The Twickenham Museum
People : Landowners and Gentry

Maria Fitzherbert
Secretly married to the Prince of Wales
1756 - 1837

Maria Fitzherbert

Twice widowed

Mary Anne (Maria) Smythe was born on 28th July 1756, a member of an old Roman Catholic family.

In June 1775 at the age of 18 she was married to Edward Weld of Lulworth Castle, a widower aged 34, who died shortly after the wedding. Three years later, in 1778, she married Thomas Fitzherbert, aged 31. Mrs Fitzherbert had a son by this marriage, but the child died in infancy. Soon afterwards Thomas Fitzherbert died in May 1781. He left his widow in possession of a house in Park Street, London, and an annual income of over £1000 per annum.

Secret marriage to the Prince of WalesAt the age of 27, Mrs Fitzherbert came out of mourning and entered London society under the wing of her uncle Lord Sefton and her half brother Henry Errington. In 1784 at the opera with Lord Sefton she was introduced to George Prince of Wales, then aged 22.

In July 1784 when the Prince of Wales threatened suicide, she agreed to accept a ring as a gift, which the Prince regarded as a pledge of marriage. She then took refuge on the continent.

Eventually she was traced and returned to England in December 1785 to marry him. This despite the legal prohibitions of the 1689 Bill of Rights (marriage to a Roman Catholic would exclude George from the succession) and the Royal Marriage Act of 1772 (requiring the King's consent to the marriage of his heir).

Three different clergy were approached to undertake the ceremony to be held in secret. The third parson, who agreed to carry out the ceremony, was the Rev. Robert Burt. He had been appointed one of the Prince's chaplains in about June 1784.

The marriage took place in Mrs Fitzherbert's Park Street house on 15 December 1784.

Rumours that Burt was a penniless parson who was taken out of a debtor's prison for the purpose of the wedding has no basis in truth. Burt came from a prosperous West Indies family and had been educated at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar school in Kingston and Trinity College Cambridge.

Although rumours of the secret marriage leaked out, the Prince and Mrs Fitzherbert remained together until 1794, when his extravagence and his vast debts (he had already been bailed out once by his father the King) became pressing. To please his father and get relief from his creditors it was necessary for him to marry a protestant princess (under the pretence that a marriage had not taken place).

Refuge in Marble Hill

George abruptly broke off his relations with Mrs Fittzherbert and she retreated to Margate. Then, in April 1795, she took refuge in Marble Hill, Twickenham as a tenant of Miss Henrietta Hotham, Lady Suffolk's great niece. From its windows she saw the Prince riding restlessly to and fro near the house on the eve of his wedding to Princess Caroline of Brunswick, apparantly uneasy at the step he was taking.

The following October she moved on to Ealing.

Reunion and final parting

From 1799 until 1807,the Prince and Mrs Fitzherbert again lived together in Brighton, the marriage with Princess Caroline of Brunswick having proved a disaster. But George again separated from Maria in 1809, this time for good.

For the rest of her life Maria Fitzherbert lived mainly in Brighton much respected by society and other members of the Royal family. She died on 27th March 1837.

Rev Robert Burt

As for Robert Burt he had been Vicar at West Drayton and Harmondsworth back in 1779, before moving to be Vicar of Ketteringham, Norfolk. He then moved to take charge of two parishes in Kent, of which he had purchased the gift.

In 1786 he married Sarah Gascoyne. In 1788, Robert Burt was offered and accepted the Parish of Twickenham, of which the Dean and Canons of Windsor were patrons. He died in Twickenham and was buried in the Holly Road cemetery in October 1791, aged 35.

Further reading

R S Cobbett, Memorials of Twickenham, 1872
D H Simpson, Maria Fitzherbert and Robert Burt, Vicar of Twickenham, Borough of Twickenham Local History Society paper No28, 1974
Geraldine Simpson, Mrs Fitzherbery - The Uncrowned Queen, 1971
W H Wilkins, Mrs Fitzherbert and George IV, 1908

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