Maria Fitzherbert – Brighton’s Almost Queen

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A few posts ago I bemoaned the lack of blue plaques for historical women in Brighton (less than a quarter of the city’s blue plaques commemorate women) One woman who does have a plaque, however, outside St John the Baptist’s Church in Brighton’s Kemp Town, is Maria Fitzherbert (1756 – 1837), pictured here by Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Maria is remembered as George IV’s ‘secret wife’, ‘illegal wife’ or even – and this is very, very wrong – ‘mistress’.  Has history been kind to Mrs Fitzherbert?  After all, she’s not really remembered much for qualities or achievements of her own, but simply as a woman who earned her place in the historical hall of fame for capturing the eye of an important man.  But Maria Fitzherbert, already twice widowed when she met George, the Prince of Wales, six years her junior in 1784, must have had something a bit different about her.  In a large cast of mistresses, flirtations, dalliances, and infatuations, Maria’s is the name the Prince uttered under his breath when marrying his detested wife, Caroline of Brunswick.  Maria is the person in whose favour he changed his will upon the birth of his daughter, Charlotte, and Maria’s miniature portrait is the one that was buried with him upon his death.  The fickle, restless Prince seems to have been at his best, most generous, kind and well behaved when around Maria.  Not only lover, secret wife and spouse, it was almost as if she was his good conscience, a sort of living reminder of all the things he could be if only he tried, the key to access his better self.

When Viva Brighton magazine asked me whether they could interview me about Maria Fitzherbert earlier this year for their February issue I started thinking more about what sort of person she was and the nature of the mysterious hold she had over this powerful man.  This is a slightly abridged version of the article from Viva Brighton by Steve Ramsey (March 2015) Image below Maria Fitzherbert after Richard Cosway, 1792.

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“He lied to her and cheated on her and was sometimes cruel. He dumped her twice for other women. He was not above using suicide threats to win her, or to win her back. He coaxed her into a secret wedding, then humiliated her by getting a friend to publicly deny it had happened. He repeated the humiliation by marrying again, as if she had merely been his mistress. Yet she was clearly the love of his life, and he risked the throne to be with her. And she seems to have loved him too. It was, as one book on Mrs Fitzherbert points out, ‘a very strange love story’.
“He was brought up strictly, with a relentless and harsh education regime that included being flogged if he made mistakes in Latin grammar,” Royal Pavilion guide Louise Peskett says. “That’s what his father thought would make his sons into good upstanding men. But, if we look at his upbringing through 21st-century eyes, we could see him as an abused child who had a very remote relationship with his parents.
“And, sure enough, he became a person who couldn’t control his impulses very well, who developed problems with addiction. These days, it would be ringing alarm bells; we’d say ‘that’s a person with problems’.”
Prince George was reckless with money, impulsive, melodramatic, and sometimes selfish. But he was also intelligent, witty, charming and sociable. Tall and handsome in his youth, he had a series of lovers, all of whom were content to be mistresses. Maria Fitzherbert wasn’t.
She was six years older than him, a convent-educated Catholic who’d been widowed twice before they met. She liked dancing and music, and had a ‘lively’ sense of humour, biographer James Munson notes, but was also a ‘woman of considerable pride,’ who cared strongly about propriety and respectability. It was marriage or nothing.
By law, no-one married to a Catholic could succeed to the throne, and Prince George was first in line. This should have put him off, but, after they met in March 1784, he began a reckless and relentless courtship. She planned to go to Europe to avoid his attentions; when he heard this, he ‘stabbed himself and made out that it was a suicide attempt,’ biographer Saul David notes.
She went to Europe anyway. George ‘cried by the hour,’ according to a contemporary account, ‘rolling on the floor, striking his forehead, tearing his hair, falling into hysterics…’ He wrote her frequent, passionate letters, sometimes threatening suicide. She resisted for more than a year.
I’d have thought if you fake suicide and batter someone with letters and send messengers all over Europe for them…” Peskett says, “and they don’t respond, you’d think, after a couple of months, he would have thought ‘oh, ok then, never mind’. She must have really meant a lot to him.
“I’m sure she genuinely did like him, but her feet were on the ground. She was older and more practical, she could see the bigger picture and the problems it could cause, and put her good sense before her heart.”
Nonetheless, they married in December 1785 in secret. Their relationship status became a popular subject of gossip. The prince manipulated his friend, the MP Charles Fox, to deny the marriage in parliament; George then went to Mrs Fitzherbert and claimed to be astonished at what Fox had said. A witness claimed: ‘Maria turned very pale, and made no reply.’ She refused to see George for some time, which made him so distressed that his health suffered.
After she took him back, they went to Brighton for the summer of 1786, where they were ‘a picture of romantic contentment,’ according to a magazine called Royal Romances. ‘In those brief but happy months, the prince appeared to be a reformed character. He drank only moderately, gambled hardly at all, and entertained quietly.’
In the next few years, they spent a lot of time together in Brighton. “It was one of the places they escaped to,” Peskett says, “where they could have a taste of domestic bliss, and enjoy each other’s company like an ordinary married couple.”marine pav
(Image above of the Marine Pavilion, the predecessor of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion built by Henry Holland in 1786 where Maria and the Prince spent their time in Brighton).

