Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Serres, Olivia

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595815Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 51 — Serres, Olivia1897Dalrymple James Belgrave

SERRES, Mrs. OLIVIA (1772–1834), calling herself the Princess Olive of Cumberland, born at Warwick, 3 April 1772, was daughter of Robert Wilmot, house-painter of Warwick, who afterwards removed to London, and of Anna Maria, his wife. She was baptised on 15 April 1772 at St. Nicholas Church, Warwick. Much of her early life was spent at the house of her bachelor uncle, Dr. James Wilmot, a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and rector of Barton-on-Heath, Warwickshire. When she was seventeen she received lessons in drawing at her father's house in London from John Thomas Serres [q. v.], marine-painter. On 17 Sept. 1791 she married her teacher at Barton-on-Heath, her uncle, Dr. Wilmot, officiating. She was under age, and was married by special license, her father, Robert Wilmot, making an affidavit that he was her natural and lawful father and consented to her marriage. The marriage proved unhappy, and in 1804 a separation was arranged.

Afterwards she occupied herself with painting, and gave lessons in art. She exhibited landscapes at the Royal Academy in 1794, and from 1804 to 1808, and at the British Institution in 1806. Obtaining an introduction to some members of the royal family, she was in 1806 appointed landscape-painter to the Prince of Wales. In 1809 she began an incoherent correspondence with him, offering to lend him 20,000l. at the same time as she begged for pecuniary assistance. She likewise tried her hand at literature, publishing ‘St. Julian,’ a novel, in 1805; ‘Flights of Fancy: Poems,’ in 1806; and subsequently ‘Olivia's Letters to her Daughters,’ and ‘St. Athanasius's Creed explained for the Advantage of Youth,’ 1814.

Meanwhile her uncle, Dr. Wilmot, died in 1808, leaving his money to his brother for his life, and afterwards in equal shares to his niece Olive and her brother. In 1813 Mrs. Serres published a memoir of her uncle, as ‘The Life of the Author of Junius's Letters, the Rev. James Wilmot, D.D.’ She represented him as a person of political and social influence, and, on obviously absurd grounds, asserted that he wrote the letters of Junius (cf. Gent. Mag. 1813 ii. 99, 413, 545, and 1814 i. passim). Four years later—in 1817—in another pamphlet, entitled ‘Junius, Sir Philip Francis denied a Letter addressed to the British Nation,’ she pretended to prove this statement from evidence of handwriting.

In 1817 she made her first claim to be the daughter of Henry Frederick, duke of Cumberland and Strathearn [q. v.], brother of George III. In a petition to the king she alleged that she was the daughter of the duke by Mrs. Payne, a sister of Dr. Wilmot, and wife of a captain in the navy (cf. Gent. Mag. 1818). In 1820, after the death of George III and the Duke of Kent, she amplified her pretensions, now asserting herself to be the legitimate daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, and in a memorial to George IV assumed the title of Princess Olive of Cumberland. She managed to hire a carriage, placed the royal arms on it, and drove out with her servants dressed in the royal livery. In September 1821 she was at the Islington parish church rechristened as Olive, daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, and Olive, his first wife. A newspaper, called ‘The British Luminary,’ took up her cause, and Henry Nugent Bell [q. v.], the genealogist, is said to have reported favourably on it.

According to her story—as finally elaborated and supported by what was represented as genuine documentary evidence—Dr. Wilmot of Oxford secretly married a sister of Stanislas, king of Poland, and had by her a daughter, who was placed under the care of Dr. Wilmot's sister, Mrs. Payne. At the age of eighteen the girl won the admiration of both the Duke of Cumberland and the Earl of Warwick, but the earl gave way, and the duke married her at Lord Archer's house in London on 4 March 1767, in the presence of Warwick and James Addez, D.D. Of this marriage she asserted that she was the child, but that ten days after her birth she was substituted for a stillborn daughter of Dr. Wilmot's brother Robert, who was thenceforth reputed to be her father.

