Princess Dorothea von Lieven and Metternich – The Prince and the Swan

Princess Dorothea von Lieven and Metternich – The Prince and the Swan

Princess Dorothea von Lieven (1785 – 1857) was the lover of Klemens von Metternich. She was the wife of Prince Khristofor Andreyevich Lieven, Russian ambassador to London from 1812 to 1834.

Considered cold and snobbish by London Society Dorothea was not an instant success when she arrived fresh from the Russian court. Her destiny was however to become the lover of one of greatest men in European history.

Her long elegant neck earned her the nickname, “the swan” by those who loved. She was called“the giraffe” by those who did not. Reputation did not bother her. Dorothea was not after friendship she was after power and she used all her intelligence, charisma, and social skills to get it. Her aim was to influence others to support the Tsar and the Holy Alliance. She was passionate about defeating Napoleon and reestablishment of absolutist monarchy in Europe. Not only did she become the Austrian Chancellor, Prince Metternich’s lover she was also reputed to have had affairs or at least very close friendships with Lord Palmerston, Lord Castlereagh and Lord Grey while she was in London.

Her hard work paid off and soon invitations to Dorothea’s home became the most sought after in capital. She was the first foreigner to be elected a patroness of Almack’s where she is said to have introduced the waltz in 1814. The waltz was a dance considered riotous and indecent. It was first danced when Tsar Alexander came to town in 1814. This was when Dorothea first met Metternich. It seems they took an instant dislike to one another. She thought he was cold and intimidating and far too self- important. He dismissed her as just a pretty woman travelling in the Tsar’s wake and treated her with complete indifference.

Some four years later, the pair met again at the Dutch Ambassador’s party at Aix-La-Chappelle. Sitting next to each other they found they had much in common – they both hated Napoleon. Their notorious liaison began a few days later when Dorothea entered the Prince’s apartment incognito.

Metternich

Prince of Metternich-Winneburg-Beilstein; (1773 – 1859)

In Metternich, Dorothea had found her equal. The Prince was a man who could satisfy her physically, emotionally and intellectually. She wrote, “Good God! My love, I know how to rejoice in so few things, do you understand what makes me feel true happiness, it is you, only you! My Clement, if you cease to love me what will become of me? … My dear friend promise to love me as much as I love you; our lives are pledged in this promise.”

In Dorothea, Metternich had met the woman of his dreams; she could match his intellect and his passion. He wrote, “My happiness today is you. Your soul is full of common sense your heart is full of warmth … You are as a woman what I am as a man.”

Their heated, clandestine affair soon succumbed to the requirements state. They met occasionally but corresponded frequently. Like many illicit lovers, they were tortured by their separation and the knowledge they could never be together.

Dorothea was well aware of Metternich’s reputation as a libertine seducer. She knew he had a string of women following him and in his bed. She continued the relationship for eight years. Finally, she heard that he had thrown her over for a younger woman. Desolate, she broke off their relationship in 1826. By the end, references to Metternich in her letters were cold and spiteful. Time did not heal her broken heart. She had nothing good to say about him or his third wife when she saw him in Brighton in 1849. she describes him as “slow and tedious” and his wife as “stout and well-mannered.”

She ended her days in Paris as the ‘wife’ of the French politician Guizot. It was said that although she was a widow she refused to marry Guizot because it would mean giving up her title ‘Serene Highness’. This was something the proud and regal woman was never going to do. Like her former lover, she was ancient regime through and through.

Dorothea died peacefully at her home in Paris, aged 71, in January 1857. She is a recurring minor figure in many historical novels, notably those of Georgette Heyer. Heyer portrays her as a haughty, formidable, and unapproachable leader of society. In The Grand Sophy she is described as “clever and amusing”, and there is a passing reference in that book to her role in political intrigues. Metternich died in Vienna two years later aged 86. He was the last guardian of the ancient regime, which had long since passed into history.

Dorothea

Princess Dorothea von Lieven (1785 – 1857)

Sources:
Dorothea Lieven: A Russian Princess in London and Paris, 1785-1857 By Judith Lissauer Cromwell
The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics After Napoleon By Brian E. Vick
1815: The Roads to Waterloo By Gregor Dallas
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klemens_von_Metternich
http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2015-01-28-sluga-en.html

The Present Past – Writing History

The Present Past – Writing History

Using the Present Tense to Write About the Past

Writing about the past in the present tense is hot with publishers but does it work for readers?

In writing and rhetoric, the historical present or narrative present is the employment of the present tense when narrating past events.

