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The forbidden marriage of Lady Augusta Murray

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In the evening of 4 April 1793, preparations were being made for a clandestine ceremony in Rome. The wedding of the son of the King of England to the daughter of the Governor of the Bahamas would not only be concealed, it would also be illegal.

That night His Royal Highness Prince Augustus Frederick was married to Lady Augusta Murray without witnesses. The rector of a small parish in Norfolk read the service in the bride’s lodgings: a striking contrast to the wedding of the groom’s parents, which was celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace on 8 September 1761.

The couple had known each other for only three months but they believed their destiny was entwined. He was Augustus, she was Augusta, and moreover they shared a birthday. They were deeply in love but the consequences of their rash union would be terrible. It was the worst miscalculation of the Prince’s life, but while eventually he found redemption, Augusta’s destiny was changed beyond anything she could imagine. From an eighteenth-century socialite she became a nineteenth-century reject.

Their wedding nearly did not take place. The previous night both the Prince and Augusta had considered suicide. All evening she had waited for her lover but he did not appear. Instead the Reverend William Gunn, the Anglican rector who was to marry them, came to clarify the impediments to their proposed nuptials. When he left she confided in her journal, ‘All my hopes of happiness are fled; where can I fly, where can I go without misery being my constant companion; Mr Gunn will not, cannot marry us.’

The Prince lay awake in his residence on the Via del Corso nearby. At four in the morning he wrote to her trying to make amends, ‘Such has been my desperate state last night that I was unable to come to you my dearest Augusta, or do anything whatever … My torments and anxieties are so great that with the best principles in the world one might forget oneself.’ Augusta was not in a mood to look kindly on his excuses. She too had suffered ‘torments and anxieties’ and her patience was exhausted. She tied together every one of his daily letters and returned them, absolving him from his promises.

When his valet brought in the parcel the Prince responded immediately. He told her that if he had received the package the night before ‘it would have encouraged me to have put my criminal purpose [suicide] in execution’. She had also contemplated ending her life and he told her that, ‘If you attempt any thing of the sort I will follow, good God, I am distracted, Angels of Heaven assist me, what an agony I am in … Augusta, revoke your wish of dying.’

Augustus had not eaten for more than two days. Etiolated and delirious, he scribbled another letter to Augusta:

Death is certainly better than this, which, if in 48 hours it [their wedding] has not taken place, must follow; for, by all that is holy, till when I am married I will eat nothing, and if I am not to be married the promise will die with me. I am resolute; nothing in the world shall alter my determination. If Gunn will not marry me I will die … I would rather see none of my family than [be] deprived [of] you … I will sooner drop than give you up … I am half dead. Good God! What will become of me; I shall go mad most undoubtedly … What a dreadful situation I am in; and how can I be otherwise, when she for whom I was taking care of myself will not have me? Life is a burden; but if Augusta will yield, this night I will be hers … If you will allow me, soon after seven I will be at your house, and not care a word for what any one says, but go directly to our room.

As the day advanced, Prince Augustus became more rational. Despite suffering several asthmatic attacks, he made some plans; whatever happened, they would force Mr Gunn to marry them in Augusta’s rooms at nine o’clock that night. They would disguise their intentions and confuse the poor rector: Augusta would send for him with a pretext and the Prince would be waiting. He told her, ‘I will be with you, and the ceremony must be performed tonight or I shall die … Call me and I will come, nothing shall detain me, I care not what they say to me, what they do, provided I am yours … your friend, your lover and your husband.’

Extracted from Forbidden Wife: The Life and Trials of Lady Augusta Murray by Julia Abel Smith

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