Princess Charlotte of Wales: the original people's princess
Georgian Britain declared Princess Charlotte of Wales to be the country’s glory and Europe’s hope – so her untimely death horrified the nation, prompting fears the monarchy would collapse. Tracy Borman reflects on her tragic life
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When news broke that the beautiful, charismatic and wildly popular princess had tragically died, it sparked an out- pouring of public anguish on a scale never seen before in Britain. The nation was plunged into mourning as people tried to come to terms with the shock of losing a princess who had captured their hearts from the moment she had appeared on the royal scene. But grief soon turned to retribution, and the monarchy’s public image plummeted. Suddenly, this centuries-old institution looked as if it was at risk of losing all support from its subjects.
Sound familiar? To anyone born in the 1980s or earlier, it will be. But the princess in question wasn’t Diana, the late, estranged wife of Prince Charles, who died in a car accident in Paris in 1997. She was Charlotte of Wales, the only child of the debauched prince regent, later George IV, and she died in 1817 at the age of just 21. Although her passing shook the nation and brought the crown to its knees, during the intervening two centuries Charlotte has largely been forgotten. Yet her death would prove a pivotal moment in the history of the British monarchy.
Charlotte Augusta was born at Carlton House, her father Prince George’s lavish London home, on 7 January 1796. George was the eldest of King George III’s 15 children, and his daughter Charlotte was his only child, which made her second in line to the throne. The young princess soon came to be seen as a bright hope for the future, in stark contrast to her profligate and licentious father.
“Prinny”, as he was known to his friends, was the ultimate playboy prince. Described by one contemporary as “a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace”, he himself admitted to being “rather too fond of wine and women”. King George III complained bitterly about the “unruly passions” of his eldest son and grimly predicted that “every absurdity and impropriety may be expected”.
He was right. By 1795, Prince George’s debts had spiralled to a staggering £630,000 (equivalent to perhaps £48m). At a time when Britain was fighting a cripplingly expensive war with Napoleonic France, the prospect of a government bailout was slim. Instead, in a deliberate side-swipe at the profligate prince, the government introduced a new tax on hair powder, knowing it would hit George and his foppish friends where it hurt.
To resolve the gathering crisis, the Prince of Wales reluctantly admitted that there was nothing else for it but to break with his secret wife, Maria Fitzherbert (whom the king had barred him from marrying because she was a Roman Catholic, so their “marriage” was never legal) and marry a wealthy princess.
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The unfortunate candidate was his cousin, a German princess named Caroline of Brunswick. They hated each other on sight but were married in April 1795 and conceived a child on their wedding night – possibly their only conjugal encounter.
When Charlotte was only a day old her father vowed to separate her from her mother forever. Just four months later, her parents split and their ongoing animosity would dominate her childhood. The tiny princess was established in a household of her own, although she visited her parents every week at their respective homes. She also spent time with her grandparents, King George and Queen Charlotte, and the latter praised her young namesake as being “blessed with an uncommon share of good sense”.
Charlotte grew into a warm-hearted and affectionate girl, capable of forming strong attachments to those who treated her kindly. Pretty, fair-haired and high-spirited, she captured hearts wherever she went – although her own father’s wasn’t one of them. Perhaps she reminded Prince George too much of his estranged wife, or perhaps he was upholding the Hanoverian tradition of hostility between a future monarch and their heir.
As a result, Charlotte grew much closer to her mother, who showered her daughter with the affection that she craved. Caroline was hardly a perfect maternal figure, however. There were rumours that she had taken various lovers and had even had a child by one of them. “My mother was wicked,” Charlotte later reflected, “but she would not have turned so wicked had not my father been much more wicked still.”
Increasingly concerned for his only legitimate grandchild, with whom he had formed a close bond, from 1804 George III began to play a greater role in his granddaughter’s upbringing. He appointed Lady De Clifford as Charlotte’s governess, and she introduced an extensive curriculum that included Latin, history, drawing and music. The princess was not always a model pupil. “We had a few sour grapes between us,” Charlotte admitted after one quarrel, “but before we had finished our contest, I made her swallow them all.” She did, though, excel in the subjects she enjoyed, becoming an accomplished pianist and horsewoman.