Dickens – David Copperfield

Dickens used it to give immediacy: ‘If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better. The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone’s dress, and our black clothes. Mr. Chillip is in the room and comes to speak to me.

“And how is Master David?” he says, kindly.

I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in his.

— Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Chapter IX

Recent Writing

Sarah Dunant

More recently, analysts of its use in conversation have argued that it functions by foregrounding events that is, signaling that one event is particularly important than others. Historical novelist Sarah Dunant is one of the ace exponents of this style of writing. She uses the present tense to bring the past to life. The elegance of her prose can be seen in this quote from her latest book, In the Name of the Family, Virago, 2017.

“He leaves for work each day at dawn. In the beginning, she had hoped that her nest-ripe body might tempt him to linger awhile. Florence is rife with stories of married men who use early risings of excuses to visit their mistresses, and he had come with a reputation for enjoying life. That even if that were the case, there’s nothing she can do about it, not least because where ever he is going, this husband of hers has already gone from her long before he gets out of the door.

In fact, Niccolo Machiavelli doesn’t leave the warmth of his marriage bed for any other woman (he can do that easily enough on his way home), but because the days dispatches arrived at the Pallazzo della Signoria early and it is his greatest pleasure as well as his duty to be among the first to read them.

His journey takes him down the street on the south side of the city and across the river Arno via the Ponte Vecchio. A maverick winter snowfall has turned into grimy frost and the ground cracks like small animal bones under his feet. On the bridge, fresh carcasses are being unloaded into the butcher’s shops. Through the open shutters, he catches glimpses of the river, its surface a silvery apricot under the rising sun. A feral dog streaks across his path, going for a goblet of offal near the wheel of a cart. It earns him a kick in the ribs of his daring but his jaws remain firmly clenched over the prize. Scavenging opportunist Niccolo thinks, not without a certain admiration.”

Dunant describes her inspiration in an interview with Meredith K. Ray.

She said, “I became interested in a very simple idea, which was, “What would it have been like to be in the middle of the cauldron [Florence] of the shock of the new that they must have felt when it was happening around them?”
I just kept thinking “Dear God, everywhere you go in this city, it must have been vibrating!” I wondered whether or not it would be possible to write a book that would capture that sense of exploding modernity within the past.

Then of course what happened is when I went back to look at the history, I realized that there had been a quiet but persuasive revolution going on within the discipline. When I was doing history [at Cambridge] . . . people studying [gender and race] had yet to move into doing their post-graduate work and become professors and start producing the literature which was starting to fill in the missing spaces or at least make a gesture towards the colour.

I really often think of [history] as a pointillist painting, which is made up of a thousand dots. It’s just bits of paint, but as you walk away, each one of them gives you more of a sense of internal life and dynamic. I really began to feel that that was true about some of the history that I’d studied: blocks of primary colour, but there was stuff missing and it was very important stuff. It was like, “What was it like to be half the population?”

Dunnant’s story proceeds through a succession of tremendous set pieces, including a sea storm, a plague, the delivery of a child and various skirmishes as the pope and his children seek to tighten the “Borgia belt” around Italy. The focus is on the immediacy of the experience in a similar way to Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels. Like Mantel Dunant’s project is a sympathetic presentation. The villains are human beings with families and needs – power being the first among many. Dunant has made the Borgia’s completely her own in this way. How the use of the present tense fits this aim is unclear as it used in all her writing.

 

Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s prose is sparse and more visceral by comparison;”The blood from the gash on his head – which is his father’s first effort – is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded, but if he squints sideways with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unravelling. The twine has sprung loose from the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.“So now get up!” Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next. He lifts his head an inch or two, and moves forward, on his belly, trying to do it without exposing his hands, on which Walter enjoys stamping. “What are you an eel?” his parent asks. He trots backwards, and aims another kick.” Woolf Hall, Harper Collins, 2009.

Mantel said, “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claim.” Perhaps that is why she uses the present tense in her work.

She goes on to say that when we memorialise the dead we are sometimes desperate for the truth or for a comforting illusion. As a nation, we need to reach into the past for foundation myths of our tribe. We find them in past glories and past grievance, but we seldom find them in cold facts. Nations she says are built on wishful versions of their origins: stories in which our ancestors were giants, of one kind or another.

According to Mantel, we live in a world of romance. Once the romance was about aristocratic connections and secret status, the fantasy of being part of an elite. Now the romance is about deprivation, dislocation, about the distance covered between there and here. The facts have less traction, less influence on what we are and what we do, than the self-built fictions.

