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Olive, Princess of Cumberland and Duchess of Lancaster

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     Most readers are aware of the fact that, like the Duchy of Cornwall, the Duchy of Lancaster is an appendage of the British Crown, and a source of income to royalty. Few, however, possibly are aware that within the memory of our fathers the title of Duchess of Lancaster was assumed and borne by a lady in virtue of an alleged bestowal of that honor on her by George III., and that she was recognized as such by four royal dukes, and received with full honors as a member of the royal family at the Lord Mayor's dinner at the Guildhall little more than sixty years ago, though she now lies in a humble grave
     And who was this Duchess of Lancaster?  And how came she to assume that title?
     I will tell the story as her daughter has told it in certain documents of a legal nature, which she not very long since brought forward in evidence of her claim before the House of Lords, and :t copy of which has come into my possession.
     To make the narrative plain, I mast go back more than a hundred years. At the commencement of the reign of George III, them was living in the town of Warwick a clergyman of some literacy and social distinction, the Rev. Dr. James Wilmot a man who was, in the opinion of many persons, the real author of 'Junius's Letters,' and who had married a princess Poniatowski, sister of the last reigning sovereign of Poland. The issue of this union if the statements of the family arc to he believed was an only child, a daughter, Olive, who was married by her father, on the 4th of March, 1767, at Lord Archer's house in Grosvenor Square, to no less a person than His Royal Highness Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland, the youngest brother of George the Third.
     It is well known that King George had a great aversion to any of the royal family contracting a marriage with an English subject;* accordingly, it appears that this marriage was kept quite private, and, indeed, was not known for several years afterwards to the public, though two distinguished noblemen, the Earl of Warwick and the great Lord Chatham (the elder Pitt) were privy to its celebration, and certified to its regularity by their formal signatures.
     On the 3rd of April, 1772, this marriage resulted in the birth of an only child, a daughter, who was privately baptized the same day as Olive Wilmot and was brought up to believe herself the daughter of Mr. Robert Wilmot, and niece of the reverend gentleman who, if the story be true, was her grandfather. The family lived at Warwick, and Olive Wilmot grew up to childhood and to womanhood apparently quite unconscious of her real royal parentage, although on the day following her birth she was `rebaptized, by the King's command, as Olive, daughter of the Duke of Cumberland.' This second baptism, however, was not entered in the parish register, but was placed on record by a certificate signed by Dr. Wilmot, his brother Robert, and John Dunning (afterwards Lord Ashburton). The certificate of this union was kept private and sacred, being entrusted to the care of Lord Warwick, as was also the following document, which I copy from the legal statements put forward in evidence only a few years since before the House of Lords.


     'We are hereby pleased to create Olive of Cumberland Duchess of Lancaster, and to grant our royal authority for Olive, our said niece, to blear and use the title and arms of Lancaster, should she be in existence at the period of our royal demise.
     'Given at our palace of St. James's, May 21, 1773. 

(Witnesses)                 'CHATHAM
                                        ' J. DUNNING.'