As she entered her teenage years, the princess’s rebellious streak grew more pronounced. Lady De Clifford complained about her charge’s tendency to let her ankle-length underdrawers show under her dresses, and one of her mother’s ladies-in-waiting observed that Charlotte rarely chose to “put on dignity”. It was said that she identified with Marianne, the headstrong and wayward heroine of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Yet the princess enjoyed immense popularity with the public – a lively, personable and apparently virtuous young woman, providing a welcome contrast to her “mad” grandfather, George III, and her profligate father, the prince regent – and was met with cheering crowds wherever she went.
This stoked her father’s jealousy, and when he was appointed prince regent in 1811 upon his father’s final descent into “madness”, he used his new powers to impose harsh restrictions on his daughter’s lifestyle. This included a paltry clothing allowance and obliging her to spend most of her time with maiden aunts at Windsor.
The prince also limited Charlotte’s contact with his estranged wife. Caroline’s behaviour had grown ever more shocking since their separation. In one particularly infamous episode in 1813, she locked their 16-year-old daughter in a bedroom with a suitor and told the pair to amuse themselves.
Charlotte needed little encouragement: her head was filled with romance, and she became infatuated with a number of inappropriate suitors, including the illegitimate sons of two of her uncles. Although he was hardly a shining example of morality himself, the prince regent appreciated the need to find a suitable husband for his daughter. He was also motivated by a desire to secure Britain an ally in the war against Napoleon.
His first choice was Prince William of Orange. But the Dutch suitor made a poor first impression when introduced to his prospective bride in August 1813 by getting drunk. Charlotte hated the idea of living in Holland after the marriage and argued that a future British queen should not marry a foreigner – something that chimed with the views of her father’s subjects. To the prince regent’s fury, she eventually broke off the engagement. “No arguments, no threats, shall ever bend me to marry this detested Dutchman,” she declared.
Prince George retaliated by dismissing all of his daughter’s servants and confining her to a life of isolation at Cranbourne Lodge in Windsor Forest. Her mother was forbidden from visiting and, to Charlotte’s deep distress, she left the country soon afterwards, never to see her daughter again.
But Caroline’s absence eased relations between the princess and her father, and in August 1814 he allowed her a visit to Weymouth. By now, public sympathy with the persecuted princess had reached fever pitch. Wherever her coach stopped along the way, huge crowds turned out to cheer her. Upon her arrival in Weymouth, she was greeted with spectacular illuminations with a centrepiece declaring: “Hail Princess Charlotte, Europe’s Hope and Britain’s Glory.”
Wherever Charlotte’s coach stopped, huge crowds cheered for her. She was declared Europe’s hope and Britain’s glory
In early 1815, Charlotte turned her thoughts to a new suitor. Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (“the Leo”, as she called him) was five years her senior and, as a dashing soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, fulfilled her romantic ideals perfectly. With the help of intermediaries, she made contact with Leopold and found him amenable. Her father was a good deal less keen, however, and it took months of earnest persuasions before he agreed to invite the prince to Britain.
In February 1816, the prince regent hosted a dinner for Leopold and his daughter at Brighton, after which a rapturous Charlotte enthused: “I find him [Leopold] charming, and go to bed happier than I have ever done yet in my life... I am certainly a very fortunate creature, & have to bless God. A Princess never, I believe, set out in life (or married) with such prospects of happiness, real domes- tic ones like other people.” The prince regent was no less impressed and told his daughter that her suitor “had every qualification to make a woman happy”.
The couple’s engagement was announced to great rejoicing in the House of Commons on 14 March 1816. Enormous crowds gathered to celebrate their wedding at Carlton House on 2 May that year. They were dazzled by the sight of Princess Charlotte’s sumptuous wedding dress, made from cloth of silver and costing £10,000 (the gown still survives today and is part of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Hampton Court Palace). The only mishap during the ceremony occurred when Charlotte was heard to giggle at her impoverished groom’s promise to endow her with all his worldly goods.