Novelists she says are interested in driving new ideas but readers are touchingly loyal to the first history they learn. However, if you’re looking for safety and authority, history is the wrong place to look say Mantel. Any worthwhile history is in a constant state of self-questioning, just as any worthwhile fiction is. If the reader asks the writer, “Have you evidence to back your story?” the answer should be yes: but you hope the reader will be wise to the many kinds of evidence there are, and how they can be used.”

Does writing about the past in the present tense work?  As much as I admire both writers I shall be sticking to the past tense in my writing with a bit of present tense thrown in for immediacy when required. As a reader, I find it much easier to read and hold onto the story when it’s written that way. Too much present tense, in my opinion, can end up like listening to the audio-description while you’re watching TV even if the prose is elegant.

Julia Herdman’s debut novel ‘Sinclair‘ is available on Amazon worldwide.

 

Julia Herdman

Maria Cosway the Artist who Captured the Heart of Thomas Jefferson

Maria Cosway the Artist who Captured the Heart of Thomas Jefferson

 

Maria Hadfield Cosway, Repelling the Spirit of Melancholy

Maria Cosway was born Luisa Caterina Cecilia Hadfield was born on 11 June 1760 in Florence, Italy to Charles Hadfield, who was a native of Shrewsbury, England, and an Italian mother.

Her father was a successful innkeeper at Livorno, where he had become very wealthy. The Hadfields operated three inns in Tuscany, all frequented by British aristocrats taking the Grand Tour.

One of eight children Maria was born into a comfortable and happy family. Her life should have been a tranquil one. Unbeknown to the family tragedy would overtake them when four of the Hadfield children were killed by their  mentally ill nursemaid who claimed she was sending the children to heaven. Luckily she was caught and imprisoned before she could kill Maria.

While still in Florence, Maria Hadfield  studied art and painting under Violante Cerroti and Johann Zoffany.

The Florentine Violante Beatrice Siries (1709–1783) was an Italian painter of repute. She studied under Hyacinthe Rigaud and François Boucher in Paris from 1726. When she returned to Florence she married Giuseppe Cerroti. She was talented in several genres, but established herself as a famous portraitist She gained the patronage of the Medici family in 1731 and travelled to Rome and Vienna to paint various members of the family .Her most ambitious work was a fourteen figure family group of the emperor Charles VI, the father of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa in 1735. Three of her self-portraits are preserved in the Uffizi Gallery.

Johann Zoffany (1733 -1810) was a German neoclassical painter, active mainly in England, Italy and India. His works appear in many prominent British collections such as the National Gallery, London, the Tate Gallery and in the Royal Collection, as well as institutions in Europe, India, the United States and Australia.  While Zoffany was painting The Tribuna of the Uffizi  in 1773 Hadfield copied Old Masters at the Uffizi Gallery. She continued copying for another five years and experimenting until 1778 when she was elected to the Academia del Disegno in Florence in 1778. She also went to Rome, where she studied art under Pompeo Batoni, Anton Raphael Mengs, Henry Fuseli, and Joseph Wright of Derby.

Self Portrait With Arms Folded

On 18 January 1781, Maria Hadfield married a fellow artist, the celebrated miniature portrait painter Richard Cosway, in what is thought to have been a marriage of convenience.

Richard was born in Tiverton, Devon, the son of a schoolmaster. He was initially educated at Blundell’s School but at the age of twelve he was allowed to travel to London to take lessons in painting. He won a prize from the Society of Artists in 1754 and by 1760 had established his own business. He exhibited his first works at the age of 20 in 1762 and was soon in demand.

Maria’s husband was one of the first group of associate members of the Royal Academy, elected in August 1770, and was elected a full member the following March, on the casting vote of the academy’s president, Sir Joshua Reynolds.  He was 20 years Maria’s senior, known as a libertine, and was repeatedly unfaithful to her.

Richard Cosway was “commonly described as resembling a monkey.” Her Italian manners were so foreign that her husband kept Maria secluded until she fully mastered the English language. Cosway also forbade his wife from painting, possibly out of fear of the gossip which surrounded women painters.

Her Self-Portrait with Arms Folded is seen as a response his command. The reprobate Cosway, realised his wife was his best financial asset and changed his mind.

More than 30 of her works were displayed at the Royal Academy of Art from 1781 until 1801. She soon enhanced her reputation as an artist, especially when her portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire in the character of Cynthia was exhibited.

