Princess Charlotte of Wales (7 January 1796 – 6 November 1817) was the only child of George, Prince of Wales (later to become King George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick. Had she outlived her father and her grandfather, King George III, she would have become Queen of the United Kingdom, but she died suddenly following childbirth at the age of 21. Without this untimely death, it’s likely that Queen Victoria would never have been born at all.
In 1794, the Prime Minister – William Pitt the Younger – decided that something must be done about the unpopular Prince of Wales (a figure famously lambasted in Blackadder the Third: “We hail Prince George, we hail Prince George!” “No, it’s ‘we hate Prince George, we hate Prince George’…”). George had to be persuaded to marry and beget heirs to the throne. The feckless George had already attempted marriage – to his long-term and wholly unsuitable mistress, Maria Fitzherbert. Their ‘marriage’ was promptly invalidated as they hadn’t sought (and wouldn’t have received!) the monarch’s permission to marry (which was required by the Royal Marriages Act, 1772). George kept Maria Fitzherbert on as a mistress, of course, along with several other doting women. He had absolutely no interest in marriage – but William Pitt knew his weak spot.
Despite his generous income, Prince George was in dire financial straits; by 1794, his princely salaries weren’t even enough to cover the interest on his mountain of debt. Parliament promised George a “pay rise” if he would marry and get busy making royal babies; a reluctant George agreed. His shortlist consisted of German Princesses, both of whom were his first cousins – one from his father’s family and one from his mother’s. Most people favoured the latter – Princess Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who by all accounts was virtuous and beautiful, as was appropriate for a future Queen. However, Prince George’s then-favourite mistress – Lady Jersey – decided to promote the interests of the other Princess, Caroline of Brunswick, who she thought would be less of a rival for George’s royal affections. So, despite the fact that Caroline was rumoured to be rather unappealing and had a bit of a scandalous reputation, George chose her as his bride – sight unseen – and dispatched a diplomat to fetch her to Britain.
It was a dire mistake. Caroline was brought to meet her future husband at St James’ Palace. Prince George took one look at her, and cried out “Harris, I am not well, pray get me a glass of brandy.” But Caroline got her own zinger in, remarking: “I think he is very fat and nothing like as handsome as his portrait!” Needless to say, it wasn’t a match made in heaven. George turned up to the wedding ceremony drunk off his face, having sent his brother (the future William IV) to Maria Fitzherbert with a sweet but pointless declaration of his true love. The royal couple had sex three times and then separated. One day short of nine months after the wedding day, Caroline gave birth to a daughter, christened Charlotte Augusta after both of her grandmothers. Although at this point the royal family were hated for their excess and tendency towards madness, the little princess was taken to British hearts, her birth widely celebrated. Prince George wrote to his mother, advising her that his wife had given birth to: “an immense girl, and I assure you notwithstanding we might have wished for a boy, I receive her with all the affection possible”.
Almost immediately after Charlotte’s birth, Prince George drew up a will, the prime purpose of which seemed to be insulting Princess Caroline. In it he left all his worldly goods to Maria Fitzherbert and dictated that Princess Caroline would have nothing whatsoever to do with the raising of their daughter. In fact, Caroline was only allowed to see her infant once a day and only in the presence of her nurse and her governess. Characteristically not giving a fig what her estranged husband wanted, whenever she could Caroline took baby Charlotte on carriage rides through the streets of London, to universal approval and applause from the crowds.
Charlotte grew up being used as a pawn and being a point of contention between her two warring parents. She had a lonely childhood, living in a household of her own, her only company people who were paid to be with her. Eventually, her governess’ grandson – three years Charlotte’s junior – was brought to her household to be her playmate. Forty years later that boy – then the Earl of Albemarle – would recall these years in his memoirs. In them Charlotte is remembered as a tearaway, a tomboy who loved to be outside and cause mischief. In one particularly charming tale, Albemarle remembers a crowd gathering hoping to see the young Princess. The two children immediately slipped outside of the house and – totally unrecognised – joined the crowd.
By 1805 it was clear that Charlotte would one day sit on the throne. George and Caroline were never to be reconciled, which means that there would be no legitimate son to come before Charlotte in the line of succession. King George took control of his heir’s education. Charlotte was popular at court – contemporaries called her warm and engaging with a candid, informal manner. Of course there were some that thought a Princess should be more dignified – and Charlotte was often told off for wearing dresses that showed off her ankles – racy! Charlotte was an excellent pianist and horsewoman and enjoyed listening to Mozart and reading Jane Austen novels, although her spelling, grammar and handwriting were atrocious.
