Why I love Queen Charlotte

 

It struck me, as I wrote my post about Caroline of Ansbach, that I haven’t blogged purely about Charlotte and how great she was. Yes, I’ve given snippets of her life in other blog posts, but nothing to tell you just why you should want to read about her. She was truly a remarkable woman, often eclipsed by the “brighter” personalities of the era.  I’m bound to forget something, but here’s a summary of the reasons I love her so much.

Her intelligence. I remember reading an interview with Philippa Gregory about how she chose her heroines – she said you were going to spend years of your life with this person and you needed to make sure you didn’t choose an idiot. This is so true. Thankfully, I selected a woman with a deep interest in academia and the arts. Despite her upbringing in an obscure Duchy, Charlotte was educated to a high level and made sure her daughters were too. She went to the lengths of stealing a French teacher from another family to ensure her Princesses got the very best tuition. My favourite quote from her: “I am of the opinion that if women had the same advantages as men in their education, they would do as well.”

Artistic flair. Charlotte was both an amateur artist and a skilled harpsichord player. She acted as patron for many artistic societies and famously encouraged the young Mozart. Musical scores, books on  botany and countless other endeavours were dedicated to her. For her encouragement of exploration, a flower from the Cape of Good Hope was named after her – Strelitza Regina – you may know it better as the bird of paradise flower. Charlotte was always seeking out new books and new things to learn. Although the novelist Fanny Burney didn’t enjoy being kept at Charlotte’s court, she certainly received praise of her work from the Queen. Burney’s third novel, Camilla, is dedicated to Charlotte and she took great pride in presenting it to her royal mistress on bended knee.

Her charity. Charlotte often had to apply to the King for extra funds, because she had overspent on charitable donations. Much of her charity focused on women and their plight – childbirth hospitals and even a society for the reformation of fallen women. She may have been the first woman in England, but she never forgot how difficult life was for those less fortunate. Linking her love of music and charity together, she paid for the composer Bach’s funeral and granted his widow an allowance. It may seem  bizarre that she acquired a reputation for penny-pinching and financial austerity, but in this she was copying the King. They both tried to live as economically as possible, to set an example to their people and lessen the burden their family exerted on the tax payer.

Impeccable taste. When Charlotte did get the chance to spend money on luxuries, she could keep up with the best of them. I often think George IV inherited his good taste from her – although with him, it often flared out into gaudiness. Charlotte paid great attention to the details in her dresses, the arrangement of her daughters’ hair (even consulting artist Benjamin West about where the jewels should be placed) and her jewellery. Jewellery was a passion with Charlotte and one which I think many of us women can sympathise with. Although Charlotte was never beautiful, she acquired a reputation for elegance and grace – she knew how to do the best with what she  had. In fact, her”ugliness” is another thing I love about Charlotte. I’m bored with hopelessly attractive Queens – I have nothing in common with them!

When it came to interior design and flower arranging, her enthusiasm knew no bounds. Her taste was neither as bland and simple as the King’s nor as decadently riotous as her son’s. Very little of Charlotte’s decoration remains at Windsor, Frogmore or Buckingham Palace, but if you read the accounts of her dimity curtains, gilt frames and embroidered chairs,  you get a feel for the gentle prettiness of her style.

Her quiet faith. Charlotte was a devout woman and used her religion to strengthen her. She had a deep interest in theology and even belonged to a Protestant convent in her youth. She was not pushy or preachy but believed in setting an example for others to follow. The strength of her convictions is shown early on in discussions with her mother in law, Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales – this was the one part of her life Charlotte would not allow anyone else to influence or dictate to her in. She certainly need the consolation of religion in the life that lay ahead of her. She was aware that even the plans of a Queen could be shot off course by higher powers – one of her favourite phrases was: “Man proposes; God disposes.”

Motherhood. In a time when childbirth was a dangerous activity, you can’t help but admire a woman who survived fifteen labours. Although Charlotte’s frame was slight, there was remarkable strength in it. Charlotte was also what I call a “normal” mother – neither outrageously devoted to or indifferent to her children. When I imagine being responsible for fifteen children, my first thought is: “What a nightmare.” And Charlotte was duly annoyed and frustrated by her brood many times. She suffered from depression during her pregnancies, wished she would have no more children and often found it hard to share her love equally among them. But she wrote to all her children when they were absent from home – even those the King forgot – and was devastated when she lost two baby boys. Her tough love approach to education may have distanced some of her daughters, but she was adored by both Princess Elizabeth and George IV. She stood up for her beloved eldest son on many occasions and was a great support to him during his Regency. It is worth noting that she went from being a widely popular Queen to a rather disliked figure amongst some circles at the time of her death – all because she stood by her son. Having said that, she also took George IV to task when he needed it. I particularly love the instance of her having a go at him because he had failed to pay her granddaughter’s (another Charlotte) allowance on time. She was, in fact, a good grandmother, which perhaps the young Charlotte didn’t appreciate until later years. It is touching to see how Charlotte tried to promote her granddaughter’s marriage to Prince Leopold and took pains to get acquainted with the young man.

