Sunday, March 11, 2012

Queen Charlotte?

Or how Queen Victoria almost wasn't.

by V.R. Christensen

The matter of royal accession during the reign of George III should not have been a matter of any great debate. George IV had already served as regent (off and on) during his father’s madness. The line of George IV was further ensured by the fact that he had a legitimate child, even if she was merely a daughter.

A princess though she was, Charlotte was not much pampered or loved. She was pawn, as children too often are, in the acrimonious game between her rivalling parents, estranged from the time of her conception. She was an unhappy young woman, and desperate to escape the confines of her life. Her ticket out? Marriage.

Because of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 (passed by George III to ensure that his children's choice of spouses met with his approval) Charlotte's choices were relegated to a few foreign princes whom she'd never met. She made a run at Frederick of Prussia, but he was unresponsive. And then, at a ball given by the Duke and Duchess of York, she met the handsome Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield. Not only was he charming, ambitious and a renowned lady’s man, but he was also heavily in debt and looking for a solution. Charlotte was not very much in love with Leopold at the outset; she simply saw him as a means of escape. Neither was Leopold in love with her, but he was very much enamoured of the idea of being consort to a rich princess, and one who would very probably become Queen. Perhaps taking a lesson from her father's miserable marriage, Leopold considered it wise to fortify his position by convincing Charlotte to love him, at least to rely on him. By all accounts, he succeeded quite brilliantly in his aim to win her heart. He was an an affectionate and attentive husband. So successful was he, that, in the course of his efforts, Leopold found himself very much in love with her in turn. He gave up his rakish ways and took up the part of faithful husband and indispensable helpmate. Charlotte was so dependent on him in fact, that she made a royal declaration that she would subject herself to her husband’s rule, making him King upon her accession. All he needed more to secure his position was an heir.

In due course, an heir was on its way, but Charlotte was subject to the ‘skill’ of the royal doctors, who prescribed a ‘lowering’ treatment for the expectant mother. This consisted of a liquid diet of meatless, vegetable-free broth and restriction from all exercise. Consequently, when her time came, two weeks after the due date, she lacked the necessary strength to deliver the baby. After a gruelling fifty hours of labour, the baby, a beautiful, perfectly formed boy, emergeddead. Charlotte had not even the strength to feel her devastation. To make matters worse, her placenta had not detached, and she endured a procedure which essentially tore it from her uterus. Her torso was then wrapped tightly in bandages, and when she complained of pain, she was given warm compresses. She was bleeding internally, though she was wrapped so tightly no one was yet aware of it. Until it was too late.

At 2:30 in the morning, Charlotte died, and two generations of royalty were swept away.

It was 1817 and the question of accession was once more brought to the fore.

Charlotte’s death had sent her father, George IV, into a nearly fatal fit of illness, and it was generally believed he would die. He rallied, however. He might have done more to ensure the endurance of his own line. When his wife, Caroline died in 1826, he declared his intention to find a new wife and to produce another heir. But, lazy, fat, old and in poor health, he did nothing.

The next in line after the Regent, was George III’s second son Frederick, but the Duke of York had, as had his brother before him, separated from his wife within a year of their marriage, having produced no children. Also out of the running was the sixth brother, Augustus, whose marriage had not satisfied the requirements of the Royal Marriages Act.

That left William, Edward, Ernest and Adolphus vying for position.

William, Duke of Clarence, was next in line. It was Charlotte’s death that induced him to leave his beloved mistress (Mrs. Dorothy Jordan, with whom he had ten children) and look for a wife. He decided upon Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, whom he chose sight unseen. She was sickly, unattractive, but intelligent and pious—all of which rather counted against her with the world-wise (if not world-weary) prince. Adelaide was a mere 25 to his 52, yet despite all this, their marriage was a happy one.

The next in line after William was Edward, Duke of Kent. Edward was a favourite of Charlotte and Leopold and it was they who played matchmaker. Leopold introduced him to his sister Victoire. Edward was taken with her and proposed. She refused him. She had been married before, to a much older, unattractive and inattentive husband, who, as it so happened, had been the widower of her maternal aunt (yes, that made him her uncle). Consequently, she had no desire to enter again into that unhappy state called matrimony. Her interests, as well as those of her two children, were best served by remaining a widow. Disappointed, Edward returned to the arms of his mistressuntil events catapulted him back into the hunt. With the announcement of Charlotte’s death, he tried once more for Victoire’s hand, this time begging the influence of her brother, who, though shattered over his wife's death, was ever the man of political strategy (he would later exhibit the foresight to train his nephew up to be the Queen’s consort). He saw in this match another opportunity to advance his own interests, and so persuaded Victoire to see them too. Circumstances had changed, and Edward was no longer a longshot for the throne.

Next was Ernest, Duke of Cumberland. But Cumberland was much feared and loathed by the people. It was generally believed at the time (though modern scholars doubt the allegations hold any truth) that he had murdered his valet and homosexual partner, and that he had fathered a child with his sister, Sophia. His choice of bride was almost as notorious as he. His first cousin, Frederica of Mechlenberg-Sterlitz, was once engaged to his brother Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, but eloped with the Prince of Solms, whom she was later suspected of murdering. Ernest's marriage to Frederica, solemnised in 1815, satisfied all provisions of the Royal Marriages Act.

The last of the qualifying princes was Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge. Cambridge, the youngest of the seven sons, was also the most temperate of all the brothers, though perhaps no less ambitious. Within two weeks of Charlotte’s death, he was married to Augusta of Hesse-Kassel.

And so, in March of 1819, two years after Charlotte’s death, these four brothers, with their respective and very pregnant wives, rightly held very high hopes for the throne.

Cambridge (Adolphus) was the first to produce a post-Charlotte heir. Upon hearing of the delivery of the Cambridge child, Clarence (William) went to see for himself, sending a message to the King soon after informing him of the arrival (at long last) of a legitimate grandson. The child was called George in honour of his uncle and King.

On the 27th of March, the Duke and Duchess of Clarence had a daughter, but she did not survive her first day.

On the 29th of May, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Adolphus) announced the birth of their son, also named George. The King was well pleased, for he’d taken great measures to ensure that his throne should pass to no woman. The Regent, too, felt very strongly that a King should be the head of England.

Except that five days earlier, the Duchess of Kent had given birth to a daughter, and the Kent child was ahead of the little Georges in succession, Kent (Edward) being next in line after William, who so far had no heir (nor would he, as all of his children by Adelaide died in infancy).

But then the Duke of Kent died. The laws of accession did not rule out his young daughter’s claim, but a King could take certain precautions, as had George III with his own daughters, denying them marriages and thereby guaranteeing they had no claims upon the throne. Perhaps to protect her from such devices, or perhaps to shield her from the unsavoury influences of his profligate brothers (for custom would dictate she fall under George’s care, then William’s upon the former's death) Kent made legal arrangements that his wife should maintain care of their child after his death, a thing virtually unheard of at the time.

Six days after Kent’s death, the King followed. In the shock, George IV fell ill as well, and it was believed he, too, would die. He rallied, however, despite surrendering 150 ounces of blood to the royal doctors.

George IV, once recovered, turned his back upon his niece and was prepared to turn them over to the Coburgs in Germany. Leopold, however, stepped in once again. Such royal neglect on the part of the English relatives proved to be just as well. It was Leopold who arranged for the burial of Kent's body at Windsor, as well as settling all of his sister's outstanding debts. He intereceded with George IV's favourite sister and arranged for them to assume residence at Kensington Palace, where Victoria was trained, very quietly, and without her knowledge, to one day reign.

Though Victoria was brought up to know she was a princess, she spent her childhood wholly unaware of just how great the chance was that she would one day claim the throne. Unlike the heirs apparent both before and after her, she had no cause to consider herself superior, no reason to be vain or to believe in her own self-importance. Instead, she had a unique sense of responsibility and a deep desire to do good.

When, after her uncle William's death in 1837, Victoria at last gained the throne, she was precisely what the people wanted, and perhaps what society needed. They were tired of the old ways, the old excesses.

Victoria brought the promise of a new era, and the world has never been the same.

For more about the life of Queen Victoria, see We Two, by Gillian Gill.

V.R. Christensen is the author of Of Moths & Butterflies, and Blind - a novella. Cry of the Peacock, a companion piece to Of Moths & Butterflies, is due to be released in October of 2012.


  1. That was very interesting - thanks. How neglectful of the brothers to not even try and produce heirs before. So strange, especially as in those days, health issues could so easily be fatal.

  2. I find it one of the most fascinating histories ever. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I so look forward to reading your posts with my morning coffee. So insightful and intriguing! Thank you...

