Walpole, Maria (1736–1807)

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Walpole, Maria (1736–1807)

Countess of Waldegrave and duchess of Gloucester . Name variations: Maria, Lady Waldegrave; Maria, Dowager Countess of Waldegrave; Maria of Waldegrave; Maria Gloucester. Born Maria Walpole on July 10, 1736 (some sources cite 1735), at St. James's Palace, Westminster, London, England; died on August 22, 1807, at Oxford Lodge, Brompton, Middlesex, England; buried at St. George's Chapel, Windsor, Berkshire, England; illegitimate daughter of Sir Edward Walpole (elder brother of Horace Walpole) and Dorothy Clement (a milliner's apprentice); married James, 2nd earl of Waldegrave, on May 15, 1759 (died 1763); married William Henry Hanover (1743–1805), 1st duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh (brother of George III, king of England), on September 6, 1766; children: (first marriage) Anne Horatio Waldegrave (1759–1801, who married Lord Hugh Seymour); Elizabeth Laura, countess of Waldegrave (1760–1816, who married George, 4th earl of Waldegrave); Charlotte Maria Waldegrave (1761–1808, who married George Henry, duke of Grafton); (second marriage) Sophia Matilda (1773–1844); Caroline Augusta Mary (1774–1775); William Frederick (1776–1834), duke of Edinburgh and Gloucester. William Henry Hanover also had a daughter with Lady Almeria Carpenter : Louisa Maria (1762–1835, who married Godfrey Bosville, 3rd baron of Slate).

Maria Walpole was one of five children born to Edward Walpole (son of the great British minister Robert Walpole) and his mistress Dorothy Clement , a shopgirl. When her mother died in 1739, Maria and her siblings were moved to their father's estate near Egham, where they were brought up like other aristocratic children despite their illegitimate birth. As a child, Maria became very attached to her uncle, the celebrated diarist Horace Walpole, who claimed her as his favorite niece because of her intelligence, ambition, and beauty.

In 1759, Horace Walpole arranged a marriage for Maria with his friend, James, earl Waldegrave. Waldegrave was twice her age, wealthy, and a respected politician in Parliament. He held numerous important posts in the British government, including Lord of the Treasury and tutor to the prince of Wales. Maria's surviving correspondence and her uncle's memoirs show that she consented to the arrangement readily; it was a better marriage than she could have hoped for, given her illegitimacy. They were married on May 15, 1759; a week later, Maria was presented at court to the king, George II.

Maria had three daughters with Waldegrave: Anne Horatio Waldegrave (1759–1801, who married Lord Hugh Seymour); Elizabeth Laura , countess of Waldegrave (1760–1816, who married George, 4th earl of Waldegrave); and Charlotte Maria Waldegrave (1761–1808, who married George Henry, duke of Grafton). They became a close couple over the course of their marriage despite their age difference. Maria and the earl worked together on the earl's memoirs; much of the original manuscript is in her handwriting. Then, in 1763, her husband contracted smallpox and, despite Maria's dedicated nursing, died some weeks later. He made his 26-year-old wife the executor of his will, which provided well for her family's support. Maria was also left in control of the earl's copious correspondence, memoirs, and other papers, many of which were eventually published and provide insight into the daily politics of 18th-century England.

The young, wealthy widow found herself the target of numerous aristocratic suitors. Maria surprised London society by refusing all offers of marriage, until it was learned that she was spending much of her time in the company of King George III's younger brother, William Henry, eight years her junior and duke of Gloucester. Her family became deeply concerned for her reputation. The duke, next in line to the throne, could not possibly marry her, it was thought, because of her illegitimate birth; the king would never approve of William's marriage to a commoner. But Maria refused to heed her family's warnings to break it off, and was seen constantly in public with the duke for several years. She even traveled across Europe with him in 1771, and took quarters at his palace of Hampton Court. The king, fearful that William Henry would indeed marry Lady Waldegrave, issued the Royal Marriage Act of 1772, stipulating that no member of the royal family could marry without the consent of the crown. William Henry had promised his brother he would never marry Maria Walpole; he even censured his other brother, Henry, duke of Cumberland, for marrying Ann Horton . Royalty did not marry subjects.