Rather than being a social embarrassment she could claim the Hon. Mrs. Darner, the Countess of Aylesbury; Lady Cecilia Johnston; and the Marchioness of Townshend among her acquaintances.

In 1784, the Cosways moved into Schomberg House, Pall Mall, and developed a fashionable salon for London society. Richard was Principal Painter of the Prince of Wales, and Maria served as hostess to artists, members of royalty including the Prince, and politicians including Horace Walpole, Gouverneur Morris and James Boswell all attended the couples soirees. Maria who could speak several languages and had an international circle of friends.

The man who would be the American President Thomas Jefferson met the Cosways in August 1786 at the Halle aux Bleds in Paris, through the American artist John Trumbull. According to Trumbull, the President’s entourage “was occupied with the same industry in examining whatever relates to the arts …. Mr. Jefferson joined our party almost daily.” Their excursions included sites such as Versailles, the Louvre, Louis XIV’s retreat Marly, the Palais Royal, St. Germain, and the Column at the Désert de Retz.

Jefferson was enchanted by Maria, and her departure from Paris in October 1786 compelled him to write the only existing love letter in the vast collection of his correspondence.

In ‘The dialogue between my Head and my Heart,” dated October 12th and 13th, 1786. Jefferson poured out the contents of both. The bulk of the letter is a dialogue between Jefferson’s calculating reason (for which he is well known) and his spontaneous emotions (for which he is lesser known). Jefferson describes his emotional state after she has left saying he is “the most wretched of all earthly beings” and his reason responds by admonishing him for his attachment. His heart defends itself saying that no one will care for him who cares for nobody.

Their marriage was never a happy one. Richard and Maria had one child together, Louisa Paolina Angelica. The couple eventually separated. Maria took herself back to the continent. On one occasion accompanied by Luigi Marchesi, a famous Italian castrato. Marchesi was reputed to have been the handsomest castrato of all time and was said to have been adored by the whole female population of Rome. Maria, was a beautiful woman who attracted the most gifted and handsome of men.

Whether she ever had a relationship with Jefferson remains a mystery. Though her husband’s extramarital affairs were no secret, Cosway was  a married woman and a devout Catholic when she met him so it is unlikely she entered into sexual relationship with him. The pair did however engage in correspondence.

After returning to America in 1789, Jefferson’s letters to her grew less frequent; partly due to the fact that he was increasingly preoccupied by his position as President George Washington’s secretary of state. She, however, continued to write to him. In her letters she vented her frustration at his growing aloofness. She clearly wanted a some passion to pass between them even if it was only in writing.  In his last letters, he spoke more of his scientific studies than of his love and desire for her. Finally he admitted that his love for her had been relegated to fond memories of when their relationship had been “pure.” Whatever that meant.

Their relationship was fictionalised in ‘Jefferson in Paris‘ a 1995 Franco-American historical drama film, directed by James Ivory, which had previously entitled Head and Heart. The screenplay, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is a semi-fictional account of Thomas Jefferson’s tenure as the Ambassador of the United States to France before his Presidency and of his alleged relationships with British artist Maria Cosway and his slave, Sally Hemings.

Maria Cosway eventually moved to Lodi, in Italy, where  she established a convent school for girls. Cosway and Jefferson wrote to one another occasionally, with letters coming first from Cosway.

At her home in Lodi, Cosway kept the portrait of Jefferson by John Trumbull that is now at the White House. It was presented to the United States by the Italian government on the occasion of the 1976 Bicentennial of the American Revolution.

Today, Cosway’s paintings and engravings are held by the British Museum, the New York Public Library and the British Library. Her work was included in recent exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1995–96 and the Tate Britain in 2006.

Julia Herdman writes history ad historical fiction. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 and Kindle  Also available on:

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See Also:

The History of the Love Letter

How to Write a Good Love Letter

Women, Crime and Punishment

Women, Crime and Punishment

Through most of history, men were thought of as the stronger sex. Men were and in many cases still are considered to be the more violent, more intelligent, more courageous, and the more determined sex.

Women were considered more placid and at worst governed by their unpredictable emotions. The ideal woman was expected to be passive, chaste, modest, compassionate, and pious.

Historians claim that the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed a significant separation of the sexes in society. For example, at that time women and men to started to develop separate social lives. Women took tea at home, while men frequented the coffee shops in town. Women started to withdraw from the dining table after a meal to let the men smoke and talk politics while they concerned themselves with more domestic topics of conversation, played cards and drank tea. These social changes were in part due to increased wealth and to some extent, the growing influence of evangelical Christianity, which placed a high moral value on female domesticity, virtue, and religiosity. The women of the comfortably off were not expected to want for anything and if they did they were expected to keep their desires to themselves.

