Today is the 200th anniversary of the day Princess Charlotte of Wales died, changing the trajectory of British history and ushering Queen Victoria not only to the throne, but into existence. When I was younger and first becoming interested in the history of the British Royal Family, Princess Charlotte was one of my favorite figures. There’s something rather stunning about her story – from her likability in the face of her family’s unpopularity to her parents’ disastrous marriage to her own seemingly happy ending that was tragically cut short. Charlotte was born to become yet another one of the UK’s queen regnant and her death led to another. There are interesting parallels between Charlotte and Queen Victoria: both were headstrong women in leadership, both married men from Coburg and both were only children who grew up unnaturally alone. It seems fitting somehow that if history intended for Charlotte to be replaced then it was by another Hanoverian woman.
Charlotte was born on January 7, 1796 to the Prince of Wales and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales, one day shy of exactly nine months since their wedding. In all likelihood she was conceived on their wedding night in April 1795, since the marriage was such a catastrophe it’s unlikely there were many more nights spent together. Not only was her father in love with another woman – his longtime Catholic mistress and illegal first wife, Maria Fitzherbert – but he also personally disliked Caroline, who was ill-mannered, sloppy in her appearance and far too vulgar for the squeamish and particular Prince George.
With that in mind, her father was deeply disappointed that his daughter wasn’t a son since he no doubt suspected there wouldn’t be other children to follow. The night she was born, George spent the evening writing out a will that left everything he owned to Maria Fitzherbert in an astonishingly petty 26-page document. Her grandfather, George III, on the other hand was overjoyed. He had always expressed a preference for daughters; though he was blessed with nine sons, he found almost all of them to be huge disappointments.
By the late 1790s, the King’s mental health wasn’t perfect, but he had yet to fully descend into the madness that would eventually lead to the regency. He was delighted by his granddaughter – his first legitimate grandchild (and the only one he would ever know) – and took to playing with her on the carpet at Queen Charlotte’s house and spoiling her with toys.
From the start she was willful. One of her governesses wrote:
“She is the merriest little thing I ever saw. Pepper hot too, if contradicted she kicks her little feet about in great rage but the cry ends in a laugh before you well know which it is.”
The Waleses’ marriage was cause for alarm among the Royal Family. Three months after Charlotte’s birth her parents separated into their own residences, never again to share a roof. At first, the Prince’s parents and siblings hoped that sharing a daughter would eventually bring them together, or at least help them find a peaceful co-existence. Such would not be the case – instead, Charlotte became a powerful bartering chip as the two adults continued to snipe at one another, forcing George’s family to pick sides.
For some time, the King chose his daughter-in-law over his son. He helped her build an expansion on her home in London and was frequently in her company so as to spend time with his granddaughter. Equally as appalled by George’s behavior, he was a sympathetic ear to Caroline as she lamented how she was married to a man she felt to be completely heartless. At various points, George attempted to restrict Caroline’s access to their daughter, but because he took little personal interest in her, it was easy enough to circumvent. The staff put in charge of Charlotte were more sympathetic to Caroline, and even when George was at odds with the King, both Caroline and her servants ensured he saw plenty of the child.
In 1805, the King arranged for Charlotte to spend the majority of the year at Windsor Castle with him, his wife and his unmarried daughters. The arrangement moved the child out of the center of London, provided her with her own private garden and ensured there was some structure and formality to her education, which had been neglected by her parents. Even so, it wasn’t the ideal time to be living under George III’s roof. His mental health was on the decline, his behavior was erratic and he lived in a separate wing of the castle from his wife and daughters. To ensure Charlotte had proper and youthful company, a series of children’s balls were hosted at Windsor so that the Princess could begin to mingle with the best of English society – a skill set the RF decided Caroline would not be able to teach.