However, things were going less well by late 1793, Saul David notes. She had ‘long disapproved of his dissolute lifestyle and disreputable friends’. He was so extravagant that she ‘often had to lend him money’. By 1794 the brilliant and ruthless Lady Jersey had elbowed her way into the Prince’s affections. As his mistress, she set about poisoning his mind about Maria, convincing him ‘that his unpopularity with the people was due to Mrs Fitzherbert and her religion,’ biographer Valerie Irvine writes. ‘She also told him that Maria had been heard to say she was only interested in his rank, not in his person.’ In June 1794, the prince dumped his wife by letter.
By this point, George’s debts were enormous, and ‘in return for financial help, the king insisted that he should marry a Protestant princess,’ the Dictionary of British History notes. So, in 1795, he wed his cousin Caroline of Brunswick, who he loathed at first sight. They separated the following year.
After another series of ‘increasingly desperate’ overtures, Mrs Fitzherbert took him back around 1800, Saul David notes. She had been looking after a child called Minney Seymour, and “it sounds like they had a few happy years, playing parents with this little girl,” Peskett says. The Prince was certainly very fond of her.”
When Minney’s parents died, there was a custody battle between her family and Mrs Fitzherbert, who was devoted to the child. Minney’s relatives Lord and Lady Hertford helped Maria; they became the child’s legal guardians, and let Mrs Fitzherbert keep her.
Maria was very grateful, but then Lady Hertford became the Prince’s latest mistress, and “used her influence on George to widen the gap between them,” Peskett says. “After this latest set-back their relationship sort of limped on, but without the passion of previously.”
To keep her own affair secret, Lady Hertford forced Mrs Fitzherbert to play the dutiful wife at social events, threatening to take Minney away if she didn’t. Maria told the prince his latest fling had ‘quite destroyed the entire comfort and happiness of both our lives’.
The final breakup came in June 1811, a few months after George had been made Prince Regent. Having been invited to a fete at George’s London residence, Mrs Fitzherbert was told she wouldn’t be seated near the Prince. “That’s how he let it be known to her that she was dispensed with,” Peskett says.
“This followed the pattern of their first break-up, when after responding to a letter that began ‘My dearest Love’, requesting her presence in London, Maria dutifully turned up only to be given another letter announcing that he didn’t want to see her again. It makes you wonder how confused he was in his own mind about it, and how easy he was to sway.
“He was very mercurial and led by his heart… Whereas she seems to have been quite calm and had her with both feet on the ground,” Peskett says. “I think she was a kind of safe harbour for the tumultuous waves of his personality, as it were. George’s mother, during one of their ruptures, even wrote to her and asked her to make it up with him, because his behaviour was so bad without her as a steadying influence.
“I think she was very strong and stoic. But how must she have felt? To be rejected for other women, and the blowing-hot-and-cold in their relationship. And, from the time he lied to her about Fox’s statement having nothing to do with him, she must have known that she couldn’t really trust him, despite these violent protestations of love. That must have really been difficult. But, of course, she would have been aware what was at stake for him, what he was risking… So that helps us to understand his point of view as well.”
After 1811, they wrote to each other ‘occasionally, but their letters were confined to practical matters, usually money,’ according to Royal Romances. She Maria lived mainly in Brighton from about 1815, and if she met the King there, they would ‘exchange frosty glances’. It’s frequently said that the people of Brighton were very fond of Maria, and this has been suggested as one reason that George’s later trips to Brighton were mostly spent in seclusion in the Pavilion.
Before George died, in 1830, he ensured that he would be buried with a locket containing a picture of her. When told of this gesture, Maria was seen to be crying.
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After the interview I started to think how Maria Fitzherbert’s life could almost be the template of a Hollywood rom-com or a work of romantic fiction.  Lone woman with sad past wooed by roguish but attractive alpha male who promises her the world.  Then, when alpha male lets her down, refuses to crumble, creating instead a better life for herself built on strong principles, strength of character and the fact that she’s made a lot of friends and gained respect along the way.  Lives happily ever after.  When George IV died in 1830, Maria had already created a supportive bubble of family and extended family, based largely on her two adopted daughters.  Perhaps there’s some kind of justice that, years after the death of her secret royal husband, Maria still enjoyed the Royal Pavilion as a guest of William IV and Queen Adelaide.

