Julie portrait of a royal mistress
A Maclean's flashback
Julie de St. Laurent was the mistress, and possibly the morganatic wife, of Edward, Duke of Kent, the soldier father of Queen Victoria. But Julie's own story had been lost for a hundred years, until a chance encounter with descendants of the children Julie and Edward left in Quebec led McKenzie Porter to the portrait he draws here
IF YOU ASK the average British subject to name Queen Victoria’s father it is highly likely that you’ll confound him. Historians know that he was Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, but people whose knowledge of the Georgian era is limited to highschool books generally look blank at mention of his name. The reason Edward has been forgotten is simple. Queen Victoria didn't wish him to be remembered. There were aspects of his background that conflicted with her stern moral code.
For tw'enty-seven years before he married Victoria’s mother, Edward lived with a beautiful French countess who concealed her identity under the pseudonym of Julie de St. Laurent. This liaison, which was probably strengthened by a morganatic marriage, produced two sons, the first of whom grew up in Canada and the second in Australia. For the ten most fruitful years of his life Edward, a burly, stodgy but honorable army officer, lived wfith Julie in Quebec City and Halifax.
Had Julie de St. Laurent been a Protestant it is possible that the elder of her sons would have been acceptable as a king of England. But Julie w'as a Roman Catholic and so her union with Edward, under the terms of the Royal Marriage Act, was invalid. There was never the slightest risk of the obscure half-brother's challenging Victoria's right to the throne. But his very existence made the Queen uneasy.
After the death in 1817 of Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince of Wales, three sons of George III married for the specific purpose of siring another heir to the throne. Included in this trio of conscripted bridegrooms was the fifty-year-old Edward. He had to part
from Julie, the delightful woman he’d cherished for more than a quarter of a century, and walk to the altar with a plump, energetic little widow named Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg. Queen Victoria, the fruit of this marriage, winced at the thought of its expedience. Although she once insisted that she was proud of her soldier father, she rarely mentioned him. And she detested her mother.
At Victoria’s court the subject of her father's association wfith Julie de St. Laurent was taboo. Throughout Victoria’s reign it was always politely pretended that Julie had never existed. After the letters between Edward and Julie passed into Queen Victoria’s hands they were never seen again. Nineteenth-century biographers were too fearful of Victoria’s displeasure to explore her father’s life in detail. As a result Edward is one of the most shadowy figures on the Georgian tapestry and Julie is even less distinct. For more than a hundred years writers have been describing Julie as “a mystery woman.” Today, however, I am able to publish details about her that have never been printed before.
Her name was Alphonsine Thérèse Bernadine Julie de Montgenct, Baronne de Fortisson. She was born in the late 1760s into the titled Montgenct family at St. Laurent-sur-Mcr in Calvados, France. As a girl she was taken to Martinique in the French West Indies, where her parents owned sugar plantations. At Trois Ilets. Martinique, she attended a convent school. One of her fellow pupils was Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie, daughter of a French officer and later the wife of Napoleon. Both girls were reserved by their ambitious mothers for men of rank in France. In their late CONTINUED ON PAGE 34
CONTINUED ON PAGE 34
Overture to Victoria, a biography from which this account of Julie de St. Laurent's life is drawn, will be published this fall by Longmans Green, Toronto.
JULIE: ROYAL MISTRESS continued from page 29
The Frenchman’s wife followed the prince from Geneva to Gibraltar to Quebec City
teens they were shipped home as brides, Josephine for the Marquis de Beauharnais and Julie for her own cousin Jean Charles de Mestre, Baron de Fortisson. Fortisson was a colonel in the French artillery. By him Julie had one child, a daughter named Melanie.
A portrait shows that Julie was a siren, with huge sloe eyes, a patrician nose, a sensitive mouth, a long slender neck and an abundant tumble of curls. Her husband, however, was more appreciative of a gun barrel’s machining. His coldness saddened Julie. And the reproach in her eyes irritated Fortisson. A frost set upon their relationship that not even dangerfaced together could melt.
