I’ve been rather unfair to Augusta of Saxe-Gotha in God Save the King. Since I had to show her through Queen Charlotte’s point of view, she comes across as a controlling and bullying mother-in-law. While it’s documented that the pair had run-ins during Queen Charlotte’s early married life, there’s much more to Augusta than the in-law from hell. In fact, judging by the devotion with which Charlotte attended Augusta’s sick-bed in her last days, it seems she also came to appreciate these other qualities.
If you look at Augusta through the political propaganda of the 1760s and 1770s, you are encouraged to see a harridan, a woman with her son firmly tied to her apron strings. There’s a caricature of her as “The Wanton Widow”, instructing her great friend Bute to pour poison in the sleeping George III’s ear. Augusta and Bute were burnt in effigy in the streets of London many times, most famously in the riots stirred up by John Wilkes and his seditious paper the North Briton. Even in death, Augusta couldn’t escape censure. At her funeral the mob huzzaed for joy and stripped the black cloth from the wooden platform at Westminster Abbey.
So who are we examining – some kind of dominating, devil’s consort, surely? Well, no. Actually, Augusta was a mild-mannered, shy princess when she washed up on English shores in 1736 to marry the eldest son of George II, Frederick. She arrived gawky, long-limbed, unable to speak a word of English and clutching a doll. She was fortunate in her new husband, who took an immediate shine to her, but the rest of the royal family regarded her as a dullard. Queen Caroline grew exasperated with her tedious conversation, while Princess Caroline had to explain very carefully that while there was nothing wrong with playing with dolls per-se, Augusta really shouldn’t do it in front of the windows where the public could see her. This naivety was something George II had hoped for when he selected a wife for his son; he wanted a woman who would pose no threat. He was already tired of his son trying to outwit him, without enlisting a clever wife’s help. Augusta seemed a good choice. Far from standing up to the King and Queen, she threw herself trembling at their feet.
Queen Caroline took Augusta under her wing by explaining the words of the Marriage Ceremony to her and offering to make a sign when she ought to kneel. The terrified Augusta clutched Caroline’s skirts and said, “For Heaven’s sake, please don’t leave me.” A far cry from the controlling hag the late Georgians dreamed up! Indeed, Augusta behaved so well in submission to the King and Queen that she earned the nickname “Princess Prudence.” Even when the King and Queen came to blows with Frederick, Caroline attached no blame to Augusta. She said that even if Augusta were to spit in her face, she would only pity her for being under the direction of a fool (ie Frederick).
It seems to me Augusta really was under Frederick’s control, though it was devotion that kept her loyal, not force. For example, when their first child was due, Frederick left off telling his parents until very late in the pregnancy. He didn’t want them to know of his cowardly delay in announcing the news, so bid Augusta to answer Caroline’s questions about her health and the due date with “I don’t know.” Naivety and a lack of guile were cloaks Augusta hid behind, and they worked to fabulous effect. Caroline was so astounded by Augusta’s lack of knowledge that she began to suspect there was no baby at all.
As I explained in earlier posts, Frederick did not wish his child to be born under the same roof as his parents. In the middle of the night, he rushed the labouring Augusta from Hampton Court to St. James’s Palace. She was in great danger and suffered extremely, according to all accounts crying and begging to go back. And yet, when Fred was blamed for his actions, she took his part. Her letters insist it was her express wish to be carried to St. James’s. Caroline came to visit her new grandchild the next day. She’d heard of Augusta’s ordeal and commiserated with her, only to receive the blunt reply, “It was nothing.” Caroline tried to reach out to her and asked “My good princess, is there anything you want, anything you would have me do? Here I am – you have but to ask and whatever is in my power, I promise you I will do”. Augusta said she had nothing to trouble her with. It’s here, I believe, that we begin to see the real determination of Augusta’s character. Ever polite and respectful, she still refused to be won over with emotional entreaties or tricks. She knew her part and she played it.
Over the years, Augusta proved herself an able hostess to Frederick’s friends and opposition politicians. She returned every entreaty with a sweet answer, saying she knew nothing about politics but would pass the request onto her husband. In truth, she probably knew a lot more than she let on. When Frederick died in 1751, Augusta showed herself prudent again, casting herself and her children on the mercy of the King. It was a wise move – the King came to commiserate with her, weeping and looking at his two grandsons. “They must be brave boys,” he said, “obedient to their mother and deserve the fortune to which they were born.”
This was the first of the intensively heavy expectations piled on George, the new heir to the throne. A puny, premature child, he had not been expected to live and was Christened in haste. He was given to a gardener’s wife to nurse, and it was said she saved the sickly baby’s life – this is corroborated by the fact he paid her and her descendants a pension throughout his reign. But it was clear Frederick expected his frail baby boy to “restore honour to the crown”. He sent him endless advice about being the perfect prince. It was all kindly intentioned – but Frederick’s untimely death made these injunctions something more: a duty to one beyond the grave, a legacy that must not fail. I believe Augusta felt this pressure just as acutely as George. Determined not to disappoint her sainted husband, she kept George close – too close.
Caution was the key word for Augusta. Raised in obscurity herself, she was keen to keep her children sheltered from the wicked, sinful world. George was the only one inclined to listen to these warnings. Amongst his siblings there were unsuitable marriages, divorce scandals, early death from binge-drinking and the most salacious of all, his sister Caroline Matilda’s exile. George was, according to his grandfather “fit only to read the Bible to his mother”. I believe it was care and not a lust for power that made Augusta keep George under her thumb. George himself evidently felt so too; in later life he was to complain about the press, “They have treated my Mother in a cruel manner, which I shall never forget nor forgive until the day of my death. I do therefore … promise that I will remember the insults and never will forgive anyone who shall venture to speak disrespectfully of her.”
