Born at the end of the 18th Century, Princess Charlotte of Wales was King George III's only legitimate grandchild, and was next in line to the British and Irish thrones1 after her father. She was the only child of George, Prince of Wales, and his wife Princess Caroline. Their marriage was arranged rather than a love match, and they soon separated. Although both loved their daughter, she was often caught in the crossfire between the pair as their disastrous union became a feud which was to last over a quarter of a century.
In the days before photography was invented, if a betrothed couple hadn't previously met in person, it wasn't possible to know for sure what a future spouse looked like prior to the wedding, particularly if the couple in question lived in separate countries. They had to rely on portraits which invariably flattered the sitter2. Our story here involves an unlucky Royal couple, George, Prince of Wales (and future King George IV), and Caroline, Princess of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (in modern-day Germany), his first cousin. They had met briefly immediately prior to their arranged wedding, where they took an instant dislike to each other. Prince George was appalled by Princess Caroline's lack of decorum and offensive body odour. Princess Caroline in turn was shocked at how fat he was, and complained bitterly that he was nothing like his portrait. Still, the wedding date was set for 8 April, 1795, at which Prince George turned up drunk. He was still inebriated on the wedding night, Dutch courage no doubt, but he forced himself to go through the motions and consummate the marriage. The new Princess of Wales probably lay back and thought of Germany.
Princess Caroline became pregnant immediately, but the couple's relationship did not blossom. She had to endure the constant presence of her husband's mistress Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey, because she had been appointed Lady of the Bedchamber. Lady Jersey was not Prince George's only mistress. One of them, Maria Fitzherbert, a Roman Catholic, he had even married, but that union was not legally valid because it had not received the approval of his father the King.
Exactly nine months after the wedding night, on 7 January, 1796, Princess Caroline gave birth to a healthy daughter, Charlotte Augusta. The King was delighted; not so Prince George, who had hoped for a son. The mismatched couple had produced a potential heir, but the chances of them conceiving another child – the so-called 'spare' – were all-but impossible. Prince George longed for his 'wife' Mrs Fitzherbert, whom he had dumped prior to his arranged marriage. He even made Mrs Fitzherbert the main beneficiary of his will, although he did bequeath Princess Caroline a shilling.
Princess Caroline was popular with the British people whereas Prince George was not; he had always endured criticism due to his lavish lifestyle. When a new hospital was being built in the London Borough of Camden, one of the two landscaped gardens was named Brunswick Square in Princess Caroline's honour. Contrasting this popularity of his wife with his own bad press, Prince George couldn't abide the fact that she was more highly thought of than himself. His response was to write to Caroline asking for a separation. She had little choice in the matter; her life up until then had been severely restrictive, so she moved to a private house.
Princess Caroline was unable to take her daughter with her when she moved out, so Princess Charlotte was raised by a governess, although her mother was allowed to visit the child regularly. The Prince of Wales carried on regardless, making attempts to woo a certain Lady Hertford, who eventually deposed Lady Jersey. The King and Queen, while disappointed at the failure of their son's marriage and continuing hostility between the pair, remained fond of Caroline. As such she was invited to tea, which caused Prince George no small angst when he heard about the visits and probably made the already bad situation even worse.
Caroline relished her freedom to do whatever she pleased, including adopting many children. There were accusations that a baby boy she adopted was in fact her own, the product of an affair. According to her neighbours, Princess Caroline had had many gentlemen visitors. This was powerful information for Prince George, who was looking for any excuse to divorce his wife. In those days it was not possible to divorce with mutual consent – grounds such as adultery would have to be proven or admitted to, something Caroline would never do. If George had attempted to divorce her, all the sordid details of their separate sex lives would have become public knowledge and possibly caused a riot. A secret investigation was launched to seek out the truth, but most of her staff would not speak against her. A footman did report that Princess Caroline liked sex, although no lovers were named.
The baby boy's birth mother was eventually traced and Caroline was exonerated, but the secrecy didn't last and salacious details found their way into the newspapers. Her behaviour was criticised and she considered leaving London to go back to Brunswick. However, her father had just been killed in battle and her mother and brother barely escaped to England from the war in Europe, so it wasn't safe for Caroline to return to her homeland.
George's power grew when he was appointed Prince Regent after his father King George III was declared insane. One of the first things he did was reduce Princess Caroline's visits to their daughter. She was barred from the celebrations of Napoleon's defeat and with the war in Europe finally over, Caroline offered to leave the country so long as she received a generous allowance. When the financial part was settled she left England in August 1814, and headed for Brunswick. Wheels were put in motion for reducing her title from Princess of Wales to the lesser one of Duchess of Cornwall or Countess of Chester3.
After a couple of weeks in Brunswick she began travelling, eventually reaching Italy where she met Bartolomeo Pergami and hired him and members of his family to work for her. They helped run her new residence, Villa d'Este4 in Cernobbio, overlooking Lake Como. She took Pergami with her on a visit to the Vatican City but was refused an audience with Pope Pius VII. Back in England there were rumours that Princess Caroline and her servant Pergami were lovers – more ammunition for the Prince Regent who was willing to pay for evidence of adultery. Despite her bedroom being searched, nothing was found, so again she dodged a bullet.
