Monday, June 13, 2016

A little-known glimpse into the court of George III

by Jacqueline Reiter

The court of George III has been well depicted in sources such as the diary of Fanny Burney and Horace Walpole. During my research for my book, however, a simple Google search turned up an unexpected and amazing find.

The Hon. Georgiana Townshend was the eldest child of Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney (he for whom Sydney, Australia is named). Georgiana's younger sister Mary married the subject of my book, John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham. Their mother, Lady Sydney, and their aunt, the Countess of Courtown, were both Ladies in Waiting to George III's consort Queen Charlotte.

Mary, Countess of Courtown (

The Townshends were thus very much at the forefront of court life, and the eldest Townshend girls virtually grew up at court, making friends with the older princesses.

The three eldest daughters of George III: the Princess Royal, Princess Augusta, and Princess Elizabeth (Wikimedia Commons)

My discovery was a stash of letters sent by Georgiana to Mrs Catherine Stapleton, who lived in Somerset as the companion of Mary's mother-in-law the Dowager Countess of Chatham. Everybody and their dog wrote to Mrs Stapleton (she was a spinster, and the "Mrs" was purely a title of respect) but hardly any letters survive. In the mid-19th century, however, a family member published the life of Mrs Stapleton's nephew and literary executor, Lord Combermere. The biography included a large selection of letters, and buried among them were Georgiana Townshend's. To my joy, there were even a small handful of letters from Georgiana's sister Mary.

They are, unfortunately, heavily edited. Even more unfortunately, when I finally managed to track down the original letters (they are, in all places, at the National Army Museum in London) I discovered Lord Combermere's 19th century family had snipped them up and pasted a number of them on card. There is enough, however, to give a wonderful and intimate portrait of Georgiana and of her insight into the late 18th century royal family.

Queen Charlotte (Wikimedia Commons)

The correspondence opens in the summer of 1789, when George III was at Weymouth recovering from his previous year's attack of "madness" (probably porphyria). Georgiana was in attendance:

"The night before last the King went into the warm sea-bath for the first time, was remarkably well yesterday, in high spirits &c ... I had the honor of losing my money [at the Princess Royal's] last night at Commerce; we had three tables there again ... We were seven, Princess Royal, two Lady Waldegraves, Lady M[ary] Howe, Lord Loudoun, Colonel Gwynne, & myself ... The Queen was so good as to do me the honor of whipping me yesterday evening as I was looking attentively at some plants Princess Augusta was showing me, her good dear Majesty came slyly behind & corrected me. I started round, and to my astonishment saw the Queen, she laughed and said, 'I believe you never was whipped by a Queen before,' which, to be sure, was pretty true."

Depiction of a royal visit to the fleet (1773) (Wikimedia Commons)

In another letter, Georgiana accompanied the Royal Family aboard some ships:

"We sallied forth about six o'clock in five ten-oared boats, (belonging to the Magnificent, a 74 just arrived in Portland Road for His Majesty's use) ... The sea was very calm; we had several other boats to look at us, one with a band of musick, & the numbers of people upon the Point, & everywhere where they could see us, huzzaing, made it a most delightfull scene. ... The ladies all went up [into the ship] in the chair. I never saw so ridiculous an appearance in all my life; it entertained the King very much, he laughed very heartily at my arrival ... He stood to watch us all. They were all vastly pleased with the ships; the Princesses had never seen one before."

A few letters on, Georgiana touches on the French émigrés flocking to England after the beginning of the French revolution. She's not sympathetic:

"We swarm here still with French. I wish the Duchess of Gordon had not had any at her assembly, or soirée as she calls it; she had only two, but one was a fine lady, & the other a fine gentleman; those I am sure we have no business with ... Those that are really objects of compassion would not be inclined to figure away at an assembly ... A great many are aristocrats in France, but are hand in glove with our Opposition. I have no patience with their being received as they are ... One hears French all round one at every assembly. I hate the sight of them."

The Prince of Wales (Wikimedia Commons)

Then there's gossip about, erm, the Prince of Wales:

"There were several men very drunk that made it very disagreable so we came away, there was one worse than all rest … he … was most beastly drunk indeed, you may guess who I mean ye first in company but quite otherwise in behaviour [the Prince of Wales] he was drinking with all the Regimental band that was there, & was at least carried out speachless [sic], one of our servants who was there said he never saw such a sight in his life, people were getting upon chairs & tables to look at him till they absolutely gave way, … I never heard anything like it, he sung & hallowed until he lost his voice."

Georgiana's sister Lady Chatham had a few things to say about Court protocol. She had introduced Mrs Stapleton's nieces to the Queen, and made a small observation on the inconvenience of Court fashion:

"The feathers in the Q[ueen]'s face is what now always happens with all the young Ladies who kiss her hand, for in the way in which they now wear them, it is unavoidable, tho' the Q[ueen] leans as back as she can. To be sure it annoys her, but she's always good humoured to young Ladies."

"A Modern Belle", James Gillray (Wikimedia Commons)

(I can only imagine the scene.)

There is plenty more where these came from -- more, in fact, than I had time to take down before I was forced to return home. Georgiana was quite the gossip, and I suspect what survives is only a small proportion of what she wrote. But it makes for an interesting and fresh view into a well-worn subject. I wonder what other untapped sources are out there waiting to be discovered?


Quotations come from The Memoirs and Correspondence of Field-Marshal Viscount Combermere... vol. II (London, 1866) and the National Army Museum Combermere MSS 8408-114


Jacqueline Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. Her first book, The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, will be published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at, and can be found on Twitter as


  1. Wonderful to 'hear' a voice of the time and how satisfying it must have been for you to track down those letters and be able to read them, albeit heavily edited as they were.

  2. Very much enjoyed this post! Thank you!

  3. Such a delightful peep into the past! Thanks so much for sharing.


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