1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Serres, Olivia

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4792751911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 24 — Serres, Olivia

SERRES, OLIVIA (1772-1834), an English impostor, who claimed the title of Princess Olive of Cumberland, was born at Warwick on the 3rd of April 1772. She was the daughter of Robert Wilmot, a house-painter in that town, who subsequently moved to London. In 1791 she married her drawing-master, John Thomas Serres (1759-1825), marine painter to George III., but in 1804 separated from him. She then devoted herself to painting and literature, producing a novel, some poems and a memoir of her uncle, the Rev. Dr Wilmot, in which she endeavoured to prove that he was the author of the Letters of Junius. In 1817, in a petition to George III., she put forward a claim to be the natural daughter of Henry Frederick, duke of Cumberland, the king's brother, and in 1820, after the death of George III., claimed to be the duke's legitimate daughter. In a memorial to George IV. she assumed the title of Princess Olive of Cumberland, placed the royal arms on her carriage and dressed her servants in the royal liveries. Her story represented that her mother was the issue of a secret marriage between Dr Wilmot and the princess Poniatowski, sister of Stanislaus, king of Poland, and that she had married the duke of Cumberland in 1767 at the London house of a nobleman. She herself, ten days after her birth, was, she alleged, taken from her mother, and substituted for the still-born child of Robert Wilmot. Mrs Serres's claim was supported by documents, and she bore sufficient resemblance to her alleged father to be able to impose on the numerous class of persons to whom any item of so-called secret history is attractive. In 1823 Sir Robert Peel, then Home Secretary, speaking in parliament, declared her claims unfounded, and her husband, who had never given her pretensions any support, expressly denied his belief in them in his will. Mrs Serres died on the 21st of November 1834, leaving two daughters. The eldest, who married Antony Ryves, a portrait painter, upheld her mother's claims and styled herself Princess Lavinia of Cumberland. In 1866 she took her case into court, producing all the documents on which her mother had relied, but the jury, without waiting to hear the conclusion of the reply for the crown, unanimously declared the signatures to be forgeries. Mrs Serres's pretensions were probably the result of an absurd vanity. Between 1807 and 1815 she had managed to make the acquaintance of some members of the Royal family, and from this time onwards seems to have been obsessed with the idea of raising herelf , at all costs, to their social level. The tale once invented, she brooded so continuously over it that she probably ended by believing it herself.

See W. J. Thoms, Hannah Light foot, and Dr Wilmot's Polish Princess (London, 1867); Princess of Cumberland's Statement to the English Nation; Annual Register (1866), Case of Ryves v. the Attorney-General.