Members of the Royal Family experienced a life of privilege undreamed of by their subjects, their every need being catered for. On the other hand, their lives were closely guarded and restrictive. This, of course, evokes gilded cage syndrome and as the wilful Princess Charlotte grew up, she resented those restrictions. She was raised by a governess who most certainly shared her bedchamber, and was used as a pawn by her parents to score points against each other. Each time she met with her mother it was always with someone else present, and even these special occasions always took place within royal homes such as Carlton House or Kensington Palace.
Her education was provided by tutors who visited the princess. They were of such pedigree as composer and accomplished pianist Jane Guest, herself a former student of Johann Christian Bach. The princess loved the freedom which horseriding provided and she became a proficient horsewoman. This was one thing Princess Charlotte and her father connected on; he was proud of her ability to ride side-saddle and her skill in controlling the horse.
By the time she was 15, Princess Charlotte was rebelling against her confinement and social isolation at every opportunity. She was not supposed to meet her mother alone, but there were times when the minders were 'called away' or became indisposed, allowing them quality time together. Prince George was about as popular with royal staff as he was with the general population, which meant there were sympathisers on Princess Caroline's side.
The teenage princess managed to escape her chaperons so that she could meet up with her first cousin George FitzClarence, but when he was called away to regimental duties, she turned her attention to Lt Charles Hesse. These assignations were encouraged by her mother, who let them meet privately at her suite in Kensington Palace. Even Princess Caroline's governess Lady de Clifford did not interfere, although she was scared of repercussions should Prince George find out. His temper was legendary, as the previous governess Lady Elgin found out to her cost. Lady Elgin had taken Princess Charlotte to visit the King but had done so without seeking the permission of her father beforehand, and she was 'retired from duty'. Lt Hesse was also called up for regimental duties abroad; no doubt his departure invoked sighs of relief from those who did not wish to incur the wrath of the Prince Regent.
Finding a Husband
Princess Charlotte was 17 years old when news that she had been seen with William, Duke of Gloucester, reached the ears of her father, causing him to lose his temper with them both. When he had calmed down, the Prince Regent decided it was high time his daughter got married, so he invited William, Prince of Orange, to his upcoming birthday party, with the hope that Princess Charlotte might consider him a suitable match. She wasn't impressed though, as Prince William got drunk. The Prince Regent persisted and arranged another meeting, this time a formal dinner, which was more successful.
Knowing her father's plans but not wishing to rush into anything, she told him that she would never leave England, even if she were not destined to be Queen. This stipulation was drafted into the marriage contract but still she dithered. One of her confidants was the Whig5 leader Earl Grey6, to whom she wrote seeking advice. In the meantime the newspaper headline writers were having fun, coming up with 'Princess Charlotte's dilemma, would she choose Orange or Cheese7?' Earl Grey replied she should take her time so the negotiations continued. While her father was distracted by her seeming compliance, Princess Charlotte became besotted with Prince Frederick of Prussia, but her hopes of a match with him were dashed when he announced his engagement to Princess Louise of Anhalt-Bernburg.
Then she met Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld at a party, and liked him so much that she invited him to tea. He was a Lieutenant-General in the Russian cavalry and quite dashing, and he seemed just as taken with her. Following the tryst and before his departure back to his regiment, Prince Leopold had the good manners to write to the Prince Regent informing him of the tea visit with Princess Charlotte and hoping there had been no breach of protocol, a courtesy which Prince George appreciated. At that time he did not consider Prince Leopold to be a serious contender for his daughter's hand in marriage.
Caroline did not approve of the choice of the Prince of Orange as husband for her daughter, and she wasted no time in informing the Prince Regent. Unfortunately for him, and to his great annoyance, the people agreed with her. Having dragged it out as long as she could, Charlotte resorted to subterfuge and agreed to marry the Prince of Orange, gaining her father's full approval. She then requested an addendum to the marriage contract concerning her mother being able to visit her post-nuptially, a condition she knew would be unacceptable to her father, who must have been hoping to finally see the back of Princess Caroline following their daughter's wedding.
When the request was turned down, Charlotte refused to go through with the wedding. The Prince Regent's reaction was to confine his daughter to the house and order that she should have no visitors except for her grandmother Queen Charlotte. Princess Charlotte was so distressed when she heard about her virtual imprisonment that she ran away to the only sanctuary she knew – her mother's house.
It took the combined efforts of the Whig politicians and members of the Royal Family to persuade her to return home, and Princess Charlotte agreed to go back the following day. The story of the sequestered young woman fleeing her oppressive father was hot gossip and it soon hit the newspapers. Just about everyone sided with the princess, but she returned to the gilded cage willingly. She did not want to add to her father's unpopularity by showing public rebellion.
