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Hannah Lightfoot (October 12, 1730 – before December 1759) the 'Fair Quaker' who is erroneously said to have been the first wife of George III of the United Kingdom.
Hannah Lightfoot was born into a Quaker family in St John , now Shadwell, Wapping, Middlesex , now E1 , the daughter of Matthew Lightfoot (d. 1733), a shoemaker, and his wife Mary Wheeler (d. 1760). After the death of her father she lived with her uncle Henry Wheeler, a linen draper in Market Lane, Westminster. She married (apparently without the knowledge of her mother) and outside her faith at Keith's Chapel, Curzon Street, Mayfair, on 11 December 1753, Isaac Axford, grocer, of St Martin Ludgate, London. She had absconded from her husband by 1 January 1755, but it was reported on 3 September 1755 that her mother 'was not fully satisfied she was absented from her husband'. The officials of her church reported on 7 January 1756 that she could not be found and agreed that a Testimony of Denial be prepared against her for marrying against their rules. This was read and approved on 3 March 1756. She had been bequeathed £50 by her aunt Hannah Plant in 1748 which she should have received on probate, 9 March 1756. As 'Mrs Hannah Axford formerly Miss Hannah Lightfoot' she was bequeathed an annuity of £40 for life by Robert Pearne of Isleworth, an old friend of the family, in his will dated 26 January 1757 and proved 4 April 1757. Hannah was also mentioned in the will of her mother Mary Lightfoot dated 10 January 1760 and proved 4 June 1760 in which she left the residue of her estate in trust for Hannah, adding 'I am not certain whether my said daughter be living or dead I not having seen or heard from her for about two years last past'. Hannah's husband Isaac Axford remarried in Wiltshire, describing himself as a widower, in December 1759, but he may not have known whether Hannah was dead or alive. His second wife, Hannah Bartlett, died in 1791, and he himself died at Warminster in 1816.
George III admired the simple goodness of the Quakers and there is an old story, first published in 1770 but much embroidered in the nineteenth century, that, in amusement, linked his name as an extremely shy teenager of fifteen with that of Hannah Lightfoot, eight years his senior, who ran away from her husband in 1754 and disappeared. The King, then Prince of Wales, is said to have organised her abduction at or after her marriage to Isaac Axford in 1753 and, according to later stories, to have secretly married and had children by her; two of them were known to history as George Rex (now known to have been born in 1765) and John Mackelcan, born in 1759. Her whereabouts were unknown to her family by 1758. Her husband married again in 1759 describing himself as a widower. Every detail of the story as regards the 'children' has been destroyed by research
Just a month before the Testimony of Denial was issued against Hannah Lightfoot, the young Prince of Wales had seen a Quaker at a masquerade at Northumberland House. If noted and remarked upon at the time it may account for the story which then arose. In December 1759 the gossips were saying that the Prince had kept a beautiful Quaker for some years, that she had died, and that a child survived. When he visited Quakers in the City in 1761 the joke was that he had been 'thoroughly initiated and instructed by the fairest of the Quaker sisterhood'. And so the story grew. Hannah was advertised for in 1793, apparently without success.
However, the story gained strength and much dubious detail with the publication of the anonymous An Historical Fragment Relative to Her late Majesty Queen Caroline (1824), the anonymous Authentic Records of the Court of England (1831-2) and the Secret History of the Court of England (1832) in which it was stated that a marriage between Prince George and Hannah Lightfoot had taken place in the Curzon Street Chapel on 17 April 1759. Such a marriage would have bastardised the children of George III and given any child of his brother the Duke of Cumberland a claim to the throne. The imposter Olive Wilmot Serres "Olivia Serres" who claimed to be such a child forged a succession of documents to prove these events, including this 1759 marriage.
When Olive's daughter "Princess Lavinia", produced these documents in court in 1866 the case was dismissed, the Lord Chief Justice saying 'I believe them to be rank and gross forgeries' and the Attorney General declaring her action as 'a case of fraud, fabrication, and imposture from beginning to end'. The documents are now in The National Archives at Kew (reference J77/44). Such a marriage, had it occurred, would in any case have been bigamous, as Hannah Lightfoot was already married to Isaac Axford. Further, there could have been no progeny of that marriage, as Lightfoot is presumed to have died within months of the purported date of April 1759 based on her widowers' remarriage in December 1759.
Although not accepted by any academic historian these claims are sometimes still asserted: see Kreps in references below.
The above portrait, which is attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds, has been linked without proof to Hannah Lightfoot. A guide to the pictures at Knole published in 1839 attributed the painting to Reynolds and followed an earlier guide of 1817 in describing the sitter as 'Miss Axford, the Fair Quakeress'. It is a portrait of a woman of fashion (not a Quaker) and it has been suggested that in view of the early uncertainties surrounding the name of the 'fair Quaker' that it may be a portrait of a member of the prosperous Axford family, who were not Quakers, and was later wrongly attributed. It may be a portrait of Miss Ann Axford, a sister of William and John Axford, of Ludgate Hill, grocers, who was alive in 1780.
Two novels have been based on the Hannah Lightfoot story.
- A Fountain Sealed: 1897. A historical novel by Sir Walter Besant in which Hannah Lightfoot is the narrator
- Kingdom of Lies, Lee Wood, St. Martin's Minotaur, New York, 2005, ISBN 0-312-34030-3. A mystery novel, set in contemporary times, based on the Hannah Lightfoot story.
- ^ Anthony J. Camp, Royal Mistresses and Bastards: Fact and Fiction 1714-1936 (London, 2007) pp.59-76 where there is a detailed account of her family.
- ^ John H. Brady, Visitor's Guide to Knole (1839) 133-4.
- ^ J. Bridgman, Sketch of Knole (1817) 45.
- ^ Camp, op.cit., 61.
- Royal Mistresses and Bastards: Fact and Fiction 1714-1936, Anthony J. Camp, Anthony Camp, London, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9503308-2-2
- The Great Pretenders: The True Stories behind Famous Historical Mysteries, Jan Bondeson, W.W. Norton & Co, New York, 2004. ISBN 0-393-01969-1
- Hannah Regina: Britain's Quaker Queen, Michael Kreps: 2002, ISBN 0953350517; ISBN 978-0953350513
- The Fair Quaker: Hannah Lightfoot and her Relations with George III, Mary Lucy Pendered, D. Appleton, 1911.
- Mystery royal burial site found
- Carmarthenshire-FHS-L Archives, 3-May-2001