Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales was born into bitter cold. Her winter birth (January 7, 1796) warmed the hopes of Britain for a stable monarchy, but did little to defrost the icy royal residence inhabited by her parents.
|Portrait of Charlotte by George Dawe, 1817|
Her father, George, the Prince Regent, married out of duty and the need for money. He already had love with his on-and-off-again mistress, Maria Fitzherbert, but as heir to the British throne, he was expected to produce legitimate offspring. He also lived beyond his means, and when Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger promised a greater allowance were he to wed, “Prinny” agreed.
|George, Prince of Wales, by Sir Thomas Lawrence|
At the time, two German princesses were under consideration, both of whom were his first cousins: Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and Caroline of Brunswick. George’s current mistress, Lady Jersey, found Caroline less threatening, so George offered for her, sight unseen. He sent a diplomat, James Harris, Earl of Malmesbury, to bring Caroline to England.
|Princess Caroline of Brunswick|
George was not impressed. Upon seeing Caroline, his first words were, “Harris, I am not well, pray get me a glass of brandy.” Matters did not improve. Caroline thought him fat and ugly. She was regarded as somewhat coarse and vulgar, and George was drunk when he married Caroline.
Nine months scant one day from the wedding, Caroline gave birth to a healthy princess, Charlotte. George was reportedly disappointed she was not a boy, but apparently not so disappointed that he was willing to try for a son. In fact, George sent Caroline away immediately. While the nation celebrated the birth of the tiny princess, Caroline was forbidden to have any role in raising her child.
|Young Princess Charlotte|
Nevertheless, servants helped Caroline see Charlotte when she wished, although the situation was never ideal. By the time Charlotte was eight, George had moved her to her own residence where no one lived with her who wasn’t employed to do so.
Growing up as a pawn in her parents’ war, it was little wonder Charlotte gained a reputation as being a bit of a hoyden. She dressed immodestly, had crushes on her illegitimate cousins, and blew kisses in the direction of Whig leader Earl Grey in the theatre.
George wanted her wed, and he and his advisers settled on William, Prince of Orange, for her groom. Charlotte signed the contract, but she’d fallen in love with an unknown Prussian. He was her first choice, but if she had to pick another, it would be Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, whom George considered too impoverished to be a serious candidate for Charlotte’s hand.
|Leopold I, King of the Belgians|
Meanwhile, Charlotte’s mother Caroline opposed the match to the Prince of Orange, much to George’s vexation. When Charlotte insisted her mother live with her and the Prince of Orange, he refused, and Charlotte used the opportunity to break the engagement. George was furious and confined her to Warwick House. Then Charlotte did a shocking thing.
She ran away. Out in the street, a man helped her negotiate a hackney cab, which she took to her mother’s. Charlotte’s flight was the talk of the London, and it took negotiation with family and Whig politicians to return her to her father. She was sent away and her mother left for an extended stay on the continent.
Alone but under close scrutiny, Charlotte settled into her new life. When she learned her Prussian had formed another attachment, she set her sights on Leopold. George still wanted her to marry the Prince of Orange, but she refused, and eventually, George summoned Leopold. By all accounts, things went quite well, for on March 14, the betrothal was announced in the House of Commons.
The marriage ceremony was held Mary 2, 1816. Huge crowds filled London. At nine pm, in the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House, Charlotte and Leopold were married.
|1818 Engraving of Charlotte and Leopold's wedding|
Charlotte’s wedding dress cost over ₤10,000. La Belle Assemblee described it thus:
Her dress was silver lama on net, over a silver tissue slip, embroidered at the bottom with silver lama in shells and flowers. Body and sleeves to correspond, elegantly trimmed with point Brussels lace. The manteau was of silver tissue lined with white satin, with a border of embroidery to answer that on the dress, and fastened in front with a splendid diamond ornament. Such was the bridal dress ... The jewellery of the royal bride is most superb; beside the wreath, are a diamond cestus, ear- rings, and an armlet of great value, with a superb set of pearls.
|The real deal: Charlotte's wedding gown, still stunning after two centuries|
The couple enjoyed a brief bridal trip before settling into Claremont House, and they seemed to get along quite well indeed. Charlotte’s dramatic tendencies calmed, and they appeared to be a well-matched couple.
After a miscarriage, Charlotte became pregnant again. The nation was thrilled. They loved “the Coburgs,” as the couple was called. No scandal, no bickering, and an heir within the year.
Charlotte grew quite large, so when her contractions began November 3, 1817, her accoucheur would not let her eat. The contractions continued for two days, but forceps weren’t used—in the days before antiseptics, mortality was high when instruments were used.
At last, a weak Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn son the evening of November 5. Charlotte declared it the will of God, took nourishment, and tried to rest. Just after midnight, she complained of pain and started vomiting. She suffered from postpartum bleeding, but at that time, the treatment was to place hot compresses on the patient. Within hours, Charlotte died.
|Charlotte sat for her final portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence a few days before her death.|
The nation mourned; linen drapers ran out of black cloth. Even gambling dens closed the day of her funeral. She was buried at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle November 19, 1817, with her baby at her feet. Her husband had lost his family; her nation had lost its hope.
Charlotte had been the King’s only legitimate grandchild; his children’s numerous illegitimate offspring were not eligible for the throne. Newspapers urged the King’s unmarried sons (all over forty years of age) to wed, and the King’s fourth son, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, decided to do something about it. He was living in Brussels with his mistress, but he dismissed her and proposed to Leopold’s sister, Victoria. Their daughter, Princess Victoria of Kent, grew to become Queen Victoria.
And what of Leopold? He married Louise of Orleans and became first King of the Belgians. He was invested in his little niece Victoria, however, and took an active role in securing her marriage to his nephew, Prince Albert. But he never forgot his dear Charlotte.