In 1811, King George descended into his ‘madness’ for the final time, and Prince George was sworn in as Regent. He immediately cracked down on his 15 year old daughter, not allowing her to do anything or go anywhere and decreeing that she always be chaperoned. The bored and rebellious Charlotte immediately engaged in a string of infatuations with any young man she had any contact with – usually cousins. In these harmless little affairs she was supported by the rest of the royal family turning a blind eye, as they disapproved of the straits that the Regent was keeping his daughter in.
By 1813, the Napoleonic Wars were finally going well for Britain and George took the opportunity to consider his daughter’s marriage – a difficult question indeed, for whoever married Charlotte would likely become King of England as Charlotte’s consort. The Regent favoured William, Hereditary Prince of Orange, son and heir-apparent of Prince William VI of Orange. Unfortunately, Charlotte did not, as the first time she met him he was drunk and disorderly.
Meanwhile, at a party at the Pulteney Hotel in London, Charlotte met a Lieutenant-General in the Russian cavalry, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. The impoverished Prince called on the Princess at her invitation, remaining for three quarters of an hour. Scandalous! Afterwards her wrote to the Prince Regent apologising for any perceived indiscretion. George was impressed with the lad, but did not by any stretch of the imagination consider him as a possible suitor for his daughter. He continued to press the Orange marriage.
Charlotte had no choice but to play for time. She tentatively agreed to the marriage negotiations and stalled by throwing things she believed the Prince of Orange and his council would not agree to into the negotiations. She demanded she never be forced to leave Britain. They agreed. She demanded that Britain be inherited by their eldest son, the Netherlands by their second. They agreed. Finally, Charlotte demanded that her mother be always welcome in their house. Princess Caroline was famously outspoken against the marriage with the Prince of Orange; unsurprisingly, he disagreed, and Charlotte had the excuse she wanted to reject his proposal.
Prince George was livid. He sent word that Charlotte was to be kept ‘under house arrest’ in her household and see nobody until she was taken out of London to Windsor. When told of this, a panicked Charlotte raced out into the street, desperate to avoid falling into the control of her father and the marriage that she didn’t agree with. A neighbour, seeing her distress from his window, helped the inexperienced Princess hail a hackney cab which she asked to take her to her mother’s house. Charlotte and Caroline immediately summoned a selection of sympathetic Whig politicians to advise them. Most of the royal family also gathered, including her uncle, Frederick, Duke of York, who had a warrant in his pocket to secure Charlotte’s return to her household (and her father) by force if it proved necessary. After lengthy arguments, the Whigs advised her to return to her father’s house; she unwillingly did so the following day.
Charlotte’s panicked flight through the streets of London was a hot topic of conversation. The general public adored the Princess and the press clamoured that she should be at liberty to leave her father’s household and marry who she chose – she was, after all, over eighteen. Despite the best efforts of the populace, the press and even some members of the royal family, Charlotte’s isolation continued. In 1814 it was heightened when her mother left Britain for an “extended visit” in Europe (Charlotte was never to see her mother again).
By 1815, Charlotte had grown quite used to her quiet life. All the men – suitable and otherwise – she had harboured infatuations for eventually married elsewhere. Charlotte began to grow a genuine affection for the impoverished Prince Leopold she had met some years before and kept up correspondence with. She began to relentlessly petition her father for the right to marry him. The Prince Regent, however, had not given up all hope for the marriage with the Prince of Orange. Charlotte soon put him straight on that front; “No arguments, no threats,” she wrote, “shall ever bend me to marry this detested Dutchman.” In the face of overwhelming support for his popular daughter, George gave in.
Unfortunately, Leopold was otherwise busy fighting Napoleon on the continent. It wasn’t until late February 1816 that he arrived in Britain and immediately went to Brighton to be interviewed by his potential father-in-law. Charlotte had dinner with the two, and afterwards gushed: “I find him charming, and go to bed happier than I have ever done yet in my life … I am certainly a very fortunate creature, & have to bless God. A Princess never, I believe, set out in life (or married) with such prospects of happiness, real domestic ones like other people.” Unbelievably. the Prince Regent too was rather a fan of Leo, telling his daughter that he “had every qualification to make a woman happy”; quite an endorsement!
On March 14th the engagement was announced in the House of Commons, to great public and political acclaim. The people were happy that their beloved Princess was being allowed to make a love-match; the politicians were just pleased that the drama of Charlotte’s teenaged rebellion looked likely at an end.
Charlotte and Leopold married on the 2 May 1816. On the wedding day, huge crowds filled London, causing traffic problems to the extent that the bride and groom were late arriving at the venue! Leopold dressed for the first time as a British General; Charlotte’s wedding dress cost over ₤10,000! The pair gazed at one another fondly throughout the ceremony, smiling broadly, and the mischievousness Charlotte was heard to giggle when the impoverished Leopold promised to with all his worldly goods endow her.
