The Princess Mother: Augusta, Princess of Wales, the power behind the throne?

Today, on International Women’s Day, Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our Lords 1715-1790 project, looks at the life of Augusta, Princess of Wales. As mother of the heir to the throne, Augusta had great political importance- but how did she use this to her advantage…?

In March 1771 James Townsend spoke in the Commons of his concerns of secret influence behind the throne. He insisted that:

the Princess Dowager of Wales was the real cause of all the calamities which had befallen this country for these last ten unfortunate years, and that an inquiry should be made into her Royal Highness’s conduct.

Brooke, George III, 266

Since the death of her husband, Prince Frederick, in March 1751 Princess Augusta had played an important role as the symbolic head of the prince’s former political faction at their London residence Leicester House. Even before the prince’s early demise, it had been clear that Augusta was a capable woman. She had arrived from Saxe-Gotha in 1736 with barely a word of English, but rapidly became fluent in her adopted language and demonstrated keen political sensitivity in attempting to win over her new in-laws. Despite this, according to Lord Hervey, although she made a good initial impression on the court, ‘on better acquaintance’ it ‘afterwards soon mouldered away’.  She was rather more successful in her efforts to win over the burghers of Bristol when she and Princess Frederick staged a progress to the west in 1738, talking ‘freely to the ladies in good English, which entirely won their hearts’.

Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, Princess of Wales, Jean-Baptiste Van Loo
National Trust, Hartwell House

Frederick’s death handed to her additional responsibilities as mother to the heir to the throne and with it she assumed a far greater political importance. In the immediate aftermath of Frederick’s death a regency bill was rushed through Parliament, nominating Augusta regent in the event of George II dying before the new Prince of Wales (the future George III) came of age. A move to have Frederick’s brother, the duke of Cumberland, named regent instead roused bitter opposition, with some making dire comparisons between Cumberland, notorious for his role in the suppression of the ’45 Rebellion, and another ambitious royal uncle, Richard III. As a result it was shelved and a compromise arrived at with the princess regent assisted by a council, including Cumberland.

What confirmed her reputation for nefarious political machinations, though, was Augusta’s relationship with John Stuart, earl of Bute. Contemporary opinion assumed they must be lovers and the caricaturists had a field day depicting the princess cavorting with Bute, often depicted as a jack-boot. The reality was likely more prosaic. The princess found Bute, who had been appointed tutor to Prince George, erudite and interesting and it was to prove the beginning of a formative relationship, which would culminate in Bute’s appointment as Prime Minister shortly after George ascended the throne.

Augusta’s dependence on Bute coincided with her growing discontent with the government of the Pelhams, which had held sway for much of the time since the fall of Walpole. In May 1755 George Bubb Dodington, who had hoped to take a leading role in Prince Frederick’s administration, had he lived, recorded visiting Leicester House. There he found the Princess holding forth on the current state of the government, just over a year after the death of Prime Minister Henry Pelham since which the premiership had been in the hands of Pelham’s brother, the duke of Newcastle. It was quite clear, she insisted,

that the duke of Newcastle could not stand as things were. She desired it might be understood, that her house had no communication with Newcastle House; but not that she said it, because it would be told at St James’s, at which place she desired to avoid all disputes.

Dodington Diary, 319
John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, Allan Ramsay
The National Trust for Scotland, Hermiston Quay

Later the same month she held a long conference with Dodington about the current state of the government, again laying into the untrustworthiness of Newcastle and the need for wholesale change in the administration, while lamenting ‘there were a hundred good reasons that tied her hands from interfering with the King; those of her children were obvious enough; and if she was to stir, it would make things worse’. [Dodington Diary, 324]

Horace Walpole was insistent that the Princess was acquiring increasingly malign influence. In October 1755 he took evident pleasure in writing to Richard Bentley of a rupture in the royal family on the eve of a new parliamentary session and in pointing the finger at the princess for many of the current political tensions:

In short, the lady dowager Prudence begins to step a little over the threshold of that discretion which she has always hitherto so sanctimoniously observed. She is suspected of strange whims… A strong faction, professedly against the treaties, openly against Mr Fox, and covertly under the banners of the aforesaid lady Prudence, arm from all quarters against the opening of the session…

Horace Walpole

Augusta may have been successful in advancing the cause of the earl of Bute (Frederick had dismissed him as suitable fodder only for a lesser embassy) but her son proved to be quite as forceful as his mother. Amid discussion of a possible bride for him the Prince coined a new word, refusing to be “bewolfenbuttled” in response to efforts to pair him off with a daughter of his relative the duke of Brunswick Wolfenbüttel.

Whether she wielded significant influence or not, the British public became increasingly suspicious of Augusta and by the time of her death in 1772 she was a rather unpopular figure. Walpole enjoyed circulating tales of her supposed amour with Bute, and of her apparent request on her son’s accession to be named ‘Princess Mother’, only to be told there was no precedent for such a thing. Quite how extensive the princess’s political influence truly was is difficult to determine but it is worth remarking that in his letter to the duke of Gloucester informing him of their mother’s death, George III noted that one of their last conversations had been about the projected Royal Marriages Act, which she ‘greatly approved of’ [RA, GEO/MAIN/15957-9]. Some clearly thought she did wield undue influence, including Newcastle and Pitt the Elder, though George III’s biographer John Brooke believed the former ‘should have known better’. He concluded, ‘It is time that justice was done to this much maligned lady’.


Further Reading:

The Diary of the Late George Bubb Dodington

John Brooke, King George III

Christine Gerrard, ‘Queens in waiting: Caroline of Anspach and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha as Princesses of Wales’, in C. Campbell Orr, ed. Queenship in Britain, 1660-1837: royal patronage, court culture, and dynastic politics

Papers of Princess Augusta in the Royal Archives at Windsor, via the Georgian Papers Programme

For more from the Georgian Lords project click here, or follow them on twitter here.

Other women’s history blogs, including those written for Women’s History Month 2020, can be found here.

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