Thame Local History
Maria Fitzherbert, wife of King George IV

Maria Fitzherbert
Maria Fitzherbert

(The sources for the following article are not as yet verifiable, and so it is not presented here as fact. Specifically, the connections with Thame Park must be treated as speculation. Any comments on what it says, or any evidence to back it up or challenge it, would be greatly appreciated.)

Born in 1756, Maria Fitzherbert, born Maria Smythe, was a devout Roman Catholic. By the age of 23, she had already had two husbands, both of whom had died. Her second husband gave her the name Fitzherbert, and also a handsome income after his death. She began to lead an independent life in fashionable London society in 1784. It was not long before the young Prince of Wales, Prince George, son of King George III, then aged 21, met and became utterly infatuated with her.

As a devout Roman Catholic, Maria refused to become Prince George's mistress. But as heir to the throne, the prince could not marry a Roman Catholic and retain his right to become king. Despite such an obvious obstacle, the Prince did marry Maria, but in secret. It is said that the wedding ceremony took place inside Fleet Prison on Dec 15th 1785, conducted by an Anglican curate who was sworn to absolute secrecy. It is also said that the Prince persuaded Maria to marry him through threat of suicide. The newly-weds subsequently became known as a couple in London and Brighton society, although their marriage was known to only a select few.

The Prince of Wales incurred heavy debts, through his extravagant lifestyle, and Parliament eventually paid off his debts on the condition that he settled down with the right sort of wife, persuaded that Maria was merely his mistress. A marriage was contracted with Princess Caroline of Brunswick, and took place in 1795. The marriage was not bigamous, as the first marriage was not legal according to the laws of England, however valid it may have been in the eyes of the Church. Nor was it a successful marriage; the prince detested Caroline, cruelly describing her as "the vilest wretch this world was ever cursed with".

Nonetheless, the marriage to Caroline made Maria too dangerous to have around, and those in the know had to act to remove her from public life. In or around 1795, the year of the Prince's marriage to Caroline, Thame Park was home to Philip, seventh Viscount Wenman and his wife Lady Eleanor, daughter of the third Earl of Abingdon and through her mother a devout Roman Catholic. Eleanor's faith was supported, though not shared, by her husband and several Roman Catholic priests were resident at Thame Park, some of them prominent Roman Catholic Churchmen. Maria took solace in her faith, in the face of royal banishment, and either through her connections with the priesthood or with the Wenmans or the Berties, she found refuge at Thame Park. She began living at Thame Park, as a guest of Lady Eleanor Wenman, in the 1790's and is believed to have stayed for several years.

The marriage between the Prince and Caroline lasted only as long as it took for a child to be born, and this was as short a time as it could be, nine months. Princess Charlotte was born in 1796. Her parents began to lead totally separate lives, and the Prince's thoughts returned to the woman about whom he said [she] 'is my wife in the eyes of God and who is and ever will be such in mine". It is said that he threatened suicide again, if Maria Fitzherbert would not return to him. Now in religious retreat at Thame Park, Maria consulted the Pope, who wrote to her advising that her marriage was legal in the eyes of God. She returned to Prince George and left Thame Park, moving it seems back to Brighton.

The Roman Catholic enclave at Thame Park came to an end in 1799, and Philip Viscount Wenman died in 1800. It is not known whether Maria had left by then. But that was not the end of the royal family's connections with Thame Park. In 1800, the Wenman estate was inherited by a ten year old girl, Sophia Elizabeth Wykeham, who took up residence at Thame Park. In her early years of maturity, Sophia attracted the attentions of Prince George's younger brother William, and a strong bond of affection developed betwen them. Who knows, perhaps William had originally visited Thame Park on his brother's behalf during the time of Maria Fitzherbert?

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