If there was ever a woman you could forget was queen of the United Kingdom, meet Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. Wife of William IV and queen consort for a mere seven years, it’s easy to overlook her role in the British Royal Family if for no other reason than it’s easy to forget her husband’s reign. Even so, Adelaide was an inherently decent woman and if the House of Hanover had had the good fortune to be blessed with more of her ilk, there would have been by far less scandal in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Adelaide was born on August 13, 1792 at Elisabethenburg Palace in Meiningen, now part of Germany. She was the eldest child of George I, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen and Luise Eleanore of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, and quickly followed in the nursery by Ida (b. 1794) and Bernhard (b. 1800). Adelaide’s childhood passed relatively quietly and it’s likely it was mostly happy. Her parents believed in education for girls as well as boys, and Meiningen was decidedly progressive compared to many of its neighbor-states. So progressive, in fact, that as of Adelaide’s birth, there was not a law dictating male primogeniture, though that was changed when Bernhard was born.
In 1803, Adelaide’s father died and his heir, only three years old, had his government held by his mother with support from his grandmother. As such, Adelaide spent a considerable portion of her upbringing surrounded by women in power, an interesting facet to her life story, particularly in light of her later support for her niece, Queen Victoria.
Luise was forced to have Meiningen join the Confederation of the Rhine, however she insisted on maintaining the autonomy of her government. There are anecdotes of the duchy at the mercy of French and Russian soldiers in these years, however the ducal family never left and it appears to have lent them considerable goodwill from the people. In 1813, Meiningen joined the Allies and participated in the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, which broadly addressed European unity in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, but had the added benefit of elevating Adelaide from Her Serene Highness to Her Highness.
Three years later, in 1818, when Adelaide was 25, she and her mother were approached about the possibility of marrying Prince William, Duke of Clarence, third son of George III.
William was no catch. He was 53 years old, had never been married, but was best-known for his brash Navy manners and having carried on a long-term relationship with an actress who had borne him 10 children. His slew of bastards, known as the FitzClarences, were a drain on the royal purse; indeed, his finances grew so dire that he unceremoniously dumped their mother in an attempt to cut down on expenses. She died in Paris in 1816.
William didn’t spend the majority of his life thinking it was particularly important what he did, within reason. His eldest brother, the Prince of Wales, was expected to succeed their father’s crown – George had married their cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, in 1795 and managed to produce a single heir before turning his back on the marriage. Besides George and his daughter, Charlotte, there was another brother between them – Prince Frederick, Duke of York. As such, William had little expectation of ever becoming significant.
That all changed on November 6, 1817 when Princess Charlotte died in childbirth. Suddenly, the succession was thrown up in the air and all eyes turned to the younger sons of George III. For William, it almost ensured that he would inherit the throne, assuming he outlived his two older brothers, for both George and Frederick’s wives were too old to bear any more children. And William, a bachelor, was suddenly in the market for a young, fertile bride.
William and Adelaide met once before their wedding, but despite William’s lack of charm, it was a good match for Adelaide. At best, she became queen; at worst, she become a duchess in the British Royal Family. Luise accompanied her daughter to England in July 1818. Within an hour, they were greeted by William and George, then the Prince Regent, and within 10 days, Adelaide and William were married.
William’s younger brothers had had similar thoughts onthe succession. The brother just after him, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, married Victoire of Saxe-Coburg (sister of Princess Charlotte’s widower), and Prince Augustus, Duke of Cambridge, married another German princess, Augusta of Hesse-Cassel. It wasn’t a particularly dignified period of British history, but it secured the succession.
William and Adelaide were married in a joint ceremony with Edward and Victoire (who had married in Germany that May, but re-married on English soil) on July 14th in the drawing room of Kew Palace. The wedding was attended by the grooms’ mother, Queen Charlotte, who would die less than seven months later.
Adelaide, who became known as the Duchess of Clarence, became pregnant almost immediately, however thanks to falling ill with pleurisy she gave birth prematurely to a daughter, Charlotte, who died the same day she was born on March 27, 1819. Two months later her sister-in-law, the new Duchess of Kent, successfully delivered a daughter, Alexandrina Victoria.
