Month: October 2012

Princess Amelia

This Sunday, 4 November, will be my 27th birthday. It’s rather a poignant one for me, as the age is linked in my mind to Princess Amelia, sixth daughter of George III. She died on 2 November aged just 27 years and three months.

When I first started reading about Amelia – never mind how many years ago now! – 27 didn’t sound so bad. She’d had time to do a bit in her life, unlike her brothers Alfred and Octavius who died aged (nearly) two and three. But now I’m almost 27 myself, I appreciate how shockingly young it really is. But at least I have, at this age, a husband, an ‘establishment’ as it were, two jobs (if you count writing) and I could have had children by now if I’d wanted them. I’ve travelled extensively. Amelia had none of this.

From the start, Amelia was labelled the family pet. Her birth, coming so soon upon the loss of America and the death of her brothers, was a much needed tonic to her parents. George III was obsessively fond of her, causing Fanny Burney to dub her the ‘little idol’. She adapted to the role well, holding her infant hand out to be kissed by courtiers and pulling all manner of adorable pranks. The family liked to dress her up and parade her – from the age of three she was strutting up and down the terrace at Windsor in her finery. Her eldest sister and godmother, Princess Royal, thought her the most beautiful child she had ever seen.

It sounds like a wonderful childhood, but it came at a price. Relying on Amelia for their own happiness, her family found it hard to understand, as she grew, that she had wants and needs of her own. More importantly, her elder sisters failed to take her seriously – until it was too late.

Amelia was a passionate young woman who longed for love and romance. But as a daughter of the King, she was guarded closely. Even if a handsome young Prince had come asking for Amelia, it’s doubtful her father would allow it. He had turned down numerous offers for her elder sisters, who were less necessary to his comfort. Not only did he despair at the thought of parting with his darling, but past experience had made him wary. His sisters had married eligible Princes – and been royally miserable. So Amelia found herself torn in several directions. She adored her father and wanted to make him happy – but she wanted her own life too.

Amelia’s romantic experiences remain a topic of hot debate. It’s rumoured that in Worthing, undergoing treatment for a sore knee, she had a sexual relationship with a young doctor. The fact that she was away from her parents lends some possibility to the assertion, yet she could hardly have conducted an affair without some observation. Common sense prompts us to think it was a mere flirtation, but Amelia’s later correspondence with the love of her life, Charles Fitzroy, raises questions. She worries about her ‘spot being out’ and asks him if it will affect her ability to bear children. This seems to imply her hymen was broken – but was the result of sex or her excessive horse-riding? The sexual ignorance screaming behind her questions implies the latter, but we will never know for sure. Whatever the truth, it’s clear that Amelia discussed her past experiences with Fitzroy.

The equerry Fitzroy was a good deal older than Amelia and a favourite of the King. To put it bluntly, Amelia was obsessed with him. She spent days planning their marriage, ordering furniture for their one-day home and cutlery engraved with their initials. Although they arranged to meet secretly and certainly had a few passionate trists, their love was unconsummated. Amelia complained about being unable to enjoy her ‘rights’. Compared to Amelia’s frantic letters, Fitzroy’s side of the correspondence seems a little cool. He was not as fiery as his lover and has even been accused of treating her harshly. But when you consider what he was risking, it’s hardly surprising. An illegal marriage, if discovered, would cost Amelia a wrap on the knuckles, closer imprisonment in the palaces and the distress – or possibly mad episode of her father. Fitzroy would lose everything. His marriage would be annulled, his goods forfeit to the crown, his post in the King’s household dissolved and his reputation torn to shreds. Excuse enough to be cautious, I think.

Despite Fitzroy’s best efforts, Queen Charlotte found out about the affair and urged Amelia to give him up. But a lifetime of spoiling had made Amelia stubborn and intractable. Charlotte must have been beside herself. She was already a little jealous of the attention the King lavished on his younger daughter, and now the ‘idol’ was proving unworthy of her pedestal. She genuinely could not believe Amelia was risking a scandal and the relapse of the King’s madness for an equerry. A coolness arose between mother and daughter that was to turn venomous.

