Olivia Serres

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Olivia Serres
Engraving of Olivia Serres.jpg
Born(1772-04-03)3 April 1772
Died 21 November 1834(1834-11-21) (aged 62)
Title Princess Olive of Cumberland (disputed)
Spouse(s) John Thomas Serres (m. 1791 div. 1804)
Children Lavinia Ryves
Parent(s) Robert Wilmot

Olivia Serres (3 April 1772 21 November 1834), 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.

England Country in north-west Europe, part of the United Kingdom

England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Wales to the west and Scotland to the north-northwest. The Irish Sea lies west of England and the Celtic Sea lies to the southwest. England is separated from continental Europe by the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south. The country covers five-eighths of the island of Great Britain, which lies in the North Atlantic, and includes over 100 smaller islands, such as the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight.


Origins and early career

Olive was born Olivia Wilmot, the daughter of Robert Wilmot, a house painter, in Warwick. [1] At the age of ten she was sent to board with her uncle, James Wilmot, rector of Barton-on-the-Heath. In 1789 she rejoined her father in London. She had a talent for painting and studied art with John Thomas Serres, (1759–1825), marine painter to George III, and she married Serres in 1791. They had two daughters. Olive exhibited her paintings at the Royal Academy of Arts and the British Institution, but was financially reckless; both she and her husband were imprisoned for debt. The Serres came to a parting of the ways, with acrimony on both sides: from Serres because Olive had had several affairs when he was away, and from Olive because she was given an allowance of only £200 per annum. George Fields, an artist friend, moved in with Olive and she gave birth to his son prior to her divorce in 1804.[ citation needed ] 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 . [1]

Warwick the county town of Warwickshire, England

Warwick is the county town of Warwickshire, England. It lies near the River Avon, 11 miles (18 km) south of Coventry and just west of Leamington Spa and Whitnash. At the 2011 Census, the population was 31,345. Signs of human activity date to the Neolithic period and constant habitation to the 6th century AD. It was a Saxon burh in the 9th century; Warwick Castle was built during the Norman conquest of England. Warwick School claims to be the country's oldest boys' school. The earldom of Warwick, created in 1088, controlled the medieval town and built town walls, of which Eastgate and Westgate survive. The castle grew into a fortress, then a country house. The Great Fire of Warwick in 1694 destroyed much of the medieval town. Warwick missed 19th-century industrialisation, but has grown since 1801, when the population was 5,592.

James Wilmot clergyman, scholar

James Wilmot was an English clergyman and scholar from Warwickshire. During his lifetime, he was apparently unknown beyond his immediate circle.

Barton-on-the-Heath is a village and civil parish in the Stratford-on-Avon district of Warwickshire, England. According to the 2001 census the parish had a population of 85. From the Census 2011 population details are included in the neighbouring civil parish of Little Compton. The village is in the extreme south of Warwickshire, close to the borders with Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. There is a church, dedicated to St Lawrence.

"Stone House beneath the Mountains" - a painting by Serres Stone House beneath the Mountains painting by Olivia Serres.jpg
"Stone House beneath the Mountains" - a painting by Serres

Claims to royalty

In 1817, Olive wrote a letter to the Prince Regent,[ citation needed ] claiming that she was the natural daughter of Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland by Mrs. Olive Payne (who was James Wilmot's sister and her actual aunt). She asked the prince for financial support. In a petition to George III, she put forward a claim to be the natural daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, the king's brother. [1]

George IV of the United Kingdom King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of Hanover

George IV was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and King of Hanover following the death of his father, King George III, on 29 January 1820, until his own death ten years later. From 1811 until his accession, he served as Prince Regent during his father's final mental illness.

Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn British noble

Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn was the sixth child and fourth son of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, and a younger brother of George III. His 1771 marriage to a commoner against the King's wishes prompted the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.

In 1820, after her father, her uncle, and King George III had died, she revised her story. James Wilmot, she claimed, had secretly married the princess Poniatowski, sister of King Stanislaus II of Poland, and their daughter had married the Duke of Cumberland in 1767 at the London house of a nobleman. Olive claimed to be the only child of this marriage, [1] and that her mother had died "of a broken heart" on the Duke of Cumberland's "second" and "bigamous" marriage to Anne Horton.[ citation needed ]

She herself, ten days after her birth, was, she alleged, taken from her mother, and substituted for the still-born child of Robert Wilmot. [1] According to Olive Serres, King George III had learned the truth and had given her £5000 in cash and a yearly pension of £500 for life.[ citation needed ] She also claimed to have received support from the king of Poland and to have been created the Duchess of Lancaster by George III in May 1773, which, she said, entitled her to the income of the Duchy of Lancaster.[ citation needed ] 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. [1]

