Queen Charlotte

Travelling again . . .

The Constant Couple

It’s exactly two months since Queen of Bedlam launched and my life has been busy! But busy in a good way. I’ve had the honour to feature on some wonderful history blogs and even a national newspaper. I thought you might like to follow me on my adventures and read my articles.

The Six Daughters of George III

Royalty and Literature

Queen Charlotte’s Dogs

Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz

Queen Charlotte’s Ladies in Waiting

10 Shocking Facts about Georgian Women

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!

Princess Charlotte’s Christmas

CharlotteChristmas can be a difficult season. Tradition dictates we spend time with our families, a test that truly proves if we can wish peace and goodwill to all men! Warring relatives and Christmas arguments are familiar to many of us. But if you have a difficult family situation this holiday season, you’re in good company. Meet Princess Charlotte, daughter to one of royalty’s most dysfunctional couples.

Charlotte’s mother Caroline and her father, the Prince Regent, hated each other with a mortal passion. Charlotte grew up tossed between the two. The Prince Regent’s position of authority meant he got more access to her. But in character, Charlotte was more like her mother – fun-loving and spirited. She didn’t fit in with the meek and demure role the royal family expected her to play.

It was Charlotte’s misfortune to spend much of her time at Windsor with her grandmother, the Queen, and her aunts. Whilst they were all kind and devoted to her, they were simply boring to a girl of Charlotte’s age and disposition. What’s more, Aunts Mary and Elizabeth were out to manipulate her and bend her to her father’s will. Charlotte often described Windsor as a prison, writing I think of nothing but how I can get out of their clutches and torment them afterwards.

Having briefly escaped captivity in Cranbourne Lodge, where she was watched like a dangerous criminal, Charlotte was forced to return from her summer resort of Weymouth and spend Christmas 1814 at Windsor. She was in poor spirits, suffering from bad health and disappointment in love. Her journey was very uncomfortable, punctuated by the “eternal fidgets and frights” of her lady companion.

Like many interfering relatives, the royals wanted to see Charlotte married.On Christmas Eve the year before, Charlotte’s grandmother had attempted to give her some “good advice” on her love life, and we can imagine how this was received. But to the Queen’s credit, she did implore her granddaughter never to marry a man she did not like, as it would cause her endless misery. Although the Queen did not advocate Charlotte disobeying her father, she believed she had a right to her own opinion, and to stand firm by it.

The Prince Regent wanted Charlotte the marry the thin, plain though good-humoured Prince of Orange. She had serious reservations about the young man, whose family her mother disapproved of. Not only was he far below her standards of a dream-prince, he would force her to live abroad for much of the year. Charlotte feared her mother would become lonely and her father would try to remarry and get another heir in her absence. But most importantly, Charlotte was still in love with a philanderer, Prince Augustus. Although she had recently been disillusioned, she was not ready to move on yet. But Charlotte’s only advocates against the Orange match were her Aunt Sophia and grandmother the Queen.

William of OrangeOn Christmas Day 1814, Charlotte found herself forced to spend time alone with Aunt Mary and her father. A kind of interrogation began. First, the Prince Regent confided that he had been making inquiries into the parentage of Willy Austin, a young boy her mother had adopted.  He warned Charlotte that after his death, Caroline may claim the boy was actually his and true heir to the throne. He knew, presumably, the jealous dislike Charlotte had always nurtured against the boy. Seizing the advantage of her shock, he pressed her for information about the men who hung around her mother – could any of them be her lovers? Unsure what to say, Charlotte admitted she had suspected Captain Manby.

Switching tactic, the Prince began to talk of the 18th Hussars, then stationed at Windsor. Charlotte was coerced into revealing her past feelings for Captain Hesse of that regiment. He had ridden beside her carriage, they had written, exchanged presents and he had often visited her mother’s apartments at Kensington Palace. On one occasion, in fact, her mother had locked them in a bedroom and said “I leave you to enjoy yourselves.”

“God knows,” Charlotte said, “What would have become of me if he had not behaved with so much respect.”

This was just what the Prince Regent and Aunt Mary wanted to hear. They could use this against Charlotte’s mother. Whilst sympathetic to Charlotte’s plight, the Regent advised her it was Providence alone that had saved her virtue from Hesse. Caroline had been extremely wicked. The family was then called in for Christmas dinner.

MaryThat wasn’t the end of Charlotte’s trials, though. The Prince Regent returned to London, but Aunt Mary kept up the questions. She asked Charlotte if it was Caroline who had made her adverse to the Prince of Orange. Did Charlotte not see, Mary asked, that her mother didn’t want her to marry respectably? She suggested Caroline had orchestrated the whole Captain Hesse affair to shame and discredit Charlotte, in order to put her bastard boy Willy on the throne. Poor Charlotte was forced to admit, “I never knew whether Captain Hesse was my mother’s lover or mine.”

Charlotte slept ill that Christmas night. She was horrified that she’d incriminated her mother.  She still loved Caroline, swearing that, “There is no hazard or risk to serve my poor mother that I would not run, if it would be of any avail”.

Consequently, a tense Charlotte wrote to Aunt Mary on Boxing Day to beg for her discretion. Except it be absolutely necessary, I hope all that passed in your room yesterday will be kept sacred within your bosom. Not much chance of that. Ever eager to please her brother, Aunt Mary had reported to the Prince Regent almost the moment Charlotte left her the previous evening.

