The clandestine marriages of George III’s brothers…and the Royal Marriage Act of 1772

Anne, Duchess of Cumberland, Thomas Gainsborough – Royal Collection Object 400945

In 1772 it was forbidden that any descendent of King George II aged under 25 years should marry without the express consent of the monarch. Any one over that age was required to provide a year’s notice of their intentions to the Privy Council in writing- then they had to keep their fingers cross that the Houses of Lords and Commons had no objection. Failure to comply made any marriage null and void. The 1772 Act was replaced in 2011 with the Perth Agreement which means that only the first six people in line to the throne need to get the monarch’s permission for a marriage.

The reasons behind the act were very straight forward – the royal family was being brought into disrepute George III’s brother married beneath him. Henry Duke of Cumberland married Anne Horton née Lutterall on 2 October 1771. She was the daughter of an MP and more importantly a commoner. Henry told his brother in November that he was married and was banished as a direct consequence.

It wasn’t the first time that Henry had managed to get himself tangled up with a woman – in 1769 there were rumours that he married Olivia Wilmot and fathered a daughter named after her mother. Olivia junior later married John Thomas Serres and took to styling herself Princess Olive of Cumberland- although that was nothing compared to the scandal of a court case that took place a hundred years after the event. Cumberland was also sued by Lord Grosvenor for adultery and had to pay £10, 000 damages.

As though that wasn’t bad enough once George, who was a devoted husband and father of 15 children, made his act law, another of his brothers, William the Duke of Gloucester had to own up that he had been clandestinely married for six years to Maria, the dowager Countess of Waldegrave. She was the illegitimate daughter of Sir Edward Walpole. George had already heard rumours of the liaison but didn’t know that the pair had been married in secret by Maria’s chaplain. He’d sent William on a series of diplomatic missions to try and break up the romance. What forced William to tell his brother was the fact that Maria became pregnant. Their daughter Sophia was born at the end of May 1773 just a short while after the Privy Council held up the validity of the secret marriage. The couple had two more children including a second daughter who died during infancy. I’d like to tell you that despite all the angst that the couple lived happily ever after – sadly William, a true Hanoverian, began an affair with one of his wife’s ladies in waiting and had an illegitimate daughter – Maria was not amused but found herself living in a household alongside with her husband’s mistress.

Olivia Wilmot -Princess Olive of Cumberland’s daughter married John Serres, a marine painter to George III – the marriage not successful: she took many lovers, he kept her short of cash and they got themselves into debt. Eventually the pair divorced. Olive wrote to the Prince Regent (who had his own brush with the 1772 Marriage Act when he married the Catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert in a secret and illegal ceremony rendering the marriage null and void under the terms of the 1772 act.) Olive initially claimed that she was the natural daughter of the Duke of Cumberland. The story underwent a revision three years later in 1820 when she became the daughter of a Polish princess who was legally married to the duke despite the fact that she never came to England! By 1844 Olive’s daughter Lavinia Ryves was trying to extract cash from George III’s will and in 1866 the case went to court. She presented three sets of documents which were confiscated at the end of the case and which can now be viewed in the National Archives at Kew having been deemed forgeries.

Lavinia’s barrister also made the claim that George IV ought not to have been king and that Queen Victoria should not be queen because George III was actually married to Hannah Lightfoot rather than Queen Caroline. The story had been brewing for a very long time. Which was pretty impressive given that there was only one whisper of scandal in a private letter during George III’s life – Walpole described the monarch as ‘chaste’ unlike his grandfather and great grandfather or even his sons.

Ashdown-Hill, John, Royal Marriage Secrets: Consorts and Concubines, Bigamists and Bastards,_1885-1900/Serres,_Olivia