Princess Charlotte: George’s Forgotten Daughter

Perusing the Royal Pavilion shop recently, I discovered some material that had been produced for an exhibition held here a few years ago; ‘Princess Charlotte: George’s Forgotten Daughter’. I knew almost nothing about ‘the Original People’s Princess’, so I decided to investigate further and what resulted was the Pavilion Tales talk of the same name.

Charlotte’s is a heart-breaking yet fascinating story and I challenge anyone who hears it not to fall in love with her, just a little bit. She was George IV and Caroline of Brunswick’s only legitimate child and despite at one time being the most popular member of the Royal Family and ‘Britain’s Hope’ for the future she has now been largely forgotten. In her lifetime though, she was vivacious, stubborn, eccentric and a hopeless romantic, comparing herself to Marianne of Sense and Sensibility.

The Princess Charlotte by Thomas Lawrence 1822
The Princess Charlotte by Thomas Lawrence 1822

To truly understand Charlotte one must first understand her parents and their disastrous relationship. Once George made up his mind to find an appropriate, legal wife, Caroline of Brunswick, was chosen seemingly without thought or consideration and she proved to be a wholly unsuitable bride. Caroline was vulgar, poorly educated, careless in her appearance and hygiene and catastrophically immature. In 1795, George was introduced for the first time to his wife-to-be and, without uttering a word to her, said to a servant “Harris, I am not well, pray please get me a glass of brandy.” He abruptly left and Caroline was left with no better impression of her future husband than he had of her, remarking that he was extremely fat and nowhere near as handsome as the portrait she had seen. The marriage had an unhappy a start as possible, with George weeping through the wedding ceremony. Within weeks, Caroline and George were separated, never to be reconciled.

Infant Princess Charlotte, Laurence; Bourlier, M.A.
Infant Princess Charlotte, Laurence; Bourlier, M.A.

Against all odds, in the few nights the couple did spend together, they managed to conceive their only child, and Charlotte was born on 7th January, 1796. The day after, George was overcome with panic and drafted a will in which he left everything he had to his ‘true’ wife Maria Fitzherbert and to his legal, despised spouse Caroline, just one shilling. The will also left instruction to the effect that his new-born daughter Charlotte should be raised by her paternal grandparents, and under no circumstances should her mother have any influence whatsoever on her upbringing. It was only by the grace of George III’s good will, and his fondness for Caroline, that she was able to maintain any semblance of a relationship with her daughter at all. Charlotte grew up lonely and neglected in a dreary annex of Carlton House, with only the company of elderly governesses and tutors for comfort.

Although Charlotte undoubtedly lived a very unhappy for life for the entirety of her formative years, she continued to display the energy and mischievous nature that had so repelled her father from her mother. She was besotted with her maternal uncle, the Duke of Brunswick, and at times would draw on a moustache and march around the house making sounds as close an imitation to swearing as she could, to mimic his mannerisms. Her natural charm meant that Charlotte was far more popular than her father and he was childishly jealous of her. As a result, she was kept from public view as much as possible, trapped in a ‘protracted childhood’. She was not introduced to society and was not given her own establishment and income at the age of eighteen, as a future monarch normally would have been.

In 1813, the idea was conceived for Charlotte to marry William, the Hereditary Prince of Orange, ‘Slender Billy’. Charlotte had heard a great deal of unflattering talk of William and was not well-disposed toward the match. Although Charlotte’s opinion of William did change somewhat on meeting him at her father’s palace at Brighton, her heart was never in the engagement. The marriage contract was signed in 1814 but Charlotte was already infatuated with another man, the dashing womaniser, Frederick of Prussia. Charlotte remained blissfully unaware of Frederick’s entirely dishonourable intentions and, increasingly distraught at the idea of a loveless marriage to William, took flight from her home on foot, declaring the engagement at an end. It was clear no happy relationship could be salvaged and the marriage was abandoned.Once she had rid herself of the dread Orange match in 1815, Charlotte hoped to hear from her erstwhile love interest, Frederick of Prussia. Much to her distress it became more and more obvious that no such communication was forthcoming and she was forced to reconcile herself with her second choice of husband.

Charlotte and Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield (later Leopold of the Belgians) had met during the fetes, celebrations and conferences in London that had followed the temporary defeat of Napoleon’s sometime prior. He was charming, handsome, in fact, Napoleon claimed him to be the most handsome man to ever set foot in the Tuileries, and penniless. Still smarting over the snub of his preferred beau however, it took George some time to acquiesce to Charlotte’s request to bless the marriage. It wasn’t until January of 1816, in the Music Room of the Pavilion, that George finally agreed to allow the wedding to go ahead. On the 2nd of May 1816, Charlotte and Leopold were married in the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House in a modest but joyous ceremony in which Charlotte wore a dress woven with real silver that was said to cost some £10,000. During their short-lived, but loving and happy marriage Leopold and Charlotte were frequently seen out driving in carriages and at the opera, but also enjoyed spending time at their new home, Claremont, renovating and decorating.

The Death and Apotheosis of Princess Charlotte
The Death and Apotheosis of Princess Charlotte

Charlotte suffered two miscarriages in this time but her third pregnancy showed every sign of being carried to term and the country prepared to welcome the new future king or queen. On the 3rd of November, 1817, Charlotte’s labour began and lasted for over fifty hours. On the 5th of November, she finally gave birth to a stillborn son. Remaining stoical in the face of tragedy Charlotte appeared to recover and be doing well. In the small hours of the next morning however, Charlotte’s condition had worsened and it became clear that she was bleeding internally. She died that morning aged only 21 years, and was buried with her child. Having lost beloved wife and child in one fell swoop, Leopold was devastated and never truly recovered. The nation mourned with him and a huge number of memorial souvenirs were produced to commemorate the passing of Britain’s hope. The shops were shut for two weeks, haberdashers ran out of black cloth and it was said that even the lowest of paupers had ragged black armbands. Charlotte endured in public memory for many years but her predecessor as heir to the throne, Princess Victoria of Kent, made such a lasting impression throughout her iconic 63 year reign that Charlotte was overshadowed. The Pavilion seems a fit place to remember her as the site where her marriage to Leopold was agreed and her only brief period of true happiness began.

Meg Hogg, Visitor Services Officer