Duchy of Lancaster royal duchy in England

The Duchy of Lancaster is, since 1399, the private estate of the British sovereign as Duke of Lancaster. The principal purpose of the estate is to provide a source of independent income to the Sovereign. The estate consists of a portfolio of lands, properties and assets held in trust for the Sovereign and is administered separately from the Crown Estate. The duchy consists of 18,433 ha of land holdings, urban developments, historic buildings and some commercial properties across England and Wales, particularly in Cheshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Savoy Estate in London. The Duchy of Lancaster is one of two royal duchies: the other is the Duchy of Cornwall, which provides income to the Prince of Wales.

Defending her claims

Olivia Serres's claim was supported by documents, and she bore sufficient resemblance to her alleged father to be able to impose on numerous gullible people. [1] In 1821, she had herself rebaptized as the daughter of the Duke of Cumberland at Islington Church, and "announced" her parentage in several letters to the newspapers and in pamphlets. She actually succeeded in obtaining some courtesies in response to her claims of royal status, such as being permitted to pass through the Constitution Gate.[ citation needed ]

Duke of Cumberland is a peerage title that was conferred upon junior members of the British Royal Family, named after the historic county of Cumberland.

The same year, however, she was arrested again for debt and placed in the King's Bench Prison. She appealed to the public for contributions, placing posters reading "The Princess of Cumberland in Captivity!" all over London, and publishing, in 1822, further details of her claims. On her release, she had an affair with Sheriff J. W. Parkins, a London eccentric, who turned against her when she failed to honour her debts to him. She next had an affair with a young man who called himself William Henry FitzClarence, who claimed to be an illegitimate son of the Duke of Clarence.[ citation needed ]

Olive managed to persuade Sir Gerard Noel, a member of Parliament, to make inquiry into her claims, but by this time the royal family was fighting back. Having located her birth certificate, a statement by Robert Wilmot stating that he was her natural and lawful father , and a statement from Princess Poniatowski that none of King Stanislaus's sisters had ever been to England.[ citation needed ] In 1823 Sir Robert Peel, then Home Secretary, speaking in parliament, responded to Noel's speech in Olive's favour with a denunciation of her documents as forgeries and her story as a fabrication. [1] It was concluded that her claims were false, but Olive escaped prosecution for forgery.[ citation needed ]

Her husband, who had never given her pretensions any support, expressly denied his belief in them in his will. [1] Olive continued to have economical problems and was for the rest of her life in and out of debtors' prisons. In 1830 she again published a pamphlet staking a claim on royalty.[ citation needed ]

Suppressed book

Serres became friendly with Lady Anne Hamilton, who had been lady-in-waiting to Queen Caroline, and gained her confidence. In 1832 Lady Anne wrote a history called "The Authentic Records of the Court of England for the Last Seventy Years", which contained many accusations of scandals. The publisher, J. Phillips, was prosecuted and convicted but fled into exile. [2] Serres has been identified as the author of an expanded version of the text which included more scandals, from financial malpractice up to murder; the resulting book was published in two volumes under the title "The Secret History of the Court of England", but still claiming that Lady Anne Hamilton was the author. [3] For her part, Lady Anne disclaimed any connection with the two volume publication. [4] "The Secret History of the Court of England" was suppressed in the United Kingdom, a fact noted when it was much reprinted in the United States.

Serres died on 21 November 1834 leaving two daughters. [1]

Elder daughter

Her elder daughter married Antony Ryves, a portrait painter. She 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. [1]


Serres' pretensions have been called the result of an absurd vanity. Between 1807 and 1815 she had made the acquaintance of some members of the Royal family. From this time onward, she is claimed to have been obsessed with the idea of raising herself, at all costs, to their social level. The tale once invented, she brooded so continuously over it that she may have ended by believing it herself. [1]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Chisholm 1911, p. 683.
  2. "The Living Age", Littell, Son & Co., Vol. 151 (1881), p. 818.
  3. K. D. Reynolds, 'Serres , Olivia (1772–1835)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, 2004 , accessed 6 April 2012. Reynolds appears to misdate the book to 1828 in the Oxford DNB entry for Serres; all other sources and his own Oxford DNB entry for Lady Anne Hamilton say 1832.
  4. Nicholas Tracy, "Britannia's Palette: The Arts of Naval Victory", McGill-Queen's Press, 2007, p. 243.

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Olive: Princess of Cumberland (1772–1834) - A Royal Scandal by Miles Macnair (Nov 2011). ISBN   978-1-85858-481-2