She was a woman of her time. Let’s face the truth: Charlotte lived in a time when women were the weaker sex. She may not always have agreed with it, but she didn’t rail against it either. It’s interesting to work out the psychology of a woman who, although she may have known better, submitted to her husband’s opinion at all times. She had a crushing sense of duty and that duty was to the King. She allowed him to dictate the way she would behave towards certain children – the ones not in favour! – and the people she took into her household. She stayed out of politics to please him, even though her mind was more than capable of handling its complexities. For a writer, this is brilliant. The internal conflict caused by such devoted duty is pure gold. Here was a woman, not blindly following, but forcing herself to obey. There are delightful little moments where the real Charlotte peeps out – throwing her lot in unashamedly with the Tories after they stood by her during the King’s illness, intervening for George IV, trying to persuade the King to let her daughters marry. But for the main part, Charlotte was a model wife of the time. I admire this. It may seem strange, but I can see more strength in her behaviour than I can in those women that shouted and screamed at their husbands. It would have been easy – if inadvisable -  for Charlotte to speak her mind and defy the King.  But she managed to restrain herself with mind-boggling self-control. I’m not saying I advocate this behaviour in the least. I can just see that in her, it was strength, not weakness, that held her tongue.

Her death. Most Queens die like martyrs. Both Caroline of Ansbach and Caroline of Brunswick endured agonising deaths with supreme courage – they were not afraid to die. I admire this more than I can say, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate with me. If I was about to die, I would be terrified. And so was Charlotte. She spent many of her last days crying, worrying over her will and wishing she had all her children with her. She prayed constantly. Most touching of all, she wanted to force her sick body to travel to Windsor so she could die near the King. It wasn’t to be. She died quietly at Kew, closing a tumultuous life with a peaceful slumber.

I hope I haven’t bored you too much with my Charlotte obsession. If you would like to read more about Charlotte and her life, why not try my novel God Save the King? Or if you are looking for history books, I would recommend Olwen Hedley’s Queen Charlotte, Flora Fraser’s Princesses (as always!) or Christopher Hibbert’s George III: A Personal History.

10 Comments on Why I love Queen Charlotte

  1. Carol
    21/10/2012 at 12:48 pm (2 years ago)

    Laura, thank you for a great article. I volunteer for Historic Royal Palaces and often room describe at Kew Palace. We have a harpsicord there dating back to 1740 which belonged originally to Frederick, Prince of Wales that was handed down to his son. It still plays today. Also Charlotte’s bedroom is still looking very much how it would have looked when the queen died there.

    Reply
    • lauradpurcell
      21/10/2012 at 1:57 pm (2 years ago)

      Hi Carol, I love Kew Palace! Well, all the HRP really… It is just perfect, I spent so long wandering round Kew and wishing I could stay there. So glad you enjoyed my piece on Charlotte.

      Reply
      • Carol
        21/10/2012 at 8:26 pm (2 years ago)

        I

        I get to work at the other HRP Palaces as well. They are all wonderful in their own distinctive way. I thoroughly enjoyed your article. Many thanks for writing it.

        Reply
  2. Regency History (@RegencyHistory)
    22/10/2012 at 4:20 pm (2 years ago)

    You have painted a very sympathetic view of Queen Charlotte. What you have written about her inner conflict perhaps explains why, to date, I have not got such a favourable impression of her and feel that she was often cold-hearted towards her children.

    Reply
  3. Kendra
    09/08/2013 at 6:01 am (1 year ago)

    I live in Charlotte, NC and its always been rumored that Queen Charlotte was Black. I love your blog about her but I think you have missed something. The cover up that she was Mulatto. I am a librarian who comes from a family background of mixed ancestors who pasted for White, so I was very interested in this and will continue to do research on her. Please see this blog post.

    http://mulattodiaries.wordpress.com/tag/queen-charlotte/

    Reply
    • lauradpurcell
      09/08/2013 at 6:47 am (1 year ago)

      Hi there, thanks for your comment. The reason I haven’t referred to this is that my extensive research found very little to no basis for this claim, romantic as the idea is. Charlotte’s birth family were descended distantly from an African dynasty and her brothers and sisters had similar features. Also, her children all had very pale skin and no trace of a mulatto mother. Charlotte certainly had ancient roots in Africa but I’ve found nothing to convince me of anything more, let alone the idea that her husband and mother in law would be willing to ‘cover it up’.

