If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that I don’t buy into the theory that a bad mother equals a bad person. I find that notion as outdated as the one that a less-than-perfect wife is a failure as a woman. The word that gets my goat most is “unnatural”. I went to Colchester zoo last week and saw the following sign: “This baby gibbon has been moved to a separate enclosure as its mother had neither milk nor maternal care”. See, it happens in nature too: some just aren’t born with the skill-set for the role of mother. Do I think this gibbon was evil? Of course not. Heck, some mother hamsters eat their babies. So let’s not get started on “natural”.
Caroline of Ansbach has fallen under the taint of “unnatural mother”, and in her case the appellation is particularly unfair. As I will show you, she was in fact a very caring and indulgent mother, who suffered agonies for her children. This is particularly impressive, given that Caroline’s own parents died so early on. She didn’t have an example to follow but managed admirably with her brood of seven surviving offspring.
The words that have damned Caroline to infamy were recorded by Lord Hervey. Allegedly, on catching sight of her eldest son, Frederick, she said, “Look, there he goes! That wretch, that villain! I wish the ground would open at this moment and sink the monster into the lowest hole in hell.” Another supposed outrage went: “My dear first-born is the greatest ass, and the greatest liar, and the greatest canaille, and the greatest beast in the whole world, and I heartily wish he was out of it.” When first researching Caroline and finding these sentences, I thought two things. The first was “How could a person wish death and eternal damnation to their own child?” The second was, “What on earth did Frederick do to her, to make her feel that way?”
It’s puzzling, because these speeches seem very out of keeping, not only with Caroline in general but with her behaviour toward Frederick. I have to say, I have doubts about their veracity. Lord Hervey, waspish and gossipy, is considered by many historians to be an unreliable source. Moreover, he had his own axe to grind with Frederick. Could it be that Hervey transferred his opinions into Caroline’s mouth, then professed himself “shocked” by them to save face? It’s certainly possible. But let us suppose Hervey is telling the truth in all his accounts of the Georgian Court. He records violent language, just as bad if not worse than the speeches I have quoted above, from all of Frederick’s family. Particularly vicious words come from Caroline’s third daughter, who I will refer to as Young Caroline to avoid confusion. It is worth considering that Young Caroline was held to be the mildest mannered of the three elder Princesses. She was called upon to act as mediator between her two sisters and was always applied to when courtiers wanted to know the truth of a matter. It is inconceivable that a girl of Young Caroline’s character would adopt such a strong hatred for no reason. Was there a dark secret at the center of the Hanoverian Court? What exactly did Frederick do?
My investigations into this strange relationship began with Caroline’s pregnancy. I wanted to see if perhaps she had experienced a bad bout of ante-natal depression and an inability to connect with her baby which she never recovered from. It is possible, or even probable, that the pressure Caroline was under to produce a male heir skewed her bond with her first child. Her husband’s grandfather, Ernst, had introduced primogeniture into the Hanoverian dynasty in a bid to win the Electoral cap for his state and make it part of the Holy Roman Empire. He succeeded, but this meant all territory and rights would now pass solely to the eldest son, rather than be split between children as in previous generations. Therefore, no son equaled no inheritance and no continuation of the family line.
At first, things seemed to be going well in the child-stakes for George and Caroline. They were married in September 1705 and Caroline suspected she was pregnant by May 1706. But she was by no means certain what was happening to her body. In November 1706, the doctors suggested she might be suffering from dropsy instead. Perhaps there was no baby and never had been. This idea must have been a humiliating blow for Caroline, reminiscent of the doomed Queen Mary I, whose history she was familiar with. But happily her doctors were wrong. She gave birth to a healthy son three months later in February 1707.
All the stress and anxiety in the months leading up to the birth had a palpable effect on Caroline. She kept to her room for a long period and was very reluctant to let others see the baby Frederick. So great was her aversion to going out that the Christening for the heir actually took place privately in her bedroom. One has to wonder what was going on in Caroline’s mind at this time. It doesn’t seem normal behaviour for a healthy new mother. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that she disliked her baby.