That September, Adelaide suffered a miscarriage, and by the following March she was pregnant again. She gave birth to another daughter, Elizabeth Georgiana Adelaide, on December 19, 1820, who died three months later thanks to a strangulated hernia. The couple’s final effort resulted in twin stillborn boys on April 23, 1822.
William’s brothers’ marriages proved more fruitful. Though Edward died when his daughter was still an infant, Princess Victoria thrived, living with her mother in grace and favor apartments at Kensington Palace. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge delivered a son, George, in March 1819, and two daughters, Augusta and Mary Adelaide, in 1822 and 1833, respectively. The younger of these daughters would eventually become the mother of Mary of Teck, queen consort of George V.
Whatever heartbreak Adelaide felt over the loss of her own children, she threw herself into supporting her husband’s family and was a caring and welcoming mother figure to her numerous stepchildren, nieces and nephews. In the 1820s, she even made a point to write to the Duchess of Kent that, “My children are dead, but your child lives, and she is mine too.”
George III died in 1820, leaving the throne to the Prince Regent who became George IV. For the majority of his reign, his heir was his younger brother, the Duke of York, however York died in 1827, leaving William as next line to the throne. When George passed away on June 26, 1830, William and Adelaide became king and queen. They were crowned alongside one another at Westminster Abbey on September 8, 1831 with Princess Victoria acknowledged as William’s heir. Adelaide took the ceremony very seriously, garnering praise for her “dignity, repose and characteristic grace.”
Today some give Adelaide credit for laying feminist groundwork in the UK, and while that’s perhaps debatable depending on your definition of feminism, she made no bones about the fact that she was well-educated and she understood her role dictated a commitment to public service. Annually her household gave a significant portion of its revenue to charitable causes, including educational efforts, supporting women and caring for the poor. Politically, she was a Tory, and she didn’t shy away from sharing her opinions with her husband, leaving it a considerable question mark what impact she had on her husband’s reign, such as the government’s response to social reform.
As for how Adelaide’s religious conviction and politics intersected, well, when the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by a fire in 1834, she considered it a divine act of retribution for the Reform Act.
By the mid-1830s, Victoria had entered into adolescence, but was largely unknown by the British public and was certainly not a fixture at William’s court. The reigning couple tried many times to welcome her and her mother, however the Dowager Duchess was resolute that her daughter not be corrupted by London society and she didn’t trust William or his politics – her attitude also manifested itself as blatant disrespect for Adelaide. Eventually their welcoming attitude evolved into one where they offered Victoria her own household in the hopes of better-preparing her for her future career, but her mother forced her to turn it down.
William died on June 20, 1837 at Windsor Castle, less than a month after Victoria’s 18th birthday, sparing the government the inconvenience of a minority. The last months of his life had been plagued by ill-health and Adelaide proved herself a diligent nurse, staying by her husband’s side to the bitter end, despite having been sick herself that spring after caring for her mother in Meiningen.
Adelaide, now 45, was Britain’s first dowager queen since Catherine of Braganza in the 17th century. Like her predecessor, she kept a low profile during her niece’s reign, but she also spent considerable time endowing schools and hospitals throughout England and the cities abroad that she visited. She was bequeathed Marlborough House in London and Bushy House at Hampton Court, and she often traveled between them and other leased residences to address her increasingly poor health. She was present at Queen Victoria’s coronation in June 1838, and that autumn she traveled to Malta and Gibraltar for several months. In the summer of 1844 she made her last trip home to Meiningen and in 1847 she was advised to “take the air” in Madeira for the health benefits.
She finally passed away on December 2, 1849 at Bentley Priory in Middlesex. In 1841 she wrote the instructions for her will, which read:
“I die in all humility. We are alike before the throne of God, and I request therefore that my mortal remains be conveyed to the grave without pomp or state…to have as private and quiet a funeral as possible. I particularly desire not to be laid out in state…I die in peace and wish to be carried to the fount in peace, and free from the vanities and pomp of this world.”
Adelaide is buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor.