A clandestine or illicit marriage is a great plot line for a story but they were a fact of life for women from all social classes in 18th Century Britain.
On May 11, 1786 the Coachmakers’ Hall, Debating Society debated the following proposition: “Are not the Restraints contained in the Marriage Act, and every other Restriction on the Matrimonial Contract, contrary to the natural Rights of Mankind, and injurious to Conjugal Felicity?”
The Marriage Act 1753, popularly known as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, was the first statutory legislation in England and Wales to require a formal ceremony of marriage. The Act came into force on 25 March 1754 and made compulsory the reading of banns, registration of a marriage and witnesses for the first time.
Before the Act, the legal requirements for a valid marriage in England and Wales had been governed by the canon law of the Church of England. This had stipulated that banns should be called or a marriage licence should be obtained before a marriage and that the marriage should be celebrated in the parish where at least one of the parties was resident. However, these requirements were not mandatory and the absence of banns or a licence – or even the fact that the marriage was not celebrated in a church – did not render the marriage void. The only indispensable requirement was that the marriage be celebrated by an Anglican clergyman. So this left a lot of scope for clandestine marriages and the marriage of those who were technically under the age of legal consent which was 21 at the time.
Maria Fitzherbert (26 July 1756 – 27 March 1837) was the secret wife of George, Prince of Wales, the future George IV. Maria came from a respectable Roman Catholic family and educated in France and she had been married twice before. She married Edward Weld, 16 years her senior, a rich Catholic landowner of Lulworth Castle in July 1775 but Weld died just three months later after a fall from his horse and having failed to sign his new will so his estate went to his younger brother Thomas. Maria, now a widow was left effectively destitute, had little or no financial support from the Weld family and was obliged to remarry as soon as she could. Her second marriage was three years later, to Thomas Fitzherbert of Swynnerton, Staffordshire. She was ten years younger than him. They had a son who died young and then she was widowed again in 1781 but this time she got an annuity of £1000 and a town house in Park Street, Mayfair.
In 1783 George, Prince of Wales became infatuated with her, wanting her to become his mistress but Maria’s devout Catholic beliefs would not allow it. So on 15 December 1785 they were married in a secret ceremony conducted by Robert Burt, an impoverished curate who set aside his scruples for the £500 fee.The marriage was not legal. It not only contravened the 1753 Marriage Act it was also in breach of the Act of Settlement of 1701, preventing a Roman Catholic from ascending the British throne and the Royal Marriage Act of 1772. George and Maria spent much of their time in Brighton where Mrs Fitzherbert was treated as queen. Whether she was ignorant or deluded concerning her position is unknown.
The couple separated when George’s affections turned to Frances, Countess of Jersey in 1794 and he position was finally put asunder when he married his cousin Caroline of Brunswick in 1795. The couple were briefly reunited in 1800. By 1807, the prince’s affections were wandering again, this time towards Lady Hertford. Unable to bear any further humiliation, on 18 December 1809, Maria sent George a farewell letter and after 1811, she did not return to the Brighton until after George’s death. However, she was more fortunate than many of George’s other mistresses; she received financial provision by way of a pension.
Following the death of George IV on 26 June 1830, it was discovered that he had kept all of Fitzherbert’s letters, and steps were taken to destroy them. Fitzherbert told George IV’s brother, King William IV, about their marriage and showed him the document in her possession. He asked Fitzherbert to accept a dukedom, but she refused, asking only permission to wear widow’s weeds, and to dress her servants in royal livery. Architect William Porden designed Steine House, on the west side of Old Steine in Brighton, for Fitzherbert. She lived there from 1804 until her death in 1837. She was buried at St John the Baptist’s Church in the Kemp Town area of Brighton.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on: