The King of England’s Secret Wife

The King of England’s Secret Wife

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:

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Widow’s Weeds

Widow’s Weeds

By the late 19th century, mourning behaviour in England had developed into a complex set of rules, particularly among the upper classes. For women, the customs involved wearing heavy, concealing, black clothing, and the use of heavy veils of black crêpe. The entire ensemble was colloquially known as “widow’s weeds” (from the Old English waed, meaning “garment”). The growing wealth of the eighteenth century aristocracy set the trend for the flamboyant expression of loss and grief with masses of black bombazine silk, ostrich feathers and bows but older and poorer women choose a much simpler, more practical styles and with the growth of the urban middle class, particularly in Britain the demand for dull, black, mourning wools, and black and white silk crepe increased as incomes and social expectations rose.

The wearing of mourning clothes was more of a social necessity for women than men. Whilst men might wear a special suit of sombre clothing for the actual funeral they were rarely expected to wear special clothes or colours unlike women who were expected to show the world their change in status for at least a year and a day. Of course many women wanted show respect to their dead husbands and continued to wear sombre colours for the rest of their lives. Indeed Charlotte Leadam the feisty heroine of my new  novel Sinclair is a young widow who faces this very problem.  As she waits for her husband’s creditors to present their accounts, we find her, “wearing her new mourning clothes; a respectable but uncomplicated widow’s cap and a full length black cloak both in black bombazine silk. 

In a world where a woman became her husband’s property on marriage and where a middle class widow could not enter the professions to support herself signalling this change in marital status could have its advantages showing men that they were available for marriage again.

Julia Herdman is a novelist writing about 18th and early 19th century London. Her debut novel Sinclair is about a family of apothecary surgeons working at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals at the dawn of modern medicine.

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The Apothecary Poet – John Keats

The Apothecary Poet – John Keats

John Keats – The Apothecary Poet

The poet John Keats trained as an apothecary and a surgeon before deciding to dedicate himself to poetry.

Keats had first-hand experience of serious illness and death. His father died after falling from a horse, and his mother and uncle died of what was called ‘an unspecified decline.’ Keat’s only brother Tom was to die of tuberculosis in December 1818. Keats nursed his brother through his final months catching the deadly virus in the process. Keats’ disease became apparent early in 1820. Known as consumption in those days the disease was common, distressing and lethal.

Keats Early Life

Aged just 14 years old Keats was apprenticed to the family’s doctor, Thomas Hammond. In the summer of 1810, Keats moved in above Hammond’s surgery in Edmonton, North London. While an apprentice, Keats would have performed such tasks as making up medicines, cleaning the surgery, preparing leeches (blood-sucking worms that were used to bleed patients), and bookkeeping. As he progressed he may have moved on to dressing wounds, drawing teeth and visiting the sick.

Keats’s poetry received some harsh criticism form literary snobs because he was an apothecary. Having such a profession was seen by some to be beneath the dignity of a poet. The Tory critic John Gibson Lockhart, writing anonymously in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Lockhart advised Keats that ‘It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet.’

He seems to have left before his apprenticeship was completed, but he had done enough to satisfy the requirements of the 1815 Apothecaries Act, which came in while Keats was in the next stage of his training at Guy’s Hospital. Keats entered Guy’s Hospital as a student on 1 October 1815 and, with incredible speed, was promoted to the role of ‘dresser’ on 29 October 1815, less than a month after he had arrived at the hospital and just before he turned 20.

The Apothecaries Act had come into force on 12 July 1815 and was an attempt to regulate and professionalize apothecaries. To be allowed to practice, there was now a required minimum degree of training and an exam. Keats had done enough of his apprenticeship, the requisite six months of hospital training, and then passed the difficult exam (which his two housemates failed). He qualified for his apothecary license on 25 July 1816.

Keats Poetry

His knowledge of the human body and its suffering can be found in his narrative poem Lamia which was published in 1820. The poem was written in 1819, during the famously productive period that produced his 1819 odes. It was composed soon after his “La belle dame sans merci” and his odes on Melancholy, on Indolence, to a Grecian Urn, and to a Nightingale and just before “Ode to Autumn”. It tells how the god Hermes hears of a nymph who is more beautiful than all the rest and he goes searching for it but he finds Lamia, trapped in the form of a serpent. She reveals the previously invisible nymph to him and in return, he restores her human form. Her transformation into a woman contains all the pain and horror he had witnessed in his hospital work. It shows the knowledge of chemistry he gained at Guy’s Hospital. Lamia foamed at the mouth her eyes wild ‘Flash’d phosphor and sharp sparks’ (Part 1, ll. 148-52). The beautiful colors that had characterized her mythological, serpent body are replaced with the ‘pain and ugliness’ of human mortality and the change was horrible, physically painful ‘She writh’d about, convuls’d with scarlet pain’ (Part 1, l. 164; l. 154). Scarlet is, of course, the color of blood and in his phrase ‘scarlet pain’, Keats describes the agony of Lamia’s transition into a fully mortal woman.

Keats Death

During 1820 Keats’ health declined. He suffered two lung haemorrhages in the first few days of February and lost a lot of blood. At the suggestion of his doctors, he agreed to move to Italy with his friend Joseph Severn. He took a house on the Spanish Steps in Rome, today the Keats–Shelley Memorial House museum. Despite the care of Severn and Dr. James Clark, his health rapidly deteriorated. Keats was placed on a starvation diet of an anchovy and a piece of bread a day intended to reduce the blood flow to his stomach. He was bled, a standard treatment of the day to reduce the agitation of his blood. Weak and knowing the fate he had in store Keats tried to poison himself with opium without success. His friends hoping to save him from himself took the opium away and Keats died in agony with nothing to ease the pain.

John Keats died in Rome on 23 February 1821 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. His last request was to be placed under a tombstone bearing no name or date, only the words, “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.” Severn and his doctor Brown erected the stone. On it they had a relief of a lyre with broken strings cut into it with the epitaph:

This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a  Young English Poet Who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these Words to be engravened on his Tomb Stone:  Here lies One  Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821. The text echo a sentimetn from Catullus LXX. Sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti, in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua  which means ‘ What a woman says to a passionate lover should be written in the wind and the running water.

About the author

Julia Herdman is a novelist writing about 18th and early 19th century London. Her debut novel Sinclair is about a family of apothecary surgeons working at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals at the dawn of modern medicine. Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29

Julia Herdman is a novelist writing about 18th and early 19th century London. Her debut novel Sinclair is about a family of apothecary surgeons working at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals.

What people are saying about Sinclair.

5 stars – Fantastic Tale of the 18th century

This book is superbly written and pulls the reader right into 18th-century life! Truth be told, I am not usually a fan of historical fiction, but Sinclair has changed that for sure! I was fully immersed in this tale, and have recommended it to all of my friends & colleagues! C.Miller, USA

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London’s Mad House

London’s Mad House

‘Bedlam’, London’s first public mental hospital, is typically understood as a byword for chaos, mania and disorder. The world’s first hospital for the sick of mind is more properly known as St Mary Bethlehem, or Bethlehem Hospital and it was founded in 1247 as the Priory of the New Order of St Mary of Bethlem in the city of London during the reign of Henry III.
From 1600 the hospital allowed visitors and artists to observe the ‘mad’.In William Hogarth’s series, A Rake’s Progress (1733-34), The Rake meets his end there shown among a menagerie of strange, otherworldly characters: a magician, emperor, musician and an astrologer while two fashionably dressed women enjoy the spectacle. Hogarth’s etching stresses how a visit to ‘Bedlam’ was understood predominantly as a tourist activity for the wealthy and leisured classes.
By 1750, the acquisitive Monroe family of ‘mad doctors’ was in charge and as the paying visitors viewed the restraints and purges, it became an issue of n public debate. Bethlem had lost its institutional monopoly for the treatment of insanity by the creation of St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in 1751 and the debate on how to treat the ‘mad’ entered a new stage.
The hospital was run by men but had many female patients. The warders were men too and abuse was frequent. As the 18th century progressed criticism of the hospital increased and it closed it doors to the public in 1770.
One of Bedlam’s most infamous treatments was called rotational therapy. A patient would be seated in a chair or swing, suspended from the ceiling, and spun by an orderly at a speed and duration prescribed by a doctor. This could mean a hundred rotations per minute, and could last an hour. Developed by Erasmus Darwin (grandfather to Charles), he believed that mental illness could be cured with sleep, and rotational therapy would expedite sleep. Of course, it didn’t; it usually only expedited vomiting – which was encouraged. Purging treatments were believed to be curative.
A Parliamentary inquiry in 1815/16 recorded: “gross negligence in the care and management of patients, and heedlessness of the conditions in which they were housed; decided medical apathy toward therapeutic innovation; excessive restraint employed by design and default, and as a means of coping with under-staffing; and inadequate medical supervision of dishonest, and often brutal, ancillary staff..”
The situation at Bedlam finally began to change around 1852, when William Hood was hired as the first-ever resident physician. He believed that tranquillity was the best way to cure mental illness. Hood didn’t believe in chaining up the patients. Instead, he allowed the patients access to magazines, games, and crafts. In 1863, the Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane opened, and Bedlam’s violent, aggressive patients were moved there, creating a calmer atmosphere.
Sources: History Today, Anna Jamieson, Wikipedia, Jonathan Andrews, Andrew Scull, Undertaker of the Mind John Monro and Mad-Doctoring in Eighteenth-Century England , Ayse Wax at BlumHouse.com
Illustrations; William Hogarth, The Rake’s Progress, Plate VIII, A woman restrained, Bedlam Hospital at Moorfields, The Bedlam Swing.

Julia Herdman is a novelist writing about 18th and early 19th century London. Her debut novel Sinclair is about a family of apothecary surgeons working at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals at the dawn of modern medicine.

Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29

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