Dorothea Bland was born close to the city of Waterford in Ireland in November 1761 to parents Francis Bland and his Welsh mistress Grace Phillips. The couple had six children together in total, and Dorothea, who was often called Dora or Dorothy, was the third. Though not from a particularly affluent family Dorothea and her siblings were happy until her father left the home when she was thirteen. Dorothea’s father Francis worked as a stagehand and abandoned his family in order to marry an Irish actress, banning his other children from using his surname from then on; it was only on this condition that he agreed to send a small amount of money to support the children.
Grace, an actress, was now supporting six children alone, and the older children had to find work to help the family out. Grace saw that her daughter Dorothea had potential as an actress too, and so she helped her find her first roles in order to boost the income of the family. From this point on, Dorothea used her mother’s surname, which was Phillips, and quickly became a successful actress.
Between 1777 and 1782, Dorothea performed in such plays as As you Like It, Richard III and The Romp. When working for Smock Alley Theatre under the management of Richard Daly, Dorothea became well known for playing male characters and performed in packed theatres. Dorothea was living as Richard Daly’s mistress during this time, but when she became pregnant with their illegitimate child, she left Ireland for England when she was twenty.
Upon arrival in England, Dorothea began working for the York Company in Leeds under the employment of the manager Tate Wilkinson. After moving over to England, Dorothea began to use the name Mrs. Jordan. It was common for actresses at the time to assume the title of Mrs. even if they were not married, but Dorothea may have done this because of her pregnancy. Dorothea’s first role for her new company was that of Calista in The Fair Penitent, and the Yorkshire audiences took to her instantly, though critics did not always like her roles in tragedies.
After giving birth to her daughter Frances, Dorothea spent a further three years with the company where she worked on her acting and was known for learning her scripts quickly; other actresses became jealous and were often mean to Dorothea. After famous actress Sarah Siddons remarked that Dorothea was “not up to London,” she proved her wrong and took a contract at Drury Lane in London. In September 1785, Dorothea moved to London, and little Frances and Dorothea’s mother and sister Hester made the move with her.
In her first years in London, Dorothea embraced her talents as a comedy actress and often took “breeches roles” where she dressed as a man. Dorothea soon became a sensation; she was loved for her comedic roles but also for her beauty, intelligence and her natural demeanour on stage. Dorothea also took on roles in operas and tragedies but was encouraged not to play high-class women as it did not befit her own character.
While living in London and touring with the company, Dorothea had a number of relationships. For a while, she lived with lawyer and magistrate Sir Richard Ford. The couple had three children together, but though Richard had promised, he never married Dorothea. Dorothea moved on from Richard and began the relationship she is most well-known for, which was with the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV). Dorothea’s surviving children with Richard then moved in with her sister Hester and Dorothea would later send money for their education and upkeep.
It was in 1790 that the Duke of Clarence first spotted Dorothea while she was performing at Drury Lane. The Duke was the third son of King George III but was never destined to be king and so lived a relatively normal life, with Dorothea being a famous actress and the Duke being in the public eye, the couple became an early celebrity couple though they preferred to spend time with friends in private. The couple were openly living together at Clarence Lodge before long; their relationship was widely accepted even by King George III, but due to their difference in rank, it was understood that the pair could never marry.
Soon children started to be born to the couple, and in the space of thirteen years, Dorothea gave birth to ten children all while continuing her acting career, performing at Drury Lane, Covent Garden and touring. The five boys and five girls all survived into adulthood and were given the surname FitzClarence; they were accepted as royalty by much of society though of course, there were certain members of the royal family who shunned them, such as The Duchess of Kent, mother of the future Queen Victoria. Dorothea was a doting mother and strived to give her children a happy family home. In 1797, the family moved to a much bigger residence at Bushy House, where they lived together until 1811.
After twenty years together, William was under pressure from his family to marry – he had a huge amount of debt which could be relieved by finding a suitably wealthy wife, and none of his siblings had legitimate heirs. By this stage, it was becoming more likely that the Duke could inherit the throne in the future, and he began to search for a bride. Dorothea was cast aside after two decades; when asked the reason for the break-up, she said, “Money, money, my good friend.” After the break-up, Dorothea was given a yearly settlement of over £4000 per year, and while the Duke kept custody of their sons, she was to keep custody of their daughters. The one rule was that Dorothea must not return to acting.
In 1814, Dorothea had no choice but to return to the stage in order to try to repay debts that had been incurred by the husband of her eldest daughter Frances from her earlier relationship. Of course, when this was discovered, the Duke withdrew Dorothea’s yearly funds and even took custody of their girls. After this, Dorothea struggled to regain her fame as an actress and moved to France under the new name of Mrs. James.
After realising she was not wanted back in England, Dorothea moved to Versailles and then later Saint-Cloud, but while living there, she lost even more money due to her daughter Frances and her son-in-law Thomas. Dorothea’s health began to go downhill after this series of knock-backs; she was living on very little money and began to struggle both mentally and physically. While her children were living happily in England with their father, Dorothea was heartbroken because she could not see them and said that not seeing them was the loss of her one remaining comfort.
On 5 July 1816, the famous actress and mother of thirteen children died of a ruptured blood vessel, alone and in poverty aged just 54. In 1830, her former partner became King William IV; he had married Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in 1818, though the couple had no living heirs. Queen Adelaide embraced all of her step-children and loved them dearly, standing up for them when other members of the family gossiped about them or wished for them to stay out of the public eye. Dorothea and William’s eldest son George FitzClarence was never legitimised by his father, and so William was later succeeded by his niece Queen Victoria.1