Some people declare Hannah Lightfoot to have been a myth. But this is ridiculous. Undoubtedly she existed. And undoubtedly King George III., when Prince of Wales, met her, fell in love with her, and eloped with her. But what happened after this no man knows ; the veil of mystery is impenetrable. Did the Prince marry her ? Did he have children by her ? Where did she live ? When did she die ? One can only conjecture. Documentary evidence is scant and unreliable.
But there are countless legends, and legend invariably is at least based on fact. Besides, there are so many legends, and they spring from such different sources that it would be absurd to regard them all as fiction. In detail they may be false ; in substance they must be true. And it is from this tangled mass of tradition that the story of the romance, as printed on these pages, has been woven into a consecutive narrative. Of course, it cannot claim to be authentic. But, none the less, it approaches surely very near the truth. And perhaps the mere presence of the veil of mystery which surrounds the facts supports this argument. For secrets are not kept thus without good reason.
But this is immaterial. Under the circumstances, to force criticism to penetrate the veil would be impertinent. In addition, it is unnecessary, for the romance in itself is so strange, so beautiful, that there is no need to call upon political complications and might-have-beens to lend it strength and colour.
The love affairs of most Royal personages are common knowledge. King George IV.'s entanglement with Mrs. Fitzherbert, for example (the story has been told already in this series, Vol. 2, page 1389), was recognised even in public. But in that case there was no need for mystery ; the Royal Marriage Act of 1772, ipso facto, rendered the union legally invalid. But when George III. is alleged to have married Hannah Lightfoot, this Bill had not been passed. Thus by right the Quaker bride would in due course have become Queen, her descendants heirs to the throne ; and the King himself, after his subsequent marriage to Princess Charlotte, guilty of an offence no less than bigamy. Undoubtedly, therefore, discretion and secrecy were expedient. But the manner in which the secret has been preserved is perhaps even more mysterious than the mystery itself. Incidentally, it throws a very gracious light both upon George and Hannah. The woman, it shows, did not marry for position, but because she loved. And she asked only for love in return for the love she gave. Unlike the Court ladies of her day, Hannah was not an ambitious, self-seeking woman, but, in reality, the dear, sweet, simple little Quaker girl of legend.
Very, very reluctantly, moreover, George later took to himself a Royal consort. Not until he had become King did he consent to marry, and then he yielded - and this is the truth - only in obedience to that real sense of public duty which was his, and which singles him out as the one great man among our Hanoverian Kings. What Hannah Lightfoot meant to him he told to no man. And this stands greatly to his credit, for he lived in an age when a man was esteemed among his fellows in proportion to the number and the daring of his love affairs. It was fashionable to be a cad.
George III. as he appeared shortly after he is said to have married Hannah Lightfoot. His love story is one of the most fascinating mysteries in modern history
Indeed, the status of women and the ideal of womanhood never have been lower in this country than they were during the early part of the eighteenth century. Marriage was a mere name, a farce, a convenience, and, at any rate, prior to the passing of the " Act for the Preventing of Clandestine Marriages," in 1753 - an Act, incidentally, which met with unqualified opposition from almost every section of the community the holy state of matrimony was literally an odious commodity, bought and sold in an open market.
And there was no lack of clergymen willing - in return for suitable fees - to pander to the public wants. Indeed, between October 19, 1704, and February 12, 1705, 2,942 marriages were " solemnised " at the Fleet alone without the publication of banns, even without licence; whilst at his chapel in Brookfield Market Place, now Curzon Street, the notorious Alexander Keith united in a single day no fewer than one hundred couples.
This amazing gentleman readily dispensed with all formality. He asked no questions, he made no inquiries; the presence of witnesses - of course, provided that he received his fees - he regarded as quite un -necessary; he did not even insist upon the signing of the register. And on more than one occasion he is said to have married a woman to another woman in order to enable her thereby to evade her debts by saying that she had a husband somewhere who was responsible for them. Really it must have been pardonably difficult for many people to know whether they were married or single. And yet, according to the law, bigamy was a crime punishable by death.
This state of affairs may seem incredible to us to-day, but it has an important bearing upon the story, and should, therefore, be borne carefully in mind, if only in order that it may reveal George III. as a man who rose above the meanness of his environment, and who entertained a pure and noble passion for a pure and noble woman in an age when such a feeling was regarded as very silly.