The (Very) Quiet Rebellion of George & Charlotte

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We’ve covered almost all of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz’s children, but we’ve paid very little attention to the Queen herself. Thanks to her children and her famous granddaughter, Queen Victoria, Charlotte is best-known in history as an aging matriarch, emblematic of the phrase, “Misery loves company.” But when you consider the role of her marriage in her life, it allows room for greater empathy when considering the often strident role she took in the lives of her adult children later on.

Charlotte was born on May 19, 1744 in Mirow within the duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Her father, Charles, was the youngest son of Duke Adolphus Frederick II, who himself was succeeded by his eldest son, Duke Adolphus Frederick III, in 1708. Thus, at the time of her birth, Charlotte was but a bit player in a very small German duchy, her life notably informal, if not provincial. Her mother, Elizabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen, married Charles in 1735 at the age of 22. She went on to produce 10 children with him, six of whom survived infancy and of which Charlotte was the youngest to survive. During their marriage, Charles oversaw Mirow and Nemerow.

She grew up alongside one sister, Christiane, nearly nine years her senior, and three brothers – Adolphus Frederick, Charles and Ernest. There isn’t too much to say about Mecklenburg-Strelitz, nor its ruling family, for no one paid it too much attention in the grand scheme of Europe. Elizabeth Albertine is notable for providing her children, including her daughters, with a robust education that included the study of Latin, French, literature, history and philosophy – notably it was Charlotte who became the family bluestocking, though none of her reading inclined her towards Enlightenment ideals. My favorite anecdote from her youth is that when she returned one of Voltaire’s books to the local bookseller she requested that she not be given anything else from him.

The only other real thing to note is that sewing and needlework were a collective pastime for the family, even the men. This would later horrify the British when they came into contact with the family, but Charlotte would later be praised for her insistence on dedicating time to it each day. It was, at least, something to keep her busy, for her life growing up was not a public one. She lived wholly privately save on Sundays when she would attend church and take a ride through the park – otherwise, she at the mercy of her immediate family for society.

Charles died on June 5, 1752 at the age of just 44. Six months later, Charles’s brother, the reigning duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Adolphus Frederick III, died childless and the duchy passed to Charlotte’s eldest brother, Adolphus Frederick IV. Thus, Elizabeth Albertine served as regent of both deceased men’s duchies for a brief period until her son came of age. Notably, she did so under the protection of King George II of Great Britain, though there was little indication at the time that their families would later intermingle by marriage.

George II passed away at the age of 76 in Kensington Palace on October 25, 1760 – he was succeeded by his 22-year-old grandson, George III. There was little love lost between the new king and his grandfather, while his own father, Prince Frederick of Wales, had died prematurely in 1751 – it was but one notable similarity between him and his future wife. Like Charlotte, he had also grown up relatively privately in his mother’s house, surrounded by his siblings for company. Though, given his London surroundings and his future role, he had more exposure to the outside world.

As of his accession, he was ready to marry, an issue on which he was in agreement with his government and his mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales. Scores of eligible German options, all necessarily Protestant, were presented to him, but George was very particular on what he wanted – or rather, didn’t want. He was firm that his wife have no political inclinations. Nor did he much care whether she was beautiful; still less did he care if she was fashionable. In short, he wanted a wife who was serious and serious-minded, intelligent, kind, docile and utterly lacking in ambition. Virtue, too, was front and center, for a number of German princesses were cut from the running for either having had their own romantic pasts, or their parents having at one point faltered.

Charlotte was a remote choice, somewhat down on the list – an add, actually, from someone other than George. She rose to the top less from her own attributes than from her competitors’ lack thereof and it was good luck that she did, for when George finally considered her he deemed her perfect. The Englishmen sent to make furtive inquiries and meet her and her family reported back that she was well-mannered, friendly and utterly respectable. She lacked polish and she wasn’t a beauty, but she was healthy, attractive enough and pleasant. George was satisfied.

Excitement in England reached feverish proportions leading up to the wedding – indeed, it would be the first wedding of a sitting monarch since Charles II wed Katherine of Braganza in 1662. As for Charlotte, the 18-year-old had limited time to get used to the idea of marriage, and a lofty one at that. Part of her marriage treaty prohibited any members of her family from marrying British citizens, thus ending her sister’s romance with the Duke of Roxborough – it appears to have been a genuine love connection, for both died unmarried. Her measurements were dutifully sent on to London as British dressmakers busily compiled a wardrobe fit for a queen. As for George, he reunited all of the royal jewels, bequeathing on his unschooled bride a treasure trove that would have caught even Marie Antoinette’s eye.

Between George’s announcement to Council of his betrothal in July, less than two months passed until he was married. Charlotte arrived in England on September 7, 1761 and was immediately conveyed to London where the couple was wed that evening in St James’s Palace. George and Charlotte met for the first time just a couple hours before the ceremony, at which point she was introduced to his immediate family and closest councilors. The couple dined at the head of a banquet before Charlotte retired to change into her wedding gown – made of silver tissue – and returned to the party for the ceremony itself. Unfortunately, her measurements had been lost in translation and the gown, robe and jewels were both too big and too heavy forher, slipping about her shoulders and running the distinct risk of a true wardrobe malfunction.