Unsurprisingly, Charlotte was less fond of Aunt Mary after this Christmas!

 

The (not) Black Queen

Many people have been asking me if Queen Charlotte was black – or telling me that she certainly was. Wouldn’t that be an amazing piece of history? It would also be fascinating, from my perspective, to write a book about a queen who secretly concealed the colour of her skin. But sadly, the I have to say that most of my research seems to prove that popular theory is largely unfounded. Here is a list of the reasons that I believe we are still waiting for England’s first black queen.

A good starting place is this Guardian article from 2009. As it explains, there’s a historian called Mario de Valdes y Cocom who claims Charlotte was descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family, related to Margarita de Castro e Souza, a 15th-century Portuguese noblewoman nine generations removed. Although it has some flaws, I support this theory that there were African roots in Charlotte’s blood. Her features, more prominent in her youth, do suggest an African ancestry somewhere along the line. Most of us have a rich and mixed heritage in our blood, and that’s one of the many reasons racism and xenophobia are so ridiculous.

While Valdes’ ideas give me no problems, I cannot find evidence to support the other theory: that Charlotte was an illegitimate child, whose father was black, and thus earned the eighteenth-century term “mulatto”. Going by the standards of the day, it is hugely unlikely that Charlotte’s mother, in a prominent position, would be unfaithful with a servant – even less likely that her cuckholded father would agree to take on and raise such a child as his own. But moreover, I think the marriage of King George III to the illegitimate princess would have caused huge panic in the family . Obviously, it would depend on how dark Charlotte’s skin actually was, but surely the family would have been horrified at the chance of their secret being revealed? Why would they agree to give Charlotte in marriage and not push for her elder, unmarried sister to wed the King in order to save the family name?

Even supposing all these hurdles could be overcome, there’s George himself. While certainly a sympathetic and kind man, I can’t imagine him agreeing to cover up such a secret for Charlotte. He was disappointed with her looks at first, and discovery of illegitimacy would have been a great excuse to get rid of her. Moreover, neither George nor Charlotte would have been able to hide the truth from the servants. Gossip would have spread far and wide. George’s mother Augusta would have found out – and, I verily believe, sent Charlotte packing. But in fact, there were no contemporary speculations about the Queen’s ethnicity. At a time when the royal family hovered on the brink of revolution and came in for a good deal of battering and satire in caricatures, who would let the suspicion that the Queen was half black slide? The observation that she had ” a true mulatto face” referred to in the article wasn’t followed by any questions about her ancestry. It seems the horrible person was using the term as an insult.

If Charlotte was mixed race, it seems strange that it didn’t rub off on the children. The majority of Charlotte’s fifteen offspring were blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls with porcelain skin. I’m not sure this would be the case if she was half black. It is genetically possible, of course, but what are the chances it would happen like this fifteen times? On the topic of children, I also have to highlight Charlotte’s son, William, who spoke out loudly in favour of the slave trade? Would he really do such a thing with a mulatto mother?

An interesting possibility we can list for the sake of thoroughness is that Charlotte was an albino mulatto. I found this very interesting article with some beautiful pictures. But it’s a stretch for me to believe that, as well as the unlikely illegitimate conception and cover up, Charlotte had a rare genetic condition. Anything is possible, but some things are not probable.

If Charlotte was illegitimate and happened to veer on the side of dark skin, the amount of make-up she would have to use in order to “paste for white” would be phenomenal. Remember the tragic society beauty Maria Gunning, who died in 1760 after using too much ceruse? Well, her beauty routine would have been mild compared to Charlotte’s. Again, depending on the shade of her skin, she would have needed to cover every inch of her body day and night, for there would hardly be a moment when she didn’t have ladies in waiting in attendance.  Over-use of this paint or paste often resulted in hair loss, tooth decay and premature death. But Charlotte showed none of these symptoms and lived to a ripe age of seventy-four. In fact, talking of hair loss, we have existing specimens of her hair. They are, as George III described the one sent to him before their marriage, “light and remarkably fine.”

Here are some images of Charlotte that have given rise to speculation.

Charlotte with George and Frederick1769_Dance_QCharlotteCharlotteCh1scharlotte1And here are pictures of Charlotte’s family from Wikipedia. I don’t see anything to suggest that she was only a half-sister to these people or very different in appearance. This, in my opinion, implies that the whole family had African blood, as Valdes claimed.

220px-1742_Ernst220px-1748_Georg_August220px-Adolf_Friedrich_IV,_Duke_of_Mecklenburg-Strelitz220px-Elizabeth_Albertine_of_Saxe-Hildburghausen220px-ZiesenisKarlMecklenburgHaving said all that, history is not a science. The great thing is that we will probably never know for sure. A kind research friend has made me aware that the University of Virginia and the town of Charlottesville are doing some amazing work about Charlotte, George and their role in abolishing slavery. A letter has been discovered in the Georgia Historical Society Archives from George Baille, a slave owner objecting to the British raids and liberation of slaves in 1812. He gives us a clue to how the rumour may have started:

‘It is well known that they seduced & carried off with them the greater part of the Negroes . . . They were seduced by the most absurd & fallicious tales . . . they were informed that the Queen of England was a Negro woman – that in England, whither they were to about to be carried, the Ladies preferred Negro Men as husbands, and the Gentlemen Negro Women as wives.’