When the French Revolution began on July 14, 1789, the Fortissons fled France for Geneva, Switzerland. They found shelter in the home of Auguste Vasserot, Baron de Vincy. One night Vincy introduced them to Edward, who was then a twenty-one-year-old officer cadet under training in Geneva.
Although he was the most dutiful and upright son of George III, Edward was unpopular with his family. Because he was sober in outlook and dress he was mocked by his licentious, drunken and foppish brothers. His oldest brother, the Prince of Wales, nicknamed him Simon Pure.
In Edward, how'ever, the Fortissons divined a protector. Was he not a prince of the most powerful nation on earth? Determined to develop a friendship with Edward, Julie relied heavily on her beauty. It is not known exactly w'hen Julie, in trying to capture a benefactor, found herself confronted with a lover. But it was certainly very soon after that first meeting in Geneva. To Fortisson. brooding over the cataclysm in France, Julie’s infidelity was but a raindrop in a sea of trouble. Cynically, he shrugged his shoulders and became a mart complaisant.
Fdward entertained Julie lavishly, overspent his allowance, and borrowed money. In the winter of 1789 Fdward went to London, naïvely to inform his father of his relationship with Julie and to ask for a bigger allowance. The King was angry. During an audience limited to ten minutes he ordered Edward to enroll forthwith in the army and to join the Gibraltar garrison. And so, on February 11, 1790, Edward sailed for the Rock with debts of twenty thousand pounds hanging around his neck and no income to count upon but a colonel’s pay.
It would have been easy for him to desert Julie at this time but his love for her was irrevocable. Through the influence of William, his brother in the navy, Edward managed to smuggle the Fortissons and their baby, Melanie, out of Switzerland. They traveled on forged papers to Toulon, whence a small British warship carried them to Gibraltar. There Fortisson, with an air of icy resignation, became one of Edward’s aides-de-camp.
Though Edward was constantly in Julie’s company her husband was always coldly but discreetly in the offing. This gave a semblance of respectability to the affair. Not that it mattered. Many French refugees were in Gibraltar. The social life was promiscuous. If anybody suspected that Julie and Edward were lovers few cared.
But news of the continued liaison got back to England and shook the precariously balanced mind of George III. In a second attempt to break the romance, the King ordered Edward transferred to Quebec City. Julie decided to accompany Ed-
ward. and to take along her daughter Melanie. Fortisson refused to follow. He returned to France and joined the new' Republican Army under an amnesty granted to émigré royalist officers.
On the evening of August 11, 1791, His Majesty’s Ships Ulysses and Resolution sailed into the view' of a throng lining the dock at Quebec. Ashore a band began to play. Out in the river the ships broke flags. A thousand men of Edward’s regiment, the 7th Royal Fusiliers, lined their decks and shouted three cheers. On the quarterdeck of Ulysses stood Edward. He held his hat in his hand. His red hair blew wildly in the breeze. His plump red face swelled and his eyes bulged in mingled pride and astonishment at the scale of the welcome. A little behind him, in the shadow of a companionway, stood Julie and Melanie.
Julie became Edward’s chatelaine at 25 Rue St. Louis, a fifteen-room granite
house of spare Georgian design. It still stands in the shadow of the Château Frontenac, overlooking the crooked streets of the Lower Town.
Julie was generally reputed to be a widow who had married Edward morganatically in Malta, shortly before reaching Quebec. In England the Prince of Wales had set a precedent by making Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert, a Roman Catholic, his morganatic wife, and for the sake of social harmony in Quebec it was assumed by some and pretended by others that Edward had so protected Julie’s honor. She adopted the name Julie de St. Laurent, and this was widely regarded as her recognition of the limitations of a morganatic marriage.
In the spring of 1792 Edward and Julie rented as a summer home Montmorency House, a graceful wooden mansion by the Falls of Montmorency, six miles east of Quebec City. Today the place is a Dominican retreat and tourist attraction.
