The One Who Got Away: Charlotte, Queen of Württemberg

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George III was famously disinclined to let his daughters marry thanks to the marital follies of his siblings. And while that feeling may have been spearheaded by George, it was supported by his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, particularly after George began showing signs of mental illness. Of the couple’s six daughters, only three married, but of those three, only one married before she was middle-aged. That daughter was the eldest: Charlotte, the Princess Royal.

Charlotte was the first daughter and fourth child of her parents, joining older brothers George, Frederick and William in the royal nursery. She was born on September 29, 1766 at Buckingham Palace, the same month that her uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, secretly married Maria Walpole and helped bring about the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. Thanks to the birth of three sons in quick succession, the King and Queen were delighted by the arrival of their first daughter.

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Queen Charlotte with her daughter

Charlotte was joined by another brother, Edward, in 1767 and then a younger sister, Augusta in 1768. Augusta would become her closest childhood companion growing up, however the comparisons drawn between them rarely went Charlotte’s way. While everyone agreed Charlotte was sensible and intelligent, Augusta was believed to be the more beautiful of the two.

The nursery was eventually rounded out by nine more children, with the youngest, Amelia, not born until 1783. All told, Queen Charlotte gave birth over the span of 21 years, producing 15 children, 13 of whom would reach maturity.

While the princesses weren’t provided as robust an education as their brothers – or what we could consider suitable today –  it was fitting for girls of their station in the 18th century, with an emphasis on art, dancing, domestic skills and language. Charlotte, alongside her younger sister, Elizabeth, were recognized as the most talented artists in the family and several of their sketches still survive in the Royal Collection.

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Queen Charlotte & Princess Charlotte

Day-to-day, the girls started their mornings with breakfast with their parents, then lessons and a walk in the gardens. A light meal was taken at mid-afternoon, followed by play and sport. At 5 o’clock the children joined their parents again for conversation or reading, after which they had supper in their nursery and were in bed by 6:30 PM. And if that sounds dull to you, then you would have had a similar opinion to the children once they grew older.

The royal sons had a slightly better existence in that they were eventually able to leave their parents’ household to embark on military careers and set up their own independent homes. While still beholden on their parents (and Parliament) financially, they were nevertheless free to spend their time as they wished by the time they were young adults. For the daughters, however, they were expected to stay under their parents’ roof until marriage – and with the King and Queen opposed to their daughters marrying, life quickly became restrictive.

Forbidden from socializing with men, their brothers were the only masculine presence in their lives and were idolized by their sisters. Given that George III’s sons were generally terrible, this was both good and bad for his daughters – on the one hand, expectations were low; on the other, they were pretty much set up for unhappiness.

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George III’s three eldest daughters

In the mid-1780s, the Danish court proposed a marriage between Charlotte and Crown Prince Frederick, however given how Charlotte’s aunt, Caroline Matilda, fared in the country, it’s hardly surprising that George rejected the notion indignantly. Another proposal from Sweden was similarly discarded.

In 1788, George suffered his first bout of significant “madness” and the family never fully recovered, particularly the Queen, who was completely traumatized by the event. While George recuperated, his overall mental health remained precarious and the family had to face the reality of what a regency would look like, forcing the monarch’s difficult relationship with his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, to a head.

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A young Charlotte

Charlotte was named the Princess Royal in 1789 when she was 23 years old. Bored by her isolation, ready to start her own family and well-aware it was high time she was wed, she appealed to her elder brothers to help sway their parents. In 1791 she told the Prince of Wales that she wanted to marry Francis, Duke of Bedford, but her brother told her it was out of the question – the King would never agree.

Certainly her brothers’ own marriages did nothing to warm her parents up. In 1791, Frederick, Duke of  York married Frederica of Prussia – the marriage was both unhappy and childless. Within a few years the couple separated and Frederica was branded an “eccentric.”

The Prince of Wales, meanwhile, secretly married a Catholic widow in his 20s and then for financial reasons agreed to marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. The marriage was a complete disaster and after producing one child, most likely conceived on the wedding night, the couple separated and George spent the rest of her life trying to find ways to divorce her.