There is also a fascinating portrait by Alan Ramsey of a beautiful mixed race woman that appears in Alastair Smart’s biography of the painter. It is not available to public view. Like so many paintings, the sitter cannot be proven, but there are suggestions that it could be Charlotte. She is certainly not dissimilar. This painting is in the Earl of Seafield’s private collection, with no clear path of how it got there. We can, however, trace back the ancestory of the Earl and find a lady connected to the family who was bridesmaid to Charlotte. Could this picture of the ‘true’ Charlotte have been a private gift?

I truly hope we will have a black queen one day. But much as I would like Charlotte to be the one to carry that torch, the evidence doesn’t stack up for me. I am, however, very willing to be convinced if some good concrete evidence shows up!

Sophia and Ernest

Princess Sophia (1777-1848) by Anne Mee 1800-1806One of the reasons Sophia, fifth daughter of George III, attracts attention is that she probably bore an illegitimate child. Although some historians still dispute the idea, I am convinced by the evidence. There is too much smoke for there to be no fire. According to Flora Fraser, author of the biography Princesses a letter Sophia wrote to her old nurse in 1805 “shows plainly” that she was a mother –  although frustratingly, Fraser doesn’t quote the correspondence. But if an illegitimate birth wasn’t scandalous enough, Sophia earned another slur against her name: the suggestion that her child’s father was in fact her brother, Ernest, later King of Hanover.

What could give rise to such a shocking rumour and could it be true? It is within the realm of possibility; Ernest’s close relationship with Sophia was noted, and he present at Windsor in the winter of 1799, when Sophia would have conceived. But so was the other candidate for the father of Sophia’s child: General Thomas Garth.

The story of Sophia’s baby starts in July 1800, when she and her sister Amelia set off for the annual trip to Weymouth a day before the rest of their family, staying at a trusted servant’s house along the way. Sophia was so ill that the royals extended their usual holiday all the way until early October. Legend has it George III believed his daughter was suffering from dropsy, a common complaint in the family, and was informed she had been cured by eating roast beef. Her real complaint may have been the late stages pregnancy.

The doctor in attendance, Millman, received a baronetcy for his care of the princess – a nice gesture, but also one that could be viewed as a bribe to keep certain facts secret. In the same August, Mr and Mrs Sharland, tailors living on the Weymouth esplanade, adopted a newborn foundling “Thomas Ward, stranger” to nurse alongside their own baby son. It is this little Thomas, or Tommy, who Sophia supposedly bore.

I’ve recently finished reading A Humble Companion by Laurie Graham, a historical fiction novel told from the point of view of Sophia’s companion. I was interested to find that Graham, rather bravely, chose to run with the incest theory. I’ve never found the idea convincing, but I have to say Graham gave me food for thought. After all, wasn’t Sophia’s son Tommy a reckless womanizer, very much like Ernest in character? Well, that could happen if Ernest was just his uncle, I suppose. But then, if General Garth was the father, how was it he stayed in favour with the royal family? Queen Charlotte treated the lovers of Princesses Amelia and Augusta with disdain, yet she was always cordial towards Garth, as was the Prince Regent, who gave him a place in his daughter’s household. Would they really treat a seducer with such respect?

Graham suggests that Garth was a loyal servant who placed Sophia and Ernest’s child with a good family and later agreed to adopt and raise him, at the request of the Queen. In A Humble Companion, it was Garth’s duty and good nature that kept his mouth shut. But this overlooks a very important fact: Princess Sophia had certainly fallen in love with General Garth.

One of the Queen’s ladies records Sophia’s violent passion for the equerry in 1798, which was visible to the whole court. “She could not contain herself in his presence”, we are told. At the same time, Sophia’s sister Mary wrote about Garth and “the purple light of love”. A letter from Sophia to Garth still exists, in which she mentions rings they exchanged as gifts and addresses him with wild terms of endearment. “Your calling me your S makes me as proud as Lucifer…I love you more and more every day. God bless you, my dearest dear General.” It seems to me that Garth must have been Tommy’s father. The child was named for its father,  and Garth later adopted the child, raising him with his correct surname and referring to him as “mine, if there is faith in woman”.

But while there is, in my opinion, stronger evidence for Garth’s claim, the Ernest theory is not without basis. While I consider Ernest rather harshly treated by history, there is no pretending he was a pleasant person. He had a dry, cruel wit and seduced across the Continent. Neither nuns nor married women were safe from his attentions. The husband of one of his lovers  committed suicide. In the course of his life, Ernest leant his name to rumours of sodomy and murder. Controversy could have been his middle name. His sisters made it clear from correspondence that they didn’t like to be left in a room alone with him, but whether this was due to his scathing humour or something more sinister, we are not told. Sophia’s words were these: ” Dear Ernest is as kind to me as it is possible, rather a little imprudent at times, but when told of it never takes it ill.” Who will ever know what his imprudence was?

220px-Ernest_Augustus_by_Fischer_1823Glenbervie states in his diary that the court “in a manner admitted” that Sophia was Tommy’s mother, “as the story generally goes by General Garth… the Queen thinks Garth the father”. But he also records “the Princess of Wales told Lady Sheffield there is great reason to suspect the father to be the Duke of Cumberland (Ernest)”.  I don’t set much store by this. Caroline, Princess of Wales, was famous for tall and wild tales. In her life she tried to convince people she was pregnant when she wasn’t, spoke of past lovers she didn’t have and pretended her ward, Willy Austin, was the son of a foreign prince smuggled over to England for safety. She isn’t one to stake your hopes on for truth. Having said that, it does seem remarkable that Caroline would start such a vicious rumour against Sophia, who was always kind to her.