Halfway between Montmorency House and Quebec City lies the suburb of Beauport, where Louis de Salaberry lived. On his daily drives between Montmorency House and the Fusiliers' barracks in the city, Edward got into the habit of calling on Salaberry. An intimate friendship ripened, and soon Salaberry and his wife were exchanging visits regularly with Edward and Julie. Correspondence between Edward and Julie and the Salaberrys, exchanged over a period of many years, is one of the richest sources of information on the prince’s life.
In 1792 Mme de Salaberry. a slight and graceful woman known to her husband and intimates by the pet name Souris, received from Julie a letter of congratula-
tion on the birth of a son. It glows with the spontaneity, affection and merriment that characterized Julie’s temperament:
“Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! A thousand rounds in honor of the charming Souris and the newborn. In truth my head is full of joy and my hand trembles so much that I can scarcely hold my pen. And it is another boy! I will go to Beauport today about seven o’clock. Tomorrow I will go again, and every day. Ah. I wish it could be this very instant of my life. I reserve it to myself to congratulate M. de Salaberry in person on the happy event. And in the meantime I embrace the whole household, without distinction of age or sex.”
Edward and Julie became godparents of the boy.
Julie braved the most rigorous weather to keep Edward company on his journeys. She even insisted on traveling with him when, in August 1792. he made the sixhundred-mile trip through intense heat to Niagara on Lake Ontario, then the headquarters of John Graves Simcoe, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada. Before they left Maj.-Gen. Alured Clarke, the lieutenant-governor of Lower Canada, was evidently perturbed about Mrs. Simcoe's reactions. He warned Simcoe by courier that Edward would be accompanied by “a larger suite than I wish attended him from an apprehension that it must occasion some embarrassment.”
In 1793 Julie gave birth in Quebec to a son by Edward. Though both parents were pleased and proud, the child presented problems. They felt compelled to keep its existence a secret from all but their closest friends. Edward feared that news of an addition to the collection of royal bastards already sired by his brothers in England would intensify the King's hostility toward him. So he decided to put the child out to foster parents. He selected for the foster father a man named Robert Wood, who had served in the Royal Navy as a chief petty officer. Edward secured for Wood the job of doorkeeper at the Legislative Assembly. Thus, while Prince William’s ten illegitimate children by Mrs. Jordan were raised openly in England and married off into the nobility, the first son of Edward and Julie was brought up covertly in a middle-class colonial home. The son was christened Robert Wood, after his foster father.
Edward was clearly overoptimistic in expecting that a former royal servant of Wood's humble rank could remain silent about so remarkable an arrangement. The news reached George III in the winter of 1793, and once more that old curmudgeon tried to end the affair of Edward and Julie. The King seized as his opportunity the fact that England was once again at war with France and that officers were needed to fight in the French West Indies. Shortly before Christmas in 1793, Edward received orders to proceed to Barbados.
One can imagine Julie’s feelings on hearing she was to be deprived of her lover at such a time, especially since she was already pregnant again. One may just as easily imagine her taking consolation in the hope that Edward would soon be in a position to give her firsthand accounts of conditions in and about her old home at Martinique. Robert Wood, the foster parent, accompanied Edward to the West Indies in order to carry news back to Julie in the event of Martinique's fall to the British.
In March. 1794, Edward distinguished himself in the capture of Fort Royal in Martinique and was acclaimed by the British parliament. Among the French dead at Fort Royal was the Baron de Fortisson, Julie’s husband. He had been Jecapitated by a British cannon ball. This
extraordinary coincidence is vouched for by Roy de Mestre, a painter in London and a direct descendant of Edward and Julie’s second son.
Edward dispatched Robert Wood with a note to Quebec City. This informed Julie of her husband’s death and reminded her that they were now free to contract a morganatic marriage. Although the note has not survived there is evidence of its transmission in the hands of Wood. The late Colonel William Wood, a well-known Canadian historian and a direct descendant of Edward and Julie, once wrote to the British biographer Hector Bolitho: “1 have the pass given to Robert Wood at Martinique in 1794 authorizing the said Robert Wood to pass any and all of His Majesty’s posts by land and sea.” The pass was signed by Edward.
