The Private Life of Princess Augusta

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Princess Augusta bears the dubious honor of being George III’s most beautiful daughter, but that’s not exactly a high standard. She was born on November 8, 1768, the sixth child and second daughter of George and his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Her birth is famous for the anecdote that her father was enormously eager for another daughter after four boys and when the waiting physician said, “I think, sir, whoever sees those lovely princes above stairs must be glad to have another,” the King was none too pleased.

“Dr. Hunter,” replied George, “I did not think I could have been angry with you, but I am; and I say, however see that lovely child the Princess Royal above stairs must wish to have the fellow with her.”

She was described at the age of five with:

“Princess Augusta is the handsomest of all the Princesses. She is five years old, of a small make and very lively, and when compared to Princess Royal, very childish. She wants, however, neither feelings nor parts and will, I dare say, unfold to advantage […] It is amazing how much the little creature knows of the history of England, down as far as James I. I chose some striking facts in every chapter and dressed them in words adapted to her capacity and then told them as diverting stories. This method has taken, and she tells them again in words of her own, with as much pleasure as she would a fairy tale.”

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George III, Queen Charlotte and their six eldest children. Augusta is sitting on her mother’s lap.

She grew into a pretty, willful and reserved young woman. She made her public debut at her father’s birthday party in June 1782 when she was just 13, an occasion her mother only told her about two days before so that she wouldn’t be too nervous. It passed without incident, but the Queen noted her daughter was very quiet in the lead up to the big day.

Three years later her name came up as a possible bride for a prince of Denmark, but George nixed the idea on the grounds that the Danes had been  unkind to his beloved younger sister, Caroline Matilda. It caused a minor stir at court, however, that the Danish envoys made clear their preference for Augusta over her older unmarried sister, the Princess Royal.

Augusta’s childhood was largely comprised of a rather dull existence in the schoolroom and her father’s stress over the American Revolution. Her adolescence was notable for her growing closeness to her brothers and, in 1788, the mental breakdown that her father suffered. George first became ill in October of that year, an event which traumatized Queen Charlotte and from which the Royal Family never fully recovered. In the midst of all of this, Augusta turned 20. Her mother silently handed her a gift with tears in her eyes, questioning whether it was appropriate to even mark the occasion. Augusta received it and curtsied, also crying.

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Augusta with the Princess Royal and Elizabeth

George recovered, but a regency crisis had already been prompted, placing strain on the relationship between Augusta’s parents and her eldest brother, the Prince of Wales. Augusta, meanwhile, spent more and more time with her parents, particularly her mother, along with her eldest sisters, the Princess Royal and Elizabeth. While some of her sisters chafed under the scrutiny and claustrophobic existence, Augusta enjoyed her family and the quiet of their domestic life, preferring it to court and other public functions.

Notably, as George convalesced, he became increasingly unwilling to carry out his earlier plans to find suitable German husbands for his daughters. And as he grew older and his mental health continued to be fickle, Queen Charlotte was more and more inclined to agree with him, eager not to give up the company of the princesses.

In the early 1790s two German princes arrived in London, including Prince Ferdinand of Württemberg, a great-grandson of George I and Sophia Dorothea of Celle. Ferdinand took a fancy to Augusta, which appeared to be mutual, however when he asked for her father for her hand he was blithely refused. Augusta appeared to take the disappointment in stride, in public at least, and focused on her hobbies. A few years later, in 1797, Ferdinand’s elder brother, Frederick, took as his second wife Augusta’s elder sister, the Princess Royal.

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The only surviving image of Brent Spencer

In 1799 a new man came into Augusta’s life, Sir Brent Spencer, an Irish soldier who served under the command of Frederick, Duke of York. He joined court as an aide-de-camp to George, on whom he made a favorable impression. The King wasn’t the only one and he soon caught the eye of the 30-year-old Augusta as well. The Princess kept her feelings to herself for a long time, but by 1803 there was an understanding between them.

To friends she spoke of her distress when Spencer was stationed abroad during military campaigns, such as he was in 1807. Even so, she was hesitant to petition her father to let her marry him – not only was he loathe to let any of his daughter fly the coop, even as adults, but he was also hardly the German royalty that the House of Hanover favored.

In 1811 a formal regency was finally implemented due to George III’s deteriorating mental health and the Prince of Wales stepped forward as the Prince Regent. In March 1812, Augusta finally struck up the courage to write to her brother and confess her feelings for Spencer, asking for permission to privately marry him. “Long and great has been my trial, and correct has been my conduct,” she wrote. She could not find the bravery to send the letter until June.

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Augusta later in life

She asked her brother to do what she couldn’t – tell their mother. She also made it clear that she understood the Queen would object to the marriage on the grounds that he wasn’t ranked highly enough of her, underlining that she was clear that the relationship would have to remain secret from the public.

No response from either the Prince Regent or the Queen survives. Nor is there any evidence of a marriage, save one rather telling bit. When Spencer died in 1828 it was with a locket containing Augusta’s picture and a card in his possession claiming that they were married. There is no corresponding confession in Augusta’s belongings.

By that time, George III had long passed away and the Prince Regent had ascended the throne as George IV. Queen Charlotte had died in 1818, finally leaving her daughter some measure of independence. Augusta lived in London at Clarence House, surviving through George IV’s death in 1830 and her other brother, William IV, in 1837. She died on September 22, 1840 during the reign of her niece, Queen Victoria. She is buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor.

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