This Saturday, 8th September, is an important date in the Georgian calendar – it marks the marriage of George III and Queen Charlotte in 1761. But just why did the King of England wind up marrying a seventeen year old Princess from a minor Duchy? Well…
Early biographers of Charlotte suggest that she first came to George’s attention after writing a letter to Frederick the Great of Prussia. Her correspondence begged for justice on behalf of the poor of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, after Prussian troops devastated the country. The alleged letter begins:
May it please your Majesty, I am at a loss whether I should congratulate or condole with you on your late victory; since the same success which has covered you with laurels has overspread the country of Mecklenburg with desolation. I know, Sire, that it seems unbecoming of my sex, in this age of vicious refinement, to feel for one’s country, to lament the horrors of war, or wish for a return of peace; I know you may think it more properly my province to study the arts of pleasing, or to inspect subjects of a more domestic nature: but however unbecoming it may be in me, I cannot resist the desire of interceding for this unhappy people.
Sadly, the letter is almost certainly a forgery and the story that goes with it false, but I do like the idea. It wouldn’t be out of character for Charlotte to intercede on behalf of the injured, or for George to admire a woman who did. But I’m afraid the truth is a bit less romantic!
Since falling in love with the beautiful Lady Sarah Lennox who, as well as being an unequal match for a King, also failed to return his affection, George had been desperate to marry. His choices were limited – she must be Protestant and she must be a Princess. With his mother Augusta, he poured through a list of prospective brides in the New Berlin Almanack. Augusta had already persuaded her son to reject several suits, largely because his hated grandfather George II approved of them. George himself was less fussy. His preference was a wife with a good understanding, a pleasant disposition and no inclination to meddle in politics.
Scouts were sent out to size up the prospective candidates, without much success. The Princesses of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttle had an interest in philosophy and one was only fourteen. Princess Philippa of Brandenburg-Schwedt was found obstinate and disobliging. For a time, the Princess of Hesse-Darmstadt looked like a good bet, until it was discovered her father was mentally unstable. The only Princess nearly fit for George to present to his people was Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
The main criticism levelled at Charlotte revolved around her plain looks and sheltered upbringing. People feared she would not have received the education befitting a Queen of England, but this was all worry in vain; Charlotte was a remarkably intelligent young woman. She had a “natural, easy and composed carriage” and a “mild temper”. George was convinced, but not overjoyed: “I own it is not in every particular as I could wish, but yet I am resolved to fix here”.
His cool detachment was in stark contrast to Charlotte’s emotional leave of her home. It would have been difficult travelling so far away to marry a man she had never met under any circumstances, but hers were particularly painful. Her mother died soon after the engagement was announced – the last words she spoke to Charlotte were full of wishes for her happiness. Charlotte’s elder sister, Christiane, was not in a position to comfort her; by an unlucky coincidence, she was in love with an English Duke. Now that Charlotte was going to be Queen of England, it made Christiane’s marriage to her lover impossible. Their father had died 1752, so it was only her brother that Charlotte could depend upon – and he was soon to be taken from her. Due to George’s dislike of foreigners and meddling women, Charlotte was only allowed to take two women of the bedchamber to join her in her new life. She didn’t even see her wedding trousseau: it was to be purchased in England, with her brother’s money, by Lady Bute.
It must have cheered her up to receive George’s portrait, set with diamonds, and a diamond rose from her fiance in England. In return, she sent her own portrait and a lock of her hair, which he found “fine and remarkably soft”. At last George put aside fantasies of Sarah Lennox and concentrated on his bride to be. He was fond of her portrait, guarding it with typical jealousy, and began to tie a handkerchief to his whip and hold it up in the wind to see when he could expect his bride’s ship to arrive.
Poor Charlotte, who had never even seen the sea before, was whisked across country in a finery she was not yet accustomed to and “whipped” onto her ship. This meant she sat on a chair slung across two cables which was hoisted up onto the deck – sounds like a scary experience! To make matters worse, her voyage was plagued by storms, thunder, gales and hail. When she finally arrived in England, she travelled through Essex, taking refreshment in Colchester (my town! yay!), and then straight onto St. James’s Palace. Understandably, she was so tired and wracked with nerves about meeting her new family that she half-fell out of the carriage. Prince Edward was quick to step in and hand her down, while George opened the gate. The terrified Princess “threw herself” at her future husband’s feet. He raised her, embraced her, and led her through the gardens and up the steps into the palace.
There were beautiful surprises awaiting her, but I doubt Charlotte could take in the sky-blue rooms the King had decorated for her, or his wedding gifts of a crown, pearl bracelets and a diamond stomacher. Indeed, she hardly had time to meet the numerous members of her new family before being packed into her wedding finery. For on that night – one of the hottest of the year and the very night of her arrival – Charlotte was to marry the King of England.
We have the following description of Charlotte’s bridal-wear – considering how hot it was and how tired she felt, it must have been suffocating:
A silver tissue, stiffen bodied gown, embroidered and trimmed with silver. On her head a little cap of purple velvet quite covered with diamonds, a diamond aigrette in the form of a crown, 3 dropped diamond earrings, diamond necklace, diamond sprigs of flowers on her sleeves and to clasp back her robe, a diamond stomacher. Her purple velvet mantle was laced with gold and lined with ermine. It was fastened on the shoulders with large tassells of pearls.
The fear and heat began to get to Charlotte; she trembled when her new brother-in-law, Prince Edward, led her out to her bridesmaids. He kindly whispered “Courage, Princess,” and she tried to smile for him. The bridesmaids – Lady Sarah Lennox amongst them – could not have eased her nerves. They all looked splendid and much cooler in white silk trimmed with silver and jewels. The peeresses were to be greeted with a kiss on the cheek and the lesser ladies were supposed to come forward and kiss her hand. Poor Charlotte was confused and still unable to speak a word of English. She had to face the humiliation of her sister-in-law seizing her hand and giving it to the ladies until she understood what she was meant to do.
Unlike our modern ceremony, the bride entered the chapel first and waited under a canopy until the King arrived. The chapel was hung with fine tapestry and paintings in crimson velvet frames, beneath the gold and blue panelled ceiling. When the King finally came, resplendent in silver, the service commenced in English. Charlotte had been given an order of service in German, but as you can imagine, she was scarcely able to concentrate on it. After the King made his vows with one hand laid solemnly on his breast, he prompted Charlotte to say the only two words she spoke in the service: “Ich will”.
George’s customary consideration spared Charlotte the ordeal of a public bedding. They left their company at the door of the bedroom and retired to their domed, canopied, four-poster mahogany bed with Corinthian columns. The mattresses were stuffed with fine wool and covered with white satin. Although they had little need for them on such a warm night, George and Charlotte nestled down amongst swanskin blankets and a coverlet filled with eider-down. There was just one more trial to face before Charlotte could rest at last.
We can pretty safely assume that the sexual relationship between George and Charlotte was a happy one, given their evident affection for one another and constant production of children. Their wedding night was to forge their close bond: a tie of love that was worn away, but not quite severed, only by George’s recurrent “madness” in later life.
If you would like to find out more about Charlotte, George and their marriage, get ready for God Save the King on 22 September 2012!