Sophia was prone to fantastic adoration of all her brothers. In later life, Frederick Duke of York became her whole world. Yet the rumour of incest only haunted Ernest. It could well be that the ultra-Tory, abrasive Ernest earned more political enemies than the other brothers, leading to malicious gossip. It’s certainly a hard stretch of the imagination to picture Sophia, often timid, sheltered and raised with devout religion, consenting to an incestuous relationship. But the other theory, which paints Ernest in an even darker light, is that she was raped.

Could this be possible? I think not. Many of Sophia’s siblings knew about Tommy, but their attitude towards Ernest didn’t change. Would they have been able to love him and Sophia, as they continued to do, if they had committed incest? Would Sophia be able to speak of Ernest with affection and receive his visits if he’d put her through such an ordeal? Would Queen Charlotte or the Prince Regent tolerate him in England? It seems highly unlikely.

200px-Princess_Sophia_portraitThe answer to our questions lies a box of documents, which Garth gave to Tommy, revealing the truth about his birth. Conveniently, the box was “lost” at the bank, disappearing into a great black void. Obviously the royal family wanted the documents suppressed, but this would be true whether Garth or Ernest were the father. Newspapers suggested the box contained letters from Sophia to Garth, complaining about Ernest’s “attempts on her person”. If these letters did exist, they raise another dramatic possibility: that Sophia and Garth were lovers but her brother raped and impregnated her, leaving Garth to adopt the child for the sake of his princess.

Whether it was over Ernest or not, Sophia and Garth did quarrel and separate. They never married, even after Queen Charlotte died, when the indulgent George IV may have permitted it. The subject of disagreement was the thing that should have bound them together: Tommy himself. “It is very, very desirable that some check should be put to the odd conduct of a certain person…” wrote Sophia to Mrs Villiers from Weymouth. “That person is very difficult to manage”. A proud father, Garth paraded Tommy up and down the Esplanade at Weymouth and forced him on the attention of Princess Charlotte when she visited – actions that suggest, again, Tommy was not the product of incest. But Garth couldn’t understand Sophia’s reluctance to see her child. She writes “…what hurt me the more was the indelicacy this year of knowing it so near to me and that I never could go through the town without the dread of meeting what would have half killed me, had I met it.” Once more, there are two ways we can interpret the letter. The first is that Sophia was resolved to keep Tommy secret and George III’s state of mind intact by distancing herself. She was so overcome with emotion she didn’t want to see him, lest she broke down, and she didn’t refer to him by name or even gender in her letters to preserve the secret. Then again, you could say Sophia was in dread of an unnatural, incestuous child who reminded her of an attack, and referred to him as “it”.

What does Sophia herself have to say? In the early days of the scandal, when even her sister Elizabeth didn’t know the truth, Sophia wrote to Lady Harcourt. She denied the rumours about Tommy, but acknowledged “I have partially myself to blame for them”. In other letters, she also agrees her behaviour was at fault. But the most striking sentence is this: “It is grievous to think what a little trifle will slur a young woman’s character forever”. Surely if she had borne an illegitimate child – much lest an incestuous one – she wouldn’t consider it a little trifle?

In my novel about Sophia, I chose Garth as Tommy’s father. Since I was writing from Sophia’s point of view, I didn’t make Ernest a villain. Whether he really raped her or not, he was always a dear brother in her eyes. Not only was it easier for me to write, it was easier for me to believe a naive, sheltered girl could fall in love with an “ugly” equerry twice her age. The Sophia in my mind would never consent to an incestuous relationship with her dashing, dangerous brother. But as for the truth – I’ll let you make up your own minds.

Duke of Cumberland from Duke of York memoirs by Watkins

Hanoverian Mothers Part 4 – Augusta and George III

Augusta and her brood

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).

Young Augusta

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.

younggeorge

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.

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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.

John_Stuart__Earl_of_Bute

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.

Augusta in later life

What’s new at Kew

Kew

You might have guessed from the header of my blog that Kew is my favourite palace. It might not be the biggest or the fanciest (the big fancy stuff was knocked down by George IV) but it has the best atmosphere. It’s strange because, given the history, the remaining palace shouldn’t have the feel of gentle contentment that it carries. It oversaw some strict training regimes for young princes, the illness of George III and the tearful death of Queen Charlotte. Yet even in the very room Charlotte passed away, all I feel is peace. It is fitting, then, that this year’s displays show the young family at their most happy and intimate.

If you watched BBC’s Fit to Rule series, you may have caught a glimpse of the lovely baby items recently acquired by Historic Royal Palaces. With a royal infant just arrived, these are particularly apt! The many, many tokens of George III and Charlotte’s fifteen offspring were often passed to the nurses – keepsakes, if you will, of their foster children. It is touching to report that the items just purchased at auction have remained in the nurse’s family for years, passed down from generation to generation. Having said that, I’m glad they finally sold so I could see the wonderful little relics!

