The scandals that rocked Queen Charlotte's court
From illicit affairs to assassination attempts, Felicity Day reveals the scandals that rocked the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte, whose relationship is the focus of a new Bridgerton spin-off series
It’s often said that the court of George III and Queen Charlotte was dull and censorious. “The palace of piety,” Horace Walpole called it. The royal couple were famously frugal, and far from having a bevy of buxom mistresses like his grandfather George II, the king had no woman in his life but his wife, mother of his 15 children. He and Charlotte were known to look askance on the adultery and excesses of their aristocratic subjects.
Yet their court was to be rocked by scandals – and the biggest of them were of the royal family’s own making.
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It was one of George III’s brothers who dragged the family into the scandal sheets in his first decade as king. In December 1769, the papers divulged that an assignation between Henry, Duke of Cumberland, and his lover, Lady Grosvenor (sister of one of the queen’s ladies) had been interrupted by her husband’s servants. The pair had been caught together in a bedchamber at a busy coaching inn in St Albans, their clothing in disarray. Lord Grosvenor had promptly hauled the duke into court, and during a trial for ‘criminal conversation’ with his wife, all manner of embarrassing details about the rakish royal were revealed – from the apparent enjoyment he had taken in dressing up in disguise for their secret trysts, to the lamentable spelling in his love letters.
All manner of details about the rakish royal were revealed – including the apparent enjoyment he had taken in dressing up in disguise for secret trysts
Forced to foot the £13,000 bill for damages and fees, the king was furious that his sibling had shown so little regard for the moral responsibility that he (and many of his subjects) believed came with exalted rank. But he was all the more angry in 1771, when he learned that the serially philandering Henry had taken to the altar flamboyant widow Anne Horton, daughter of a baron dubbed ‘the King of Hell’ thanks to his womanising ways. He described the union as “a disgrace to the whole family” – though it became far more than that. George’s anger led to the creation of the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which rendered illegal the marriage of any royal under the age of 25 without the monarch’s consent, the only exception being descendants of princesses who married into foreign families.
Whether it was because they knew that any marriage sanctioned by their father would prioritise European politics over passion, most of George and Charlotte’s seven surviving sons chose lifestyles as rakish as their uncle Cumberland’s.
George, Prince of Wales distressed them particularly with a string of indiscreetly conducted love affairs, and was known to have defied his father’s act and married a handsome Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert – only to cruelly cast her aside. His lawful marriage in 1795 to his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, was to cause even more unwelcome chatter, as he paraded his mistresses at court while pointedly ignoring her, before subjecting the princess to an inquiry into allegations of her adultery and the birth of an illegitimate son. The so-called ‘Delicate Investigation’ of 1806 – which acquitted Caroline – was a private matter that in time became a very public scandal, the couple using the newspapers to air their grievances and the nation taking sides. The war of the Wales’ took its toll on the queen especially. “My dislike to everything public is greatly increased,” she told the king at one stage, having found herself caught in the middle of their marital drama.
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Interestingly, though, it wasn’t only wayward sons she had to worry about; one of Charlotte’s daughters also brought scandal to her door. Despite the six princesses interacting with few women, let alone men outside ‘the nunnery’ (as they called the royal household), in 1801, gossips began to debate whether Princess Sophia’s illness the previous summer, while the court was at Weymouth, had, in fact, been a secret pregnancy.
Her sister Elizabeth called it a “fabricated and most scandalous and base report” but historians now believe the rumour was true, and Sophia did indeed give birth to a baby boy in July or August 1800, fathered by one of the king’s equerries, General Thomas Garth, and left with a tailor in the town, whose wife was supposed to pass him off as her own. Fuelled by Garth’s adoption of the child, the reports gathered pace in the years after, when it was said the queen knew of the unvirtuous conduct of her daughter, reportedly so innocent that she had not even known she was pregnant. It appears the gossip did not then leak beyond the morally elastic world of the aristocracy – where such a ‘false step’ was not unheard of – but the scandal certainly damaged Sophia’s reputation. “I have lost myself in the world by my conduct,” she later admitted, “and, alas, have felt it humbly, for many, many have changed towards me”. Lonely, miserable and separated from her son, she lived the remainder of her life in seclusion.