Amelia’s final illness was severe and painful. However, while she was sent away to Weymouth to recover, the Queen and her elder daughters were treating the matter lightly. There are several reasons they may have done this. Firstly, they had to keep cheerful for the King, who fondly hoped Amelia would get well again. Secondly, they may well have thought she was using illness as an excuse to withdraw from family life and meet up with Fitzroy. Another theory I have is that Charlotte was in a state of denial. She knew the death of her daughter would not only cost her emotionally, but it would destroy the King. Amelia saw none of this. She thought her mother cared nothing for her and, in the feverish grip of illness, ranted and raved about what a monster she was. It didn’t help that Charlotte became anxious that Mary would run herself into the ground looking after her sister. Her attempts to get Mary home further embittered the dying Princess.

It is suspected Amelia’s illness was tubercular, the most persistent symptom being a pain in her side. She suffered various agonising treatments – ‘electrifying’, bleeding, blistering, leeching, rides on a boat, bathing and the insertion of ‘setons’. Setons were cords drawn through a layer of skin in an attempt at drainage. At first these were silk but promptly thickened to india rubber. Caustic was applied to the painful skin around these setons and dressing them was a horrific experience both for patient and nurse. Amelia bore everything with astonishing bravery and apologised for being such a burden. But soon spasms began and she erupted in ‘St Antony’s fire’ a painful, red raw skin condition that coated her from head to toe.

Although the King saw her every day after her return from Weymouth, he was too blind to see the way illness had eaten away at her. It was therefore a shock to him when she gave him a ring with a lock of her hair in it and asked him to remember her. Knowing the effect it would have on his mental health, Mary begged her not to give it but she went ahead regardless. After much persuading, she agreed to also give a mourning gift to the Queen and mother and daughter were reconciled at last.

On 2 November 1810, Amelia fell into convulsions. Mary waited until these subsided into a catatonic slumber and the guarded Amelia’s rest. Her vigil was disturbed when she realised she could no longer hear Amelia’s breath. She got the doctor to look. He felt for a pulse – none. He held a candle to her lips – no flutter. He asked Mary to retire but she protested, saying she would never leave her sister while she was dying. ‘Madam, she is dead’, was the awful response. He closed the curtain and went downstairs to tell the Queen.

While Charlotte had to swallow the bitter pill of her own grief and face the realisation her husband would now lose his mind forever, Mary fell to writing. She told Fitzroy, as she had promised, that Amelia died blessing him.

Why I love Queen Charlotte


It struck me, as I wrote my post about Caroline of Ansbach, that I haven’t blogged purely about Charlotte and how great she was. Yes, I’ve given snippets of her life in other blog posts, but nothing to tell you just why you should want to read about her. She was truly a remarkable woman, often eclipsed by the “brighter” personalities of the era.  I’m bound to forget something, but here’s a summary of the reasons I love her so much.

Her intelligence. I remember reading an interview with Philippa Gregory about how she chose her heroines – she said you were going to spend years of your life with this person and you needed to make sure you didn’t choose an idiot. This is so true. Thankfully, I selected a woman with a deep interest in academia and the arts. Despite her upbringing in an obscure Duchy, Charlotte was educated to a high level and made sure her daughters were too. She went to the lengths of stealing a French teacher from another family to ensure her Princesses got the very best tuition. My favourite quote from her: “I am of the opinion that if women had the same advantages as men in their education, they would do as well.”

Artistic flair. Charlotte was both an amateur artist and a skilled harpsichord player. She acted as patron for many artistic societies and famously encouraged the young Mozart. Musical scores, books on  botany and countless other endeavours were dedicated to her. For her encouragement of exploration, a flower from the Cape of Good Hope was named after her – Strelitza Regina – you may know it better as the bird of paradise flower. Charlotte was always seeking out new books and new things to learn. Although the novelist Fanny Burney didn’t enjoy being kept at Charlotte’s court, she certainly received praise of her work from the Queen. Burney’s third novel, Camilla, is dedicated to Charlotte and she took great pride in presenting it to her royal mistress on bended knee.

Her charity. Charlotte often had to apply to the King for extra funds, because she had overspent on charitable donations. Much of her charity focused on women and their plight – childbirth hospitals and even a society for the reformation of fallen women. She may have been the first woman in England, but she never forgot how difficult life was for those less fortunate. Linking her love of music and charity together, she paid for the composer Bach’s funeral and granted his widow an allowance. It may seem  bizarre that she acquired a reputation for penny-pinching and financial austerity, but in this she was copying the King. They both tried to live as economically as possible, to set an example to their people and lessen the burden their family exerted on the tax payer.

Impeccable taste. When Charlotte did get the chance to spend money on luxuries, she could keep up with the best of them. I often think George IV inherited his good taste from her – although with him, it often flared out into gaudiness. Charlotte paid great attention to the details in her dresses, the arrangement of her daughters’ hair (even consulting artist Benjamin West about where the jewels should be placed) and her jewellery. Jewellery was a passion with Charlotte and one which I think many of us women can sympathise with. Although Charlotte was never beautiful, she acquired a reputation for elegance and grace – she knew how to do the best with what she  had. In fact, her”ugliness” is another thing I love about Charlotte. I’m bored with hopelessly attractive Queens – I have nothing in common with them!

When it came to interior design and flower arranging, her enthusiasm knew no bounds. Her taste was neither as bland and simple as the King’s nor as decadently riotous as her son’s. Very little of Charlotte’s decoration remains at Windsor, Frogmore or Buckingham Palace, but if you read the accounts of her dimity curtains, gilt frames and embroidered chairs,  you get a feel for the gentle prettiness of her style.

Her quiet faith. Charlotte was a devout woman and used her religion to strengthen her. She had a deep interest in theology and even belonged to a Protestant convent in her youth. She was not pushy or preachy but believed in setting an example for others to follow. The strength of her convictions is shown early on in discussions with her mother in law, Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales – this was the one part of her life Charlotte would not allow anyone else to influence or dictate to her in. She certainly need the consolation of religion in the life that lay ahead of her. She was aware that even the plans of a Queen could be shot off course by higher powers – one of her favourite phrases was: “Man proposes; God disposes.”

Motherhood. In a time when childbirth was a dangerous activity, you can’t help but admire a woman who survived fifteen labours. Although Charlotte’s frame was slight, there was remarkable strength in it. Charlotte was also what I call a “normal” mother – neither outrageously devoted to or indifferent to her children. When I imagine being responsible for fifteen children, my first thought is: “What a nightmare.” And Charlotte was duly annoyed and frustrated by her brood many times. She suffered from depression during her pregnancies, wished she would have no more children and often found it hard to share her love equally among them. But she wrote to all her children when they were absent from home – even those the King forgot – and was devastated when she lost two baby boys. Her tough love approach to education may have distanced some of her daughters, but she was adored by both Princess Elizabeth and George IV. She stood up for her beloved eldest son on many occasions and was a great support to him during his Regency. It is worth noting that she went from being a widely popular Queen to a rather disliked figure amongst some circles at the time of her death – all because she stood by her son. Having said that, she also took George IV to task when he needed it. I particularly love the instance of her having a go at him because he had failed to pay her granddaughter’s (another Charlotte) allowance on time. She was, in fact, a good grandmother, which perhaps the young Charlotte didn’t appreciate until later years. It is touching to see how Charlotte tried to promote her granddaughter’s marriage to Prince Leopold and took pains to get acquainted with the young man.

She was a woman of her time. Let’s face the truth: Charlotte lived in a time when women were the weaker sex. She may not always have agreed with it, but she didn’t rail against it either. It’s interesting to work out the psychology of a woman who, although she may have known better, submitted to her husband’s opinion at all times. She had a crushing sense of duty and that duty was to the King. She allowed him to dictate the way she would behave towards certain children – the ones not in favour! – and the people she took into her household. She stayed out of politics to please him, even though her mind was more than capable of handling its complexities. For a writer, this is brilliant. The internal conflict caused by such devoted duty is pure gold. Here was a woman, not blindly following, but forcing herself to obey. There are delightful little moments where the real Charlotte peeps out – throwing her lot in unashamedly with the Tories after they stood by her during the King’s illness, intervening for George IV, trying to persuade the King to let her daughters marry. But for the main part, Charlotte was a model wife of the time. I admire this. It may seem strange, but I can see more strength in her behaviour than I can in those women that shouted and screamed at their husbands. It would have been easy – if inadvisable –  for Charlotte to speak her mind and defy the King.  But she managed to restrain herself with mind-boggling self-control. I’m not saying I advocate this behaviour in the least. I can just see that in her, it was strength, not weakness, that held her tongue.

Her death. Most Queens die like martyrs. Both Caroline of Ansbach and Caroline of Brunswick endured agonising deaths with supreme courage – they were not afraid to die. I admire this more than I can say, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate with me. If I was about to die, I would be terrified. And so was Charlotte. She spent many of her last days crying, worrying over her will and wishing she had all her children with her. She prayed constantly. Most touching of all, she wanted to force her sick body to travel to Windsor so she could die near the King. It wasn’t to be. She died quietly at Kew, closing a tumultuous life with a peaceful slumber.

I hope I haven’t bored you too much with my Charlotte obsession. If you would like to read more about Charlotte and her life, why not try my novel God Save the King? Or if you are looking for history books, I would recommend Olwen Hedley’s Queen Charlotte, Flora Fraser’s Princesses (as always!) or Christopher Hibbert’s George III: A Personal History.

Caroline of Ansbach

As you may have seen from my Twitter feed, I’ve been invited to appear on a TV documentary about Hampton Court Palace (I understand this will be on PBS, although I don’t know when). What absolute bliss! A palace I love and a chance to witter away about the Georgians, all rolled into one! The only problem I could foresee was that most my research for the Hampton Court years revolved around Caroline of Ansbach and my great admiration for her. Although I adore her, and I hope you will all adore my novel about her when I come to write it, I was worried I might come across as a Caroline-obsessed weirdo. But when I spoke to the director, he too was fascinated by Caroline and wanted to hear my stories about her. So just what is it about this Georgian Queen that holds us in her thrall?

We’re not the first to be touched by her magic. She had a gift of inspiring the utmost devotion in her circle of close servants. This was an exclusive club you had to work hard to get into, but once you were there, Caroline would show you the human face behind the monarch. This was the Caroline who had to run from the room in tears when a woman begged her to save the life of a Jacobite rebel. And as for her husband, George II, he was besotted. He took mistresses for the sake of his male, Kingly pride, but always insisted they were not fit to buckle Caroline’s shoe. When arriving home after absences in Hanover, he would be quick to whisk his wife away to the bedroom, no matter who was looking. His grief on her death was profound and touching. He had a gem of a Queen and he knew it.

Caroline was not a conventional woman, nor a conventional Princess. She was orphaned at the age of only 13 and sent to live in Brandenburg with the elector Frederick and his wife Sophie Charlotte. This was the perfect place for the intelligent, quick young Princess to spread her wings. Sophie Charlotte was the aunt of Caroline’s future husband, George II. She entertained the great scholars and philosophers of the age, absorbing their knowledge and debating with them. Her husband, Frederick, loved fashion and splendour. No wonder Caroline learned to be fiercely intelligent with a keen sense of style. This court formed her at an impressionable age – but sadly, when Sophie Charlotte died, she was forced to return to the backwater of Ansbach.

Back home, she kept up her studies, concentrating on theology, philosophy and metaphysics. At some point – whether early on or shortly before her marriage is unclear -Caroline taught herself to write. Naturally, her self-taught hand was badly formed, causing George II to pronounce that she wrote ‘like a cat’, but you have to admire the ambition and tenacity that carried her through. Caroline certainly knew her own mind. Although she had no dowry at all, she refused a highly desirable offer of marriage because her prospective bridegroom was Catholic. Caroline herself was a devout Lutheran and there was no way she was converting.

The intelligent, lively Princess from Ansbach earned herself a glowing reputation. George II’s grandmother Sophia, who took the place of his absent mother, told him she was the loveliest Princess to be found. However, he was unwilling to plunge into a marriage without making his own decision. Disguising himself as a travelling count, he gathered his entourage and set out on a scouting mission to Ansbach.

Of course, the disguise didn’t fool a sharp young Princess like Caroline, but she played along. Her charms soon had George smitten. As George himself was far from interested in the “stuff and nonsense” Caroline liked, such as poetry, art, theology etc, it’s unlikely she captivated him with her scholarly conversation.  More prominent in the wooing, I imagine, were her graceful manner, long blonde hair and soon to be legendary bosom. Either way, he returned home with his head full of her and determined to marry.

Caroline knew exactly how to work her husband. Her influence was of such a subtle, manipulative nature that it was extremely hard to trace. She was careful to “say what she did not think, assent to what she did not believe and praise what she did not approve” so that George thought she agreed with all his opinions. She would then slowly, almost imperceptibly, change these views to her own. George, carried along with the gradual process, always believed he had come to the new conclusions all by himself. Caroline was strongly supported in her role by Walpole and Hervey, who shared her Whiggish viewpoint. She needed all the allies she could get, as George was determined not to be ruled by women like his father. When rumours flew about that he was governed by his wife, he would do everything in his power to contradict them. He would humiliate Caroline in front of the court, laughing at her ignorance or shouting down her opinions in one of his famous rages.  Astonishingly, Caroline always responded with sweetness and light. She flattered, she agreed and she let him think he had put her in her place. It was the same tactic she used when hearing of his mistresses – she encouraged him to tell her about them and keep her informed of every stage of the conquest, as if anything which brought him pleasure was the greatest delight to her. It couldn’t have been an easy course, but it was a brilliant one.  Through it she ensured George remained bound to her heart and soul.

There was also a more human, earthy side to Caroline to add to this picture of the sainted wife. She was devoutly religious, but she also revelled in the risqué humour of Lord Hervey, who was known to take both male and female lovers. Her court was bright and lively, full of naughty, flirtatious maids of honour who danced at masquerades and giggled during sermons. She was also not above some petty jealousy towards George’s mistress Henrietta Howard. Although I like Henrietta and feel sorry for her, I can understand the emotions which led Caroline to remind her of her place. She had always been fond of Henrietta until she started sleeping with her husband.  When the affair started, Caroline never openly reproached, but gave Henrietta more menial tasks to do and insisted she hold her wash basin on bended knee. I rather like this glint of a jealous woman showing through the veneer of a perfect Queen.

Since George I’s wife was imprisoned in a German castle for her infidelity, Caroline took on the role of Queen long before it was her actual title. She led the fashions and added some much needed gaiety to George I’s court. It is worth noting that in some of the early squabbles between George I and George II, the elder George remained tolerant of her while he hated her husband. Sadly, this was all to change. Following a huge row over the Christening of the couple’s son – another George – Caroline was separated from her children. George I did offer to let her come back and live with them if she would abandon her husband – but this was a thing she would never agree to. It took the death of the poor baby George to reunite the family. I doubt if Caroline ever forgave her father in law for separating her from her child before he died. She had already lost a son, and nearly died herself in giving birth to him. This was yet another blow.

Caroline the mother is a bit of a mystery. Her daughters praised both her and George II as wonderful parents and pined to return to them when they were separated. William, Duke of Cumberland (later to be known as Butcher), was clearly spoilt by his mother, receiving the beautiful Cumberland suite of rooms at Hampton Court palace, all carefully redecorated for him in fashionable blue mohair. But what about poor Frederick, her eldest, who she had been forced to leave in Hanover when she came to Britain? This child she completely detested, calling him “the greatest ass that ever lived”. Her venom towards him is extremely hard to reconcile with her behaviour towards her other children.  Of course, she disapproved of his rakish behaviour when he came to England and knew he was close to George I, but these are hardly strong enough factors to turn a mother against her firstborn son. I can only imagine it was his interference in opposition politics which really got her goat. Caroline loved power, and anyone who threatened hers was an instant enemy.

Another great thing about Caroline was her cleanliness. We have accounts of how she cleaned her teeth with a sponge on a stick and various references to her constant bathing, which earned her the name “clean Caroline.” She would sit in a bath lined with linen, on a little stool, clothed in shift. Ewers of hot water would be brought to her and little soapy concoctions whipped up out of rose water and orange water.  Her bathroom at Hampton Court Palace still retains a decidedly floral and spicy scent, helping you to imagine those bathtimes long ago. No doubt, her servants would think her slightly mad. Everyone knew bathing could be dangerous to your health. But a Queen will have her whims…

Caroline predeceased her husband in 1737 in a truly tragic way. She knew death was coming, because she had been hiding the cause of it for a long time. An umbilical rupture, endured at the birth of her last child, was slowly killing her, along with the gout to which she was a martyr. But why did she keep walking with gout, instead of letting William wheel her around in her merlin chair? Why didn’t she tell someone about the rupture? The answer was simple and definitive of Caroline: George. George hated anything to do with illness – hated even more the fuss that went with it. A perfect wife to the end, Caroline refused to trouble him with her agony. It is almost too sad for words. As you can imagine, George was inconsolable when he found out the truth. He spent hours lying on the death-bed beside her, assuring her she was the best woman who ever lived. He remonstrated against her constant plea that he would marry again. And then, in true Caroline style, when the hour of death was upon her, she ordered the candles extinguished so that he wouldn’t have to suffer the horror of watching her die. A truly courageous end for a remarkable Queen.

I think you can see why I’m so eager to start my novel about Caroline and her life. She is one of my heroines in a writing sense and a personal sense. But for now I am concentrating on one of her ancestors – another Caroline – who was less subtle, less clean but no less remarkable in her way.