Few dynamics within the Royal Family are as strange as that between the monarch and heir. Never was this more abundantly clear than when George I came over from Germany in 1714 and established the House of Hanover. From that day on, a reliable tension has nearly always existed and arguably strains of it have been felt as late as the 20th century. To-date, the most chilling example of it has to be the relationship between George II and Caroline of Ansbach with their eldest son, Frederick, the Prince of Wales.
We’ve covered aspects of this story before via posts onn George and Caroline’s daughters, Caroline and Mary, their daughter-in-law (Frederick’s wife), Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, and their accession to the throne in 1727. But I’ve always held out on getting too far into the weeds with it because it deserves its own deep dive as a bizarre and rather upsetting story of how things can go terribly wrong between royal generations.
Frederick was the eldest of his parents’ children, born roughly a year-and-a-half after their wedding in February 1707. At the time of his birth, his grandfather was the Elector of Hanover, but the possibility of his family ascending the British throne was all but a foregone conclusion thanks to the machinations of his great-grandmother, Sophia of the Palatinate.
Two-and-a-half years later, Frederick was joined in the nursery by a sister, Anne, with whom he pretty much always had an acrimonious relationship. She was followed up with two more sisters, Amelia and Caroline, by the spring of 1713. By the next autumn, Queen Anne of Great Britain was dead and Frederick’s grandfather and father left Hanover for England. A few weeks later, Caroline joined them with her daughters. Frederick was the only member of the family left behind.
Sadly, we don’t know very much about how the dynamic between George and Caroline and their son in these early years. Likely, they were fairly unremarkable in that Frederick spent most of his time in the nursery and with his sisters. It wasn’t until his family left for London that his formal education began and one can assume that he was more a child and less a fully-formed personality. Nevertheless, he didn’t see his parents for sisters for 15 years. Nor is there is any evidence of them corresponding with him.
He was left behind as a physical placeholder for the family since they were absent, but still governing it. The separation in and of itself wasn’t particularly remarkable given that heirs were often educated outside of the home and lived in separate establishments, but this practice was certainly less normalized by the 18th century. There seemed to be no thought to occasionally bringing him to England as a child, which is still more remarkable given that he was expected to one day be the British king. Even further, his parents expressed little interest – as parents or future sovereigns – in the personality or molding of their eldest son.
This is incredibly strange since George and Caroline weren’t cold or absent parents when it came to their other children. As we have covered elsewhere, when George and his father had a falling out a few years after they arrived in Britain, they were both disconsolate when they lost custody of their three daughters. Caroline was an incredibly hands-on mother (by the standards of the time) with her other children and seemed to genuinely adore them. So, why was Frederick never a beneficiary of this? Unfortunately, we don’t know. The only dynamic from the Hanoverian years we can glean is that Anne was considered the most gifted of the eldest four children and perhaps her superior intellect was already visible. Even so, there is a wide valley between disappointment and hatred, and all logic would point to that issue not being a huge concern when the children were aged just seven and five.
George and Caroline went on to have three more children in Britain that Frederick wouldn’t meet until he reached adulthood. Two more daughters, Mary and Louisa, and another son, William. It was William who would become the bane of Frederick’s existence for he essentially became the son his parents acted like they never had.
The one member of the family who Frederick saw with some regularity, albeit infrequently, was his grandfather, George I. The King didn’t take to life in England and returned to Hanover as often as he could, during which time he would see his daughter in Prussia and his young grandson. Unfortunately, we also don’t know much about their relationship, but whatever it was, it was sufficiently friendly that the King made Frederick the Duke of Edinburgh among other British titles in the summer of 1726.
By the next summer, George I was dead and Frederick’s father ascended the throne as George II. Almost immediately George and Caroline sent for their three eldest daughters, overjoyed to finally be reunited with them under one roof. The same feeling apparently didn’t extend to their son. Indeed, despite him now being first in line for the throne, George requested no money from the Civil List be set aside for Frederick.
