Queen of Tides

Mrs Fitzherbert’s Grand Tour

Maria Fitzherbert, Royal Collection
Maria Fitzherbert, Royal Collection

As you may have guessed, the drab way in which Maria Fitzherbert is often presented by history has become one of my bugbears. While I’m sure she would have loved the tragic, sainted image that has survived her, it is not strictly true. Don’t get me wrong – she was a good woman. But she was a woman of her time, and a lot more fun than many people realise. She certainly wasn’t a prude.

My novel about Maria and George (working title A Forbidden Crown) starts with her escape to the Continent in a bid to make the Prince of Wales forget about her. Or, as she termed it, ‘throwing cold water’ on him. Traditionally, this has been seen as a journey of quiet reflection for Maria. Yet when you look at the facts, she had an awful lot of fun. There are many episodes from her travels that I would have loved to write about in my novel, but since I make it a rule only to include scenes that push the plot on or reveal more about the character, they didn’t make the final cut. So, I thought I would tell you a little more on my blog about the wanderings of Mrs Fitzherbert.

First of all, let us talk about her traveling companions. For a lady so concern with her reputation, Maria was intimate with some lively characters. Her closest friend, Lady Anne Lindsay, was not considered spotless. Her engagements had all sizzled out – one, because her fiance would not give up his mistress and illegitimate children. There had even been rumours about Lady Anne’s own relationship with the Prince of Wales. Lady Anne’s sister, Lady Margaret Fordyce, was an abandoned wife whose husband had gone bankfrupt in 1774 and fled the country. Along with these two interesting ladies, Maria also had male travelling companions. Her brother brother Jack and her country squire brother-in-law, Basil Fitzherbert were both with her on separate stages of her journey. So from the start, it was clear that Maria did not intend to spend lonely days in total seclusion.

Lady Anne
Lady Anne

While Maria disliked traveling, especially over the sea, she made sure that she did it in style. Sailing in her own packet, she took her carriage and all her servants. There is even some evidence that she helped smuggle a debtor out of England on her packet by disguising him as one of her household. Once on the Continent, she started off with a visit to the convent at Dunkirk where she had been schooled and gave all the old nuns a feast. She then moved onto Spa with its casinos and balls.

What interests me is that Maria did not seek to conceal herself from notice or shun all connection with royalty. In fact, she positively courted notice from the European monarchs ad Stadtholders. She visited the Haig, where she was received cordially by Willem V and formed a friendship his daughter Louise – somewhat awkward, since the Haig were half in hopes that Louise herself would make a match with the Prince of Wales. Maria made such an impression that Willem V loaned her his  royal barge to take the next step of her journey.

Princess Louise
Princess Louise

When the travelling party made it to France, they went wild for every bit of royal paraphanlia. They saw the crown jewels, the death masks of kings and the coronation robes of Louis XVI. Lady Anne had great fun trying out Louis XV’s bed, before they visited the coffin of that same monarch. They called on the Duc de Chartres at the Palais Royal and met Madame du Barry before moving on to the famous palace of Versailles. Their visit attracted such interest from the French royals that Marie Antoinette sent her own hairdresser to prepare Maria’s long golden locks. Powdered and poufed, Maria and her companions went to the grand couvert to watch the royal family eat in public, where they spent most of the meal peering through their quizzing glasses at her. Lady Anne ‘saw she was gratified.’ On the final part of her travels in Switzerland, Maria spent a good deal of time with the prince’s paternal uncle and aunt, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. These do not strike me as the actions of a woman who wanted to hide from the prince’s attentions and had no ambition – whatever she might profess. I think, deep down, Maria longed for the life she was seeing played out in European courts, but she could not decide how to obtain it legally and without damaging her conscience.

