oa Fundamina : A Journal of Legal History - George Rex of Knysna : a civil lawyer from England and first marshall of the Vice-Admiralty Court of the Cape of Good Hope, 1797-1802

Volume 16, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 1021-545X
  • E-ISSN: 2411-7870



In South African history and folklore, the often mythical story of George Rex is widely known. Popularly the man himself is better remembered for what he was not - royalty - than for what he actually was. From a legal historical point of view, two aspects of his life are of interest : his training and career as a civil lawyer in England, and his role as marshal of the Vice-Admiralty Court at the Cape of Good Hope. And it is on these aspects that I will focus here However, these are but two small pools of light on the broad and often dark canvas of Rex's life and some brief and general biographical and historical descriptions will be required to provide the necessary perspective.

For many years, claims flourished both in England and in South Africa that George Rex was of royal descent. More particularly, it was suggested if not at times held out as fact that he was the son of a young Prince George of Wales, the future King George III of England (1738-1820), and the reputedly beautiful Quakeress and commoner, Hannah Lightfoot (1730-1759). Depending on whether or not they were taken to have been (secretly but legally) married at the time, George was described as the Prince's legitimate or at least his natural son, with concomitant claims to the throne. And hence, so the myth went, George was in 1797 "banished" to the Cape to avoid royal embarrassment, with Crown connections arranging a suitable appointment for him there and supporting him with an annual allowance of £1 000 and a grant of lands, on condition that he never married.
These claims of royalty, for long vigorously believed, supported and spread by many despite the fact that objectively regarded they were based on circumstantial, undocumented, unsupported and untrustworthy evidence derived from often suspicious, sensationalistic, journalistic or anonymous sources, have now thoroughly been discredited. In 1975, already, an historian who traced Rex's genealogy could declare that "[n]owadays academic historians give no credence to stories that George III, before he became king, had a romance with a Quaker girl who bore him children". And in 2003, the results of genetic tests on Canadian, New Zealand and South African descendants of George Rex failed to match the results of those on a descendant of George III, and appear to have proved finally that he was an ordinary commoner and not of royal descent.

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