I first came across Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg in a book about Jane Austen’s life. As the book detailed Royal antics shortly before Jane’s death, it mentioned the wedding of Princess Charlotte to this obscure German Prince. It also included a picture of the couple. I was smitten.
Leopold was devastatingly handsome. Napoleon described him as “the handsomest man that ever set foot in the Tuileries”. How appropriate that poor Princess Charlotte, doomed to a short and turbulent life, managed to catch such a man. But aside from his good looks, and the fact that he made Charlotte happy, what else do we know about Leopold?
I recently read James Chambers wonderful book “Charlotte & Leopold” to discover more about my historic crush. My findings have only increased it. I knew before that Leopold was uncle to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and I had heard that Leopold trained Albert for the difficult role he was to undertake. What I didn’t realise was how poignant that really was, given Leopold’s life after Charlotte.
The marriage of Charlotte and Leopold was by no means a fairytale romance. She wanted him to gain independence and avoid the Prince of Orange; he wanted her for her social position. Leopold travelled to England solely with the hope of catching Charlotte if he could, even though he had never met her. It is clear that his great advocates, the Tsar of Russia and the Grand Duchess, strategically placed him in situations where he would meet Charlotte. But what started off as a marriage of convenience swiftly become a love match.
Leopold was a wonderful husband. To quote Charlotte, he was “the perfection of a lover”. He was attentive, caring and corrected his wife where she needed it. While I, as a modern woman, would probably throw things at Leopold for trying to correct my posture and speech, Charlotte was delighted. She was, after all, destined to become Queen of England and needed to deport herself accordingly. Up until now, she had fought against all instruction, because she couldn’t respect those who gave it to her. Now she had Leopold to look up to and admire, she was ready to be obedient. And besides, the whole thing was done lovingly. He would not openly upbraid, but whisper to her “Douchemont, chere, douchemont”. The fact that Charlotte then nicknamed her husband Douchemont shows that the advice was taken in the affectionate spirit it was given.
It would be easy to suspect that Leopold’s devotion rose out of motives of self-interest. After all, the more power he had over Charlotte, the more power he had over England. He did certainly drive a rift between his wife and her long-term friend, Mercer Elphinstone, when he disapproved of her husband. But we can see, from Leopold’s behaviour after Charlotte’s death, how genuine his love really was.
Throughout Charlotte’s long labour, he had been a model husband. He walked her up and down in front of the fire, he lay down on the bed with her. In fact he exhausted himself so greatly that, after consoling her for the loss of their stillborn son, he was dosed up by his doctor and went to bed. Due to the opiates, he was not present for Charlotte’s actual death. But when his doctor, Stockmar, broke the news, he sat by her bed kissing her cold hands. At last, he threw himself into the doctor’s arms and whispered: “I am now quite desolate. Promise to stay with me always.”
In the years of grief that followed, Leopold’s focus was on the wife, not the Kingdom, he had lost. He sat with her corpse constantly until it was buried. He walked around the gardens with Stockmar, weeping and clutching her portrait. He refused to let Charlotte’s bonnet and cloak be moved from the screen where she had flung them, and could not suffer her watch to be taken off the mantlepiece. He still felt he was destined to be a King. He tried to join in the social scene as the years passed. But he was always happiest at his marital home at Claremont, lost in memories of happier times.
Leopold had taken mistresses before he met Charlotte, most notably Napoleon’s step-daughter Hortense, and continued to take them after she died. But his heart had by no means healed. No matter how old he grew, the women he selected were around the age of Charlotte when she died. He even took up with Caroline Bauer just because she looked like Charlotte. There’s a lovely anecdote of Ms Bauer adopting Charlotte’s parrot, Coco, and taking it on her Continental travels. But while Coco found an adequate replacement for his dead mistress, Leopold could not.
He finally fulfilled the destiny he knew was his by becoming King of the Belgians. He married again, although this time round he was not the ideal husband. By degrees, Leopold had been growing colder and colder. He infuriated his mistresses with his indifference. While his wife, Louise-Marie, continued to love him, she knew she would never take the place of his first wife. She was married to a man in love with a ghost. She knew this so well that she raised no objections when Leopold insisted on their only daughter being named Charlotte.
Leopold’s daughter, known more often as Carlotta than Charlotte, would make a wonderful subject for historical fiction. Despite being the name-sake of her father’s one true love, she was never high up in his affections. The only child he seemed capable of loving was his niece Victoria. I have a few theories as to why this was. Firstly, Victoria was Charlotte’s replacement as heir presumptive, filling the exact same position Charlotte had occupied before her death. Then there is Victoria’s appearance. Her fleshy cast and large eyes were typical of the House of Hanover, which linked her to Charlotte. Lastly, Leopold would have remembered the days he sat at Claremont with Charlotte and her uncle, the Duke of Kent, Victoria’s father. He would certainly remember recommending his sister, Victoria’s mother, as a suitable bride for the Duke; advice that was swiftly followed.
Carlotta did finally manage to please her father by becoming the Empress of Mexico, but she inherited the tragedy of her name-sake. Mexico did not want their new Emperor and Empress. While Carlotta ran about the courts of Europe, begging for help, her beloved Maximilian was captured and shot. The ordeal drove her mad. She ended her days in a Belgian castle, gabbling on about her husband and her Empire. How apt, that Leopold’s daughter should also obsess over the spouse she lost. It was a family trait; Victoria was never to recover from the loss of Albert.
As for Leopold, his obsession lasted until the end. He died whispering “Charlotte, Charlotte.” He wanted, of course, to be buried in England by his first wife and still-born son, but it was not permitted. He was King of the Belgians; although in his heart, he was still Consort to a Queen who never was.