While I believe Maria truly loved the prince, there is no doubt that she enjoyed a bit of flirtation in his absence. To modern eyes, Maria does not look particularly striking. Her large face and aquiline nose would be mocked in cartoons over the coming years. But there is no doubt she had an irresistible charm and was considered an attractive woman in her day. Lady Anne’s travel journal reads like a list of men who fell in love with ‘the Fitz’. Captain Conway was smitten at Spa. When they toured a hospital for the mentally ill, a young surgeon ‘was making love to Mrs F… begging to know when he might wait on her.’ She  had to pay off a man she had once flirted with in Florence years ago, to avoid him revealing her letters to the world. Her departure from the Haig was hastened when the attentions of Prince Heinrich Reuss XIII became too pressing. Most impressive of all, when she visited Plombiere, Maria received an offer of marriage from Marquis de Bellois.

Prince Heinrich
Prince Heinrich

I don’t mean to down-play the awkward and distressing position Maria found herself in when the prince fell in love with her. She was certainly very unhappy and homesick toward the end of her journey, when she was in Switzerland with only her brother Jack, having spent well over a year separated from her home, family and friends. Such extensive travel in the eighteenth century was full of inconvenience. She must have felt truly exiled towards the end. Indeed, it was the prolonged indecision and life in virtual stasis that wore upon her, prompting her to capitulate: ‘I feel so worn out… the length of time it has gone on, and the continual prey it has been on my spirits makes me sometimes think that nothing can happen to make me more thoroughly wretched than I am.’ But I hope this post has shown that Maria’s escape to the Continent wasn’t one long journey of misery, reflection and preparation to become a semi Princess of Wales. Like any other young woman of time, she was trying to enjoy her life in the pursuit of pleasure. And I think we can see, from her visits to court and flirtation with young men, that this was a woman who, all along, secretly wanted to accept the prince long before she actually did.

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“A Catholic Whore”

Maria

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.

Newgate in Flames

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.

"What's a fellow to do about these darned Catholics?"
“What’s a fellow to do about these darned Catholics?”

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.

 

Brighton

I’m very lucky to be within reach of many places featured in my novels. Only recently I found out that Henrietta Howard spent time living at Blickling Hall and Audley End – both places I visited and enjoyed without even knowing! In preparation for A Forbidden Crown, Brighton was a key place to visit. It’s a very different place now to the resort that Maria, Caroline and Charlotte knew, but somehow just being there helped me to get a feel for their lives. Of course, the building at the centre of my research was that famous “monstrosity”: The Royal Pavilion.

In A Forbidden Crown, the Pavilion serves as a symbol for Maria’s relationship with George IV. It goes from being a simple farmhouse to an elegant Marine Pavilion under her watch. But by the time it becomes an exotic, sprawling folly, both the building and the Prince have grown far past her recognition. In fiction, I’m taking the view that most contemporaries shared: it was over-the-top and gaudy. But I must admit, on a personal level, that I rather like it!

You have to use your imagination as you walk through the small remnant of the gardens, towards the towering domes. A busy road and a pavement would not be running right alongside – there was a drive and a little wilderness before you reached the Steine. There probably wouldn’t have been so many tall buildings blocking your view of the sea. The modern-day care-takers of the Pavilion have given you a wonderful feel of what the gardens may have been like: bright flowers, palm trees and exotic plants, all taken from contemporary accounts. A lovely place to walk on a sunny day – but, as I was there in November and the wind was pretty high, we hurried inside.

Of all my heroines, only Princess Charlotte would have experienced the interior of the Pavilion in its current state. She rather dreaded visits to her father and, as luck would have it, the building works with me to create an unsettling atmosphere. In A Forbidden Crown, Charlotte will walk down the corridors, uneasy to see the dark faces of the Chinese figures watching her with sharp, wooden eyes. The roaring dragons and snakes entwining themselves round the furniture will make her think she is walking into a monster’s lair. She will feel, as I could not, the suffocating heat of the air, which her father tinged with the smell of burning incense and spices to give it an oriental flavour. Indeed, many ladies were frightened by the decoration, refusing to sit under the dragon chandelier. In the dark, it looked like the dragons really were breathing flames of fire, rather than supporting candles.