Julie sailed from Quebec City to Halifax in the spring of 1794. During the voyage she gave birth to a second son. Edward, who had sailed from the West Indies, met Julie in Halifax. Taking the child with them, they sailed together for Martinique. In Martinique the child was christened Jean de Mestre, the surname being one of the family names of the Baron de Fortisson. Julie’s mother, the Comtesse de Montgenet, agreed to bring up the baby in Martinique.
Roy de Mestre says that Edward and Julie were married in Martinique by a Roman Catholic priest in the summer of 1794, Edward using the name “Captain Armstrong.”
L.uis Carrier, a member of the Montreal Historical Society and an authority on Quebec of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, says: “It has always been believed that proof of the morganatic marriage of the Duke of Kent and Julie de St. Laurent lies in the archives of the Catholic Church in Quebec. But nobody, not even one of the duke’s descendants, has been able to uncover it."
From Martinique. Edward and Julie sailed back to Halifax, where Edward took up duties eventually as commander-in-chief of British troops in North America.
Edward built his Halifax home at Bedford Basin. Fie revealed those same exotic architectural tastes that had prompted his brother, the Prince of Wales, to build a Byzantine palace at Brighton. The white wooden frame building was in imitation of the rococo Italian style. Opposite was a circular bandstand consisting of a gilded Moorish cupola mounted on Greek columns. Hidden in the woods of the grounds was a Chinese temple with strings of copper bells ringing as they were swung by the wind. A gravel path twisted tortuously
through the natural woodlands. A balloonist drifting over the estate would have noticed that the path spelled “Julie.” The pièce de résistance was an artificial brook, led into the grounds from a nearby stream, to tumble over a series of pretty waterfalls into a lake. Edward had had the lake’s natural shape altered to the shape of the ace of hearts as a mark of his love for Julie.
The lake and the bandstand still survive. On visiting them, generations of Haligonians have pictured Edward, the sixfoot redhead in his high black boots with gold tassels, and his tight white breeches and blue coat heavy wath gold braid, strolling tenderly with the slight blackhaired Julie, in her white muslin dress and high-heeled shoes, while, through the trees, drifted the sentimental concert music of the Fusiliers’ band. If Julie felt the love nest was a trifle vulgar she took consolation in the knowledge that it was the expression of Edward’s simple and romantic ardor.
Julie was a brilliant hostess. Her French cuisine enraptured local epicures. Her clothes were gorgeously feminine and as a leader of fashion she encouraged Halifax to resist the more severe modes that were creeping in from across the Atlantic. Under Julie’s influence the wig and the beauty patch remained obligatory for Haligonian women long after they had been abandoned in England.
Solemnity would surely have engulfed Edward’s parties had he been left to conduct them alone but as Julie tossed a barrage of light banter across the room, and clever subalterns delivered a counter-battery fire of gallantries, they were invariably alive with affectionate laughter. One can see Edward standing back, aloof, as became his rank, a little flabbergasted by the rapid exchanges of wit. a tiny bit envious of the high spirits which Julie evoked in lighter-hearted persons than he, but always beaming with controlled pleasure and pride.
Edward fell from his horse in November 1798, and wrenched muscles in his back. George III gave him permission to return to England to take the waters of Bath. Edward decided to take Julie and Melanie with him. Julie, a stranger to London and apprehensive about her reception, found a social sponsor in Maria Fitzherbert. Accompanied by Mrs. Fitzherbert, she met Queen Charlotte and made a favorable impression. Soon Queen Charlotte was speaking kindly of Julie as "Edward’s French lady.” George III consented to see the woman from whom he had been trying to separate Edward for more than ten
years. He too must have been captivated by Julie’s charm, for never again did he interfere with the association.
