Ernest, Duke of Cumberland had an inauspicious recent showing in the PBS series Victoria, but one that actually illustrates a few reputational issues (shall we say?) during his lifetime. Indeed, for all that Queen Victoria’s uncle may seem like a rather dry case study, Ernest’s life, and that of his wife, Frederica, was consistently marked by scandal, not the least of which were rumors of violence (read: murder).
So, let’s back up and start with who exactly these people were. Ernest, Duke of Cumberland is also known as King Ernest Augustus I of Hanover. He was born to George III and Queen Charlotte in 1771, the fifth son and eighth child of his parents. Publicly, the first nearly 60 years of his life were made up of a traditional military career, however personally he had a knack for rocking the boat and causing his poor mother to reach for her smelling salts.
The first incident of note came in 1810 and involved the mysterious death of Ernest’s valet, Cornelius Neale. By Ernest’s account he was awoken by several violent blows to the head, which he fought off, and then managed to call for assistance. Once the Prince’s safety was secured the household was searched, Neale’s door was discovered to be locked and, once opened, he was found dead in his bed from a fresh wound to his throat. The official verdict was that the man had committed suicide, perhaps after having attacked his employer, however Ernest’s reputation was forever tinged by the question as to whether he had murdered his valet.
Three years later, coinciding with yet another scandal involving an election in Weymouth, Ernest met and fell in love with a cousin of his, Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Frederica, daughter of Queen Charlotte’s brother, had a difficult upbringing thanks to the early deaths of her mother and stepmother, and her father’s decision to transplant his daughters to the home of their grandparents. She was married at 15 to Prince Louis Charles of Prussia in 1793, an unhappy union that still resulted in the birth of three children in as many years. Louis was believed to spend most of his time with his mistresses, action to which his wife reportedly responded by having an affair with his uncle, Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia.
Whatever the case, roughly a year into her widowhood Frederica formed an attachment to Ernest’s younger brother, Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge. The relationship appears to have been some sort of unofficial engagement, the exact nature of which is debatable. It seemingly ended amicably enough, though it did nothing to endear her to Adolphus’s family, particularly her aunt, Queen Charlotte.
And that perhaps stems from the belief (and distinct possibility) that the engagement ended because Frederica had begun a relationship with another man – Prince Frederick William of Solms-Braunfels. In the spring of 1798 she fell pregnant with their child and the couple married that December, when she was about seven-months along. Their child, a short-lived daughter, was born two months later. The marriage quickly turned sour, Frederick was obliged to leave the military due to his growing alcoholism, and the couple were faced with increasing financial issues once Frederica’s Prussian in-laws stopped paying her annuity. The situation grew so dire that even Frederick’s brother advised Frederica to seek a divorce, which she refused to do.
It was in this situation, in 1813, that Ernest and Frederica met and decided to marry. Likely it was based on love, at least on Ernest’s part, and it also offered Frederica and her children a newfound respectability and degree of economic comfort. She accepted his proposal, petitioned for a divorce and then, a few months after Frederick agreed, he died. It was yet another death that was deemed a bit too “convenient,” and rumors swirled across Europe that Frederica had had her husband poisoned to speed up proceedings.
In August 1814 the couple’s engagement was announced and on May 29, 1815 they were married at Neustrelitz.
By this time Ernest’s father, George III, had been declared insane and his eldest brother, the Prince Regent, was ruling in his stead – or “ruling” as the case may have been. The Prince Regent, as well as the rest of the royal princes, were in favor of the match, though it’s worth noting that as of 1815 most were either living with mistresses, fathering bastards or of little dynastic importance. The women were a different matter, particularly their eldest sister, Queen Charlotte of Wurttemberg, who was bitterly opposed to the match. Their mother also remained firmly against the matter. She refused to attend the wedding, advised Ernest to live abroad and never once received her daughter-in-law.
