As all bets indicate that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will be named the Duke and Duchess of Sussex when they marry this May, it seems as good a time as any to look at the last prince to hold this title and the two rather memorable marriages he made. To-date this title has only had one creation, though its second has garnered speculation for years. There was discussion when the Queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward, became engaged that the title would be bestowed on him at his wedding, and it came up again in the lead up to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding in 2011, but the best intel has always said it was long ago set aside as Harry’s.
The one and only prince to hold this name was a younger son of George III, Prince Augustus. Born in 1773, he came in the middle of his parents’ eventual 15 children. He followed two of his brothers, Ernest and Adolphus, to Germany for university, and then unlike them bowed out of a military career due to poor health brought on by asthma. Unclear of what exactly to do with himself outside the Hanoverian tradition, he considered an academic career at Oxford or one as a cleric in the Church of England.
Instead, he tarried abroad while the French Revolution was at its zenith, spending his time socializing in Italy and contemplating the futility of his existence (the latter is a best guess). As executions were carried out throughout France, George III and Queen Charlotte frantically called their son home, but some of their concern may well have been the gossip they were hearing about Augustus’s interest in Lady Augusta Murray, the Earl of Dunmore’s daughter.
Five years older than Augustus, Augusta had attracted the Prince while they both holidayed in Rome. The affair quickly became physical and the two went through a secret marriage ceremony on April 7, 1793 at the Hotel Sarmiento when they discovered Augusta was pregnant. The two arrived in England together shortly before Marie Antoinette was executed in France, but it’s hard to say which situation horrified the King and Queen more. Eight years previously, the Prince of Wales had also entered a clandestine union with a Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert, but while they cared more about the affairs of the heir, his marriage had at least been with a Catholic rendering it illegal. Augustus’s situation was a bit more complicated thanks to both the child and Augusta’s Protestant background.
Queen Charlotte was not immediately aware of the infant, but she knew full well that her son had engaged in an affair, writing to her daughter, Elizabeth, at the time that, “I see it is not over, by the agitation Augustus is in.” Indeed not. The couple went through a second wedding ceremony on English soil on December 5 at St. George’s, Hanover Square and met secretly at an inn near Windsor Castle in the lead up to the child’s birth – Augustus would sneak away in-between engagements, one of which was his own confirmation.
Augustus wrote a full confession to his father on January 9, but was kept from sharing it with him by Elizabeth, who instead showed him the actual language of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, the legal document that rendered his marriage null and void. And his parents, still believing he was only in the midst of a youthful, if foolhardy, affair, decided the best course of action was to send him abroad. On January 13, the entire Royal Family, including Augustus, was seen in public attending the theatre, while not far away Augusta gave birth to a son who she named after his father. Augustus was able to sneak off to see her and his child before leaving the next day for Italy per his father’s orders.
The baby born, the truth had to come out. On January 25, Queen Charlotte wrote in her diary:
“Today the King told me that the Lord Chancellor had acquainted him yesterday after the levee with the disagreeable news of Augustus’s marriage with Lady Augusta Murray … That the register was found. And that he had given orders to the Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other Ministers to proceed in this unpleasant business as the law directs, Augustus having married under age being against the Marriage Act … Also orders were given to stop Lady Dunmore and her daughter joining him or leaving England.”
Four days later she wrote:
“…We went into my room to read, then acquainted the Princesses of their brother’s imprudent match with Ly Augusta Murray. Then read and wrote till one…”
George III was fit to be tied. He demanded the Murray family appear before the Privy Council to make affidavits until, on July 14, 1794, the marriage was annulled. Augustus was declared free and clear to marry again and his son with Augusta was declared a bastard. The King did, however, take some pity on the plight of the young woman – with Augustus still abroad, he paid for her modest upkeep (and retirement from public view) at Teignmouth.
The couple remained apart for over six years, with Augustus remaining abroad. Finally, in 1800, Augusta broke the rules after learning that the Prince was ill and joined him in Berlin. For a period of time the two lived together with their son like a young family. Augustus pledged himself once more to Augusta, who had after all demonstrated remarkable loyalty to him – then again, with a bastard child and the affair common knowledge, she had literally no other recourse. While in Berlin together, Augusta gave birth to a daughter who she named after herself in the summer of 1801.
Perhaps having heard that his wife had joined him abroad, George III recalled Augustus home soon after his granddaughter’s birth. Apparently done with domestic life, the Prince moved into new apartments in Kensington Palace at his father’s invitation and, that November, accepted the title of Duke of Sussex in exchange for keeping his nose clean.
From then on, Augusta and her two children were on their own, though the Royal Family provided an annuity of £4,000. In 1806, she was allowed to adopt the surname De Ameland, offering slightly more respectability than a woman with children still using her maiden name. She died in Kent on March 5, 1830.
For the majority of his life, Augustus lived quietly and without much fuss. He carried out some work on behalf of the Royal Family, but for the most part he remained confined to his apartments in KP and collected books. The majority of his social life was spent being visited by his brothers and sisters as the extended family underwent significant change. In 1817, Augustus’s niece, Princess Charlotte, died and in 1818, so too did his mother, Queen Charlotte, while three of his brothers frantically married German princesses to secure the succession. So long as Augusta remained alive, Augustus wasn’t one of them.
In 1820, George III finally passed away after over a decade of debilitating mental health issues which had found the Prince of Wales named Prince Regent in 1811. Now, with both of his parents dead and brother to the King, when Augusta died in 1830, Augustus apparently felt himself a free man in more ways than one. He married a widow, Lady Cecilia Buggin (née Gore), in London on May 12, 1831. Only three years younger than Augustus, Cecilia had been widowed for six years and was the daughter of the Earl of Arran, all of which made her respectable, but none of which made her a good match for a British prince.
But whatever leniency Augustus might have gotten from his brother, George IV, or his other brother, William IV, who succeeded George a few weeks after the wedding, evaporated when the marriage was conducted in secrecy. Once again in contravention to the Royal Marriages Act, the marriage was not legally recognized.
Even so, Cecilia had a better go of it than Augusta. While she could not be styled HRH The Duchess of Sussex, she adopted her mother’s maiden name of “Underwood” as her new surname and lived with Augustus in Kensington Palace. The only trick to the matter was that she couldn’t be received at court, so as far as the Royal Family was concerned, she didn’t exist. Ironically given her later reputation, it was Queen Victoria who rectified the matter in 1840. Perhaps still high off the joy of her own recent nuptials that February, Victoria named Cecilia the Duchess of Inverness in her own right and some respectability was restored.
Sadly, there wouldn’t be too long to enjoy it. On April 21, 1843, Augustus died in Kensington Palace and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetary. Cecilia continued to live in KP until her death in 1873.
Augustus’s son, Augustus d’Este, attended Harrow and then became deeply invested in Native American rights issues in North America. He was the first person to be given a distinct diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and unfortunately it plagued him for the rest of his life. After his father died, he attempted to claim the title of the Duke of Sussex, but the House of Lords shut him down. He died five years later in Kent.
Augustus’s daughter, Augusta d’Este, eventually married in her 40s to Thomas Wilde, Baron Turo. It’s unclear how her younger years were spent, but presumably in Kent. Her health, like her father’s, was never strong thanks to asthma and she spent considerable amounts of time abroad. She died in 1866 and is buried in Kent alongside her mother and brother.
In short, it was dubious beginning to the title…let’s hope for better things to come.