The Prince Regent sent her to live at Cranbourne Lodge, with staff who kept a 24-hour watch on the princess. Somehow she managed to get a message to her uncle the Duke of Sussex, who relayed questions to the Prime Minister Robert Jenkinson on her behalf. Princess Charlotte wanted to know if she was entitled to her own royal residence now she was 18 years old, and if she could visit the seaside. The questions went unanswered, but were reported back to the Prince Regent, who went to visit his daughter with the news about her mother's intention of leaving the country. Princess Charlotte was so distressed by this unexpected development, she wailed:
...for God knows how long, or what events may occur before we meet again...8
With her mother out of the way, the Prince Regent again broached the subject of marriage with Charlotte. She refused to consider the Prince of Orange and suggested he approach Prince Leopold about the matter. He didn't need much persuasion and as soon as they were betrothed, Leopold was afforded the title Knight of the Garter. The couple married in May 1816, and they moved into Claremont House. This was a happy relationship and the couple were popular both on the social circuit and with the British public. It was assumed that the union between the loving couple would bear fruit, providing the Royal Family with the next generation. Unfortunately Charlotte's first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Just months later she was pregnant again, with an expected delivery date of mid-October 1817.
When she passed that date with no sign of labour, her doctors put her on a limited diet in an attempt to try and reduce the size of the baby. It was normal medical procedure of the time to remove excess blood in a patient and Princess Charlotte was subjected to this bloodletting when her contractions began on 3 November. Her obstetrician, Sir Richard Croft, did not allow her to eat during the protracted labour, which, along with the bloodloss, must have considerably weakened her.
It took a total of 48 hours before a 9lb boy entered the world; he showed no sign of life at all, something his mother accepted as God's Will. The exhausted princess suffered from post-partum bleeding and despite attempts to treat the condition, she died the following morning. She was just 21 years old. In one fell swoop the Royal Family had lost two generations of heirs and, though he was exonerated of any blame or medical negligence, Sir Richard Croft committed suicide not long after.
The distraught Prince Regent couldn't bring himself to attend the joint funeral of his daughter and grandson. He did not inform his wife in Italy; instead he left that task to Prince Leopold, who was incoherent with grief. The entire kingdom mourned the loss of the popular girl who had been their future monarch. She was the one good result from the disastrous union of her parents; her loss was incalculable.
The Royal Family was thrown into disarray with no potential heir. Princess Charlotte's unexpected death forced King George III to order his sons the Duke of Clarence (eventually King William IV), the Duke of Kent, and the Duke of Cambridge to locate suitable females to marry and make babies with. Princess Charlotte's bereaved husband Prince Leopold offered to help and he introduced the Duke of Kent to his widowed sister Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. They married on 29 May, 1818, and the new Duchess of Kent produced a daughter, Alexandrina Victoria, a year later. She inherited the throne as Queen Victoria at the age of 18 in 1837.
What Happened to Prince Leopold?
If Princess Charlotte had lived and inherited the throne, Prince Leopold would have become Prince Consort of the United Kingdom. As things turned out, he was made an offer to rule Greece, which he turned down. On 21 July, 1831, he became the first King of the Belgians. In 1835 he arranged the first meeting between his niece Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent and his nephew Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which sowed the seed for the next generation of royals.
What Happened to Princess Caroline?
Princess Caroline was never officially informed about her daughter's death. The Prince Regent wrote to the Pope and it was this courier who was the bearer of the devastating news. She remained abroad until 1820 when King George III died and her husband inherited the throne. As his legal wife, she automatically became Queen Consort of the United Kingdom and undertook the journey back to London to stake her claim. The government offered to increase her allowance (with a non-residential proviso) in an attempt to bribe her to stay away from England, which was turned down.
When she arrived in London, the Queen was put on trial to determine if she was guilty of adultery. It was hoped that the introduction of the Bill of Pains and Penalties of 1820 would give the government the power to remove the Queen's rights and titles and allow the 25-year marriage to be terminated. As the trial was public, there was much interest among ordinary people. Those who couldn't afford newspapers for the latest information were able to rent copies for a fraction of the cost or borrow older, well-thumbed versions. A petition was launched in support of Queen Caroline and around a million signatures were collected. This was unprecedented; the general population were applying pressure in what should have been a political matter. Public opinion was beginning to count. The Queen had many powerful and vocal supporters, including The Times newspaper and politician William Cobbett. The Bill was defeated and Queen Caroline's alleged adultery was unproven. Her allowance was raised – without restrictions – her titles remained intact and she set up her own court at Brandenburg House, Hammersmith.
Thwarted by his nemesis yet again, the bitter King vowed she would never sit by his side and he banned her from his Coronation on 19 July, 1821. When she showed up at Westminster Abbey anyway, she found guards had been posted under orders not to admit her. She went from one door to another demanding admittance, only to be turned away at bayonet point. Queen Caroline became sick and died less than three weeks later on 7 August, going to her grave claiming that she had been poisoned.