On a 1784 ramble in the park, a 21-year-old Prince of Wales sighted a 27-year-old Maria Anne Smythe Weld Fitzherbert riding in her carriage. The prince was immediately infatuated and initiated a pursuit of Fitzherbert, which in the coming years would rock the monarchy and supply ample fodder for newspaper printers and caricaturists alike.
The daughter of Royalist Roman Catholic parents, Fitzherbert (1756–1837) had already been twice widowed by the age of 24. When she arrived on the London scene in March 1784, she immediately drew the attention of the city's elite bachelors—among them
the future George IV of England. Fitzherbert was unmoved by the ardent pursuit of the prince. In desperation he stabbed himself, prompting her to flee to the Continent. He pursued her there and successfully pressed his case. In December 1785 the couple signed a letter of marriage in a secret ceremony in the bride's drawing room. The prince then shocked the royal family and the public by beginning to treat Fitzherbert as his wife, violating protocol by not seeking the king's permission and possibly forfeiting his crown, as specified in the Act of Settlement, by marrying a Roman Catholic.
Caricaturists soon joined the fray, and James Gillray's “Wife & No Wife” appeared on 27 March. In addition to depicting a cartoonish prince and his bride, Gillray drew in Lord Frederick North asleep in the guise of a coachman and Edmund Burke marrying the couple in the robes of a Jesuit. Charles James Fox is shown giving away the bride, holding her wrist as the prince places a ring on her finger. Fox became deeply embroiled in the “Fitzherbert follies” in April 1787 when he announced in the House of Commons, after a false assurance by the prince, that no marriage ceremony had ever taken place. Fitzherbert remained at court living openly with the prince even after his marriage to Caroline of Brunswick in 1795, only retiring to Brighton after a final falling-out with the prince in 1803 (Shane Leslie, Mrs. Fitzherbert: A Life Chiefly from Unpublished Sources
, London, 1939, p. 1, 3, 12, 15, 16–17, 19–20, 64; Mary Dorothy George, Catalogue of the Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum
, 11 vols. in 12, London, 1938, 6:293; Stanley Ayling, George the Third
, N.Y., 1972, p. 317, 341;