Always a Princess, Never a Queen: Augusta of Saxe-Gotha


Let’s take a moment to pity poor Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, because she didn’t have an easy go of it. Married to the Prince of Wales as a teenager, she was wildly under-prepared for marriage into the British Royal Family, particularly when it was as fractured as it was in the reign of King George II. She had little way of knowing that her new husband was the black sheep of the family, or that her own growing family would become a thorn in the side of her in-laws. Even less could she have foretold that her husband would die prematurely, removing the possibility of ever becoming queen, while leaving her with the weighty responsibility of raising the future king in a foreign country.

Born in 1719 in Gotha to Frederick II, Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg and Magdalena of Anhalt-Zerbst, Duchess of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, Augusta would move to England and marry the Prince of Wales at age 16. Her marriage was thrown together haphazardly by George II and his wife, Caroline of Ansbach, after rumors circulated that Frederick was entertaining ideas of marrying an Englishwoman, Lady Diana Spencer (not that Diana Spencer, obviously, but same family). At his wife’s prompting, George swung by Saxe-Gotha on his way to visit Hanover and sent word back to London that Augusta would suffice. Frederick, for his part, didn’t seem to care much one way or the other, instead choosing not to rock the boat with his parents and more looking forward to the raise in allowance Parliament would grant him once he wed (a Hanoverian man through and through.)

Augusta spoke neither English nor French, her mother not deeming language training necessary given that the British Royal Family was essentially German. And that was true – the children that Augusta would bear as Princess of Wales were the first generation of the House of Hanover to be born in England. George II’s father had established the House in 1714 when the House of Stuart died with Queen Anne. The Hanoverians were distant relatives, being descended from King James I through his daughter, Elizabeth, who had married the Elector of Palatine in 1613. When Queen Anne died, the Elector of Hanover had set off for England with his equally German son and daughter-in-law.

Frederick, Prince of Wales
Augusta’s own future husband, Prince Frederick, had been born and raised in Hanover, having been left behind at the age of seven when his grandfather ascended the throne. He would join his parents and siblings in Britain in 1728, at the age of 21, at which point he was formally made Prince of Wales. Unfortunately for him, however, it was not quite the family reunion he might have expected and his parents had nothing but contempt for him – a contempt that eventually grew, at least on the part of his mother, into outright hatred.

I’m not an expert on Caroline or the reign of George II, but I’ve read a fair amount over the years, and some on Prince Frederick, and I have never been able to figure out the source of her dislike for her son. Familial strife isn’t infrequent in the RF, but the lengths that Caroline went and the vitriol she directed towards Frederick have always been slightly baffling. It’s also part of a rather bizarre tradition that started with the “Germans” in which the relationship between the heir and his parents is always a bit complicated, at best. That strain has diffused over the centuries, but remnants of it certainly trickled into certain areas within the House of Windsor.

Queen Caroline in 1735
Augusta left home on April 17, 1736 and arrived in England on the 25th, where she was met by Frederick for the first time. And in case 16 didn’t sound young enough, she would make her fiance’s acquaintance holding on to her favorite doll. Two days later she was officially welcomed into London where she met the rest of the RF at St. James’s Palace and on May 8, she and Frederick were married in the Chapel Royal. Her in-laws’ initial reaction to her was favorable, given that her first inclination was to literally throw herself at their feet in a declaration of submission.

Marriage and the politics of court were baffling for Augusta. Her husband convinced her to place his then-mistress, Lady Archibald Hamilton, in her household as a lady of the bedchamber, while her sister-in-law, Princess Caroline, had to tell her she shouldn’t be seen playing with her dolls by passerbys. The latter image I find particularly heartbreaking – this shy teenager, homesick, not speaking the language, seeking comfort with her childhood toys and becoming the butt of the joke.

What instruction or affection she could have perhaps hoped to rely on from her mother-in-law or her sisters-in-law wouldn’t be forthcoming. While George and Caroline enjoyed a happy marriage, what Frederick took away from their relationship was that his father was too submissive to his mother, a dynamic he had no interest in repeating with his wife. The Prince would keep Augusta at a distance, though he did instruct her to snub his parents at a regular clip and she, not knowing the etiquette, often had no idea what she was doing. Caroline, for her part, rarely took offense, instead once saying, “Poor creature, were she to spit in my face, I should only pity her for being under such a fools direction, and wipe it off.” Now, while this doesn’t portray Frederick in a flattering light, it should be noted that Caroline was prone to publicly wishing him dead, so this was a two-way street. One choice quote was:

“Look, there he goes – that wretch! – that villain! I wish the ground would open this moment and sink the monster to the lowest hole in hell!”

By the end of 1736, after just a few months of marriage, Augusta was pregnant. Frederick delayed informing his parents until June 1737, telling them the baby was due in October when in fact it was due in July. Caroline responded to the news by saying she would need to witness the birth to ensure the infant was in fact her son’s offspring. Obviously a strange reaction, but the Queen made no secret of the fact that she wanted her younger son, Prince William, to succeed his father instead. She also, apparently, didn’t trust that her son was capable of fathering a child.

