Princess Charlotte and the road to Victoria

The events that led Victoria to the throne involved a love match, national mourning and a race for royal princes to procreate quickly, quietly and efficiently. The sons of George III had a race to provide him with a suitable grandchild to continue the house of Hanover and naturally the most pressure fell on his eldest, the future George IV. George, as the Prince of Wales, was capable of only one(legitimate) progeny who was a girl, the Princess Charlotte. His other children were illegitimate and unable to take the throne due to the succession laws of Britain that barred any product of immoral or illicit unions. Princess Charlotte had grown up as a pawn in the furore that rang above her head between her father, the king, and her mother Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Her parents were first cousins with Caroline’s mother being the sister of George III, George IV’s father and predecessor on the British throne. The engagement between George IV, then the Prince of Wales, and Caroline occurred in 1794 due to a natural solution to clear some of his ever-mounting debts. If he married someone appropriate to become his queen the parliament and treasury would agree to increase his yearly allowance. By the eighteenth century choosing a bride for a British monarch had become increasingly more difficult than acquiring a substantial dowry, good looks and fertile child bearing hips. Naturally these were still important but events in the seventeenth century further narrowed the marriage market. One of the key aspects of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that over threw the Catholic sympathiser James II, in the favour of a Protestant monarch, meant that Catholicism was now barred from the throne. The last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, who died in 1714 without a male heir left a vacuum that needed to be filled. The new laws meant the chosen heir would be needing to be related to the Stuart dynasty, male, preferably one with ruling experience and most importantly Protestant. This left very few people to take the helm except the rulers of a small German principality. The eventual George I was ruler of Brunswick-Lüneburg and descended maternally from the Winter Queen Elizabeth Stuart, eldest daughter of James I of England. He believed in the appropriate faith and already had an heir and a spare to satisfy the English parliament. Thus, creating the Hanoverian house which Caroline was marrying into.

Before their wedding day the couple had never met and therefore embarked on a lifelong union on the 8th of April 1795. Caroline had endured a difficult journey from her home in Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Germany. Britain was currently at war with revolutionary France whom had allies that surrounded the small German duchy. However, Caroline was known for being high spirited and verbally effusive, and arrived in England in a flurry of ill-mannered and vulgarly transparent behaviour. The future king the Prince of Wales was evidently disappointed as he was expecting a siren of beauty gracious, and kind, and most importantly quiet and biddable. None of which would describe Caroline’s delight in gossip and flirty behaviour. It is said that Caroline was equally disappointed with the appearance of her husband to be, who was fat, argumentative and given completely to his mistress (or possibly wife) Maria Fitzherbert. Their union is said to have lasted the length of their first night together and in the morning traded insults through mediators. George believed her to be unhygienic and not a true virgin in the marriage bed and Caroline was appalled that she was to have one of his mistresses, Frances Villiers, serve as her Lady of the Bedchamber (hence in close quarters and in insufferable dislike). It was however sufficient to get Caroline pregnant immediately and therefore sparing George the need of visiting her bed frequently. Despite her openness and given to charming the many men who looked her direction Caroline earned a popular reputation with the people, even furthering George’s hatred of her due to the public being very fluent in their despair of him and his behaviour. The notion of a child occurring so soon cemented the public opinion that Caroline was good and needed their support. On the 7th January 1796, a healthy daughter was born and christened Charlotte after the current queen who was the wife to George III. Upon hearing the birth of his daughter, the Prince of Wales responded by rewriting his will thus leaving all his property to Maria Fitzherbert and to Caroline one shilling. If there was need for evidence of the animosity between the couple, the will would naturally serve quite easily. George was disappointed for not having a boy but his father the king George III was delighted to have a legitimate grandchild regardless of her sex.

Charlotte was to grow up in a very divided household. Her mother was portrayed as the ‘wronged woman’ due to having her letters read by George’s mistress for any evidence that would permit divorce, and her father was vilified in the press for continuing to live in luxury and preventing Caroline from visiting anywhere without his permission. By August 1797 Caroline had moved into her own establishment of Blackheath and lived as though a single privileged woman. Happily, for Caroline who was fond of her daughter, Charlotte summered with her governess on the Montague House estate and could visit her frequently. It became clear quickly that Charlotte was to be the only child between George and Caroline and both parents attempted to instil their opinions and demands upon the young child. Caroline wanted better treatment within the royal family for having provided an heir but other than being allowed to visit Charlotte, she had no say in the child’s upbringing. Therefore, the child was to be brought up entirely by governesses and decisions made by her father. Despite this Charlotte saw very little of her father and it was unbeknownst to him that Caroline made a point of taking her daughter for carriage rides in the park, much to the delight of the public who were sympathetic to them.

The Prince of Wales had every appearance as a dominant father figure who liked his own way. When Charlotte was eight he pushed her mother out of Blackheath to live in small Kensington Palace apartments and moved his daughter into Montague House itself to allow visits to his Carlton House residence. Charlotte is said to have been socialised very well with her own peers as she rattled around her home with no company except those who were paid to serve her. She also suffered her first loss as her governess Lady Elgin was forced to retire due to her age despite them being close friends. Her replacement was Lady de Clifford who was not adept at disciplining the child who had grown into what would termed as ‘tomboy’ today. Charlotte would delight in playing with boys and becoming accustomed to unlady-like pursuits, such a fighting and galloping horses through the house estates. By 1805 Charlotte had a full suite of tutors to educate her on the Protestant faith, government and various genteel activities, however she evidently only learnt what she thought necessary herself. Thus, she became fluent in some languages and proficient at the piano but virtually illiterate alongside.

Relations between her parents had deteriorated by the time Charlotte reached the age of ten. Her mother acting upon George’s orders and pretended to not see her each time they came across each other in the park, rendering the young child deeply upset. At the time Caroline was under investigation against having taken various lovers however the ‘delicate’ matter found nothing that would aid George in finally divorcing her. The end of the proceedings allowed Caroline to visit Charlotte again but disallowed contact between any of Caroline’s followers. As Charlotte grew into a teenager and her visits to court became more frequent she was described as uncouth and undignified. Her father placed the blame of her mother’s influence with this despite being immensely proud of her stellar equine pursuits. She grew up into a tall and buxom lady with a love of Austen, Mozart and candid discussion… with a fondness of allowing her under-drawers being seen without concern for the dignity of her rank. Charlotte loved to do whatever she was told not do. On the 6th February 1811, her father became the Regent of Britain and Charlotte, forbidden to attend, rode obviously up and down the ground floor windows attempting to catch a glimpse of the solemn ceremony. Charlotte and her father did have some similarities, they were both politically minded with leanings towards the Whigs. Although the Whigs did not enjoy much royal enthusiasm while George was regent, Charlotte made it obvious where her feelings lay by flirting across the opera hall to the Whig leader, the Earl Grey. It would seem since George as a child rebelled against the strict confines of his parents rule he would learnt to show some respect to a child ready to grow up and explore. He however placed even stricter decorum and allowance rules upon Charlotte which led to her disappointing him frequently. Charlotte did not have a proper allowance for a princess for clothing and was forced to leave shows or operas early and to observe them without being perceived from most of the audience. She was also made to live in Windsor Castle with her unmarried aunts who she believed to be stuffy and dull. With such boredom to contend with her eye fell upon men for entertainment. George FitzClarence, her cousin, was banished to Brighton to join his regiment early after behaving unseemly with the princess and Charles Hesse of the Duke of York’s household was allowed several clandestine meetings with Charlottes mother’s blessing before Hesse was commanded to Spain.

However, Charlotte was at the age where marriage would be looming fast and her father started negotiations in 1813 after the tide of the Napoleonic wars steered in prosperous favour of the British. The first candidate was William, Prince of Orange who would increase alliances and trade with Northwest Europe. The potential couple met at the Regent’s birthday party and all males were riotously drunk. Although having given no official word about what was intended Charlotte had heard suggestions through the grapevine and did not bother to hide her distaste at the prince. She was informed properly of the match through Doctor Henry Halford who found her displeased at the prospect and declared that she did not wish a future queen to marry a foreigner. True enough in English and European history there is enough evidence to both support and negate this belief. The Regent had managed to mishear his daughter’s intentions and thought she wished to marry the Duke of Gloucester instead. Vehemently speaking he argued with both Charlotte and the Duke before realising there were no improper actions taken or about to be undertook. This whole affair was being enjoyed by the public through the satirical papers and news press who continued to vilify the Regent and bless the princess. On the 12th of December, Charlotte had given George the impression she liked the Prince of Orange and started to proceed with marriage plans. These took several months as Charlotte refused point blank to leave Britain and visit the home country of the prince. Many historians believe Charlotte was being difficult after having been advised by the Earl Grey to play for time before deciding on her future husband. The diplomats were also slowing progress since neither crown had the wish to unite under one throne and therefore inheritance of William and Charlotte’s children needed to be divvied up as to whom would gain Britain or the Netherlands. Charlotte signed the marriage contract on the 10th of June despite rumours of her having fallen in love with one of a few Prussian princes. The whole agreement was however about to be thrown into disarray. Charlotte met Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld at a party held for the Russian cavalry. Leopold was invited to attend Charlotte for a meeting and he impressed her father by leaving a note stating he wished no improper feelings toward her. George did not think Leopold would become an issue and knew that he would be an impoverished man to consider courting Charlotte.