Palace gardens

The first thing to catch my attention was the bonnet of the baby Prince Edward – Queen Victoria’s father. This is truly exquisite, so tiny and delicately made. It’s hard to comprehend the soft-skulled infant whose miniscule head fitted inside that grew up to acquire a reputation for harshness amounting to cruelty among the troops he managed! Alongside the bonnet is a case containing some of the hair that once was tucked under it, along with hair from other members of the family. There’s something about seeing locks of hair from long dead people that gives me the shivers, in a good way. You read about them, you see portraits and you imagine them but then you suddenly have an actual part of them before your eyes. I try to imagine how it curled round an ear, or bounced delicately about their shoulders.  Similarly, I was fascinated by a pair mittens belonging to the young Princess Royal. Having spent so long with Royal in research and writing, it was breathtaking to have something tangible of hers that she wore there in front of me. There were also sweet leather gloves belonging to the future William IV – those chubby, childish hands were to see action in the navy before finally holding a scepter. But perhaps the most poignant item was the measuring tape with the little princes’ heights marked on it as they grew. Such treasures really highlight that these royals were, after all, a human family, who relished seeing their little ones grow like any other parents. The curator of Kew, Polly Putnam, informed the group of us that came in for tea and a tour after hours that the previous owner of the measuring tape had it tacked up beside one for her own children and compared their growth to that of the Georgian princes. What a wonderful thought!

Day to day family occupations

There are, of course, sad connections with some of the items. A beautiful silver sipping cup (imagine a modern-day Tommy-Tippy in silver with fine engraving) was made for the young royals, but may have also been used to feed George III when illness rendered him incapable. The delightful gold breakfast set, newly on display, was purchased as a get well present from the princesses to George. However, even in these more sombre items, you get a feel for the family life behind them. The golden breakfast set includes an ingenious little egg cooker, complete with timer, which would exactly appeal to George’s taste for gadgets and new inventions. You can see him fiddling with it and the family laughing as he tried to use it.

One of the things I love most about the Historic Royal Palaces is the way the walls whisper.  Some new “whispers” have been added to Kew, amongst them many dialogues between George III and his children. These were lovely to sit and listen to. I was pleased to hear they covered the “nursery revolt” staged by Princes George and Frederick in an attempt to oust their tutor – an important reminder that little Kew Palace – or the Dutch House, as it was then – was originally used as a schooling place for future monarchs. The whispers of Queen Charlotte and Elizabeth arguing over newspapers have disappeared from the Queen’s Boudoir, but who knows, they may return in future!

Another set of fabulous items on display consisted of jewellery either belonging to or commemorating the family. My favourite were a set of elaborate buttons, once belonging to George III and later made into a necklace, bracelet and earring set by Queen Adelaide. Two royal connections in one! Despite all the books I’ve read about George III, I never knew that he had a passion for button-making as a young man.  You never stop learning! The rest of the jewellery was gorgeous – so sparkly! I loved the brooch with a profile of Queen Charlotte picked out in diamonds. I came across more hair samples, too – this time in a bracelet belonging to Charlotte. She had a little see-through section for each link, housing locks from her, George and every one of their children. Charlotte often complained about being separated from her children and I like to think she wore this bracelet when she missed them.

The Drawing Room

Perhaps the most exciting new acquisition at Kew is a flamboyant red suit, probably belonging to the young King George. I say probably . . . Polly Putnam explained it was picked up from a costume collection that had always referred to it as “George III’s suit”. Polly has been researching tirelessly to see if the claim is accurate. It seems highly likely – the velvet is the finest possible for that era.  The suit is lined with silk, unlike its contemporaries, and has leather pockets. The height and measurements are a good fit with the young George and it is well known that he liked to wear red suits for his birthday. Although the colour has faded, the restoration team at Historic Royal Palaces have done a wonderful job with the material. You can picture the young King, dapper, slim and handsome, striding around the drawing-room at St. James’s Palace, hands folded behind his back, nodding and talking to his courtiers. Definitely worth going for a look! I was thrilled to hear Polly say she wants to focus on the young George and his father, Prince Frederick, next year. Frederick spent time at Kew Palace and was famously painted in front of it with his three eldest sisters. His engraving is also on some of the locks. “Poor Fred”, as he was dubbed by the Georgians, is a sadly neglected figure in history. It will be wonderful to bring the spotlight onto him, and no doubt it will provide me with further inspiration for my book about his wife, Augusta!

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Aside from the displays in the actual palace, I must mention the kitchens. Although they opened last year, I haven’t had the chance to get down to Kew and see them until now. It’s always wonderful to glimpse any remnant of the sprawling complex that was once The White House and its attendant buildings. The kitchens add another layer of intrigue, hidden away through a twisting path behind a little kitchen garden – a real taste of the “downstairs”, servant aspect of the palace. Historic Royal Palaces have kept the kitchens in line with palace – restoring some rooms, while leaving others relatively untouched to show the original architecture. It’s an effective combination.

The clerk's office

The kitchens are focused around a particular date – 6 February 1789 – when George III was sufficiently recovered to eat with a knife and fork once more. You can see the preparation rooms for the ingredients before progressing to the Great Kitchen, where projecting figures on the walls give you taste for the hustle and stress that was going on behind the scenes! Upstairs, you will find the clerk’s office complete with ledgers, keys and prices for all the food purchased. In fact, you will find out so much about the meal the family ate on 6 February 1789, that when you go back to the palace you may well recognise it . . . In a particularly nice touch, they have replicated the dishes and laid them on the table in the King’s Dining Room.

