Lady Sarah Lennox

Queen Charlotte and Debutantes

TLS Slider 3 Debutantes

You might think, with all my writing and research, that I’d be right at home in a royal court. But the truth is, I only like to visit from my imagination, where I’m protected from snubs and the inevitable humiliation. I may fanaticise about time-travelling and attending one of Queen Charlotte’s Drawing Rooms at St. James’s Palace, but it would all end in tears. I’m gauche and I have two left feet. I shake when nervous. Under pressure, my voice, which is otherwise quite normal, becomes loud and twangs with an Essex accent.

A quick visit to The London Season website confirmed my misgivings. It may come as a surprise but yes, there still is a London season. However, people like you and I only read about it in history novels – we are just not grand enough to be part of the modern day equivalent. I don’t know about you, but I get sweaty and short of breath just looking at the courses on offer. The correct way to enter a room. How to move politely in a group. The art of making small talk. How to end a conversation politely. It makes me feel like I’ve been doing everything wrong my entire life.

As in the late Georgian period, the big event of the modern London season is still Queen Charlotte’s ball. The website says that:

“Parents and potential debutantes are invited to attend interviews at Boodles… Debutantes embark on a one-year programme of etiquette classes, and charity events crowned by the world famous Queen Charlotte’s Ball in which they appear in white gowns and jewels lent by eminent couturiers and jewellery houses… Today, officially, the focus is not on marriage but on giving ambitious girls the opportunity to further their careers and develop in social confidence.”

That sounds intimidating enough. But what would it have been like to appear before the real Queen Charlotte, over 200 years ago?

Queen Charlotte
Queen Charlotte

The first thing to worry about would be your dress. St. James’s Palace was a place of antiquated fashion and tradition. Hoops, swords and powdered hair took centre stage – loose Regency styles would be frowned upon. It seems that Charlotte enjoyed watching her subjects fall over themselves to impress her with their clothes, and even took a catty delight in seeing them get it wrong. In her letters, she faults an unfortunate duo, Mrs Eden and Mrs Goulborn, for wearing an enormous quantity of rouge. Poor Mrs Goulborn made a further error by sporting three huge feathers in her headdress “which so directly ran into my eyes when she was presented, I was under the necessity of drawing myself back”. Charlotte, who clearly disliked both ladies “rejoiced a little in Lady Clements’ distress, who presented her.”

Indeed, feathers were a recurring problem for Charlotte. After the Duchess of Devonshire began a craze for expensive ostrich feathers, Charlotte had to temporarily ban them from court, in order to prevent ladies ruining themselves over the fashion accessory.  But she would rather deal with a whole headful of feathers than repeat her experience with Andreossi, Napoleon’s ambassador. He was a man who “breakfasted upon onions…he looks so dirty”.

However, looking your best wasn’t always enough for Charlotte; you had to fit your station. When interviewing a potential wet-nurse for her children in 1779, she saw a woman dressed in blue and silver. The hapless applicant was dismissed with the comment, “Your appearance is that of a queen, and not of a nurse.”

There were also those who purposefully went against the court’s rigid dress codes. On 26 March 1789, Charlotte held a Drawing Room to celebrate George III’s recovery from a bout of “madness”. In a direct challenge to the Duchess of Devonshire, who had introduced “Regency caps” with the Prince of Wales’s three feathers, Charlotte ordered that all ladies were to wear “God Save the King” in their caps. In the event, the Duchess and her party couldn’t bring themselves to toe the line. They went with their heads bare. The Duchess’s sister, Harriet, recorded how the queen was cool to them and noted that “she looked up at our heads as we passed her”.

Duchess of Devonshire and her feathers

You’d be right in thinking Charlotte didn’t make many friends with this behaviour; she wasn’t supposed to. From the start of her time in England, she was discouraged from forming acquaintances. The King did not want her relying on anyone but him. “He always used to say that in this country it was difficult to know where to draw a line…” she later confessed.  ”There never could be kept a society without party, which was always dangerous for any woman to take part in.”

This didn’t stop Charlotte being lively and good-natured amongst the friends she was allowed to make. We have a delightfully absurd glimpse of a Drawing Room in 1785, where the fog was so dark “there was no seeing any thing, and knowing any body”.  Charlotte and her favourite companion, Lady Harcourt, were obliged to stop and stand still. She reasoned the courtiers would “all come up in the end, and we must ask them who they are, and if I have spoke to them yet”. Even in low visibility, Charlotte recognised the Duke of Dorset by the twisting of his bow and Mrs Dayrolles by her laugh. This suggests she knew them rather well.

The Queen’s venom, it seems, was reserved for those who vexed her. I love seeing the human side of monarchs, and some of Charlotte’s little stabs are delicious. You may have heard of Lady Sarah Lennox (more of her in later blogs!) who George III loved before he married Charlotte. Lady Sarah ended up unhappily wed to Sir Charles Bunbury. She later came to St. James’s to present her daughter before George and his wife – an experience which I imagine was very awkward! George, clearly still a fan of Sarah’s beauty, enthused that her daughter was “the finest girl I have seen in a long while”. Charlotte, very coolly, and rather loudly observed, “I wonder you should think so.”

Lady Sarah Lennox/Bunbury

With such a tongue ready to sting, it must have been a fearful experience to make your debut as a young lady. You would slowly approach Charlotte and curtsey to your knees. If you were the daughter of a peer, you would hold that position while she kissed you on the forehead. Perhaps she would bestow a kind comment upon you; perhaps not. After receiving this favour and stammering some kind of reply, you would stand, curtsey again to the queen and any other royal who happened to be with her. Then came the hardest part. Having to resist the urge to simply dash off, you would have to walk backwards out of the room – no mean feat in a Georgian dress – keeping your eyes on the throne. Small wonder debutantes received so many bouquets from well-wishers; they would need all the luck they could get!

A Royal Wedding

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!