King George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert
19 Jul 2017
Today, 19th July, marks the anniversary in 1821 of the coronation of King George IV. Within our archives we hold documents relating to the great love affair of the King’s life.
Maria Fitzherbert was twice widowed when she met the Prince of Wales, future George IV. The Prince immediately fell in love with her and proposed that she become his mistress. Being a staunch Catholic, (Maria was the grand daughter of Sir John Smythe, whose great grandson would offer the monks of St Gregory’s shelter at Acton Burnell in 1795) she refused his offer and he instead threatened to kill himself unless she married him. The two married in December 1785, with a priest being paid to keep his silence about the ceremony.
The reason for secrecy was that their marriage was illegal. The 1701 Act of Settlement forbade a Catholic to sit on the throne and when George eventually would become King, his Catholic wife would be a problem. Secondly, the couple had ignored the Royal Marriage Act which stipulated that permission must be sought from the sovereign for a royal marriage. Yet, the couple lived in Brighton together for many years, until George’s massive financial debts became overwhelming.
In desperation at debts of almost £600,000, George appealed for help and Parliament agreed to clear his financial burden if he left Maria Fitzherbert and married a Protestant. This he duly did by marrying Caroline of Brunswick in 1795. The marriage was not a happy one and after their separation George rekindled his relationship with Mrs Fitzherbert, but only for a short period.
The main letter of interest in our archives is written by the Duke of Wellington in 1841 to Lord Stourton, a descendant of Maria Fitzherbert. Lord Stourton spent much time trying to clear the name of his relative and had written to the Duke to ask for correspondence between the King and Mrs Fitzherbert to be given to him.
These letters were personal in nature and if made public would have shown the intimate relationship between a King of Britain and a Catholic. In the letter, Wellington describes the destruction of several letters ‘Of Mrs Fitzherbert which related to the late King G 4th or were written or signed by Himself on the other, should be delivered up and destroyed in presence of the parties having possession of the same; which was carried out …. …. accordingly at Mrs Fitzherbert’s home in Witney Street in presence of Mrs Fitzherbert, myself and others;’
Yet some letters were kept at Mrs Fitzherbert’s request, and deposited with Messrs Coutts the Bankers. Wellington in his letter states his desire that the letters remain hidden. ‘I cannot but consider it my duty to protest; and I do so protest most solemnly against the menace proposed by your Lordship that of breaking the seals affirmed and the packet of papers belonging to the late Mrs Fitzherbert deposited at Messrs Coutts the bankers, under the several seals of the Earl of Albermarle, your Lordship and myself.’
Downside holds these documents as part of the collections of one of its monks, Dom Odo Langdale (1861-1934) grand nephew of Lord Stourton and descendant of Maria Fitzherbert. We also hold much material relating to the lives of Lord Stourton and his quest to clear the name of his relative. Charles Langdale, Dom Odo’s grandfather wrote a biography of Maria Fitzherbert in 1856 which showed that Maria Fitzherbert believed herself to be a legitimate wife of King George IV.
To read more about our archive collections click here.
Below is the letter from the Duke of Wellington and an image of Dom Odo Langdale.