20 March 2020

Putting Mrs Fitzherbert
back in the picture and on
the Comberford family tree

A miniature portrait of Maria Fitzherbert … on sale at auction at Matthews Auction Rooms in Kells this weekend

Patrick Comerford

A miniature portrait of the ‘Infamous Mrs Fitzherbert’ is among the 1,100 lots for auction this weekend (21 and 22 March 2020) at Matthews Auction Rooms in Kells, Co Meath.

The auctioneers describe Mrs Fitzherbert as a ‘member, through previous marriage, of the Meath landowning Fitzherbert family.’ They go on to say, ‘she was a beauty of her age and the wife of King George IV, [to] whom she bore two children.’

The portrait was most probably painted by the noted portraitist Sir Richard Cosway (1742-1821), a near contemporary of the Irish miniaturist John Comerford (1773-1832). It is framed in its original velvet-lined case with inscription detailing her three marriages, it is listed as lot 562 in the auction with an estimate of €500 to €800.

The auction includes the contents of several cleared houses, and there are suggestions it may have come from the Fitzherbert family in Co Meath, a junior branch of Fitzherbert family that now holds the title of Lord Stafford.

Maria Anne Fitzherbert (1756-1837) was a twice-widowed Roman Catholic who secretly contracted a marriage with King George IV that was invalid under English civil law. They were married in 1785 when he was Prince of Wales, but the marriage had not received the consent of his father, George III, although her nephew-in-law from her first marriage, Cardinal Weld, had persuaded Pope Pius VII to declare the marriage sacramentally valid.

Maria Fitzherbert was the eldest child of Walter Smythe of Brambridge, Hampshire, and a granddaughter of Sir John Smythe of Acton Burnell, Shropshire. Her first husband, Edward Weld, was 16 years her senior and died just three months after their marriage in 1775.

Her second husband was Thomas Fitzherbert (1746-1781) of Swynnerton, Staffordshire. They married in 1778, and she was widowed again on 7 May 1781.

The Comberford and Fitzherbert families are descended from Ralph Fitzherbert of Norbury (died 1483), Lord of the Manor of Norbury, Derbyshire, and father-in-law of Thomas Comberford

But, however this portrait may have come into the possession of a branch of the Fitzherbert family in Co Meath, they were not descended from Mrs Fitzherbert, and any Fitzherbert living in Co Meath at the time of her secret marriage to the future king could only have been a fifth cousin, or at most a fourth cousin of her second husband, Thomas Fitzherbert.

Indeed, over the course of history, the descent of the Fitzherbert name in the Co Meath family is difficult to follow at times, and the name passes through branches of the Ruxton, Rothwell and Corry families, who changed their name at different names to Fitzherbert.

It is said that the family in Co Meath is descended from William Fitzherbert, a son of William Fitzherbert of Swynnerton, Staffordshire, who settled at Shercock, Co Cavan. This branch of the family had acquired Black Castle, near Navan, Co Meath, by 1722. William Fitzherbert left the Black Castle estate to his sister, Letitia, who married John Ruxton of Ardee, Co Louth. When John Ruxton died in 1785, the Fitzherbert estates were divided between his two younger sons, with John getting Black Castle and Samuel getting Swinnerton, near Navan, Co Meath, with the proviso that they changed their name to Fitzherbert.

John Ruxton Fitzherbert of Black Castle married Margaret Edgeworth in 1770. She was a sister of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817), a member of the Lunar Society who once lived at Stowe House, Lichfield, and who give his name to Edgeworthstown, Co Longford; his daughter was the novelist Maria Edgeworth, a regular visitor to Black Castle.

John Ruxton Fitzherbert died in 1825 at 80 and was succeeded by his son, Richard Ruxton, who took the additional surname Fitzherbert and also inherited the estates of his uncle, Samuel.

Richard Ruxton Fitzherbert and his Elizabeth Selina Staples had no children. They adopted Thomas Rothwell, a grandson of his aunt Mary (Ruxton) Corry of Shantonagh, Co Monaghan.

Thomas Rothwell married Frances Vesey in 1838 and eventually assumed the Fitzherbert name in 1863. They are the ancestors of the Fitzherbert families of Swynnerton and Blackcastle, near Navan, Co Meath. Bertram (‘Bertie’) Fitzherbert (1871-1939) managed Emo Court for the fifth and sixth Earls of Portarlington for 30 years.

There were many interesting connections between the Comerford and Comberford families and the Fitzherbert family in Staffordshire too. The supposed Comberford ancestor of my branch of the family was Judge Richard Comberford (ca 1512-post 1547), a brother of Canon Henry Comberford (ca 1499-1586), Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral.

They were the sons of Thomas Comberford (1472-1532) of Comberford, who had been admitted to membership of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist in Lichfield in 1495, a year or two before he married his second wife, Dorothy Fitzherbert, daughter of Ralph Fitzherbert of Norbury, near Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

This means Richard Comberford was a nephew of Thomas Fitzherbert, Precentor of Lichfield, William Fitzherbert, Chancellor of Lichfield and Sir Anthony Fitzherbert, ancestor of Maria Fitzherbert’s second husband and of the Irish Fitzherberts, and Richard Comberford was also a first cousin of William Fitzherbert, MP for Lichfield in 1553.

The Comberford and Fitzherbert families continued to be related through interconnecting marriages in the following centuries with the Babington, Brooke, Gifford and Austen families.

Stowe House ... home in the 1770s to Richard Edgeworth when his sister married Margaret John Ruxton Fitzherbert (Photograph: Patrick Comerford / Lichfield Gazette)

Another branch of the Fitzherbert family lived at Tissington, near Ashbourne in Derbyshire. William Fitzherbert (1712-1772) of Tissington was MP for Derby. But Samuel Johnson says sadly of him:

There was no sparkle, no brilliancy in Fitzherbert; but I never knew a man who was so generally acceptable. He made everybody quite easy, overpowered nobody by the superiority of his talents, made no man think worse of himself by being his rival, seemed always to listen, did not oblige you to hear much from him, and did not oppose what you said. Everybody liked him; but he had no friend, as I understand the word, nobody with whom he exchanged intimate thoughts.

He, in turn, was a cousin of Hill Boothby, who managed his household. It was in this role that she got to know Samuel Johnson in 1753. Hill Boothby was a descendant of William and Hill Boothby, who owned the Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth, once owned by the Comberford family.

The Lichfield poet Anna Seward calls her ‘the sublimated methodistic Hill Boothby who read her Bible in Hebrew.’

Hill Boothby’s nephew, Sir Brooke Boothby, was a linguist, translator, poet and friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was part of the intellectual and literary circle in Lichfield that included Anna Seward, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Erasmus Darwin and of the Lunar Society. In 1803, he bought the 16th century Herkenrode stained glass for Lichfield Cathedral. But as a result of this extravagance he met economic disaster and he died in exile in Boulogne.

The Fitzherberts of Tissington were also ancestors of the Fitzherbert Wright family who built Swanwick in Derbyshire, the venue later this year for the annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Swanwick, the venue for this year’s USPG conference, was built by the Fitzherbert Wright family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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