Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fitzherbert, Maria Anne
FITZHERBERT, MARIA ANNE (1756–1837), wife of George IV, born in July 1756, was the youngest daughter of Walter Smythe, esq., of Brambridge, Hampshire, second son of Mr. John Smythe of Acton Burnell, Shropshire. Little is known of her childhood beyond the fact that she visited Paris, and was taken to see Louis XV at dinner. When the king pulled a chicken to pieces with his fingers she burst out laughing, upon which his majesty presented her with a box of sugar-plums. She married in 1775 Edward Weld, esq., of Fulworth Castle, Dorsetshire, who died in the same year. In 1778 his widow married Thomas Fitzherbert of Swynnerton in Staffordshire, by whom she was left a widow a second time in 1781. Mrs. Fitzherbert, with a jointure of 2,000l. a year, now took up her abode at Richmond, where she soon became the centre of an admiring circle. In 1785 she first saw the Prince of Wales (born 1762). He fell, or thought he fell, desperately in love with her at first sight, and on one occasion pretended to stab himself in despair. On this occasion she was induced to visit him at Carlton House in company with the Duchess of Devonshire, but soon after went abroad to escape further solicitations. After remaining some time in Holland and Germany, she received an offer of marriage from the prince, which she is said to have accepted with reluctance. They were married on 21 Dec. 1785 in her own drawing-room, by a clergyman of the church of England, and in the presence of her brother, Mr. John Smythe, and her uncle, Mr. Errington. By the Marriage Act of 1772 every marriage contracted by a member of the royal family under twenty-five years of age without the king's consent was invalid; and by the Act of Settlement if the heir-apparent married a Roman catholic he forfeited his right to the crown. It was argued, however, that a man could not be said to marry when he merely went through a ceremony which he knew to be invalid. According to one account, repeated by Lord Holland in his 'Memoirs of the Whig Party,' Mrs. Fitzherbert took the same view, said the marriage was all nonsense, and knew well enough that she was about to become the prince's mistress. The story is discredited by her well-known character, by the footing on which she was always received by other members of the royal family, and by the fact that, even after the marriage of the prince regent with Caroline of Brunswick, she was advised by her own church (Roman catholic) that she might lawfully live with him. Nobody seems to have thought the worse of her; she was received in the best society, and was treated by the prince at all events as if she was his wife.
In April 1787, on the occasion of the prince applying to parliament for the payment of his debts, Fox, in his place in the House of Commons, formally denied that any marriage had taken place. It is unknown to this day what authority he had for this statement. Common report asserted that 'a slip of paper' had passed between the prince and his friend; and Lord Stanhope, in his 'History of England,' declares his unhesitating belief that Fox had the best reasons for supposing the statement to be true. The prince himself, however, affected to be highly indignant. The next time he saw Mrs. Fitzherbert he went up to her with the words, 'What do you think, Maria? Charles declared in the House of Commons last night that you and I were not man and wife.' As the prince was now approaching the age at which he could make a legal marriage, the curiosity of parliament on the subject is perfectly intelligible. But after a lame kind of explanation from Sheridan, who tried to explain away Fox's statement, without contradicting it, the subject dropped, and the prince and the lady seem to have lived happily together till the appearance of the Princess Caroline [see Caroline, Amelia Elizabeth, 1768-1821]. At the trial of Warren Hastings in 1788 Mrs. Fitzherbert, then in the full bloom of womanly beauty, attracted more attention than the queen or the princesses. On the prince's marriage (8 April 1795) to Caroline she ceased for a time to live with him. But being advised by her confessor, who had received his instructions from Rome, that she might do so without blame, she returned to him; and oddly enough gave a public breakfast to all the fashionable world to celebrate the event. She and the prince were in constant pecuniary difficulties, and once on their return from Brighton to London they had not money enough to pay for the post-horses, and were obliged to borrow of an old servant, yet these, she used to say, were the happiest years of her life. As years passed on, however, the prince appears to have fallen under other influences; and at last at a dinner given to Louis XVIII at Carlton House, in or about 1803, she received an affront which she could not overlook, and parted from the prince for ever. She was told that she had no fixed place at the dinner-table, and must sit 'according to her rank,' that is as plain Mrs. Fitzherbert. She was not perhaps sorry for the excuse to break off a connection which the prince's new ties had already made irksome to her; and resisting all further importunities she retired from court on an annuity of 6,000l. a year, which, as she had no children, was perhaps a sufficient maintenance. She was probably the only woman to whom George IV was ever sincerely attached. He inquired for her in his last illness, and he died with her portrait round his neck.
Mrs. Fitzherbert survived him seven years, dying at Brighton on 29 March 1837. From George III and Queen Charlotte, the Duke of York, William IV, and Queen Adelaide she had always experienced the greatest kindness and attention, and seems never to have been made to feel sensible of her equivocal position. The true facts of the case were long unknown to the public.
[In 1833 a box of papers was deposited with Messrs. Coutts, under the seals of tho Duke of Wellington, Lord Albemarle, and a near connection of Mrs. Fitzherbert, Lord Stourton. Among other documents the box contained the marriage certificate, and a memorandum written by Mrs. Fitzherbert, attached to a letter written by the clergyman by whom the ceremony was performed, from which, however, she herself had torn off the signature, for fear it should compromise him. At her death she left full powers with her executors to use these papers as they pleased for the vindication of her own character. And on Lord Stourton's death in 1846 he assigned all his interest in and authority over them to his brother, the Hon. Charles Langdale, with a narrative drawn up by himself, from which all that we know of her is derived. On the appearance of Lord Holland's Memoirs of the Whig Party in 1854, containing statements very injurious to Mrs. Fitzherbert's reputation, Mr. Langdale was anxious to avail himself of the contents of the sealed box. But the surviving trustees being unwilling to have the seals broken, and thinking it better to let the whole story be forgotten, Mr. Langdale made use of the narrative entrusted to him to compose a Life of Mrs. Fitzherbert, which was published in London early in 1856, and is so far our only authority for the facts above stated. In an article in the Quarterly Review in 1854 a hope was expressed that the contents of tho box will soon be given, to the public; but it has not at present been fulfilled.]