Nevertheless, George and Charlotte were duly married, though at Charlotte’s insistence there was no public “bedding” ceremony afterwards. The next day both were described as perfectly happy with one another, and cheerful among courtiers. Indeed, marriage quickly imbued both with a confidence that they had seemed to lack hitherto. George’s near-obsession with marrying immediately and of his own choice was so far proving successful – it was a marked change from even a generation or so before when the participants had less of a say, but the mid-18th century marked a definite social shift in ensuring that compatibility was at least considered. Love, for perhaps the first time, was not an irrelevant motivation in the marriages of the upper-class. In George and Charlotte’s case, it was not so much love at the outset as it was relief and series of pleasant surprises as they grew to know one another.

The couple honeymooned briefly at Kew and then returned a few days later for Charlotte’s coronation at Wesminster Abbey, which was held on September 22. After a long ceremony and even longer banquet in Westminster Hall, the couple retired to St James’s Palace for a supper of bread and milk. That actually pretty much sums these two up.

As was typical for English upper-class married couples at the time, George and Charlotte spent a lot of time together, and they quickly settled into a domestic routine. Once a week they dined with George’s mother, though Charlotte never grew close to Augusta, nor to her daughter, also named Augusta, who left England to marry the Duke of Brunswick in 1764. Another day of the week was set aside for private concerts, such as when Charlotte played a duet with the eight-year-old Mozart. In public, only Charlotte played, often accompanied by guests, but it was only in private that George would join in. Indeed, an abiding love of music was yet another thing they shared. On still another day, Charlotte attended the opera, noting privately she thought British singers screeched like “parrots.”

The couple at first resided at St James’s Palace, but George was set on finding a more comfortable home in which they could have more privacy. His recent predecessors had favored Hampton Court Palace or Kensington Palace, but George purposefully steered clear. Instead he purchased Buckingham House in 1762 and had it renovated – it goes without saying the home has played a prominent role in the Royal Family ever since.

The purchase was just in time, for within two months of the wedding Charlotte was pregnant and court was well-aware by early winter 1763. George was overjoyed by this clear sign of fertility and, even more, at the chance to be a father. Charlotte produced a healthy son on August 12 following a markedly easy pregnancy and labor – it would be a sign of what was to come. Over the next 20 years Charlotte gave birth to 15 children, 13 of whom reached adulthood. As Janice Hadlow pointed out in her history of the couple and their family, the age difference between Charlotte and her firstborn (the future George IV) was less than that between George and his youngest sibling.

The fact that Charlotte, from the age of 19 until the age of 39, was pregnant or in confinement every 12 to 18 months may actually be the single greatest factor that dictated the reality of her day-to-day life. But the rate at which they produced children seemed to fit George’s agenda, for he was a strong believer in family coming only after duty and it was in fact over the course of his reign that you truly saw the rise of the very concept of the Royal Family in any sort of way that would be recognizable to us today. The separation of private and public and the idea that the very first family in the nation might live likes members of the middle class when left on their own was new one.

It was that which may have endeared the King and Queen to their people which truly annoyed their court. London had been optimistic at the idea of a young couple heading society after the reigns of two old men, but George and Charlotte’s preference for privacy and a more bucolic lifestyle meant that their court was in fact very dull. Even more notably, George was against the idea of friends. His reasons for this lay in his youthful friendship with Lord Bute, a personal friend who felt deserted by after his public, which is to say political, role turned sour. The lesson George took from the affair was that politicians and courtiers should never get too close. It was wisdom he impressed upon his wife, for Charlotte similarly kept all of her ladies-in-waiting at arm’s length, later noting that it was the best advice George ever gave her. To be fair, she wasn’t cold – in fact, she was an incredibly warm and well-mannered mistress – but she didn’t show favoritism or let the professional mask slip. Clearly, George meant to preserve their family’s dignity in a way he felt his forebears had not.

In reality what this meant was that George and Charlotte essentially had only each other, and it makes clear why George was so careful about choosing a wife. When this worked it worked well – they were happy with one another and their children, insisting on a level of intimacy within their homes that would have once been unheard of. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work that way, for when George suffered his first bout of mental illness in 1788 it was so traumatic to Charlotte that she never recovered. And she had no resources – no friends, no female relations her own age, just subordinates and her children. Against this backdrop you begin to understand that Charlotte quite literally couldn’t cope with the mental and emotional loss of her husband, and that it manifested itself in controlling and sometimes cruel behavior against her children. She was disappointed, lonely and increasingly bitter, but even then she was also a woman who insisted on the respectability of the Royal Family even in the face of her own sons’ recklessness. (I’m linking to Augustus, but really it could have been George or Frederick or William or Edward…you get the idea.)

It is certainly fair to argue that the extremes in which George and Charlotte raised their children played a part in their later behavior, but it is equally as correct to note that had Charlotte not held down the fort, so to speak, in George’s absence during the last two decades of his reign, their sons could have done even more damage than they did. At the end of the day, George truly met his match in his queen.

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