That July the court was at Hampton Court Palace and on the night of the 31st, Augusta went into labor. (How the couple were hiding the fact the Princess was nine months pregnant as opposed to six is anyone’s guess, but I’m assuming 18th century fashion helped.) In an effort to spite his mother, Frederick forced his wife to travel from Hampton Court to their apartments in St. James’s Palace. The household, not prepared to receive them, had no accommodations for a woman giving birth, including a bed, and Augusta would deliver her child on a tablecloth. When the King and Queen were informed they were horrified and Caroline raced back to London where she was remarked that the new infant princess was a “poor, ugly little she-mouse.”

Frederick and Augusta’s eldest child, Princess Augusta, aged 17
Four months later Caroline was dead, passing away on November 20, 1737 at St. James’s. Relations between Frederick and his father didn’t improve, however, and the two would remain at odds until 1745 – and even then, it was mainly a show for the benefit of the public in the face of the Jacobite rebellion. Over the years, while Frederick busied himself with cricket and leading the opposition to George’s government, Augusta would go on to have seven more children, five sons and two daughters, including Prince George, the heir to the throne.

The Wales family
On April 13, 1751, Frederick died unexpectedly at Cliveden House at the age of 44 of what is believed to have been a pulmonary embolism. An epigram for his death, which sums up the respect the British public had for the BRF at the time, read:

“Here lies poor Fred who was alive and is dead,
Had it been his father I had much rather,
Had it been his sister nobody would have missed her,
Had it been his brother, still better than another,
Had it been the whole generation, so much better for the nation,
But since it is Fred who was alive and is dead,
There is no more to be said!”

At the time, Augusta was 31 and pregnant with her ninth child; that July she would give birth to a fourth daughter, Caroline Matilda.

George II
The passing of Frederick, though not seemingly an unduly sad occasion for King George, did somewhat repair his relationship with Augusta, on whom he took pity. Acknowledging that his 13-year-old grandson, Prince George, was now his heir, the King sought to legitimize his daughter-in-law  by naming her the prospective regent should he die before the boy reached 18. It was a move deeply resented by his younger son, Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, but the issue became moot once Prince George turned 18 in June 1756. George II would die at Kensington Palace in London on October 25, 1760 at the age of 76, the new King George III succeeding him at only 22.

Augusta in 1754
Unfortunately for Augusta, while she had taken seriously her role as mother of the future king, her choices in raising her children were met with widespread criticism. She lived away from court as much as possible, and kept her children secluded from society. She also fell under the influence of her son’s tutor, John Stuart, Earl of Bute, to such an extent that rumors circulated through London that they were having an affair (they likely weren’t). Ironically, much of Augusta’s story is similar to that of Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. However, unlike the Duchess and her daughter, Augusta was close to her son and he relied on her for everything, including political advice.

It was Augusta that pushed for George to support Bute as Prime Minister, a position he secured in 1762. However, it was an unpopular move and prompted such significant backlash that he was forced to resign the following year.

Augusta in 1759
Augusta’s position was further undermined when George married, selecting the German princess, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, in 1761. Apparently not learning from her own cold welcome, Augusta took no steps to welcome the girl into her new role, perhaps resenting that she entered as queen, a role that Augusta would never be able to fill, despite 14 years as Princess of Wales.

George would suffer his first bout of mental instability in 1765, just five years after becoming king. Augusta and Bute worked together to keep the information private, going so far as to not inform Queen Charlotte. He would recover quickly, but during the period the issue of regency was discussed and Augusta’s placement sparked fierce pushback, particularly given her ongoing friendship with Bute.

George III in 1762
Augusta’s other children caused her just as many headaches. She reportedly loathed the marriages that her younger sons contracted, as did George III – it would be in response to one such union that the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 became law, making it illegal for members of the RF to marry without the King’s permission under the age of 25. Augusta’s youngest daughter, Caroline Matilda, married King Christian VII of Denmark in October 1766 at the age of 15. The marriage would be a disaster, marked by insanity (Christian’s) and infidelity (Caroline Matilda’s).

In 1770 August had the opportunity to meet her daughter again, a reunion to which Caroline Matilda showed up in breeches, shocking her mother. Less than two years later, the young queen and her lover would be arrested after attending a masked ball on the evening of January 16, 1772. She was immediately moved to a castle outside of Copenhagen, separated from her son, but allowed to keep custody of her daughter. Before her fate could be determined, Augusta died on February 8, 1772 at Carlton House in London.

Caroline Matilda, Queen of Denmark
Caroline Matilda would be divorced from her husband in April and moved to Celle in Germany, where, ironically, her great-grandmother, Sophia Dorothea (wife of George I), had been held captive after her own divorce. Caroline Matilda would appeal to her brother in England, but politically, his hands were tied. She died in Celle on May 10, 1775, age 23. The whole affair reportedly scarred George to such an extent that it played a significant role in why he and his wife would take great pains to discourage their own daughters from marrying in the coming decades.

George and Charlotte would go on to have a happy marriage, growing their family to include 15 children in all. And while those children, especially their sons, would end up being massive disappointments to their parents (in keeping with the Hannoverian tradition), two of their sons would become Kings George IV and William IV, while their granddaughter would become Queen Victoria.

Thus, while Augusta never realized her fate as queen of England, she in fact an ancestor for all current members of the Royal Family.

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