GEORGE III AND THE FAIR QUAKER:
ROMANTIC LEGEND OR BIGAMY?
Born 4 June 1738, George was the eldest son of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. Upon his father’s premature death in 1751, he became heir to the throne, succeeding his grandfather, George II, in 1760. Although best remembered for losing the American colonies and his later bouts of madness, he was, setting aside these periods of illness, the best ruler of the four Georges.
The third of the Hanoverian monarchs, he was the first one born in England, and to speak English as his first language. Desiring to distance himself from his unpopular German predecessors, who were perceived as caring more for Hanover than for Britain, George III proclaimed in his accession speech to Parliament,
“Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain”
Taking after his father Frederick, George was also a great patron of the arts and sciences. One of the most cultured of monarchs, he founded the Royal Academy of Arts, and started a royal library, which he opened to scholars, and later donated 65,000 of his books to the British Museum as the foundation of a national library.
He was the first king to study the sciences, demonstrating a particular interest in astronomy. (A portion of his collection of scientific instruments are displayed in the National Science Museum.) He also took a very keen interest in agriculture, and was often referred to as ‘Farmer George’.
Surprisingly, considering he was the most physically attractive of the Hanoverian monarchs, George, unlike his forbearers did not keep a mistress. He was an extremely morally upright, God-fearing, and conscientious king, regarded by many as almost puritanical in his conduct. Upon his marriage to the German-born Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, George III proved a devoted husband and father to their 15 children.
But what the history books left out is the stuff of romantic legend:
The facts begin with a very pretty Quaker girl named Hannah Lightfoot , the daughter of a shoemaker and niece of a linen draper.
The historical record of her life is limited to the date and place of birth, her arranged marriage to a man named Isaac Axford, her excommunication from the Society of Friends (Quakers) for marriage outside of her faith to someone listed as unknown.
She is also known to have mysteriously disappeared almost immediately after her marriage to Axford , after having left a note to her mother.
Then there are the rumors, and authorative accounts from members of her family:
Hannah Lightfoot’s marriage to Axford was brought about through the machinations of the Princess Dowager (George’s mother) and the Government Ministers (Lord Bute and William Pitt seems to have been conspirators) to save the prince from entanglement with the fair quaker.
Upon her marriage to Axford, she was mysteriously spirited away by emissaries of the prince, either at the church door, or six weeks later, and for five years, the prince refused to marry, even at his mother’s and minister’s insistence.
Hannah and the prince were believed to have later legally married and lived together at Peckham, or Knightsbridge, or Kew.
She bore him several sons and daughters, and upon her death, Hannah was buried at Islington under another name. One son of hers by George III , was created Sir Samuel Parks by an Act of Parliament. Another son, named George Rex was sent to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa where he became a substantial landowner.
After hearing the rumors of Hannah Lightfoot, Queen Charlotte became so convinced of the illegality of her own marriage, that she insisted on being re-married to the king upon Hannah’s death.
Now, the legend:
Hannah was by many accounts a lovely, girl with a fair, unsullied face, (unmarked by small pox):
“With her dainty little head running over with golden curls, large blue yes dancing with merriment or mischief, dimpled cheeks with a bloom as delicate as any peach, and a petite figure as graceful as that of a sylph..”
She and her mother lived with her uncle, Henry Wheeler, above his draper’s shop on the corner of St. James’ Market, between Charles and Jermyn Streets, abutting Market Lane, a narrow street running out of Pall Mall at the back of the Opera House, to which the Royal family would frequently pass by chair.
Hannah would frequently gaze at the procession through her window and one day caught the eye of the young Prince of Wales who was at that time between fifteen and sixteen years old. Upon seeing her again, the Prince confided in Miss Elizabeth Chudleigh, who in the spirit of intrigue for which she was known, concerted an interview with the young lady, from which subsequent meetings followed at the house of Mr. Perryn of Knightsbridge, Miss Lightfoot’s uncle.
When George’s mother got wind of the affair, she consulted Lord Bute, the Prince’s chief minister, who arranged a marriage by offering a substantial dowry to a friend of Hannah’s family by the name of Axford.
It was agreed by the couple that she should consent to the match but with plans of eloping with her royal over on the wedding day. The vows were spoken and upon exiting the church door, she was spirited away by a coach and four.Axford pursued on horseback but was unable to catch the coach for having to pay the road tolls that the Royal vehicle could legally bypass.
Hannah’s husband and family never heard from her again. It is believed by many that George married her in 1759, with his brother the Duke of York as witness, and that he maintained the connection with Hannah for several years into his marriage with Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz. The two were supposed to have kept house at Tottenham where existed a private carriage road called the Prince’s Approach.
“The youth of George III was starred with a strange romance. The full truth of the story of Hannah Lightfoot will probably never be known. What is known is sufficiently romantic without the aid of legend.” History of the Four George and William IV, by Justin Macarthy and Justin Huntley Macarthy.
Memoirs of the life and reign of King George the Third, Volume 1, by John Heneage Jesse
The fair Quaker: Hannah Lightfoot, and her relations with George III, By Mary Lucy Pendered
The Aristocracy of England
Secret History, House of Brusnwick
Public and Private Life of His late Majesty, George III by Huish