On 15 December 1785, the Prince of Wales — the future George IV — secretly married the love of his life, the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert, in the drawing room of her Park Street townhouse in Mayfair. The only two witnesses were her brother and uncle, the service being conducted by the Reverend Robert Burt, whose release from Fleet Prison was orchestrated by the Prince of Wales so that he could marry the pair. No other chaplain would dare marry the couple, for fear of committing an act of treason.
George and Maria had met at the opera a year earlier, and although she took some winning over, in his case it seems to have been love at first sight. The trouble was that Maria was both Roman Catholic and lacking a drop of royal blood. ‘There were at least three acts of parliament that forbade a marriage such as theirs,’ says portrait miniatures specialist Jo Langston. One of the most striking tokens of their affection was offered in the The Exceptional Sale at Christie’s in London on 6 July 2017.
The token in question is a gold locket, set with 24 rose-cut diamonds. It contains a tiny portrait of George and boasts another larger, completely transparent diamond — known as a portrait diamond — as its cover. It was probably commissioned by the Prince of Wales, as part of a ‘his-and-hers’ pair, from London jewellers and silversmiths Rundell, Bridge & Rundell in about 1800. The corresponding locket contained a picture of Maria, and George cherished it so dearly that he was wearing it on his deathbed 30 years later. The portraits in both were by Richard Cosway, his official miniature painter.
‘Miniature portraits by Cosway were common gifts from George IV to those close to him,’ explains the specialist. ‘He commissioned around 50 in total, 11 of those either for or of Maria.’ By far the most opulent were this diamond-laden portrait of himself, which has remained in Fitzherbert’s family ever since, and the counterpart portrait of her, which he wore himself.
At the time the lockets would have been exchanged, the Prince of Wales was married to someone else: his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. He had been pressured to marry Caroline in an effort to secure an heir and legitimate successor for the House of Hanover. After initial reluctance, the Prince of Wales, who led an extravagant existence, was ultimately swayed by Parliament’s promise to write off his vast debts of around £600,000 — tens of million of pounds in today’s terms — if he did so.
‘It was a joyless marriage to Caroline,’ Langston explains. ‘Maria Fitzherbert was the love of his life.’ Indeed, his reaction to setting eyes on Caroline for the first time, on their wedding day in 1795, had hardly boded well, George reportedly exclaiming, ‘I’m not well. Pray, get me a glass of brandy.’
George IV’s will of 1796 specified that he was to be buried wearing a portrait miniature of Maria Fitzherbert, whom he described as ‘my wife, the wife of my heart and soul’
Husband and wife soon separated, and the Prince — reunited with Maria — spent a number of happy years with her in the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.
As Prince Regent — a role he assumed in 1811 due to his father George III’s descent into madness — however, George became increasingly interested in other women. Maria, in turn, devoted more and more time to bringing up Minney Seymour, the orphan daughter of two friends of hers, whom she adopted.
The Prince Regent became King George IV in 1820 and ruled for 10 years. George IV’s will of 1796 specified that he was to be buried wearing a portrait miniature of Maria Fitzherbert, whom he described as ‘my wife, the wife of my heart and soul’. On the King’s death, the Duke of Wellington (the King’s executor) witnessed a portrait miniature set with diamonds around his neck.
Some years later, when dining with Minney Seymour, the Duke identified the pendant as the pair to the one he had seen around the late King’s neck, which had been buried with him at Windsor Castle. Minney subsequently told her mother the Duke’s story and ‘large tears fell from Maria’s eyes’.
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‘It is highly likely,’ says the specialist, ‘that the pendant identified by the Duke of Wellington on that occasion is the diamond-set example that we see before us today.’