The 21-year-old prince wasn’t summoned until December 1728, a full 18 months after his father’s accession. He arrived without any fanfare or even much attention from the British. Once he arrived, he was conveyed via a coach to St. James’s Palace and sent through the back entrance to reunite with his parents and siblings. We have no idea how the initial meeting went, sadly, but it couldn’t have been an all out disaster.
As far as we know, there was nothing about Frederick that was fundamentally egregious. He had nothing particularly in common with his father, who was obsessed with military history and royal bloodlines, but he and his mother shared an appreciation for the arts, including music and theatre. Shortly after his arrival, Caroline and Frederick toured the Cliveden together and both were keen art collectors and patrons. And Frederick, by all accounts, attempted to get to know his family. After he commissioned a barge decorated with the badge of the Prince of Wales (his new title), he invited his mother and sisters on board for a music party, even including Mary and Louisa who were just four and six at the time. Indeed, Frederick actually adored children, which you would think would have facilitated yet another shared interest with his mother.
He was also loyal. In 1729, Frederick took a lover, Lady Anne Vane, who was also sleeping with Lord Hervey, a favored courtier and gossip. Hervey hoped to use the situation to his advantage, so the two men essentially openly shared the same mistress and became quite friendly, however relations soured when Hervey shared a rude poem about Frederick’s mother and sisters with him. Hervey was temporarily on the outs, but while he eventually found himself back in the good graces of George and Caroline, Frederick never forgave him. And unfortunately for Frederick, Hervey’s commentary on George II’s court offers up some of the best insights we have into it and his antipathy for Frederick doesn’t help anyone’s reputation.
The real problem seems to have been Anne, then around 20. For the last 15 years she had essentially been the eldest child and she ruled the roost. The eldest of the girls separated from their parents, she was uncommonly close with Amelia and Caroline, and had fallen into a pattern of easily dominating her younger siblings and getting her way with their parents. Smart, willful and spoiled, she had little interest in a brother who outranked her.
She was contemptuous of just about everything Frederick did, from his musical ability to his writing to the company he kept. What exactly her problem was beyond arrogance is anyone’s guess, but Lord Hervey, with whom Princess Caroline was madly in love, wrote that how Anne dealt with Frederick was one of the few instances he had ever seen of her unable to keep her feelings in check. And whatever the cause, her dislike appears to have been sincere – as the years went on she fell under increasing pressure to get married. At the end of her grandfather’s reign, there had been discussion of her marrying her cousin, the Crown Prince of Prussia, but it fell by the wayside and when it returned, the Prince declared himself in love with Amelia instead. By 1733, when she was 24 years old, George took his daughter on a walk and patiently explained she could either marry Prince William of Orange or make her peace with living as a spinster in a court eventually run by her detested brother. She chose marriage, but to give Frederick the benefit of the doubt, she ended up wildly loathed by pretty much the entire Dutch public.
Two people who remained mostly blind to her true nature were her parents, and while that may make some sense, it was a leniency not shown to her brother. When Anne began complaining about him, arguing with him and publicizing his mistakes to them, they were quick to find fault with Frederick and cast him as an outsider. Some of George’s uneasiness may well have had to do with the role that he himself had played as the ringleader of the political opposition, but if he hoped to not have the same dynamic in his own reign, he went about it all wrong. By ignoring his son and essentially dropping him in the middle of a foreign country with a lofty title, no responsibilities and little safety net, he set him up as easy prey for his political opponents who offered the young man friendship.
He also mistakenly believed that by keeping his son short on cash he clipped him. Instead, it merely made him a sitting duck for those who had the ability to finance him or commiserate with his father’s miserliness. George had been given £100,000 as Prince of Wales, but instead of doling out the same amount to his son, he kept about 75 percent of it for himself, leaving Frederick with just £24,000 a year. Frederick’s teenage brother, on the other hand, had new apartments renovated at Hampton Court Palace and a generous allowance to finance his own household. In yet another sign that Frederick was hardly a monster, he was always exceedingly kind to William even as the young man continued to benefit from a grossly unfair situation.
