Christmas can be a difficult season. Tradition dictates we spend time with our families, a test that truly proves if we can wish peace and goodwill to all men! Warring relatives and Christmas arguments are familiar to many of us. But if you have a difficult family situation this holiday season, you’re in good company. Meet Princess Charlotte, daughter to one of royalty’s most dysfunctional couples.
Charlotte’s mother Caroline and her father, the Prince Regent, hated each other with a mortal passion. Charlotte grew up tossed between the two. The Prince Regent’s position of authority meant he got more access to her. But in character, Charlotte was more like her mother – fun-loving and spirited. She didn’t fit in with the meek and demure role the royal family expected her to play.
It was Charlotte’s misfortune to spend much of her time at Windsor with her grandmother, the Queen, and her aunts. Whilst they were all kind and devoted to her, they were simply boring to a girl of Charlotte’s age and disposition. What’s more, Aunts Mary and Elizabeth were out to manipulate her and bend her to her father’s will. Charlotte often described Windsor as a prison, writing I think of nothing but how I can get out of their clutches and torment them afterwards.
Having briefly escaped captivity in Cranbourne Lodge, where she was watched like a dangerous criminal, Charlotte was forced to return from her summer resort of Weymouth and spend Christmas 1814 at Windsor. She was in poor spirits, suffering from bad health and disappointment in love. Her journey was very uncomfortable, punctuated by the “eternal fidgets and frights” of her lady companion.
Like many interfering relatives, the royals wanted to see Charlotte married.On Christmas Eve the year before, Charlotte’s grandmother had attempted to give her some “good advice” on her love life, and we can imagine how this was received. But to the Queen’s credit, she did implore her granddaughter never to marry a man she did not like, as it would cause her endless misery. Although the Queen did not advocate Charlotte disobeying her father, she believed she had a right to her own opinion, and to stand firm by it.
The Prince Regent wanted Charlotte the marry the thin, plain though good-humoured Prince of Orange. She had serious reservations about the young man, whose family her mother disapproved of. Not only was he far below her standards of a dream-prince, he would force her to live abroad for much of the year. Charlotte feared her mother would become lonely and her father would try to remarry and get another heir in her absence. But most importantly, Charlotte was still in love with a philanderer, Prince Augustus. Although she had recently been disillusioned, she was not ready to move on yet. But Charlotte’s only advocates against the Orange match were her Aunt Sophia and grandmother the Queen.
On Christmas Day 1814, Charlotte found herself forced to spend time alone with Aunt Mary and her father. A kind of interrogation began. First, the Prince Regent confided that he had been making inquiries into the parentage of Willy Austin, a young boy her mother had adopted. He warned Charlotte that after his death, Caroline may claim the boy was actually his and true heir to the throne. He knew, presumably, the jealous dislike Charlotte had always nurtured against the boy. Seizing the advantage of her shock, he pressed her for information about the men who hung around her mother – could any of them be her lovers? Unsure what to say, Charlotte admitted she had suspected Captain Manby.
Switching tactic, the Prince began to talk of the 18th Hussars, then stationed at Windsor. Charlotte was coerced into revealing her past feelings for Captain Hesse of that regiment. He had ridden beside her carriage, they had written, exchanged presents and he had often visited her mother’s apartments at Kensington Palace. On one occasion, in fact, her mother had locked them in a bedroom and said “I leave you to enjoy yourselves.”
“God knows,” Charlotte said, “What would have become of me if he had not behaved with so much respect.”
This was just what the Prince Regent and Aunt Mary wanted to hear. They could use this against Charlotte’s mother. Whilst sympathetic to Charlotte’s plight, the Regent advised her it was Providence alone that had saved her virtue from Hesse. Caroline had been extremely wicked. The family was then called in for Christmas dinner.
That wasn’t the end of Charlotte’s trials, though. The Prince Regent returned to London, but Aunt Mary kept up the questions. She asked Charlotte if it was Caroline who had made her adverse to the Prince of Orange. Did Charlotte not see, Mary asked, that her mother didn’t want her to marry respectably? She suggested Caroline had orchestrated the whole Captain Hesse affair to shame and discredit Charlotte, in order to put her bastard boy Willy on the throne. Poor Charlotte was forced to admit, “I never knew whether Captain Hesse was my mother’s lover or mine.”
Charlotte slept ill that Christmas night. She was horrified that she’d incriminated her mother. She still loved Caroline, swearing that, “There is no hazard or risk to serve my poor mother that I would not run, if it would be of any avail”.
Consequently, a tense Charlotte wrote to Aunt Mary on Boxing Day to beg for her discretion. Except it be absolutely necessary, I hope all that passed in your room yesterday will be kept sacred within your bosom. Not much chance of that. Ever eager to please her brother, Aunt Mary had reported to the Prince Regent almost the moment Charlotte left her the previous evening.
Unsurprisingly, Charlotte was less fond of Aunt Mary after this Christmas!