The love affairs of Royal persons always stimulate popular interest, but the one true romance which brightened the life of King George IV. did more than this. It was the most remarkable romance of modern times, and as such created a national sensation.
In truth, however, the story of Mrs. Fitzherbert and George, Prince of Wales, who later ascended the throne as King George IV., is a very simple one, very human, and quite delightful. The odium of scandal clung to it mainly because, for many years, the truth was enveloped in a thick cloud of mysterious secrecy. Never was the marriage recognised officially, and on two occasions it was denied publicly in the House of Commons that it had ever taken place. There were, however, many very good reasons for preserving a discreet silence about this marriage; not merely was it morganatic, but in it were involved constitutional and religious questions of supreme importance.
But at length the clouds of mystery have been dispelled, and that Mrs. Fitzherbert, at any rate in the eyes of the Church, was the wife of King George IV. is a truth over which it is impossible to cast even a shadow of doubt. Prior to her death she deposited in Coutts's Bank a number of papers relating to herself, but until a few years ago the right of access to these papers, in spite of the persistence of her relatives and friends, was firmly refused.
In 1905, however. King Edward VII.
Graciously acceded to the request of Mr. W. H. Wilkins, and allowed him to see and make use of these papers in compiling a true history of the romance.* Thus the mystery has been solved, and the honour of Mrs. Fitzherbert vindicated. This, indeed, is only just, for if ever there lived a woman whom the breath of scandal should never have been allowed to taint, that woman was Maria Fitzherbert. Clever, cultured, loyal to the highest traditions of womanhood, she was one of the noblest and most fascinating women of her age.
The romance of the uncrowned queen of Louis XIV., a story which already has been narrated in this series of romances (Part 4, page 551), is perhaps the closest historical parallel to that of Mrs. Fitzherbert. At first sight it is easy and natural to regard both Madame de Maintenon and the wife of George IV. as scheming and designing women. Fact, however, disproves this theory, and it is impossible to deny that Mrs. Fitzherbert married the heir to the English throne for the same reasons for which Madame de Maintenon married Louis XIV.; she loved him, and felt that she alone had the power to turn him from the path of excesses along which his own nature and the influences of the age and Court were driving him. But surely Cupid must have been in his most whimsical mood when he dared to
* " Mrs. fitzherbert and George IV.," by W. H. Wilkins, M.a., F.s.a. Longmans, Green & Co., London.
Love marry this commoner to this prince; it is a fantastic story, full of matrimonial complexities.
Maria Fitzherbert was the daughter of Mr. Walter Smythe, a member of an ancient North-country Roman Catholic family, and she was born.on July 26, 1756. Her childhood was spent, for the most part, in quiet seclusion, for the severity of the laws against Papists had not yet been mitigated. Roman Catholics were eligible neither for public offices nor for the public services, and were obliged by force of circumstances to be exclusive socially. Indeed, declares Lecky, they were "virtually outlaws in their own country, doomed to a life of secrecy and retirement."
Maria and the King of France
Maria was educated at a convent in Paris, and even at this time displayed her unfortunate propensity for attracting royalty. At Versailles it was permitted to the public to gaze upon Louis XV. as he dined, and Maria was once taken there to witness this spectacle of monarchy feeding. Upon the onlookers, however, absolute silence was enjoined; but the child, immensely amused at the sight of the King of France pulling a chicken to pieces with his fingers, was unable to control her feelings, and burst forth into peals of laughter. Louis, however, so far from being offended by this breach of etiquette, sent the Duke of Soubise to her with a dish of sugar plums to keep her quiet.
Perhaps the King had noticed her beauty, for it was indeed startling, and after her return to England it did not remain for long unheeded; her features and figure were perfect; her complexion adorable, and her brown eyes contrasted delightfully with the thick masses of pale golden hair in which her face was framed. Maria, therefore, soon found herself surrounded by suitors, and in 1775, when nineteen years of age, she became the wife of Mr. Edward Weld, the owner of Lulworth Castle, in Dorsetshire. After she had been married to him for a year, however, Mr. Weld died quite suddenly; but three years later his widow married again. Her second husband, perhaps, was even more eligible than the first, and to the wife of Mr Thomas Fitzherbert, a Roman Catholic of ancient lineage, the doors of society were opened wide. On May 7, 1781, however, Thomas Fitzherbert died, with the result that, while only in her twenty-sixth year, Maria, for the second time, was left a widow.
A Twice-widowed Beauty
Her beauty was now in its prime; London was captivated by it, and its owner soon became the subject of many paragraphs in the papers. "A new constellation," declared the "Morning Herald," on July 27, 1784. "has lately made an appearance in the fashionable hemisphere of those whose hearts are susceptible to the power of beauty
The widow of the late Mr. F-------------t has in her train half our young nobility. As the lady has not, as yet, discovered a partiality for any of her admirers they are all animated with hopes of success."
Among these may be mentioned the Duke of Bedford, who, because she refused to marry him, remained a bachelor to the end of his life. But among them also must be mentioned a man who, as a connoisseur of feminine charms, could not allow such loveliness to escape his notice.