince of Wales parted from Maria following a reconciliation with his father, King George III that required him to marry a protestant woman in return for clearing his debts of £600,000. He agreed to marry his cousin Caroline of Brunswick and the two were wed in April 1795. Despite his new marriage, in 1796, the Prince drew up a will assigning to Maria: ‘All the land in or about the pavilion at Brighton, all the property and furniture in the pavilion and in the next house to it’ and declared Maria to be his wife, ‘The wife of my heart and soul. Although in the laws of this country she could not avail herself publicly of that name, still such she is in the eyes of Heaven, was, is and ever will be such in mine'.

In the first years of his reign as King, he turned against Maria and other former associates.

Formally Maria had been submissive in asking for money and in 1813 she wrote:

‘The load of public business, which your Royal Highness must have had to occupy your time, has rendered me unwilling to press myself on your recollection; and the hope that I should find you remembering me without my having the pain of requesting you to do so, has with withheld me from writing sooner; but now that business is considerably over, permit me to urge the promise, when you are still in town, to recall to Your Highness’s recollection myself and my situation. Placed by you, Sir, when the memorable event of our Union took place in the year ’85, under circumstances which rendered you the only person in this world, while life endured, that I could ever look up to for protection and support …You were at that period pleased to settle me £10,000 per ann., as the income befitting the situation you placed me in ….Your difficulties in money matters put it out of your power to fulfil the settlement or give me more than £3,000 per ann. I was frequently distressed, but I do not complain….’

Following their final break-up, Maria’s demands for annuity payments were often accompanied by veiled threats to go public with her papers. There were two possible daughters from their union: Mary Ann Stafford-Jerningham (nee Smythe, which was Maria’s maiden name) and Minney Seymour, Maria’s ward or adopted daughter.

Before his imminent death, King George placed a newly arrived letter from Maria under his pillow and asked to be buried with her painted ‘eye miniature’ (instead of a full portrait, lovers often had miniatures of just one eye) around his neck. He had always worn it under his lapel.

When the King died in 1830, Maria showed William IV the marriage certificate. He offered her a dukedom, which she refused, asking only that she wear widow’s weeds and dress her servants in royal livery.

Written by Heritage Volunteer Deborah Parr

Discover more heritage stories and find out more about our future.