Augusta clearly feared for George: he was considered a slow child. She fretted he was not progressing well enough in his lessons and constantly despaired of the comparisons made between him and his precocious younger brothers. In fact, he seemed much like Augusta in her youth. Both George and his mother felt what he needed was a “dear friend, who will always tell you the truth” – something that had been recommended by Frederick before his death. This friend was not to come from the royal family. After all Frederick’s quarrels, Augusta continued to eye them with mistrust. The natural choice of friend and adviser would have been George’s uncle, the Duke of Cumberland. Yet Augusta hated the Duke and resented the lack of attention he paid to her. She effectively brain-washed George into thinking his uncle meant him harm. When the young George went to visit the Duke, his uncle thought he might like to see one of his swords from his recent army campaign. As he drew it from its scabbard, George turned pale and began to tremble. The Duke was horrified that his nephew not only lacked trust in him, but feared murder!
This wasn’t Augusta’s only stand against the Duke of Cumberland. When the King’s health began to fail, it was deemed prudent to draw up a Regency Act, lest he should die before George attained his majority. While the King chose the Duke to act as Regent, Augusta again showed the steel in her nature by protesting until the bill of 1751 was changed to name her as Regent, supported by a council including the Duke. So much for knowing nothing of politics! But while it was admirable that Augusta fought for the right to her son and guarded him against what she felt to be threats, she inadvertently harmed George by this display. George’s relations with his grandfather went from bad to worse and each time, she had a hand in it.
The “friend” chosen by Augusta for George was the 3rd Earl of Bute. She and Frederick had met Lord Bute when stuck in a picnic tent on the Epsom race course in the midst of torrential rain. They asked him to make up a fourth at their whist table. The friendship that blossomed led to Bute becoming a Lord of the Bedchamber in Frederick’s household, although Bute had more in common with Augusta than her husband, including a love of botany and a grave manner. No doubt, Augusta wanted a friend and adviser every bit as much as her son did, and consulted her own personal inclination when selecting Bute.
I do not believe, as the press of the time did, that Augusta and Bute were lovers. They may well have felt love for each other, but the rigid moral code and horror of vice that Augusta showed make an affair inconsistent with her personality. However, her infatuation and trust in Bute were to cause perhaps the greatest troubles of her son’s early reign. Augusta told George that his own capacity was limited and he should trust Bute, who had remarkable talents. Ever obedient and self-effacing, George took her advice. His letters to Bute show the extent of his trust and indeed, the pressure Bute was under to be a second father to this heir to the throne.
Alas, this devotion to Bute was to prove another sticky issue with the King. In 1756, George was generously offered his own establishment with Lord Waldegrave acting as Groom of the Stole. Not only did he refuse to leave his mother’s neighbourhood, he managed to insult Waldegrave by saying the head of his household must be a man in whom he could confide or he would consider those “placed about him as his enemies”. It’s telling that the fumbling George had to get his mother to apologise to Waldegrave on his behalf. At this point, it truly does seem George was being warped by his mother’s close watching, however well-meant. Such strong expressions as “enemies” were to define him in later life and clearly show a child raised to mistrust. As evidence that Augusta and Bute encouraged George to reject the new establishment and appoint Bute as his Groom of the Stole instead, historian Christopher Hibbert lists the young man’s unguarded expressions of gratitude: “What! Has the King granted me both my requests? He has always been extremely good to me. If I have ever offended him I am extremely sorry for it. It was not my own act or my own doing . . . ” After which words George bit his tongue.
Marriage was a further obstacle. The King proposed Sophie Caroline of Brunswick as a bride for George, but this was rejected. George seems to have been reluctant anyway, but he was certainly encouraged in this by his mother. Both Augusta and Bute wanted a dull-witted bride who wouldn’t have too much influence over their boy. In this one instance, it does appear Augusta’s jealousy and desire for pre-eminence outweighed her care for George. She snubbed Lady Sarah Lennox, who George fell in love with, and as I have intimated, was keen to keep George’s eventual wife Charlotte firmly in her place. Even Bute was emotionally manipulating George. “I have often heard you say you don’t think I shall have the same friendship for you when I am married as I do now,” he wrote to Bute. “I shall never change in that.” Indeed, George kept his word and made Bute his first Prime Minister. It lead to nothing but disaster for both of them.
Stella Tillyard has described Augusta as “an undemonstrative mother, aloof and nervously obsessed with protocol”. I feel this is a little harsh. She did love her children, and this is shown not only in her care for their intellectual and moral progression, but by her trips to Denmark, despite failing health, to remonstrate with Caroline Matilda over her affair. However, the words “nervously obsessed with protocol” ring true. Inexperienced and relying on her husband, she suddenly found herself in the role of protector and teacher to the next King of England. For Frederick’s sake she wanted to keep George under her care and make sure he grew up to be the man his father intended. Sadly her own fears and ill-judgement hampered her son. She tried her best by providing him with Bute, but didn’t foresee the political outcry that would arise over such favoritism. In short, she molly coddled a boy who needed experience of the world above all else for his future role in life.
I do believe Augusta came to like her position of power and, bereft of a husband, was fiercely jealous of George’s love. However, in the main, her intentions were good. Far from resenting her parenting methods, George adopted a similar system for his children: raising them in ignorance of vice and sin – and as we can see from the way George IV turned out, it had equally poor results. But whatever Augusta’s virtues and failings, she was instrumental in forming the character of George III, and he always loved her for the care she took of him.