After a few months honeymooning and getting to know one another, Charlotte and Leopold returned to London for the summer, where they were the darlings of society, greeted with raucous applause wherever they went. When it was reported that Charlotte had been taken ill at the opera, the public clamoured for news until it had to be publicly announced that Charlotte had suffered a miscarriage, but was recovering. Despite this early setback Charlotte and Leopold’s marriage thrived. They were a perfectly matched pair of opposites, what with Charlotte’s exuberance and Leopold’s calm attitude. When Charlotte became too excited, Leopold would say only, “Doucement, chėrie” (“Gently, my love”). Charlotte teasingly began calling her husband “Doucement”. By the end of April 1817 it was announced that Charlotte was pregnant again, and this time it seemed she would carry the baby to term.
Charlotte purposefully did little during her pregnancy, besides pose for portraits and eat! Although her due date had been October 19th, her contractions did not start until the evening of November 3rd. Her midwife, Sir Richard Croft, sent for the officials whose task it was to witness the birth of the next in line to the throne. However, November 3rd became November 5th, and still there was no sign of the royal baby. Charlotte – understandably – was in dreadful discomfort and weak from the strain and the fact that they hadn’t let her eat since her first contraction.
At 9pm Charlotte finally expelled a large, stillborn boy. All efforts were made to resuscitate the little Prince, who was noted to resemble the royal family in his features, but he had clearly been dead for some while. An exhausted Charlotte took the news numbly, mumbling that it was obviously “God’s will”. Leopold, who had been present at his wife’s bedside throughout the protracted labour, was devastated; he took an opiate and retired to his bed.
At midnight, Charlotte began to complain of pains in her stomach. She then began to vomit, have trouble breathing and started to bleed. Alarmed, Sir Richard Croft started the then-accepted treatment for postpartum haemorrhaging and called for Leopold to be roused and brought back to the bedside. Dr Stockmar, Leopold’s own physician tried and failed the first time to wake the Prince, before returning distraught to the Princess. Charlotte was raving. Stockmar left the room to try his luck with the comatose Prince once again, but Charlotte called him back, voice urgent. By the time he made it back to the bedside, Charlotte was dead.
The country plunged into deepest mourning. One journalist remembered it “as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child.” Merchants ran out of black cloth with even the poor and homeless tying armbands of black on their clothes to mark their respect. The mourning was so complete that the makers of ribbons and other fancy goods (which could not be worn during the period of formal mourning) petitioned the government to shorten the period, fearing they would otherwise go bankrupt! Shops closed for two weeks, as did the Royal Exchange, the Law Courts, and the docks; even gambling dens and brothels shut down on the day of her funeral.
Perhaps surprisingly, most devastated of all were Charlotte’s parents. The Prince Regent was described as prostrated with grief and quite unable to function. He couldn’t even bring himself to attend the funeral. Princess Caroline, sojourning on the continent still, learnt the news of her daughter’s death as passing gossip and fainted in shock and grief. Upon recovering, she cried out, “England, that great country, has lost everything in losing my ever beloved daughter.” Even the jilted Prince of Orange burst into tears at hearing the news, and his wife ordered the ladies of her court into mourning out of respect for her husband’s feelings and the general tragedy of having lost someone so beloved and so young.
Leopold was never to recover from this great loss. He wrote to Sir Thomas Lawrence:
“Two generations gone. Gone in a moment! I have felt for myself, but I have also felt for the Prince Regent. My Charlotte is gone from the country—it has lost her. She was a good, she was an admirable woman. None could know my Charlotte as I did know her! It was my study, my duty, to know her character, but it was my delight!”
Leopold would go on to become the first King of the Belgians,after Belgium gained its independence from the Netherlands. He was one of the most favoured and trusted advisers of his niece, the future Queen Victoria, and in 1840 arranged a marriage between her and his nephew, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha; Princess Victoria and Prince Albert, of course, would go on to reign as consorts, much like Leopold himself and Charlotte would have reigned, had she lived to succeed to the throne.
Charlotte was buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 19 November 1817. Her baby son was placed at her feet. Their tomb’s monument was paid for by public donation. Charlotte’s tragic death did much to raise awareness of childbed death, and led to significant changes in obstetric practice, with obstetricians who favoured intervention in protracted labour, including in particular more liberal use of forceps, gaining ground over those who did not. Although Sir Richard Croft was never formally blamed for the Princess’ death, three months later he committed suicide, racked with guilt.
The death of Charlotte and her baby caused a succession crisis. She had been the only legitimate grandchild of King George. The press began to panic, pressuring George’s brood of unmarried, 40-and-50-something sons to get busy. The King’s fourth son, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, had always been far removed from the pressures of the court. He lived in Brussels with a mistress, who he dumped so quickly her head probably span. Edward unceremoniously proposed to Leopold’s sister Victoria, Dowager Princess of Leiningen and did his duty. Their daughter, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, would be crowned Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom in 1837.