Maria Fitzherbert at 27, was twice married and widowed before she met George, Prince of Wales, then aged 22, in 1784. He became quickly besotted with her but as a deeply religious person and a Roman Catholic, she resisted his attentions at first. It was impossible for them to be married because of her religion (the Act of Settlement made it impossible for the heir to marry a Catholic) and because he needed permission from his father to marry (the Marriage Act). One night he sent two of his friends and a surgeon, Mr Keate, to fetch Mrs Fitzherbert to Carlton House in London, where they said the Prince lay dying, having stabbed himself in despair over his love for Maria. Mrs Fitzherbert agreed to visit him, but took the Duchess of Devonshire to accompany her. They found the Prince lying on a sofa covered in blood and crying that nothing would persuade him to live unless she agreed to marry him. Maria consented, but convinced she had been tricked, decided to leave for France where she knew the Prince could not follow her. He wrote impassioned letters begging her return, even offering to renounce his throne.
Early in December she returned to England and they were secretly married a few days later on the 15th, 1785, at a ceremony conducted in her house in Park Street, London.
That summer, the pair arrived separately in Brighton to honeymoon, but rumours about their marriage were rife. Remaining together until 1794, it became necessary for the Prince to marry Caroline of Brunswick, a Protestant Princess, partly to keep his father happy who helped relieve him of his extravagant debts and to gain relief from his creditors.
From 1799-1801 the Prince and Maria were re-united, living together in Brighton where Mrs Fitzherbert had her own establishment on the Steine. They finally parted for good in 1809; Maria continuing to live mainly in Brighton much respected by society and members of the Royal family. She died 27th March 1837.
The Prince never forgot what Maria had meant to him, and had her portrait round his neck when he died.
In Lydia Bennet's Story, the Prince and Mrs Fitzherbert arrive to enjoy all the pleasurable pursuits of the season. Although Lydia does not really move in the same circles, a surprising event gives her an opportunity to meet the illustrious pair!
Maria Fitzherbert's house on the Steine