Of all of George III’s 15 children, only one managed to produce another sovereign – Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent. Save the last 18 months of his life, very little would give you the idea he had either the motivation or capability of doing so and, indeed, it is perhaps for the best (albeit tragic) that he never had the opportunity to mold the character of his more famous daughter.
Edward was born on November 2, 1767, the fifth child and fourth son of George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He was named for his father’s younger brother, the Duke of York, who died a few months earlier. He followed in the royal nursery Princes George, Frederick and William, as well as the eldest of his sisters, Charlotte.
In 1772, when he was nearly five years old, he was established in a house on Kew Green with his brother, William. The two princes were given an entirely masculine education to prepare them for careers in the military, and as such they received little of the more well-rounded and constitution-based lessons that their eldest brother did.
Hierarchy played a very real role in the education of the royal children, particularly the brothers. With William and Edward packaged as a pair – and Edward the more junior – the younger was extremely cognizant of what the older received that he did not. There is an anecdote shared in Flora Fraser’s biography of George III’s daughters in which Edward is told that William was making a visit to court and he responds that he will immediately see himself off to bed. When asked why, he responds that if he was not also invited than it must be because he was ill.
Unfortunately the passing moment was indicative of Edward’s character. While clever and relatively good looking in his youth thanks to a darker coloring than most of his siblings, Edward was ill-humored and arrogant, particularly with servants. He never got on with William and was frequently at odds with his brothers, George and Frederick. Indeed, of all his siblings, he was closest to his younger sister, Elizabeth, born three years after him. In 1779, when Edward was 12, William departed Kew to begin a career in the Navy and it’s unlikely he much missed him.
He had his chance to embarrass his brother six years later when George III decided to send Edward to join his brother, Frederick, in Hanover. At the time, George, the Prince of Wales, was already running up gambling debts and would soon to embark on an illegal marriage with a Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert, while William was similarly spending so much that his father warned he would not bail him out any further. Thus far, Frederick was the only “good” son and so Edward was sent to Hanover to learn his ways, while William was to be sent back on the same ship to have his wrist slapped in London. A year later, they would be joined by another brother, Augustus, the future Duke of Sussex.
Edward remained in Hanover for two years, but in 1787 Frederick returned to England and Edward was sent to Geneva to study at the university with his governor, General Wangenheim. He was reportedly displeased with the move, preferring a military environment above all else. Even so, he did well enough that on August 5, 1789 he became a mason in L’Union, the most important Genevan masonic lodge at the time. He also fathered a child via a mistress, Adelaide Dubus, who died in childbirth. Little is known of the girl, but she is believed to have died by the early 1830s.
That same year he joined the 7th Regiment of Foot, but when he left for England without leave he was sent to Quebec in disgrace. By now, Edward had begun the most important relationship of his life, which was with Madame Alphonsine-Thérèse-Bernardine-Julie de Montgenêt de Saint-Laurent (or “Julie”), the French wife of Baron de Fortisson. Edward and Julie became lovers while both were living in Geneva, and by the time he moved to Quebec, he took her with him.
In another time, this may well have proven a scandal, but given that Edward’s brothers were insisting on marrying their mistresses, Edward’s simple affair with a married woman was almost quaint. The distance, too, helped quell any braying from London.
Edward has the unique distinction of being the first member of the British Royal Family to tour Upper Canada. He also spent this time mentoring Charles de Salaberry, later made famous for his service in the War of 1812. In 1794, he made his way to Nova Scotia and played a crucial role in organizing and modernizing its military defenses, including its Navy.
He returned to England in 1798, mistress in tow, and was made Duke of Kent in 1799. From there he returned to Canada for a year in Halifax before finally arriving in Gibraltar in 1802 with the express order to restore discipline. Edward apparently didn’t need to be told twice – his harshness, bordering on cruelty, was so over the top that his own men mutinied that Christmas Eve and Frederick recalled him in May 1803 when he heard of it. While Edward continued to hold the title of Governor of Gibraltar, he was barred from ever physically returning. In short, he his military career was over.
Historian Christopher Hibbert offers a more colorful summary of this time:
“Trained for a military career in Germany, he had no achieved the distinction or recognition which he believed he deserved. He had served in Gibraltar, in Canada and in the West Indies, and in all these places he had gained a reputation both for wild extravagance and the most strict and severe attention to military discipline: he would insist that the men under his command be roused at dawn and appear on the parade ground in impeccable condition and would punish infringements of his draconian rules by occasional executions and regular floggings of hundreds of lashes, as many as 400 being given for ‘trifling faults in dress’ and 999, the maximum permitted, for desertion. He left Canada accused of ‘bestial severity’; and, upon his recall from Gibraltar in disgrace, he was accused by his elder brother the Duke of York [Frederick] – who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army – of provoking a mutiny by his conduct which ‘from first to last was marked by cruelty and oppression.'”
Court diarist Charles Greville, on the other hand, wrapped it up by saying Edward was “the greatest rascal that ever went unhung.”
But he did have his fans, including the war hero and future Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, who may not have respected Edward, but occasionally found him to be amusing company. Edward was a gifted mimic, relatively intelligent and a consistent correspondent, often keeping his secretaries scribbling with multiple letters at once. Indeed, given his daughter’s later fame for a constant stream of letters to her children, particularly the Empress of Germany, it seems fairly clear from where she inherited that particular trait.
Back in England, the family was in complete disarray thanks to the unhappy marriage of the Prince of Wales and Caroline of Brunswick. Separated shortly after the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte, Edward occasionally looked out for his sister-in-law such as in 1806 when he warned her that her servants would soon be sent to Downing Street for questioning as part of the so-called “Delicate Investigation.”