For me, of course, the place was far from frightening. Most rooms spoke of splendour and elegant parties. I understood that, if the place looked incredible to me, it must have been truly extraordinary for the lucky ladies and gentlemen of the period who got an invite. The painted bamboo and palm-trees were as close as many visitors would get to seeing the real things in their natural habitat. The Banqueting Room and the Music Room were works of art. In fact, George loved the decor of the music room so much that he wept when he first saw it. My audio-guide said the carpet was so thick and luxurious that people would sink into it. Whole teams of servants would have to scour the palace after each party, to clean off the melted wax and wine stains on the wall. Apparently, stale bread was good for cleaning walls and tea-leaves for cleaning carpets. Both the party and the clean-up operations must have been some sight!

There were also rooms with a simple kind of elegance – the type I imagine Maria approving of and Caroline hiding in during her first and only stay in Brighton.  Both of these ladies would have experienced a smaller and more restrained Pavilion, clad in glazed Hampshire tiles. The main room would have been the current saloon, which is undergoing work to return it to Regency glory. I lingered here a while, trying to absorb the feel of it. This was a room in which Maria would have stood, many a time. A room in which she was probably happy.  It would have had a plain, neo-classical look back then, when she laughed at the hi-jinks of her Prince and his companions. Going off either side would be rooms where she played cards, acted as hostess – and at last, was humiliated by George’s mistresses. I made a little trip to Maria’s house, close by, which is now a YMCA. I felt there the more calming, elegant influence she would have exuded over the Pavilion. Some say there is an underground tunnel from it to the Pavilion – I rather like that idea, but I think Maria would feel it beneath her dignity to be sneaking around underground like a rat in a sewer. Near Maria’s house, there is a hotel where William and Adelaide stayed on some visits. It was wonderful to picture them all, on their holidays by the sea, swarming around the hub of the Prince’s fantasy playground.

The main purpose of my visit was to see the exhibition on Princess Charlotte – “The Forgotten Princess”. It was smaller than I imagined, but I’m glad I saw it. Not only did I finally find the Maria Cosway painting of Caroline and Charlotte leaning against Britannia that I had read so much about, I saw some items that were, to a historical novelist, a bit like relics. Firstly, Charlotte’s baby shift. I could just see her chubby little arms filling up the sleeves, her constantly working legs kicking out beneath. Caroline would have hugged her daughter close, marvelling over the tiny cuffs and detailed stitching. She would probably have felt, at that time, that her daughter was the only thing she had to connect to in all of England. Perhaps she would also have experienced a stab of annoyance that she had not been able to order the baby clothes herself – it would have all been Queen Charlotte’s doing.

There was another baby shift on display, more poignant. The warm, squirming body that was to give it a purpose never breathed. It was part of the clothing set ordered for Charlotte and Leopold’s baby boy. He was stillborn. I remember reading that Charlotte ordered the baby clothes with great care, enjoying choosing patterns and materials. But when they arrived, she didn’t want to look at them. Fear of the birth, or perhaps a premonition of her own dark fate, had sapped her enjoyment from them. She folded the baby clothes and put them away. Did her hands fold the delicate, wispy material of that shift? I like to think so.

Lastly, la pièce de résistance: Charlotte’s wedding dress. They think the dress in its current form is the original wedding gown and three other court costumes cobbled together,  but the tampering didn’t really bother me. What bowled me over was the proportions of it. I’ve seen many paintings of Charlotte – the high, ample bosom, the short but pleasantly plump figure. I have to say, they were spot on. Suddenly she was there before me – about my height, pleasingly rounded. I could see her, adjusting her hair in the mirror, trying to calm her fluttering stomach. Whether the gown was entirely original or not, it was very beautiful. If only the happiness it promised could have lasted a little longer for poor old Charlotte.

