Prince Leopold: Cavalryman and lover

Engraving of Prince Leopold

Princess Charlotte's husband Leopold enjoyed a life replete with military, political and diplomatic successes. Sometimes portrayed as a man of ambition, calculation and manipulation, his relationship with Charlotte shows there was a much softer side to his character.

Tall, slender and broad-shouldered with tousled hair, mutton-chop whiskers, and brown, thoughtful eyes, Leopold was a “young Apollo” in historian Joanna Richardson’s memorable phrase.

A minor princeling from an obscure, pocket-handkerchief principality in central Germany, Leopold was born to Franz Frederick Anton Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Countess Augusta Reuss of Ebersdorf in Coburg on 16 December 1790.

A general by 12

Although Leopold was German by birth, as a brother-in-law of Russia’s Grand Duke Constantine he was able to join the Imperial Russian army and lead cuirassiers, or heavy cavalry. His lifelong love of uniforms began when he became a cadet in Russia’s Imperial Guard at 5 years old. Astoundingly, he was a general by the age of 12.

Leopld may have missed the momentous battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo, but he fought at Lutzen, Bautzen, Kulm and Leipzig in 1813. At Kulm he commanded 2,300 cavalrymen and held a French force at bay while the Prussian and Russian forces assembled their battle line. A grateful Czar Alexander I decorated him on the battlefield with Russia’s Cross of St. George.

The Russian Cross of St George
The Russian Cross of St George
The Russian Cross of St George

A young man's allegiances

Prince Leopold might easily have fought for France during the Napoleonic Wars. While in Paris in 1807, when almost 17, he asked Naploeon to take him on as an aide-de-camp. According to the French emperor, he begged for the job. But Bonaparte’s response was non-committal, and Leopold later denied ever offering to throw in his lot with Boney.

Prince Consort-to-be

Leopold was readied for his wedding to Princess Charlotte in 1816 by first being naturalised and then being made a British general. After that, the Prince Regent awarded him the Orders of the Bath and the Garter.

Once married, Leopold moved with Charlotte to Claremont, and the young couple quickly endeared themselves to the local community for their charity and Christian values.

Charlotte and Leopold in the garden at Claremont
A painting of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold in the garden at Claremont
Charlotte and Leopold in the garden at Claremont

Charlotte’s postpartum death at Claremont on 6 November 1817 devastated the lovestruck Leopold. If, as some have suspected, he combined cold calculation with driving ambition, his dreams died that day. He could no longer expect to become Prince Consort to Charlotte when she followed her father onto the throne of Britain, or be accorded anything more than a footnote in British history.

From widow to king

A broken man, Leopold might have retreated into a life of arcadian retirement at Claremont. But cavalrymen are made of sterner stuff. In 1831, after declining the Greek throne the previous year, he became Belgium’s first king and ruled for 34 years.

Related by marriage to the royal houses of Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, Portugal, Brazil and Mexico and the exiled French house of Orléans, Leopold displayed consummate skill in international relations. Hostile great powers such as Britain and France felt the soothing balm of his quiet diplomacy.

Leopold I, King of the Belgians
Leopold I, King of the Belgians, on a horse
Leopold I, King of the Belgians

Leopold was also a matchmaker. In 1840 he arranged the marriage of his niece, Queen Victoria, to his nephew, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. 

In 1832 he married Louise-Marie of Orléans, daughter of the French King Louis Philippe, but he never found marital bliss again. He wore a bleak, haunted look in his later years and at the age of 71 he declared that the tragic events at Claremont in 1817 had seen “the ruin [of his] happy home and the destruction at one blow of every hope and happiness.” He died in 1865.

Marking 200 years

2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Princess Charlotte. Delve into the story of the forgotten daughter of England with our series of web articles and events.