From Mrs. Fitzherbert, Edward and Julie bought a house at Ealing — Castle Hill Lodge — which later became their favorite home. In London society Edward and Julie appeared openly together. Julie's demeanor was so prudent that her association with Edward never provoked in the press the bitter ribaldry that other unofficial royal liaisons aroused. To discourage questions Julie placed Melanie with some of her own French refugee relatives who were living in London.
After a further tour of duty in Halifax, during which he improved tremendously the city's fortifications, Edward left Canada forever in the spring of 1800. hoping to get a field command against the French. Two years and a half later Halifax received from Edward a souvenir that is the city's most familiar landmark: the chiming clock on Citadel Hill that has since kept perfect time and is now being reconstructed.
If Edward had entertained hopes of promotion in reward for his West Indian
Service and his defense works at Halifax these were soon dashed by his brother, the Duke of York, who, despite notorious military incompetence, was now’ commanderin-chief of the British Army.
York deliberately deprived Edward of a field command during the Homeric days that led up to Waterloo. He also exaggerated Edward’s reputation for military discipline and represented him as a tyrant and a sadist.
York delivered the coup de grâce to Edward’s military reputation by a subtle trick. He got Edward appointed governor of Gibr ‘ar in 1802. when military morale on the N. ck was scandalously low. As York expected, Edward introduced strict reforms. Officers, suspected of working under the orders of York, fomented a spectacular protest riot, and Edward was recalled to London in disgrace.
In the Duke of Wellington, too, Edward encountered an enemy. The Iron Duke despised Edward’s theories about army reform. He called Edward “the Corporal’’ because Edward believed that soldiers should be taught to read and write.
As an anodyne for the frustration of his military ambitions Edward devoted the last sixteen years of his life to educational and charitable institutions. The aristocracy then began to look upon Edward as a dangerous eccentric. He championed Robert Owen, the father of British socialism, and Joseph Lancaster, the pioneer of universal education.
Against the dissolute background of his
brothers Edward appeared to the people as a tower of wisdom, rectitude and democracy. The more his popularity increased, the more his brothers persecuted him.
Julie sustained Edward with tenderness and encouragement during these bleak years. On one of the rare occasions on which Edward permitted an outsider a glimpse of his feelings for Julie, he wrote to Salaberry: “1 am sure you will be pleased to know that what our life was when we were beside you has continued during twenty years since we left Canada, and 1 love to think that twenty years hence it may be the same.”
Poor Edward, poor Julie.
Early in 1817 the couple went to Brussels for a holiday. On Saturday, November 6, 1817, Princess Charlotte, heir presumptive to the throne, died in childbirth. No other legal children of Princess Charlotte’s generation stood in line of succession. One morning in Brussels, as Julie finished her breakfast, she asked Edward to pass her the previous day’s copy of the Morning Chronicle.
Edward recalled later to Thomas Creevey, a member of parliament and inveterate gossip and diarist, that he suddenly heard “an extraordinary noise and a strong convulsive movement in Mme. de St. Laurent’s throat.” Julie fell to the floor in a swoon. With the help of servants Edward revived her and asked her what had happened. She pointed to an editorial in the influential London paper that expressed the view that all the sons of George III who had not already contracted valid marriages should do so at the earliest possible moment in order to beget a series of young and indisputable heirs. Edward’s name appeared to be uppermost in the editorial writer’s mind. As Edward and Julie feared, the editorial was a reflection of the English cabinet's decision, which was soon communicated to Edward.
“My heart is half broke”
The sincerity of Edward’s grief at the prospect of parting from Julie was evident in an emotional letter he wrote early in December, 1817, to Mrs. Fitzherbert. “My heart is half broke,” he said, "when I look upon my poor companion. I think we may perhaps ere long be forced, by my duties to my family and to my country, to part.”
All through January 1818, Edward lingered in Brussels with Julie, putting off from day to day the dreaded but certain separation.
Sometime early that year Julie retreated to a convent in Paris. In spite of Edward’s protests, she refused to accept his offer of a continued annual allowance.
