Princess Charlotte of Wales: A Most Unusual Princess

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales was the only child of George, Prince of Wales (later George IV) and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick. Charlotte’s parents were cousins and her father married her mother to help resolve his enormous debts, but the marriage was disastrous. They were unsuited, each disliked the other, and George was in love with another woman, Maria Fitzherbert. Still it was George’s job to get his wife pregnant, which he did. The Hampshire Chronicle reported that Princess Charlotte’s delivery on 7 January 1796 was exactly thirty-nine weeks and one day from the date of Caroline’s marriage to the Prince of Wales. As to the baby’s birth the Hampshire Chronicle provided details:

“We have the satisfaction to announce the safe delivery of her Royal Highness … of a daughter on, Thursday morning, at past nine o’clock, at Carlton House. Her Royal Highness, and the Infant Princess, are in a state that promises health to both. Her Royal Highness experienced no depression of her wonted spirits till eleven o’clock on Wednesday night, when the gentlemen of the faculty were immediately sent for. … During Wednesday, and the night following, the Prince of Wales, Duke of Gloucester, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord President of the Council, and Lord Thurlow, waited in a room adjoining that of the Princess. The Ladies who waited in the inner chamber were, the Countess of Jersey, the Countess of Caernarvon, Lady Dahlwood, and Mrs. Fitzroy.”[1]

Princess Charlotte’s mother Caroline of Brunswick in 1820. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Prince and Princess of Wales were formally separated after Charlotte’s birth and remained separated thereafter. During Charlotte’s formative years, her father left most of her care to the royal governesses, nurses, and servants and restricted her time with her mother to a daily visit. He also did not allow Princess Caroline to make any decisions regarding their daughter’s care. However, sympathetic staff allowed Princess Caroline to be alone with her daughter, something that George did not know because he was seldom around and had little contact himself with his own child.

Princess Charlotte was a healthy, happy, and warm-hearted child despite her parents using her as a pawn against one another and despite them continually battling over her. When Charlotte was about one and half years old, her mother left her and began renting a home near Blackheath, a district in south east London that straddles the Royal Borough of Greenwich and the London Borough of Lewisham. At the time fathers had unequivocal rights to minor children and so even if Princess Caroline had wanted to take her daughter with her, she would not have been allowed. However, she did continue to visit the little Princess at Carlton House and sometimes she had her daughter driven to Blackheath for visits.

Princess Charlotte at about three years old.

Princess Charlotte around 1799. Courtesy of V&A.

Because Princess Charlotte was of royal birth, she began assuming the role of a royal from an early age. Some of her duties were reported by the Chester Courant when she was a mere four years old:

“This morning her Royal Highness, now only in her fourth year, presented the colours to the gentlemen volunteers of the Inner Temple, the ceremony of which made a most magnificent spectacle. The benchers, in grand procession, in their gowns and with their maces, received and conducted the Princess to the hall, where she was received by Lady Loughborough, Lady Kenyon, and Lady Arden: from whence they proceeded to a pavillion erected in the garden, and thence to the parade, where the infant Princess delivered the colours to the commander, Captain Graham. A speech was made, in her Royal Highness’s name, by her governess, Lady Elgin. They then, after some military manoeuvres, repaired to the chapel, where the colours were consecrated; and the ceremony concluded with an elegant dejeune prepared in the most sumptuous style by the benchers.”[2]  

When Charlotte was eight, her father decided to live at Carlton House alone and moved his daughter into the adjacent Montague House. In her new residence everyone who surrounded her was paid. The move also took place without the presence of Charlotte’s governess, Lady Elgin, who was married to the 7th Earl of Elgin, well-known because he had removed the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, along with other sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechteum. George had been unhappy with Lady Elgin and forced her to retire, ostensibly because she was too old but more likely because he was angry with her for having taken his daughter Charlotte to see his father the King without his permission.