But in 1772 Maria finally confessed to her father that she had indeed already married the duke, in a private ceremony in 1766. She explained that she had not told anyone because she feared for her honor, that of her late husband, and that of her own family. Sir Edward revealed Maria's secret to others, and soon their marriage was open knowledge across English society. On September 13, 1772, King George received a letter from William Henry: "I am grieved much at finding myself obliged to acquaint Your Majesty with a thing which must be so disagreeable to you, but I think the world being so much acquainted with my marriage, whilst Your Majesty is still supposed to be ignorant of it, is neither decent nor right." The letter was well timed; Maria Walpole was pregnant.

The duke of Gloucester's furtive nuptials hurt the king deeply. The brothers, who had been confidants, now became estranged for years. "He must be displeased," wrote Maria Walpole to a friend, "but his behaviour has been such upon the occasion that we have all the reason in the world to be grateful to him." Pariahs among the royalty, the two dukes and their wives were taken up by the royal opposition. Wrote Lady Louisa Stuart : "Never were princesses so reverenced and Royal Highnessed by patriots."

Despite her letter, Maria Walpole had nothing but antipathy for the king and his queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz . Lady Elizabeth Luttrell called her a female roué, who governed her family with a high hand "and led the way in ridiculing the King and Queen…. A mighty scope for satire was afforded by the Queen's wide mouth and occasionally imperfect English, as well as by the King's trick of saying What! what!"

The king, outraged by his brother's behavior, said he could never forgive him, and forbade them, and anyone who associated with them, from coming to court. He could not undo the marriage, however, and permitted it to be legally validated by Parliament before the birth of Maria and William's first child, Sophia Matilda , in May 1773. A second daughter Caroline Augusta Mary followed in June 1774, but died the following year.

Banned from court, the duke and duchess established a small court of their own at Gloucester House in London, although few nobles visited out of fear of the king's anger. The couple was deeply in debt; Maria's inheritance from Waldegrave provided mostly for his children, now living with their great-uncle Horace Walpole. The duke's requests for an increased allowance from the king were rejected. Despite these hardships, Maria and William Henry traveled in Italy and France from 1775 to 1777, hoping to improve the duke's always frail health. In Rome, Maria gave birth to her last child and only son, William.

The ducal couple returned to England in 1777 when they believed the duke to be dying. He recovered, and by 1784 they were back in Italy again for another three-year stay. Except for their children, they believed there was little in England for them; banned from court, despised and avoided by the aristocracy, alienated from much of their families, they had little reason to remain there.

By 1787, however, Maria's 20-year relationship with William Henry was deteriorating. They had grown apart, and the duke had begun an open affair with one of Maria's ladies-inwaiting. On their return to England, the duke wrote to the king that Maria could remain in his house only if she agreed to limit her visits with their children. Clearly he was attempting to reconcile with George III by distancing himself from the marriage which had proven to be so disadvantageous. But Maria did remain at Gloucester House, refusing to reveal to the outside world the collapse of the marriage for which she had risked her own and her family's honor.

A loving mother, she was compelled to agree to the duke's demands in order to continue to see Sophia and little William. Maria maintained close relationships with all five of her surviving children, corresponding with them frequently even during her years abroad. Her married daughters from her first marriage—known as "the three Ladies Waldegrave"—visited their mother often after 1787, co-hosting her many parties. She also kept up a lively and frank correspondence with her uncle Horace Walpole, who served as a friend and advisor until his death in 1797.

The duke and duchess seem to have reconciled somewhat after 1787; they were on friendly terms, but they were never again as close as they had been. In 1805, the duke of Gloucester died at age 62. His 70-year-old widow moved to Gloucester Lodge, a new house in Brompton, with her youngest daughter. She divided her days between her many charities and her children and grandchildren. Maria also turned to religion in her last years, developing a close friendship with the renowned religious writer Hannah More . In August 1807, Maria Walpole suddenly became ill and died a few days later at age 72. She was buried after an elaborate funeral in the same tomb in Windsor Castle as the duke of Gloucester.


Biddulph, Violet. The Three Ladies Waldegrave and Their Mother. London: Peter Davies, 1938.

Clark, J.C.D., ed. The Memoirs and Speeches of James, 2nd Earl Waldegrave, 1742–1763. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Walpole, Maria (1736–1807)

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