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Frederick in 1806, the year he became king

Even so, the Prince felt bad for his sister, who had grown into a plain, bitter and generally disliked character within the family. She had a tense relationship with the Queen, was painfully shy and had a bad reputation among her sisters for “telling tales.” In 1795, the same year that he married, the Prince prodded their maternal uncle, the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, to arrange a match between Charlotte and the Duke of Oldenburg. It came to nothing.

The following year, his sights were set on Frederick, Hereditary Prince of Württemberg. He was unattractive, over 40 and had divorced his first wife for infidelity – a situation that didn’t sit well with George III thanks to memories of Caroline Matilda, particularly given that the woman had died soon after on rumors of poison. But…he was willing to marry Charlotte and Charlotte would have him. Worn down by nagging, George III finally gave his assent in July 1796.

Characteristically, in the marriage treaty drawn up the following spring, the King included the provision that any children from the union had to ask his permission to marry.

The couple married in London at St. James’s Palace on May 18, 1797 before leaving for Germany. In a letter home, Charlotte told her father that during a dinner party held in honor of her arrival they played the English national anthem and she had to fight back tears of homesickness.

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Princess Charlotte

They couple made their home at Ludwigsburg and on April 27, 1798, Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn daughter. The delivery left her so ill that doctors feared for her life, but after a long convalescence she recovered. There would be no further pregnancies.

Seven months after the wedding, Frederick’s father died and he became the Duke of Württemberg. He was elevated to Elector in 1802 and finally King in 1806. Shortly thereafter, Charlotte addressed a letter to her mother as her fellow “sister” queen, to which Queen Charlotte responded so poorly it became forbidden within the family to acknowledge the younger Charlotte was a queen at all.

Then there was the fact that her title came as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, publicly pitting Charlotte against Britain though she maintained private relationships with her family. Reportedly, Napoleon facilitated correspondence between Charlotte and the rest of the British Royal Family, but she was forced to defer to the Emperor in her capacity as her husband’s wife despite her father’s enmity.

But “enmity” is giving considerable credit to a man whose health and mental ability were rapidly declining. By 1810 he suffered a complete collapse and in 1811, the Prince of Wales was recognized as the Prince Regent, a role he served until their father’s death in 1820.

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As for Charlotte, she continued to host her siblings when they traveled through Germany and kept firm tabs on the goings-on of her family. In 1815 she weighed in on the marriage of her brother, Earnest, Duke of Cumberland, to the scandalous Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, by supporting her mother (for the first time in years) in her resolve to never receive her new daughter-in-law. It was hardly a good look for either of them.

In 1813, her husband switched sides in the European power balance and took part in the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after Napoleon’s defeat. While he fought to maintain his status as king, he was also forced to join the German Confederation. Even so, it smoothed relations between the couple and Charlotte’s family, making her position on the continent less awkward.

He died on October 30, 1816 at Stuttgart at the age of 61, having grown morbidly obese.

Charlotte stayed in Germany despite having the freedom to re-locate back to England if she chose. From afar, she stood as godmother to her niece, Princess Victoria, born to her brother, Edward, Duke of Kent in 1819. The following year she was there to mark the succession of her brother as the newly minted King George IV. Her sister, Augusta, noted that:

“Had I not had the picture previous to seeing Her, I should not have guessed it was Her […] She is very large and bulky. Her face is very broad and fat, which makes Her features appear quite small and distended. But what strikes the most is, that from not wearing the least bit of Corset, Her Stomach and Her Hips are something quite extraordinary.”

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Her obesity became such a problem that in 1827 when George IV invited her to visit, she was hesitant lest he become upset with her size. Her doctors convinced her to go, however, because they became certain her condition was the result of dropsy and they encouraged an operation. She did go for the procedure and spent her convalescence reunited with her siblings, including her beloved brother. On her last night in England, George and Augusta arranged a dinner party in a tent near Virginia Water that delighted her. It would be her last sight of home.

Charlotte passed away at Ludwigsburg on October 5, 1828 at the age of 62. She is buried there with her husband.

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