In 1736, George decided to marry Frederick to Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, a shy adolescent German girl who spoke no English. When she landed in England neither George nor Caroline arranged any sort of greeting on the grounds that there wasn’t any precedent for how to meet her. She was left to her own devices in a foreign country for two days until Frederick, exasperated, finally went and joined her himself for a meal and sailing on the Thames.
Frederick took an instant liking to Augusta, though the feelings weren’t necessarily romantic – indeed, he installed his mistress as one of her ladies-in-waiting after telling her there was no truth to the rumors of their affair. Completely dependent on him, Frederick finally had an ally and also a young family he needed to protect. After over seven years of increasingly aggressive emotional abuse, Frederick began to change his strategy with his parents and siblings and fight back. Unfortunately, what he said about them made its way back to the Queen; one account that reached her read:
“I hear he speaks of the Duke [William] with kindness …for Amelia she is to be shut up within four walls and for Caroline she is to be sent to starve.”
When George left England in May 1736 to visit Hanover, Frederick took advantage of an unpopular government and positioned himself as the everyman. When Horace Walpole spoke out against excessive gin consumption, Frederick joined his comrades at a pub to drink just that. When fires broke at the Temple, he rose from bed and spent six hours in the middle of the night directing the first responders assisting. When he clipped a woman driving through the street, he got out of his coach and helped pick up her oranges. Ever the musician, he played the cello in a local orchestra.
It worked. George’s absence made him seem out of touch, Caroline was hissed at when she attended the opera and Walpole’s authority was being questioned. Unfortunately, part of Frederick’s new attitude meant setting his wife up to inflict social snubs, most of which she was unaware of given how foreign court customs were to her. At one point Caroline said:
“Poor creature, were she to spit in my face, I should only pity her for being under a fool’s direction and wipe it off.”
By now, Caroline was hoping against hope that somehow the crown could bypass Frederick and go to William. Rumors had spread as early as 1727 and 1728, when Frederick was still in Hanover, that George meant to give his eldest son Hanover and his youngest Britain, but they were wide of the mark. Now that Frederick was married, Caroline bizarrely convinced herself that her son was impotent and was therefore horrified when she learned in June 1737 that Augusta was pregnant.
Believing the birth several months away, Caroline attempted to question her daughter-in-law about the due date, but was put off. Instead, Augusta was well into her third trimester and Frederick had sworn her to secrecy. At the end of July they joined Frederick’s family at Hampton Court and when Augusta went into labor one evening, Frederick behaved like an idiot and insisted that they make the trip back to London. A makeshift bed was thrown together with random linens in St. James’s Palace and Augusta, after a perilous and uncomfortable carriage ride throughout which Frederick couldn’t understand why she was being so dramatic, delivered a baby girl named for herself.
George and Caroline were livid and George sent a letter, written by Walpole, which read:
“This extravagant and undutiful behavior in so essential a point as the birth of an heir to my Crown is such an evidence of your premeditated defiance of me and such contempt for my authority and of the natural right belonging to your parents … [that] I will not suffer … the division you have made in my family.”
Frederick and Augusta were banished from court and relegated to Kew House, with further direction that anyone who visited them was no longer welcome at court. Frederick offered up public apologies and explanations for his behavior, but George was unmovable. Nor was Frederick allowed to see his mother on her deathbed when she expired just four months later. Her last words to her son, William, were:
“You know i have always loved you tenderly and placed my chief hope in you; show your gratitude to me by your behavior to the King; be a support to your father, and double your attention to him to make up for disappointment and vexation he must receive from your profligate and worthless brother. It is in you only I hope for keeping up the credit of your family when your father shall be no more. Attempt nothing ever against your brother and endeavor to mortify him in o way but by showing superior merit.”
Caroline’s death did nothing to bring the family back together. After a suitable period of mourning, William escorted Amelia and Caroline to the theatre only to find Frederick and Augusta already sitting in the royal box. Frederick bowed to his sisters, who boldly ignored him, prompting hisses from the crowd. Upset, Caroline fainted and William and Amelia had to carry her outside. William, ever the peacemaker, returned to formally greet his brother and sister-in-law.
In fact, the rift wasn’t mended until 1742 when George encountered Frederick at a ball. He walked up to him and asked, “How does the Princess do. I hope she is well.” Frederick kissed his hand and George curtly walked away. The greeting was meant only to pacify the political situation, Walpole having resigned earlier that year, and was by no means sincere. Still, much had changed in the five years since father and son had met, not least of which was the birth of three more Wales children, including a son and heir. Prince George was born on June 4, 1738 and was followed by Princess Elizabeth and Prince Edward. Augusta, too, now spoke near-perfect English with some commentators noting that it had less of a German accent than that of her in-laws.
Throughout all of this, the brotherly love – or barring that, mutual respect – remained extraordinary. In 1743, George and William both fought in the Battle of Dettingham in the War of Austrian Succession (indeed, George was the last British monarch to see active combat). When William was wounded and returned home a hero to the British public, Frederick was on hand to greet him, despite being ignored by the rest of his family. Just days before, Augusta gave birth to their fifth child, a son, and he was christened William in his uncle’s honor. Later on, Frederick commissioned a portrait of his brother at Dettingham, firmly displaying his pride. As for Frederick and George, not only was he denied an opportunity to serve on the field, but he was barred from sitting on the regency council in George’s absence.
Frederick was put in a similar position in 1745 when William was summoned to quash a significant Jacobite uprising (or the last hurrah of the Catholic Stuarts). This time the ball bounced the other way for William when Britain’s strict response led to mass executions and exiles. Tories nicknamed him “the Butcher,” and there is some conjecture that Frederick played a role in finally undermining his favored brother, though that would fly in the face of overwhelming evidence of consistent support.
Indeed, despite the attitudes of George and the eldest of his sisters, Frederick insisted on trying to undo generations of familial dysfunction. He was a very hands-on father to his own children, perhaps remembering his own loneliness in Hanover, and while Kew House may have been small for a growing family, it also afforded a degree of intimacy and cosiness that the Prince seems to have liked.
Frederick unexpectedly died at the age of 44 from a pulmonary embolism in March 1751. Poignantly, his last letter to his son, George, captures the degree to which he was insistent history not repeat itself:
“God has given you so high a Mark to govern one day so many Nations and if you do not please them, they won’t please you in return. Read this carefully and keep it as it comes from a Father who (what is not usual) is your best friend.”
Before announcing her husband’s death, Augusta dutifully burned all of Frederick’s political papers. Initially afraid that George would separate her from her children, she ended up being allowed to stay where she was and raise them as she pleased by always keeping up a facade of docility. Prince George, of course, would eventually succeed his grandfather as George III in 1760, while the Princess Augusta, born after the frantic midnight dash for London, became the mother of Caroline of Brunswick.
Tension and occasional dislike between monarch and heir is not unusual – it was apparent between George I and George II, Queen Victoria and Edward VII and George V and Edward VIII to name but a few – but George II and Prince Frederick took it to a new level. The personal animosity felt by Frederick’s parents for him reads, quite frankly, as unnatural. It’s strange, too, that it was a sentiment shared by the siblings who had also lived with him in Hanover as a child, but not by the three siblings born later in England. One could argue that something happened in those early years, but given that all of the children were so young, particularly Amelia and Caroline, who wouldn’t have remembered, this also feels unlikely.
The simplest answer may well be the least satisfying: rampant insecurity on the parts of George II and Princess Anne. Even so, how this was allowed to permeate the entire family and play out politically is a stark reminder that family feuds were once more than tabloid fodder, even as late as the 18th century.