MRS MARIA FITZHERBERT 1754 - 1823
Born into a Catholic family in 1756 Maria Smythe was married at eighteen, and widowed at nineteen. Married again at 22 to Mr. Fitzherbert she was again widowed a year later. She was pretty, although inclined to be stout and with a pronounced nose, but she had received a handsome jointure of £1000 a year after the death of her husband and was persuaded to take up the fashionable life in London in 1784.
But here she took the fancy of the dashing, handsome and extravagant Prince of Wales - then only 21 years old. The Prince fell deeply in love with her, but as a devout Catholic she declined to become his mistress, fleeing to the continent to avoid his amorous attentions, holding out for wedlock. Desperately infatuated the Prince of Wales seriously considered a marriage but since Maria was a Catholic and a commoner this would have meant his giving up his right as the eldest son to succeed his father as King of England. However the princes was so infatuated that he contemplated even this step (he would still have inherited he Electorate of Hanover) but the demands of the Royal Marriages Act would have made even that impossible since any marriage would not have been legal without the consent of the King, George III. Impasse ! With Maria still holding out for a wedding ring he desperately arranged a marriage to her which was carried out by a curate inside the Fleet prison on 15th December 1785 - under the condition that the ceremony remained for ever a close secret.
Over the years their relationship eventually waned, not helped when, in order that Parliament should pay his debts (around £250,000) the Prince married the Princess Caroline of Brunswick before he became the Prince Regent, but in the early years they were accepted as a couple in Brighton and London, entertaining and receiving together during The Season. The Prince gave Maria a villa at 54 The Steine, an adopted niece who lived with her was thought to be the Prince’s child. Later mistresses came, stayed a while and then went, but Mrs Fitzherbert - as she was always called - remained his first love and on the prince’s death as King George 1Vth in 1823 aged sixty one he was found to have a miniature of his long ago love around his neck. Maria kept her words and said nothing about the secret marriage all those years before; she remained in Brighton dying in 1837. A memorial to her can be seen in St. John the Baptist Church in St. James’ Road, Brighton with a tablet outside. Her house in the Steine was sold in 1884 to the YMCA who continue to use it.