During this Caroline who maintained public support was against the match between Charlotte and the Prince of Orange and the press agreed. Charlotte to the magnificent displeasure of the Regent broke of the engagement when she discovered her own mother would not be welcome within her marital home. Wishing to avoid being closeted with the Queen spirited herself away in a Hackney cab to her mother’s household before ordering Whig politicians to attend and advise her. She returned to her father reluctantly the next day after the Duke of York stating he had the power to return her by force. Charlotte lived in forced isolation until the end of July 1814 when she was informed her mother had left to live on the continent, never to see her again. Charlotte could visit Weymouth and travel as a dignified princess should eventually reconciling properly with her father at Christmas. The Regent held high hopes that Charlotte would return to the Prince of Orange but by March 1815 she had fixed upon Leopold as a future spouse. Issues surrounded her decision since Leopold was fighting with his regiment against Napoleon although he was responding enthusiastically to Charlotte’s overtures through intermediaries. As the continent was unsettled the Regent refused Charlotte’s initial proposal of marriage to Leopold before eventually summoning the man to Britain in February 1816. Leopold impressed both Charlotte and her father and the marriage was allowed to take place on the 2nd of May 1816. Delighted to have an end to his daughter’s romances he gave Claremont House and a generous income to the couple to set up a proper house for the future King and Queen of England. Crowds lined the streets and celebrations continued in the public spaces. The only mishap was when the poor Leopold promised his worldly goods to Charlotte who giggled in response.

Marriage to Leopold proved to be a calming balm on Charlotte who became quiet, respectful and more ladylike. Despite an early miscarriage Charlotte fell pregnant in April 1817 and she was restful and happy for the duration. Naturally at the mercy of the press, gamblers had bets on the sex of the child and economists made prospect forecasts. Charlotte’s pregnancy progressed normally under the care of Sir Richard Croft and a medical team. However, when her contractions came on the 3rd of November an unsuspected shock would rock the country. Charlotte had difficulties and her labour spread over several days until the end of the 5th of November a large stillborn boy was born. Charlotte received the news of her child calmly and appeared to recover from her ordeal. Leopold however distressed from being at his wife’s side the whole time took and sleeping draught and slept. In the early hours of the 6th of November Charlotte was violently ill and succumbing to post-partum bleeding. Within an hour Princess Charlotte had died while Leopold slept in the next room.

The death of Charlotte was a major loss to the royal family, she was the Regent’s only heir and none of his brothers had heir’s either. The public reaction to the news was one of genuine remorse and deep mourning even down to the paupers and homeless carrying black bands in respect. The entire running of the country shut down for two weeks and all gambling dens closed on the day of her funeral out of respect. The Prince Regent was distraught and unable to attend his own child’s funeral while Caroline fainted at the news after hearing it through a passing courier. It is said that Leopold never fully recovered from the loss of his wife and refused to remarry until he became King of the Belgians in 1832. He married Louise-Marie of Orleans and had four children. The princess was buried in St George’s Chapel with her son at her feet under a magnificent structure with help funded by the public. What killed Charlotte was never fully explained and despite receiving no blame from the Prince Regent, Sir Richard Croft committed suicide for his role in Charlotte’s labour.

Charlotte’s death meant there were no legitimate grandchildren of George III. George IV did not provide any more children during his rule as Regent or as King meaning there was a race for his younger brothers to marry and procreate, fast. After George IV died, the next in line was George III’s next son William IV who had a fonder love of sailing and ships then women. Once again England was facing the prospect of choosing someone to rule when the Hanoverians ran out of male brothers. Light did appear at the end of the tunnel, once Prince Edward the Duke of Kent discovered Charlotte’s death while at home in Brussels he abandoned his long-term mistress and sought a wife immediately. He chose Dowager Princess Victoria of Leiningen, Leopold’s sister, and they married in 1818. Their child, Charlotte’s niece, was born Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent. Edward did not live long enough to become king after his elder brother William IV. This meant the throne passed to his daughter in 1837 who became Queen Victoria, one of Britain’s longest reigning monarchs. Despite the sons of George III being disappointed in not being able to provide him with a male grandchild, it almost seems natural after the death of Charlotte that the grandchild that follows him to the throne would be a queen. And one that placed a descendant in nearly all the remaining ruling houses of Europe.

(Image from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mbell1975/6118587664)

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