Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Prince Regent, Part 3: Mrs. Fitzherbert

Now in his early 20s, George was ripe for…for something. He’d tried partying, drag-racing…er, phaeton-racing, partying, womanizing, partying, amateur theatricals, partying, clothes shopping, partying, house decoration, and partying. King George refused to give him any role in government to start preparing for his inevitable future as king. Like any energetic, intelligent person, he needed something to do, something to look forward to besides the inevitable partying. However, like any romantic, impulsive person, he had a tendency to fall rapidly in love—remember Perdita Robinson, whom he adored after seeing her on the stage?

After the Perdita affair, George launched on a series of love affairs, some more serious (at least in consequences) than others. He developed a fondness for older women, and his name was linked with several: Lady Melbourne (mother of Queen Victoria’s first prime minister), the Duchess of Devonshire, the wife of a Hanoverian diplomat.

Then in 1783, he fell in love—really in love, it seems—with a lady named Maria Fitzherbert.

Mrs. Fitzherbert was six years older than the 21-year-old George, and had already been twice widowed. She was not a ravishing beauty but had a beautiful complexion, a fine figure, and an expression of extraordinary sweetness that reflected her inner nature. And while she was tremendously flattered and seems to have been genuinely fond of him, she was no stage actress of easy virtue: gently, regretfully, she held the smitten young man at arms’ length for many months.

She might as well have tried dousing a lamp with kerosene; George only became more determined in his pursuit. In July 1784 his determination culminated in an extraordinary scene: Mrs. Fitzherbert was shocked when the distraught royal surgeon appeared on her doorstep, begging her to come with him. It seemed that in his extremity of passion for her, George had stabbed himself and swore he would die unless she came to see him. After an initial refusal, she consented to see him if the Duchess of Devonshire went with her.

It’s thought that the scene was probably staged, but George was a convincing actor…and the result was that he made the distraught Maria promise to marry him. However, the following morning, she fled the country to evade him.

Why? Two reasons; first, Mrs. Fitzherbert was a devout Roman Catholic, and by English law the heir to the throne was barred from marrying a Catholic. Second, George’s father had passed the Royal Marriages Act after dealing with his brothers’ marital vagaries; it stated that no member of the royal family could marry without the king’s consent, unless he waited until the age of 25 and gave the Privy Council a year’s notice (unless Parliament in the meanwhile forbade the marriage.) It also made it a crime for anyone to aid a member of the family in making an illegal marriage. In short, there were a lot of obstacles in the way of a marriage between Maria and George, no matter what their feelings were for each other.

But George would not be deterred. He tried to follow Maria to the continent, but was forbidden by his father to leave the country, so he had to be satisfied with a series of passionate letters sent to her over the next year. Evidently his steadfastness and eloquence over such a long time had their effect, for in the fall of 1785, Maria at last consented to come home and marry him in secret. They were married at her London house by an Anglican priest George bailed out of Fleet Street Prison, with only Maria’s brother and one other man as witnesses.

In the eyes of both the Catholic and Anglican churches, the marriage was valid; by English law, it wasn’t. The couple could not live openly together, but spent as much time as possible together, and for a few years, George was a changed man. But their idyll—and George’s improved behavior—did not last long.

Stay tuned for the next installment: The Prince Regent, Part 4: The Most Accomplished Blackguard?

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