     This paper may have been written in full by the King; but it clearly is very informal, as it departs from the usual phraseology of 'name style, and title,’—and does not mention in the second clause the grade in the peerage to which his Majesty wished to elevate 'our niece,' whether to that of a baroness, a countess, or a duchess. It was agreed, however, between the King, his brother, Dr. Wilmot, and witnesses, that the patent of creation should not be acted upon during the life of George III; the reason alleged being that this step was necessary in order to screen the King's brother from a trial for bigamy, as in 1771 he had married publicly Lady Anne Luttrell, daughter of the Earl of Carhampton, and widow of Mr. Christopher Horton, of Catton, in Derbyshire. It is clear, however, that if this was the real ground for suppressing the patent of creation, it would have been far more sensible (since the King was privy to his brother's marriage) to have agreed that the patent should not be acted on' during the life of the Duke of Cumberland himself, seeing that his death-which happened in 1790-of course put an end to all possibility of his being indicted for bigamy.
     In 1791 this Miss Olive Wilmot, as she was reputed to be, apparently in profound ignorance of her rank, bestowed her hand on Mr. John Thomas Seizes, of whom all that we know is that lie was a son of Dominic Serres, and that he followed the profession of a portrait painter.
     Here I prefer to tell the story of 'Olive, Duchess of Lancaster,' in her own words. She says, in her printed 'case';
     'The said Olive Serres, having been informed of her proper position in life shortly after the demise of His Majesty King George III, and being (as she had foundation to believe) the legitimate daughter of Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland, fourth and youngest brother of his said Majesty, assumed the honor, title, and dignity of a princess of the blood royal, styled herself "Her Royal Highness Olive, Princess of Cumberland," and adopted the royal arms, livery, and seals in like manner as made use of by other junior members of the royal family.'
In September, 1820, not long after succeeding to the throne, George IV issued his command, through Lord Sidmouth, that the certificate of marriage between his uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, and the elder Olive Wilmot should be 'proved and authenticated.' This was done: it was duly authenticated before Lord Chief Justice Abbott (afterwards Lord Tenterden); and the lady in question was told apparently, however, only verbally-by her solicitor, a Mr. Bell, that his Majesty 'had been graciously pleased to acknowledge her royal highness as Princess of Cumberland, only legitimate daughter of his late uncle, Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland,' and to give orders that she should have found for her a suitable residence until a permanent one could be fixed upon, and that pecuniary means, sufficient to enable her to keep up her dignity, should be at once placed at her command. She was then living in Alfred Place, Bedford Square; and even by her own statement the information does not appear to have been sent to her officially.
     The Dukes of Sussex, Clarence, and Kent, it appears, were not slow in acknowledging their new cousin, being satisfied that the documents with their father’s signature, ‘George R.,’ were genuine; and although the Duke of Cambridge did not acknowledge her till a far more recent date (1844), and the Duke of York refused to follow suit altogether, she maintained that the Duke of Kent had long previously gone so far as not only to make a will bequeathing to her £10,000, and to assign to her and her child a yearly income of £400 under his hand and seal, promising solemnly to see his ' cousin reinstated in her royal birthright at his father's demise,' but absolutely to nominate her as the future guardian of his infant daughter, her present Majesty. The documents are as follows:

1.        ' I solemnly testify my satisfaction as to the proofs of Princess Olive of Cumberland's birth, and declare that my royal parent's sign manual to the certificates of my dearest cousin's birth is, to the best of my own comprehension and belief, the genuine handwriting of the King, my father. Thus I constitute Olive, Princess of Cumberland, the guardian and the director of my daughter Alexandrina's* education, from the age of four years and upwards, ht case of my death, and from the Duchess of Kent being so unacquainted with the mode of English education ; and, in case my wife departs this life in my daughter's minority, I constitute my cousin Olive the sole guardian of my daughter till she is of age.


2.        ' Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, binds himself hereby to pay to my daughter, Lavinia Janetta Horton Serres, £400 yearly during her life, in regular quarterly payments, and farther promises that she shall be the young lady companion of his daughter Alexandrina, when that dear infant attains her fourth year. Witness the royal signature of his royal highness, in confirmation of this sacred obligation.