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St John the Baptist’s Church, Bristol Road, Brighton.  Resting place of Maria Fitzherbert.

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Harriette Wilson – Modern Girl

When planning my walking tours, I always over-plan to a ridiculous degree and end up trying to include far more women than it’s ever possible to talk about in an hour and a half.  I always have a few ‘spare’ women in my file should I zip through fast and end up with nothing to say (never happened), leaving me with the problem of having to choose which women to mention and which to leave out. I suppose it’s a bit like the dreaded PE lesson team pick at school.  Remember standing in a line in the changing rooms while the ones who were good at sport picked people out for the netball team?  Always being the last one to be picked, this was never fun for me.  But I’ve just realised being the picker isn’t that easy either.   This year, I found myself constantly leaving out one of my favourite women with links to Brighton.  The least I can do is introduce her here…  So welcome, and apologies it’s taken so long, to Harriette Wilson (1786 – 1845), the most dazzling courtesan of the Regency era, a woman who captivated, charmed and dazzled her way to the heart of fashionable society, only to shock, anger and terrify her way back out again.  

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‘I shall not say how and why I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.’ Begins the first page of her Memoirs.  ‘Whether it was love, or […] the depravity of my own heart, or the winning arts of the noble Lord, which induced me to leave my paternal roof and place myself under his protection, does not now much signify…’  From the first paragraph we know this isn’t just another staid celebrity biography. ‘I resided on the Marine Parade at Brighton…’ she informs us next and goes on to describe how the ‘winning arts’ of paramour Lord Craven have now dwindled to an annoying habit of drawing cocoa trees for her entertainment. ‘It was, in fact, a dead bore.’ . She moves on to an unflattering description of his choice of sleepwear.  ‘Surely, I would say, all men do not wear those ugly cotton nightcaps; else all women’s illusions had been destroyed in the first night of marriage.’  This voice, frank, dry, knowing, allows us to see why Harriette was, in the sprawling, sparkling Regency demi-monde at least, one of the most feted women of her age. 

Far from being prostitutes, courtesans like Harriette weren’t coveted for their sexual availability alone, but for their company, their style, and the cachet they would bring to a man’s reputation. Only the very wealthy could afford their company. For the Regency gentleman around town, having Harriette on your arm would scream Rich! Powerful! Virile! – an early nineteenth century equivalent of dangling the keys to a Ferrari in your friends’ faces. The most successful courtesans were clever, accomplished, witty, able to hold their own in conversation, a sort of alpha girlfriend who charged for her time.  For a man in pre-Victorian, anything-goes London, there was nothing seedy or shameful about being seen at the opera with a woman like Harriette and, unlike women, men could slip easily between the above-board world of the respectable married family-man and the rowdy, gossipy, heavy drinking and gambling milieu of the dandies. Lesley Blanch writes in her introduction to Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs (Century, 1985) ‘The courtesan was expected to provide all the shades of companionship without the oppressive limitations and implications of marriage.  She offered not only the bed but the sofa, the dinner-table and the salon – all save the nursery and the kitchen.’ So, all the fun of a relationship without the hard bits.   Many courtesans were relatively high born but were simply surplus daughters or had disgraced themselves out of the marriage market in some way.

