The Prince’s marriage: limited choices

Explaining the circumstances of Charlotte’s birth (2)

Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The King disapproved of her parents’ marriage and refused to stand godfather

The Prince had to marry – that was agreed – but it was here that the problems began. His choices were circumscribed by two Acts of Parliament: the Act of Settlement (1701) which stated that he had to marry a Protestant, and the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, which specified that no descendant of George II could marry without the consent of the monarch. There was also the fact, prescribed by practice though not law, that he could not marry a commoner; no monarch had done this since Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine Parr in 1543. As a young man his father, George III, had fallen hopelessly in love with Lady Sarah Lennox, but he had not married her. Instead he had chosen a bride he had never met, Princess Charlotte of Mecklinburg-Strelitz: in other words, a ‘German frau’. His son would have to do the same.

There was the added complication of Maria Fitzherbert. Her relationship with the Prince was widely known, but it was whispered behind closed doors and never made public. As has been seen, Charles James Fox had nearly ruined his political career by speaking about it in Parliament. From the point of view of the marriage negotiations, Mrs Fitzherbert, doubly unsuitable as a Catholic and a commoner,  did not exist.

The Royal Marriages Act had been pushed through Parliament at the instigation of the King. Having made a purely dynastic marriage himself he was furious with two of his brothers who had married for love. The most direct cause the Act was the marriage of his brother , Henry Duke of Cumberland, who in 1771 married the widowed commoner Anne Horton.

The King was even more furious when he learned of the earlier and secret marriage of his favourite brother, Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester, to the widowed Countess of Waldegrave in 1766. To add to the offence, Maria Waldegrave was illegitimate, the daughter of Horace Walpole’s brother, Edward, and a milliner, Dorothy Clement. The clandestine marriage only became public when Maria’s pregnancy became known.  When her daughter, Sophia Matilda, was born in 1773. The King refused to stand godfather, and it would be many years before she was granted the rank of Royal Highness.

George III’s rage against his wayward brothers and sons reflects the increasing tensions that members of the royal families of Europe were experiencing in their private lives. They had been brought up with the knowledge that they could never marry for love. They were trapped in a system that denied them free choice in their personal lives in a period when the companionate marriage, based on love and shared interests, was increasingly celebrated. As Princess Charlotte’s grandfather, the Hereditary Prince of Brunswick, stated bleakly,

‘Only private persons can be happily married. Royalty must make marriages of convenience, which seldom result in happiness.’ Quoted Flora Fraser, The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline (Papermac 1997, p. 15)

They longed for what Princess Charlotte was to call ‘ordinary domestic happiness’ – yet they could only find this by marrying outside the closed circle of European Protestant royalty. No wonder so many of them kicked over the traces.

In contemplating his own life, George III could persuade himself that he and Queen Charlotte were happily married, but there was a painful example very close to home of where the royal dynastic marriage could go horribly wrong.

Caroline Matilda, Queen of Denmark, by Francis Cotes, 1766

At the age fifteen, his sister, Caroline Matilda, had sailed to Denmark to marry her cousin, Christian VII. She entered a life of extreme misery involving a deranged husband, an ambitious lover, a coup that deprived her of her crown, imprisonment, and early death. (For the full tragic story, see Stella Tillyard, A Royal Affair: George III and his Troublesome Siblings, Vintage, 2007). George was extremely distressed at his sister’s plight, and her terrible story should should have provided an awful warning about the potential disasters of an arranged marriage.  He should perhaps have asked his wife for her opinion, only he didn’t, and she kept her profound misgivings to herself.

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