The Prince’s marriage: Queen Charlotte’s fears

Explaining the circumstances of Charlotte’s birth (3)

queen_charlotte_-_gainsborough_1781
Queen Charlotte in happier times (1781), by Thomas Gainsborough. Public  Domain

 

Having made his decision to marry his cousin, the Prince acted quickly. If ‘any damn German frau’ might do, he might as well get the whole marriage business over as quickly as possible. On 24 August 1794 he announced his decision to his parents. His father was delighted, his mother appalled. She kept her feelings to herself but in a letter written a few weeks earlier to her brother, Duke Charles II of Mecklenburg Strelitz she had expressed herself vigorously. The widowed Duke had been looking for a new wife and he had suggested Caroline of Brunswick to his sister. She had replied at some length:

… a relative of that Family, who is indeed very attached to the Duke, has spoken to me of Princess Caroline with very little respect. They say that her passions are so strong that the Duke himself said that she was not to be allowed even to go from one room to another without her Governess, and that when she dances, this Lady is obliged to follow her for the whole of the dance to prevent her from making an exhibition of herself by indecent conversations with men, and that the Duke as well as the Duchess have forbidden her…to speak to anyone at all except her Governess …

She ended decisively,

‘There, my dear brother, is a woman I do not recommend at all’.  Quoted Olwen Hedley, Queen Charlotte, John Murray, 1975, pp. 189-90

As events were to show, Charlotte was to be proved right. So why did she keep her strong misgivings to herself. Would not a quiet word with her husband and son have prevented a great deal of misery and scandal? Her reticence was to prove disastrous, but there were two reasons for her silence.

The first lies in the nature of her married life, which was happy but subjected to severe limitations – even privations. Charlotte had come to England as a in 1762 at the age of eighteen. She was a young girl from a minor German duchy, she did not speak English, and she had no prior knowledge of what it meant to be the Queen of a major power. One courtier was to sum up her position.

‘Coming over with natural good spirits, eagerly expecting to be queen of a gay court, finding herself confined in a convent, and hardly allowed to think without the leave of her husband, checked her spirits, made her fearful and cautious to an extreme’. Mary Harcourt, Court of King George III, 46; Quoted Janice Hadlow, The Strangest Family.

She was later to write to her friend, Lady Harcourt,

‘I have so many things I could say, but prudence imposes silence, and that dear little word has so often stood my friend in necessity that I make it my constant companion.’ (Quoted Hadlow)

This self-discipline had preserved her marriage, but it had come at a great cost.

The second reason can be traced to the traumatic family crisis occasioned by George III’s outbreak of what was believed to be madness six years previously. For Charlotte it was a time of great emotional distress and personal humiliation, as the King for a while turned against her, loudly expressing his preference for the impeccably virtuous Countess of Pembroke. There was also a political dimension to the crisis.  If the madness was found to be permanent, then the Prince of Wales would have to be given the powers of a Regent, and no-one doubted that he would use these powers to dismiss his Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger, and bring his Whig friend, Charles James Fox into the government. However, the terms of the Regency Bill, put forward early in 1789, placed restrictions on the Prince’s powers and allowed the Queen control of her husband’s person and household. Forced into the political spotlight, she became the centre of controversy. The Prince’s supporters loudly put it about that she was withholding evidence about her husband’s condition as a grab for power and in order to prevent a Regency. One of them excitably declared

‘She is playing the devil, and has been all this time at the bottom of the cabals and intrigues against the Prince’. (Quoted Hedley, 168)

Accusations like this were grossly unfair, but were widely believed in Whig circles. Unsurprisingly, therefore, by the beginning of 1789 – four months into the crisis – Queen Charlotte was a shadow of what she had been, so thin that it was reported that her stays would wrap round her twice.

By March, however, the King’s illness had peaked and he was recovering. As a sign of the huge public sympathy for her plight, Queen Charlotte received a hundred and sixty loyal addresses. On 23 April the King and  Queen drove in state to St Paul’s Cathedral for a thanksgiving service. In the summer the family went on holiday to Weymouth, to be cheered all the way by loyal crowds. The crisis was over, but the royal family would never be the same. Queen Charlotte had learned that her relationships with her husband and her eldest son were far more fragile than she had thought. Perhaps the King did not love her and really preferred Lady Pembroke? Perhaps the Prince saw her as his enemy? Certainly, in her view, he had behaved disgracefully during the crisis.  The foundations of her life had shifted and she was never again to know the security she had enjoyed before her husband’s illness.

Confronted, therefore, with what she saw as the looming disaster of her son’s marriage to a grossly unsuitable woman, she kept quiet. She would not run the risk of questioning her husband’s decision or her son’s choice. She would not play a political role. She would keep silent. It required heroic self-control, but she was used to that.

 

 

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