Royal enlightenment: the intellectual life of Queen Charlotte
Charlotte was not only a steadfast queen to King George III and a devoted mother to their many children, but she used her position to advocate for female education and the advancement of research. Following the release of the prequel Netflix series Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, Lizzie Rogers explores the queen’s intellectual life…
At the centre of the ton in the world of Regency era drama Bridgerton is Queen Charlotte. Dripping with diamonds and crowned with beautiful, elaborate wigs, surrounded by an entourage of ladies-in-waiting carrying the most well-bred of Pomeranians, the queen is acerbic and witty, yet emotionally layered.
The real Queen Charlotte was a woman of multiple facets. She employed her penchant for control both to direct the education of her children, and align herself with some of the biggest intellectual and cultural figures of the day – especially women. So celebrated was her position atop a visible circle of cultural and scholarly influence was celebrated so in 1781, almost two decades into her reign as Queen Consort, with this passage in The Ladies Poetical Magazine:
Happy England, were each female mind,
To science more, and less to pomp inclin’d,
If parents, by example, prudence taught,
and from their QUEEN the flame of virtue caught!
Skill’d in each art that serves to polish life,
Behold in HER a scientifick wife!
The impact of the Enlightenment
The 18th century saw a revolution in learning due to the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment. It was a time to encourage observation for oneself, the exchange of ideas through the world of letters and conversation, and, perhaps most pertinently, to enable the fashioning of a world of gentlemen and gentlewomen scholars.
Women – thanks to, amongst various authors, John Locke’s assertion that the mind was a tabula rasa, or blank slate – were no longer seen as inherently inferior to the intellectual worlds of men. Though this hardly meant that women were suddenly accepted in all areas as intellectual equals, it did open up avenues of scholarly culture in which women were recognised participants and producers, and not just for pursuing accomplishments in a bid to impress a future husband.
Richard Samuel’s 1776 group portrait The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain, for instance, depicted nine women prominent in the worlds of cultural conversation: the type of women that Queen Charlotte actively aligned herself with throughout her decades as queen. Many of them were part of the ‘Bluestocking circle’, presided over by ‘Queen of the Blues’ Elizabeth Montagu: a group of women and their male supporters who met and indulged in enlightened conversation and the sharing of intellectual ideas. Charlotte did much to patronise or connect herself with women in the circle who shared her own interests in female education.
Queen Charlotte’s early education
During Charlotte’s early years at the Palace of Mirow in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, her education was well-rounded. She worked with Madame de Grabow, a poet and gentlewoman, as well as botanist and theologian Gottlob Burchard Genzmer. She excelled in art and music lessons, studied Latin, French and Italian, and inculcated what would become a lifelong love of reading.
In her personal notebooks, Charlotte would keep her own personal copies of texts and record her own reflections on her diverse interests in literature. It was such interests that formed one of the enduring bonds with her future husband King George III: true companions, both spouses had a fascination for art, music, and the sciences.
Queen Charlotte’s education of her children
Charlotte’s interest in education first became obvious at court when, the day after the birth of her son, the Prince of Wales, in August 1762, she appointed Lady Charlotte Finch as “Governess in Ordinary”. Finch, who would become so beloved to the royal family that she affectionately became known as Lady Cha, was the daughter of Lady Henrietta Fermor, a prominent collector and traveller, who had served as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Caroline.
Lady Cha was known for her new and unique methods of teaching that focussed on learning through play. Charlotte herself became thoroughly involved, creating her own set of flashcards on European history with which to test her children.
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Though Lady Cha oversaw the children’s education, from 1777 to 1782 the queen employed Mary Hamilton as sub-governess to the princesses. Hamilton was an incredibly well-connected woman in English intellectual society, who became a prominent member of the Bluestocking circle after she left royal employment.
Queen Charlotte’s relationship with the Bluestocking circle
Another member of the Bluestocking circle, who became a treasured friend of Queen Charlotte through their mutual love of botany, was Mary Delany. She was an incredibly accomplished artist who, after being widowed by her second husband Dr Patrick Delany in 1768, used paper to model beautiful and scientifically accurate depictions of flowers. Her flower mosaics included both their botanic and common names, as well as who donated the specimen she worked from.