The greatest stressor, however, was the health of George III, who had first shown signs of mental illness back in 1788. Once home, Edward would occasionally do his bit by joining him for walks on the terrace alongside his brother and visiting him, but by and large he stayed away from his parents. With the exception of the Prince of Wales, to whom Queen Charlotte grew more attached as the years wore on, the rest of her sons only filled a spectrum of disappointment and Edward was on the far radical end of it.
The real upset came in November 1817 when Princess Charlotte died while giving birth to a stillborn son. The Prince, still at odds with his wife, was unlikely to have any more legitimate children and so all of a sudden his rather disastrous brothers became next up in the succession. While Frederick was married, he was also childless. William, like Edward, had been living with a long-term mistress (and sired 10 bastards), while Augustus had entered an ill-advised marriage which had been annulled. Adolphus, the youngest of the bunch, was still a bachelor.
Even before Charlotte’s death, Edward had been contemplating marriage for financial reasons. Upon taking a wife, his allowance from Parliament would be increased and so, when faced with a dynastic crisis, Edward decided to go ahead with wedded bliss and promptly set Julie aside. Edward had been close to her niece during her life and as such knew her now-widower, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, well. It was through Leopold that he learned of his elder sister, Victoire, the 31-year-old widow of the Prince of Leiningen. She was respectable, reasonably attractive and her fertility was already proven – from her first marriage she boasted an 11-year-old son, Charles, and a 10-year-old daughter, Feodora.
Edward proposed without having met her by letter. Initially, it wasn’t well-received – some of this stemmed from the Duke’s own reputation, but mostly it was due to Victoire having little desire to marry again. It was Leopold who assured his sister she would be well-received and looked after and so, she was finally convinced to accept and Edward traveled to Coburg to marry her.
The wedding was held in Schloss Ehrenburg and the ducal couple was shown to their bedroom by Victoire’s own mother, the Dowager Duchess. When she came to find them in the morning, she reportedly found them “sitting together in friendly intimacy.” For their honeymoon, Leopold lent them his home at Claremont Park. Remarkably, the two ended up finding genuine happiness within their marriage. Victoire was affectionate, kind and looked up to her husband, who, in turn, was eager to please and be pleased. Edward’s sister, Augusta, wrote of them later, “She quite adored him and they were truly blessed in each other.”
Within three months of the wedding, Victoire was pregnant. By then, they had been followed to the altar by William, who married Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, and Adolphus, who wed Augusta of Hesse-Cassel. Indeed, all three royal brides fell pregnant within months of one another in genuine race to see who would offer up an heir to the throne. (Of course, the birth order of the father’s dictated all – William’s children preceded Edward’s children who preceded Adolphus’s.)
Edward, however, was confident his wife was carrying the future sovereign, telling people, “My brothers are not so strong as I am. I have led a regular life. I shall outlive them all. The crown will come to me and my children.”
Unfortunately, Edward and Victoire were then living on the continent and Edward lacked the money to return them to England, where he believed his wife should give birth for the sake of their child’s claim to the throne. His Parliamentary allowance had been insufficient – or, as Wellington observed:
“By God, there is a great deal to be said about [the princes’ money.] They are the damnedest millstone about the necks of any Government. They have insulted – personally insulted – two thirds of the gentlemen of England, and how can it be wondered at that they take their revenge upon them when they get them in the House of Commons? It is their only opportunity and, I think, by God! They are quite right to use it.”
It was only with the help of loans from Edward’s friends and Adolphus that he was able to convey the entire Kent household and his stepchildren from Germany to England where they were installed in Kensington Palace. On May 24, 1819 Victoire was delivered of a daughter.
While Edward’s mother-in-law worried that he might be disappointed in his child’s gender, he was perfectly pleased with a girl, telling everyone who came to see her to “look at her well, for she will be Queen of England.”
In the meantime, Adelaide, Duchess of Clarence had given birth to a daughter in Hanover who died shortly after her christening and Augusta, Duchess of Cambridge had delivered a son, George, in March, who was still outranked by the new Kent princess. Edward was set on naming his daughter Elizabeth after the famous Tudor queen, but the Prince Regent, never a huge fan of his brother, vetoed it, as well as “Georgiana” in honor of him. Instead, he offered up “Alexandrina” in honor of her godfather, the Russian Tsar, and “Victoria” for her mother. The Kent’s were exceedingly disappointed, but little Alexandrina Victoria duly became known as “Drina” in her early nursery days.
A few months later, Edward took off with his equerry, Sir John Conroy, to look for houses in the West Country that might offer a more affordable residence for his young family. The Kents settled into Woolbrook Cottage by Sidmouth, but Edward caught a cold while traveling and soon grew gravely ill. Nursed by his wife and a court physician, Edward finally passed away on January 23, 1820. His daughter was only eight months old.
Edward’s death left his widow effectively destitute and on the hook for his enormous debt. She relied on the charity of her brother, Leopold, who remained in England until he ascended the Belgian throne in 1831. Indeed, it wouldn’t be until Princess Victoria succeeded her uncle, William IV, in 1837 that the young queen was finally able to pay off her father’s still-lingering debts. In the meantime, Victoire lived as modestly as she knew how and carefully raised her daughter, knowing that she was building a monarch. Queen Victoria’s childhood was a strange one, but we’ll save that for another day.
As for her father, Victoria always took pride in the fact that she was the daughter of a soldier and viewed his life through rose-colored glasses. Who was going to tell her otherwise?