A lustful duke
Leaving another royal reputation in tatters was the cash-for-commissions scandal in which Sophia’s brother, Frederick, Duke of York, commander-in-chief of the British Army, was embroiled by a vengeful former mistress, deprived of her promised allowance. When it exploded in 1809, it emerged that during their three-year affair courtesan Mary Anne Clarke had abused her access to the duke’s official papers, taking bribes from military men in exchange for adding their names to the promotion lists which it was his job to authorise. Even her footman had managed to obtain a commission that way.
With a humiliating British retreat from Spain in the war against Napoleon very raw, Parliament had opted for an inquiry into the duke’s complicity. A prince effectively on trial for corruption in the House of Commons was bad enough, but the glamorous Mary Anne was induced to testify against him and boldly stated that her lover had connived in her schemes. Her clever responses and double entendres made MPs laugh and stirred up more public outrage over the apparently immoral, indulgent lifestyles of the royal men. Some observers felt that it was a waste of parliamentary time “when so many other important objects require[d] their attention” but it was the hottest topic in town, spawning a veritable avalanche of cartoons lampooning the lustful duke.
Clarke’s clever responses and double entendres made MPs laugh and stirred up more public outrage
It eventually transpired that the names had been added to the lists without the duke’s knowledge, but with public opinion against him, he was forced to resign. And the matter was not quite over even then. A hefty sum had to be paid to gag Mrs Clarke and suppress her memoirs, which threatened further embarrassment for the family.
Only a year later, yet another son, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, found himself the talk of every dinner table, but in his case, it concerned something much more serious than an extra-marital affair: murder.
“ATTEMPT TO ASSASSINATE THE DUKE OF CUMBERLAND” had screamed the headlines, the papers revealing that in the early hours of 31 May 1810, the duke had been ferociously attacked with his own sabre as he slept, his assailant splitting open his skull with sufficient force to reveal his brains. Soon after the alarm had been raised, the duke’s valet, Joseph Sellis, had been found locked in his room, “his throat cut from ear to ear”.
The inquest concluded that Sellis had committed the bloody crime before taking his own life, but the verdict did little to quash talk of the affair. “The business is a most mysterious one,” mused one lady, “endless stories are circulated”. Some of these concerned possible motives for the attack. Ranging from revenge for an affair between the duke and his wife to an angry rejection of his employer’s homosexual advances, they rarely painted the royal in a good light. But there was a far more sinister rumour in circulation, too, which said the duke was not the victim but the villain.
In the eyes of his critics he certainly looked the part, mostly thanks to a prominent battle scar on the side of his face. There was also his reputedly “bad character” – “the soldiers on guard say they wish he had been cut to pieces instead of wounded,” said one report. And gossip had already coupled his name with another wicked crime: since 1804 members of the haut ton had heard rumours that the father of Princess Sophia’s child was actually her brother Ernest.
A legacy of scandal?
The ladies of the royal family were certainly believed to be wary of him. Even his mother, Queen Charlotte, wrote that she was saddened by the attack “independent of one’s feelings towards him”. The crime scene had been disturbed, too, which only encouraged conspiracy theories. Not to mention that it did seem strange that the duke could have mistaken such a violent attack for a bat flying against his head, as he said in his evidence. Unsurprisingly, whispers about his own guilt persisted for the rest of his life.
The family scandals rolled on and on, too. In 1813, Ernest was accused of influencing a parliamentary election in Weymouth, and in 1815 chose for his wife a princess who had publicly jilted his brother Adolphus (and was herself dogged by a rumour that she had poisoned her late husband). On and on they even went, too, after Queen Charlotte’s death in 1818 and King George’s in 1820. George IV attempted to divorce his wife Caroline in a sensational public ‘trial’ and then excluded her from his coronation in 1821 – spending the ceremony indecently winking at and sighing over his latest mistress instead. Then in 1829, Sophia’s not-so-secret son hit the headlines when he attempted to blackmail the royals over his true parentage, and Ernest was accused of sexual assault.
Little wonder that by 1837 the nation was ready for the comparatively boring court of Queen Victoria, as moral and dutiful as her grandparents George and Charlotte could have wished.
This article was first published in the May 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Felicity Day is a journalist specialising in British history and heritage
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