If you are reading or writing about the Regency period, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to the Pavilion. The Charlotte exhibition is on until the end of March 2013 so you have a few more months to catch it. It’s sad that we no longer have Carlton House to marvel at or Charlotte’s prison, Warwick House. At Brighton Pavilion, at least,  we can get a taste of George’s extraordinary decorations, and a feel for the royals who are now long gone.

George IV and Henry VIII – BFF?

I went to great pains in my previous post, Less Henry, More George, to convince you the Hanoverians were at least as interesting (if not more interesting!) than the Tudors. Yet the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to see similarities between my two favourite periods.

As you may have seen from my Tweets, I’m deep in research for my next book, “A Forbidden Crown”, which revolves around Maria Fitzherbert and Caroline of Brunswick. I’m currently pouring over accounts of Caroline’s famous trial for adultery. In their political excesses, George’s enemies compared his behaviour throughout the whole with that of  Henry VIII.  My first response was to laugh at their exaggeration. But then I thought long and hard about the lives of these two monarchs… They have more in common than  you might think!

Both started life as remarkably handsome young men. Just look at the pictures at the top of the post! Henry was renowned for his jousting ability, athletic good looks and success with the ladies. As for young George, he was dubbed “the first gentleman in Europe”. He had it all: wit, brains and wealth. Is it any wonder they both thought so highly of themselves?

Each, in their way, was a mother’s darling. Henry was perhaps spoilt more by his grandmother, but he retained a great fondness for his mum Elizabeth of York too throughout life. Historians argue about George’s relationship with his mother, Queen Charlotte. It was tempestuous at times, but all the evidence suggests that she doted on him. She might not have been brave enough to take his part with the King on all occasions, but she spoilt him when she could. And although George III and Queen Charlotte prescribed a “plain” upbringing for their children, it was only simple in comparison to previous monarchies. I’ve seen George IV’s baby clothes and toys and there’s nothing plain about them!

Considering this, it’s interesting to examine Henry and George’s first marriages.  Both favoured an older woman, an almost maternal figure.  They also chose brides who raised religious issues and were not approved of by their families. Catherine of Aragon was Henry’s widowed sister-in-law, so the marriage required a Papal dispensation. This match was looked on unfavourably by Henry’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. George also married a widow, Maria Fitzherbert, who was a Catholic in a Protestant country. Needless to say, his parents failed to endorse the match.

Both these remarkable women, Catherine and Maria, had the knack of keeping their boisterous husbands in check. It was when the Kings strayed from their safe, mothering  first wives that life became rather more complicated for them…

We all know the story of how Henry fell head over heels for Anne Boleyn, tore the country apart for her, but ended up executing his once beloved wife. But few people realise the impact George’s marriage to Caroline, and his attempted divorce from her, had upon the country.

To marry Caroline, George had cast aside his first wife, Maria. But sources indicate the separation was mutual – or pushed more by Maria – so we must not see her as a Catherine of Aragon pining away. In fact, it was probably a lucky escape for Maria. If the marriage was proven, George could have been removed from the throne and Maria executed.

George’s choice of second bride had none of the romance of Henry and Anne – he had never met Caroline when he proposed to her. But all the same, he pursued the idea of marrying her with a frenzy that reminded me of the besotted Tudor. He redecorated apartments for her and imagined many perfections she did not have. He pushed for the marriage to happen sooner than it possibly could. And when he met her – well, the fallout was highly reminiscent of Henry with Anne of Cleves. George’s account of the wedding night echoes Henry’s criticisms of Anne – he points out her stench, her flabby body and suspects she is not a virgin.

Sadly, both Anne and Caroline were doomed to displease their husbands, and became loads that needed dumping.  It is when I read the accounts of George’s desperation to get rid of Caroline that I think most of Henry. He was frantic, he did not eat, he did not sleep. He was obsessed with clearing his wife right out of his life. He wanted, more than anything, to try her for High Treason – the penalty being death.

