Maria Anne Smythe

3D front cover of Memoirs of Mrs Fitzherbert by Charles LangdaleThey didn’t strike any chords with me, but these were in fact the baptismal and family names of the lady who became (or didn’t become, according to your viewpoint), Princess of Wales on the evening of 15 December 1785: Mrs Fitzherbert. 

The Memoirs of Mrs Fitzherbert which we have reissued are not memoirs in the conventional sense, but an impassioned, even eccentric, defence of Mrs Fitzherbert’s good name, published in 1856 by Charles Langdale, one of the first Catholics to become an M.P., and yet another ‘changed-his-name-to-inherit’ person. He was prompted by what he saw as an attack on the lady’s good name in other ‘Memoirs’, those of Lord Holland, compiled by his son from the great Whig politician’s manuscripts. Holland had recorded that an anonymous friend ‘of strict veracity’ (and who presumably was in a position to know) had told him that Mrs Fitzherbert had never believed that her marriage to the Prince was legal, and that indeed she thought the whole proceedings was ‘nonsense’.

Langdale is determined to disprove this assertion. He spends half of the book explaining the circumstances in which he came into possession of a number of documents relating to the marriage previously owned by his brother, Lord Stourton, the earlier history of the papers, and his decision to publish them – a blow-by-blow account which is frankly not very interesting. He does however present a strong case in defence of Maria Fitzherbert’s rectitude, her strong Catholic faith, and the correctness of her belief that the marriage was valid according to Catholic canon law. (The minor detail of the three separate acts of Parliament which made the marriage illegal (or rather non-existent) in English law are ignored.)

What remains a mystery, however, is why anyone would for a moment want to marry the Prince of Wales in the first place (unless compelled to, like Queen Caroline). Maria Fitzherbert, twice widowed by the age of 25, met the Prince briefly for the first time in 1780 (not on Richmond Hill, as Langdale asserts), but his serious pursuit of her began in 1784. She refused to become his mistress; he proposed marriage and she refused him; she planned to travel abroad; he stabbed himself and sent a stream of messengers to her saying that he would tear off his bandages and succumb if she did not go to him. (Prinny as proto-Wagnerian!)

This appalling moral blackmail took her to Carlton House, where she agreed to marry him, and he put a ring on her finger. Immediately afterwards, she regretted it and wrote that she had acted under duress. She left for the continent, but was pursued by letters and threats to join her abroad. Eventually, she agreed to return: ‘I know I injure him and perhaps destroy for ever my own tranquillity…’. Negotiations for the marriage were carried out with Maria’s uncle, who was also one of the witnesses to the event.

Subsequently, a pattern developed. The Prince was either her devoted husband, or vehemently denying (via cronies) that the marriage had ever taken place – the latter if he needed money from Parliament, for example, or when he was attracted to yet another in the succession of his mistresses. The most obvious of these denials was the occasion of his marriage to Princess Caroline of Brunswick, in April 1795 – no just causes or impediments were claimed. However, within a year, the Prince was writing a will leaving everything (his debts, perhaps?) to Maria, and soon afterwards he attempted to play the suicide card again.

Having obtained a papal ruling that she was indeed married to the Prince, Maria returned to him in 1800, but the pattern resumed, with another titled and married mistress, a further rejection by the Prince, and a final parting in 1811 – the final straw was a matter of precedence in the seating arrangements at a party at Carlton House. However, on his deathbed, the Prince had a miniature of Maria round his neck, and it was buried with him.

An interesting sidelight on Maria Fitzherbert’s status is that she seems always to have remained on very good terms with the royal family: Langdale claims that William IV was especially appreciative of the trials she had been put through by his elder brother.  But the mystery of the Prince’s character – childish, petulant, egocentric, dissolute spendthrift, versus generous, intellectual, aesthetically aware patron of the arts and frustrated king-in-waiting – remains. It must be a testimony of sorts that he awoke and maintained the apparently disinterested love of Mrs Fitzherbert, whose tranquillity he did indeed destroy for ever.


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3 Responses to Maria Anne Smythe

  1. Pingback: A List of People Who Changed Their Name in Order to Inherit a Fortune | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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