It was in 1783, and on the river at Richmond, that the Prince of Wales first noticed Mrs. Fitzherbert. He fell in love immediately, and was completely unable to conceal his infatuation. Indeed, a few days later he began, after dinner, to bewail the fortune of his birth. What had he done, he asked, that he should be forced, in due course, to marry some "ugly German frow"? Why could he not be free to do what he liked, as were other men? The Prince's manner betrayed his secret, and Rigby, the Master of the Rolls, to whom the questions apparently were addressed, replied discreetly:
"Faith, sir, I am not yet drunk enough to give advice to the Prince of Wales about marrying."
According to another story, however, George saw his enchantress earlier in the year when she was sitting with Lady Sefton in a box at the Opera, and so greatly was he impressed by her beauty that he followed her home.
At this time, however, the Prince was constantly being impressed. He was the leader and darling of London society, and London, tired of the wearisome dullness of German princes, rejoiced to find as heir to the throne a handsome man, with cultivated manners and sporting instincts, who spoke English without a German accent. Indeed, George might have developed into a magnificent man and a great prince if only his father had been less narrow, less unreasonable, and less bigoted. Between George III. and his son a perpetual feud existed, and to this must be attributed a large number of the son's subsequent errors.
In the same year as that in which he met Mrs. Fitzherbert, George came of age, and, when he came of age he became also independent. Carlton House he furnished in lavish style; and there, with Charles James Fox as his inspiring genius, he added fuel to the fire of his father's hatred by establishing himself as the patron of the King's political adversaries. It was at Carlton House that, during the General Election of 1784, the Duchess of Devonshire bought with kisses votes for Fox, who was then standing for Westminster. It was at Carlton House that the Prince presided over that splendid throng of ladies, politicians, beaus, and wits whose names are identified with and have immortalised the Whig party of that day.
It may have been dazzling, but it was not a moral society, and it was very reluctantly
Love that Mrs. Fitzherbert allowed herself to be drawn into the magic circle. But she had no alternative. The Prince's importunity was irresistible; to escape from him was impossible. Soon, however, she showed him that she was a woman of a calibre very different from that of the ladies whom hitherto he had been pleased to honour with his attentions. But this did not deter him; it served only to make him more persistent. And Mrs. Fitzherbert, although old enough to realise the danger of the rocks ahead, knew not how to avoid it.
But, whatever might happen, she was determined on one point, and that was that to George she would be a wife or nothing. Marriage, however, seemed to be impossible, for in the road to matrimony were two apparently insuperable obstacles - the obstacle of birth and the obstacle of religion.
To ensure the Protestant succession had been the primary care of the revolution legislators, and the great Act of 1689 emphatically declared that no person who held communion with the Church of Rome, or who married a Papist, should sit upon the throne. Thus, by marrying Mrs. Fitzherbert, George would be taking a step which might well cause him to be deprived of his birthright. Indeed, a less honourable man than the Duke of York undoubtedly would have regarded himself as fully justified in making use of the Heir-apparent's secret marriage - -for he was cognisant of it - further to prejudice the King against his eldest son. But Frederick, Duke of York, was devoted to his brother, and was loyalty and integrity personified.
Again, the terms of the Royal Marriage Act of 1772 rendered it illegal for a member of the Royal Family to marry without the consent of the Sovereign, and, in addition, imposed severe penalties upon all who might assist or be present at the ceremony.
The law, therefore, was equipped with every conceivable device to frustrate his intentions, but objections such as these George was willing to ignore. He had resolved to win Mrs. Fitzherbert, and nothing could deter him from his purpose. The opposition of his friends merely goaded him to frenzy.
Maria Fitzherbert, who contracted a most romantic marriage with George, Prince of Wales, who afterwards became King George IV. She is here shown wearing the locket which, in accordance with his dying request, was buried with her Royal husband
The victim of his love, greatly distressed, not knowing how to escape or what action to take, decided, therefore, as a last resource, to flee and leave the country. A rumour of her intentions reached the cars of George. He was terribly agitated. Allow Mr Fitzherbert to leave England he could not, for, should she succeed in escaping to the Continent, it would be impossible for him to follow her, since it was forbidden to the Prince of Wales to leave the country without the King's consent. And George III., who consistently ignored his son's requests, was unlikely to consent to this one, for he was kept well acquainted with the Prince's doings and affairs.
One day, therefore - in November, 1784 - while Mrs. Fitzherbert was in London, making preparations for her departure, Lord Onslow, Lord Southampton, Edward Bouverie and Keate, the surgeon, called at the house in Park Street and demanded to see her immediately. The Prince, they declared, had stabbed himself; his life was in imminent danger.