It is possible Caroline committed adultery many times, but fortunately for her, the only instance with anything like proof occurred on the Continent. This lessened her offence and she could not be sentenced to death. As matters stood, the matrimonial fracas threatened to rip the country apart, with Caroline being used as a figurehead for radicals and the disenfranchised, so it would have been extremely unwise to execute her even if the law allowed it. But the main point that stands out to me is this: George would have executed a wife if he could. With less restraints on his power, could he have been another Henry?

The role of the monarchy had altered by the time George came to the throne – he couldn’t reek bloody revenge on the people who protested against him.  He was thwarted by parliaments in both his public and private life. His temper tantrums were less terrifying than Henry’s because he had less power. Admittedly, George frequently burst into tears instead of bellowing, but this needs to be seen in the context of the era. It was fashionable for men to cry – it showed a superior sensibility. I always considered Henry a popular monarch and George an unpopular one, but I’m not sure this is fair. After all, there were the northern uprisings and the Pilgrimage of Grace. If the Tudor people had the same freedom of speech and press as the Georgians, would they have hissed at their King and gathered round his wronged Queens, like with Caroline? We will never know.

From love of women, we move onto love of food. These guys were big eaters. It’s common knowledge Henry was immensely fat in his old age, but did you know George was actually heavier than the Tudor monarch when he died? Both turned to food for comfort and refuge from their shattered love lives and ailing bodies. It makes me sad to see them, aged, as in the caricatures at the bottom of this post. Actually, the picture of George is not from old age – he took care that all the portraits of him, even in advanced years, were flattering –  but it suggests what he would have looked like as an overweight dandy. It’s hard to believe, but even as old, fat men, both George and Henry were sexually incontinent. All their lives, they were vain men, believing themselves irresistible to the opposite sex. The truth was by old age, Henry had a rotting leg and George looked like a pantomime dame, but no one was going to tell them that. Certainly not their many mistresses.

As well as being connoisseurs of the palate, our Kings were great patrons of the arts. Henry was fond of music (possibly composing some songs of his own), he designed palaces and patronised Holbein. As for George – I literally cannot list his collections. No monarch has done more, in my opinion, for the royal collection or the national treasures. Sadly, it was all at the expense of the tax payer…

Of course there are great differences between Henry and George, in their characters as well as the tone of their reigns.  All the same, I hope you have found it interesting and thought provking to see  what their lives look like side by side. I like to think they would have been buddies. At least until Henry tried to have George beheaded for eating the last pie and he burst into tears 😉

Maria – you’ve got to see her!

As some of you may know, I’m currently planning my next novel in the Georgian series, which I’ve been referring to as “Almost Queen”. I’ve come up with a much better title, “A Forbidden Crown” and am shaping my research on Maria Fitzherbert into scenes, a character arc and all that other lovely stuff that comes before writing.

But as I look at my notes, I realise the Maria I know now is very different to the one I saw before I embarked on research. She is feisty, witty and I’ve come to admire her greatly.

Through papers on George III and general Georgian reading, I’d built up a picture of Maria in my head. She seemed dowdy and boring through the Duchess of Devonshire’s eyes – a calming, almost maternal influence on the Prince of Wales. I gathered she must be extremely religious, given that she refused to become the Prince’s mistress and never once talked of converting to the Anglican faith.  I came to see a wronged wife, whose past had already been tinged by tragedy – a Georgian equivalent of Catherine of Aragon.

Needless to say, I was wrong. Firstly, in terms of her physical appearance. Maria’s buxom, pale beauty was much in demand. Her letters show she was adept at turning down suitors, frequently laughing about “the little men” who trailed her. Her natural place was among the bon ton; her uncles were high up in society and she was  much with Lady Sefton, a patroness of the famous Almack’s. Her first two husbands were well to do, leaving her with wealth and all the trappings of fashion. To use a phrase of the day, she cut quite a figure.