Rope, Model, Hands, Bondage, Freedom, Passion, FictionThose girls and women of the lower classes who broke society’s rules were treated with a mixture of cruelty and disdain. When it came to crime, women were accused of fewer, and different, crimes to men. At the Old Bailey women accounted for only 21% of the defendants tried between 1674 and 1913. This  figure masks a significant chronological change, however. While women accounted for around 40% of the defendants from the 1690s to the 1740s (and, highly unusually, over half the defendants in the first decade of the eighteenth century), over the course of the period this proportion declined significantly.

The shadow of Newgate Prison looms over the book Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe just as the real building must have loomed over surrounding London. Moll starts her life in that cold place, and she comes pretty close to ending it there, too. The prison is mentioned nearly forty times over the course of the book, more than any other place or even any other character’s name. Moll enters the prison as a thief and says looked around upon all the horrors of that dismal place.

‘I looked on myself as lost, and that I had nothing to think of but of going out of the world, and that with the utmost infamy: the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing, and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful crowd of afflicting things that I saw there, joined together to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of an entrance into it.'(Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe.)

By the early nineteenth century only 22% of defendants were women, and as the twentieth century dawned that percentage had dropped to 9%. By the early twentieth century serious crime had become a mainly male problem and female deviance was viewed as a consequence of sexual immorality and mental defectiveness and was addressed through other agencies such as the asylum. Reasons for admission were various and included Egotism, Fever and Jealousy, Immoral Life, Novel Reading, Nymphomania, Shooting a daughter, Greediness and Self Abuse between 1864 and 1889  according to a poster from the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in the US.Similar practices occurred in the UK.

During the 18th century women tended to be accused of certain kinds of theft – pickpocketing, shoplifting, theft from lodging houses, theft from their masters stores, and for receiving stolen goods. The more serious crimes that women were involved in included coining, kidnapping, keeping a brothel, and offences surrounding childbirth such as infanticide, concealing a birth or illegal abortions. Young women who fell prey to their employers and their employer’s sons often found themselves with an unwanted child and no job.Although prostitution itself was not tried at the Old Bailey, keeping a brothel was, and women account for about a third of those prosecuted for brothel keeping.

Of the 47 infanticide cases Naomi Clifford read researching her book, It is Women and the Gallows: Unfortunate Wretches, 13 ended in the acquittal of the manslaughter or murder charge but the conviction rate for the lesser crime of concealing a birth, for which the defendants were given prison sentences ranging from 14 days to 2 years more commonly brought in a guilty verdict. When convicted of infanticide a woman was usually hanged.

Appearing as a defendant at the Old Bailey must have been a significantly more intimidating experience for women than it was for men. All court personnel, from the judges and jury to lawyers and court officials were men except when a panel of all women was convened. These all female juries were  known as a ‘jury of matrons’ and were called to determine the validity of a convicted woman’s plea that she was pregnant. Pregnant women could not be hanged until they had delivered their unborn child.

There is some evidence that juries treated evidence presented by female witnesses more sceptically than that delivered by men. The testimony of women was more likely to be omitted from court proceedings. At the same time, other evidence suggests that juries may have been more reluctant to convict women because women were perceived to be less of a threat to society. The legal principle of the feme covert, which made women responsible for crimes committed in the presence of their husbands (they were presumed to be following their husbands’ commands) was not often applied. A married man was legally responsible for any debts his wife ran up with or without his knowledge.

The pattern of punishments for convicted women was significantly different from that of men, though when sentences for the same offence are compared, the differences are not so significant.

Before 1691, women convicted of the theft of goods worth more than 10 shillings could not receive the benefit of clergy unlike men and were sentenced to death. In practice, they were often acquitted, convicted on a reduced charge, or pardoned. Juries are usually reluctant to convict when they feel the punishment does not fit the crime.

Women convicted of treason or petty treason were sentenced to death by being burned at the stake until 1790 while men convicted of the same offences were hanged, drawn and quartered. It seems the authorities did not want to expose women to this humiliating fate of being undressed in public when they were being executed. Women sentenced to death who successfully pleaded that they were pregnant had their punishments respited and often remitted entirely. From 1848, reprieves granted to pregnant women were always permanent.

