Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The King and the actress

Mrs Jordan was one of the best known actresses of her day but her fame increased greatly when she became the lover of Prince William, Duke of Clarence...third son of King George III
(portrait by Hoppner via Wiki Commons)

For twenty years the woman overseeing the celebrations of a royal duke who marked his birthday on August 21st was an actress, among the best known of her day.  At the time that Dorothea Bland, better known as Mrs Jordan, was arranging parties and plonk the man in question was a prince of the realm with little or no chance of being king.  But soon after they separated, his prospects changed entirely.  Dorothea's former lover went on to be King William IV.  

Whether Mrs Jordan was cruelly treated by the popular King Billy is still a matter of speculation.  The fact that the duke, who loved to spend money and accumulated debts on a regular basis, relied on his lover for financial support for part of their time together but then cut off the cash he promised her after their spilt when she tried to resume her career to help one of her daughters doesn't look good for William.  But on the other hand, the couple had been very happy for twenty years before going their separate ways and the duke had shown kindness to the four children that his actress girlfriend brought with her to their relationship.  As with all partnerships that last for a couple of decades, the only people who can really know are those who were involved.

William IV, fourth son of George III, spent twenty years of his life in a relationship with Dorothea Bland but left her in 1811. He is seen here in a portrait in later life by Sir David Wilkie
(via Wiki Commons)

Despite being known to history as Mrs Jordan, Dorothea Bland was never married.  She was born in County Waterford in Ireland in November 1761 to a stagehand and his lover, Grace, who had been an actress.  Her early life was relatively poor and low key and became more impoverished when Francis Bland left his family and only sporadically sent them money.  Grace thought that Dorothea would make a good actress and she ended up going to work in her early teens to help feed her family. 

She got good reviews for her comic performances but in 1781 her career almost faltered when she became pregnant by her married boss.  Dorothea Bland, at the age of twenty, now had another mouth to feed - her baby daughter, Frances Daly, whose father was the manager of the Theatre Royal in Cork.  She left for England and went on the stage under the name Mrs Jordan - Mrs implied marriage which gave an air of respectability to a woman with a child.  Jordan symbolized her crossing a body of water (in this case the Irish Sea) to her new life in a new country.  And whatever magic the name was meant to give, it worked.  The good reviews rolled in as did the parts and Mrs Jordan became a popular figure on the London stage.  Jane Austen mentioned her as one of her favourite actresses and again, her strong performances in comedy roles helped her build a successful career.

But professional success hid personal unhappiness.  Dorothea did what many actresses had done before and took lovers.  One of her great romances was with fellow actor George Inchbald who she left for a well to do lawyer.  Some argue it was because George wouldn't marry her but there's o doubt that her new partner, Sir Richard Ford, was a better bet with a more stable income and a higher rank in society.  They had three children but again, Dorothea was left waiting for a wedding.

But for the first time in he life, being left on the shelf by her lovers did Mrs Jordan a favour.  In 1791 she met William, Duke of Clarence and soon the legal eagle was history.  Dorothea went into her relationship with the prince knowing that there would be no wedding.  He was third in line to the throne and the Royal Marriage Act meant that he needed the king's permission to marry.  Dorothea and William knew that George III would never sanction a wedding between them and settled down to live together instead.  They had three children together before the king conveniently made number three son ranger of Bushy Park - a job that came with a rather nice mini mansion attached - and that's where the couple set up home and had another seven children.

Bushy House in Bushy Park in south west London, the home that William IV shared with Dorothea Bland for the best part of twenty years
(via Wiki Commons)

The FitzClarence family was, by all accounts, a happy one and the children grew up in comfort - in part, thanks to their mother.  For while William received a generous allowance from parliament as the son of the king, he spent it faster than he got it and his debts were legendary. To help keep the family going, and to keep parliament happy, he needed to bring in money of his own and so Dorothea went back on the stage from time to time to pay the debts and bills.  Billy seemed quite happy about that and her semi regular appearances on the stage became a solid money spinner for the duke and his unofficial duchess.

A cartoon about the relationship between Dorothea Jordan and the future William IV. Despite public ridicule, Dorothea was hardly the archetypal kept woman, working throughout her relationship with the Duke of Clarence to help pay his bills

But when their youngest child, Amelia, was just four the relationship splintered and fell apart.  Mrs Jordan blamed her partner's worries over money on the arguments and division that led to their separation.  There was talk of William pursuing heiresses to marry around 1811 as his debts became an even greater concern and parliament became even more concerned about the amount of money the royal family was taking and demanding on an annual basis.  By then the succession was semi-secure - William's oldest brother, George, had married and had a daughter but his relationship was over before it had really begun and he and his wife didn't even live in the same country, let alone share a bed.  The next brother in line to the throne, Frederick, had also married but he and his wife, Frederica, had all but hated one another from the word go and they, too, were separated.  William, after twenty years with his actress, was still close enough to the throne to perhaps one day inherit it.  Other historians see his split with Dorothea as the beginning of his path towards marriage as he began to realize that the future of the Hanoverian dynasty might rest on his shoulders.

William IV on his coronation day - he became king in 1830, almost twenty years after leaving Mrs \Jordan
(photo via Wiki Commons)

Dorothea was given custody of their five daughters.  Sophia was 15, Mary was 13 and Elizabeth was aged 11.  Little Amelia's nearest sister in age was Augusta who was eight when their parents split up. Their brothers went into the custody of their father.  Eighteen year old George had little to do with his mother after his parents' separation but the other boys retained some degree of contact.  Henry, 17 at the time, only outlived Dorothea by a year.  His younger brothers were Frederick (who was aged 12 in 1811), Adolphus (9) and Augustus who at the age of six was parted from his mother.  All, except Henry and Adolphus, went on to marry.

George FitzClarence, later Earl of Munster, the eldest child of Dorothea Bland and William IV
(picture via Wiki Commons)

Dorothea was granted a Georgian form of maintenance for herself and her daughters with one condition.  She was never to take to the stage again.  Despite the fact that her acting had helped pay William's debts, he barred her from resuming her profession if she was to keep her separation settlement intact.  But in 1814, the husband of one of her daughters from her previous relationships got into debt and to help, Dorothea did what she knew best.  She pulled on her costume and went to work.  The teenager who had trod the boards in Dublin to pay for her family's food had turned into one of the best known women in Britain whose children had a king and queen as grandparents but when things got tough she did what she had always done and went out to work.  William was furious.  She lost her money and her daughters and fled to France where she died in poverty in 1816.

William IV, the Sailor King, was a popular monarch whose life had been shaped by Dorothea 

William became king but his two legitimate daughters died very young and the throne passed to his niece, Victoria.  But in the end one of his shared descendants with Dorothea did take power in England.  Their daughter, Elizabeth, is the direct ancestress of David Cameron who became Prime Minister in May 2010.  The woman who hosted the birthday parties that everyone wanted to go to on August 21st in the early 19th century but who was punished for being a working woman made it to the top in the end.

Photo credits: Wiki Commons

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