Maria certainly was a calming influence on her Prince, but I can find no evidence she had a “boring” personality. She was simply sensible, among a group of people who didn’t know the meaning of the word. She took part in many of the Prince’s wild parties and found it amusing when Barrymore rode his horse up the steps of her house as a prank. But unlike the rest of them, she knew where to stop. And she knew how to make the Prince stop, most of the time. This wasn’t through gentle cooing and sweet words, although they may have played a part. No; Maria chiefly turned the Prince round to her way of thinking with a show of her famous “temper”. She verbally whipped that bad boy into shape.

She was far from being bowled over by Prinny and his glamour. She had his number from the start. She repeatedly told him how ridiculous he was, and tried to cut him in society when his attentions got too marked. He enforced an engagement on her by vowing to kill himself – but even then she was the sensible lady, getting witnesses to sign a document and prove her promise was given under duress, before fleeing to the Continent. As the Prince continued to bombard her with schemes for marriage, she was mistress of herself enough to see the flaws in his plans.  In the end, her love for him won through all her logic. But even then, she retained her wits and vital understanding of her lover – “The Prince, follow me to the Continent?! He will be following some other lady at Brighton.”

So what of Maria’s famous, or rather infamous, Catholicism? Although Maria was religious and came to find great comfort in the Catholic church in her old age, she was no zealot. She had no intention to convert others round to her way of thinking, or to raise the children she adopted in the Catholic faith. So why didn’t she just convert to the Church of England? It would have made her life easier, not to mention Prinny’s. Although their marriage would still have been illegal if she was Anglican, it would have been much less dangerous. Remaining Catholic meant his claim to the throne was at risk – and she, in turn, by preventing the heir from inheriting the throne, put her life on the line.  I’ve come to see that for Maria, being Catholic was part of her identity. She had grown up in a world of smuggled priests, a secret church community and pride in her staunch Catholic bloodlines.   It was who she was born to be, and Maria would never compromise that. In fact, she would never compromise anything that would injure her own self-respect.

I think this is the main reason I have come to love Maria: she demands respect. She would not have Prinny cheating on her, she would not be a mistress, she would not give up her identity. She did not entrap a wayward boy into a marriage; she simply had savvy enough to protect herself and her good name.  I can find no evidence that she intended to force her way onto the throne, but she expected to be treated by society as the Princess of Wales. It was her due. For what it’s worth, I believe she would have made an excellent Queen, if the law had permitted it.

As you can see, she’s going to be a fascinating character to write. But she has to be written, as well as marketed, properly. I see many books out there proclaiming her the “secret” wife of George IV. Well, if she was, it was the most open secret in history. Even George III and Queen Charlotte knew about her. The marriage was known, but not proven (although Maria had the evidence to prove it if she wished) – hence George IV’s ability to marry again and become King.

Another common tactic is to set her up as a rival Queen to Caroline, who will be the second heroine of “A Forbidden Crown”. Again, this is wrong – they both directed their fury at the common enemy, George. Caroline actually liked Mrs Fitzherbert and wished the Prince would go back to her.

Then, of course, the “wronged wife” tagline. Perhaps Maria was a little wronged, but the break with George was mainly her own doing – she had simply had enough. Even when she went back to him, she made it clear she would not share his bed. He’d forfeited that right for good.

I hope to challenge the idea that Maria was simply swept up in hopeless love with the Prince of Wales. I want to show her as an intelligent, mature woman who knew what she was doing. Prinny was not her only love – she had adored both her other husbands, particularly Mr Fitzherbert. She had been burnt before, but she never wallowed. She kept pressing on, getting “the better of herself.” I can only try to inspire others to give her, in retrospect, the respect she both demanded and deserves.