The arrangement shielded Charlotte from the increasing nastiness of her parents’ marriage, including the Delicate Investigation of 1806 into whether Caroline had produced a bastard child. Instead, she was the apple of her spinster aunts’ eyes as they lavished gifts and attention on her, however she herself began to cause some alarm with her tomboy ways. She whistled as she walked about the castle, preferred riding and athletics to more feminine amusements and had a rather “boyish” look and manner about her, according to contemporary reports. She detested reading and abhorred most of her studies, preferring to be outside whenever possible. That said, she was a fan of Jane Austen and reportedly identified with the “Sense and Sensibility” character, Marianne.
Her childish willfulness had also given way to rages when she didn’t get her way and as she grew into adolescence she began to find the atmosphere at Windsor more and more intolerable. She once told her aunt, Princess Elizabeth, three days was “more than enough.” As she grew older, she became acutely aware of which of her aunts chose her mother or her father, and who had fought for Caroline to be allowed to see her contrary to George’s orders. More than anything, she became obsessed with gaining her own independence, longing for a time when she could live as she pleased, see who she liked and hold power.
She was also a staunch Whig, as George had been in his youth. When a regency was implemented in 1811 thanks to her grandfather’s mental health and her father became the Prince Regent, she was horrified by his refusal to espouse the Whig politicians who had supported him hitherto and rebelled against him by publicly blowing Charles, Earl Grey a kiss from her box seat at the opera. While at first blush this reads as though Charlotte was molded by Caroline’s influence, in actuality all indications were that Charlotte was truly her father’s daughter. Like him, she was incredibly aware of her position in the line of succession, as well as how that could be leveraged with the public to put pressure on her rivals. Like him, she thought nothing of waging open rebellion. And, like him, she was set on getting her own way.
She became her father’s daughter more literally in early 1813 when Parliament re-visited the findings of the Delicate Investigation and George prompted Charlotte to read the records for the first time, detailing evidence gathered when she was a child. She wrote of the experience:
“After the publication of things I was wholly ignorant of before, it really came upon me with such a blow and it staggered me so terribly, that I never have and shall not ever recover [from] it, because it sinks her so very low in my opinion […] It has taken away any feeling of respect or duty […] I will add that I think she had her aggravations, that was ill-used, and is still now more than before, after this double clamour, [but] the horror of the knowledge of the whole can never make those feelings ever return again that might have allowed influence.”
But whatever she came to think of her mother, she was soon to be at odds with her father. Later that year George became obsessed with the idea of marrying Charlotte to Prince William of Orange, while Charlotte fancied marrying her cousin, the Duke of Gloucester (son of George III’s brother, the late Duke of Gloucester, and Maria Walpole). That December, Charlotte and William met, Charlotte was not wholly displeased with the Prince and George duly engaged them. On June 10, 1814 a marriage contract was signed.
The sticking point was that Caroline was opposed to a Dutch match and the relationship quickly became seen by the public as a war between the Waleses. Most specifically, it was seen as a choice for Charlotte in choosing between her parents and, given that Caroline had the public on her side, the Princess found herself being asked by strangers not to abandon her mother. Charlotte finally told William that she would never reside outside of England, putting him a tricky spot. The engagement was thus broken, and while George was furious the bloom was also off the rose thanks to William’s own behavior in England, including getting publicly drunk on more than one occasion.
In the midst of the news Caroline announced that she intended to leave the country. The government became concerned that George would have an easier time arguing for a divorce if his wife had effectively fled the country – a concern less for Caroline and more for the reputation of Charlotte, their future queen. Days later George summoned his daughter to Carlton House, his London home, but she plead ill-health. Eventually he went to her, at which point the two had a one-on-one conversation for 15 minutes. For her insubordination, George had decreed that all of her servants should be dismissed and she be kept at Cranbourne Lodge on the grounds of Windsor, not allowed to see anyone except her grandmother, Queen Charlotte.
Charlotte responded by grabbing a bonnet and escaping by the back stairs, running directly to Caroline’s house at Connaught Place. Unfortunately Caroline wasn’t there, so Charlotte sent an appeal to her favorite uncle, Augustus, Duke of Sussex, and her mother’s legal adviser, Henry Brougham. Together, the two men told her that resisting her father would only make matters worse. Caroline, who had rushed home to comfort her daughter, was less than pleased. Charlotte returned to Carlton House and was reconciled with George.
On August 8, Caroline left England, deeply wounding her daughter. Charlotte’s argument for living at The Hague with William were premised on two concerns. One was that she felt it proper as a future sovereign to live at home. The second, however, was that no matter what flaws she saw in her mother, she felt that if she was gone, Caroline wouldn’t have any protection against George. That Caroline up and left her for a life abroad was nothing short of abandonment in her mind.
Charlotte spent the summer at Weymouth, during which time she decided to marry a man who had politely asked to visit her in June: Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. It was a suitable match and Leopold an appropriate groom, but he was not George’s choice. The Royal Family was split in their support, but Charlotte found an unlikely ally in her grandmother, the Queen, who begged her never to marry a man she didn’t love.
Charlotte formally requested permission to marry Leopold in the summer of 1815 was turned down by George, still sore over the loss of the Dutch match. She tried again in the winter of 1816 and finally he gave way. Leopold visited England in February, during which time Charlotte wrote:
“I find him charming, and go to bed happier than I have ever done yet in my life … I am certainly a very fortunate creature, & have to bless God. A Princess never, I believe, set out in life (or married) with such prospects of happiness, real domestic ones like other people.”
The couple became engaged and were announced as such on March 2. Overjoyed by the prospect of a respectable marriage within the Royal Family – and a legal one – Parliament granted a generous allowance to them both. They purchased Claremont House in Surrey as their primary home and the two married on May 2 at Carlton House amid fanfare throughout London. The only incident from the ceremony was that Charlotte was said to have stifled a laugh when Leopold was reciting his vows – specifically about endowing her with his “worldly goods.” Leopold was utterly impoverished.
Marriage transformed Charlotte. Gone was the young woman who had delighted in tantrums and the whirlwind of London. She and Leopold settled in to domestic bliss in Surrey, decorating their home, reading and playing duets on the piano. Guests described them as obsessed with one another, but Charlotte’s reputation with court – and the public – was on the upswing.
She found out she was pregnant in early spring of 1817, a little less than a year after her wedding. Britain was obsessed with the idea of a royal baby, perhaps unsurprisingly given that there had been so few royal births since her father’s generation. She spent the subsequent months strolling through her gardens arm-in-arm with Leopold and preparing for motherhood. Her health, however, wasn’t ideal. In proper Hanoverian style, she ate frequently and took little exercise. Her doctors chose to modify her diet and regularly bleed her in the hopes of reducing the baby’s size and ensuring an easier labor. Unfortunately, all it did was weaken the mother.
On the evening of November 5, Charlotte went into a long and torturous labor, producing a stillborn. Early reports were sent out to member of the RF that the Princess was recovering and comforting Leopold with the promise of more children. Instead, shortly after midnight she began vomiting and grew feverish. Leopold was summoned from his bed, but wouldn’t wake up. Before he could be thoroughly roused, Charlotte died.
It’s difficult to translate how shocking Charlotte’s death was and what a crisis of the succession it signified. She had no legitimate cousins, only a slew of aging uncles who were wildly unpopular. As Caroline’s lawyer wrote, “It really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child.”
Her death prompted her uncles to feverishly marry, hoping to produce the future sovereign. It was Edward, Duke of Kent who was successful. In 1818 he married Leopold’s elder sister, Victoire, and in 1819, their daughter, Victoria, was born.
The parallels between Charlotte and Victoria are fascinating, but the most telling is the impact that marriage had on them, a similarity that is all the more interesting in light of the fact that Prince Albert was Leopold’s nephew. In many ways, Victoria’s life was a “do over” for the House of Hanover and one that worked out amazingly well for them.