The Duke of Kent lived only a few weeks after signing this strange paper, dying a week before his father; but lie survived long enough if this story be true-to 'recommend solemnly Mrs. Olive Serres, otherwise Olive, Princess of Cumberland,' to his brother, afterwards George IV., and to write other formal appeals to his wife and to his infant child, in order to aid her in obtaining °'her royal rights.'
     At the request of the Duke of Kent, the late Mr. Robert Owen, of Socialist memory, advanced to the princess no less than £1,200; and it appears from these papers, if they are genuine, and not forgeries, that the sum was repaid to his son, Mr. Robot Dale Owen, by her present Majesty's command.
     The rest of the story of 'Olive, Princess of Cumberland and Duchess of Lancaster,' may be soon told. Her mother had died in France, early in life, of a broken heart, brought on by the trouble and anxiety entailed on her by her connection with royalty, all the more perilous because it was clandestine. Her husband, Mr. Serres the portrait-painter, died in 1824, and ten years later (in November, 1831) she died also of a broken heart; she was buried in the churchyard of St. ,James's, Piccadilly, and had the satisfaction, sack as it was, of being entered in the register as a princess of the blood royal.
      Her daughter, Lavinia Janetta Horton Seines, married a Mr. Ryves-a member of a good Dorsetshire county family-but the marriage did not turn out happily, the union being dissolved by a legal separation. Mrs. Ryves died, if not in actual poverty, at all events in very needy circumstances, in lodgings in Queen's Crescent, Haverstock Hill, in December, 1871; her husband, too, ended his days in obscurity early in the year 1873. Besides one son and one daughter, who are deceased, Mrs. Ryves had issue three daughters and two sons, who survived her, by no means in affluent circumstances. I believe it is true, and if true it is a wonderful example of the irony of history, that the lady who, assuming her own statement to be trustworthy, was the second cousin of our most gracious Queen, and her possible and intended guardian, was dependent in her last illness on the aid and support of those who had little enough of their own to spare, and that she now lies in I care not to say how humble a grave in the cemetery at Highgate.
     But. my readers will want to know what steps were taken by the Princess Olive, and by her daughter, Mrs. Ryves, in order to prosecute their claim to the title bestowed by George III., and to the legacy left them by the will of Edward, Duke of Kent.
     The lady who had trod upon scarlet laid along her path when she dined in state at the royal table at the Guildhall in November, 1820, was arrested in the following year upon a promissory note, most probably on purpose to raise the question of her birth in a legal shape and form. She pleaded that, as a member of the royal family, she was privileged from arrest; and, although baffled on this occasion by a legal technicality, in the next year she gained her point in another way. I use her daughter's words:
     'My mother . . . . subsequently gained, or rather was granted, her privilege . . . . as being a member of the royal family; for, having refused to pay taxes for armorial bearings, male servants, &c, an information was filed against her in the Court of Exchequer by the then Attorney-General, and after hearing the arguments on the case for several days the Chief Baron advised the Attorney-General to withdraw the information, which he accordingly complied with. 'She must, however, have had a strong taste for the law and law-courts, as next year-I am not informed how the circumstance came about she was a prisoner for debt, and 'living within the Rules of the Fleet.'
     Her daughter tells us, with apparent satisfaction, that
     'She was delivered into the custody of the Warder by the name, style, and title of "Princess of Cumberland." From the Fleet she was removed into the custody of the Marshal of the King's Bench, when, after having been for seven years in illegal bondage, her liberty was effected by a writ from the Crown Office to the Marshal of the King's Bench for the Princess to proceed to the Judges at Westminster to receive her liberty, which she accordingly did and obtained it.'
On the death of George IV the daughter, Mrs. Ryves, filed a bill in Chancery against the Duke of Wellington, as the King's executor, for the money due to her mother from the estate of George III, but was again defeated by a legal technicality which prevented her right from being really tried at law. But, with respect to her claim to royal blood, she was wholly powerless to take any further steps until the passing of the 'Legitimacy Declaration Act' in 1858. Under the provisions of this Act, as soon as she could collect sufficient funds, she brought forward in 1861 a suit to establish her own birth as I the lawful daughter of John Thomas Series, and Olive, his wife;' and returning to the charge in 1866, she endeavored to obtain a decree for the legitimization of her grandmother's marriage with the Duke of Cumberland. But in this effort she failed signally. In fact, to use her own words, 'the decree of the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes of June 13th, 1866 declared that Olive Series was not the legitimate daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, and that there was no valid marriage between the said duke and Olive Wilmot.'
     Against this decision Mrs. Lavinia Janetta Horton Ryves appealed, as a last resource, to the House of Lords; but she again failed in her appeal, which was dismissed in a very summary manner by the law lords during the Chancellorehip of Lord Selborne. This failure, no doubt, as it shipped her of her last worldly possessions, also broke her heart; and she died, as I have said, in poverty at Christmas, 1871, like her mother before her, a victim to disappointed hopes and shattered ambitions. Alas' how true are the bitter words:-- Thus far I have given my story in the words of Mrs. Ryves. The death of her mother, however-the Princess Olive-gave occasion to a long obituary notice of her career in the pages of the Gentleman's Magazine for the year 1835, in which her pretensions to royalty are treated as 'fabrications,' and she herself denounced as an extraordinary and aspiring impostor;' On the Principle of Audi alteram pattern, I take from the notice of Mr. Sylvanus Urban all the facts which are in any way supplemental to my story of Mrs. Ryves.
     It is here said that her father, Mr. Robert Wilmot, was a house-painter at Warwick, and that while living with her uncle, the Rev. Dr. Wilmot, shortly after quitting school, she appeared as a witness on a very extraordinary trial for a burglary in her uncle's house, for which two men were convicted and executed. 'Her account,' adds Mr. Urban, 'was very marvelous, and her conduct, as she represented it, highly heroic.' Her husband, Mr. John T. Serres, was scene-painter at the Royal Coburg Theatre, and also marine-painter to King George III and to the Duke of Clarence; her husband's father, Count Dominic Series, a gentleman of French extraction, who had been taken a prisoner of war, settled in England, and became one of the early members of the Royal Academy. After her separation from her husband, Mrs. Serres was thrown on her own resources, and in 1806 obtained the appointment of landscape-painter to the Prince of Wales. It is believed that at one time she also made au appearance on the stage, and performed as Polly in the I Beggar's Opera.'
     Always possessed of a busy and romantic imagination, Olive at an early age essayed her powers at original composition, and in 1805 published a novel entitled 'St. Julian.' In the following year she gave to the world a volume of poetical miscellanies, which, strangely enough, she named ‘Flight of Fancy.’  These she followed up with an opera, 'The Castle of Avala,' and a volume of 'Letters of Advice to her Daughters.'
     'In 1813,' writes Mr. Sylvanus Urban, 'she embarked in her first attempt to gull the public by proclaiming her late uncle, Dr. Wilmot, to be the long-sought author of " Junius's Letters." There pretensions, advanced by her in a "Life of the Rev. James Wilmot, D.D.," were negatived by letters from Dr. Butler, of Shrewsbury (afterwards Bishop of Lichfield,) and Mr. G. Woodfall, published in the Gentleman's Magazine for August, 1813, and giving rise to a controversy which was carried on for several months., Her next freak was an 'Explanation of the Creed of St. Athanasius for the advantage of youth !'
     'About the year 1817,' continues Mr. Urban, 'she first discovered, or professed to have discovered, that she was not the daughter of Mr. R. Wilmot, but of Henry, Duke of Cumberland. At first she was satisfied to be accounted illegitimate-that was honor enough; but she shortly after professed to be his legitimate daughter. At first her mother was Mrs. Payne, sister to Dr. Wilmot, and afterwards she became the doctor's own daughter. On these pretensions she proceeded to forward her claims to the Prince Regent and the royal family, and to the officers of the Government. She now employed herself in fabricating several absurd and contradictory statements, the most weighty of which was a will of George III in which he left her fifteen thousand pounds. In the Session of 1822 or 1823, Sir Gerard Noel was induced to move in the house of Commons for an investigation of her claims. The motion was seconded by Mr. Joseph Hume; but Sir Robert Peel, in a most clear and convincing speech, set the matter at rest, and enlightened the few who had been deceived by her extravagant assumptions. He pointed out that her documents were framed in the most injudicious and inconsiderate manner, many of the signatures being such as could never have been made by the parties whose they professed to be. He concluded his speech by humorously observing that " even if these claims were given up, there were others which could yet be pressed, for the lady had 'two strings to her bow.’  In fact, he held in his hand a manifesto of the Princess Olive, addressed to the highest powers of the Kingdom of Poland, and stating that she was descended from Stanislaus Augustus!" From this time, however, the Princess Olive was constrained to relinquish her carriage and her footmen in the royal liveries, which some simple tradesmen had enabled her to display.'
     Her later years were spent, I fear, not only in obscurity, but in absolute poverty, and, indeed, within the Rules of the King's Bench,' where she died.
     I have seen a portrait of the Princess Olive, and certainly no one who inspects it will deny that she bore a striking likeness to the royal family, and especially to King George IV.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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