Princess Charlotte was delighted with her new husband, whom she declared to be “the perfection of a lover”. Leopold was equally besotted. “Except when I went out to shoot, we were together always,” he recalled, “and we could be together, we did not tire.” The prince proved a steadying influence on his young wife, and when she became too excited he would quietly urge: “Doucement, chérie” (“Gently, my love”). The Coburgs, as they were known, became a popular fixture on the London social scene. Their public appearances prompted wild applause and the singing of ‘God Save the King’.
Public interest in the couple reached fever pitch when Charlotte’s pregnancy was announced in April 1817. Although she had suffered an earlier miscarriage, Leopold told his father-in-law that this time there was every hope that she would carry the baby to full term. Economists predicted that the birth of a princess would raise the stock market by 2.5 per cent and a prince by 6 per cent.
The baby was due on 19 October, but it was not until 3 November that Charlotte’s labour pains began. Sir Richard Croft superintended the birth. He encouraged her to exercise but would not let her eat. Two days later, the princess had still not given birth and fears were expressed that she would not be able to do so naturally. An obstetrician was sent for, but Croft refused to allow him entry; neither did he consent to the use of forceps – both of which had tragic repercussions.
Finally, at nine o’clock on the evening of 5 November, 50 hours after her labour had begun, Charlotte gave birth to a large stillborn boy. Efforts to resuscitate him were in vain. The exhausted princess received the news calmly, stating that it was the will of God. Her distraught husband, who had been in attendance throughout, took an opiate and collapsed into bed.
But soon after midnight, Charlotte began complaining of pains in her abdomen and vomited violently. By the time Croft arrived, he found his patient bleeding heavily and cold to the touch, her breathing laboured. Before her husband Leopold could be roused from his sleep, the princess was dead.
“Two generations gone... in a moment!” lamented Charlotte’s grief-stricken widower. “My Charlotte is gone from the country – it has lost her.” His devastation was mirrored by people at all levels of society. Never before in the history of the British monarchy had there been such heartfelt and widespread mourning for the death of one of its members. “It really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child,” reflected the statesman Henry Brougham.
The entire kingdom went into deep mourning for several weeks. Linen drapers ran out of black cloth, and even the homeless went about wearing black armbands. Eventually, the makers of ribbons and other fancy goods (which could not be worn during the period of mourning) petitioned the government to shorten the period, fearing they would go out of business. It was as if normal life had suddenly ground to a halt. Every shop in Britain closed its doors for two weeks, as did the Royal Exchange, the Law Courts and the docks. Even the gambling dens were closed on the day of Charlotte’s funeral. The prince regent was so prostrate with grief that he was unable to attend.
Normal life suddenly ground to a halt: every shop closed its doors, and even the gambling dens shut on the day of Charlotte’s funeral
While the public continued to mourn their beloved princess, Charlotte’s death sparked a competition among George III’s younger sons to produce an heir. Thus far, none of them had shown much inclination to marry, preferring the company of their mistresses. Quickest off the mark was the king’s fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent, who wed a German princess, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, in May 1818, when he was 50 years old. A year later, she gave birth to a princess at Kensington Palace: the future Queen Victoria. As she grew to maturity, Princess Victoria enjoyed as much popularity as Charlotte had in her heyday, and by the time she became queen in 1837, memories of her tragic cousin had all but faded from public memory. It seems that in the story of the Hanoverian monarchy, there was only room for one heroine.
Parallel lives: Tracy Borman reveals the similarities between Princess Charlotte and Princess Diana
Childhood: Warring parents led to years of misery
Charlotte: Charlotte’s parents’ marriage was one of convenience. The relationship got off to a disastrous start. Upon meeting Caroline, George fled from the room in horror, leaving his prospective bride to reflect: “I think he’s very fat, and he’s nothing as handsome as his portrait.”
They separated almost immediately, but not before George had got his new wife pregnant. Charlotte’s birth drove a further wedge between the couple, and the very public spats between the “warring Waleses” blighted the princess’s childhood.
