During the so-called "Delicate Investigation," Caroline, Princess of Wales, was asked if she had ever committed adultery after she had come to England and married George, Prince of Wales. She replied that indeed she had, but only with the husband of Mrs. Fitzherbert. In today’s article, Cheryl Bolen provides the salient details of the curious relationship between the Prince Regent and his pair of wives.
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Before England’s King George IV became prince regent (a title more identifiable with him than his eventual monarchy) at age 48 in 1811, he had taken two wives — and neither of the marriages were ever dissolved and neither woman ever truly shared his reign.
How can he have legally had two wives? He didn’t. One of his wives was illegal. As a young man of 21, he fell madly in love with Maria Fitzherbert, a wealthy and beautiful widow six years his senior. The fact that she was a Catholic was not the only obstacle in their path of matrimonial harmony. There was also the Royal Marriage Act prohibiting any member of the royal family from marrying without the king’s permission. As an act of Parliament, the Royal Marriage Act superceded any law of church; to violate it would be a crime.
For over a year the Prince of Wales courted Mrs. Fitzherbert and even resorted to a botched suicide attempt to gain her hand. Eventually she relented, and in 1785 they were secretly wed by an Anglican minister and fancied themselves married. But cognizant of the criminal act they had committed, the two never publicly acknowledged the marriage, nor did they ever live in the same residence. The prince was willing to let his brother Freddie (the Duke of York) sire children who would be heirs to the throne, and he planned to do away with the Royal Marriage Act when he became king.
Troubles precipitated by Mrs. Fitzherbert’s hot temper, the prince’s wandering eye, and — most of all — his vast debts sent the marriage into the skids less than a decade later. Prinny had decided to take Brunswick’s Princess Caroline for his wife, an action that would increase his annual income and clear his exorbitant debts.
Though he had never met Caroline, the prince married her in 1795. He took such an instant dislike to her slovenly appearance he had to get himself excessively drunk in order to beget a child on her (Princess Charlotte, who died in childbirth in 1817). With that duty dispatched, he turned his back on his true wife, and they lived apart for the remainder of their lives.
Five years after his "legal" marriage, the prince persuaded Mrs. Fitzherbert to return to him. They stayed affectionate for almost a decade, parting ways because of his infidelity the year before he became regent.
Caroline died shortly after his coronation as King George IV, but he never remarried, and when he died ten years later in 1830 he wore about his neck a miniature portrait of Mrs. Fitzherbert.
© 2005 – 2012 Cheryl Bolen
This article was first published in The Regency Reader, October 2005.
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.