Two weeks after the wedding she wrote to her son, “That the publicity in this country of the circumstances of my niece’s breaking off a former engagement with the Duke of Cambridge and the unfavorable impression which the knowledge of these circumstances had made here, place me under the disagreeable necessity of refusing to receive her.”
A month later she wrote to Frederica herself that Ernest would “no doubt inform you of the circumstances which will prevent his establishing himself here [England].”
Even so, it was the Prince Regent who held the power and that, combined with the support of the Privy Council who was relieved to have at least one more prince enter a legal marriage, was enough to bring the couple to England by August. They went through a second marriage ceremony at Carlton House the day after arriving.
But you don’t mess with Queen Charlotte – a character trait she would later pass on to her granddaughter, Queen Victoria. Her brother, the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, arrived in the country to attend his daughter’s wedding and visit Charlotte, which he took as an opportunity to convince her to receive Frederica. The visit ended badly; he followed up with a letter which was apparently “offensive and so insulting to my feelings as a Mother and a Woman,” according to the Queen, and she never saw him again either.
According to John Van Der Kriste:
“The Duke of Cumberland was incensed by ‘the cruel and harsh treatment’ meted out to his wife and himself. Reluctant to believe the worst of his mother, he wrote to her in December deploring the behavior of the Duchess’s nameless ‘insidious accusers’ who had persuaded his mother not to receive her newest daughter-in-law. He emphasized that he had never allowed his feelings ‘to get the better of my respect and love which in spite of all this I must ever feel for you as my Mother,’ but was anxious to persuade himself ‘that the extraordinary and sudden change of sentiments of yours towards your Daughter In Law and myself was not your own act and deed but that unknowingly you were an instrument in the hands of others who influenced you to this conduct, and indeed I would still wish to persuade myself of this.'”
It was a set of circumstances that would, in fact, change, but not in the way anyone imagined. The next year the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales, married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, an event which the Prince Regent barred Frederica from attending out of respect for Queen Charlotte. Frederica’s response was that “even the coal-hever is master in his own house.” The snub was all the more painful given that Princess Charlotte and Frederica were actually friends.
By November of the next year, Charlotte died in childbirth and the succession of the House of Hanover was thrown into turmoil. I’ve covered this period before, most notably here and here, so I won’t delve too deeply into it. But suffice to say, the dynastic significance of Ernest and Frederica changed.
By 1820, George III had died, the Prince Regent had ascended the throne as George IV, William, Duke of Clarence and Edward, Duke of Kent had both married German princesses and Edward had managed to father a daughter before dying himself.
By 1830, George IV had died, William of Clarence ascended the throne as William IV and his heir apparent was his 11-year-old niece, Princess Victoria. By this time, too, Ernest and Frederica had produced one living child, a son named Prince George (b. 1819). Two daughters had been born in 1817 and 1818, but they both died in infancy.
However, the House of Hanover had a tricky inheritance. Victoria was accepted as the future queen regnant of the United Kingdom despite the presence of adult male relatives (such as Ernest), but that was not the case in Hanover, the German electorate that their ancestor, George I, had brought with him back in 1714. There, only a male could inherit and as such, when William IV died in 1837, it was Ernest who became King of Hanover, not Victoria.
Ernest hadn’t been a popular figure in England and his political clout had been in steep decline since the death of his brother, George IV. He was, however, active and prompted by a keen awareness of his own rank. This was rather well-illustrated by his behavior upon arriving in Hanover, at which point he swiftly declared the constitution null and void because he hadn’t consented to it. Instead, an earlier version from 1819 was re-implemented. He was sharply criticized for the move abroad, particularly in England, where Parliament allowed debate on whether or not he should be allowed to inherit from his niece should she die without an heir.
In 1841, after just four years as queen consort, Frederica died on June 29, 1841. Ernest would rule for another 10 years as king – a period of time to which we’ll return more in-depth another time. He was succeeded by their son, King George V, in 1851, who reigned until 1878. His rule ended with the Unification of Germany.