Unfortunately, Caroline’s temporary withdrawal from the world gave rise to rumours. This gossip, if true, would provide a plausible reason for her tense relationship with Frederick in later years. However, I don’t believe it is true. The scandle-mongers’ theory was based on George II’s speech in the heat of his temper. During his rages, he referred to Frederick as a “changeling” and “no son of his”, nicknaming him the “Griff”. In some languages, griff or griffe could mean a person of mixed race. It seems highly unlikely that George II was using the word in in this context, but some have chosen to interpret it that way. They suggest Frederick was the the produce of either an affair or a rape, and that the father was one of George I’s Turkish servants. As thrilling as this idea is, it is unfeasible. George I placed an enormous amount of trust in his Turkish servants, but he would never stand for such blatant ill-behaviour from them. If such an event had occurred, he would dismiss them or at least treat them with increasing coolness – but on the contrary, he trusted them more and more throughout life. And would Caroline’s strong tempered husband really sit back while his honour was insulted? Hardly. But even supposing the wild theory was true and George II did decide to keep his mouth shut for the prospect of a male heir, surely the birth of his second son would have prompted him to confess the truth and grant all rights to his true child? Although it would be a great motive for dislike, I’m afraid the illegitimate theory doesn’t have legs to stand on.
What is clear from the early years in Hanover is that Frederick’s parents didn’t start off disliking him. Caroline said that back then, she loved Frederick better than all her other children and would have given them up for him. But I do wonder if her image of her son started to disintegrate when he had health problems. I don’t mean she disliked him for them or didn’t look after him – more that she began to suspect he wasn’t the strong heir she needed. At the age of 2, little Fretz or Fritzchen as they nicknamed him was only speaking a few words and had made no attempts to stand. Through further investigation, he was found to have rickets. Although he received all the attention and care possible, Caroline remained unconvinced that her son had made a full recovery. Later on in life, she was to doubt his ability to have children. Did the fact that she viewed Frederick as a sickly child make her realise she needed a spare son – just in case? His appearance was a constant reminder of her fears – Frederick was to retain slim, fragile-looking legs his entire life.
Very few historians can doubt that the main damage to the relationship between parent and child was done in the year 1714. Frederick’s grandfather George I inherited the throne of Great Britain, although he was reluctant to leave his Hanoverian domains without a family representative. After deliberation, he decreed that the seven-year-old Frederick was to stay behind. As you can imagine, his parents were distraught, but nothing they could say or do would change the King’s mind.
Caroline’s maternal tenderness is shown by the fact she stayed behind in Hanover for a while after her husband and the King left for England. She nursed her poorly young daughter and spent precious last moments with her son. No doubt she thought she would soon persuade the King to let Frederick join his family when they were settled – she was generally good at making him do what she wanted. She probably had no idea she was about to endure 14 years of separation from her boy.
Life in England swept the new Prince and Princess of Wales up in a social whirl, but they didn’t forget their son. There is evidence that Caroline plagued visitors from Hanover for any news they had of Frederick. Both mother and father attempted to get him back on various occasions, without success. An example is the time that the King told George he must pay more money for Frederick’s education. George replied that he would gladly give up £100,000 a year, so long as his son came to complete his studies in England. Suddenly, the King stopped asking for more money ant the subject was closed.
It seems strange and almost heartless that George I, who was by no means a cruel person, should be desperate to keep control over his grandson. He certainly didn’t like George II, so maybe he thought he was protecting the young heir from his father’s influence. Or maybe it was all a game of power and Frederick was merely a pawn. But either way, he broke a vital bond in the family chain. On the King’s visits to Hanover, George and Caroline were never allowed to come and see their son. I have also read that they weren’t allowed to write to him, although I don’t know how true that statement is. Soon, the only family Frederick had access to was his grandfather, and unsurprisingly he grew close to him. Given the tense relationship between Frederick’s father and grandfather, this is the worst thing he could have done. No doubt George II felt his son had been “stolen” and warped to be like a man he quietly despised. The boy certainly did seem to be changing. When his governor, Neibourg, resigned from his appointment, he told Caroline that Frederick had “the most vicious nature and false heart that ever man had. Nor are his vices the vices of a gentleman but the mean base tricks of a knavish footman”. Upon hearing this, Caroline burst into tears.
