The latest series of Bridgerton – Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story – has captured viewers with a reimagining of the monarch’s life. But who was the real Queen Charlotte? And what was her marriage to George III actually like? Dr Robin Eagles, editor of the Georgian Lords, discusses…
At 1 o’clock on 17 November 1818, Queen Charlotte died at Kew after what the London Gazette described as ‘a tedious illness’. The Morning Post mourned the loss of the ‘aged and venerable CONSORT’, whose departure from the scene left the throne ‘nearly vacant’. Charlotte had arrived in England 57 years earlier as a young princess, speaking not a word of English and forced to communicate with her new husband, George III, in a mixture of French and German. By the end of her life, she was fluent in English but was almost as alone as when she had first touched ashore. Although hers and the king’s had been an affectionate marriage, and they had bonded not least over a love of books, since 1811 George III had been confined with a chronic illness, and their eldest son, the Prince of Wales, had taken over as Prince Regent.
George III had succeeded to the throne in 1760 young and unmarried making him one of the most eligible bachelors in Europe. For the sake of the succession, it was important that he marry appropriately, and six names were sent to him for his consideration soon after he became king. They were all German princesses of the right sort of age and the right religion. George III’s close advisor, the earl of Bute, wanted him to plump for a princess from the house of Brandenburg. George’s only response to looking over the six was to reject a princess from Saxe Gotha (his mother’s principality) as she was believed to be too partial to philosophy, which worried him.
After this first attempt, more details were sought about the remaining candidates and two more names were thrown into the mix. One, a Danish princess, was already believed to be engaged; the other, was Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. According to John Brooke she was included ‘almost as an afterthought’ and few would have bet serious money on her emerging as the new queen.
Over the coming weeks, George and his advisors struck out the names of those they thought unacceptable, whether because of scandals in their past or personal issues, leaving four contenders. The favourite was Princess Philippina of Brandenburg-Schwedt: she ticked all the necessary boxes and came from the right sort of court. Unfortunately, closer investigation suggested that she was moody and too given to sticking her heels in.
With Philippina out of the picture, George’s next hope was Princess Caroline of Hesse-Darmstadt. More probing found out that she was not unlike Philippina in terms of temperament and that her father was something of an oddball, to boot.
It was, thus, by this somewhat uncharitable process of elimination that Charlotte emerged as the only possible bride for George III. He was not exactly gushing when he concluded:
“I own ‘tis not in every particular as I could wish, but yet I am resolved to fix here.”[Brooke, George III, 81]
Charlotte may have been selected against the odds, but she quickly settled into her new role. Commentators like Horace Walpole may have joked that he could not find Mecklenburg-Strelitz on a map without a magnifying glass, but she was perfectly used to existing in a grand court setting. Her father’s palace was, after all, considerably larger than Buckingham House, which was to become the couple’s favoured central London residence. While still lacking rudimentary English, she did other things to impress her new subjects. It was said, for example, that she passed the time on her journey to England learning to play the national anthem on the harpsichord.
She certainly needed to learn quickly. She met George for the first time in the garden of St James’s Palace at about three in the afternoon of 8 September 1761; they married six hours later. Horace Walpole was uncharacteristically positive about the new queen, commenting that ‘everybody was content, everybody pleased’. He could not help pointing out the slight wardrobe malfunction caused by the weight of Charlotte’s mantle and ermine robes that meant ‘the spectators knew as much of her upper half as the king himself’.
It was indicative of how quickly George and Charlotte established a good rapport that when it was proposed to introduce a regency bill in 1765, providing for the event of the king dying while his children were underage, he wanted Charlotte to fulfil the role. George had been seriously ill in the early months of the year and following his recovery informed the prime minister, George Grenville, that he wished legislation to be drafted settling the matter. One controversial aspect was the king did not wish the individual[s] to be named within the act, as was customary. This introduced a number of difficulties. Some thought they saw the hand of the king’s mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales (and her close friend, Bute) in this. George himself seems to have been concerned to prevent his brother, Edward, duke of York, from getting his hands on power but was also eager to prevent the names of members of the royal family from being bandied about in Parliament. There had been too many royal family rows and he did not want to trigger any more. In the event, the bill was amended so that Charlotte would be named regent and, failing her, the Dowager Princess. York was excluded.
By the time the king was discussing the terms of the regency bill with Grenville, he and Charlotte had two children (both sons) with another on the way. Two of them would go on to reign as kings in succession (George IV and William IV). Over the course of 21 years, George and Charlotte went on to have 15 children, two of them, Octavius and Alfred, dying while children. Another, Princess Amelia, also died before both of her parents. Strikingly, while George and Charlotte were affectionate towards each other and she proved adept at negotiating the court, their relations with their children were less successful. Their style of parenting was distant, to say the least. When one son, Prince Ernest, was seriously injured in battle, neither Charlotte nor George paid much attention, and Ernest was not recalled home to recuperate. Relations with the heir, ‘Prinny’, were famously difficult throughout.
What of those other contenders, who had so nearly beaten Queen Charlotte to the throne? Philippina of Brandenburg ultimately married Frederick of Hesse-Kassel, who had formerly been married to George’s aunt, Mary (George II’s youngest daughter). Caroline of Hesse-Darmstadt married a relation, Frederick of Hesse-Homburg. Their heir, also Frederick, later married George and Charlotte’s daughter, Elizabeth, just a few months before Charlotte’s death. She objected to the match bitterly but as Elizabeth was by then 48, she was in no position to stop it.
John Brooke, George III (1972)
Clarissa Campbell Orr, ‘Marriage in a global context, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland’, in Queens Consort, Cultural Transfer and European Politics, c.1500-1800, ed. Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly and Adam Morton (2017)
Karina Urbach, ed. Royal Kinship: Anglo-German Family Networks 1815-1918 (2008)
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