Delany lived half her time at Bulstrode, the home of Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland, who was a prolific collector. It was at Bulstrode that the king and queen discovered Delany’s work when visiting Portland’s curious collections. Charlotte had furthered her own interests in botany, begun in childhood, whilst living at Kew Palace, where she had connected with the botanists Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander, and John Lightfoot. Banks sent Delany specimens from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. So treasured a friend was Delany to Charlotte that not only did she and the king commission a portrait of the artist from John Opie, but she would be depicted wearing a locket gifted to her by the queen. Said portrait hung in Charlotte’s bedchamber at Buckingham House.
Queen Charlotte’s collections
It was at Buckingham House that Charlotte could engage with the pervasive culture of collecting during the eighteenth century. After George III transferred the house to her in 1775, she held court there, hung the Raphael cartoons (now at the V&A Museum) in her saloon, and also built her own Cabinet of Curiosity. Unfortunately, no inventory remains, though parts of the collection are in the records of the sales that occurred after her death; these show that she had cabinets for natural history specimens amongst other things.
Charlotte’s love of collecting is perhaps not surprising: not only did Delany record the king and queen’s fascination with the Duchess of Portland’s collections at Bulstrode, but also amongst her ladies-in-waiting was one Elizabeth Percy, first Duchess of Northumberland. Her own collections grew to fill the first-floor apartments at her London home, Northumberland House, and she regularly travelled to Europe in search of items to expand what she called her “musaeum”. Northumberland wrote of spending much time with the queen in her own diaries, in particular attending to Charlotte whilst she practiced music.
Yet Charlotte’s interest was not always in isolation from her husband: Frances Burney, later appointed as Keeper of the Robes, commented on the loving nature of the royal couple’s co-dependent relationship, mentioning that they enjoyed conversation with each other. They were both fascinated by the world of astronomy, Charlotte’s interest recognised by a watch she gifted to the President of the Royal Society.
A catalogue remains of the queen’s own scientific and philosophical instruments, showing that she, alongside George, supported practical engagement in scientific pursuits from the examining the planets and stars to optics and anatomy, amongst other areas.
Queen Charlotte’s love of reading
Above all else, Charlotte’s love of reading never abated. This can be seen in her appointment of the novelist Frances Burney, one of Jane Austen’s favourite authors. In practice, her role as Keeper of the Robes meant she would be an informal partner in conversation – a hallmark of Enlightenment culture – which excited the queen no end. However, Burney, at the age of 34 and still unmarried, had accepted the role with some reluctance and soon became frustrated by the restrictions of the role, leaving her little time to put her own pen to paper.
While Burney requested to be dismissed in 1790, she left a lasting impression on Charlotte in various ways. The queen had copies of all of Burney’s work, and her parting recommendation of the work of Ellis Cornelia Knight for the princesses to read was not only taken up, but Charlotte later employed Knight as a companion from 1805 to 1813, going so far to give her a key to her library.
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Perhaps one of Charlotte’s crowning intellectual achievements was developing a personal library of books at Frogmore House of around 4,500 items. The house lease was purchased by the Queen in 1792 with the intention that she would use it as a retreat alongside her daughters: all of whom at this point were unmarried. Charlotte, though extensive in her patronage of women and interest in their education, was reluctant to relinquish her control on the lives of women around her, so she ensured her daughters would not marry young.
At Frogmore, the princesses painted, drew, practiced needlework, with Princess Elizabeth decorating the Cross Gallery there with cut-paper silhouettes and paintings of flower garlands. Her entry into the world of botanical collage was possibly supported by Mary Delany, to whom the king gave a pension and a house at Windsor after the death of the Duchess of Portland.
The princesses were accomplished and cultured, and Charlotte continued to craft a work of learning and conversation that blended the royal palaces with the circles of eighteenth and early 19th-century intellectual culture. While some of the queen’s connections soured with her exertion of control, but many remained friends for life, such as Delany.
Charlotte was incredibly aware of the opportunities her role provided in accessing the best of enlightened culture and conversation, thoroughly enjoying the spoils of an intellectual life of curiosity alongside the management of her family.
Dr Lizzie Rogers is an historian and writer who specialises in women, learning and historic houses in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and their depiction in popular culture.
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