Ernest, Duke of Cumberland had an inauspicious recent showing in the PBS series Victoria, but one that actually illustrates a few reputational issues (shall we say?) during his lifetime. Indeed, for all that Queen Victoria’s uncle may seem like a rather dry case study, Ernest’s life, and that of his wife, Frederica, was consistently marked by scandal, not the least of which were rumors of violence (read: murder).
A few months ago we took a look at the courtship, engagement and wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and so today we’re taking a closer look at their first three years of marriage. In short, they were dramatic, surprisingly so given the domestic bliss for which they would later be known, and for which Victoria spent several decades mourning after Albert’s premature death.
But the Victoria who married Albert in 1840 was not the Victoria who was left a widow in 1861 and it took the couple a few years to establish what their dynamic would be. More specifically, what were their roles in public versus private and to what extent was Albert meant to bow to the will of a wife who outranked him?
In 1791 an actress by the name of “Mrs. Jordan” became acquainted with William, Duke of Clarence, third son of King George III. She was 30-years-old and the mother of four illegitimate children via two different men. Three of them were fathered by Sir Richard Ford, who she moved in with after he promised to marry her. He didn’t and once she met William she promptly jumped ship.
The great love of her life was George Inchbald, another actor, who left her brokenhearted when he failed to propose, and before him came an army lieutenant, Charles Doyne, who did propose and was roundly refused. Her first illegitimate child was fathered by Richard Daly, the manger of an Irish theatre company in Cork. Their child, a daughter named Frances, would eventually follow her mother on the stage.
Mrs. Jordan was born Dorothy Bland, a name by which she was known until she left Doyne for Inchbald and reinvented herself, taking the name from the River Jordan which she claimed to have metaphorically crossed when she left Ireland for England.
I said a couple months ago that the “Georges” were as brutal as their Tudor counterparts, which primarily stems from their treatment of the women in their lives. It wasn’t so much the “Georges” themselves, as the time period. The corsets and classical music and horse-drawn carriages may conjure images of “civility,” but really those are only different dressings for a society that still insisted on many of the same benchmarks from its women. Fertility, of course. Fidelity, in public at least. And the hazier expectation that family honor is housed in the “virtue” of its women.
Like Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard in the 16th century, there are a few figures from the 17th and 18th century that scream out the same legacy of near-martyrdom at the altar of family service. One of them is Princess Caroline Matilda, who would serve as queen of Denmark for six years and die disgraced, divorced and alone.
One theory abounds that the Royal Family is at its most effective when it’s considered dull. If that’s the case then George IV was pretty much a disaster from start to finish, a fact that was solidified by his marriage to his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick at the end of the 18th century. Their union was so scandalous, petty and embarrassing that, honestly, they make the domestic wars of the 1990s seems downright quaint.
BBC’s History Extra published an article three years ago on George I and George II, the first monarchs of the House of Hanover, which stated:
In reality, George I and George II were just as excitingly dysfunctional as Henry VIII. Theirs was truly a dynasty, with plenty of children, giving us enough characters to fill out a whole soap opera. They were also reasonably good kings. They weren’t flashy or showy, but under them Britain could truly claim to have become ‘Great’.
The article correctly claims that the first two Georges are two of Britain’s forgotten kings. Indeed, their house would become famous for George III and Queen Victoria, and perhaps even more so for founding the line that would so closely link the Royal Family’s heritage with Germany.
But the real secret about the this time period and these reigns isn’t captured in the last sentence above, but the first. And it’s not that the Hannoverians were more dramatic than the Tudors, but rather that they were perhaps equally as brutal. Some of that is perhaps unfair, for the lives of men and women in the 18th century were better-recorded, at least for our purposes. The domestic dysfunction that has permeated the royal court for centuries is better gleaned through primary sources the closer we approach present day, and so, for better or for worse, the dirty laundry is more accessible.
As a gift to my roommate who is one of the worst people you’ll ever meet I am writing up a quick post on his ancestor, Edward Despard. Despard, a debtor, rabble rouser and traitor, clearly passed those underwhelming characteristics along to said roommate. To be honest, the more research I do on Despard’s failed hijinks and generally dissolute ways, the more I’m reminded of my roommate, who has demanded that I write this up to please him even though I have a cold and would rather take a nap. He is literally the worst.
Let’s take a moment to pity poor Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, because she didn’t have an easy go of it. Married to the Prince of Wales as a teenager, she was wildly under-prepared for marriage into the British Royal Family, particularly when it was as fractured as it was in the reign of King George II. She had little way of knowing that her new husband was the black sheep of the family, or that her own growing family would become a thorn in the side of her in-laws. Even less could she have foretold that her husband would die prematurely, removing the possibility of ever becoming queen, while leaving her with the weighty responsibility of raising the future king in a foreign country.
Despite having read nearly every available biography of Queen Victoria in the early aughts, I realized when watching and recapping the new series based on her airing on PBS that it had actually been a few years since I had sat down and read a biography based solely on her. So this past week, that’s what I did.
And it was pretty fun – kind of like looking at a high school yearbook. The broad strokes have stayed with you, but you’re reminded of some of the smaller personal details that you know you once knew well.
Since today, February 10th, marks the anniversary of Victoria and Prince Albert’s 1840 wedding, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at the real events behind their story. After all, though they would become one of history’s most famous couples, with Victoria remaining in intensive mourning for nearly 40 years after he died, their early years show two people very much figuring out how to live together, how to communicate, what the power dynamic was going to be and how they would raise their family. Like any young couple, except, you know, they did it in Buckingham Palace.
George III is one of the more famous British monarchs in history, but not for reasons he would have liked. He is known, first and foremost, for being the king that lost America. He is also known for being “mad.” If you are somewhat more familiar with his reign or the time period, then perhaps you also associate his many children with him – he and his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, would have 15 in all between the years 1762 and 1783.
It’s unfortunate, too, because George had all the makings of a great king. He ascended the throne in 1760 at the age of 22 when his grandfather, George II, died after a 23-year reign. He was the third monarch in the House of Hanover, a house that existed in England because the Stuarts died out (not counting, of course, its Catholic members) and the country was forced to reach far up the family tree to find this German offshoot, descended from James I through his daughter, Elizabeth. Reviews of the Hanoverians were mixed and so, too, were the Hanoverians’ opinions of the English.
But George was well-positioned to change that: The first generation to be born in England and not Hanover, he was young, healthy, conscientious and followed a strict moral code. Had the ball bounced another way, his reign could very well have unfolded as a success. For while popular culture might remember him first for his mental illness, the general consensus among scholars has been that, whether his fault or not, the monarchy steadily lost power over the course of his reign, and its close relationship with national morality and values became even more intertwined – a fact his descendants could likely have done without.