It would have comforted Caroline to have another son to stand in for her missing Frederick. Tragically, she was not to gain more children, but lose them. During the years of Frederick’s absence, she gave birth to a stillborn son and suffered a miscarriage. Yet these were small trials of motherhood compared with what she was about to face. In 1717, what started off as a happy event – the arrival of a second, healthy son – soon turned into a violent family row. After they had been forced by the King’s ministers to set aside the name they had selected and give up the idea of having George’s uncle as a godfather, Caroline and George were understandably angry. A shouting match broke out between George and the Duke of Newcastle. in which Newcastle mistakenly thought George had challenged him to a duel. He went running to the King – who promptly dismissed his son from the royal palaces.
This would have been cruel enough, but the King decreed that his grandchildren should remain with him. To Caroline, he presented an impossible decision: stay with her children on the condition she didn’t see her husband, or follow her husband into exile and leave her children behind. Caroline chose to go with George. Perhaps this was not a decision many women would make, but Caroline had a strong emotional bond with her husband and they truly needed one another. She was a good wife above all else and wouldn’t abandon him. However, for all her brave talk, she didn’t take the step lightly. There are accounts of her weeping and falling into one faint after another as she was separated from her daughters and literally had her baby boy taken from her arms.
Once away from her darlings, Caroline went on a mission to reclaim them. She befriended Robert Walpole, who was later to become her great ally, on the promise that he would help her get the children back. “This will be no jesting matter to me,” she told him. “You will hear of this, and my complaints, every day and hour, and in every place, if I have not my children again”. It is clear that the little princesses, much as they loved their grandfather, were not happy with the change either. “We have excellent parents and yet we are orphans,” one of the little girls mourned. They took every opportunity to send secret notes and gifts to their missing parents. Once, Caroline and George risked the King’s wrath and snuck in a secret visit with their daughters. The emotion was too much for all. Caroline fainted with shock and her husband wept continually. Are these really the actions of unloving, unnatural parents? I think not, but it can’t be doubted that these years of hardship had a deep psychological effect on the couple. They would learn to lean toward each other rather than their children. They were being told that their offspring did not belong to them, but the King. Moreover, their already fragile emotional state was shattered by a deeper grief. At the same time as their eldest daughter, Anne, came down with the life-threatening smallpox, their baby boy sickened with an unknown malady. Anne recovered, but the precious second son was not so lucky. Finally granted access to him, Caroline sped to Kensington Palace just in time to hold her baby in her arms before he died.
Who can doubt that Caroline and George resented the King, even blamed him for their baby’s death? Although an autopsy proved the little one would have died regardless, they must have been devastated that they hadn’t been able to spend even the short months of his life with him. I suspect that this strong, negative feeling toward the King also branched out to encompass Frederick. Of course, none of this was remotely connected to him, but in their minds George and Caroline labelled their son as the King’s creature. It may have been subconscious, but I am convinced it happened.
Poor Fred’s fate was sealed when, in 1721, his parents had another son, William. Precocious, strong and devoted to the military, William was the ideal child for Caroline and George. Beloved by his parents and the nation – after all, he was an English-born Prince, unlike Fred – William seemed a better candidate for the British throne than his unfortunate, exiled brother. Given that she suspected Fred of being infertile, Caroline may have dared to hope her “worthy” heir would find his way to the crown one day. Fred, if not forgotten, was certainly eclipsed. This preference for the younger son was to add another layer to the complex feelings Caroline nursed toward Fred. Just how much their relationship had changed would be seen when, after years of separation, they finally met again in 1727 . . .
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I have a lot to say about Caroline. To prevent overwhelming you with information, I’m splitting my thoughts on her into two separate blogs. Watch out for Hanoverian Mothers 3.2, which will cover the later years of Caroline’s life and her final quarrel with her son. Coming soon to a screen near you!