When George, the Prince of Wales, first visited Brighton in 1783 aged 22, he immediately fell in love with it. Unfortunately he also fell in love with Maria Fitzherbert, a widow who was six years older than him.

Maria’s first husband, Edward Weld, died within a year after falling off his horse. Her second, Thomas Fitzherbert, succumbed to a chill.

They wanted to get married but she was a Roman Catholic and the heir to the throne was only allowed to wed a Protestant.

According to David Arscott in his new book Brighton: A Very Peculiar History: “Prinny was so lovesick that he refused to do the sensible thing and find someone else.

He decided he would defy his father, King George III – whom he didn’t get on with anyway – and marry Maria in secret.” It was hard to find a clergyman who would conduct the ceremony, but eventually one was located in a debtors’ gaol and he was paid handsomely for the task.

David Arscott says: “Rumours of what had happened quickly spread and it had to be denied in Parliament on several occasions. In fact it was never admitted and it is only in recent years that the amazing truth has emerged.

“Prinny and Maria had seven children who lived with her in the village of Litlington at the foot of the Downs, 18 miles away, and passed themselves off as the Payne family.”

However, he was not a faithful husband and was soon seeing a lot of the imposing Lady Jersey.

He was also profligate and decided that one way of paying off his debts would be to obtain a larger allowance from Parliament. That meant renouncing Maria and marrying Caroline of Brunswick.

If ever a marriage was made in hell, this was it. They met only three days before the wedding (official this time). He found her garrulous and smelly. She found him fat and nothing like as handsome as his portrait.

George’s opinion was shared by the Duke of Wellington.

He said Caroline was a woman “of indelicate manners, indifferent character and not very inviting appearance”.

George tuned up drunk to the wedding. They must have gone to bed together at least once, for nine months later Caroline gave birth to their daughter, Charlotte.

By then their relationship had broken down and they decided to separate. Three days later he made a will leaving all his property to Maria, while beq-ueathing Caroline one shilling.

He asked Maria to forgive him and had a handsome house built for her in Old Steine, Brighton, later used by the YMCA. The Pope declared that Maria was George’s only true wife in the eyes of God.

George tried to have his official marriage dissolved and banned Caroline from his coronation in 1821. She tried to force her way into Westminster Abbey but the door was slammed in her face.

Within a few weeks she had died from an intestinal blockage, aged 53. She thought she had been poisoned and she was – by rage.

George never lived with Maria while he was King but they retained a deep affection for each other. Her memorial in the Roman Catholic Church of St John the Baptist in Bristol Road, Kemp Town, shows her wearing three rings to prove she was still his wife.

When George died in 1830, the Duke of Wellington found a locket on his body while it lay in an open coffin. In it was a miniature portrait of Maria, his one true love, and it was buried with him.

* Brighton: A Very Peculiar History by David Arscott is published by Book House, priced £6.99, available from all good book shops or call 01273 321880.