The short answer is “yes.” Princess Sophia was born to George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz on November 3, 1777. It was an easy birth – or, as Charlotte later put it, “I was taken ill and delivered in the space of fifteen minutes.” Her father wasn’t present as he was then deeply enmeshed in the crisis of the American Revolution. By March, France and Britain had broken off diplomatic relations and the war wasn’t going particularly well – even so, Sophia was allocated funds during the Parliamentary session after birth to be paid out when she married or her father died, whichever came first.
Sophia’s early years had a dependable routine to them. She was educated alongside her sisters by their governess, Lady Charlotte Finch. She saw both of parents frequently and there was plenty of time for play and amusement, even if the children were cut off from society outside of their own family. Sophia, in particular, was a voracious reader of both English and French literature.
On June 4, 1792, when Sophia was 14, she debuted on the occasion of George’s birthday party and began playing a more public role alongside her sisters. Unfortunately for Sophia, while George III had originally said he intended to find his daughters suitable German husbands, he was never particularly keen to see them leave home and the issue was put on the back burner once his health gave way. Their mother, Queen Charlotte, was even less enthusiastic about the idea. While their eldest sister, Charlotte, married a German prince in 1795, the only other sisters who married wouldn’t do so until they were middle-aged by 18th century standards.
According to John Van der Kriste:
“Sophie, some considered, was the cleverest of the sisters. Lord Melbourne later remarked that, in character if not in looks, there was something of the gypsy about her. From her earliest years she had always shown a certain amount of sympathy for the downtrodden. As a small girl, she listened attentively at breakfast to her father reading items from the newspaper aloud to them all. She asked thee Queen what a prison was, and on being told that prisoners were often half-starved for want, she replied that this was very cruel, as prison must be bad enough without the inmates starving.
“Henceforth she said that she would give all her allowance to buy bread for prisoners, and her parents were so touched by this gesture that they agreed to add to this amount. From childhood she made friends easily, and one of her brothers ever had a bad word to say about her. On the threshold of maturity, her governess remarked that she had more sensibility, energy and imagination than all the other sisters put together, not to mention a teasing streak and a gift for mimicry.”
All of that energy, unfortunately, had little outlet as Sophia grew into a young adult. In 1795 her eldest brother, the Prince of Wales, embarked on an ill-fated marriage with Caroline of Brunswick, who was widely detested by not only her husband but the extended Royal Family in short order. Sophia was one of the few exceptions to that rule and she extended her sister-in-law some sympathy, a situation that may have been supported by her friendship with a woman in Caroline’s employ, Frances Garth.
By 1798 Frances was acting as a go-between for Sophia and her uncle, Colonel Thomas Garth, who embarked on an affair. Garth was 33 years older, unattractive and a highly unsuitable paramour for a princess, if for no other reason than George III’s daughters weren’t meant to have paramours. He was, however, witty, worldly and good company, three qualities that would have appealed to the society-starved Sophia.
And then, rather extraordinarily, a rumor began to circulate in late 1800 that Sophia had given birth to an illegitimate child. These rumors were almost certainly true. Sophia gave birth to a son that summer while staying at Weymouth on the pretense of recovering from dropsy. The child was christened on August 11, described as a “foundling,” and given to his adoptive parents, Samuel and Charlotte Sharland. Based on accounts, it sounds like Sophia didn’t realize she was pregnant until she was far along and hasty arrangements were made before she gave birth.
The child, “Tommy,” was likely fathered by Garth, conceived in the autumn of 1799 while the two both resided at Windsor Castle, a situation well-known by Sophia’s family, including her mother, but excluding her father. In 1804 Garth would “adopt” the boy and give him his surname (the “honorable” thing to do given the circumstances). For Sophia, of course, the reality of an illegitimate child meant that she would never be able to embark on a marriage or have legitimate children, marriage with Garth being out of the question due to the differences in their stations.
Horrifically, this wasn’t the only scandal attached to this particular situation. Thanks to a rumor put in circulation by Sophia’s sister-in-law, Caroline, it was believed in some corners that the true father of Tommy wasn’t Garth but Sophia’s own brother, Ernest, the Duke of Cumberland. In letters since lost to us, but apparently procured at the time, Sophia complained to Garth of “attempts” Ernest had made on her. Indeed, given Ernest’s reputation and behavior with women, which went beyond womanizing to what we can somewhat safely assume was assault, this isn’t out of the question.
That the rumor originated with a member of the Royal Family – even a disgraced one – and other circumstantial evidence lends enough legitimacy to this situation to make it entirely possible that, yes, Sophia may have been raped by her brother. Whether that resulted in a child, we don’t know, but given that Tommy had to have been conceived in the autumn of 1799, the likelier candidate is Garth, particularly in light of the adoption.
But Garth didn’t disappear into the night with Tommy; instead he was prone to “parading” the boy around Weymouth when the Royal Family was in town. Sophia’s discomfort with this led to a breakdown in the couple’s relationship by the dawn of 1805. As she later wrote to a friend:
“All my entreaties proved very useless and I merely received a cold answer, that it was very selfish and that I could not pretend my affection as I never had expressed a desire of even seeing what God knows was out of my power [Tommy]. This wounded me beyond measure, for my conduct has show but too plainly that I am not selfish, and I own to you that what hurt me more was the indelicacy this year of knowing it so near me and I could never go through the town [Weymouth] without the dread of meeting what would have half killed me, had I met it [Tommy].”
Shortly thereafter Sophia found herself in love again with an unnamed Englishman, but his identity is lost to us. It appears, though, that she had a chance at making an honorable marriage, but because she wouldn’t marry without disclosing her past and didn’t feel that she could, the opportunity passed. It’s possible, too, that various other concerns, such as his lower station, were also factors while George III was still alive.
The matter reared its head again in 1828. By then, Sophia was an elderly spinster living primarily at Kensington Palace where she doted on her niece, Princess Victoria. Garth, believing himself dying, entrusted Tommy with an iron box that contained the letters and documents that proved Sophia was his mother. Garth recovered, but Tommy kept the box and when, the following spring, he found himself in debt, he contacted the Princess. Sophia’s eldest brother, now George IV, enlisted his private secretary to procure the records in exchange for an annuity.
Even so, the gossip reached the newspapers and when Ernest returned to England for a visit his political enemies used the scandal to accuse him of being Tommy’s true father. It was the 19th century version of tabloid fodder, but though George IV was livid and her name was tarnished and defended in good measure, Sophia remained silent on the matter both in public and in her private correspondence.
She lived until the age of 70, passing away in her apartments at Kensington Palace on May 27, 1848, well into the reign of her beloved niece, Queen Victoria.