The following piece is an edited extract from my dissertation about Frances Villiers, 5th Countess of Jersey. In the mid to late 1790s she was the mistress of George, Prince of Wales (King George IV) and has historically been depicted as manipulative and unscrupulous.
In her time, Frances, Lady Jersey was widely suspected of two amorous crimes. The lesser accusation is that she lured the Prince of Wales away from his long-term love, Mrs. Fitzherbert. The more damning is that she persuaded him to marry Caroline of Brunswick, the least suitable Princess in Europe.
Yet the memoirist Nathaniel Wraxall wrote of the Prince that:
His treatment of the Princess his wife completed the ruin of his reputation. That the selection of Caroline of Brunswick for the partner of his bed was a most injudicious act we must admit; but the compassion excited in a generous nation towards a female and a stranger, driven by unworthy proceedings from the shelter of Carlton House, virtually repudiated, exiled to Blackheath, precluded from appearing at St. James’s, and persecuted or accused by her natural protector – these circumstances have almost obliterated any deviations from prudence or decorum which she may have committed, whilst they have conduced to point the public condemnation against the primary author of her misfortunes.[i]
Although Wraxall knew Frances, describing her as a woman of ‘irresistible seduction and fascination’ he omits to mention her when speaking of the marriage as ‘a most injudicious act’. Nor does he hint that Frances ridiculed the Princess, as many of her contemporaries did. [ii] A just man, he appears to believe that neither Frances or anyone else could have forced the Prince – known for his obstinacy – to marry.
Of all people, the first Duke of Wellington appears to be responsible for spreading this rumour. Reminiscing in 1835, fourteen years after her death, he said:
The Dowager Lady Jersey made the marriage simply because she wished to put Mrs. Fitzherbert on the same footing as herself and deprive her of the claim of lawful wife to the Prince.[iii]
The great man was sixty-six and in conversation with one of his youthful female admirers. She noted this in her journal and it is invariably cited as proof of Frances’s cunning.[iv] However, though he was not above embroidering a story for entertainment value, the veracity of this particular statement has never been questioned, and it should be.
It is worth considering where the young Arthur Wesley was in the years between 1793 and 1799 when the Prince and Lady Jersey were conducting their affair. When it first became known, he was twenty-four, living in Ireland and preoccupied with an unsuccessful courtship. He wanted to marry Kitty Pakenham, sister of the Earl of Longford but her family considered him ineligible.[v] He was a younger son who earned a meagre salary as aide-de-camp to Lord Fitzwilliam, the Lord Lieutenant. He was a serious politician who was unlikely to pass on Royal gossip to a junior member of his staff. [vi]
From 1794 to 1795 he was fighting the French in Flanders and in 1796 he sailed to India, where his military career was all consuming. [vii] He did not return to Britain until 1805 and once complained that he received no letters from home for over a year. [viii] Though his remark sounds as authoritative as many of his pronouncements, the Duke was simply repeating hearsay. It was impossible for him to have witnessed the events he spoke of.
The reference to Mrs. Fitzherbert is also misleading. She was never the Prince’s lawful wife, though he had blackmailed her into going through a marriage ceremony in 1785, by threatening to kill himself. [ix] Maria Fitzherbert was a devout Roman Catholic widow who had steadfastly refused to become his mistress. The Prince was desperate to bed her but there are two reasons why the secret wedding was illegal. The 1701 Act of Settlement stated that no member of the Royal family could marry a Catholic and take the throne. The equally binding provisions of the 1771 Royal Marriages Act forbade the Prince from marrying without the King’s consent. It was a hazardous undertaking and when people began to whisper, the Prince pressurised Charles James Fox to issue an outright denial in Parliament. Maria never forgave Fox for this, though he had believed the Prince and when he learnt the truth, felt compromised.[x]
The Prince requested that all his friends treat Maria as his unofficial wife. He would not attend parties unless she was invited. [xi]She and Frances moved in the same circles, and may even have been friendly; the Jerseys were guests of the Prince and Maria at a dinner in Brighton Pavilion in 1789. [xii] The Prince was more than capable of wrecking his relationship without Frances’s collusion; by 1791 – two years before Frances became his mistress – the relationship was failing. One observer said that ‘the tittle-tattle of the town’ that summer was all of ‘the separation of the Prince and Mrs. Fitzherbert. [xiii]
The Prince was incapable of fidelity and though Maria always forgave him, his immense debts became a source of friction between them.[xiv] He paid her allowance as irregularly as he paid his servants; she was once faced with a visit from bailiffs, an experience that would sour the sweetest temper.[xv] Maria was frequently reduced to ‘angry tears’ one courtier recorded, adding that they frequently quarrelled at the dinner table. [xvi] The Prince liked drinking late into the night with the bawdier of his friends, much to Maria’s disapproval. He began to be restless and find the quiet life she preferred too restricting. [xvii]