Princess Charlotte

Princess Charlotte as a child. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Prince of Wales also dismissed his daughter’s sub-governess, Miss Hayman, because she friendly with Princess Caroline, who then immediately hired her. Lady Elgin’s replacement was Lady de Clifford, wife to Edward Southwell, 20th Baron de Clifford. She was extremely fond of Charlotte, and so good natured that she did little to discipline her. Lady de Clifford also brought her grandson to play with Charlotte. Her grandson became the Honourable George Keppel but at the time was three years younger than Charlotte. Year later he remembered the time he spent with the Princess Charlotte and wrote in his memoirs:

“I first made the acquaintance of Princess Charlotte … on a Saturday, a Westminster half holiday. From this time forth for the next three years many of my Saturdays and Sundays were passed in her company. … When excited she stuttered painfully. Her manners were free from the slightest affectation; they rather erred in the opposite extreme. She was an excellent actress whenever there was anything to call forth her imitative power. One of her fancies was to ape the manners of man. On these occasions she would double her fists, and assume an attitude of defence, that would have done credit to a profess pugilist. What I disliked in her, when in this mood, was her fondness for exercising her hands upon me in their clenched form. She was excessively violent in her disposition, but easily appeased, very warm-hearted, and never so happy as when doing a kindness. Unlike her grandmothers … she was generous to excess. There was scarcely a member of my family upon whom she did not bestow gifts.”[3]

Keppel also recalled several other incidents related to the Princess as a child. For instance, according to him, the Bishop of Exeter, Dr. John Fisher, was assigned to supervise the Princess’ studies in 1805 but she found him and his supervision distasteful. Perhaps her dislike for him had something to do with his solemn look and sullen expression that was exacerbated by a “projecting under lip” or it might have been because he was precise in dress, formal in manner, and pedant in language. Whatever the reason she nicknamed him, “the great U.P.” because he used great emphasis on the last syllable of the word Bishop. According to Keppel her dislike for the Bishop was obvious:

“I have read somewhere that the Princess once pulled off the Bishop’s wig and threw it into the fire. I cannot vouch for the truth of the story; all I remember is that frequently when the Bishop’s back was turned, she would imitate his voice and gesture, and shooting forth her nether lip would give a sample of those grandiloquent homilies which he was in the habit of inflicting upon her in and out of season.”[4]

As to how the Princess Charlotte looked when she was twelve, Keppel gave this description:

“Her complexion was rather pale. She had blue eyes, and that peculiarly blond hair which was characteristic rather of her German than of her English descent. Her features were regular, her face, which was oval, had not the fulness which later took off somewhat from her good looks. Her form was slender but of great symmetry; her hands and feet were beautifully shaped.”[5]

Princess Charlotte at age 11.

Princess Charlotte at age 11. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because Princess Charlotte grew up with little discipline, when she reached her teenage years, there were complaints that her behavior was inappropriate and undignified. For example, Lady de Clifford complained that she often allowed her ankle-length underwear to show. A lady-in-waiting to Charlotte’s mother, Lady Charlotte Bury, visited the Princess on one of her birthdays and described her as “very injudiciously attired — wrapped in a pink dressing-gown.”[6] That wasn’t Lady Bury’s only comment about the Princess because she also noted:

“She is very clever, but has at present the manners of a hoyden schoolgirl. She talked all sorts of nonsense to me. She is fine piece of flesh and blood, but can put on dignity when she chooses, though it seems to sit uneasily upon her. … The royal family had sent her presents on her birthday; the Queen sent a very handsome aigrette, which the young Princess Charlotte observed was really pretty well, considering who sent it. She then laughed heartily, her own peculiar loud but musical laugh.”[7]

Charlotte’s father was installed as the Prince Regent on 6 February 1811 and some months later in that same year, in November, the 15-year-old Princess tomboy was introduced to society. It happened when her aunt, the Duchess of York, gave a ball at Oatlands. Apparently, her father either suggested it or sanctioned it. Of this event nineteenth-century author C.E. Pearce wrote:

“Into the gaiety of the ball at Oatlands, she threw herself with all the exuberance of her nature. She was very partial to the Duchess of York, and she felt she was among friends … It was on this occasion that one of the foreign envoys spoke of her as ‘a young girl who had the air of a headstrong boy in petticoats.’ … The Duchess hated ceremony, and as a consequence the ball at Oatlands was not marked by rigid etiquette and cold formality, and it is pretty certain that Charlotte, who was as unconventional as her aunt, enjoyed herself thoroughly.”[8]

Miniature of the future George IV in 1792 by Richard Cosway. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The relationship between the Prince Regent and his daughter was always somewhat strained and became more so when he instituted strict conditions that were even harsher than the ones he had been ordered to observe by his parents. He had rebelled against them, and so why he expected his 15-year-old daughter to follow his rules seems counter-intuitive, but he did. Of course, all the rules and restrictions resulted in a bored Princess who soon became infatuated with her first cousin, George FitzClarence. The crush didn’t last long because he was called to join his Brighton regiment.

Princess Charlotte then began liking Lieutenant Charles Hess of the Light Dragoons. The couple enjoyed several clandestine meetings that were sanctioned by her mother because she was delighted with her daughter’s passion and even left the pair alone in her apartments. Of course, the Prince Regent was not aware of the meetings, although most of the Royal Family knew and did not tell him because they disapproved of how he treated his daughter.  

In 1812, the Prince Regent’s unpopularity increased. Part of the public’s unhappiness with him was due to his “wasteful extravagance” and because they suffered oppressive taxes and high prices. Over the years, his wife had remained popular, which incensed him, and now his daughter, the Princess Charlotte, was much more popular than him. Unhappy that his daughter, who was now on the verge of womanhood, was popular, the Prince Regent became spiteful and began drinking more than ever.

Princess Charlotte. Author’s collection.

Of course, the bitterness the Prince Regent held towards his daughter was soon revealed to her. The Prince Regent’s mother, Queen Charlotte, also got involved and began supporting her son by issuing “offensive instructions” against her granddaughter visiting. All these things resulted in a tense situation and made the father and daughter relationship worse. It was then reported:

“Charlotte threw herself into the fray with all the ardour and, it may be added, all the rashness of youth. She spoke contemptuously of the Prince’s drinking habits; she nicknamed Queen Charlotte ‘The merry Wife of Windsor,’ and was reprimanded by her father in consequence. ‘Don’t you know,’ said he, ‘my mother is the Queen of England’ ‘And you seem to forget my mother is the Princess of Wales,’ she retorted with effect.”[9]

The year 1813 was the year that Eliza de Feuillide died and also the year that the tide turned in Britain’s favor against Napoleon Bonaparte and his allies. It was also the year that the Prince Regent began thinking about marriage for his young daughter. The Prince and his advisers decided she should marry William, Hereditary Prince of Orange, because it would increase British influence in Northwest Europe, but William made a poor impression upon Charlotte from the moment she saw him.

The meeting happened at her father’s birthday party on 12 August, when the Prince Regent was turning fifty-one. He got drunk as did William and many of the guests. Of course, there had been no formal information given to her about the proposed marriage, but as usual the palace was full of whispers about what was intended, and a Dr. Henry Halford was given the task of finding out how Princess Charlotte felt about such a match. She was reluctant.

“‘Marry I will,’ said she to … [her mother], ‘and that directly in order to enjoy my liberty, but not the Prince of Orange. I think him so ugly that I am almost obliged to turn my head away in disgust when he is speaking to me.’”[10]

When the Prince Regent learned how she felt, he was upset. She had mentioned Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, but when the Prince Regent met with her, he was adamantly opposed to such a union. He then railed and positively refused to give his consent to such a marriage. In addition, he made sure that gradual pressure from various people was applied to Princess Charlotte hoping to get her to agree to marry the Prince of Orange.

The matter of marriage was soon leaked to the press and there were various articles about whether the Princess Charlotte would marry the Prince of Orange. In the meantime, the Prince Regent tried a gentler approach and on 12 December arranged a meeting between the two at a dinner party. When her father asked how she felt, she stated that she liked what she had seen, which he then took for acceptance and called the Prince of Orange to inform him.

Negotiations over the marriage contract took several months. Princess Charlotte insisted that she not be required to leave Britain and on 10 June 1814, she signed the marriage contract. However, Charlotte’s mother opposed the match and had the support of the public so that when the Princess went out in public, crowds urged her not to abandon her mother and marry the Prince of Orange.

Princess Charlotte and the Prince of Orange

Cartoon in 1814 showing the Prince of Orange, dressed like a Dutchman in (English) caricature, kneels imploring with his arms extended at the feet of Princess Charlotte. He wears Apollo’s wreath, decorated with small oranges. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In the meantime, Charlotte informed the Prince of Orange that when they wed, her mother would have to be welcome in their home — a condition that certainly was not pleasing to her intended or to her father. When the Prince of Orange refused to agree, Charlotte broke off the engagement. In response, the Prince Regent sent orders that she was to remain at her residence at Warwick House (adjacent to Carlton House) until she could be conveyed to Cranbourne Lodge at Windsor, where she would be allowed to see no one except the Queen.

When Princess Charlotte was told, she was distraught. She raced into the street where a man, seeing her distress, helped her find a hackney cab so that she could go to her mother’s house. Princess Caroline was not there when she arrived as she was visiting friends, but she hastened home when told of her daughter’s arrival. In the meantime, Princess Charlotte summoned several Whig politicians to advise her and some family members also gathered, including her uncle, the Duke of York, who came with a warrant to secure her and return her by force if necessary.

The story of Charlotte’s flight became the talk of the town and the press reported on the “runaway Princess,” who had been advised by the Whigs to return to her father’s house, which she did the next day. Charlotte was also soon conveyed to Cranbourne Lodge, where orders where given to not let her out of her attendants’ sight. At the lodge life proved to be surprisingly agreeable and it also there at the end of July 1814 that her father informed her that her mother was leaving the country for an extended stay on the Continent. This news upset Charlotte who felt her mother was abandoning her.

By 1815, the Princess Charlotte had fixed her sights upon Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who would go on to become the first King of the Belgians following that country’s independence in 1830. She had met Leopold previously and part of the reason she was so attracted to him had to be his physically appearance. He was described at the time as tall, manly in bearing, and one of the handsomest men of the day.

Prince Leopold. Author’s collection.

Unfortunately for Charlotte her father still wanted her to marry the Prince of Orange. However, many in the Royal Family supported Charlotte and opposed her marrying the Prince of Orange, so her father finally gave in and dropped the idea. The Prince of Orange then became engaged to the Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna of Russia.

The following year in January, the Princess pleaded with her father to be allowed to marry Leopold. The Prince Regent finally agreed to interview him, and Leopold arrived in Britain in late February 1816. After the interview Leopold also sat down to dinner with the Prince Regent and the Princess. Things could not have gone better and George told his daughter that Leopold “had every qualification to make a woman happy.”[11] Charlotte was thrilled and later wrote of Leopold:

“I find him charming, and go to bed happier than I have ever done yet in my life … I am certainly a very fortunate creature, & have to bless God. A Princess never, I believe, set out in life (or married) with such prospects of happiness, real domestic ones like other people.”[12]

Princess Charlotte and Leopold married on 2 May 1816 at 9:00pm in the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House. It was a joyous event and huge crowds filled London in celebration. The honeymoon was less than perfect because both newlyweds were sick, and they honeymooned at Oatlands Palace that at the time was filled with smelly dog odors. However, the Princess couldn’t have been happier and described Leopold as a perfect lover. The newlyweds returned to London for the social season and were greeted with wild applause and it was around this same time that the public learned that Charlotte had suffered a miscarriage.

Still marriage seemed to agree with her. The newlyweds, known as the Coburgs, were also constantly together and people noted the great affection they held for one another. Leopold’s adviser, who later served as adviser to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, wrote that the Princess Charlotte was calm and controlled, and he attributed her good behavior to Leopold’s influence. At the end of 1817, Leopold informed the Prince Regent that Charlotte was again pregnant, and the prospect was great that this time the Princess would carry the baby to term.

Princess Charlotte and Leopold. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Of course, the Princess’ pregnancy generated great public interest and there were bets about the sex of the child. Sir Richard Croft, a vain, pompous, and opinionated man who was an accoucheur rather than physician was put in charge of her with her due date set for 19 October. During her pregnancy, the Princess spent most of her time eating and exercising little. Because she gained so much weight, she was put on diet hoping to reduce the size of the baby, but the diet and some occasional bleeding weakened Charlotte.

Princess Charlotte in 1817. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the 19th of October came, she did not deliver as expected. In fact, by the end of October, there was still no signs that the baby was ready to come. However, on 3 November, her contractions began. Croft decided at that time that she should not eat. The no eating rule remained in effect even though no baby came on the 3rd or the 4th nor by the morning of 5 November. However, on 5 November Croft and Charlotte’s personal physician, Matthew Baillie, sent for John Sims, an obstetrician, but even though he arrived, Croft refused to let him see the Princess.

Despite being weak from lack of nourishment for several days and after hours of labor, Princess Charlotte finally delivered a beautiful large stillborn boy at 9pm. Croft uselessly tried to revive the infant during which time he left the Princess to herself without any of her ladies, only a single nurse in attendance. Although everyone was devastated to learn that the baby was dead, Leopold and the Royal Family were assured by Croft that the Princess was doing well.

Princess Charlotte did seem fine until later that evening. It was shortly after midnight when she began vomiting and complaining of abdominal pain. Croft was called and found her with labored breathing, cold to the touch, and bleeding. He sent a message to rouse Leopold, but as the Prince was exhausted from the vigil waiting for the baby’s birth, he had taken an opiate to sleep. He could not be awakened and moments later Princess Charlotte was dead.

When news broke about the Princess’ death, the public was shocked. All shops closed and great mourning fell across the kingdom to the point that linen drapers ran out of black cloth. The Prince Regent could not attend his daughter’s funeral because of his grief, and when Princess Caroline received word that her daughter had died, she fainted from shock. Princess Charlotte was buried with her son at her feet, in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 19 November 1817. As to her grieving husband Leopold, he never recovered, and according to twentieth-century writer Thea Holme, “without Charlotte he was incomplete. It was as if he had lost his heart.”[13]

Funeral of Princess Charlotte

Funeral of Princess Charlotte. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Hampshire Chronicle, “Delivery of the Princess of Wales,” January 9, 1795, p. 4.
  • [2] Chester Courant, “Princess Charlotte of Wales,” June 25, 1799, p. 2.
  • [3] G.T.K.E. Albemarle, Fifty Years of My Life (New York: H. Holt, 1877), p. 47–48.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 51.
  • [5] Ibid., 1877, p. 47.
  • [6] C. E. Pearce, The Beloved Princess, Princess Charlotte of Wales (New York: Bretano’s, 1912), p. 139.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 140.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 269, 272.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 285.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 349.
  • [11] S. David, Prince of Pleasure: The Prince of Wales and the Making of the Regency (New York: Grove Press, 2000), p. 361.
  • [12] A. Aspinall, Letters of the Princess Charlotte, 1811-1817 (London: Home and Van Thal, 1949), p. 224.
  • [13] T. Holme, Prinny’s Daughter: A Life of Princess Charlotte of Wales (London: Hamilton, 1976), p. 241.

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