      Reply
  4. Marianne
    10/05/2014 at 12:03 am (6 months ago)

    I notice Charlotte does have African features in some portraits but not all. I have no opinion on the subject, but did come up with a theory that might have explained it before we heard that she was descended from a Portuguese king’s Moorish mistress by several lines of descent.

    Hedley’s book says that Charlotte was sent a petition for financial help by a black footman who had served her mother. In late Victorian times, the court of Mecklenberg Strelitz where Charlotte grew up, still allowed only footmen to light the lamps in the bedrooms because this was an inflexible custom. A biography of Mary of Teck says that one of these footmen had a bit of fun with one of the young princesses he found in a bedroom. After the poor girl was found to be pregnant, Mary of Teck was one of the few people who would speak to her.

    This is purely speculative, but the black footman might have been Charlotte’s biological father – or he might not have been.It looks to me as if Charlotte was a brave and generous but unconfident girl when she arrived in the UK. But she was bullied by her mother and sister-in-law. One of her brothers-in-law also said that the king was guilty of mental cruelty to Charlotte. Even she said that ‘the dear king’ was ‘very strict’, but she apparently appreciated it.

    It seems to me that her dutiful submission was unfortunate. I can’t remember who said that too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart. But later she was quite callous to her sister-in-law Caroline Matilda and two of her daughters-in-law, Caroline and Frederica who were not subdued doormats and did not pretend to be. I’m not totally blaming her. She was a woman of her age as you say. But she was a victim of bullying who learned how to be a bully. I wonder why Princess Charlotte said,”I dislike two things -apple pie and my grandmother” -and later exclaimed ”I would to God the old lady was dead!”

    Of course she was not submissive enough to please her daughter Amelia. She became frightened of George after he developed porphyria or became mad depending on your point of view, and locked her bedroom door against him. It was obvious that she feared sexual assault. He had even been a bit dodgy with his daughter and daughter-in-law. But Amelia was furious that she could deny him anything.

    I find Hedley’s book frustrating as it too is of its age -the 70s. It concentrates on décor and is almost pure hagiography. Why don’t you write a more interesting biography of this character?

    Reply
    • lauradpurcell
      10/05/2014 at 9:49 pm (6 months ago)

      Thanks for your comments Marianne. Nice to find someone else so interested in Charlotte! It’s an intriguing theory about the footman, but I still can’t see why the husband would ever agree to cover such a thing up, let alone raise the child as his own. And then would her mother let her marry into an important dynasty if she knew it would reveal her secret and her unfaithfulness? I would love to write a biography of Charlotte if I ever get the time – or skill enough at French to translate her letters! xx

      Reply
  5. Marianne
    15/05/2014 at 10:15 am (5 months ago)

    Well, it’s really an idea I came up with off the top of my head. But people didn’t know much about heredity in the past. I read somewhere that either Louis xiv or xv – I can’t remember which -was pretty annoyed when his queen produced a baby girl who was obviously of mixed race. She too had a black footman who had mysteriously disappeared some time before the birth was due.

    The doctor said feebly that the colour of the child could have been caused by the black man looking at the queen. “A look!” exclaimed the king, “It must have been a very penetrating look!” He was all for the queen being impeached and the baby being strangled. But he was persuaded to cool down. The child was referred to as a princess but was confined to a convent where her royal relatives did visit her.

    It might be that Charlotte’s official father was a bit naïve. On the other hand, it might be that it was by pure chance that she had what Stockmar called ‘a true mulatto face.’ I really believe that ugliness like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Horace Walpole said ‘she is not a beauty…her nostrils spreading too wide.’ Perhaps she was attractive enough but not by European ideas of beauty.

    With a charming fusion of snobbery and racism, Augusta Princess of Wales and her daughters had opposed George marrying Lady Sarah Lennox. They thought one ‘might as well marry a Negress’ as marry out of the royal families of Europe. That doesn’t suggest that they would welcome a black queen, I must admit.

    Then George, who could be a very stubborn and stupid man, was a great supporter of the African slave trade.Whenever he saw Wilberforce, he said, ”How are your black clients?” and guffawed.George and Charlotte’s son William iv opposed the ending of slavery in the West Indies, but did use West Indian prostitutes.

    Is it possible that they just didn’t notice? Perhaps Charlotte was like Stan Colleymore, pale skinned but with African features.

    I hope you don’t think I was being very unkind about Charlotte being unassertive. I wasn’t blaming her. German child rearing manuals of the time advocated breaking the child’s will ‘so it will never remember afterwards that it had a will of its own.’ She was probably brought up in such an oppressive environment that there was no hope of her standing up to George or anyone else. It wouldn’t have done any good anyway. Melbourne told Victoria that he was stubborn and prejudiced beyond comprehension.

    Reply

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