The meal of 6 February 1789

I must just mention one more thing about the kitchens – George III’s bath tub. He chose to take his baths near the Great Kitchen, rather in the comfort of his own palace, so the servants wouldn’t be put to the trouble of bringing the hot water too far. “Oh yes,” I found myself saying about this man I have never met, “that’s just like him”. Funny, how well you feel you get to know a person from studying their reign.

George's bath tub

Legacy – Augusta of Saxe Gotha

To mark the passing of Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, at this time in 1772, I’ve written a little piece of historical fiction. It’s entirely true that she insisted on getting up and dressed and having tea with her son and daughter-in-law mere hours before her death. This is how I imagine she felt. (Again, please do remember this piece of fiction, however small, is my copyright)

Augusta in 1754

The room swirled. Augusta fluttered her eyelashes and batted away the encroaching shadows. After years of fighting against hostile in-laws, ignorant rabbles and protesters who decapitated her effigy in the streets, she’d be damned if she’d give in now.

She groped across the table and wound her trembling finger through the delicate, porcelain handle of the tea-cup. It clattered against the saucer in protest.

‘Mama, I think you need to rest.’ George creased his eyebrows together in an expression that made him look heart-rendingly like his father. ‘Charlotte and I can come back tomorrow.’

Ah, my dear boy, but there won’t be a tomorrow. She had to play her part one last time. She would do it well.

‘Nonsense,’ she growled. It didn’t sound like her voice at all; guttural, beastly. She grimaced against the harsh rasp which tore at her throat.

Sitting opposite her, anxiously perched on their chairs, were her son and her daughter-in-law – the King and Queen of England. But they were awestruck, mere limp puppets in her presence. She had ruled them for so long, the thought of her passing was incomprehensible.

Or perhaps not. In the shrewd, sharp eyes of Charlotte, Augusta saw the germs of an emotion she had never expected from her: deep, heartfelt compassion. After all their rows, all their struggles to possess George’s heart, perhaps they were coming to an understanding at last. There was power, indomitable strength in the face of that Queen. Augusta prided herself on the fact she had forged it there. It had been a tough school, but Charlotte had reaped the benefits. Here was a woman who understood all, yet gave away nothing. One who knew her place. Knew, more pertinently, that Augusta was lolling against death’s door. Something in the set of her thin lips told Augusta she was already planning the months ahead: the burial, how to allay George’s grief.

With supreme effort, Augusta hauled the cup to her lips. A dark, Bohea tea hit her with its fragrance, while a slice of lemon floating on top added a citrus note. She couldn’t drink it. She couldn’t even swallow. It was like asking her to down a goblet of nails. She touched her lips to the porcelain and lapped gently, hoping it would suffice. A few drops of the liquid tumbled down onto her embroidered stomacher, where they spread like the cancer that was creeping through her, staining her insides.

‘Perhaps I will lay on the chaise longue. But do stay.’

Her wobbling legs held out just in time for her to collapse against the striped silk. A great, hacking cough erupted from her chest – a tunnel of scratchy fire that pushed the air from her lungs. She had the presence of mind to put a lace handkerchief to her lips and catch the spurt of blood, dark as garnets.

Poor George hovered over her, clutching at her numb hand. ‘What can I do? What can I fetch for you?’

Love swelled in her heart until it pushed away the pain of her disease. Dear George. Her slow, puny, mewling heir, not expected to live a week. Look at him now! Anointed and just the man his father wanted him to be. He would retrieve the glory of the crown, she had no doubt. True, her other sons had more wit, and Edward had been their darling, but George had the heart of gold. He would give of himself before others, adhere to duty like a shadow, sacrifice his heart and soul for what he thought was right. What she and Bute had taught him was right.

With Charlotte’s fingers dabbing lavender water on her temples and George grasping her hand, she allowed her eyes to close and lay, listening to the wheeze of her breath. Not long until she saw Frederick now. She gave a faint smile. Would he still be bickering with his parents in Heaven? She hoped he would be proud of her – his frail little child-bride who had worked to preserve his memory with heart and soul, fought to protect their children from the evils of this world, though with little success. Her daughter, her fallen girl, Caroline Matilda flashed into her mind. She tossed uneasily, her cough turning into a phlegmy gargle. And Bute! What about Bute? The agony of leaving him grappled with the shame of knowing she would have to stand before her husband, in Heaven, and explain why she had loved, just for a second, another man. Suddenly her bodice was punishingly tight; she could feel her breasts swell and press against the material and knew, without looking, they were strawberry red. Nothing improper had happened, but she blamed herself. She despised herself to think that even a chink of her heart could have been disloyal to Frederick.

Someone passed her a bowl and she threw up a noxious mixture of blood and gunge. God, it hurt. It felt like one of the lions in the Tower Menagerie had her by the jugular and was worrying her flesh with its teeth. Stay strong for George. Show him dignity. Teach him to despise fear. His face swam above her, wide-eyed and blotchy as he struggled to dam the tears. ‘It doesn’t give me pain,’ she tried to tell him, but the words came out in a slur of nonsense. Just as well. She shouldn’t be lying within minutes of meeting her Maker.

Charlotte was concocting more liquids and ointments to bring her relief, tinkling bottles together until they sounded like the flutter of angel wings. The heady, floral scent swept Augusta away, back to the botanic gardens that had been her life’s work. Bright yellow played against her closed eyelids and she could almost feel the heat of the sun.

“Dolly,” she murmured. There was a general flutter of consternation. Bells rang, servants were consulted. They could tell, by her grasping hands and her flapping, fish-like mouth, that she needed something. Mustering every ounce of strength, she fought against the spiky lump in her throat and tried to enunciate. “Dolly.”

It was George who understood. With a flash of his velvet coat-tails he was out of the door and dashing upstairs. Pray God he returned in time.  He was the kind of boy who would never forgive himself for being absent when she expired.

Charlotte tightened her grip on Augusta’s hand. ‘Be a good Queen,’ Augusta urged her. Then, with a sudden rush of charity, she added, ‘I know you can.’ The girl’s eyes filled with tears.

Augusta had never had her chance and it still stung like the thorn of rose. Princess of Wales was all she could grasp at. Charlotte would play her part well, but – oh! – how much better August would have done it! The demure Queen draped in ermine, a virtuous example for the nation, an eye to politics with no ostensible influence. How could it be she was denied that role? How could she want something so desperately yet never, ever get it?

But there was George again – her hope, her legacy. Her heir of the blood would sit on the throne and act as she had bidden him. Gently, he laid a child’s toy into the crook of her arm. Poor Dolly. She was as travel-worn and beaten as her mistress. The porcelain features were pale now, faded beneath the light of a thousand summers. Her upswept hair had tangles and little tattered ribbons clung stubbornly to the roots. Threadbare patches on her dress, dirt on the hem, stains on her sleeves. She, too, was ready to go.

It seemed a lifetime ago that a gawky, child-like teenager called Augusta had turned out her trunks and boxes, her wardrobe and portmanteau, deciding which objects would comfort her in her new life and which she would have to resign herself never to see again. Yes, she had been an ingénue, she had been naive. It had seemed imperative, even sensible, that her favourite doll should accompany her across the channel and face the world with her. A friendly face to confide in, an unjudging, tiny shoulder to cry on. Time had only proved her decision right. God, how she needed that doll in her first years in England.

Across the sea, across the land, through years of heart-ache and joy. Always side by side. They had made that first journey together. So would they make their last.

Marrying into Madness

A mad ruler makes an exciting premise for a story (if I do say so myself!). The idea has been used in subplots for both A Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings but it also has a basis in history. I’m not just talking about George III; Juana La Loca of Castille and the ‘sleeping king’ Henry Plantagenet spring to my mind first, but there are a lot more (follow Joan Bos on Twitter using @madmonarchs – she posts great facts!). One Georgian Princess, however, had the singular  misfortune of being sister to one ‘mad’ king and wife to another.

Caroline Matilda was George III’s youngest sibling. Tragically, her father died before she was born, leaving George as a substitute. He felt this responsibility deeply and, as was so often the case with him, became overbearing in his desire to do right. However, Caroline was not subject to any of her brother’s ‘mad’ fits. No action during his guardianship suggested the whim of a lunatic. She would have witnessed an illness in 1765 where George was delirious and expected to die, but it’s unlikely she would have considered him insane. Like others at the time, she thought this an isolated incident of delirium brought on by a fever.

Caroline Matilda’s husband, however, was another kettle of fish. He was her – and George’s – first cousin, Christian King of Denmark. It’s fascinating to compare the mental troubles of these two cousins and the reaction of their wives, which were wildly different. One reason I am a supporter of the porphyria theory in George III’s case is that he showed no signs of instability or mania in his youth. He was a little slow to learn, rather shy and apt to blame himself, but that was all. Whereas Christian disturbed his family from an early age.

According to Veronica Baker-Smith in Royal Discord, Christian was already showing signs of instability by the time his mother, Louisa, died when he was two. She ascribes the King of Denmark’s early re-marriage to the fact that Christian was displaying overt mental illness, hence leaving the succession of Denmark in question. This would make sense, as the Danish King certainly loved his first wife and spoke of her on his deathbed. Following her sudden and tragic demise at age 27, from a similar internal rupture to the one that killed her mother Queen Caroline of Ansbach, he took to the bottle and then married Juliane Marie of Brunswick.

Juliane Marie took little interest in her step-children. She wasn’t unkind or unfair, just indifferent. She was far more interested in her own son, Frederick, when he was born and devoted her life to him. Christian, already troubled, was cut adrift after his mother died, and only had the familiar comfort of his sisters until he was six.  At this time, he was put under the care of a tutor named Reventlow, who was reported to be a harsh man. Of course, you only have to look at the upbringing of the Hanoverian princes to understand that most tutors were harsh at this time, but the circumstance certainly didn’t help the sensitive Christian. A new, softer tutor, Reverdil, came when Christian was eleven and was shocked at what he found. The boy had retreated to an intense inner life. He was petrified at the idea of becoming King, wanting nothing to do with it. Demons stalked his mind and he was determined to repel them by making himself as physically perfect as possible. If he was strong, he reasoned, he could fight of the monsters and become capable of fulfilling the roll of King. Quite heartbreaking words to hear from a thin, exquisite little boy, as handsome as a china doll.

