You’ve got to feel sorry for Maria Fitzherbert. Despite her efforts to live a respectful life and protect her all-important public image, she came in for a large amount of bashing from the press. Why, you might ask, were the artists so keen to mock in caricature a woman who encouraged the Prince of Wales to drink less and retrench to Brighton? And why was her being Catholic so vitally important?
Unfortunately, Maria’s Catholicism wasn’t just a difference of religious belief. If it had been, she and George IV would have coped well. Maria’s beliefs were not the sort she felt she had to preach, or convert others to. She was content to live and let live. The problem was, history had set her – and her “kind” – up as a dangerous enemy to England, and more pertinently, to the crown.
It all started with James II and what we English then termed the “Glorious Revolution”. After fathering two Protestant girls, James married again and became more pronounced in his Catholicism. This led to the English nation deciding to depose him from the throne, and ban his Catholic son from inheriting. (Stuart fans, please forgive this simplistic summary. My Stuart knowledge has a way to go yet!)
Catholicism was, in a nutshell, why the Hanoverians inherited the crown. Their adherence to the Protestant religion was the only thing that marked them apart from various other claimants. Without it, they would be toppled – there were plenty of Catholics with a better blood-claim to the throne. The law became so stringent that it not only barred a Catholic from inheriting the throne, but anyone married to Catholic. It was typical, really, that the contrary George IV should find his only true love in a woman of this religion!
For the Great British public, Catholics were the enemy. Not only were many of the countries they had fought in previous wars Catholic, but there had been blood shed on their own shores in the name of that religion. Violent attempts to get the Stuarts back on the throne in 1715 and 1745 led to massacres such as Culloden. Englishmen loyal to their King and country began to see Catholics as wannabe “kingmakers” and resented the supposed authority of the Pope to depose monarchs. In short, they were branded trouble-makers.
It was hardly true. In 1780, it was actually the Anglicans – or those claiming to be Anglican and looking for an excuse for a fight – who caused the mayhem, when Lord Gordon headed a protest against a bill to grant the Catholics some concessions. This bill was motivated by practicality, rather than religious freedom. The government needed more troops and were keen to recruit Catholic Highlanders. To help them do so, they proposed a few sweeteners: they would grant Catholics the right to buy and inherit land and they would waive the sentence of life imprisonment for being a Catholic bishop or priest, providing the Catholics were willing to take an oath of loyalty that renounced the Stuart claim and said the Pope could not depose sovereigns. Maria’s then-husband, Thomas Fitzherbert, was a strong supporter of the bill. Sadly, the public were not.
Gordon’s rioters, fierce in their blue cockades, tore London apart. They gutted chapels, burnt down the houses of well-known Catholics, set the prisoners free from Newgate and chalked No Popery on doors. In this chaos Thomas Fitzherbert ventured out to check on his property. I have imagined what Maria would feel in my little practice chapter here and hinted at the illness that overtook him shortly after. Some historians actually claim Thomas was killed as a direct result of injuries sustained in the Gordon Riots. This doesn’t seem to be true, but it certainly was the beginning of the end for poor Tom.
In researching Maria, I’ve made some discoveries about the challenges Catholics faced at the time. While I don’t claim to be an expert on this particular topic, here are some interesting tit-bits I’ve found:
- Penal Laws prevented a Catholic from being a Justice of the Peace, Lord Lieutenant or Sheriff. As these offices were usually held by people of high standing in the locally society, it would be a significant snub to Catholic squires.
- Catholics could not become officers in the county militia or take a seat in the house of Lords. They could not get a degree from Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity or Dublin. Rather a blow to the prospects of any young man!
- Catholics could not act as guardians, executors or suitors in any court of law. They could not inherit or purchase property. Talk about injustice!
- They could send their children abroad to be educated in their faith but they had to get a special licence.
- A Catholic could not own arms, ammunition or a horse exceeding the value of £5
- Catholics had to pay special taxes
- Mass was illegal. Maria and her family would have been careful to refer to it as “prayers” or “high prayers”. They would also make sure they referred to the Pope as “our chief Bishop”. Similarly, there was no way they would dare call a priest “Father”. The priest would need to wear non-distinct clothing and be referred to as “Mr.”
- If a Catholic couple wanted to marry, they would need to have an Anglican service. They could have a private Catholic one, but they would then need to have a second, public, Anglican ceremony. Failure to do so could result in a sentence of 14 years transportation! As both the Catholic and the Anglican ceremonies were valid in Catholic teaching, most just opted for the Anglican.
As you can see, life as a Catholic wasn’t easy! It’s no wonder that Maria grew up with such a sense of identity and belonging that was linked to her religion. Her parents had secret masses said in their manor and even set up a house in the village as a secret chapel. They would sneak priests in and allow all the local Catholics to come and hear the contraband service. Her great-grandfather was a baronet (and I believe I read somewhere this was conferred on him by Charles II for his loyalty to the Catholic Charles I) and her second husband Thomas was descended from Throckmorton blood. Those of you familiar with Tudor history may remember Throckmorton’s support of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. One of Maria’s uncles joined a committee to protect the interests of Catholics and appeal for the right to build churches and live in the cities of Westminster and London (yes, Catholics couldn’t even live in the cities of Westminster and London at one point) The religion was in her family, in her blood.
Is it any surprise that Maria refused to cast this heritage aside for the love of a man? She had a great sense of her own self-worth and would never betray who she was. I admire her the more for refusing to give up her history for a chance of glory as the Prince’s wife. It is too often the way with historians to represent Maria as deeply pious – they forget her adhesion to her faith had more to do with identity than theological differences.
As for George IV, his opinions towards Catholicism underwent stupendous changes. At one time quoted as saying Catholicism “was the only religion for a gentleman”, he progressed to wary indifference and finally antagonism. As Regent, he refused to discuss Catholic emancipation, and with good reason. His father, George III, was vehemently against it, and after all, he was only ruling in his father’s name. When the time came for him to rule in his own right as George IV, his feelings altered again. Once he had made the coronation oath, he began to feel the same way as his father: granting the Catholics freedom would be going directly against the vow he had made to uphold the Protestant religion before God. Part of me also feels that, even after all this time, he was still secretly seeking the approval of his deceased parent, which he hardly ever gained in life.
But George IV did finally sign the Catholic Relief Bill in 1829, a year before his death. He was reluctant to let it pass, to say the least. He became violently ill and desperate in trying to stop it – some also suggest this huge upset hastened his death. But George IV knew when he was beaten by public opinion, and took the brave step of signing despite his own feelings. He was able to put his own opinions aside for the good of the nation – a step his proud, stubborn father would never have been able to do. This was a great leap towards religious freedom in Britain and one for which, I’m sure, Maria would have been proud of him.