Much has been made of relationship between the Hanoverian Kings and their heirs to the throne. Petty jealousies and bitter feuds tore at the bonds between father and eldest son until, in some cases, they were virtually non-existent. With my interest in women’s history, I can’t help asking: what part did the mothers play in this? Did they stir the pot of broiling distrust or did they try to act as mediators? My new blog series, Hanoverian Mothers, will explore this.
I’m starting off with the relationship of Queen Charlotte with her son, George, Prince of Wales, later to become Prince Regent and George IV. I frequently get asked if Charlotte loved her son enough. Why didn’t she stand up for her children more? Some mistaken summaries of Charlotte’s life even assert that she hated her eldest son! Whilst theirs was certainly a complicated relationship, Charlotte and Prince George were devoted to one another throughout most of their lives. Sadly, their exalted positions in society put an unbearable strain on this natural love.
From the start, Charlotte was delighted with George, who was not only her first son but first child. At only eighteen years of age, she had produced an heir to the English throne and secured the Hanoverian succession. She had a life-size wax model made of him, which she kept on a satin cushion under a bell-jar. As he grew, she enjoyed his quick childish wit and gift for mimicry. However, her control over him was not to last for long. Sons belonged to the father and were encouraged to be amongst men once they were “breeched” – that is, they put off the girlish gowns and skeleton suits of infancy and wore the outfits of a miniature gentleman. At the tender age of 7, George and his brother Frederick were put into the hands of their male governors.
Although Charlotte and George III were ‘modern’ parents who had their children inoculated against the smallpox and embraced Rousseau’s ideas of children growing up with nature, simple diets and simple clothing, their theories were to backfire on them. They had planned the perfect education, but it was naive and stifled their boys. Education has to be fitted to the individual child, and by this point, Charlotte and George III had many of them. Indeed, even if Charlotte had been allowed a closer interest in Prince George’s education, it is doubtful she would have had time. Between constant pregnancies and arranging the tutelage of her daughters, she didn’t get to see her children half as often as she wished. She bitterly complained in her letters of only being allotted two days with them a week. By the time her three youngest daughters came up through the ranks, she had lost her initial enthusiasm for shaping their minds. Consequently, compared to the eldest three, Mary, Sophia and Amelia were neglected.
This being the case, it wasn’t surprising that the boy George developed “duplicity” and a “habit of not telling the truth.” This trait was to last his life long and no whipping would get it out. What might now be seen as a quick mind, vivid imagination and talent as an actor were repressed. Without further investigation, all George’s parents knew was that he was a liar and they were appalled. I’m not a mother, but I observe and I have an imagination. I’ve often seen the stress and amazement when a child isn’t turning out to be quite what its parents expected. Each child is born with its own personality and interests and you can only encourage what’s in them. They will not necessarily be a “mini-me” and share their parents hobbies, no matter how hard you try to push your mathematician son into the football team you loved so much as a boy. While a family of lower status may have been able to accept this, it was something a King and Queen could not ignore. This son was to be their legacy, to carry on all their plans and uphold what they had worked so hard to achieve. Had George been a younger son, he may have been let off a bit more lightly, or just ignored as several of his disappointing younger brothers were. Unluckily for George, his every move was inspected under a microscope.
Charlotte wrote to her son with advice. It is notable that some of the younger sons, who were later neglected abroad and never heard from the King, always got a letter from Charlotte. Here is what she wrote to George in August 1770:
I recommend unto you to fear God; a duty that must lead to all the rest with ease, as His assistance . . .will be your guide through every action of life. Abhor all vice . . . look upon yourself as obliged to set good examples. Disdain all flattery – it will corrupt your manners and render you contemptible before the world. Do justice unto everybody and avoid partiality. . . Love and esteem those that are about you. Confide in and act with sincerity towards them . . . Treat nobody with contempt . . . Be charitable to everyone, not forgetting your meaner servants. Don’t use them with indifference; rather pity them that they are obliged to serve . . . you should not think yourself above doing good to them. The contrary will make you appear vain and vanity is the root of all vice . . . Lastly I recommend unto you the highest love, affection and duty towards the King. Look upon him as a friend. . . Try to imitate his virtues and look upon everything that is in opposition to that duty as destructive to yourself.
Rather high concepts for an eight-year-old to swallow! However, much as this looks like a lot of pressure to heap upon a young boy, it has to be remembered that George III himself was set equal, if not greater expectations in living up to the memory of his father, who never became King. Moreover, the letter shows a mother’s insight into the young George’s character – flattery and vanity were indeed to be his failings, and he was to get into serious hot-water by not obeying the King.
