Hannah Lightfoot

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Hannah Lightfoot
Reynolds - Hannah Lightfoot.jpg
Born 1730
Died 1759 (aged 2829)
Spouse Issac Axford (m.1753)
Father Matthew Lightfoot
Mother Mary Wheeler

Hannah Lightfoot (12 October 1730 – before December 1759) the 'Fair Quaker' who is said to have been the first wife of George III of the United Kingdom.

George III of the United Kingdom King of Great Britain and Ireland

George III was King of Great Britain and King of Ireland from 25 October 1760 until the union of the two countries on 1 January 1801, after which he was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until his death in 1820. He was concurrently Duke and prince-elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg ("Hanover") in the Holy Roman Empire before becoming King of Hanover on 12 October 1814. He was the third British monarch of the House of Hanover, but unlike his two predecessors, he was born in Great Britain, spoke English as his first language, and never visited Hanover.



Hannah Lightfoot was born into a Quaker family in St John, now Shadwell, Wapping, Middlesex, now E1, the daughter of Matthew Lightfoot (died 1733), a shoemaker, and his wife Mary Wheeler (died 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) 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, Mary Bartlett, died in 1791, and he himself died at Warminster in 1816.

Shadwell neighborhood

Shadwell is a small district in East London, England, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and on the north bank of the Thames between Whitechapel, Stepney and Wapping. It is located 3 miles (4.8 km) east of Charing Cross and forms part of the East End of London.

Wapping district in East London, England, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets

Wapping is a district in London, England, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It is situated between the north bank of the River Thames and the ancient thoroughfare simply called The Highway. Wapping's proximity to the river has given it a strong maritime character, which it retains through its riverside public houses and steps, such as the Prospect of Whitby and Wapping Stairs. It also has a Royal Navy shore establishment base on the riverfront called HMS President.

Middlesex historic county of England

Middlesex is an ancient county in southeast England. It is now entirely within the wider urbanised area of London. Its area is now also mostly within the ceremonial county of Greater London, with small sections in other neighbouring ceremonial counties. It was established in the Anglo-Saxon system from the territory of the Middle Saxons, and existed as an official unit until 1965. The historic county includes land stretching north of the River Thames from 17 miles (27 km) west to 3 miles (5 km) east of the City of London with the rivers Colne and Lea and a ridge of hills as the other boundaries. The largely low-lying county, dominated by clay in its north and alluvium on gravel in its south, was the second smallest county by area in 1831.


George III admired the simple goodness of the Quakers and there is an old story, first published in 1770 but much embellished 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.

George Rex was a British-born entrepreneur who spent most of his adult life in the Cape Colony, South Africa. He founded the town of Knysna in the Western Cape and played a key role in its development. Rex filled a number of positions in the Cape Colony – including Marshal of the Vice-admiralty Court, notary public to the Governor and advocate for the Crown – before settling on the farm Melkhoutkraal, in the Knysna district. George Rex was the alleged first son of King George III.

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.

Olivia Serres British artist and imposter

Olivia Serres, known as Olive, was a British painter and writer, born at Warwick. She is also known as an English impostor, who claimed the title of Princess Olive of Cumberland.

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).

Lavinia Jannetta Horton Ryves, née Lavinia Serres, was a British woman claiming to be a member of the British royal family, calling herself "Princess Lavinia of Cumberland".

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 [1] attributed another painting of Hannah Lightfoot by Reynolds and followed an earlier guide of 1817 [2] 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. [3]

Cultural references

Four novels have been based on the Hannah Lightfoot story.

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  1. John H. Brady, Visitor's Guide to Knole (1839) 133-4.
  2. J. Bridgman, Sketch of Knole (1817) 45.
  3. Camp, op.cit., 61.