The tribulation suffered by Edward and Julie left the British press unmoved. The spirit in which the newspapers anticipated the imminent marriage of three royal dukes was distilled in a verse by the satirist Peter Pindar, who wrote:
“Yoicks! the royal sport's begun!
I’faith but it is glorious fun.
For hot and hard each royal pair
Are at it hunting for the heir.”
In March 1818 Edward returned to London alone and learned that the regent and the prime minister. Lord Liverpool, had selected as his bride the German Princess Victoria Maria Louisa, the thirtyiwo-year-old daughter of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg, widow of Charles. Prince of Leiningen, and a sister of the recently bereaved Prince Leopold. Edward’s child by the German Princess Victoria was to become Queen Victoria. A year after Victoria's birth Edward died.
Edward had many weaknesses, including priggishness, a tendency to dabble in the affairs of others, an inability to handle money and the habit of whining about his
financial troubles. But he bridged the great philosophical gulf between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and founded many traditions upon which the twentiethcentury concept of monarchy is based. He inaugurated the trend that changed the throne from a hierarchical into a popular institution. Queen Victoria was unreasonably ashamed of her father. She owed more of her greatness to Edward’s genes than she did to Albert’s brains.
After Edward’s death. Julie sent to Maria Fitzherbert all the correspondence she had exchanged with the prince. Mrs. Fitzherbert kept the letters in a safe. When the safe was opened after Mrs. Fitzherbert’s death the letters were handed over to Queen Victoria and what the sovereign did with them has not yet been discovered.
Julie’s long survival makes a piquant epilogue to the story. She spent a few years recovering from her grief in a Paris convent and then one day in her midfifties decided that mourning was a bore. Quietly she slipped out into the world and brightened it once more with her sunny smile.
Charles X, the last of the French Bourbon kings, restored to her a family estate at St. Laurent-sur-Mer, and her title in her own right of Comtesse de Montgenet. This gave her a respectable income and a dignified place in French society.
Men found her slender figure, delicate features and lively mind still attractive and among several widowers who paid her court was Prince Prospero Colonna, a member of the Russian branch of the illustrious Italian family. Colonna was the father of two sons who lived in New Orleans. Julie’s daughter Melanie had married a New Orleans engineer named Levison. After a brief betrothal Julie married Colonna and they sailed together to Louisiana to visit their children. Later Julie was reunited with Robert Wood, her first son by Edward.
Robert Wood had been christened at Christ Church Cathedral in Quebec City and, according to the Montreal historian Luis Carrier, a note regarding his royal ancestry was torn out of the register soon after Queen Victoria came to the throne. By the time Julie arrived in Quebec City he was married to Charlotte Gray, whose father was employed in the Royal Navy commissariat at Kingston, Ont. Robert Wood lived the life of a small propertied gentleman on funds supplied first by Edward and later by Queen Victoria.
Meanwhile Jean de Mestre, Julie’s younger son, had gone to Australia as a member of the French consular corps. He became a British subject and prospered on lands granted him in Australia by Queen Victoria.
Julie enjoyed Quebec City so much that she persuaded Colonna to make a prolonged stay. After about three years of happily married life, Colonna embarked on a trip to Russia. His ship foundered and Julie was widowed again. According to Joan E. Morgan's Castle of Quebec, Julie “lived out her days aloiK at Montmorency House, Edward’s old summer home, on the beautiful Falls, and though surrounded by friends, many of whom had been personal friends of His Royal Highness, she remained in dignified retirement, emerging only on rare occasions.”
But Julie kept in close touch with her family. It became a tradition for the male descendants of both her sons by Edward to enter the Imperial Army and several of them lost their lives in the field. Once, about the year 1845, Julie was visited by two grandsons from Australia. In Canada and Australia there are today distinguished descendants of her association with Edward. She lived until 1872, five years after the Confederation of Canada. She had reached the magnificent age of 106. -fc