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Harriette had had a boarding school and convent education. Twice she attempted to hold onto a proper job as a music teacher in elegant girls’ boarding schools. Twice she ran away, finding the governess’s life deadly dull. The second time she came home after her career at a school in Newcastle upon Tyne stalled, her father beat her. Faced with the option of a life of ‘crippling dullness’, she took her life into her hands and left home, Lord Craven providing a convenient if dull launchpad.
You can see the attraction at a time when the main options for women in Harriette’s position were either to become a stay-at-home wife for a husband chosen for you or a governess (a job that enjoyed no esteem, respect or rights). If you played your cards right as a courtesan and attracted the right man, you could command a lavish lifestyle. Clothes, jewellery, appropriate accommodation at a fashionable address, the latest carriage, even a pension could be forthcoming. Unlike prostitutes courtesans never solicited, they were sought after and prospective suitors of Harriette were rigorously ‘interviewed’.
One man who – initially – didn’t make the grade was George, Prince of Wales, the future Prince Regent. Harriette approached him during that first stay on the Marine Parade while the Prince was in town visiting his Marine Pavilion, the predecessor of the Royal Pavilion. ‘I wonder, thought I, what sort of a nightcap the Prince of Wales wears…’ she tells us. ‘A sheet of paper, covered with Lord Craven’s cocoa trees, decided me…’ She began a letter to the Prince. ‘I am told that I am very beautiful., so, perhaps, you would like to see me […] if you believe you could make me in love with you, write to me…’ Amused, the Prince wrote back suggesting a meeting in London. This wasn’t good enough for Harriette. ‘Sir, to travel fifty-two miles, this bad weather, merely to see a man […] would, you must admit, be madness, in a girl like myself, surrounded by humble admirers…’ she wrote in response. ‘…if you can do anything better , in the way of pleasing a lady, than ordinary men, write directly: if not, adieu, Monsieur le Prince.’
History hasn’t recorded what the Prince, the most eligible bachelor in the country and not used to having women turn him down, said upon receiving Harriette’s snub.
The most shocking thing that Harriette did, however, came much later. In 1825, about to turn forty, she found her fortunes fading. Many of the men who had in the past promised her a pension as part of the deal had conveniently forgotten about her. At her wits’ end, she hit upon a way to make them pay up. She’d write her memoirs. And she’d hold nothing back. She’d give the men concerned notice and if they were worried about the most minute details of their relationships with her being made public, well, they could pay to be missed out. Why not? She’d lived by putting a price on her attractiveness, so why not now charge for her discretion too? The Henry Heath cartoon below shows what happened…
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A positive stampede of men, wanting to pay the £200 the publisher was charging to ensure anonymity. Barricades had to be erected outside Stockdale’s the publishers to keep them at bay. The Memoirs were published in sections so men would have known when their shaming was nigh. It was one thing being linked to Harriette in the past but no one wanted the warts-and-all details of their relationship with her revealed for all the world to know. ‘Push any man into the streets in his dressing gown and nightcap and he will be laughed at,’ explained the London Magazine. Famously, the Duke of Wellington refused to have anything to do with it, declaring ‘publish and be damned!’ Consequently the hero of Waterloo does not emerge well from the Memoirs. ‘Rather like a rat-catcher’ is how Harriette describes his looks, and his pillow talk was ‘like sitting up with a corpse’. What Harriette did, having played power games with men all her life, was to snatch it back – and how – in the world’s first ever kiss and tell. Harriette grew rich, making ten thousand pounds out of her Memoirs, which were a best seller for years (before the Victorians relegated them to the top shelf). But she was never forgiven. When she returned to London in 1830 (she’d been living in Paris) the city cut her dead. The price of playing the men at their own game? At the time, for a woman to write frankly and unashamedly about sex – and then to do well out of it – was considered depravity of the worst type. If she’d been born today she’d probably be at the helm of an incredibly successful business. For pluck and entrepreneurial skills, for sticking to her principles, even if they were vastly different from the ones of everyone else at the time (and simply for telling the most eligible man in Britain she couldn’t be bothered to see him because the weather was bad), I think Harriette deserves the title Most Notorious Woman of Brighton.