In other ways, the Prince’s life frustrated him. George III refused to allow him any involvement in matters of state or to serve abroad in the Army or Navy as his brothers did. He begged and pleaded but the most he was allowed to do was dress up in uniforms of his own design to play at soldiery.[xviii] Forced to be idle, he was frequently bored. The constant redesigning of Carlton House and the Pavilion, the orgies of spending on clothes, horses, jewellery, works of art, banquets and brandy were attempts to distract himself from contemplating the aridity of his life. By 1792 he was both tiring of Maria and coming to the conclusion that the only way out of his financial difficulties was to marry someone whom the King could approve of, preferably a German Princess.[xix]
His brother the Duke of York’s income had been raised to £70,000 per annum on his marriage the previous year to Princess Frederica of Prussia. The Prince began to think seriously about following suit, knowing that the Government would not vote for an increase in his allowance any other way. [xx] He took this decision to become spiritually, if not legally, bigamous completely cold-bloodedly, yet the belief that it was Frances Jersey who identified Princess Caroline of Brunswick as a suitable bride persists. The only – rather shaky – evidence of this is a sentence in a letter the Prince wrote to Caroline when she was pressing for Lady Jersey’s dismissal from her position of Lady of the Bedchamber, a year into the marriage. He wrote:
I declared to you on your arrival here [that Lady Jersey was not] my mistress as you indecorously term her, but a friend to whom I am attached by strong ties of habitude, esteem and respect…I then took the opportunity of reminding you that Lady Jersey was one of the oldest acquaintances I had in this country & that the confidence resulting from so long a friendship had enabled her to offer advice which contributed not a little to decide me to marriage. [xxi]
Though much of this letter is dishonest, the Prince does not actually say that Frances suggested that he marry Caroline but that she advised him to marry someone. His debts were hardly a secret and courtiers have a habit of telling royalty exactly what they wish to hear. But the Prince also consulted his father George III. After he had visited him to discuss Caroline, the King wrote to the Prime Minister:
Undoubtedly she is the person who naturally must be most agreeable to me …I expressed my approbation of the idea. [xxii]
Not merely agreeable to his Majesty, but the most agreeable choice. This is astonishing for two reasons. Queen Charlotte had heard rumours that Caroline was a woman of strong passions who indulged in ‘indecent conduct’ but delicacy prevented her from repeating these to the King or the Prince. [xxiii] It is a pity that she was unable to overcome her scruples and demonstrate some maternal concern.
There were also reports that two of Caroline’s brothers were mad and that her own mother thought that Caroline’s behaviour was very eccentric. She once pretended to be in labour when forbidden from attending a ball. [xxiv] These stories had not reached the King – who was her uncle – either.[xxv]
Quite how Frances could have known that the Princess was not a suitable consort if Caroline’s own family did not, is a mystery. Christopher Hibbert wrote of the Prince that:
It seemed almost as though he chose the Brunswick Princess hastily, sulkily and petulantly, as a peevish protest against having to choose any wife at all. [xxvi]
He did not much care whom he married, and it is hard to imagine that Frances did either. She danced, flirted, laughed and seduced her way through life but had no intention of divorcing her much-older husband. He adored her and always forgave her infidelities, as Queen Charlotte wrote after his death:
Lord Jersey was never bad in himself but weak and indulging to a little bewitching wife, which made him appear to some, wanting in sense.[xxvii]
Since even the prudish Queen was conscious of Frances’s charm, her nickname ‘The Enchantress’ is merited. Witty, beautiful and elegant Frances bewitched many men. But it seems that her relationship with the Prince was not merely an exchange of sexual favours for patronage. Writing to a friend of seeing him after an absence of three weeks, she said:
At present I feel giddy with something which I suppose is joy…If you think it likely that I should write a long letter today, you do not know me or my heart…[xxviii]
Clearly, she really was fond of him. In the only letter to the Prince himself that survives she wrote that she and her children missed and regretted him, after a holiday they had shared. [xxix] A mother of nine and grandmother of four when their affair began, she spoke lovingly to him about her children:
Perhaps I should make an apology for talking so much about them, but this is a subject on which I have no modesty. [xxx]
An affectionate note shines through much of her correspondence and she was no more promiscuous than her many of her contemporaries in an age of moral flexibility. History has not been kind to Frances, Countess of Jersey. She may have been sensual and worldly, but she was not a heartless woman.
[i] The Historical and Posthumous Memoirs of Sir Nathaniel Wraxall (ed.) Henry Wheatley Vol V p 374
[ii] Ibid. p 36
[iii] Wellington the Beau: The Life and Loves of the Duke of Wellington: Patrick Delaforce p 185
[v] Wellington: Elizabeth Longford p 27
[vi] Ibid. p 31
[vii] Ibid. p 32
[viii] Delaforce p 19
[ix] Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Amanda Foreman, p 178
[x] George IV Prince of Wales Christopher Hibbert p 67
[xi] Ibid. p 56
[xii] Foreman, p 239
[xiii] Hibbert p 129
[xvi] Hibbert p 128
[xviii] Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Dandy, Ian Kelly p 122
[xix] Hibbert p 135
[xx] Ibid. p 127
[xxi] The Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales Vol III (ed.) A. Aspinall pp 171-172
[xxii] Hibbert, p 135
[xxiii] Ibid. p 134
[xxiv] The Unruly Queen: Flora Fraser p 20
[xxv] Ibid. p 135
[xxvii] Harcourt Papers Vol VI p 80-1
[xxviii] Edward Jerningham & His Friends, (ed.) Lewis Brittany p 244, September 2nd 1796
[xxix] London Metropolitan Archives MSS LMA/ACC/1275/004 24th September 1796
Lisa Eveleigh was published in this year’s UEA Creative Writing MA Anthology: Prose and Non-Fiction