  4. Victoire retreated to her native Belgium and raised the child away from her English relatives.

    Sorry, this is wrong. The Duchess of Kent remained in the UK with her daughter, living at Kensington Palace in London. It was at Kensington Palace in the early hours of the 20th of June 1837 that the 18 year old Victoria learned from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain, who had ridden from Windsor, that her Uncle William had died and she was Queen.

  5. Karen, you are right. Forgive me. I forgot about that, and remembered only that Leopold stepped in and rescued them, but he rescued them in England, not in Belgium. I will amend that. Thank you for pointing that out to me.

    1. You're welcome. I thought you may have got confused with the fact that Leopold who had become King of Belgium stepped into help them.

    2. That was precisely it, thank you. And I know he, at one point, went back, but confused it. I was really rather focussing on getting the muddle with the princes right. It's all so confusing. But thanks again.

  6. Amazing how many clamored at the door to be king. And must say, the doctors of poor Charlotte all but killed her and her baby. As with King Charles II, those poor royals would have done better not having any doctors, at all. Thanks for the share. The Georges are so many, I get very confused. You clarified some of my confusion.

    1. There's more to be said about that, as well, because Baron Stockmar was an adviser of Leopold, and he had told Leopold that the doctors' regimen for Charlotte was not healthy. Leopold didn't listen. And so, when Leopold took a hand in Victoire's dealings, and then with Victoria's, Stockmar was still there. When Victoria became pregnant, it was Stockmar who oversaw her medical supervision, so her children were not subject to the royal doctors. Thank heaven!

  7. I would love to read this.

  8. There are one or two points here, notably in the second and the penultimate paragraphs of your article, that perhaps require some clarification lest they cause further confusion. I feel a certain proprietorial interest in Princess Charlotte - having lived for a year in Claremont, the house where she lived and died - and submit these comments as an aid to shedding light rather than generating heat.

    It is all too easy to try to parcel up history into neat and convenient packages. To say, When, after her uncle William's death in 1837, Victoria at last gained the throne, she was precisely what the people wanted, and perhaps what society needed. They were tired of the old ways, the old excesses. Victoria brought the promise of a new era, and the world has never been the same, is to do just that.

    William's seven-year reign (1830-37) in fact ushered in the real 'new era' of the nineteenth century - the Great Reform Act of 1832, which fundamentally altered politics and society. Even this was a culmination of many years' political negotiation and evolution, including the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. As with all major legislation, the Reform Act reflected changes that had been ongoing for may years previously - in this case the gradual change from a rural to an urban society and from an agrarian to an industrial economy. It was these changes, rather than Victoria's accession, that provided the framework for the extraordinary socio-economic phenomenon that we call the Victorian era.

    (Incidentally, William IV was generally well-loved and respected and was not seen as perpetuating the "old excesses" of George IV. As for George himself, his "excesses" certainly had a basis in fact, but were often caricatured and exaggerated by a polarised and vitriolic press. And the very fact that his "excesses" were cause for such comment is evidence that such behaviour was NOT widespread among the upper classes - or not as widespread as some would have us believe!)

    It is equally tempting, and equally misleading, to cast Charlotte as " the acrimonious game between her rivalling unhappy young woman, and desperate to escape the confines of her life." This is to put an anachronistic and inaccurate 21st-century interpretation onto the events of the early 19th century. Charlotte was heiress to the Throne of Great Britain and Ireland, and any heiress of the day would have understood and accepted the constraints placed on their life. Charlotte was hardly "estranged" from her parents; she had a robust and opinionated relationship with them both, and was well aware of these constraints as one factor in that relationship. Indeed, she showed considerable backbone in dealing with her own situation: originally engaged to Prince William of Orange ("Slender Billy"), in pursuit of a political alliance with the Netherlands, she called off her engagement in June 1814 rather than accept a requirement to live abroad for a part of every year.

  9. Forgive me for only just now seeing this. I would first like to say that these are excellent points, and secondly to add that I'm not an expert on William or anything before Victoria, though I'd hardly claim to be an expert on her, either. My expertise comes in the manners and mores of the latter half of the era. You are absolutely right to say that this is a far more complex subject than I addressed here. I find it really difficult to fit in all the crucial elements in a piece like this, with limited word count restraints.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the turnaround in social attitudes was owing to William. At least I agree that it happened in his day, and that he was far more highly favoured than was George.

    As to the to Caroline's relationship with her parents, I can only refer to Gillian Gill's interpretation. I quoted from her. I trust there are other interpretations of the same events. But I'm thoroughly grateful for the broader view you have presented here.


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