It was to such a man that the fifteen-year-old Caroline Matilda was married. Whilst she didn’t seem to know the worst of his mental state, she was reluctant to marry and to leave England. She resented her brother for bundling her off into a dynastic match for political reasons and wept all through her proxy wedding ceremony. It’s rather ironic, considering George III’s daughters were later to complain that he didn’t find them husbands. It’s tough being King – you just can’t win! Caroline Matilda had grown up closely sheltered by her mother, Augusta, but she had a mind of her own. She listened to the endless harangues of how to behave, who to butter-up, who to avoid, and most of all, how to push the British influence over the French at the Danish court. It wasn’t long before she ignored these instructions, choosing instead to forge her own identity.

Despite Christian’s mania, he was not a bad prospect altogether. He was handsome and could be charming and witty. But there was no chance for Caroline Matilda to form an emotional bond with him. She was just part and parcel of the hereditary duties of kingship which so scared him. While Christian wanted to retire, she wanted to lead and make a place for herself at court. She tried hard to learn Danish and ingratiate herself with her new husband, but she met with indifference. He was quite happy to go travelling with his friends and leave her alone. This is why, I feel, Caroline Matilda and Charlotte differed so much in their responses to their husbands’ illnesses. While Charlotte, who was less independent-minded to start with, had a former love binding her loyalty, Caroline Matilda was free in her affections. She did have a child to tie her to Christian, born when she was just sixteen: heir to the throne, another Christian. However, his birth doesn’t seem to have bridged the pit of apathy between his parents.

Caroline Matilda chose instead to bestow her love on a court physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee. Her reasons for doing so were manifold. Not only did she need a plug to fill the emotional vacancy in her life, but Christian’s fits pushed her further and further away – and often placed her in need of protector. I’ve written in God Save the King about the emotional trauma caused to Queen Charlotte by George III’s bouts of mania, but quite frankly, his episodes were a walk in the park compared to Christian’s. Christian could often be violent, choosing to smash and destroy things, often throwing them from windows. He became obsessed with a prostitute and went out on the town in disguise, drinking and generally debauching with his friends. As you can imagine, the alcohol did nothing to ease his mental state. It’s little wonder Caroline Matilda had her head turned by the attentions of the handsome, charming, intelligent Struensee.

Caroline Matilda adopted Struensee’s radical, atheistical views for herself. The two made a little paradise, raising her son along Rousseau’s ideals and reforming the political world. It was a strange menage a trois: Christian was almost certainly aware of their relationship, but he viewed Struensee as his dearest friend and was quite happy to be guided by him. He was also probably relieved to have the responsibility of  a wife taken from him. Christian remained fond of Caroline Matilda, though he seemed to fear her in equal measure, and would do anything she said. Hence, it became quite easy for the lovers to pass their reforms through, since obtaining the King’s signature was no problem. It is widely accepted they also had a daughter, Louisa, and persuaded Christian to acknowledge her as his own. It is possible, of course, that Louisa was Christian’s child, but if you see portraits of her she has an unmistakable Struensee nose!

I have neither the space or the expertise to cover, in this post, the radical changes Caroline Matilda and Struensee brought about in Denmark and their political impact. If you would like to know the full story I can recommend Stella Tillyard’s  A Royal Affair or, if you want historical fiction, read The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist. What is clear, however,  is that Caroline Matilda was a driving force in the changes. George III liked to believe that his sister was a “good girl”, corrupted by a wicked court. He couldn’t be more wrong. Caroline Matilda knew her own mind and seized her opportunities. I like to contrast this with the behaviour of Queen Charlotte during the Regency crisis. Although Charlotte’s son the Prince of Wales criticised her for dabbling in politics, she was, in fact, only trying to keep her husband’s government in power, ready for him to return. If she had wanted, she could have easily cast her lot in with her son and changed the political scene – but she had none of Caroline Matilda’s ambition. The irony was that Charlotte’s son wanted political power but didn’t have support, whilst Charlotte had the influence but didn’t want to rock the boat. Another thing to note is that Charlotte was accused by some papers of having an affair with the Prime Minister Pitt. Unlike the situation in Denmark, there was no basis for this scandal. A preliminary look into the characters of both Charlotte and Pitt will show you how unlikely this was.

Sadly, Caroline Matilda and Struensee’s ideals ultimately cost her freedom and his life. In a skillful coup, Struensee’s enemies and Juliane Marie arranged for the lovers to be arrested and took Christian into their own keeping. He was as pliable with them as he had been with his wife; he was quite willing to sign whatever was put before him. Struensee was executed for his relationship with the Queen, whilst Caroline Matilda was imprisoned and separated from her children. Eventually, after a highly fraught struggle, George III managed to get her released into his own keeping, but for safety and diplomacy, Caroline Matilda still had to live a hermit’s existence in Celle. This, strangely enough, was the home town of George I’s wife Sophia Dorothea – also imprisoned for adultery. Caroline Matilda continued to plot and plan in secret. She was part of many schemes to return her to Denmark – and the throne – when her sudden death at the tender age of 23 cut all  hopes short. Scarlet fever put an end to her brief, but eventful life.

I think it’s quite clear that Caroline Matilda’s story is a fascinating one that historical novelists should be drooling over. However, I only write things that have already been done if I think (a) I can do it better or, (b) I have something new to say. Quite frankly, I found The Visit of the Royal Physician so amazing, so exquisitely done, that I dare not follow it. However, Caroline Matilda’s story will feature in my novel about her mother, Augusta, and I look forward to interpreting this astonishing woman into fiction.

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