Friday, July 18, 2014

Queen Charlotte's Ladies in Waiting

by Laura Purcell

Queen Charlotte was never one to cause a scandal. Search for her in the history books and you will find a pious, sensible, good-humoured woman. She clung to propriety like a life-raft. Her political enemies once tried to spread a rumour that she was sleeping with the Prime Minister, William Pitt, but the gossip fizzled out instantaneously: no one would believe it.

With such a mistress, you would think Charlotte’s ladies in waiting and maids of honour must be paragons of virtue. You could not be further from the truth.

Almost immediately after her arrival in England to marry George III, Charlotte ran into difficulties with her staff. Two beloved servants, Mrs Haggerdorn and Mrs Schwellenberg, had accompanied her from Mecklenburg-Sterlitz and naturally had a special place in her heart.

However, jealousy began to brew between the English and German factions. Schwellenberg did nothing to help matters with her pride and overpowering manners. She insisted upon being called “Madame”, though she was nothing but a bedchamber woman. Through bullying and aggression, she rose all the way to become Mistress of the Robes in the young Queen’s household. Taking rooms right next to Charlotte’s, she ensured no one could gain access to the royal presence without her permission. From old affection and a desire to keep her countrywoman beside her, Charlotte endured it all without censure. Her husband took it less kindly.

George would have dismissed Schwellenberg and sent her back across the sea, but Charlotte entreated him in the presence of her mother-in-law to let the servant stay. Grudgingly, he conceded, provided Schwellenberg changed her behaviour. She never did.

Miss Elizabeth Chudleigh
Pride and self-aggrandizement were small sins, compared with those of a maid of honour, Miss Elizabeth Chudleigh. Unhappily married to a son of Lord Hervey, Miss Chudleigh embarked on a series of affairs, scandalising London with her revealing masquerade costumes. She finally separated from her husband and remarried a former lover. However, when her second husband died, his heir and nephew accused Miss Chudleigh of bigamy. She was tried, found guilty and fled to Paris.

Another young woman forced to leave England for her crime was Sarah Wilson, femme de chamber to the maid of honour Miss Vernon (yes, that’s right: a servant of a servant). While going about her duties, Sarah broke open Charlotte’s cabinets and stole her jewels. Needless to say, she was found out. A judge sentenced Sarah to death, but fortunately the wronged queen interceded for her. The penalty was transmuted to banishment. Sarah was shipped to Maryland and sold as a slave.

Despite their shenanigans, Charlotte’s maids of honour felt entitled to strike in 1775. Their grievance was simple: supper. They were entitled to a free supper at the cost of the royal household, but often duties prevented them being able to take it. They petitioned King George, who actually granted them an additional £70 a year in compensation.

There were many interesting characters in Charlotte’s household, from Miss Meadows who ran off with a penniless officer, to Lady Effingham, who supposedly died of fright after a fire in her apartments at Hampton Court. But few come close to the eccentricity of Lady Mary Coke.

Lady Mary Coke
Lady Mary was married, against her will, to Lord Leicester’s son. She was treated with astounding cruelty by her new family, who went to the lengths of imprisoning her in her room for months. But to be fair to the Cokes, they were not the only ones who struggled to get along with Mary. She was famously opinionated, stubborn and ridiculously proud. Even Princess Amelia, the King’s tolerant Great-Aunt, was forced to terminate her friendship with Mary after a bout of highly unreasonable behaviour.

Fortunately widowed in 1750, Mary set her cap at King George’s younger brother, the Duke of York. She was thirty-two to his nineteen and played the boy like a lute. She kept him at arm’s-length, while secretly revelling in his devotion. Nothing ever came of the liaison, for the Duke died tragically young. Demented by grief and loneliness, Mary set herself up as a royal widow. She would cry at the mere sight of Westminster Abbey, where her admirer was buried. Throughout the years, she kept up a morbid fascination with royal vaults. This would all be rather touching, were the poor woman not fooling herself. Princess Amelia often assured Mary the Duke had never meant to marry her, and “made such a joke of you”.

The last lady in our tale, Lady Elizabeth Pembroke, caused a stir without ever meaning to. To start with, she had a scandalous marriage, through no fault of her own. Her cheating husband shamed her by disguising himself as a soldier and eloping to the Low Countries with a mistress. Elizabeth was forced to take him back the next year, writing that “Husbands are dreadful and powerful animals”. Some six years later, Lord Pembroke carried off another lady on the very eve of her wedding.

Elizabeth hoped to find some peace in Charlotte’s household, but she unwittingly became the focus of George III’s passion during his many bouts of insanity. George would call her “Queen Esther”, his “Queen of Hearts”. Whenever he played cards, he would stop at that point in the deck and kiss the drawing. Fortunately for Charlotte, Lady Pembroke was a true friend. She behaved very sensibly and stopped the crisis escalating. Devoted to her mistress, Elizabeth stayed in Charlotte’s service until February 1818, just nine months before the Queen’s death.


London 1788. The calm order of Queen Charlotte's court is shattered by screams. The King of England is going mad. Left alone with thirteen children and with the country at war, Charlotte has to fight to hold her husband's throne. It is a time of unrest and revolutions but most of all Charlotte fears the King himself, someone she can no longer love or trust. She has lost her marriage to madness and there is nothing she can do except continue to do her royal duty. Her six daughters are desperate to escape their palace asylum. Their only chance lies in a good marriage, but no prince wants the daughter of a madman. They are forced to take love wherever they can find it, with devastating consequences. The moving true story of George III's madness and the women whose lives it destroyed.

Laura Purcell is a writer, history fan and guinea pig lover living in Colchester. She is writing a series of novels about the women who loved (and hated!) the Hanoverian monarchs. Her debut novel, Queen of Bedlam, was published by Myrmidon on 10 June 2014.
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  1. I enjoy reading your post!!!! Very interesting!!!!

  2. Do you know of a lady in waiting named Ladysmythe?


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