In July 1821 Mrs. Serres was arrested for debt, and moved the court for a stay of proceedings on the ground that she was the legitimate daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, and as such was exempt from arrest in civil cases. The court held that, as she had put in bail, she was too late to raise privilege. She now produced what purported to be an early will of George III, witnessed by Chatham and Dunning, leaving 15,000l. to ‘Olive, the daughter of our brother of Cumberland.’ In 1822 she applied to the prerogative court for process to call upon the king's proctor to see George III's will; but the court held that it had no jurisdiction. In March 1823 Sir Gerald Noel, who long interested himself in Mrs. Serres's pretensions, presented a petition to parliament from ‘the Princess of Cumberland,’ and in June he moved that it should be referred to a select committee. This motion was seconded by Joseph Hume. Sir Robert Peel, the home secretary, declared Mrs. Serres's contentions to be baseless, and the motion was negatived without a division. In 1825 Serres died in the rules of the king's bench, repudiating in his will any belief in the genuineness of his wife's claims. Mrs. Serres spent the rest of her life in difficulties, and, dying on 21 Nov. 1834, within the rules of the king's bench, was buried in St. James's Church, Piccadilly.

Besides the works enumerated which she produced under her own name, she published much anonymously. There are good reasons for believing that she had a hand in the scandalous ‘Secret History of the Court of England, and the Authentic Records of the Court of England by Lady Anne Hamilton.’ Lady Anne Hamilton denied all responsibility for the work (see ‘Hannah Lightfoot’ by W. Thoms, reprinted from Notes and Queries).

Mrs. Serres left two daughters. The younger took part with her father. The elder, Lavinia Janetta Horton de Serres (1797–1871), married, in 1822, Antony Thomas Ryves, a portrait-painter, and obtained a decree of divorce from him in 1841. She took up her mother's claim, and on her mother's death called herself Princess Lavinia of Cumberland and the Duchess of Lancaster. In 1844 Sir Gerard Noel, her mother's champion, formed a committee of friends to assist her in asserting her alleged rights. A bill was filed against the Duke of Wellington, as executor of George IV, praying for an account of the legacy of 15,000l. alleged to have been left to her mother by George III. The court of chancery held, however, that it had no power to give relief under a will that had not been proved in the ordinary fashion. In 1858 she published an ‘Appeal for Royalty: a Letter to Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, from Lavinia, Princess of Cumberland and Duchess of Lancaster.’ In this book she related incidentally the fictitious story of an early marriage between George III and Hannah Lightfoot, and published copies of what purported to be certificates, in her possession, of the marriage which she pretended was celebrated by Dr. Wilmot. The document was doubtless forged by her mother.

Mrs. Ryves took advantage of the Legitimacy Declaration Act of 1861 to bring her case again into court. She first obtained in 1861 a declaration of the validity of the marriage of her mother with her father. In June 1866 she petitioned the court to declare that the Duke of Cumberland and Olive Wilmot were lawfully married, and that Olive, afterwards Olive Serres, was their legitimate child. All the documents previously mentioned in the controversy—about seventy in all—were produced; but before the solicitor-general, Sir Roundell Palmer (afterwards Lord Selborne) [q. v.], finished his address for the crown, the jury unanimously declared the signatures to be forgeries.

Mrs. Ryves afterwards published a pamphlet, ‘Ryves v. the Attorney-General: Was Justice done?’ 1866. She enjoyed a pension from the Royal Academy in consideration of her father's eminence, and died at Haverstock Hill on 7 Dec. 1871, leaving two sons and three daughters.

[Gent. Mag. 1835, ii. 93; Life of J. T. Serres, by a Friend; Hannah Lightfoot and Dr. Wilmot's Polish Princess (reprinted from Notes and Queries), by William J. Thoms; Princess of Cumberland's Statement to the English Nation; Annual Register, 1866, the Trial of Ryves v. the Attorney-General; information kindly supplied by W. A. J. Archbold, esq.]

D. J. B.