Prinny: such a pity

George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, Prince Regent and King of England, has never been a popular figure. He is not even one of those “Marmite” Kings that people either love or hate. I have yet to hear someone say: “That George IV, he was great.” But is our longstanding mockery and contempt for this monarch entirely fair?

Let me tell you about my own experience with “Prinny”. Many years ago, I discovered a passion for Jane Austen which, combined with my love for the TV series Sharpe and Hornblower, sparked my interest in the late 18th/early 19th century. Having devoured all Austen’s novels and juvenilia, I moved onto her letters to her sister Cassandra, which is where I came across the Prince Regent for the first time.

Jane was evidently not a fan. When discussing the marital fracas between the Prince and Caroline of Brunswick, she writes: “I will stand by her, poor woman – first, because she is a woman and secondly, because I hate her husband” (this is from memory – forgive me Austenites if it is slightly off). Like a loyal fan, I let my opinion be swayed by Jane’s. I read the history with a bias against Prinny. And yet… Even towards the end of Austen’s letters, I found myself wavering. The Prince professed himself a great fan of her work and invited her to dedicate the novel Emma to him. Could a man who read – and loved- Austen novels be all bad?

My feelings were further complicated by research for my novel about Prinny’s mother, Queen Charlotte.  Although she rarely had the courage to stand up for him openly, Charlotte adored her eldest son. She was proud of his precocious wit, which showed itself from an early age, and I found many amusing examples of her secret championing of her first baby ( my favourite has to be her sneaking him into a commissioned portrait against the King’s knowledge). To write from the viewpoint of a woman who so loved the Prince, I had to start considering him in a different light.

There were many examples of his goodness before me. To his six sisters, he was something of a fairy godfather; showering them with presents and intervening with the Queen on their behalf. His sister Amelia declared he was the only one in the family who knew what feelings were – a statement that surprised me, given his almost heartless conduct during the King’s great illness of 1788-89. But when I considered further, I recalled there were extenuating circumstances. The Prince could hardly be expected to dote on a father whose treatment of him would try the patience of a saint. Indeed, many historians blame Prinny’s character flaws on the harsh upbringing and unrealistic expectations placed upon him. And was it really unusual that a young man, with the prospect of power dangled above his head, was tempted? I found I could almost forgive him.

But sadly, we can’t just see the Prince as a victim. He has to be one of the most complex characters I have ever come across.  I am now undertaking research and planning for a novel about his two wives, Maria Fitzherbert and Caroline of Brunswick, and find all my original dislike returning.  George’s vanity, melodramatics and extravagance come bounding out of every source, and the overblown style of his letters is tedious. I find I can’t blame him for his aversion to Caroline, and the initial split with Maria seems to be more her fault than his – but all the same, his conduct throughout the whole is childish. Perhaps it is lucky I feel this abhorrence, for both his wives feel it too at some point in my story. But I must also write the early part: the tale of the young Prince Maria fell in love with.

The more I plan and dwell on these chapters, the more the sadness of the situation overwhelms me. Here was a tender-hearted, clever young man, once called the first Prince in Europe. Through harsh training, bad friends and his own follies, he ended up as an obsese and laughable figure who few mourned. His daughter, Charlotte, had promised to be the best of him, but her tragic early death only sent him further into depression  and sickness. His eating increased yet again, and he died fatter than Henry VIII.

Contemporary sources suggest the Prince’s mind was “poisoned” by those around him. I am particularly looking forward to reading Charlotte Frost’s book on Sir William Knighton, who was accused of this. Prinny was certainly easy to influence, but it would be naive to blame his serious flaws and weaknesses upon others. I’m afraid to say that many of his troubles were simply his own stupid fault.

I can only hope that, whatever the truth, we can all find it in our hearts to pity George IV just a little – if only in gratitude for the fine art he added to our national collection and the improvements he made to our royal palaces.  So here’s to a man often ridiculed, but perhaps never truly understood – in his own age or ours.