Following the suspension of transportation to America in 1776, a statute authorised judges to sentence male offenders otherwise liable to transportation to hard labour improving the navigation of the Thames (they were incarcerated on the hulks), while women, and those men unfit for working on the river, were to be imprisoned and put to hard labour. Only men could be sentenced to military or naval duty, and fewer women were selected for transportation when transportation to Australia began in 1787. The public whipping of women was abolished in 1817 (having been in decline since the 1770s), while the public flogging of men continued into the 1830s (and was not abolished until 1862).

The perception of women as passive and weak and the types of misdemeanours most frequently committed by them made them seem far less of a threat to society than the crimes committed by men. However, when a woman transgressed into the world of ‘male crime’, her punishment was likely to be more severe because as a woman she had not only committed a crime against society she had transgressed the ideal of womanhood and stepped outside her expected gender role.

Jail, Dublin, Hall, Old, History, Prison, Kilmainham

Source: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Gender.jsp

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction.

Sinclair is available of Amazon. Click here to get your copy.

Sinclair is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s. Strong female leads include the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam. Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street.  Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.

Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me

London’s Mad House

Women’s Boxing – A Georgian Novelty Act

Mrs Fitzherbert – The King of England’s Secret Wife

Mrs Fitzherbert – The King of England’s Secret Wife

Secret and Clandestine Marriage

A clandestine or illicit marriage is a plot device in many 18th and 19th-century stories, think of Jayne Eyre and Mr Rochester, but what seems like the work of fiction was a fact of life for women from all social classes in 18th Century Britain. No one knew who was married to whom until the law of marriage was changed. Even the Prince Regent tried to marry a woman clandestinely and illegally.

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?” Someone at the Coachmakers’ Hall was clearly stirring the pot of civil discord that evening as the formalities prescribed by the Act were hardly novel, and had been observed even when they were not essential to the validity of a marriage, and the protection afforded by the previous law was not as generous as many who wished to deviate from the new law claimed.

The Marriage Act

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 March 25, 1754, making compulsory the reading of the banns, and the registration of a marriage and its 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 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 essential requirement was that the union be celebrated by an Anglican clergyman. So this left a lot of scope for clandestine marriages and for the wedding of those who were technically under the age of legal consent which was 21 at the time.

The King’s Secret Marriage

Maria Fitzherbert (July 26 1756 – March 27 1837) became the wife of George, Prince of Wales, the future George IV in extraordinary circumstances. Maria came from a respectable Roman Catholic family and was educated in France. She had been married twice before when she met Prince George. Maria married Edward Weld, who was sixteen years her senior, and the wealthy Catholic owner of Lulworth Castle in July 1775. Weld died just three months later after falling from his horse leaving Maria penniless. Her new husband had failed to sign his Will, so his estate went to his younger brother.

Maria, now a widow was left effectively destitute. She received little or no financial support from the Weld family and was obliged to remarry as soon as she could. Three years later, she married again. Her second husband was Thomas Fitzherbert of Swynnerton, Staffordshire who was ten years her senior. They had a son but he died young and then she was widowed again in 1781, but this time she got an annuity of £1000 and a townhouse in Park Street, Mayfair.

In 1783 George, Prince of Wales became infatuated with her after meeting her at the opera. The licentious Prince, he wanted her to become his mistress, but Maria’s devout Catholic beliefs would not allow it. So on December 15, 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. How George thought he was going to get away with is a mystery and how Maria could believe she was being married to a Prince of the realm legitimately in such circumstances is beyond belief.

The Illegally Married Couple

George and Maria spent much of their newly married life in Brighton where Mrs Fitzherbert was treated like a queen. Whether she was ignorant or deluded concerning her position is unknown, she never spoke of it. George’s intentions were never earnest, he always had an eye for the ladies.

The couple finally separated when George’s affections turned to Frances, Countess of Jersey in 1794. Their illegal marriage was finally put asunder when George married his cousin Caroline of Brunswick in 1795.

Five years later, in 1800, Maria and George were reunited as George could not stand the sight of his legal wife, Caroline.

By 1807, the Prince’s affections were wandering again, this time towards Lady Hertford. Unable to bear any further humiliation, on December 18 1809, Maria sent George a farewell letter and departed from Brighton where she and the Prince were living.

Following the death of George IV on June 26 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 documents in her possession. He asked Fitzherbert to accept a dukedom, but she refused, asking only for permission to wear widow’s weeds and to dress her servants in royal livery. The architect William Porden created Steine House for her, on the west side of Old Steine in Brighton where she lived from 1804 until her death in 1837. The king’s unofficial wife was buried at St John the Baptist’s Church in the Kemp Town area of Brighton.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 and on Kindle.

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