Diana: Diana was the third daughter of John Spencer, Viscount Althorp and Frances née Roche. Her parents had hoped for a boy, and the increasingly pressing desire for an heir added strain to their relationship. The birth of their son, Charles, in 1964 failed to save the Spencers’ marriage, and they divorced in 1969.
Diana’s parents both remarried, and Earl Spencer won custody of the children. Diana had a difficult relationship with her stepmother, Raine, Countess of Dartmouth and reflected that her childhood had been “very unhappy”.
Public opinion: Their popularity soared above the other royals
Charlotte: From a young age, Charlotte captured the nation’s hearts. Her innocence provided a welcome contrast to her petulant father and to her scandalous mother. Like Diana, she did not fit the mould of a typical princess, and as she grew to maturity, she won even greater popularity for her informality and spontaneity.
Huge crowds gathered to witness her every public appearance, and her marriage served to intensify the level of interest in her. In common with the later princess of Wales, Charlotte seemed to represent a bright new future for the monarchy.
Diana: From the moment Lady Diana Spencer was first mooted as a potential bride for Prince Charles, she be- came a figure of intense public interest. Soon, she was the most photographed woman in the world – the royal family’s own global superstar.
After their wedding in 1981, the Prince and Princess of Wales were hailed by Time magazine as “the most glamorous couple on Earth”, but Diana’s popularity far exceeded that of her husband. Her glamour, charm and informality shone an unflattering light on the Windsors, who appeared stiffly formal and staid by comparison.
Death: Intense public mourning boiled over into outrage
Charlotte: Princess Charlotte’s death prompted an unprecedented wave of public grief. “England, that great country, has lost everything in losing my ever beloved daughter,” lamented her mother, Caroline. Tributes poured in from across the globe. Charlotte was buried in
St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and a monument was erected at her tomb, by public subscription.
But grief soon turned to retribution. The prince regent was accused of showing inadequate sorrow at the loss of his daughter and was even held responsible for her death. And the backlash against Sir Richard Croft, who had superintended the princess’s ill-fated labour, led to his suicide a few months later.
Diana: Few events in British history have prompted the scale of national dismay that followed the death of Prin- cess Diana in a car crash in Paris on 31 August 1997.
An estimated 1.3 million floral tributes were placed at the gates of Buckingham and Kensington palaces.
Diana’s funeral eclipsed her wedding in the level of public interest it generated. Held in Westminster Abbey, it was attended by around 2,000 guests, with an estimated 2.5 billion worldwide watching the television broadcasts. Grief turned to anger, most of which was directed against the royal family – for failing to lower the flag at Bucking- ham Palace to half mast, and at the Queen’s decision to remain at Balmoral rather than returning to London.
Legacy: Predictions the monarchy would crumbled proved false
Charlotte: The deaths of both princesses sparked predictions that the monarchy would fall. This was per- haps more valid in Charlotte’s case, given that she had been George III’s only legitimate grandchild. In fact, her death would save the monarchy by prompting her “wick- ed” uncles, George III’s younger sons, to make respecta- ble marriages in order to produce an heir to the throne.
The one who succeeded was the fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent, whose new wife, Victoria, gave birth to “a pretty little princess” in May 1819. Christened Alexandrina Victoria, but known by her second name, she rescued the monarchy from the abyss and ruled over an empire “on which the sun never set”.
Diana: “I for one believe that there are lessons to be drawn from her life and from the extraordinary and mov- ing reaction to her death,” the Queen declared during a broadcast to the nation a week after Diana’s demise. Although there was some effort on the part of the Windsors to mirror the late princess’s example – tea in
a Glasgow housing association bungalow, and so on – it was far from the seismic shift that some had predicted.
Instead, Diana might be compared to other estranged royals who shook the monarchy to its core during their lifetime, but whose long-term impact proved minimal. But her legacy differs from theirs in one crucial respect: she left behind progeny who will one day inherit the throne.
Tracy Borman is the author of Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II (Hodder & Stoughton)
This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine