Princess Charlotte's early years

A portrait of the young Princess Charlotte

From the very beginning of her short life, Princess Charlotte was treated as little more than a pawn in family arguments, and spent nearly 20 years living in virtual isolation.

A long-awaited arrival

Princess Charlotte was born on 7 January 1796, almost exactly nine months after the marriage of her parents Caroline of Brunswick and George, the Prince of Wales. Charlotte was the only grandchild of George III; with her birth, the royal succession was finally secure.

Charlotte's parents had a short and unhappy marriage
The marriage of Caroline of Brunswick and George, Prince of Wales
Charlotte's parents had a short and unhappy marriage

Unhappy families

The marriage of Charlotte's parents was one of convenience, carried out for the satisfaction of Parliament and the monetary advantage of her father. Not only was there no love between the two, George actively disliked Caroline. His new bride’s spirited sensibilities did not conform to the English ideal of a subdued royal lady, and the court was appalled by her wayward behavior. Once their royal duty had been performed and Charlotte was born, George and Caroline separated in everything but name. It was decided that Charlotte would live with her father, as was the custom of the time.

Hoping to remove Caroline's influence over her daughter, George imposed a strict regime for the day-to-day running of the nursery, severely reducing the amount of time Charlotte spent with her mother. Though she lived in the same house as her father, the Prince made no attempt to form a relationship with her, and so the little Charlotte was abandoned to loneliness.

Despite the little face-to-face contact Charlotte had with her direct family, it seems other family members were very fond of her. The little princess’ aunt Charlotte cared greatly about how her younger namesake was developing, regularly sending advice on her upbringing. Charlotte and her grandfather George III likely also had a warm (if physically distant) relationship, as demonstrated by the woven, tasselled cape-strings she made for him at the age of 5.

The little princess’ household

Throughout her infant years, Charlotte’s household consisted entirely of people who were paid to be there. Each member was chosen by either the Prince Regent or the Queen to complement their political views.

With nobody else to talk to, it seems Charlotte grew very fond of some of the members of her household. Some, such as her first governess, Lady Elgin, became a motherly figure to Charlotte. Others were later included in a pretend "will" that Charlotte wrote in March 1806, aged 10. In this will she left the majority of her possessions, such as her bible, playthings and letters, to her tutors and governesses.

Charlotte's governess was replaced in 1805 to suit the political whims of her family, and this was followed by numerous other changes in household over subsequent years, wrenching Charlotte away from her only companions.

Acting "en Princesse"

In the face of this constant upheaval, Charlotte developed a hot temper that remained untamed throughout her childhood. She lacked the grace expected of a princess, and was often obstinate towards figures of authority. Observers remarked that Charlotte was "forward, dogmatic on all subjects...and full of exclamations like swearing" and that she "is in awe of no one, and glories in her independent way of thinking."

Charlotte readily admitted to the graceless aspects of her personality. After reading Sense and Sensibility, she wrote:

" I think Maryanne & me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c, however remain very like."

An education

In an attempt to correct her boisterous nature, the King appointed the Bishop of Exeter to equip the princess with an education approproiate for a future queen. Below is Charlotte’s daily timetable from 1805:

08:00- 09:00 Morning prayers and religious instruction

09:00- 11:30 Breakfast and a walk, followed by lessons

13:00-15:00 Dressing and dinner

15:00-17:00 Carriage riding

17:00- 19:00 Writing practice, music or dancing

19:00-20:00 Recreation

20:00 Bed

In these lessons Charlotte studied Latin, French, German, English literature, music, dancing, drawing, and Ancient and Modern History. Charlotte was renowned for her rambunctiousness and her frequent attempts to break boundaries; she often drove too fast in her carriage, and on one occasion almost overturned it along with her governess.

Charlotte finally made a friend her own age in 1809 when she met Mercer Elphinstone, the daughter of the admiral Lord Keith. Desperate for companionship, Charlotte became close to Mercer very quickly. The admiral's daughter became an important confidant, offering friendship and advice to the young princess through the troublesome years to come.

Next: Charlotte's tumultuous teens 

Read the next article in our web series on Princess Charlotte.

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.