“Hymen’s war terrific”: George III’s younger sons and the succession crisis of 1817-20

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of a new member of the royal family, Dr Charles Littleton, senior research fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, considers the circumstances surrounding the birth of Queen Victoria, whose 200th anniversary is celebrated later this month.

Two events this May 2019 provide an interesting light on the history of the royal succession. We are expecting (or may just have seen) the birth of the first child of the duke and duchess of Sussex. This further secures the succession to the crown down to the generation of the queen’s great-grandchildren. British history, though, shows that a smooth succession, with numerous candidates waiting in reserve, should never be taken for granted. For example, this month we also celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Queen Victoria, on 24 May 1819. The birth of this symbol of the security and longevity of the British monarchy was actually the result of a major succession crisis.

Despite his own prolificacy, for much of George III’s reign only one of his seven sons, the eldest, George, Prince of Wales, fathered a legitimate child. Princess Charlotte was born on 7 January 1796 and for over 20 years she was the only heir in the next generation, with the responsibility to take the Hanoverian dynasty further into the 19th century. The deaths in child-bed in November 1817 of both the princess and her stillborn son were seen as a national catastrophe. Suddenly, intense pressure was placed on the royal dukes, to produce heirs, or, as Peter Pindar put it more poetically:

Agog are all, both old and young
Warm’d with desire to be prolific
And prompt with resolution strong
to fight in Hymen’s war terrific.

However almost all the dukes were involved in domestic arrangements which acted against their producing another legitimate heir. The two eldest, George, Prince Regent from 1811, and Frederick, duke of York and Albany, and the fifth, Ernest August, duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale, were already in childless marriages. The marriage of the sixth son, Ernest Augustus, duke of Sussex, had been annulled in 1794 as it was in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, and his two children were ineligible for the succession.

Attention turned to two of the middle sons, who had entered into unmarried unions with partners who similarly would never have received the paternal approval required by the Act. From 1791 the third son, William, duke of Clarence and St Andrews, had lived with an Irish actress, Dorothea Philips (better known by her stage name ‘Mrs Jordan’) with whom he had ten children. Clarence separated from her in 1811, as Parliament would not grant him an increased pension unless he married. He made unsuccessful proposals, but at the crisis of 1817, ‘Mrs Jordan’ was dead, and he was still unmarried. His next brother Edward, duke of Kent and Strathearn, was in an equally difficult position. In 1791 he had been sent to lead the forces in the British territories in Canada. There he met Madame Alphonsine Thérèse Bernardine Julie de Montgenet de St Laurent, who, as ‘Madame de St Laurent’, remained his companion for almost 30 years. The union was childless, but happy, and he found it painful consigning the Roman Catholic Madame de St Laurent to a convent when dynastic duty called. Adolphus, duke of Cambridge, the youngest brother, pipped his elders to the post, as on 1 June 1818, aged 44, he married the 21-year-old Princess Augusta of Hesse. She had originally been intended for Clarence, but in his mid-50s and with nine surviving ‘Fitzclarence’ children in tow, he was at last able to secure the 25-year-old Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen instead. The age difference was not so extreme in Kent’s marriage. Only 19 years separated him from the 31-year-old Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, sister of Princess Charlotte’s widower Prince Leopold. Clarence and Kent were both married to their German princesses on the same day, 11 July 1818.

Immediately, the somewhat indecorous race to produce an heir commenced. Within a week in March 1819, barely nine months after the marriage celebrations, a daughter was born to Clarence and a son to Cambridge. Clarence’s daughter died a few hours after birth, and Cambridge’s son George was for a few weeks the only representative of the next generation in the line of succession. However, in the space of three days in late May, Cambridge’s elder brothers ruined Prince George’s chance of ascending the throne. First, on 24 May 1819 Kent’s wife gave birth to a daughter, named Alexandrina Victoria, and three days later, a son was born to Cumberland. Kent’s daughter was at birth fifth in the line of succession, but during her first two years her status changed several times. Important life events among George III’s family appear to have often come in close proximity – deaths as well as births. On 23 January 1820, the duke of Kent died of a sudden cold, followed six days later by the demise of George III himself. Alexandrina Victoria was suddenly third in the line of succession after York and Clarence. Clarence continued to try to secure the succession for his own line, but of his wife’s further four pregnancies, all were either stillborn or lived only a few weeks. The death of York in January 1827, promoted Alexandrina Victoria to second in the line of succession, and she ascended the throne as Queen Victoria (dropping the Alexandrina) at the death of her uncle William IV on 20 June 1837.

Hayter, George, 1792-1871; Queen Victoria Opening Parliament, 1837
Queen Victoria opening Parliament by George Hayter (c) Parliamentary Art Collection

Queen Victoria, for many people the iconic British monarch, did not have an obvious route to the throne. She was female, the 18-year-old daughter of the largely undistinguished fourth son of the king, and was not even the eldest among the three surviving legitimate grandchildren of George III. Had Salic Law been in force her uncle Cumberland would have been king of Britain, as he was from 1837 of Hanover. The reactionary Cumberland had long been widely unpopular in Britain for his ultra-Tory views, which he often expressed in the House of Lords. What would 19th-century Britain have been like if the elderly Cumberland  had sat on the throne instead of the young Victoria, joined by the liberal Prince Albert? As we celebrate the birth of the duke and duchess of Sussex’s child and prepare to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Queen Victoria, it is salutary to ponder on the important, and sometimes decisive, roles younger brothers can play.


Further reading:

Roger Fulford, Royal Dukes: the father and uncles of Queen Victoria (rev. edn. 1973)

Mollie Gillen, The Prince and his Lady: The Love Story of the Duke of Kent and Madame de St Laurent (1970)

Alan Palmer, Crowned cousins: the Anglo-German royal connection (1985)

Elizabeth Longford, Victoria R. I. (1964)

Philip Ziegler, William IV (1973)


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