The King is the sticking point in this mother-son relationship. Charlotte had a natural preference for George, but his father preferred Frederick. It is interesting to read the Queen was “rather too formal with her children – especially the Duke of York (Frederick)”. One wonders if this was an unconscious snub of Daddy’s favourite. But other than these small slights, there was little she could do. With such a large family, the old rule of “Don’t contradict me in front of the children” became all the more vital. Charlotte and George III had to appear as a united front – and besides, Charlotte saw it as her duty to obey her husband, even in things her own judgement didn’t approve of. If she failed to argue her son’s case at first because of duty and timidity, she couldn’t make up for it in later life – by that time, George III had started to suffer from bouts of madness and it was feared any contradiction would bring a fresh one on.
It is interesting to see, though, that despite Charlotte’s limitations, George always went to her first. When in trouble over his affair with Madame Von Hardenburg, he flung himself at Charlotte’s feet and confessed all. When he saw his hated bride, Caroline of Brunswick, for the first time and suffered a bitter disappointment, his words were “I am going to the Queen”. He continued to send her appealing letters and share his agony throughout his unhappy marriage.
Despite all this, there was at least a year when mother and son could truly be said to hate one another. This was during the fateful Regency crisis of 1788-1789. As his father descended further into madness, George’s attitude changed from one of concern and duty to indecent excitement at the prospect of getting a throne. This was something Charlotte could not forgive. She urged him to wait and allow his father to recover – wise words, as it turned out – but George saw her as deluded and another barrier between him and his dreams. His behaviour grew cruel – he took the King’s jewels from her, separated her from his father and stopped paying her the customary courtesy of kissing her hand. Both mother and son were subject to paranoia; George became convinced his mother wanted the Regency for herself and was trying to destroy him, while Charlotte thought there were spies around her eager to report to the papers. It took Charlotte a lot of time, after the King’s recovery, to swallow this betrayal of her dear boy. She snubbed him frequently and failed to send him invitations to parties as they were “only meant for people who support us”.
But that the breach did heal cannot be doubted. It is fascinating to see just how much Charlotte’s actions differed when her husband was out of the picture – that was, he became permanently deranged and was kept locked away in Windsor. Previously a popular Queen, she forfeited her reputation with the people by backing all her son’s measures for the country. While others reviled him for enlarging the Pavilion at Brighton, Charlotte gave him a considerable lump sum of £50,000 towards what she considered marvelous improvements. Mother and son shared a passion for decoration and architecture, as well as a “fascinating manner” that enchanted people.
As the Queen aged and grew increasingly bitter, George and his daughter, another Charlotte, were all that could bring joy to her life. She lit up whenever she spoke of them. George’s sister Elizabeth was indebted to him for numerous interventions between Charlotte and her daughters – he was the only one she would listen to. “All is sunshine since your visit,” Elizabeth dutifully reported. It was also at this stage that Charlotte began to mediate between George and his own daughter. While taking young Charlotte’s part over her allowance and marriage choice, she reminded her granddaughter that ” she ought to look upon her father as the only source of happiness and that it was her duty to obey him everything” words that echoed the letter she wrote to George himself at age eight.
When George’s daughter died tragically young in 1818, his mother was there to support him again. She had lost three children and knew what a blow it was. “As I always share in your prosperity most sincerely, so do I most deeply feel your present loss and misery,” she wrote. She tried to comfort him with the thought he had allowed his daughter to marry the man of her choice and be happy.Whether he would have done so without Charlotte’s influence is questionable.
It is very fitting that when Charlotte died a year later, she was holding her beloved George’s hand. Her daughter Elizabeth, who knew her best, wrote to George “No parent was ever more wrapt up in a child than she was in you, and I firmly believe she would with pleasure have sacrificed her life for you”. Poor George, grieving again after losing his daughter the previous year, was unable to bring himself to leave London for a month. He described his feelings : “the utmost extent of the bitterest anguish in the deepest recess (of his heart)”. He was “incapacitated for everything”.
These final years, in my opinion, show the true relationship between mother and son. Who could say, having considered the evidence, that Charlotte didn’t love her son?
Coming later in the series:
Caroline of Ansbach – Why did she hate Frederick so much?
Augusta, Princess of Wales – Pushy parent or model mother?
Caroline of Brunswick – How could she leave her daughter?